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Girl, Compromised

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Chapter 1

The mission was simple enough. Go in, seduce, get information, kill, leave. One, two, three, four, five. It was something that Natalia had done thousands of times in the past, and she was confident enough in her abilities that she didn't consider the possibility of the mission being compromised. Well, that wasn't entirely the truth. She was used to someone from a rivaling agent, an enemy of some kind trying to foil her mission, but she was good at what she did. Meaning that anyone who tried to stop her mission wound up dead. So if anyone tried to bother her tonight, she knew that she'd be able to handle it without batting an eyelash.

She was 2/5 into the mission when the moment of impact arrived.

She lay beneath her target, writhing and moaning in a convincing manner as he kissed her neck. His fingers caressed her hipbone, and she arched her hips against him. She was, in no way, shape, or form, attracted to this man, nor did she want sex from him, but quite frankly, she had no choice in the matter. That lesson was something she'd learned the hard way many years ago during training; if she ever thought that she had a choice, she didn't. The only choices were those that she made when presented with different options of how to kill her marks.

Her current mark pulled back to kiss her on the lips when suddenly, there was a symphony of breaking glass and a soft thwump as an arrow crashed through the window and embedded itself in his skull. For a brief half-second, Natalia was nearly thrown off kilter, but as soon as the first drop of blood dripped down onto her chest, she pushed the body off of her and went straight into a defensive position. Swallowing hard, she looked around her, taking in everything that she could. The arrow had come in through the glass window, and as a result of its trajectory, the window was now shattered. The broken pieces of glass glittered on the floor in the low lamplight of the room, almost resembling tears. Natalia wondered why she would notice those small shards and make that comparison at such an inconvenient time, and she pressed her lips together, pushing everything out of her head. She had work to do.

Her trained eyes quickly assessed the situation, and she ducked behind the bed as she pulled her gun out of the dress she'd wriggled out of and dropped onto the floor only moments before. Her target had never even known that she'd had a gun sewn into the slip of her dress because, true to stereotype, men typically didn't seem to think about those things. That lesson was another one she'd learned early on. And even if men did happen to think about the possibility of a woman carrying a gun, by the time they'd considered the option, they'd spent an extra few seconds thinking about it, thereby allowing enough time to pass for her to actually use the gun.

Natalia was quiet. Her heart thumped loudly beneath her ribcage, but she didn't show any fear. Her green eyes peered over the edge of the bed, but nothing happened. Confused, she slowly lifted her head higher. She knew that she was risking being shot in the skull by revealing her position in such a careless, open way, but the current situation she was in was something she'd never dealt with before. This was when the hailstorm of bullets was supposed to come in; men with bulletproof vests and cold, angry eyes and gnashing teeth were supposed to kick the door down and storm the room to take her. Or at least try.

It was a very difficult task to throw Natalia off, but she was most definitely thrown off. Since no one seemed to be waiting outside the window to shoot at her, she lowered her head back down beneath the bed to safety, and she began sliding her dress back on. Just to be safe, though, she kept her head ducked low behind the bed. One of the perks of being was a spy was that she was used to getting dressed in strange, uncomfortable places. Being crouched between the bed and the floor while slipping on a dress wasn't one of the more uncomfortable positions she'd dressed in, she thought with an inward smirk.

Moving as quickly as she could, she kept one hand wrapped around her gun. For now, she seemed to be out of danger, but she was good enough at her job to know that she was never really out of danger; she always had to be ready to take down the next target or the next person who had targeted her. Her breathing was soft and gentle in the empty room, even and quiet as she reached behind her back to pull the zipper of her dress up. She pushed her long red hair out of her face, and she lifted her head, preparing to stand up and get out of this room.

And that was when she saw him.

There was a man in the doorway, and he had her at what would appear to be a disadvantage. She couldn't see his face; his eyes were hidden behind night goggles, and the angle at which she was on the floor made her unable to see his features behind his gun. A moment of silence passed between them; Natalia could hear him breathing. Tightening the grip on her Glock, she raised it up towards him to show that she wasn't quite as disadvantaged as he might think. The man's face remained unchanged, and he cocked his gun at her. It was at that moment that the wind outside roared in through the window; if Natalia hadn't been who she was, she never would've noticed the way the man's ears almost literally seemed to prick up at the sound of it. Just by that tiny, subtle gesture, she was able to detect that he was sensitive to sound and despite his own training, was unable to completely block it out.

As small as it was, this audial distraction was the advantage she needed. Without wasting a beat, she raised her Glock and went to pull the trigger when suddenly, the man leapt forward and knocked the gun out of her hand, effectively disarming her. The loss of her gun wasn't much of a problem for Natalia, though she did find it annoying; however, this was a challenge, if nothing else. She grabbed the arm that he'd used to knock the gun away from her, and she used it as leverage to swing her legs up and around his neck.

The man seemed to guess what she was going to do, and he easily countered the attack by flipping her over onto the floor so that she was on her back, and he was above her. Natalia's arms were still free, and she used all her strength to smash her right elbow into his nose. The man's head whipped to the side from the force of the blow, blood flowing freely from his nose as he swore out loud in English.

Natalia used her other arm to bring her fist to his temple, but before she made contact, he easily blocked her punch by grabbing her clenched fingers and twisting hard. Natalia squeezed her jaw tightly to keep from screaming out as her wrist erupted into volumes of burning, excruciating pain. She knew that it was broken, and she knew that from this point out, her left arm would be completely useless. The break wasn't a big enough deal for Natalia to end the fight and run—she'd fought with worse injuries before—but it would definitely slow her down.

Yet in the back of her head, there was a voice that told her this was her chance. This was her way out. Over the past year, she'd been wondering what it would be like to be free of the KGB. Realistically, she knew that there was no way out of the KGB. That just wasn't possible. The only way to be free was to die, and if she let this man kill her…

Natalia contemplated the choices as she continued to fight, her left arm protectively tucked into her body, but as soon as she'd decided that she refused to let this man with the hidden eyes kill her, he'd seen her slight hesitation, and he used his opportunity to attack. With one swift strike, he slammed the flat of his hand into the exact spot where he'd broken her arm. Natalia let out a cry of pain, and she immediately jerked away from him, her mind racing with an overload of defensive/offensive positions as she pulled herself away. She flipped her hair out of her face, and when she looked up, she looked into the barrels of both her gun and the man's gun as he held one in each hand.

This was it. This was Natalia's choice. She could either fight him until she'd killed him and risk possibly injuring herself even further, or she could give up. Panting hard, she stared at him with huge, furious eyes, adrenaline pouring through her veins, rushing as quickly as white water rapids. Part of her frustration in this fight came from not being able to see the man's face, to see how he truly looked. Once she saw a face, she never forgot it, and she didn't want to forget his. She didn't want to forget what the silent man with the goggles looked like underneath his armor; faces without armor said more about people than anything else, and she wanted to see him in all his vulnerability.

"Don't move." The man's voice was a flat monotone, and his Russian, though perfect, was colored just the tiniest bit with an American accent that betrayed his true nationality. Natalia stayed quiet, her eyes daring him to shoot as she gasped hard for breath. She had to give it to this mystery guy: he knew how to fight. He was well trained. Particularly for an American. "You're hurt."

Natalia wanted to look down at her arm so she could assess the damage, but she didn't dare take her eyes off of this strange assassin. His arms steadily held both of their guns, his face unchanging in the silence. They were at a stalemate, and Natalia didn't want him to win. She didn't like anyone to win, but she especially didn't want him to win. But he was the one in control right now; with just one move, he could pull the trigger on either of their guns and end her life. In one second, she could be dead. In one second, she could be free from her employers.

Blood streamed downward from the man's nose and into his mouth. He spat it off to the side and seemed to notice the dead man on the bed with the arrow sticking out of his head. He paused and tilted his head. He looked back at Natalia.

"He's dead, right?" he asked. Natalia didn't speak. She simply continued to breathe and glower at him. He sighed but didn't lower his weapons. "Of course he's dead. Do you speak? You sure can fight. Can you talk? I'm speaking Russian. I know my Russian isn't that bad."

Despite the seriousness of the situation and the fact that she was quite possibly facing death, Natalia wanted to grin, but she didn't. However, the man took her by surprise by cracking a little smirk at his own joke.

"Ok. You don't want to talk. That's ok." He kept his guns trained on the redheaded assassin, and he took one small step towards her. "I'm not going to kill you. I'm going to take you in. You're injured."

"No." Natalia's voice was quiet but firm. The man paused, and since Natalia couldn't seen his eyes, she imagined that he was studying her. 

"I'm not letting you go," The words were simple and clean in his mouth, even though his American shone through just the smallest amount. "You need medical care."

"No," Natalia repeated. The man didn't move or speak for a few seconds, his guns still up. Finally, he slowly moved to put one in his thigh holster, holding it up and showing her exactly what he was going to do before he did it. His movements were slow and cautious, almost as if she were a wild animal that he was trying to show he meant no harm towards. Natalia kept her green eyes, still shiny with adrenaline, trained on him as she scrutinized and analyzed his every move; after he'd secured the weapon, he lowered his head and reached up to his face with his free hand.

With his head tilted down, his face and eyes were directed towards the ground as he began fiddling with something on the side of his head around his temple. Natalia saw her chance; she could move while he was distracted. For someone who was such a good fighter, this man had made a big mistake in taking his eyes off of her; any spy knew that you didn't do that. He was looking away from her and leaving himself vulnerable and her with a chance. All she needed was this quick second, and she could grab his gun—technically it was her gun—and then he'd be dead. All in a few seconds. This was her window of opportunity.

But she didn't take it.

And she didn't take it because she realized that he was looking down because he was taking his goggles off. She watched him slowly pull the goggles up and over his head before dropping them to the ground. He let out a sigh and lifted his head, his eyes closed. Natalia watched him run his free hand over his face and rub his eyelids and the bridge of his nose; he'd closed his eyes, again presenting her with another window of opportunity. She lifted a foot to step forward, but his eyes snapped open, and the arm that held the gun tensed, his finger dangerously tight on the trigger. So that was why he felt like he didn't have to worry about taking his eyes off me, Natalia thought, mildly impressed, even though she didn't want to be impressed at all. His reflexes are amazing.

"Don't move," the man said, repeating his words from earlier. Natalia froze. Not because he'd told her not to move but because of how blue his eyes were. Finally, she saw the man in his entirety. This strange assailant who had appeared out of nowhere with his American accent, perfect Russian, and near perfect combat training. He was clearly dangerous, and Natalia would've been lying to herself if she'd said that she wasn't the smallest bit afraid. The KGB had taken most everything away from her, but they'd left her with the ability to feel fear, just the right amount to make her lethal.

The man regarded her with his calm eyes. She wasn't sure she'd ever seen eyes so blue, and she'd seen plenty of blue eyes in her day. His eyes were shockingly blue, and she couldn't stop staring at them. It had to be a mutation, she thought briefly. He looked like the kind of guy who should be a grunt in the American Marines. His sandy blond hair was cropped short and close to his head, and his musculature was solid and evenly distributed, though he was definitely more built in the arms than in the legs.

"I'm going to put a lock on your hands," the man slowly said. "They're like handcuffs but more…intense."

Natalia stared at him as hatred began to quickly fill her eyes. She hated her hands being restrained more than anything; if he'd beat her until she was unconscious and then transported her, she would've preferred that because at least her hands would've been free. She wanted to kill him, but she was rational enough to know that if she made a move, he pulled that trigger, and she was dead. So she didn't do anything. She simply stood there as he fluidly moved behind her and grabbed her hands, locking them in a strange device she'd never seen before.

"If you try anything, you'll be shocked. Kind of like a taser." The man stepped back and examined what he'd locked onto her. "There we goOk, we need to get out of here before your little friends check in on you. Once they find this guy here and you nowhere to be found…won't be fun. I've still got a gun on you, by the way, Natalia."

At the sound of her name, Natalia's head jerked to the side to glower at him with loathsome but surprised eyes, and he smiled at her. Natalia wasn't sure she'd ever seen a spy smile the way this one did; he smiled as if he were genuinely happy or amused by something. His smile lit up his blue eyes, and she hated him for being able to smile like that. She also hated him for using her name; she hadn't been expecting that one. Most everyone knew who Black Widow was, but few people knew that Black Widow was Natalia.

"Yeah, I know your name. Don't you learn the names of your targets?" The man looked at her, though this time he looked as if he didn't expect an answer from her.

"Well, anyway, nice to meet you. My name's Clint Barton."


Chapter Text

Chapter 2

Silent as ever, Natalia walked out of the hotel with Clint Barton pressing his gun to her back. She wasn't in any kind of shape to try to break out of these handcuffs; she had no doubt in her mind that Clint Barton had been telling the truth when he'd told her that if she tried anything, the cuffs would tase her. In addition to that fun little fact, though, as her adrenaline levels began to slowly abate, the pain of her broken arm began to set in, and all she wanted to do was sit down.

Clint Barton led her out of the hotel and towards an alley in the back. A large, obvious black van sat still in the alley, engine running, and as she and Clint Barton approached, the van's door slid open. Another young man peeked his head out; he was dressed similarly to Clint Barton—all in black with tactical gear and a gun on his hip. However, the only thing that separated him from the blue-eyed assassin latched onto Natalia was the headset the man in the van had on his head. The man's eyes went wide the second he saw Natalia.

"Oh, shit. Shit, shit shit. Barton, what the fuck have you done?" he hissed in English.

"Relax, Palmer," Clint Barton replied, also in English. "Take her and keep her in the back. I'll drive."

"Wait, you want me to sit in the back with her? You want me to sit next to her?" the man called Palmer snapped. His eyes darted back to Natalia, who was trying to swallow her amused expression. Clearly, she unnerved the man, and she was enjoying the reaction she drew out of him.

"She's in the taser-cuffs. She can't do anything to you," Clint Barton said. "What, you scared she'll attack you?"

"Yes," Palmer snapped.

"You're smart." Clint Barton stood back and waited for Natalia to get into the back of the van, which she did without raising a fit at all, seemingly to his surprise by the way his eyes regarded her. She figured that she might as well get in without causing trouble. There wasn't any point to being difficult now, anyway. She was tired and in severe pain, and she decided that once she got to wherever she was supposed to go and got better, she would figure out how to break out from there. She'd done it before, and she'd do it again.

She sat down in the seat beside Palmer in the back, and she looked around her. She was in what appeared to be a tech center just from this quick initial glance over the small, contained space. Palmer remained seated in front of a computer with all kinds of electrical appliances and satellites. Carefully, he watched her watching him, and he pressed his lips together in an uncomfortable frown.

"We are so fucked," he mumbled out loud, though she knew he was speaking to himself and not to her. Sighing, he shifted his spot in his chair and kept his eyes on her as the van began to move forward. Natalia nearly fell out of her chair, but she braced herself, and she stared at Palmer, again enjoying how she was making him anxious with her steady blank stare.

She continued the rest of the ride staring at the poor guy; she didn't know how long she'd been in the van, nor did she particularly care at this point. By this point, all she wanted was to get out and get bandaged up before she tried to escape. As long as she got a look at the place outside, she'd be able to know where she was in relation to her headquarters and how to get back.

The front part of the van where the driver sat was cut off from her line of vision, so she couldn't see Clint Barton. He hadn't said anything else about himself other than his name, but even just that little piece of information was enough for her to use against him. Once she got free, she would kill him. And even if she didn't kill him in her initial escape, she would hunt him down and kill him. She would make sure she did.

There was something about the way he was so sensitive to sound, the way he smiled so brightly and happily, the way his eyes were so blue…all of it got to her, and she knew that it was just because it was one of those nights for her; it was the kind of night where nothing seemed to go her way or make her happy, and she was unfairly letting her frustration out on Clint Barton, but those rational feelings were deep down, and boiling at the front of her mind was how Clint Barton had fucked everything up for her. He'd killed her target and captured her, and he'd acted like he was doing her a fucking favor. The thing about Natalia was that she didn't accept favors. No one ever did someone else a favor without expecting something back, and she'd learned a long time ago to never be in someone's debt that way. It was dangerous and only led down vulnerable paths you weren't supposed to go down.

Suddenly, the van slowed to a stop, and the engine cut off. Her green eyes flicked over to Palmer, noticing how he looked a thousand times more relieved now that they were at their destination. In front of her, she could hear the sounds of Clint Barton getting out of the driver's seat and walking around to the side of the van where the door opened. Sure enough, the van door slid open, and he was peering in at her.

"We're here!" he announced. Without wasting a second, Palmer got out of the van and began walking away. Clint Barton's blue eyes redirected themselves back to Natalia, and he effortlessly switched back into Russian. "I hope he wasn't too rude. He's not very used to working in the field. He's a tech guy. Likes to stay with his computers."

Natalia didn't speak. She just stared at him, hoping that the amount of physical pain she felt wasn't evident on her face. Staring him down, she tried to keep her gaze as blank and unfeeling as possible.

"You going to come out yourself, or do I have to go get you? We're going to have to go see the big man. Look presentable." He grinned at her in the same way he had earlier, and she felt her blood boil again. She narrowed her eyes at him, but she stood up and moved out of the van, gritting her teeth together to keep any vocalization of pain to herself. Palmer stood off to the side a good distance from her and the van, and he let out a low whistle.

"We are so fucked," he mumbled. Clint Barton didn't appear to share the same sentiment as Palmer by the way he kept that same light and easy look on his face as he prodded Natalia forward. Without saying a word, she began to walk. It was then that she noticed she wasn't outside; she was inside. It looked like she was in some kind of garage, but there weren't any windows, cutting off any clue as to where she was on the Earth. Frustration passed over her, but she was careful to keep it from entering her eyes or her face. Inwardly sighing, she redirected her gaze forward and kept walking where Clint Barton was leading her.

As she walked down the hall and through some sliding glass doors, she noticed that the space was very compact. There were no other people around, but there was the faint melody of a song playing somewhere; she was pretty sure she'd never heard it before, and she couldn't hear it well enough to tell if she liked it, but she could at least hear something. Clint Barton guided her down the hall and up the stairs without so much as a word to her. Not that Natalia minded. She would prefer Clint Barton keep his mouth shut for as long as he could stand it.

Finally, Clint Barton pushed her to the end of the hall where the last remaining door stood. He didn't glance over at her before knocking on the door in front of him. Without even needing to look at him, Natalia could feel Palmer standing behind her, his nervousness radiating off of him in hot waves that only annoyed her further. This incident was a huge waste of her time; whoever this "big man" was that Clint Barton was taking her to see wouldn't be able to help her any more than anyone else ever had.

"Come in," a voice called out. Clint Barton reached past Natalia's arm, careful not to touch her, and he twisted the doorknob and pushed it open. With one prod on her back, he encouraged her forward, and she stalked into the room. A man sat at a desk in front of her, his gaze down on a sheet of paper in front of him. He had a pen in his hand as he scribbled something out on the paper, and even though his head was tilted down, she could tell he wore an eye patch.

"Mission accomplished?" the man asked.

"Status questionable," Clint Barton replied, his voice completely different. He was commanding and serious as he stood beside Natalia. Palmer fell into place on the other side of the redheaded assassin, though he kept darting glances at her every few seconds, whereas Clint Barton stared straight at the man in front of him.

"What the hell do you—" The man looked up, and he stopped speaking as his dark brown eye—and eye patch—landed on Natalia. "Oh, hell no. Hell no. Barton, these were not your orders."

"I understand, sir," Clint Barton replied evenly. "I brought her in instead."

Instantly, Natalia was curious; who was this man yelling at Clint Barton, and what were Clint Barton's original orders? It was clear that Palmer had been right in murmuring about how fucked they were, but she didn't understand why now than she had any more before. Her green eyes traveled back and forth between the man at the desk and the man with the blue eyes, careful to keep her face blank and uninterested, though admittedly, she was very curious.

"Goddammit, those were not your orders. This was not a capture mission, Barton. This was a kill mission." The man glowered at Natalia as he stood up to fully confront Clint Barton. "You're not supposed to be here right now."

Natalia stared back at him without saying anything. She kept her gaze hard and her lips tight together, defying him to kill her on the spot. At the realization that she was supposed to be dead, her mouth went dry; Clint Barton had been sent to kill her. But he hadn't. Instead, he'd brought her in to this man who was very clearly pissed off and upset that she wasn't dead.

"Sir, I had nothing to do with this," Palmer spoke up suddenly.

"Shut up, Agent Palmer. I didn't ask you shit," the man snapped. He turned his eye back to Clint Barton. "What the fuck were you thinking?"

"She can be of use to us," Clint Barton replied. "It'd be wasting a perfectly good human life to kill her."

Natalia resisted the urge to glare hatefully at him. So he'd brought her in because he'd thought she could be of use to them. She didn't know why she felt surprised or even upset by this latest reveal. She was used to people in her life—particularly men—using her for the benefits she could bring to them. And yet, underneath all that anger she felt towards his statement, she noticed that he'd said it would be a waste of a perfectly good human life. He considered her to be human. If he'd killed her, he would've thought that her life would've been wasted.

Natalia had faced many forms of torture and interrogation throughout her life, but she'd never heard anyone try this tactic with her. More often than not, she'd been berated and abused, mangled in every possible way, but no one had ever said anything so humane about her. She wanted to look at him, but she forced herself to keep her gaze forward.

"A human life?" the man with the eye patch repeated. "This is the Black Widow we're talking about." He glanced at her again. "And just so you know, I know you understand everything I'm saying right now."

"Director Fury, she's never been given a second chance, and I think we owe it to her to give her the choice to clean herself up," Clint Barton said. The man called Director Fury sighed out loud, and he leaned on the edge of the desk, his eye burning into Clint Barton with the force of his glare.

"You directly disobeyed your orders," he said. For the first time, Clint Barton seemed to falter, and he blinked, his gaze wavering the slightest bit, but he pulled himself back together before Natalia could get a real read on his uncertainty.

"Yes, sir. I did," he said. "I accept any disciplinary measures you see fit."

"This is bullshit," Director Fury mumbled under his breath. He looked over at Palmer. "This is the worst goddamn idea I've ever heard in my life."

"Yes, sir. It is. It's the worst idea ever," Agent Palmer added. A flicker of annoyance passed over Director Fury's face, and he glanced back up at Natalia.

"Agent Barton, you have six months to train her. If she hasn't shaped up by then, she goes," he said. Clint Barton blinked in surprise, clearly thrown off by what Director Fury had just said.

"What about my disciplinary—"

"This is your disciplinary punishment," Director Fury interrupted. "I'm pulling you off all other missions. No more assignments out in the field.  Since you so strongly believe she deserves a second chance, you will work with her every day for the next six months."

"Yes, sir," Clint Barton quickly replied.

Director Fury glared at Agent Palmer. "Don't look so scared. You weren't the one who made the call. You won't be seeing any disciplinary action."

"Thank you, Director," Agent Palmer replied, quick and unapologetic.

"While we're on this damn thing, she stays in a holding cell. When we get back to HQ, she gets a guarded cell. She's a prisoner, and so she's going to be treated like one unless she can prove differently," Director Fury said.

"Of course, sir," Clint Barton agreed.

"You're dismissed." Director Fury glared one last time at the three of them individually before sinking back down into his chair. Clint Barton turned towards Natalia, and he gave her a tiny grin. Keeping her face blank, she allowed him to turn her towards the doors and start guiding her towards the exit.

"Agent Barton," Director Fury said suddenly. Clint Barton paused and turned around to face the man. Natalia kept facing the direction she'd been walking, refusing to give any of them the satisfaction of showing that she wanted to know what else Director Fury had to say. She felt Clint Barton wait expectantly for the director's words. "Just remember that even though you believe she deserves the choice of a second chance...doesn't mean she's going to choose it."

Natalia swallowed hard.

"Yes, Director," Clint Barton replied, and he turned around, again taking Natalia's good arm in his hand to guide her back out into the hall. As soon as Agent Palmer shut the door behind the three of them, he let out a relieved sigh.

"That was fucking close. I thought you were done for," he said. "I've never been so nervous in my life."

"You were only afraid that you were going to get in trouble," Clint Barton retorted with a snort. "But hey, you're off the hook. You didn't get in any trouble at all."

"Yeah, I didn't," Agent Palmer agreed. His eyes scanned over Natalia, and even though there was nothing sexual in the way he was eyeing her, she felt the urge to punch him just to make him stop looking at her. She was used to men looking her up and down like a prize animal that they thought they could purchase, and by this point, her distaste came out of instinct, out of habit. "Hey, her arm's broken."

"Yeah, I know," Clint Barton replied. He looked at Natalia, his blue eyes searching over her face. "We're going to take you to the Infirmary."

"Did you do that?" Agent Palmer asked, frowning at the way Natalia's arm was swelling up and purpling. Clint Barton glanced at it and didn't bat an eyelash.

"Yeah," he replied. "Come on. We're going to the Infirmary." He started moving again. "The Infirmary's pretty cool, especially for one on a plane. You wouldn't think a plane would have a neat little medical center, but hey, we're kind of state of the art."

Natalia allowed her eyes to drift over to him, but she kept her gaze cool and distant as Clint Barton pushed her forward and guided her towards their destination. So they were on a plane, Natalia thought to herself, her green eyes scanning over every part of the plane. That would explain why everything was so contained and small.

Clint Barton and Agent Palmer led her back down the stairs and to the area with the sliding glass doors they'd passed through earlier. In that room, there was another sliding glass door off to the side, and that was where they led her. As the doors slid shut behind the three, Natalia saw that she was, indeed, in an infirmary. The infirmary seemed to be empty, save for three people who appeared to be physicians, eagerly stepping forward towards her.

"Agent Barton, how'd your mission go?" a woman with dark brown hair and light brown eyes asked.

"It took a different turn than we were expecting, but it was fine. Thanks for asking, Susanna," Clint Barton replied, his grin turning a little cheeky. Natalia wanted to roll her eyes; of course he'd be a notorious flirt. No guy with eyes that blue and a smile that bright would be anything else. Natalia glared at Susanna as Susanna stepped forward to take a look at her.

"What do we have here?" Susanna asked.

"This is Natalia," Clint Barton explained. "I broke her arm. She was my target. Hence the taser-cuffs."

Susanna froze, her hands only inches away from the stethoscope around her neck, and her eyes grew wide as she realized what Clint Barton was telling her. Natalia could see the fear, nervousness, and apprehension slide onto Susanna's face, and she reveled in that small victory. 

"She was your target?" Susanna asked. Cheerfully, Clint Barton nodded, and he flashed Natalia a smile.

"Yep," he said. "You can take the taser-cuffs off her."

Susanna glanced up at Natalia and then at Clint Barton. "But—"

"You're fine." Clint Barton pulled out the gun he'd taken from Natalia earlier, and he positioned it so that it was clear he would shoot if she tried to attack. "Please don't try anything. I'm tired, and I think you're tired, too. Can she work on you?"

Natalia blinked.

Clint Barton blinked back, and then he looked over at Susanna. "Just start. You can talk to her. She understands English. She just won't speak back to you."

"Ok." Susanna began removing the taser-cuffs while the other doctors crossed towards them to get a look at her arm. The position in which Natalia's arms had been had been remarkably painful for her broken bones, so to finally have the taser-cuffs off was like finding an oasis in the desert. And she would know what that felt like. God, she knew that feeling too well.  She allowed her eyes to close slightly, but she didn't allow her guard to be down long.

"Feels better, doesn't it?" Clint Barton asked her. Her eyes darted towards him, but she didn't say anything. Instead, she quietly allowed Susanna and the two other doctors to lead her to one of the examination tables. Refusing help, Natalia hopped up onto the table all by herself, and she sat down on the white, flat surface, her eyes coolly taking in what everyone was doing around her and to her.

"I'm Dr. Alicia Scott," another doctor with brown hair introduced herself. "I'm going to be helping out today. That's Dr. Susanna Hutchinson, and this is Dr. Jason Martino."

All three doctors moved quickly as they started preliminary examinations and the start of the set up for the x-ray machine. Natalia stayed silent the entire time, her eyes following each and every move. Throughout the entire process, Clint Barton kept the gun ready, always one half-second away from pulling it out on her, but she didn't fight once. She wanted her arm to be fixed; Director Fury had said that she had six months to turn herself around, and to Natalia, six months was a sufficient amount of time to figure out a flawless escape plan.

"What's your name?" Dr. Jason Martino asked. Natalia lifted her eyes, and her blank stare met his curious one. Silence passed as she didn't respond.

"Her name's Natalia," Clint Barton said. Narrowing her eyes just a fraction, Natalia shot him a sharp look. She didn't like that he knew her name; he was only supposed to know that she was the Black Widow and nothing else. No one was supposed to know who she was except the people who had made her.

"Natalia. Such a pretty name," Dr. Susanna Hutchinson said softly. She glanced over at Clint Barton and Agent Palmer as if to check in with them, and then she looked back at Natalia. "Is it Russian?"

Natalia turned her dark, angry eyes to the woman, and she kept her gaze even. Dr. Susanna Hutchinson waited, but then when she saw that she wasn't getting anywhere, she looked over at Clint Barton again.

"Yes," Clint Barton answered. Natalia hated whenever people answered for her, but she knew she'd brought it on herself, seeing as how she'd purposefully made the decision to not speak. She kept her mouth shut the entire time as the doctors x-rayed her arm and then put it in a cast.

Natalia hated the cast.

It'd only been on for a few seconds, and she hated it. However, the doctors had given her a healthy dose of painkillers, and she was already feeling the stabbing pain of her broken arm dull out and fade away into a part of her mind that didn't care. She supposed she could like the cast enough in order to get more of those painkillers, but now that she was done, she wanted to go to sleep. She wanted to lose consciousness in the one place that she considered to be safe—and even then, the headquarters for the KGB were not considered a safe place at all—and pretend that this day hadn't ever happened.

Unfortunately, that was not what happened at all. As soon as the doctors were done with her, she was passed back to Clint Barton and Agent Palmer. Clint Barton held out the taser-cuffs and motioned for her to turn around.

"I know your arm's broken, but lucky for you, these are adjustable," he said. "You won't be in pain with these on. I would've adjusted them sooner, but back before the docs set your bones again, it just would've hurt even more. Probably could've done more damage."

Natalia calmly regarded him as he adjusted the taser-cuffs and put them on her; her arm was at an awkward angle behind her back, but he'd been right when he'd said that she wouldn't feel much pain, though she wondered if that was because she was on those good pain meds.

He started to guide her down the hall and towards another destination. She wanted to know where they were headed, but she didn't ask. She wasn't going to speak just yet; she refused to give him that kind of satisfaction. Quietly, he led her to what she could only assume was her holding cell. The guards and the surveillance cameras outside didn't give it away at all, she thought wryly to herself. Clint Barton slowed her to a stop, and he turned to face her, nodding at the guards as he did so.

"This is where we part ways for the night. I think we've both had an eventful few hours." He studied her as she silently stared back at him. She was always staring. "I'll come for you tomorrow. We can get started on some stuff. Even with your bum arm."

He looked towards the guards and nodded, and one crossed towards her as the other opened the door to the cell. Clint Barton unlocked the taser-cuffs, and he passed her off to them. "Good night, Natalia. Sleep well."

Natalia realized that he was going to leave her, and suddenly, she didn't want him to go. She would be all alone in this cell, and she didn't want to be. She turned to look at him, feeling panic swell up deep within her chest, and he looked back at her.  With that one look, his eyes made contact with hers. He stopped walking away, and he stood in place, and he carefully watched as the guards took her into the cell.

The last thing she saw before the door was shut was Clint Barton's blue eyes.


Chapter Text

Chapter 3

Natalia barely slept at all. Every time she'd drift off to sleep, she'd jerk awake and remember that she was still in a prison cell in a place that she wasn't familiar with. It was a never-ending cycle that she couldn't seem to break out of; she'd finally begin to fall asleep, and then she'd only find herself afraid of going to sleep, and she'd keep herself awake. Lack of sleep was ok, though. She'd gone many nights without sleep before, and this would just be another night, she told herself. She wouldn't be any different in the morning because of one more sleepless night.

But when morning came, and the guards opened her door to reveal Clint Barton standing there, she couldn't ignore the mix of emotions that came over her. One half of her wanted to kill him. She pictured murdering him right then and there on the spot in front of the guards and everyone. But the other half of her was almost relieved to see him. Well, it was a tiny half of her that felt this way, but she still felt it nonetheless. However, the half that wanted to kill him was far bigger than the half that almost felt a sense of relief to see a familiar face, and she allowed the bigger half to control her emotional state.

"Rise and shine!" Clint Barton brightly greeted. He crossed into the cell and looked at her. His eyes glanced over towards the sink, and he took in the sight of her used toothbrush and toothpaste. "Hygienic. Good. Not enough people value hygiene. We'll get along just fine."

Unable to help herself, Natalia narrowed her eyes at him. How dare he stand there and tell her that they were going to get along—he'd just fucking kidnapped her and taken her from everything she'd ever known. They were most definitely not going to get along. She wanted to tell him all of this, to unload all the anger and frustration and hatred she was feeling towards him, but she didn't. She still hadn't reached the point where she was going to let him feel good for having gotten her to speak. She'd spoken to him twice only to say no, and she wasn't ready to change her streak of memorable lines just yet.

"We're going to start training today." Clint Barton paused. "Actually, in all honesty, I'm probably just going to lecture at you, and you're going to sit and stare at me. But that's ok. I've got time."

No, you don't, Natalia wanted to say. Six months isn't a lot of time for you to turn me around.

"You can either sit there and glare at me until I come get you myself, or you can get up and move. Your choice." Clint Barton folded his arms over his chest, his blue eyes evenly regarding her. Natalia blinked, masking the surprise she felt. She'd never been given a choice like this before, aside from last night when he'd given her the same choice to either get out of the van or have him physically get her; the KGB had always told her what to do, and she'd done it without ever asking questions. But Clint Barton was giving her a choice. Technically, it wasn't exactly a choice because she knew that either way she was going to be leaving this cell with him, but still. He was giving her the choice to come with him or to have him force her up.

And so she made her first choice. She stood up and crossed towards him, her chin held high. Briefly, she thought back to yesterday when she'd contemplated letting him kill her just so she could be free, and she almost wished that she'd made that decision. Surely death would have been better than this captivity, she thought bitterly as she stood in front of the placid man with sky blue eyes.

"Perfect," he said. "These still go on, though."

He held out the taser-cuffs that she'd become very familiar with yesterday, and she allowed the glare to come out full force on her face. Much to her surprise, Clint Barton grinned at her.

"There we go. I knew you weren't an ice queen after all," he said cheerfully. He gestured to show her that he was going to move behind her to secure her hands. Standing completely still, Natalia let him put the taser-cuffs on, and she waited for him to come back around front to face her.

"Nice and secure. Ready?" he asked. She stared at him, her bright green eyes dull in the terrible fluorescent lighting of the cell. He nodded once as he accepted her silence. "Great. Let's get started."

He moved to the side of her and took her good arm in his hand, and he began to lead her out of the room. She looked down at the clothes she was in; at some point throughout the night, the guards had come in and left a pile of clothes for her. They were very generic clothes. All black with no real shape or form to them, but she didn't care. For a good hour, she'd avoided putting them on at all because she'd been determined not to accept anything from her captors, but finally, she'd relented as she'd considered how impractical it really was to wear her dress. Natalia was nothing if not practical.

She kept her body language stiff and upright as Clint Barton led her down a series of halls. For a plane, it must've been pretty large, she noticed. There were all kinds of small corridors and little rooms to duck into. It was the kind of place she would've loved to hide out in, so many dark rooms for her to lurk inside, just waiting for her target to walk by.

Finally, Clint Barton slowed as he got to their destination, and he held up his badge to a scanner. She watched as the scanner accepted his identification and let him into the room. The door swung open all on its own, and Natalia found that she was in a state of the art training room—the room was small, but it was good and efficient. Her senses became alive as she looked around at everything. Her eyes landed on the boxing ring in the center of the room; she was definitely itching to get at that.

She waited for Clint Barton to lead her towards any of the pieces of equipment, but he didn't. Instead, he led her towards a table and two chairs, and he sat down in one chair. Natalia stood beside the chair opposite of him and stared at him. She gazed down at him with distaste and scorn, and he gazed back up at her with nonchalance. He held his hand out towards the chair.

"Sit," he said. She didn't. "Or don't. That's fine by me. You'll be the one with sore feet from standing all day."

Natalia glanced at the chair, considering it. She didn't know how long she was going to be there—Clint Barton had just said all day, and if he were right on that, she didn't want to be on her feet the whole day just for the sake of being stubborn—but the chair did look appealing. Finally, she made her decision, and she sat down in it. Clint Barton smiled at her.

"So here's the deal. I'm supposed to train you for six months. Thing is, you already know the tricks of the trade. You're just as good as any other SHIELD agent out there. Hell, you're better than a lot of them. Than most of them. You don't need my help at all with combat training because you're the best of the best." He leaned forward and switched into English. "So I'm going to give it to you straight. The next six months, I'm going to turn you into SHIELD's finest agent. We're not going to spend time working on your combat. We're going to spend time working on you."

Natalia felt a sick sense of horror rise up in her stomach, and for a moment, she genuinely thought she was going to vomit all over the place. But she didn't show it on her face. On the inside, she felt as though she were going to die, but on the outside, she barely bothered to look anything but bored. She could've dealt with anything Clint Barton had thrown at her to learn, any kinds of new fighting techniques, shooting, interrogation…she could've done any of it. But working on herself? That was something she'd never done before and didn't want to try.

"So first off, we're going to start by making a personal connection," Clint Barton continued. "I already told you my name. Clint Barton. Everyone usually calls me Barton or Hawkeye, though. Hawkeye's my call name. I work best with a bow and arrow."

Natalia had a flashback of the night before when her target had been speared through the skull by a bow and arrow. Despite herself, her green eyes widened. Clint Barton noticed, and he nodded.

"Yeah, you saw my work last night," he said without a smile. He paused and leaned back in his chair, his blue eyes still locked onto her green ones. "I see better from a distance."

It made sense in Natalia's brain that he would see better from a distance—he was super sensitive to sound, and those eyes of his…they were so blue that they had that look to them as though they could take things in better when looking at them from afar. She blinked at him.

"And I know about you, Natalia Alianovna Romanova. I know about your work with the KGB and your start in the Red Room. I know about everything you've done in the past 15 years and everything that's been pinned on you even though it couldn't possibly have been you but was still labeled with your name on it." Clint Barton's voice wasn't threatening; it was matter of fact, but there was something so honest in his tone that it made Natalia uncomfortable. Maybe it was the fact that he'd used her full name, and she hadn't heard anyone say her full name in a very long time. Or maybe it was just his unrelenting gaze. Or maybe it was even a combination of all three elements. Or maybe it was just his nonchalance in general.

"I know you can understand me. You're just choosing not to talk. Effective strategy. Well, the thing that you don't know about me, Natalia, is that I love to talk. I can listen to myself talk for hours on end, and if that's what I have to do to get through to you, you can bet your ass that I will be here 12 hours a day, every day for the next six months, and I will be talking that entire time." He gave her a cheeky grin. "Again, it's your choice. You can either talk with me, or I can talk to myself."

Natalia lifted her eyes in a bored manner and glanced at the walls to make her point clear.

"Alright, actions speak louder than words." Clint Barton folded his arms across his chest. From her peripherals, Natalia could see that his arm muscles were very well-toned. Now that she knew he was a skilled archer, it made sense that he would be so toned in his upper body.

"I do think you deserve the choice of a second chance," Clint Barton continued. "You've never been given one. Well. Here's your opportunity. This is your chance to leave the KGB behind, to be a good person."

Natalia sharply turned her eyes on him, and he knew he'd struck a nerve.

"You have it in you. We all do." Clint Barton paused. "I was a bit of a rogue myself when SHIELD got their hands on me. I mean, I didn't have quite the impressive track record thatyou have, but I was well on my way to getting there."

SHIELD. He'd said the name twice already, and Natalia figured that this was where he'd taken her, where he worked. SHIELD had assigned him the mission to kill her, but he hadn't. Instead, he'd simply taken her with him, and he was now trying to train her to become a SHIELD agent.

That's hilarious, she thought to herself as she considered the possibility. She'd wanted out of the KGB—she'd been wanting it for a while, but she couldn't reconcile herself with starting over again for another agency. If she did that, it'd just be a trade. A stupid, pointless trade. If she joined up with SHIELD, she'd be given more missions, more people to kill, and more heartless orders.

"What do you like for breakfast, by the way?" Clint Barton suddenly asked. "We get breakfast with this little deal. Personally, I'm a big fan of the traditional Irish breakfast, but everyone's always bitching at me about cholesterol, so I usually wind up getting some healthy shit." He paused and looked at her. "You strike me as the kind of person who'd eat healthy but wouldn't really want to, too. Pancakes? You like pancakes?"

Natalia had never had pancakes, but she kept her expression stony so that her confusion didn't show through. She'd always heard of pancakes, but she'd never actually eaten them.

"French toast? Waffles? Eggs and bacon? Does the KGB even serve stuff like that?" Clint Barton frowned at his own question, thinking it over in his head. "What do Russians eat for breakfast? I don't mean that to be an ignorant question. I'm just genuinely asking. Oh, and in case you're wondering, I'll take the taser-cuffs off you when you eat. But after you're done, they go back on."

Natalia glowered at him, and he laughed.

"I may think you deserve a second chance, Natalia, but I'm not stupid. I sure as hell don't trust you."

And in that moment, Natalia gained the tiniest bit of respect for him. She stopped glowering at him, and she blinked in surprise, completely taken back by his admission. If he noticed the change in her demeanor, he didn't say anything. Instead, he pressed a button on his earpiece. "This is Agent Barton in Training Room 0. Could we get a traditional Irish breakfast and a short stack of chocolate chip pancakes up here? Look, I don't care if it's against protocol. I'm already being punished. Perfect."

He took his hand away and beamed brightly at her.

"Breakfast is on its way. If you have any allergies, now's the time to tell me. Unless you're purposefully trying to have an allergic reaction that will kill you and free you from having to do any of this shit." He shrugged. "Anyway, buckle up, Natalia, because the best damn breakfast you've ever had is about to be here."

Natalia didn't believe in God. She'd never been religious because she'd always found the idea of God to be ridiculous and childish. But when she took her first bite of her chocolate chip pancakes, she wondered if she'd finally found her religion. For the first hour, she'd sat without touching them while Clint Barton had dug straight away into his high-cholesterol breakfast; she'd ignored the rumbling of her stomach as the delicious fumes from both his breakfast and hers wafted towards her, screaming at her to give into temptation.

And she'd wanted to. She'd desperately wanted to.

It wasn't until she realized that the only person she'd be hurting in this process of refusing herself breakfast was, well, herself that she finally gave in. And so she'd calmly cut off a piece of the chocolate chip flat cake-looking thing—what the hell even was this thing exactly—and she'd taken a bite, only to be temporarily stunned in a way she'd never been before. Over the taste of the pancakes, she could hear Clint Barton softly chuckling.

"Good, isn't it?" he asked. She lifted her eyes to his, and she reined her surprise back in, bringing herself back down a notch to hide behind her steely mask again. Even just that little slip had been detrimental to keeping him locked out of who she was, and she hated herself for allowing that brief moment to get out of her control.

"Is this the first time you've ever had a pancake?" Clint Barton asked. He was trying to keep the surprise out of his voice, but he didn't succeed at it. He was definitely surprised that she'd never had the common breakfast, and it showed on his face, even though he was trying to keep it down.

"Huh," he said, impressed. "Well, Miss Romanova, get used to a lot of firsts around here. SHIELD is notorious for them."

Natalia wished she hated these pancakes, but she just couldn't. It would've made the week to come much easier if she did.

Over the course of the following week, Natalia fell into a pattern that she came to rely on in those seven days. She was a woman who loved routine. She didn't like going outside the lines unless she had to. She liked rigidity because it helped her figure out where the boundaries were, and figuring out where the boundaries lay meant that she'd know exactly where to cross when the time came to it.

Every day, Clint Barton showed up at 7:00 in the morning, and every morning, Natalia went to Training Room 0 and listened to him make good on his word that he could talk. She wondered when the plane would ever land. It seemed that they'd been on the plane for far too long, but Clint Barton never revealed anything about where they were or how much long they'd be there or where they were actually headed.

It wasn't until that seventh day of being on the plane that things really got interesting. For the past week, Clint Barton had told her the entirety of SHIELD's history. He'd even brought along a book on the organization and read out passages that struck him as particularly important. He was funny and sarcastic and self-deprecating, and he wasn't afraid to call her out on her shit, though she normally would've thought that there wasn't that much shit to call out since, well, she hadn't said a word to him since that first night back in the hotel when he'd told her she was coming with him. But surprisingly, she was apparently still pulling shit that he could point out to her.

"Ok, look, here's part of the problem," he said, and he leaned back in his chair, kicking up his feet on the table. He probably shouldn't have been doing that, but he didn't seem to give a shit. "I think that you're still so stuck in your KGB self that you're not giving SHIELD a chance. I don't know if this is ignorant to suggest or not, but why don't you take on an Americanized version of your name? Might help you get on with this whole turning good thing."

Natalia pushed her plate away from her as she finished her last bite, and she evenly stared at the archer.

"I wish I were good at figuring out Americanized names, but I'm shit at it," he said. "I mean, come on. My name's Clint Barton. I don't really have a good, creative name. Three short syllables. That's it."

He whipped out his laptop and put it on the table in front of them. Pausing, he glanced up at Natalia. "Sorry if it's rude to be on my laptop now. I'm just trying to come up with possible names."

Natalia wasn't sure whether she should be offended or amused by what he was doing. But whatever she thought she was supposed to feel, she didn't show it in her eyes as she sat back and watched Clint Barton type something into his laptop. When he looked for something, he squinted his sky blue eyes, and he pressed his lips together. In addition to listening to him talk, Natalia had gotten the chance to really study his body language and his psychological gestures, and this gesture was something she'd picked up on.

"You could go with just Roman," he said. "And Natalie's pretty close to your first name. Natalie Roman."

Natalia subtly bit the inside of her mouth to keep from bursting out laughing. Natalie Roman was one of the worst damn names she'd ever heard, and she would willingly put a bullet through her head before taking the name Natalie Roman as her official name.

"Actually, the real reason I suggested you take on a new name is because the KGB is out for blood. Specifically your blood," Clint Barton said without looking up from behind the screen of his laptop. "So if you want to stay alive, you should probably change your name."

Natalia blinked. She shouldn't have been surprised; of course they would've been out looking for her to kill her. In their eyes, she'd deserted them and left without a trace. Even if they caught up with her, and she tried to go back with them, they would most likely kill her with the thought that she'd betrayed their secrets.

Natalia realized in that moment that she couldn't go back. No matter what, she was a dead woman. She was wanted by some of the world's most deadly killers, and they would not be afraid to do what they wanted with her once they got their hands back on her. Unnerved, she looked at the wall to diffuse her own emotions as they welled up inside her in a very unwelcome manner. Clint Barton hadn't looked up to notice the horrifying realization she'd just had. His eyes stayed glued to his screen as he scrolled through whatever it was he was looking at.

"Romanoff. You could go with Romanoff. That's pretty close to Romanova," he suggested. Natalia didn't want to admit it, but he was right. The name was simple and short and Americanized, but it was also still something that was hers. "You could be Natalie Romanoff. That sounds pretty American to me."

The thing was, if the KGB were looking for her, they'd be looking for someone named Natalie. Natalie would have been a go-to name that she would've chosen if she'd ever escaped from them because it was close enough to her own name. She either would've chosen a name that was so similar to hers it was obvious, or she would've chosen the name that sounded absolutely nothing like Natalia, and the KGB knew that. They would be tracking her under every possible Natalie or name that was the total opposite.

There was one name she was sure that they wouldn't check, a name that was too personal and dear for them to consider her taking back from them. It was a name that she could very faintly remember being called when she was younger, but she wasn't sure if it were a real memory or a fake memory. Maybe she'd created it all on her own, or maybe it was just echoes of the life she'd once had coming back to her in tiny, fleeting spurts.

"Natasha," she said out loud. Clint Barton's blue eyes snapped up from his computer screen, and his fingers stopped typing.

"She speaks," he said without bothering to mask the surprise in his voice. He stared at her, and she stared back at him. Natalia hadn't used her voice in a week now, and it'd felt strange to use it; she couldn't remember the last time she'd gone that long with speaking, nor did she want to remember because she knew it'd bring back memories of torture and imprisonment. Even though she'd only said one word, it felt like that one word had been sentences upon sentences. Clint Barton stared at her, waiting for her to say something else, but she didn't.

"Natasha it is then," he said. "Natasha Romanoff. It has an excellent ring to it."

Natalia didn't know how to feel about it. The only part that she liked was Natasha. In Russia, Natasha was a very personal, very private nickname for the name Natalia, and she was sure—not really—that she could remember someone at one time calling her that nickname. However, the KGB wouldn't know that—according to the KGB, she never would've had anyone who'd loved her enough to give her such a personal, private nickname, but she couldn't feeling that maybe at some point she had. But like always with her old possible memories, she didn't dwell on it. She simply acknowledged it, and then she let it go.

"Nice to meet you, Natasha Romanoff. My name is Clint Barton, but you can call me Clint or Hawkeye." Clint stuck his hand out towards her, but she didn't make any kind of move to shake it. She just continued to look at him with those large green eyes. Nodding, he took his hand back. "Ok. Two steps forward, one step back. I can live with that."

Natalia knew that from this moment out, she could never be Natalia again. She was Natasha. She couldn't shy away from the nickname and everything it meant to her; she had to embrace it and live with it because now she was a woman on the run, protected by SHIELD. Well, she probably wasn't protected since Director Fury didn't seem to be terribly fond of this whole arrangement, but she was at least hidden away from the KGB. She needed to accept that this was the point of no return. She couldn't go back to Russia.

Natalia Alianovna Romanova was gone, and in her place was Natasha Romanoff.


Chapter Text

Chapter 4

Natalia—Natasha—barely heard anything else that Clint said the rest of the day because her mind was too busy playing her new name over and over in her head. Natasha Romanoff. The KGB was after her, and she was here in this plane headed God knew where with a new name branded across her forehead. Clint's voice was a steady flow of sound in the background of her thoughts, a little reminder that she wasn't quite alone, even though she wanted to be.

Her taser-cuffs and broken arm didn't even bother her that much as she continued to repeat her name to herself. For the past week, the awkward position and the inability to scratch any itches beneath her hot, heavy cast had been driving her crazy as she'd sat and listened to Clint go on and on about whatever it was he felt the need to tell her, but today, she just couldn't be bothered with it.

"Hey. Hey, are you listening? You don't look like you're listening." Clint's voice broke through the veil of her thoughts, and she realized that she'd been staring at the wall and not at him. Steadily, she turned her green eyes back to him and gazed impassively.

"Yeah, I caught you. I might be able to see best from a distance, but I can still pick up on little things about you. Like I said, actions speak louder than words." He leaned forward to the table, resting his elbows against the edge of it. "This is the first time I've really ever seen you distracted. You do a pretty good job of pretending like you're listening to me, but today you're ain't fooling anyone. So what are you thinking about?"

My name is Natasha Romanoff, she thought to herself as she held Clint's stare.

"Are you thinking about the KGB?" Clint asked. As expected, the redheaded Russian didn't reply. "That's what I'd bet on. From what we've been able to gather, they're pretty pissed that you up and disappeared. That's why we've been in the air so long. Trying to throw them off the scent. Keep you moving."

I'm not moving, Natasha thought wryly to herself. I'm being held in one spot.

"Fury's pissed as hell about it, though I can't say I blame him. He thought we'd be back to HQ by now. KGB doesn't fuck around," Clint said with a sigh. Natasha narrowed her eyes at him, and he tilted his head, noticing the reaction he'd gotten out of her. He waited for her to say something, hoping she'd say something, but she didn't say a word. Finally, he sighed. "Look, I'm not going to make you talk about your past. I don't think the past is a road that anyone wants to go down. Trust me. I know exactly what it's like to want to leave it the fuck behind you."

As Natasha stared into the archer's blue eyes, she suddenly had the feeling that he knew exactly what it was like. Clint went through a series of emotions throughout their daily training sessions together; sometimes he was bored, sometimes he was annoyed—though never with her, interestingly enough—but most of the time, he was lighthearted and funny. At first, Natasha hadn't been sure of what to make of the constant humor he incorporated into just about everything, but after having spent a week with him, she'd come to expect it as normal from him.

But as she saw his face turn serious and his eyes grow slightly more reflective, she knew that he wasn't fucking around with her.

"So I'm not going to make you talk about what's happened to you in the past, what you've done, or anything like that. That's not you anymore. We're going to focus on you now. That's the only way that you'll be able to turn yourself around. And you can do it." Clint spoke so sincerely that Natasha wanted to believe him. Everything in his voice conveyed that he had all the faith in the world in her, but all of her training told her that he was lying to her—this was a tactic to get her to do what he wanted her to do, and she couldn't fall for it.

But God, she wanted to. She wanted to believe that there was still a chance for her. Several years ago, she'd been an insomniac for that very reason. She'd go to sleep every night thinking about the things she'd done and the things she hadn't done, and she'd wondered if she'd ever be able to get out of it. During that time of her life, she'd probably gone almost weeks on end without sleeping, just lying on her side with her eyes closed and her mind churning at 1000 miles per hour. She'd so badly wanted to believe that there was still a chance for her, but she'd finally reconciled herself with the fact that there just wasn't. Plain and simple. Some people got chances, and Natalia Alianovna Romanova hadn't been one of those people.

Yet there was something in Clint's voice that made her want to believe that he was telling her the truth, that everything he was saying was true. He looked so sincere and honest that she wished she could believe him. But her training was stronger than any source of emotion, so she shut those feelings down, and she kept her gaze blank.

"You're not a bad person, and I plan on showing you that," Clint said lightly. "We just have to get past those icy layers first."

Her instinct was to give him the iciest glare she could muster, but she knew it would be childish, so she kept her expression unchanged. Suddenly, a knock on the door caught her attention. Clint looked away from her and over his shoulder towards the door.

"Enter at your leisure," he called out. The door slowly opened, and there stood the familiar Agent Palmer who had helped Clint on his mission to capture her. Agent Palmer looked mildly nervous, but as soon as he saw that Natasha was in the taser-cuffs, he gained a bit more of his confidence, and he crossed into the room, shutting the door behind him.

Clint grinned as soon as he saw the agent, and he turned back to Natasha, pointing at the guy. "You remember him, right?"

Natasha neither confirmed nor denied that she remembered him.

"This is Agent Felix Palmer, our tech guy. Say hi, Agent Palmer. You surely remember our friend Black Widow," Clint said. Agent Palmer glanced at Clint before looking at Natasha. She wanted to raise an eyebrow in his direction, but again, she didn't want to give either of them the pleasure of knowing that they were evoking some kind of emotion in her.

"Hi, Black Widow," Agent Palmer said nervously. Natasha decided that he looked like a Felix; out of all the names in the world, Felix was the perfect name for him. He had reddish-brown hair and brown eyes that had that tired look to them, the only kind of tired that computer geniuses got from staring at computer screens all day.

"Her name's Natasha," Clint corrected. Hearing her new name on Clint's tongue provoked a new emotion in Natasha that she hadn't been expecting, and when she heard him say it, she wasn't sure whether she wanted to lash out at him or to ask him to say it again. So of course, she didn't do either. She simply sat there and continued to stare at Agent Palmer, again enjoying the anxiety-riddled reaction she got from him. She loved men like Agent Palmer because she knew she could get whatever she wanted from them without having to work very hard at all.

Back when she'd first started doing solo missions, she'd been sent to interrogate men like this because of how easy they were to break. As she gazed at Agent Felix Palmer, she remembered all of her very first missions. She'd been so young. Quickly snapping back to the present, she shut down the memories that were beginning to bubble up. She might not have liked Clint Barton very much, but he'd been onto something by saying that they wouldn't focus on her past. That she could definitely appreciate.

"Hi, Natasha," Agent Palmer greeted, using her corrected name. Clint shot Natasha a blasé look.

"You'll have to forgive his manners again," he said blandly. "He doesn't know how to interact with anything besides his computers. Especially if that 'anything' is a woman."

"Ha ha, Barton. Fuck you," Palmer retorted, a smile finally beginning to hint at the corners of his lips. "Forgive me if I get nervous around a world-famous killer who's wanted in about 15 different countries."

"Hey," Clint said sharply. "She can understand you, dipshit."

"Sorry," Palmer said, aiming his apology to Natasha and not to Clint. "I'm sorry I think you're terrifying."

Natasha desperately wanted to grin at his admission, but she forced the muscles of her mouth to stay completely neutral.

"That was only marginally better," Clint flatly replied. "What can I do for you, Palmer?"

"Fury asked me to come tell you that tomorrow we'll be landing at HQ. If everything goes smoothly," Palmer answered. Clint grinned and leaned back in his chair at the news.

"That is music to my ears," he said. "It'll be good to get back to home base. Finally a place to rest for more than just a few hours to refuel." He looked over at Natasha. "I don't know about you, but I'm so ready to be back on solid ground."

"She's still not talking?" Palmer asked, allowing his eyes to dart back to Natasha.

"We're working on it," Clint vaguely replied. "Alright. Thanks for the update."

"No problem. Need anything?" Palmer asked as he started to walk towards the door. Clint looked at Natasha.

"Need anything?" he asked her. She didn't reply. When she said nothing, he looked back at Palmer and shook his head. "No, we're good. Thanks, man."

"No problem. Catch you around, Hawkeye." Palmer shut the door behind him as he exited. Clint turned around to face Natasha again, his posture still relaxed and at ease in his chair.

"Apologies for that one, again," he said with a sigh. "He really just doesn't know how to talk to people. We've been partners for the past few months, and he's cool for the most part. He'll most likely be reassigned to someone else for the next six months since I'll be spending that time training you. Hey, did you know that the tech operations agents don't have to know any other languages? Only the field agents are required to. Pretty cool, huh?"

Natasha didn't indicate whether or not she thought it was cool.

"Yeah, pretty cool. Since I'm a field agent, I have to be fluent in all kinds of languages. Now I have to admit, my Russian's a bit shabby. There are other agents who can practically write symphonies with their grasp of the Russian language. Me, on the other hand, I can get by," he said with a shrug. Natasha figured that the only really big flaw in his Russian was the very tiny hint of his American accent that shone through, and she could only detect it since Russian was her first language. Other than that, though, she did have to admit that his Russian was pretty good.

"Personally, I prefer the language that a bow and arrow uses. Ok, I know that that's corny as shit to say, but there really is a language that comes with holding that bow and arrow and centering yourself with it. That's the language I like the best. You don't have to use words." He shrugged. "I know. Everyone says it's corny."

Natasha blinked at him, but she understood exactly what he was saying. That was how she felt about combat. Fighting came with its own language, a banter that didn't have to be put into words. You didn't have to know Swedish in order to fight someone from Sweden—she hadn't known Ukrainian when she'd been ordered to engage a Ukrainian bodyguard in one of her first fights. So when Clint talked about the language of his bow and arrow and how he preferred it best of all, she understood on a level she wished she didn't.

The archer had distinctly said on the first day of their training that they were going to work on her, and yet it seemed as though they hadn't done much work at all due to her refusal to speak. However, she could feel something dangerous happening to her. Clint had told her on that same first day that he was going to form a personal connection with her. Well, it appeared that that was exactly what he was doing, and she was beginning to feel that personal connection far too acutely for comfort.

Natasha wasn't the kind of person to get attached to people or things very quickly because her training had beaten that part of her out. Don't form attachments to anything, they'd told her, Nothing lasts forever. Everyone betrays you at one point or another. Attachments mean vulnerability, and vulnerability means death. Never get attached if you want to remain alive.

But there was something about Clint Barton that unnerved her. It was a combination of his blue eyes, his easy smile, his humor, and his unbridled honesty that struck her on a different level. She swallowed and looked away from him, changing her gaze to the wall. Whenever she did that, she was telling Clint that she was bored of the topic, and she wanted him to know that she was bored of hearing him talk about something that was seemingly personal to him. With that one simple movement, she would be severing any beginnings of emotional attachment by rejecting him.

True as ever, Clint seemed undeterred by it.

"What do you want for dinner? I'm in the mood for a burger, but I think Fury's getting pissed because I'm having the kitchen whip out all kinds of crazy food. You know, I could feel bad about it and order a salad instead of a burger, but I'm not going to do that. I'm going to order a salad, but I'm only going to do it because I've been eating a lot of unhealthy food lately. Palmer's been on me about it."

When he looked up at her, waiting for a response, she just stared at him.

"You want a salad, too? Perfect. I'm going to get steak on mine, but you look like you'd prefer chicken, so I'll ask the chefs to put chicken on yours."

Since Natasha adjusted very easily to schedules and routines—part of being a good spy was being flexible and easily compliant when it came to schedule changes—she'd learned to estimate when 7:00 A.M. was. So every day at what she assumed was 6:00 A.M., she got up, sponged herself off and ran soap over her hair, brushed her teeth, and changed into a clean set of black clothes if there was a clean change available for her. If she had any spare time, she kept up with her physical regimen, even though that wasn't saying much since she had a broken arm and was confined to a small cell.

The next day, she was up and awake at 6:00 A.M., and she was ready for Clint to come fetch her for training at 7:00 A.M. She hated these training sessions, but she did look forward to leaving her cell. Today was also the day that they were supposed to land at HQ, wherever that was. She had the feeling that they would land at the Washington D.C. location since that was their biggest station, but according to Clint, they could go anywhere from California to New York to Arizona, to Michigan. SHIELD HQ could be anywhere and everywhere.

Natasha sat still on her bed, her back ramrod straight and her gaze forward the way she always was whenever Clint came to get her. But for whatever reason, today's wait felt longer. She had the distinct feeling that 7:00 A.M. had come and gone, and Clint was nowhere to be found. Briefly, she wondered if he were being punished more severely for having disobeyed honestly. Truthfully, she thought he'd gotten off easy; had she ever disobeyed orders, she would've been punished in ways she didn't even want to think about. She'd seen it happen to enough of her fellow co-workers to know never to attempt it.

Time continued to pass, and she still continued to sit by herself. Nothing was happening, and she finally started to feel as though something were off. Clint should've already been there. Admittedly, her stomach was starting to rumble, and she was beginning to wish that she had her breakfast since this was probably about the time that she would've been eating it, but still, no one came through the door.

Natasha didn't know how much time went by, but suddenly, she felt the familiar sensation of a plane's wheels starting to unfold from beneath the aircraft. They were landing. Alert, she pushed herself onto her bed and sat with her legs folded up beneath her. She could feel the plane descending, and she wasn't sure what would happen to her once they were on the ground. Sure, Director Fury had said that she would be housed in a prison cell there at HQ, and she would continue her training, but she didn't know if he would stand by his word. She knew for a fact that men in authority much like Director Fury rarely kept their promises, and she was prepared for him to be the exact same.

The plane hit the ground, and she was nearly launched across the room from the force of it. She was used to jumping out of planes or to being buckled in, at least. She braced herself with her good arm and the rest of her body, drawing herself up to a defiant position. It wouldn't be that much longer before the guards came to escort her out.

Sure enough, only a matter of minutes passed before the sounds of the door unlocking and opening filled the room. She sat on the bed, poised for attack and expecting to see Clint Barton there to collect her, but what she saw instead was a series of guards and Director Fury. Instantly, she put up her defenses as the director crossed into the room, a bored look on his face.

"At ease," he ordered. "We're here. You're going to be transported to one of our prison cells here on base so you can finish out training."

She stared at him, her body remaining in its defensive position. He sighed.

"I said 'at ease.' No one's going to harm you as long as you don't attack." His eye flicked over to the cast on her arm. "The infirmary says you're healing nicely. Looks like you'll be good as new soon."

Natasha kept her gaze as blank as ever.

"Agent Barton is very passionate in his protests that you deserve a second chance. I don't like proving Agent Barton wrong because he's a sulker, and he's not very pleasant to be around. So please. Don't prove him wrong." Fury narrowed his eye at her with a suspicious look on his face. "We're watching you, Romanoff."

Natasha watched Director Fury turn to the guards and nod at them. Silently, they crossed into the room and put the taser-cuffs on her. She didn't say anything to them, nor did they say anything to her, but she let them do it, and she let them lead her out into the hall and out the direction of the plane that she'd come in only a week before. The guards kept a firm grasp on her, watching her out of the corner of their eyes as if she were about to attack them.

Technically, Natasha could've taken them down in a heartbeat. She was skilled enough to incapacitate these guards and walk out with very few injuries, even with a broken arm, but she still needed time to strategize the perfect escape plan. Sure, she could just wing it and go with it—she'd done that before, but this was SHIELD that she was dealing with, and she had a feeling that spontaneity wouldn't exactly be the most effective plan.

The guards led her down a ramp, and she instantly knew that she was no longer on the plane but was now inside SHIELD Headquarters. Instantly, she assessed everything around her. She took in every single detail, every single smell, sight, sound, and sensation that she could because she knew that even the tiniest details would be the key in figuring out how this place and its people worked. She allowed them to walk her through a series of halls without once fighting them, and she allowed them to take her to another small cell with no windows or any seemingly possible way to escape.

As the guards unlocked her taser-cuffs and left her in her cell, Natasha wondered where the hell Clint was. He hadn't given her any kind of indication that he wouldn't be there to walk her off the plane; she'd just kind of assumed that that would also fall under his responsibilities since it seemed that he was in charge of keeping her under control. And yet he hadn't been there. He'd spent hours upon hours with her over the past week, and he'd suddenly disappeared without a trace.

Natasha couldn't help but feel anger rise up deep inside her solar plexus; this was exactly why she'd been trained to never form an attachment with anything. In the end, everyone and everything left you, and you were on your own. She hated herself for allowing herself to feel that tiny sense of attachment to the man with the stunning blue eyes and genuinely happy smile. He'd only done the same thing to her that everyone else had, and she hated him for it. She hated herself, and she hated Clint Barton, the archer who spoke perfect Russian with a hint of an American accent.

Natasha spent the rest of the day and the rest of the night by herself. She experienced a tumultuous turn of emotions. First, she was furious, then she was filled with self-loathing, and then she felt vulnerable and alone. She felt anything and everything, and with each change of emotions, she tried to deny the fact that she was feeling something. For the longest time, she'd kept her emotions at bay, but as the night progressed, she felt them start to bubble out.

By the time morning rolled around, she was sleep-deprived and drained. Yet despite the emotional and physical exhaustion, she still brushed her teeth and sponged herself down. She might have been feeling as though she were an embodied nightmare, but she wouldn't allow SHIELD to have the kind of control where she would look as bad as she felt. After all, she still had some dignity.

At 7:00 A.M., she heard people rustling right outside her door, and her muscles tensed into their defensive position. Immediately, she wiped her face blank of any emotions, and she sat on the bed, even though she kept her body on alert to attack if anyone came through the door with the intention of attacking her. The lock clicked open, and the door began to swing open. She prepared herself for whoever was on the other side. Her muscles locked into place, and she kept herself on her toes as the door finally opened all the way.

There was Clint.

The archer crossed into her cell with the taser-cuffs in his hand. He brightly beamed at her. "Rise and shine, Miss Romanoff. We have a lot of work to make up for from yesterday."

Without betraying a single emotion on her face, Natasha stood up and turned around to let him put the taser-cuffs on her. She was furious—she hated him, and she wanted to kill him. She'd never wanted to harm him as strongly as she did in that moment, but she kept her muscles in check. Attacking Hawkeye right here and now with the guards right outside wasn't the smartest thing in the world.

"I'm so glad to be back on the ground again. I didn't know how much I'd missed it until we landed. Planes fucking suck." Clint locked the taser-cuffs on her, and he began to lead her out of her cell. Natasha kept her green eyes fixed straight ahead of her, refusing to look at him as she fought to keep her anger in check. Her biggest problem was her temper—she'd known that for the longest time. When she got angry, she just lost a piece of herself in it, and that piece was usually her rationality.

Clint led her down a set of unfamiliar halls to an unfamiliar room. She stood still as he scanned his badge to let him in, and she stepped forward when the door granted him access. The room he'd taken her to was another training room, but it was much bigger and a thousand times more elaborate than the one on the plane had been. She was dying to get back into her regular combat training schedule, but it didn't look like that was happening any time soon, much to her dismay.

Clint walked her over to a table and chairs much like the one they'd sat at on the plane, and he sat across from her. Natasha sat in the chair across from him the way she was supposed to. She wanted to glare hatefully at him, but she couldn't drop her blank gaze. But that anger…it was just boiling so deeply inside her…

"The chefs are much more chill here than the ones on the plane, but the cafeteria food is total shit. However, I think I can get us some good breakfast this morning. I kind of made friends with the chefs since, well, I like food, but I love good food." Clint pulled out his walkie-talkie and began switching the channels.

"Where were you?" The words, only barely tinged with the slightest of Russian accents, spilled out of Natasha's mouth before she could think twice. The anger and hatred she'd been holding back came spilling forth, her tone burning hot. Clint paused, clearly surprised by the fact that she'd spoken, and his blue eyes looked up from the device with unbridled shock filling them.

"Fury had me running errands," he answered evenly. "I didn't think they'd take as long as they did, but I got tied up in the paperwork of it all."

Natasha stared furiously at him, no longer fighting how she truly felt. She glared at him with the force of a thousand fires, and she didn't hold back at all. Clint lowered the walkie-talkie.

"I should've told you," he said simply without trying to excuse his actions, his abandonment of her. "I'm sorry."

Natasha would've liked to have continued being angry, but she was too surprised by the apology that passed from his lips. No one had ever apologized to her before in her entire life. Ever. The only times she'd ever heard the words "I'm sorry," they'd come out of her mouth. No one had ever said them to her and meant them. Clint looked genuinely sorry, but he also looked stricken by the thought that she would be angry at him for not showing up. She blinked and swallowed, not taking her blazing green eyes away from him.

"I didn't think to tell you. That was entirely my fault," he said, his voice still genuine and even. The look in his clear blue eyes was regretful and acknowledging of his own fuck up. "I really am sorry. If I'm ever caught up with running errands again, I'll tell you. Ok?"

She glowered at him.

"Ok. Good to know," he said and nodded once, his blue eyes cautiously regarding her. "So you missed me?"

Her green eyes narrowed.

"Too soon? Too soon. I'm sorry. That was definitely too soon." He held up his hands in surrender, but he offered her a small smile. Natasha didn't relax into the chair the way she normally would've, but her gaze became the slightest bit less angry. He leaned in towards her.

"How've you been since I last saw you? Probably pretty pissed," he said, still giving her his small smile. She wanted to tell him that he wasn't right, that he hadn't been able to pick up on the anger in her eyes, but she couldn't.

She refused to confirm her anger, but she also refused to deny her anger, so she just kept her green eyes on him and reminded herself of the dangers of becoming emotionally attached. Attachment wasn't something she could afford to have in her life, and that included SHIELD agents with toned arms and small smiles that served as peace offerings.


Chapter Text

Chapter 5

Halfway through the day, Natasha realized that Clint was used to her silence now. She remembered the look on his face when she'd spoken to him, her voice full of fury. He'd been surprised and thrown off. Natasha didn't like being predictable, so she decided that she was going to stop giving into what Clint predicted of her. She just had to wait for the right moment to strike.

Clint was leaning back in his chair—he always sat in a chair two ways: leaning forward with his elbows resting against the edge of the table, or leaning back with his back curved and slouched—as he talked about a mission he'd recently gone on in Texas. Natasha was familiar with the United States, and she knew where Texas was, but from the way Clint described it, it sounded awful.

One thing about Clint Barton was that he was a master storyteller. He filled his stories with humor, vivid descriptions, and sound effects to boot. He didn't draw his tales out, but he didn't end them after two sentences. As much as Natasha didn't want to admit it, she was drawn in by the way he weaved his words together.

"I was on that roof for five fucking hours. Just sitting. Felt like a goddamn pigeon. All you had to do was put feathers on me, and that's what I would've been. At least it was at night, though, because it would've been burning hot. That's the problem about having English skin. I burn like you wouldn't believe. The good thing, though, is that after I burn, I do get tan, but I digress. Anyway, I was on that rooftop for five hours before my target came into sight. One breath, one pull, one release, and then the job's done." Clint snapped his fingers to get his point across. "Aside from the fact that the mission was in Texas, it was pretty ok as far as missions go. I don't recommend Texas as a vacation spot, by the way. In case you couldn't tell from everything else I've said."

After listening to Clint's story, Natasha decided that she didn't have any desire to go to Texas. Not that she'd ever had a desire to go before, but she especially decided that she didn't want to go now.

"Actually, that was probably the first mission I really understood what I was doing. I'd worked missions for SHIELD before, but this was the first one that I got it. You know?" Clint looked off to the wall, lost in his own thoughts.

"No," Natasha said, her voice quiet, even, and clear. Clint looked back at her, his eyes filled with the same surprise he'd had earlier that day when she'd demanded to know where he'd been.

"Speaking twice in one day? I think we're making progress," he said.

"There's nothing to get," Natasha continued, ignoring his statement about her speaking. "There's only the mission. And when that's over, there's the next one. There's nothing to get."

Clint gathered himself together as he tried to get used to the sound of her voice. Natasha knew her English was perfect. Her Russian accent was very faint, but it was barely there. Again, years of training had beaten that out of her. Literally.

"That was your past, Natasha," Clint said slowly. She enjoyed the look on his face, the surprise she'd brought him by speaking. "This is now. There's a reason you're assigned a mission, and that's to keep people safe. That should be the only reason."

"That's a childish sentiment," Natasha said. Clint squinted his blue eyes at her and folded his arms across his chest as he studied her closed off face.

"Why are you speaking to me now?" he asked. "We've been training for over a week now, and you've been silent this whole time."

"I haven't had anything to say," Natasha easily replied. Clint snorted, and he shook his head in disbelief.

"I'm not as naïve as you think I am. I know this is a strategy," he said. Natasha raised her eyebrows, but she didn't say anything. "You're going to be all right."

"You know nothing about what I'll be," she said in a matter of fact tone.

"But I know you're going to be all right, no matter what you want to believe about yourself," Clint pressed. Natasha stared at him, her green eyes hard and distant as silence passed between them.

"I hate these clothes," she said suddenly. She waited for Clint's eyes to dart down towards her all-black outfit, but his sky blue eyes didn't waver from her face.

"Would you rather have your dress back?" he asked.

"Yes," she replied, mainly to spite him more than anything.

"Not happening," Clint said with a firm shake of his head. "At least you're not in the typical prison stripes the other prisoners have to wear. Think of the positives. Hey, you get food every day. That's a positive."

"You should've killed me back there in that hotel," Natasha said. Her tone was angry, but her eyes were calm and clear, completely masking the expanse of her anger towards the archer.

"Nope," Clint argued. "I wasn't going to waste your life."

"You think I'm going to be an asset to SHIELD," Natasha said slowly. "I won't be. I'm of more use to you dead than alive."

"Again, you're wrong." Clint gave a nonchalant shrug, showing that he was completely unshaken by her words. "I told you. You deserve a second chance. Now you can get as angry at me as much as you want, and you can keep your mouth shut as long as you can, but you're not going to be able to convince me otherwise."

Natasha waited for him to get angry with her, but he didn't. Every word he spoke was even, cool, and calm. He spoke as if he were discussing the weather with her, not how much he believed in her supposed second chance. He sounded so convinced of the good he thought she had inside her, but she knew the truth; he was wrong. He was so goddamn wrong. If he wanted to waste his time and energy in trying to turn her around, that was his choice. He could have spent his six month long punishment by sitting there in silence while he did other things, but he was actually trying to work on her, and she knew he was simply wasting his time.

"Are you always this optimistic?" she asked, tilting her head to the side as she narrowed her bright green eyes. Clint smiled at her, a dazzling, genuine smile that shook her and made her question who the hell this man really was.

"No," he said. Just one word. Nothing more, nothing less. She waited for him to continue, but for the first time since he'd started talking, he had nothing else to say. It was then that Natasha realized that Clint Barton was a lot smarter than she'd originally realized, and she finally understood how deep she was in. Her throat tightened, but she forced herself to relax beneath his calm blue gaze.

"I don't trust you," she said, breaking the silence.

"Good. I don't trust you," Clint countered. "We're spies. We're not exactly the trusting type. I know that you're scrutinizing every single thing I say and do so you can strategize how to work me." He smirked when he saw her eyes flutter in surprise. "I'm a lot smarter than I look, especially for a field agent. You're watching me, and I'm watching you. We don't trust each other, and I wouldn't expect anything less. For fuck's sake, I broke your arm and dragged you here in handcuffs. I don't expect you to trust me." He paused. "Yet."

"It'll take an eternity for that to happen," Natasha replied.

"You don't scare me," Clint said. "Black Widow. Hardcore name. Hardcore woman. But I'm not afraid of you."

"You should be." Natasha tilted her head to the side and surveyed the archer. He cracked another grin at her finally.

"You can keep threatening me with those smart Russian eyes of yours, but I still won't be scared. This is your second chance. You have a long time to take it, and I'm going to help you get to that point," he replied. She lifted her eyebrows but didn't smile back.

"You're so sure of yourself," she said, verbalizing the observation she'd made the moment she'd looked up from the floor of that hotel room and seen him standing in the doorway with a gun pointed at her.

"Now that I always am," Clint responded with a smirk.

"Arrogance is a fatal flaw," Natasha pointed out.

"So is apathy."

She blinked. He blinked back at her. They were at another stalemate, though this time it was completely different. She waited for him to speak, but he continued to gaze at her with such nonchalance that it began to annoy her. However, true as she'd always been, she didn't show her annoyance.

"Look." Clint leaned forward. "You're being hunted. The KGB is looking all over for you to kill you. They haven't figured out that you're with us yet, but once they do, you're going to have to make a choice."

"I have no choice," Natasha immediately replied without missing a beat, her voice nearly mechanical as she repeated the words she'd heard all her life. You don't have a choice, Natalia. You never have a choice. She slowly inhaled and exhaled as she pushed the memory of the words out of her mind.

"You do," Clint said quietly. "You might not know it yet, but you always have a choice."

"Do I?" Natasha asked drily. "Go back to the KGB and have them kill me, or stay here and become one of you. Doesn't seem like I have much of a choice at all."

"You'd be surprised," Clint answered in a mild tone. Silence passed between the two of them as they cautiously stared at each other. Clint nodded towards her. "Look at this. We're having a conversation. I'd call that progress. Or a change in tactics. Depends on perspective."

"And you're all about perspective," Natasha tonelessly replied.

"You're right. I am," Clint agreed cheerfully. "That's why I'm a damn good archer." He kicked his heels back up onto the table. "Director Fury wants to see you. Probably at the end of this week."

"Director Fury saw me yesterday," she said, her tone edged with suspicion.

"He told me," Clint replied. "He said you didn't try to attack him."

Natasha didn't say anything.

"Why didn't you try something?" Clint asked curiously. "I know you're the best at what you do. Even with a broken arm and your hands restrained, you'd easily be able to break out of here, but you haven't yet. Why?"

"I'm patient," Natasha calmly answered. Clint stared at her with interest, but he didn't say anything else about it. Instead, he kept his feet propped up on the table. His blue eyes drifted towards the training equipment, and a sense of longing came into them. He glanced back towards Natasha and saw her staring at him.

"It's been a while since I've had my hands on a bow and arrow, and I miss it," he explained. "I usually train every day."

"I'm thirsty," Natasha said in a monotone. Clint looked at her with an amused expression over his face.

"What do you want to drink?" he asked.

"Coffee," she replied.

"I would've thought you were a tea drinker," Clint said. He picked up the walkie-talkie and brought it to his mouth. "This is Agent Barton. I'm in Training Room 10, and I'm requesting two coffees. One black, the other…" He paused and looked up at Natasha. She stared at him, completely silent. "Make that two black coffees. I'd like some sugar and cream on the side, please."

He lowered the walkie-talkie and smirked at her.

"You drive a hard bargain," he said. "You strike me as the kind of girl who'd drink black coffee, but I don't know for sure. Hence the cream and sugar. I prefer black coffee. Nothing quite like it."

"What were you doing yesterday?" Natasha asked. The question was out of her mouth before she could stop it, much like the one she'd asked earlier. Clint raised his eyebrows at her.

"So you did miss me," he said. He caught her glower and smirked before continuing. "Director Fury had me take care of a few things for him. Remember Agent Palmer? The tech guy who looks like he's about to shit himself every time he's around you? Well, like I've said before, he really doesn't know how to handle people, so Fury thought it'd be better to have me take care of some things instead of asking Agent Palmer to do them. Been there, done that, and it did not end well." He noticed Natasha's face change from annoyed to distasteful. "Yeah, he just kind of says whatever's on his mind without really thinking about it. Doesn't really have much tact. But he's a genius with computers. Like, hardcore genius. He can dance circles around any other computer hacker in the world."

Natasha's arm itched underneath her cast, and she wanted to scratch it, but there was no possible way for her to do it. She pressed her lips together and thought about readjusting herself in her seat. She'd been sitting completely still for so long that her muscles were aching with the effort, but as was always the case with the Russian spy, her determination was much stronger than her desire to relieve her still muscles, so she held still.

Movement outside the door distracted her, and her green eyes flicked over in time to see the door open, revealing an annoyed female agent with brown hair swept up into a pristine, professional bun. She walked into the room, and Natasha saw that the agent was carrying a tray with two mugs of coffee, a small pitcher of cream, and a small jar of sugar on them.

"Barton, you can't order the kitchen around," the agent said in a straight deadpan. Clint grinned at her and turned to face her.

"How else are we supposed to eat?" he asked.

"You can ask for cafeteria food like any other agent," the woman replied. Her voice was clipped, annoyed, and professional. Her brown eyes darted over towards Natasha and calmly regarded her. Clint noticed her looking at the redhead, and he held his hand out towards Natasha.

"This is Natasha Romanoff, otherwise known as Black Widow. Natasha, this is Agent Maria Hill," he said by way of introduction.

"I'm not a kitchen servant," Agent Maria Hill said blithely. She set the tray down on the table in between Natasha and Clint. "Personally, I think it's torture that she has to sit here and listen to you go on and on about nothing. I'd much rather take death over that."

"Agent Hill, you're so funny," Clint said, his grin still wide and playful. Her brown eyes remained unchanging as she glanced back towards him and started towards the door.

"I'm not joking," she flatly replied. "Eat from the cafeteria like a normal agent, Barton."

"I can't leave her unsupervised!" he called out to her. "No one's willing to sit with her while I go get cafeteria food."

"Don't look at me," Agent Hill said with a firm shake of her head. "Do not look at me."

"It's either I stay here and send requests to the kitchen for food, or you come in here and supervise her while I go down to the cafeteria to get food," Clint said. Annoyance flashed over Agent Hill's face.

"The room has surveillance, Barton," she argued. "You can leave her."

"I don't think Director Fury would like it if I left her," he said. "He doesn't trust her, and honestly, I don't trust her to not do anything, even with the cameras on."

So he is smarter than I originally gave him credit for, Natasha thought to herself with amusement. Her eyes darted back to Agent Hill and studied the woman as Agent Hill continued to argue with Clint. Agent Hill carried herself rigidly with straight, perfect posture and a wide stance; it was clear that she had extensive combat training, but it was also clear to Natasha that the woman was smart. She had that look about her that told Natasha that Agent Hill could strategize and hack her way into anything just as well as Natasha could. Agent Hill was the kind of woman that Natasha would have respected had the circumstances been not what they were. And admittedly, Natasha was enjoying watching Agent Hill snap at Clint.

"I'm not going to do your job for you," Agent Hill droned. "You should've followed orders and just completed your mission. Then you wouldn't be in this situation."

"I don't regret it," Clint easily replied. "But either I keep ordering food from the kitchen, or you supervise her while I go to the cafeteria. It's simple, Hill."

"Is it?" Agent Hill asked. Before Clint could reply, she turned and left. Clint turned back in his chair to face Natasha.

"She's great, isn't she?" he asked. "She's usually not so pissy, but Fury's been in a hell of a mood this past week, and he's probably taking it out on her. She's one of the finest agents SHIELD's got."

Natasha watched as Clint took one mug of coffee and set it in front of him and then took the other and set it in front of her.

"I'll take your taser-cuffs off since you can't exactly drink coffee and stay in them," he said. He stood up and walked over to her. Eager to move, Natasha stood and turned her back towards him as he scanned his ID over the appropriate spot and waited for the taser-cuffs to recognize his command unlock her. The cuffs popped open, and he removed them. Natasha could feel Clint's blue eyes piercing into her, watching every little movement she made as he crossed back to his seat and sat down. Even though he believed that she deserved a second chance, she didn't doubt for a second that he would shoot her if she tried anything.

Her face wiped clean of emotion, she reached out and picked up the jar of sugar and the jar of cream, pouring just a tiny bit of each into the mug in front of her. When she replaced them, she saw that Clint was smiling. He smiled a lot, a fact that made her uneasy, but she never got used to how genuine it was. He didn't look as though he felt he had to smile; he looked as though he wanted to and wasn't making the gesture to manipulate her or trick her into anything. He was smiling simply because he was genuinely amused.

"What?" she asked flatly.

"I'm trying to decide if you really drink your coffee with cream and sugar, or if you're putting them in to prove me wrong," he said. Natasha didn't say anything, but it was then that she realized his precision of aim was far better than she ever could have expected. In more ways than one.

Natasha continued the rest of the week with Clint. Sometimes she spoke, sometimes she didn't, but for the most part, she listened. Clint continued to tell her stories, and he even started reading the SHIELD handbook to her since he was so convinced that she was going to be the best agent SHIELD had ever seen. Even though she kept her eyes trained on the wall, a look of boredom on her face, she listened to him read the rules, and she compared them with the protocol she was used to.

SHIELD was all about honor—that was for sure. They didn't seem to mess around with playing dirty, and from what the rulebook said, if the organization so much as suspected that an agent was playing dirty on the inside, the agent would be terminated. Natasha wondered if SHIELD's definition of terminated meant the same as the KGB's definition; she wanted to ask Clint what exactly that term meant to Director Fury and to him, but she didn't want him to know that she was listening, so she kept her question to herself.

SHIELD seemed to be so good that it almost made her sick. It didn't seem real to her that there were actually organizations—government organizations, at that—that believed in the things SHIELD did. And yet, she couldn't help the doubt that she felt in her mind. Surely there had to be something lying beneath the surface; surely SHIELD weren't as good and honorable as it was coming across. There was always a glitch in the system. Always. She didn't care how good something seemed. She knew all too well from past experience that there was always something hiding in the shadows.

But as the week continued, she saw nothing but, well, good. Clint never snapped at her, and he never got annoyed with her; he called her out on her shit the same way he'd done when she'd refused to talk at all, but he never once verbally attacked her or tried to get inside her head.

That was the thing about Clint Barton that Natasha couldn't understand—he didn't try to get inside her to manipulate her. He just talked to her as if that were supposed to do something. He talked to her and told her funny little anecdotes; he complained about Texas and how he'd never get past that mission; he simply talked. He didn't ask her about her past, and he didn't try to tell her how she felt about anything, not even SHIELD or himself. Clint Barton was unlike anyone Natasha had ever dealt with in her life, and she hated that.

Finally, Saturday rolled around, and Clint came for her. However, instead of taking her to the training room, he took her in the opposite direction.

"Today we get to have a meeting with Director Fury," he said cheerfully—he was almost always cheerful in the mornings. How was that even possible?—as he led her down the hall to a set of elevators. "He wants to know how you're settling in after two weeks of being here with us."

Natasha didn't say anything, but she shot him a sharp look from out of the corner of her eye. If he saw it, though, he didn't say or do anything about it. She calmly let him take her into the elevator and up a series of floors, all the while keeping a watch on him with her peripheral vision, just as he was doing with her. His hand was on her good arm, and he was applying just enough pressure to let her know that if she tried anything, he wasn't going to play nicely but not enough to actually hurt her.

"I think we're supposed to check in with the doctors and see how your arm's healing on Monday," he said out loud into the quiet of the elevator. She glanced to the left as if to look at her broken arm, but it was tucked behind her back in the taser-cuffs, and she couldn't get a good look at it. It wasn't quite as painful as it'd been during the first week, but it still bothered her from time to time. However, her biggest complaint was most definitely the itching and her inability to scratch her arm whenever it itched beneath her cast.

The elevator reached the floor it was supposed to, and it slid open. Clint led her out of the elevator and down another series of halls—SHIELD was fond of their halls, if nothing else—until he got to a door. Lifting his hand, he glanced over at her.

"Ready?" he asked. She didn't look at him, nor did she say anything. Nonplussed, Clint knocked on the door.

"Come in," Director Fury called out. Clint reached out and twisted the doorknob to open the door. Natasha looked over at him and saw him transform from the snarky, playful archer into a calm, professional agent in just a matter of seconds. He opened the door and walked through, carefully leading Natasha into the office.

Director Fury's office here in the building was much bigger than it'd been on the plane; it had huge glass windows that looked out over the city, and there was plenty of space inside. Natasha couldn't resist looking the windows and appreciating the view; she'd been to D.C. once on a mission several years back, but she hadn't noticed that much about the city since she'd had her mind on one thing and one thing only: the mission.

Director Fury was gazing out the windows as well. He heard the two come in, and he turned to look at them. He was dressed exactly the same as he'd been when Natasha had last seen him: all black with a black trenchcoat to complete the mix.

"Agent Barton," Director Fury greeted. He glanced at Natasha. "Romanoff. Black Widow. Whichever you prefer." He gestured towards the seats in front of his desk. "Take a seat."

Clint shot Natasha a look to take a seat, and she complied after he'd led her towards one of the chairs. He sat down in the one beside her and calmly looked up at Director Fury.

"How's training been going?" Director Fury asked.

"It's been going, sir," Clint replied. Director Fury's mouth twitched into what looked like the beginnings of a smile, but the smile was gone as quickly as it'd appeared.

"I can only imagine," he said. He redirected his gaze towards Natasha. "You seen the light yet? Come over to the good side?"

Natasha stared levelly at him to show that she wasn't intimidated.

"Didn't think so," Fury said, answering his own question. "You know, it took Agent Barton here a month before he showed any signs of wanting to join SHIELD. He was a lot more…violent in containment, though."

Natasha blinked in surprise. She couldn't imagine good-natured Clint Barton being violent in containment. She wanted to look over at him, but she couldn't risk showing any surprise or interest in what Fury was saying. Besides, looking over at Barton would mean that she'd formed an emotional attachment to him, and that was something that she couldn't do. She just couldn't.

"Agent Barton has convinced me that you deserve a second chance. Lucky for you and thanks to him, I've seen firsthand how second chances can completely change a life for the better. And you, Miss Widow, have the chance to be a part of something bigger. Something greater." Fury leaned forward on his desk and clasped his hands together as his eye bore into her.

"You gave him orders to kill me," Natasha said in a steady, quiet voice.

"You've been going around killing all kinds of innocent people." Fury's voice hardened. "People who deserved second chances the way Agent Barton believes you deserve yours. Those kinds of actions don't exactly go unnoticed here. Particularly when some of the innocent people you've been killing have been SHIELD agents who had nothing to do with your organization. And I get it. You were acting on orders. You've been trained since the Red Room to do just that, but I was not going to sit by and let you take down my agents one by one. Yes. I gave Agent Barton orders to kill you. But lucky for you, he seems to believe in you, and he's convinced me to believe in you, too."

Natasha didn't reply. She wasn't sure what Fury's endgame was, but she didn't like where he was going with this.

"I don't expect you to make any decisions lickety-split. You've only been here two weeks, and two weeks hasn't even made a dent in a lifetime of Russian orders and Russian hits. But you have six months." Fury narrowed his eye at her. "So you've started speaking. How long has this been happening?"

Clint cleared his throat. "Only a few days, sir."

"Switching tactics?" Fury lifted his eyebrows at the Russian spy. "Alright. You're dismissed."

"Sir?" Clint asked, confused. Fury glanced at him.

"Yes?" he asked.

"That was it?" Clint asked, his frown deepening.

"Yes, Agent, that was it," Fury replied. "I'll check in with you sometime soon. Don't fuck up."

Natasha blinked again, this time in amusement. Clint stood up, and Natasha followed his lead. Nodding at Fury, the archer took her arm and guided her out of the room and towards the elevators that they'd originally come from.

"Why were you in containment for a month?" Natasha asked when they were outside. Clint's blue eyes stayed in front of him as he came to a stop in front of the set of silver sliding doors.

"I told you I was a bit of a rogue," he answered vaguely.

"You didn't tell me you were violent," she said. He shot her a sharp look.

"A good spy never reveals his secrets," he replied. Clint Barton had a past that he didn't want to talk about, and that instantly intrigued Natasha. She could read people better than she could read her native language, and as Clint gave her short answers—something that wasn't characteristic of him, she'd learned—she read that he didn't want to discuss his past with her.

"Why did you switch to SHIELD?" Natasha asked. The elevator doors slid open, and he stepped on. He looked hard at her, the sunlight from outside shining in through the glass windows that surrounded them on the elevator and making his blond hair appear lighter than it really was.

"I got a second chance," he said. Natasha finally understood why he believed so much in second chances; from what she'd been able to pick up on, Fury or some other agent had given Clint a second chance, and he'd taken it, and he was now a valued agent of SHIELD. Fleetingly, the thought ran through Natasha's mind that if Clint could do it, she could, too. Fury had been vague about Clint's past, but he'd come out and said that the archer had been violent. This humorous, carefree, professional man who believed that she deserved the same second chance he'd been given had been a violent man.

She believed it; the way he'd fought her back in the hotel room had been confirmation enough that he was skilled, far more skilled than a lot of other assailants she'd fought in the past. He'd handled his body and his weapons with the ease that a killer did, and she knew exactly what that looked like. Clint Barton had once been violent, but he'd turned himself around.

It was dangerous to consider that if he could do it, maybe she could, but it passed through her mind.

You are weak, Natalia. Be strong. You have no choice. Never form attachments if you want to stay alive.

The words of her trainers pounded through her head, and she swallowed hard. Clint's eyes trailed over her face, searching for something in her that she wasn't sure she had. He'd been a lot like her, and he'd pulled himself together. Her pulse picked up as she became overwhelmed with the sudden choices that were laid out in front of her. All her life she'd been told what to do, and now she was being given choices left and right, and she had no fucking idea how to handle them.

As she stared at Clint Barton, as she looked into the unnatural blue of his clear, precise eyes, she realized something that unnerved her, completely and undoubtedly. She had been compromised.


Chapter Text

Chapter 6

Before Natasha knew it, a month had passed. Her arm was no longer in a cast, but she still wore the taser-cuffs. She no longer wanted to kill Clint Barton, but she still hated him. She no longer thought of herself as Natalia, but she now had dreams that left her gasping, terrified, and paranoid whenever she forced herself to wake up from them in the middle of the night.

The nightmares were brand new. She'd only been having them for maybe the past two weeks, but they were vivid and detailed, almost too detailed for them to be dreams. And that was the problem—these dreams weren't dreams. They were very real scenarios of what would happen to her if the KGB caught up with her. At first, the dreams had started out with simple little tortures that hadn't made her lose a wink of sleep. She'd dreamt about little things like water boarding and beatings. But as the nights had progressed, so had her dreams. She started seeing herself carved up, hacked to pieces, anything and everything. And that wasn't even touching on the psychological torture they implemented on her.

After going on two weeks of almost no sleep, she was exhausted. She sat in her chair in the training room, Clint across from her as usual, and she found that she was struggling to keep her eyes open. This was something new for her; she'd gone weeks without sleep before, but now, she was having a very difficult time staying awake.

"You look terrible," Clint said bluntly. Natasha turned the force of her glare onto him, and he held his hands up in surrender. "Hey, I'm just speaking the truth. How long has it been since you've slept?"

Natasha held her glare, refusing to answer.

"Oh, so now we're back to the silent treatment? Come on. I thought we got past that ages ago. You don't want to talk about it?"

"No," Natasha shortly answered.

"Ok, so we don't have to talk about it. There's such a thing as using your words to express how you feel. If you don't want to talk about the fact that you haven't slept in a while, just say so," he replied in his easy, carefree tone. Natasha carefully regarded him, intensely analyzing his words in her brain for any kind of chastisement in them but found that he was only simply stating something.

"Expressing how you feel gets you killed," she retorted sharply. Clint snorted.

"Look, I know I'm not quite as hardcore as you are, but that doesn't mean I don't know shit about my job," he said. As usual, he was calling her out on her shit. Out of everyone in this facility, he seemed to be the one person who wasn't afraid of her. Well, he and Director Fury didn't seem to be deterred by her reputation and her hard, green eyes. Agent Hill also seemed to be pretty blasé in regards to the Russian spy, something else that made Natasha secretly respect her even more than she already did.

"I don't want to talk about it," she tonelessly clarified. Clint nodded once.

"Heard you loud and clear," he said. "If you're having trouble sleeping, though, I would suggest the sound of running water. For whatever reason, whenever I have nightmares and can't sleep, that gets me to sleep right away."

Over the course of the month she'd spent in SHIELD's headquarters, she'd realized that she hated it whenever Clint shared those little personal bits of information about himself. She desperately didn't want to form an attachment to the blue-eyed archer, so whenever he did share something like that, she knew it was detrimental to keeping herself at a distance from him. He had compromised her, and she hated him even more because of it. She hated feeling the need to rely on someone, but undoubtedly, and much to her horror, she'd started waiting for Clint Barton to come get her in the morning and talk to her throughout the day. He'd gotten into her head without even trying, and she had no clue how to get him the fuck out.

Clint picked up his glass of water and took a few swallows from it, his entire demeanor casual and nonplussed. He'd just admitted to her that he had nightmares and sometimes couldn't sleep because of them, but he wasn't acting as though he'd just revealed something very personal about himself. He was drinking his water and staring at her with those clear eyes of his.

"It's raining outside," he announced. Natasha frowned at him. Why would he tell her that? "Do you like the rain?"

"I don't care about the weather," she replied.

"You know what, I'm bored." Clint suddenly stood up and started to move towards her. Natasha's frown deepened; this most definitely was not part of their routine. She didn't bother to hide her displeasure and her confusion, her mouth twisting into an unhappy expression. "We're taking a field trip."

"Field trip," Natasha repeated blankly.

"We're going on an adventure. It's been a while since we've had one, don't you think?" he asked.

"Well, considering the fact that I'm stuck in here…" Natasha allowed her voice to trail off as she glanced up at him. He took her arm—out of habit, he always held onto her right arm to lead her places, even though her left arm was fully healed—and started to guide her towards the door.

"I think you just made a joke," Clint said, his mouth curving into one of his infamous smiles that confused Natasha. Every time she saw him smile, she wondered how he was able to do it so truthfully and effortlessly. She kept her eyes from glancing down at his mouth, and she scowled up at him.

"I wasn't making a joke," she said. Clint opened the door to the training room and walked out into the hall, all the while guiding her. "Where are we going?"

"Down here," he replied. She walked down the hall towards what looked like a mini-lounge at the very end of the hall where the walls intersected with a glass wall that overlooked the city. Natasha had noticed that SHIELD was very fond of having windows all over the place, and she didn't think it was because they were interested in letting the people on the inside look out. She got the feeling that SHIELD wanted to see what the people were doing within.

Clint slowed as he approached the end of the hall. There were a few couches and coffee tables arranged to look like a comfortable place to relax and have a coffee before a meeting or in between training sessions to kill time; it was the kind of thing that the KGB had had in their public headquarters. Thinking back to the KGB and how they were hunting her, Natasha remembered her dreams, and she swallowed.

"Have a seat," Clint said. Shaken by the memory of the dream from the night before—psychological torture combined with knives that cut her and salt to press into her bleeding wounds—she looked over at him, her green eyes wide. Clint gestured towards the couch. "You can sit down anywhere you like."

"Why are we here?" Natasha asked, her tone suspicious.

"I was bored, and I like the rain," he replied. He swept his arm towards the window. "Here we can see the rain."

Natasha looked out the window and saw the wet, darkness that lurked outside. The sky looked like a stormy mess, something she would've hated being outside in. For the first time since she'd been captured, she felt the tiniest bit thankful that she didn't need to go outside these walls. Carefully, she crossed towards one of the couches and sat down on the edge of it. Clint countered her movements and sat down on the couch opposite of her, his eyes never leaving her.

"It looks awful outside," she said out loud.

"I know," Clint agreed. "That's why I like watching it."

"Director Fury won't like that you left the training room," she pointed out as she glanced over at him.

"I don't think he'll give a shit," Clint flippantly replied. "I'm making a personal connection with you, Natasha."

"You're wasting your time," she blandly answered and removed her gaze from him to give off a bored, detached attitude.

"You can tell me that all you want," he said. Silence passed between them. He lifted his hand and pointed towards the rain falling against the glass of the windows. "Besides, I figured that maybe listening to the rain might help you fall asleep better tonight."

Natasha fought the urge to give him a sharp, reprimanding look. Instead, she kept her eyes on the precipitation as it hit the clear glass. The city looked like it was drowning underneath all this rain. The horizon stretched out in the distance, and as far as she could see, she saw building after building after building. A never-ending line of buildings. It occurred to her then that Clint probably liked this view because he could see everything going on—she remembered how he'd told her that he saw better from a distance.

She could tell that he was itching to get his hands on a bow and arrow. He hadn't picked one up once during their training sessions in the actual training room, but from the antsy way he looked at the ones SHIELD provided in the large, spacious room, she could tell that he most likely hadn't had the chance to practice outside of their sessions.

"Birds'-eye view," she said out loud.

"Yeah, I can see everything from up here," Clint replied. "The view's better on the roof, though."

It didn't surprise Natasha that the rogue archer had gone up on the roof. She took another look at him and saw him as he stretched out fully on the couch. He propped his long legs up and leaned back, resting his blond head against the armrest, and he folded his arms over his chest. Whenever he crossed his arms like that, she could see the definition of his muscles, further evidence that he was, indeed, skilled with a bow and arrow.

"Isn't this relaxing?" he asked suddenly, his voice a quiet sigh in the silent hall.

"If you like this kind of thing," Natasha replied.

"If you let yourself, you might find that you'd enjoy it," Clint said as he tossed her a brief glance.

I haven't had the opportunity to enjoy much of anything, she wanted to say, but she didn't. If she allowed the words to slip from between her lips, she would be opening up to him; she would be giving into this personal connection Clint Barton wanted to form with her. Even just the fact that she'd wanted to share that little piece of information with him was a bad sign. She'd been held captive before and for much longer periods of time, but she'd never once wanted to give in to her captors. Clint Barton was different. Very different.

"That's what I'm afraid of," she murmured out loud, so softly that she wasn't even sure she'd actually said it. If Clint heard her, he gave no indication, instead choosing to lie still on the couch with his blue eyes trained on the rain outside.

"Why is this hall always empty?" she asked.

"Director Fury cleared it so that no one uses it while we're in training," Clint replied. Natasha gave him a sideways frown.

"Why?" she asked.

"He doesn't trust you," Clint said, as though the answer were obvious. Natasha's mouth twitched, and he grinned at her as noticed the brief movement but decided not to mention it.

"I can't imagine why," she drily answered.

"Is that a sense of humor I detect?" Clint asked, lifting his eyebrows. She gazed at him with blank eyes, and he softly chuckled. "Imagine that. The Black Widow has a sense of humor."

Natasha didn't grace his statement with a reply. She kept her green eyes on the rain and slowly inhaled and exhaled. As far as being in captivity went, sitting in a quiet hall with rain beating against the window wasn't the worst way to spend it.

"Ok. We're going to do something a little different today." Clint stood up from the table and walked over towards the training equipment in the room. Natasha's gaze drifted after him as she felt curiosity begin to stream through her blood. This was certainly new. They'd barely been in the room for an hour before Clint was off doing something else.

As her eyes moved to follow him, she could practically feel the bags under her eyes. Last night had been another night full of torture-filled nightmares at the hands of people she'd taken orders from, and as a result, she'd only gotten about an hour of sleep. Her body begged her for some kind of relief, and she desperately wanted to give it some respite, but she couldn't as long as the nightmares persisted.

Clint crossed towards the bow and arrow and picked it up. Immediately, Natasha noticed a change in his stance. His muscles relaxed, his shoulders lowering as he held the familiar objects in his hands. Lifting the bow so that it was close to his face, directly in front of his eyes, he studied the curve of it.

"You don't have to sit over there," he called back to her. "You can come over here, too."

"I can see better from a distance," Natasha smartly replied. Clint lowered the bow and smirked at her.

"You're a real riot, you know?" he drawled. She blinked. He turned towards the target and backed up until he was almost on the other side of the spacious room. The target was located so that to aim at it, he had to face Natasha. This was particularly useful for the Russian spy—she got to see him work, thereby familiarizing herself with his style. She watched as he set the arrow against the bowstring and lifted both towards the target. He pulled the arrow back, and he held still. Natasha used this opportunity to notice his form; she didn't have much experience with bows and arrows, but she could see that his form was perfect.

Clint was always calm, but as he stood there with his posture perfect, his arm drawn back, and his blue eyes focused on the target, he exuded a different kind of calm. Natasha sat still, almost afraid to breathe. She saw Clint's chest rising and falling as he slowly breathed. And then he'd let go.

The arrow went soaring towards its destination so quickly that she nearly missed it. The loud thwump it made as it lodged itself into the target board confirmed that he had, in fact, shot it. She was curious to know if he'd made his mark, but she refused to ask. However, she studied his face, searching for any kind of triumph or disappointment to cross over his features.

He didn't react for a few seconds, and then he smiled. Natasha waited for him to gloat or make some kind of comment, but he kept quiet. She watched him pick up the quiver of arrows off the floor and sling it over his shoulder before reaching back and pulling another arrow out. One by one, he shot arrow after arrow until the quiver was completely empty. Every now and then he would turn and shoot with his other arm, but even when he was shooting with the opposite arm, Natasha was surprised to see that his form was still flawless. Before long, the arrows were gone, and he lowered his bow.

Again, Natasha expected him to say something snarky, but he didn't. Silently, he crossed towards the target and individually pulled the arrows out before placing them back in the quiver. Her eyes continued to follow him, watching as he returned the bow and quiver of arrows to their respective spot and walked back towards her.

When he sat down, that different sense of calm she'd noticed as soon as he'd picked up the bow and arrows was still surrounding him. He lifted his blue eyes up to meet her green ones, and when he smiled, it was calm and serene.

"I haven't done that in days," he said. "Even though it's not my bow, it's still a bow, and that's all that matters."

Natasha didn't say anything. Her eyes traced curiously over as his face as she tried to understand the agent in front of her better. She knew that by allowing herself to be curious about him, she was only compromising herself even further, but she'd watched him shoot. She'd studied him and observed him, and in a way, she felt like she knew him much more intimately now that she'd seen this side of him. Having this knowledge of Clint Barton made her extremely uncomfortable, but it also made her curious.

"Do you miss training?" Clint asked suddenly. Natasha considered the question; she'd been keeping up with her own physical fitness regimen in her room, but it wasn't anything like actually training. As much as she resented parts of her past, she couldn't deny that her past had helped shape her love of martial arts. On some level, she got that same sense of calm that Clint got whenever he held his bow and arrows.

"Yes," she finally said. There was no use in denying it, she reasoned to herself. She was a spy, so admitting that she missed training wouldn't be letting him in too far.

"What do you like the best?" he asked. Curiosity passed over his face, and he leaned forward and rested his elbows against the edge of the table the way he always did whenever the conversation were particularly interesting to him.

"Sparring," Natasha answered.

"Boxing? Martial arts? What?" Clint asked. She blinked and didn't respond. The more specifics he knew, the more he could use it against her. Clint picked up on her refusal to answer, and he shrugged, seemingly unbothered by her lack of response.

"Where'd you learn to fight?" Natasha asked, changing the subject. Clint lifted his eyebrows slightly, taken aback by her question.

"The people I used to work for," he replied.

"Who were they?" Natasha asked.

"Where'd you learn English?" he countered with a smirk.

"Fair enough," she replied. The two spies eyed each other cautiously, as if they were waiting for the other to attack. Again, they seemed to be at another stalemate, but this time it was different because neither of them wanted to make the first move.

"Maybe when I trust you, we can spar," he said finally.

"It wouldn't be smart to trust me," Natasha answered in a bored tone. She glanced at the wall to signal that she was, most definitely, bored with this conversation, but Clint didn't back down.

"It'll happen," he said. "Just like you'll trust me."

"Your self-assuredness will be your downfall." Natasha returned her cool gaze back on Clint. His face was still serene and unbothered, his eyes a darker shade of blue than they usually were. She wondered how she hadn't noticed that before, but when she thought about it, she realized that when he was really and truly relaxed, his eyes grew just the slightest bit darker. He'd gotten that look on his face yesterday when they'd looked at the rain together, and he had it now after his mini-session with his weapons of choice.

"I have a thousand other personality qualities that will lead to my downfall. My self-assuredness will save me," he replied with a half-shrug. "If that were even the case, your downfall would've come about long before mine."

"What does that mean?" Natasha asked, her green eyes flashing.

Amusement entered Clint's eyes. "You're just as confident in your abilities as I am in mine. You know you're good."

"I've been trained to be the best," Natasha coolly corrected.

"And you are," Clint agreed with a single nod of his blond head.

"Why do you wear your hair like that?" Natasha asked suddenly.

"Like what?" Clint asked, confused. He lifted a hand to brush over his short, short hair, and he ran his fingers through it in confusion.

"Spiked up in the front," she answered. Clint gave her a bored look.

"Did Hill put you up to this?" he asked. "She's always giving me shit about my hair."

"Agent Palmer wears his the same way. Is that customary for American men?" Natasha continued asking.

"It's the style. Don't—don't Russians have styles that they keep up with? A lot of American men wear their hair like this," he said defensively. "Seriously, did Hill put you up to this?"

"She doesn't trust me any more than Director Fury does," Natasha blithely replied. Finally, Clint cracked a smile.

"True," he said.

"So hair's a sensitive topic," Natasha stated without giving any kind of indication that she was asking a question. Clint's grin widened, and he leaned back in his chair, getting into his customary position of propping his feet up on the table.

"It's a vanity," he replied. Natasha kept her face blank, but she wanted to smile in triumph. So she'd finally found a part of Clint Barton that was vulnerable. All this time he'd presented himself as a solid, unshakable force, but she'd found a vulnerability, as small as it was. It seemed silly to feel triumphant over something as small as Clint being somewhat vain about his hair, but any tiny view into what made him tick was victory enough for her.

She had very little victories these days that she would rejoice in whichever ones she could get.

Natasha couldn't breathe. She was physically trapped, handcuffs cutting into her wrists, and she could feel blood dripping down her hands and off the tips of her fingers. She couldn't see, and she couldn't breathe. Finally, the water stopped flowing her face, over the cloth, and the cloth was lifted, freeing her partway.

She gasped for air, her lungs burning from the lack of oxygen. Coughs wracked her entire body so hard that she was certain she was going to vomit right there on herself in front of these people who were staring down at her. In the background, she could hear low, guttural voices that spoke the gravelly syllables that made up her native language.

"Natalia, you are weak. What did I tell you? Attachments make people weak. The only thing that matters is the mission, and you failed. You have failed me, and you have failed all of us."

Panic filled her chest at the familiar voice of the man who'd been her boss, and she couldn't help the tiny whimper that escaped from her throat.

"Do it."

Suddenly, the cloth was thrown back over her face, and the water began to flow freely. Natalia's oxygen supply was cut off as she sputtered to keep from inhaling water, to keep from drowning on a board. As her lungs felt like they were going to explode, her eyes dry and itchy from the water, she wondered why she was focusing on the fact that her wrists were being sliced to ribbons by these handcuffs. Blood streamed from her wrists and left behind thick, sticky trails of red fluid. It was ridiculous the things she thought of in moments like these, she realized. As she thought about blood, she thought of how it was the color of her hair. That was a cruel trick of fate, she realized.

The cloth was yanked away from her, and she inhaled as deeply as she could. Water caught in the back of her throat, and she started coughing, desperately trying to turn her head so she could spit it out to the side.

"There's no way out, you know. We don't have a choice. This is what we have to do."

Natalia looked up with horror as a man loomed over her wielding a knife. He didn't need to tell her what he was going to do for her to know. Just by looking in his eyes, she knew that he was going to carve every piece of her away, and she knew he was going to enjoy it. He lowered the knife to her neck and began to press in. Unable to hold back her screams, she opened her mouth.

"Natasha. Natasha, wake up. Wake up, Natasha."

Natasha jolted awake, sharply inhaling as she drew herself up and into a defensive position. It hit her that she wasn't in Russia. She wasn't being tortured. She was here in America in SHIELD Headquarters, and Clint Barton was in front of her with a gun pointed at her. She glared at him with huge, panicked eyes. Even in the dull light of the dark cell, he could see the panic and the hysteria shining on the surface of her soulful green eyes.

"You were crying out in your sleep. The guards alerted me," Clint said slowly and steadily. Natasha's chest heaved, and she stared at him almost unseeingly. Clint kept his gun pointed at her. "You're safe."

Slowly, he lowered the gun and showed her that he was going to tuck it into the holster on his hip. Her eyes followed his every move, each muscle tense and tight in her body. She couldn't breathe deep enough, she couldn't exhale fast enough—each breath of air was simply not enough. The nightmare was still pounding through her skull, her blood, even her very bones. She could feel the vibrations of her former boss's words against her skin.

"Is this why you haven't been sleeping?" he asked.

"I don't want to talk about it," she spat angrily. She wasn't really angry at him. Was she? She couldn't identify to whom her anger was directed; all she knew was that she felt rage and hatred swelling inside her solar plexus with a strength she hadn't felt since Clint had first brought her in to SHIELD.

"You've been here a month and a half now, and you've barely been sleeping for a month." Clint switched into Russian without batting an eyelash. Natasha's body jerked, but she didn't take her eyes off of him.

"I don't want to talk about it," she repeated.

"That's your choice," Clint calmly replied. Something inside Natasha snapped, and she lunged towards him. Easily, he blocked her blow and countered, landing a blow to the side of her face. Natasha ducked and elbowed his kneecap. In seconds, Clint was on the ground, but he was barely down for long. He flipped his body back into a standing position and caught her arm as she tried to elbow him hard in the chest.

"Listen to me!" he shouted. "It's your choice to do this! It is your choice."

"I don't have a choice!" she shouted back, repeating the words she'd heard so many times in her past.

"Yes, you do!" Clint twisted her arm, and she let out a sharp grunt of pain before using the momentum and flipping her way out of it. "Natasha, you don't work for the KGB anymore. You have all the fucking choices in the world!"

Natasha grabbed the fist he'd directed towards her former broken arm, and she used it as leverage to flip herself upside down and wrap her thighs around his neck. With one easy twist and a flip, she'd thrown him onto the ground, and she was above him. She had the right opportunity to smash Clint's head into the ground and thereby render him unconscious, but he opened his eyes, stunned by his hard throw to the floor. He opened his eyes, and even though her cell was dark, she could see his blue eyes.

She froze. She could knock him out, or she could let him go. He was still stunned; all it would take was one hard knock into the floor, and he'd be out. Or she could step back. His eyes were so blue. She didn't know why she was so fascinated by his eyes. Suddenly, she leapt off of him and backed away until she was pressed against the wall.

"Fuck," Clint hissed out in English. Panting, he clumsily scrambled his way into a seated position, prepared to defend himself, but he saw her backed into the wall, and he paused.

"They're not hunting you," she said quietly, her voice low and husky. "You don't know what they do to people who desert. What they'll do to me."

"They won't get you," Clint said, his voice laced with pain. Wincing, he pushed himself up until he was standing. "Fuck. Natasha, you're safe here. They don't know we've got you, and this place is so locked down, there's not a chance in the world that they'll get to you in here."

"That's why you keep me locked up then?" she spat. "Where I can't defend myself?"

"You defended yourself pretty well against me just now," Clint returned with a genuine look on his face. Natasha studied him, trying to see if he were fucking around with her, but she saw nothing but sincerity in his blue eyes. Those goddamn eyes.

He was staring at her, straight into her soul, and she was sure that he could see everything she'd been trying so hard to keep concealed from him. Cautiously, she moved so that she could both him and the door in case any guards tried to come in. She realized that no one had come to offer him back up, and she darted her eyes back to him. He was still breathing hard, and he lifted a hand to his side to feel his ribs.

"Shoot me," she said, breaking the silence. Clint frowned.

"What? No," he said.

"Shoot me," she insisted more firmly.

"Sit the fuck down," Clint snapped, finally showing that he was losing patience with her. She rushed towards him, her hands going for his gun, but he quickly grabbed her wrists and held her firmly in place. "No. I'm not going to fucking shoot you. Are you out of your goddamn mind?"

"If you won't do it, I'll do it," she retorted.

"Look. We're trying to take down your boss, ok? That's where I was that day I didn't show up for training. Remember? That was your first day here at HQ? I was meeting with Fury to discuss specifics on how to take this son of a bitch down." Clint was speaking so quickly Natasha was having a hard time processing what he was saying as he spoke. She stared at him with huge eyes as she finally understood.

"You're going after him," she breathed quietly. Clint nodded once.

"Yes. We are. We're going after that whole branch that had you under their control," he said.

"Why?" she demanded.

"Because they're bad fucking people," Clint retorted. His grip on her wrists was tight, but it wasn't hurting her. Not yet. Any tighter, and he would've been inflicting pain on her, but the pressure was just enough to keep her in check without causing any severe damage. "A lot of good men have died because of them."

"You don't know the half of it," Natasha quietly answered. Suddenly, the fight drained out of her, and she felt remarkably exhausted. Her arms went limp in Clint's grasp, and she felt her entire face collapse. Her red hair was hanging in her face, and she wanted to brush it back, but Clint was still holding onto her wrists. He'd never touched her anywhere other than the back of her right arm, she realized. Even then, that part of her arm was covered by her sleeve. He'd never touched her bare skin—unless he'd been punching her—until then.

"You're going to be all right," Clint said. Silent, she stared up at him. "If I let go of your wrists, are you going to try to take my gun or punch me?"

"No," she replied. Clint stared at her for an extra few seconds as he tried to make up his mind if he believed her, but then he slowly released her wrists. Natasha lowered her arms to her sides, and she backed away from him. It was just the two of them, and they were, yet again, at another stalemate.

"Get some sleep," he said in a level voice. "I'm still coming for you at 7:00 tomorrow morning. Well, technically, I'll be coming for you this morning. Since 7:00 A.M. is only in a few hours."

And with that, he slowly turned over his shoulder and walked out of the door, opening and shutting it behind him. Natasha stood in the dark silence of her cell for a few seconds just breathing. Briefly, it crossed her mind that this had all been a dream, another horrible dream. However, if Clint had shown up in her dream, it couldn't be described as a horrible dream, she thought.

Swallowing hard, she returned to her bed, unable to find the energy to chastise herself for thinking such a ridiculously weak thing. She'd been fighting so hard to keep from forming an attachment to him, but tonight had shown that she'd certainly formed an attachment. Had she been Natalia Romanova, she would've crashed his head against the floor and knocked him out before taking his gun and shooting him in the head. But she hadn't even knocked him out. She'd seen his blue eyes, dazed and clear all at the same time, if that were even possible, and she'd been unable to carry through her original intentions of harming him.

She was climbing back onto her small bed when she caught sight of the sink. She paused. Carefully, she slid off of her bed again and walked towards the sink. She placed her hand on one of the knobs, and with a gentle push, she turned it on. For a few seconds, she stood still and simply stared at the small silvery stream as it ran out of the faucet. Finally, she turned back towards her bed and once again climbed into it. As she put her head on her small, square pillow, she closed her eyes, listening to the sound of running water.


Chapter Text

Chapter 7

"I want in."

The words were out of Natasha's mouth before the door was fully open. Clint stepped fully into the room, his eyebrows lifted in surprise as he looked at her. Natasha blinked. There was a purple bruise on the side of his face that, strangely enough, only seemed to bring out the blue color of his eyes. She kept her expression determined, refusing to falter at the bruise she'd given him only hours ago.

"Good morning to you, too," he replied. He crossed towards her, and she glanced down at his hands, only to see that he wasn't carrying the taser-cuffs. Frowning, her eyes flicked back up to his face, scanning over his features to read any kind of clue as to what was going on. In seconds, he was standing in front of her. He was so close that she could see the raised bump his bruise left behind. Suspicious, she felt her muscles tense up, and she stared hard at him as he carefully took her arm in his hand the way he always did and lowered his head until it was by her ear. "We'll talk about this in the training room."

She jerked her head back to look at him again, and his blue eyes darted towards the door in a quick, silent communication. She looked over his shoulder and saw the guards positioned right outside her cell. They didn't appear to be listening, but she knew that that didn't mean shit in the spy world. Her gaze returned to meet Clint's, and she gave a tiny, subtle nod.

Clint nodded back at her and led her out of the cell and down the hall. Natasha was dying to ask him what was going on. Why hadn't he brought the taser-cuffs? Why didn't he want the guards to hear them? She knew that the training room had surveillance—hell, the entire building had surveillance. They wouldn't be able to get much privacy at all if that was what Clint wanted.

He led her to the training room and made his customary scan-in of his ID card so the door would let them in. As soon as the door's lock clicked, and he pushed it open, she was pulling away from him and speaking.

"I want in," she repeated.

"On the mission?" Clint asked. Natasha nodded.

"To kill Voloshin," she said, speaking his name out loud for the first time in a very long time. Conflict passed over Clint's face, and he folded his arms across his chest.

"You're not a SHIELD agent," he said.

"That's what you're training me to be, isn't it?" she countered.

"You don't have clearance to work a mission. Fury still doesn't trust you," Clint protested. Natasha folded her arms over her chest, mirroring Clint's pose, and she narrowed her green eyes at him.

"I'm the best person who can lead you to him," she said. "You know it. I know all the inner workings, the secrets, everything. You said I'd be of use to SHIELD. So here's my being of use."

"Why the sudden turn around?" Clint asked sharply. "You've almost been here two months, and you've fought me every inch of the way. Why now? Why are you hopping on board with everything now?"

"I'll sleep a little better at night knowing Voloshin's dead," Natasha said quietly. Her gaze faltered slightly, but she didn't look away.

"You're here because—"

"You keep telling me I deserve a second chance. Let me take it." Natasha stared at Clint, and he stared back at her. They were completely silent as they regarded the other, unsure of where they stood or what was happening.

"It's not that simple," Clint said finally. "I'm not even in charge of this mission. Fury is."

"So let me talk to him," she countered. "When's our next check in with him?"

"Two days," Clint replied, his gaze steady as he held Natasha's eyes with his.

"I'll talk to him then. I have to be a part of this," she said. "I need to see Voloshin die."

Clint's lips pressed together, and she could see his thoughts churning in his head. As Natasha looked up at him, she saw—she could feel—that something between them had changed. After last night, they'd changed how they reacted to each other, how they communicated, how they even stood in front of each other. Her fears of forming an attachment were slowly coming true, and it was then that it hit her that there wasn't anything she could do about it.

Clint Barton had managed to affect her in a way she'd never been effected before, and it didn't seem to be as though it were going to stop any time soon. In a strange way, he represented everything she could become in the future. She didn't know his past, but it wasn't a secret any longer that he had had a dark start, much she like had. How could someone with such violence on his record turn into the kind of man who smiled authentically and believed in second chances for people like her? Again, the thought crossed her mind that if he could do it, she could, too.

"Fury will be harder to convince than I am," he said. He pointed to the bruise on his face. "Even after last night."

Even though his face was serious, his eyes glinted with his usual mischievousness. Natasha didn't allow her eyes to drift towards the bruise, instead keeping her eyes locked onto his. So they were going to talk about last night; inside, she was screaming to never speak about it, to act as if it'd never happened, but she got the feeling that Clint wasn't the kind of person to just let it go like that. Especially considering the fact that she'd nearly killed him.

"How much more can SHIELD punish me?" she asked. "I'm already being held in prison cell."

"They could make you wear the stripes," Clint replied without missing a beat. She narrowed her eyes slightly.

"I see your point," she said. Suddenly, she caught onto what he'd said about "even after last night," and her frown deepened. He should have said especially after last night, since her attack would most likely make Fury less trusting of her, but from the way he'd worded his sentence, Clint had implied that he'd already spoken with Fury, and Fury hadn't been pissed. "Wait, what did you mean about Fury?"

"As soon as he saw the video of what happened in your cell, he called me in bright and early, and we had a long talk," Clint replied. She waited for him to continue, but he didn't.

"And?" she asked.

"Who do you think killed the orders on your taser-cuffs?" Clint asked back. Natasha blinked, not even bothering to hide the stunned expression that came over her face. She hadn't known why Clint hadn't brought them with him today, and she'd been meaning to ask at some point, but he'd already answered her without her even needing to ask.

Clint saw the look on her face, and he gave her the tiniest hint of a smile. "He saw where you had the opportunity to kill me but didn't take it."

Natasha took a step back from him, her arms still tightly folded across her center. She swallowed as she tried to keep her emotions down. She thought back to the words she'd said to him only a month ago: sharing how you felt got you killed. That moment last night, that moment of pure clarity when she'd caught sight of Clint's piercing blue eyes had been what had officially unraveled her.

"Do you trust me?" she asked quietly. Clint was silent, and he lowered his crossed arms, dropping them to his sides.

"I don't not trust you," he answered. "You could've killed me in three seconds flat last night. Less than that. But you didn't."

"How do you know I'm not trying to get you to trust me so I can get back to Russia and betray you all?" Natasha asked.

"I don't," Clint said without a second's pause. "I never said I trusted you, either. I told you I believed in giving second chances, and that's the truth."

"How are you so trusting?" Natasha asked with a small frown forming over her mouth.

Clint scoffed and shook his head. "I'm not trusting. I just think there's an inherent good in people like us."

"People like us," Natasha repeated. Clint nodded.

"Yeah. People who haven't had a choice before. The life we had? That was all we were ever exposed to. We didn't know any better, on some level," he answered. Natasha lifted her red eyebrows and half-rolled her eyes.

"If you believe that," she said.

"And you don't?" Clint countered. "I read all about your past missions, Natasha. I know the kind of things you've done. You think you would've done all of that had you known any better?"

"So maybe we didn't," Natasha replied sharply, entertaining Clint's idea. "That still doesn't say anything about us as people."

"And that's why I'm the optimist between the two of us," Clint responded with a smirk. "And that's really saying something."

"I don't understand that," Natasha murmured out loud, more to herself than to Clint, as she shook her head.

"You don't have to." Clint held his arm out to the table and chairs they always sat at. "Would you like to take a seat?"

Natasha paused for a few seconds, considering the fact that she had free range. She didn't have the taser-cuffs on, and as a result, she could walk all over the room if she wanted to. Truth be told, she was still dying to get on the mats and spar—her muscles ached with a burning desire to get back training again, but she figured that Clint would nix that right away, so she simply crossed towards the table and sat down in her usual chair.

"Technically, I wasn't supposed to tell you about the mission," Clint admitted, sliding down into his chair. Natasha looked at him with newfound interest, and she found a trace of guilt making its way into his features.

"Why?" she asked.

"It's too close. Too personal," he explained. She agreed with that; it'd been smart for Fury—at least, she assumed it was Fury who'd made the call to not tell her about the mission to kill Volsoshin—to want to keep that a secret. Knowing about the mission would either send her into a rage or spur her to join in, and she'd chosen the latter. However, she wondered if she would've chosen the latter had there been another option for her. With Voloshin, there was no other option than death. No matter what she'd done, no matter how she would have tried to explain what had happened in regards to her disappearance, he still would have killed her slowly and painfully.

"You know I'm your best way to get in there," she said. "I know everything about him, how the whole operation works…literally everything."

"Remember, I'm not the one you have to convince," Clint said. "It's Fury. He's a lot harder to move than I am."

"I told you you're too trusting," Natasha said with a tiny hint of a smirk around the edges of her mouth.

"I'm not trusting," Clint protested as he let out a good-natured snort. "I know you'd be a good asset to have to get us inside, but once we're inside…that's the part that's tricky."

"Believe me when I tell you that as long as I'm alive, and Voloshin and his people are alive, if they get their hands on me, it wouldn't matter that I handed all of SHIELD over to them. They would make sure I paid for leaving them. And they'd make sure I paid them in blood." Natasha's voice was deathly serious, showing that she wasn't fucking around with him.

"Is that what you were dreaming about last night?" Clint asked. Instantly, her face shut down, and her body went rigid, letting Clint know that he'd crossed a line. He held his hands up in helpless surrender. "Too far."

"Do you have nightmares about what your former employers would do to you if they ever caught you again?" she snapped. Clint shook his head, steady and unwavering as he always was.

"Mine are memories from my past. The things I did," he said. Instead of feeling better, though, Natasha felt worse. She felt a hell of a lot worse. She averted her eyes to the wall and firmly crossed her arms over her chest again, protecting herself from his burning hot stare.

"Did you try running water?" Clint asked. Natasha's eyes flicked back to him, her glare as fierce as ever, and she didn't reply. Clint nodded as he took in her body language. "Alright. Looks like we're back to square one."

That night Natasha turned the faucet on as soon as she was ready to go to sleep. Her nightmares had persisted after the incident with Clint the night before, but they hadn't been as horrible. She'd been able to stay asleep and feel relatively rested throughout the day. Though everything was relative, she reasoned to herself.

She lay down on the bed and pulled the blankets up around herself and tucked them underneath her chin as she curled into a protective ball. At least she didn't have any guards watching her while she'd slept—that'd happened once before when she'd been taken captive in Germany, and she'd been completely unable to sleep. There was something so vulnerable about sleeping in front of someone else, and she refused to do it. She knew that SHIELD had all kinds of cameras on her in the cell, but that was still different than someone else being in the actual cell with her.

As Natasha put her head on her pillow, she closed her eyes. The sound of the water quietly clattering into the metal sink was almost annoying, but the longer she lay still, the less annoying it became. If she slowed her breathing enough, she could imagine that she was back on the couch in the lounge at the end of the training hall, listening to the falling rain against the window.

She wondered where Clint was. It seemed to her as though he lived in the building, or at least he was living there while he was completing his punishment of training her. She wondered how far he was in relation to her cell. Not that she wanted to know for a specific reason; she was simply curious. As her breathing evened out, and her pulse steadied, she wondered if he were having nightmares tonight, too.

"Are you fucking crazy?" Director Fury demanded with an outrageous snort. He stared at Natasha with his dark brown eye wide open in shock at her request. She gazed calmly back at him.

"No," she replied.

"That was a rhetorical question, but no. The answer's no. You're not going," Fury said sharply.

"I know that place and those people like the back of my hand," Natasha argued. "I can lead you straight to Voloshin. He wouldn't see it coming. It'd be a surprise attack, especially since I know everything about that place."

"The risks are too high, Romanoff," Fury replied with a scowl. He glanced over at Clint. "Surely you're not supporting this, Agent Barton."

"She does have a point, sir." Clint cleared his throat and shot a cautious glance over in Natasha's direction. "I don't think her leading us into a trap will be of any concern."

"Oh, do you?" Fury snorted. "This is one of the most important missions we're taking on, and you want to bring the Black Widow."

"It'd be ridiculous not to utilize her information, sir," Clint replied. "She knows how to get into the facility."

"I do," Natasha confirmed, as if there were any question about it. Director Fury shook his head again.

"No," he said.

"It'll take a long time to plan out this mission, right?" Natasha asked, her green eyes relentlessly staring at the director.

"Of course," Fury answered in a bored tone. "We can't go in there half-assed."

"It'll take…how long? Several months at the least?" Natasha asked.

"At the least," Fury answered suspiciously, his eye regarding her without an ounce of trust.

"You'll know me better by that point. You'll know that you can trust me," she said. Fury let out a short laugh, and he rolled his eye.

"Weren't you just saying last month how it'd be stupid to trust you?" he asked.

"That was then, this is now," Natasha insisted. "You have a reason to trust me."

"Do we have a reason to trust you?" Fury countered. Natasha paused. Did they? Did they have a reason to trust her? She hadn't killed Clint the other night when she'd attacked him, but she had a feeling that that one single instance wasn't going to cut it.

"Let me prove to you that you can," she said.

"Agent Barton, do I look stupid?" Fury asked suddenly. Clint blinked.

"Sir?" he asked in confusion. Fury turned his gaze to the blond archer and calmly looked at him.

"Do I look stupid?" he repeated.

"No, sir," Clint assuredly answered. Director Fury nodded and looked back at Natasha, who had folded her arms across her chest and adopted a bored look at Fury's little game.

"Miss Widow, how on Earth do you think you can earn enough trust to go on this mission in such short notice?" he asked. "Our Level One agents fresh out of the Academy don't even go on missions for a good six months. And that's with pure, 100% SHIELD agency training. You have, what, four and a half months to turn it around?"

"Let me go on missions," Natasha said quickly. "Small ones. Ones you'd send Level One agents on. I can prove it to you."

"Why does this one mission mean so much to you?" Fury curiously asked. "You've been very adamant that you didn't want to be a part of this organization—you didn't want anything to do with us. Why do you want in now?"

"I want Voloshin dead," Natasha replied in an even, flat tone. "I don't feel any loyalties towards SHIELD. I just want him dead."

"And what are we supposed to do with you after Voloshin's killed? Assuming the mission is successful," Fury asked. Natasha shrugged.

"I don't know," she answered honestly. Fury narrowed his eye unhappily at her, and he sighed. Running a hand over his face, he closed his eye and shook his head.

"I'm getting too damn old for this," he grumbled. "Do you know how much shit I'm going to get from the World Security Council for this? You're an international threat, Natasha Romanoff."

Natasha noticed his wording, and she felt her heart leap. "So you'll let me do it?"

"I can't believe I'm doing this," Fury said, and he opened his eye to glare at her. "Agent Barton, you'll be partnered with Romanoff on these missions. This will be included as part of your initial punishment. You are not to let her out of your sight. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir. Of course," Clint quickly answered.

"Don't make me regret this." Fury scowled at the both of them. "When I decide to send you out on your first mission, we'll meet and discuss how exactly this is going to work. Barton, make sure she knows the rules."

"Yes, sir," Clint said with a steady nod. He was usually very professional in his interactions with Director Fury, always keeping a cool, distant approach to everything he did and said. However, he was unable to hide the tiny smile that crossed over his lips—it wasn't one of his typically bright, charming smiles, but it was a smile nonetheless. He nodded gratefully towards the director, who huffed out another sigh.

"You will only be assigned Level One missions. Very simple stuff. Things that you should be able to do with your hands tied behind your back," Fury said as he returned his gaze to Natasha. Natasha blinked at him, showing that she wasn't backing down. Really, she knew that Fury knew she was far better than Level One, that she deserved better than Level One missions, but she wasn't going to speak up and argue it with him. She was going to take what she could in order to get to her ultimate goal: Voloshin.

"Get out of my sight because I'm already regretting this," Fury said.

"Yes, sir," Clint answered. He stood up and glanced over at Natasha. She took her cue from him and walked in front of him out the door of Fury's office. Clint no longer used the taser-cuffs, as per Fury's orders, but he still made her walk in front of him so he could see her actions.

"I can't believe you did it," he remarked, his tone impressed.

"Convinced him?" Natasha smoothly asked, shooting a glance over towards him with her deep green eyes. Clint nodded, and she offered up a half-smirk that was gone as quickly as it'd shown up. "I'm very good at convincing people to do what I want."

"So it looks like we've got to get you up to par now," Clint said. She stared at him, blinking once. "If you're going on missions, we've got to get you back in physical training now."

Natasha could've danced with excitement; however, that wasn't her style, so she simply nodded instead to express her happiness. "Yes, that'd probably come in handy."

"You look like you're sleeping better," Clint said, suddenly changing the subject. Natasha's good mood slid away the tiniest bit, and she pressed her lips firmly together to signal that she didn't want to talk about it. Sure enough, she hadn't had any horrific nightmares the night before. They'd still been there, but she hadn't woken up drenched in sweat and shaking the way she had for so long. The dark circles under her eyes were beginning to disappear, much to her relief, and she no longer looked like a zombie.

"What do you want to start on first?" Clint asked as he realized that Natasha wasn't going to talk about her nightmares or her sleeping patterns.

"Judo," she answered. She studied his reaction to see if he knew what she was talking about. Nonplussed, he easily nodded.

"Ok," he said. "We can start working on that."

"You're going to spar with me?" she asked.

"Yep. Don't think I could find anyone else to do it," Clint answered with a cheeky smirk. True, Natasha thought to herself, but she didn't say anything to show that she agreed with him. "Actually, Agent Hill would probably enjoy the challenge, but let's get you back in shape first."

"Oh, so I'm out of shape now?" Natasha asked, her voice tinged with displeasure.

"What, you can't take a challenge?" Clint asked, his blue eyes flashing playfully. Natasha realized that she was flirting with something very dangerous, something that was not Clint Barton himself. What she was flirting with was friendship, partnership, a relationship with someone who was not herself. She'd trusted very few people in her past for good reason, and even though she didn't trust Clint Barton, she wondered if she could possibly trust him in the future.

And yet, she told herself, that would be the worst possible thing to do. She only needed to focus on getting herself back in fighting shape. She couldn't risk trusting Clint. This fucked up attachment that she had was already dangerous enough—trust would just make it a thousand times worse.

As she walked down the hall with Clint towards the training room, she wondered what would happen to her after the mission with Voloshin was complete? Assuming that they got in there and killed him and all of his men, she would be officially free. She would no longer have any ties to keep her in line, to keep her under their control. Could she see herself working at SHIELD?

She sneaked a peek over towards Clint to take a look at him in his SHIELD uniform. Every day he showed up in his professional black SHIELD uniform. The uniform was form-fitting without being embarrassing, but it wasn't loose. It showed off his muscles and his form both up around his torso and down around his legs. On each sleeve, there was the SHIELD emblem that Natasha had gotten so used to seeing. She tried to picture herself in one of those uniforms and found that she was on the verge of smirking. Clint caught her blazing green eyes on him, and he looked over at her.

"What?" he asked.

"Will I get one of those uniforms when we start going on missions?" she asked. She didn't feel the need to include that she appreciated how good his uniform looked on him. That was probably just as dangerous as trusting him, considering how the blond archer seemed to have a bit of an ego. Clint looked down at his black uniform and considered her question.

"Probably," he said. "Yours will probably be a bit different, though. This one's designed for an archer. You'd probably get one designed for a guns-specialist."

"Guns-specialist," Natasha repeated. "Sounds official. Do I get a fancy badge, too?"

"No," Clint answered, grinning. "I'm still in charge of all of that."

"Why doesn't that surprise me?' Natasha drily asked. They slowed as they approached the door to the training room. Clint held up his ID and scanned it across the appropriate spot outside the door. The lock clicked open, and he pushed it open. Natasha crossed inside, her body practically itching to get over on the mats. She was perfectly fine to spar in the clothes she had on—the shapeless black clothes SHIELD had given her were good for something, at least, she thought to herself as she took a quick glimpse over herself.

Clint shut the door behind him and started towards the mats, grinning as he saw Natasha practically bound over towards them. "Before we start, one rule: no playing dirty."

Natasha raised one eyebrow in boredom. "Seriously?"

"Yeah, seriously," Clint said with a wide-eyed nod. "No kneeing me in the balls or any of that shit."

"Does that rule out hair pulling?" Natasha asked back. Clint paused, and he tilted his head as he thought the question over.

"No," he said. "That's fair game."

"Biting?" Natasha asked. Clint let out a loud chuckle.

"What the hell kind of sparring do you do?" he asked with genuine amusement. "You bite when you spar?"

"I do what I need to," Natasha replied. "So yes or no. Is biting considered dirty?"

She waited for him to make some kind of sexual comment, and she prepared herself for the typical male behavior that she'd come to expect from the men around her. Men were always saying shit like that to her. Always had, always would.

"Yes," Clint said emphatically. "When we spar, we do not bite. Anymore clarifications?"

"No," Natasha replied as she shook her head.

"You ready?" Clint asked.

"Very," Natasha said. "Need to stretch?"

"Nope. Do you?"


Natasha felt her breathing even out as she stared at him, reading his body language and his movements. His muscles weren't tense, but he was clearly anticipating her to make the first attack. He looked completely at ease as he waited for her. Well, since it looks like you're not going to take the initiative…ladies first, she thought with an inward smirk.

She launched herself through the air towards him, flipping as she arched into a back bend, her legs spiraled out to kick him. He ducked beneath her so that he was under her torso, and he stuck his arm out to grab her as she landed. At the last second, she brought her forearm up sharply into his elbow. Clint took hold of her arms and flipped her over onto her back in hopes of getting her trapped, but she was too quick. She took her elbow and kneed his thigh, temporarily stunning him, and then she'd pinned him down. Clint was on his stomach with his arm twisted back behind him.

Since he couldn't see her, Natasha smirked and ducked her head down to taunt him. Suddenly, he jerked his head back, and it collided with her forehead. Pain exploded across her skull, and her grip slackened. In seconds, Clint had her pinned down in the same exact position she'd had him.

Panting, she looked up at him, awkwardly twisting on the floor. "You win."

"Giving up?" Clint asked as he eased up on her. Natasha shook her head, and she rolled over onto her back. She could feel her body starting to sweat. Now that she didn't have adrenaline driving her the way she had the other night, she was realizing just how off she was after not having really trained for a month and a half now.

"Realizing I'm a lot more behind than I thought," she admitted. Clint went to speak, but she cut him off. "Good thing it doesn't take me long to get whipped back into shape."

She didn't need to specify that that was something her trainers had beat into her when she was younger—besides, she figured Clint could already tell. When people had had similar backgrounds, they could just kind of pick up on things like that. She steadied her breathing as Clint eased himself into a seated position leaning back on the heels of his palms. She quickly glanced at him, noticing the light sheen of sweat covering his forehead. She disliked this background connection she had with him. They both had come from something unhappy, something they would rather look away from, and whether she liked it or not, it connected them.

"Ready for round two?" Clint asked. Natasha bit back her smirk, and she tilted her head, her green eyes flashing.

"You bet I am."

When Natasha fell into bed after turning on the faucet to help lull her to sleep, she realized how sore she was. But it was a good sore. Her body felt amazing since getting back into action, and she was so ready for tomorrow. On top of the soreness, though, she was tired. She wasn't the kind of tired that she'd been from lack of sleep because she'd been operating on auto-pilot then—this was the kind of tired that made her feel as though she'd put in a good day's work.

Clint was a damn good fighter. He moved with ease, and she could tell that he was highly skilled in combat. She wanted to ask him where specifically he'd learned how to fight, but she remembered his reaction from when she'd asked him before, and so she'd just have to keep her curiosity to herself. She wondered if she would ever get to the point where she could ask him. However, she knew that if she asked him where he learned how to fight, he'd probably ask her what she saw in her nightmares, and she didn't feel ready to talk about it.

Talking about the things that terrified her until she couldn't breathe wasn't something she enjoyed doing. She'd never opened up to anyone about her fears before because she'd been trained not to. Talking about feelings, fears, anything that was closely related to either of those was considered weak. And she was not called Black Widow because she was weak. She was not an international threat because she was weak, and she had to remind herself of that whenever she heard Voloshin's voice in her head telling her how she was the weakest link.

Voloshin. Natasha was so close yet so far. All she had to do was complete these missions successfully, show Fury that she wouldn't fuck up, and she was in. She could lead SHIELD to Voloshin and help them take him down. Natasha didn't delight in the thought of death, but as she thought of Voloshin's death, she felt somewhat more relaxed.

A chill ran down her spine. She might have been a cold-blooded spy, but she'd never wanted to be the kind of person who enjoyed thinking about death. And yet, Voloshin's death was different. He'd made her what she was, and she refused to give him the chance to do it to anyone else. No more KGB, no more Voloshin, no more anyone. This was her choice, and she was choosing to turn her back on the organization that had made her.

No, they hadn't made her. They'd destroyed her. And she couldn't wait for the day that she got to destroy them.


Chapter Text

Chapter 8

A month later, and Natasha was back in her physical prime. Hours upon hours of training with Clint left her in a better mood, a better body, and a better eye for how the archer himself fought. Each sparring session they had, the more she realized just how good he was. For the first time in a very long time, she felt challenged, and there was absolutely nothing she loved better than a challenge. Except maybe those chocolate chip pancakes.

However, no matter how good Clint was, she still managed to stay one step ahead of him now that she was back to being on top of herself. Six times out of 10 sparring sessions, she managed to beat him, sending him to the floor or rendering him in a position where he had no choice but to relent to her. Surprisingly, Clint was a good sport about it, though she could see the determination set into his eyes to improve his skills to keep up with her. But that was what she wanted to see: the desire to improve so he could continue to challenge her. Unfortunately, Natasha had to admit that they fought well together. When both she and Clint got in the zone, they really got in the zone, twisting, flipping, grabbing, and dodging—one movement after the other.

Little by little, over the past month, Clint had slowly loosened the reins a bit more on her. He still watched every little thing she did, but he gave her just a tad bit more freedom than before. She was allowed to walk beside him in the hall instead of in front of him, and he didn't position himself standing or sitting where he could see her 100% of the time. That being said, he still accompanied her to the target practice room whenever she was in the mood to practice shooting, and he wouldn't leave her alone to go run down to the cafeteria to get food, the latter being something that still continued to bother Maria Hill.

As for the nightmares, they still continued. Some nights they were more horrifying than others, but every night Natasha turned on the faucet and fell asleep to the sound of it draining into the metal sink of her cell. Surprisingly enough, Natasha didn't mind the cell; she'd lived in worse conditions, so being held in the tiny windowless room with only a bed, a sink, and a toilet really wasn't that bad at all. At least the toilet flushed, and that was one positive thing she could live with.

"When's Fury going to send us out on a mission?" Natasha asked, her chest heaving as she caught her breath. Clint gazed up at her, his face blasé and his short blond hair messed up in the front, and he wet his lips as he tried to catch his breath, too.

"Want to let me up, and then we can talk missions?" he asked breathlessly. Natasha half-smirked, and she eased off of him from where she'd pinned him to the mat and subsequently won their last sparring match. Clint pushed himself into a seated position and leaned back on his hands as he propped his knees up. Natasha sat back on her knees, her heels tucked beneath her as she patiently waited for the blond agent to get enough air back in his lungs before he tried speaking.

They'd had a good sparring match, and for a while, Natasha had thought that he was going to come out on top, but no, he'd faltered at the last second, and she'd leapt on her opportunity, thereby defeating him. She could tell that he was picking up on her fighting style the way she was picking up on his because they sparred longer and quicker and knew the right areas to block familiar movements. It made Natasha uncomfortable because she didn't want to fall into a routine of knowing what to expect since she knew that in the real world, you couldn't expect anything. You never knew what your opponent was going to do, and you had to always keep that in mind.

"I think we'll get sent out soon," Clint said, his breathing not quite so heavy. "I've been wanting to get you back up to speed before giving Fury the ok to give us an assignment."

"So I wasn't good enough?" Natasha testily asked, her red eyebrows lifting. Quickly, Clint shook his head.

"No. God, no. But you have to admit, after a month of nonstop training, you're back to where you were when I came across you in that hotel. A month and a half of not training really sets people like us back," he replied. "And why do you want to go on a mission when you're good when you can be great."

"Fair enough," Natasha droned.

"Why, you getting antsy?" Clint asked.

"Yes," Natasha replied, her voice honest. "I don't like sitting here when I could be doing something to show that I can help take down Voloshin and his crew."

"Whoever said patience is a virtue can go fuck himself," Clint remarked languidly.

"I wouldn't argue," Natasha diplomatically agreed. Clint smirked at her, looking thoroughly pleased with himself to the point that it annoyed the Russian assassin. She glowered at him. "What?"

"We agree on something," he pointed out. Natasha desperately wanted to roll her eyes, but she held her face in a deadpan. She was always biting back her snarky comments and dry retorts in order to keep a side of herself hidden from Clint. If Clint picked up on her sense of humor, that'd be letting him in to another part of her that she wanted to stay locked. This whole training thing they were doing had gotten her to open up to him a lot more than she'd wanted to, but she was learning to come to terms with the fact that she couldn't shake this quite as easily as she'd hoped she could.

Suddenly, the sound of the door to the training room clicking open alerted the both of them, and their heads simultaneously snapped towards the direction of the door. Slowly, it opened, and a man peeked in. He was dressed in a suit, and he looked older than Clint, around the same age as Director Fury possibly.

"Agent Barton," he greeted. Natasha gathered herself together, keeping her green eyes locked on the man. He glanced towards her and then back at Clint. "This is Miss Romanoff?"

"Yeah, that's her," Clint replied. He stood up and crossed towards the man, his hand outstretched. "Agent Coulson, it's great to see you again."

"Likewise," Agent Coulson replied with a steady nod. "I heard you've got yourself in a bit of trouble now."

"Eh, something like that." Clint shrugged good-naturedly. Natasha closely watched Agent Coulson and tried to determine the kind of relationship he had with Clint. From what she could tell in these brief few seconds, they were friendly with each other but still had a professional coolness to their words and actions. With Director Fury, Clint didn't show anything but professionalism; however, with Agent Coulson, he didn't seem to be quite so rigid, and Natasha definitely picked up on it.

"I came to brief you on your first mission," Agent Coulson said, and he held up a file. Instantly, Natasha felt her heart leap. Forcing her facial muscles to remain calm, her eyes flicked over to Clint to watch what he would do. He looked back at her and gestured towards her to come over to them.

"Perfect timing. We were just discussing when we thought we were going to get our first assignment," he said. Carefully, Natasha drew herself up to her feet and held her head high as she walked towards the two SHIELD agents.

Agent Coulson was coolly regarding her the same way he had Clint, and when she'd slowed to a stop beside Clint, he held his hand out. "I'm Agent Coulson. It's nice to meet you."

Natasha paused, feeling mildly suspicious. No one at SHIELD had told her that it was nice to meet her aside from Clint, and he'd only done that because it was part of his sense of humor. Her eyes remained on his face, but she stretched her hand out to accept his handshake.

"Natasha Romanoff," she said in a steady, clear voice.

"So I've heard. I've heard a lot about your work," Agent Coulson replied. She wondered what that meant, but she didn't show any confusion. Instead, she nodded and acted like she thought it was some great honor that he'd heard about all the crimes she'd committed in the past.

"So what're we doing?" Clint asked. "Are you supervising us?"

"You could say that." Agent Coulson smiled. Glancing over Clint's shoulder, he saw the table and chairs and held his hand out towards them. "Shall we sit down and look over them?"

Natasha's pulse picked up with excitement. Her first mission. Well, technically it was the furthest thing from her first mission, but still. This was her first mission that would prove to Director Fury that she could be trusted enough to be a part of the Voloshin kill mission. So as not to betray how hyped up she was feeling on the inside, she calmly crossed towards the table and chairs and sat at the one she always did while Clint sat in his respective chair, leaving Coulson to choose one of the two remaining chairs.

Coulson sat down and opened the file. "This is very basic stuff. From what Director Fury told me, you two have this one in the bag."

"It's Level One stuff," Clint replied with a small snort. "Of course we do."

"Ah, there's the Clint Barton I know," Coulson answered, grinning fondly at the young blond man. He looked over at Natasha. "Has he driven you crazy yet?"

"Yes," Natasha replied without missing a beat. Coulson let out a loud laugh, and he looked back at Clint with an appreciative look on his calm face.

"She's funny. You didn't say she was funny," he said.

"Don't say that. It'll only increase her ego," Clint answered. He smirked at Natasha, and she pursed her lips back at him. She wasn't sure how to feel about all this banter that was happening. Banter was what happened between people who were friends, and she definitely couldn't consider him a friend. He was a…what the hell was he? She couldn't even think of a label for him. He wasn't her partner because he still had a level of authority over her that she disliked. He wasn't her trainer because, well, he wasn't training her. He wasn't even her jailer because it wasn't as if he were keeping her imprisoned. There wasn't a word to describe what exactly he was in relation to her, and she found that that bugged her.

"I've got to say, this is the strangest damn set up I've ever seen in all my life," Agent Coulson mused. "Director Fury has never given out a punishment anything like this before. It's a little unorthodox here at SHIELD."

"Yes. I'm supposed to be dead," Natasha drily answered.

"She's a criminal with a fantastic sense of humor," Clint added. Her eyes flicked over to him, but he smiled innocently back at her. Pulling his eyes away from her, he redirected them down to the open file on front of them on the table. "So what do we have?"

"A retrieve mission," Coulson said. He caught the disappointed look on Clint's face, and he grinned. "I told you it was going to be really easy Level One stuff."

"A retrieve mission," Natasha blankly repeated. Coulson nodded and pushed the file over to her.

"One of our weapons was stolen from The Fridge." He noticed the look of alarm that fell over Clint's face. "Nothing detrimental. But it's not good, and we need it back."

"What is it?" Clint asked.

"An 084 that needs to be handled very delicately," Coulson said. He rifled through some of the papers in the file as Natasha lifted up the first page. As soon as he found the one he wanted, he pulled it out and slid it over to Clint. Clint picked it up and frowned.

"It looks like a metal box," he dully commented.

"It looks like a metal box," Coulson stressed.

"But it's not," Natasha finished. Coulson nodded happily.


"What does it do?" Clint asked.

"Well, it's what's in the box that's important. That metal box contains a previously unidentified element that could be turned into a very powerful chemical weapon," Coulson explained.

"Do we know who took it?" Clint asked.

"Yep. A brother scientist team."

"So no one knows why they took it," Natasha said as she skimmed over the paper in her hands.

"Correct," Coulson confirmed.

"Where are we headed to?" Clint asked.


Clint looked up with huge blue eyes. "No. You're fucking kidding me."

"Unfortunately, I'm not," Coulson answered, amusement passing over his face. "You're headed to Texas."

"I have no desire to go to Texas," Natasha spoke up as she passed the paper she'd been holding to Clint and picked up the next sheet.

"Did you tell her about the San Antonio mission?" Coulson asked. Clint gave one very slow, very dramatic nod, and he let out an angry sigh.

"I told myself I was never going back there," he mumbled. "Texas. Fucking hated Texas."

"This mission will be much easier than the one you did, Barton. That's the bright side," Coulson pleasantly pointed out. "You won't be stationed on a rooftop for hours. You'll be in, you'll take the box back, and then you'll be out."

"But what about the Reed brothers?" Clint asked, still displeased. "What's happening to them?"

"They'll be brought in for questioning and properly dealt with," Coulson said. Clint lifted his eyebrows.

"By who? We might as well do it while we're there," he said.

"Nope. That's a Level Four op, and you two are only supposed to be working Level One. Fury was very strict about that." Coulson glanced over at Natasha with an impressed look on his face. "I don't know how you did it, but you got him to agree to this, and that in itself was a miracle."

"I can be very persuasive," Natasha blithely answered.

"I can imagine," Coulson answered in a tone that mirrored hers.

"When do we leave?" Clint asked. Coulson gave him a bored look.

"If you'd just read the file and stop asking questions, you'd read that," he said. Clint lifted his eyebrows and gave a little snort before turning his gaze back down to the sheet of paper in his hand. Natasha was unable to hide her little smirk, but she made sure her head stayed turned down so neither Agent Coulson nor Clint could see it.

So basically Aaron and Philip Reed were two scientist brothers who had somehow managed to get into The Fridge—what the fuck was that, by the way—and had snagged this small metal box with some kind of element in it. She and Clint were to retrieve it and leave the capturing up to the big guys. She wondered if Level Four was considered to be a higher up level here at SHIELD, but she didn't dare ask.

"It's really this simple?" she asked out loud. Coulson lifted his eyebrows and nodded.

"Level One. If you're a lucky Level One," he said.

"What do Level Ones do if they're not working missions?" Natasha asked with a frown.

"Interning," Coulson replied. "Since it's their first year out of the Academy, they're getting up close and personal looks. They don't get a mission for at least six months out. Got to start at the bottom to get to the top."

"When do they start regularly going on missions?" she asked, her frown deepening.

"Level Two, usually. Depends on their skills, what they do, how good they are." Coulson shrugged. Natasha found herself wanting to ask Agent Coulson what level agent she would be if she were a part of SHIELD, but she bit the question back before she could ask it. She'd told Fury last month during their meeting that she had no loyalty to SHIELD. That was true—she didn't feel any loyalty towards SHIELD. She was trained to kill for whoever gave her orders, and right now it was SHIELD giving the orders.

"Fuck this," Clint grumbled. "I would be ok with being sent anywhere but fucking Texas. Just my luck. The one place I don't want to go."

"At least you won't have to be there for long," Coulson added. "From what I've read about you, Miss Romanoff, and from what I know about you, Barton, the two of you will be able to get this taken care of in no time."

"I sure hope so," Clint declared. "Fucking Texas."

"Three days," Natasha read out loud. "We leave in three days."

"We thought you'd like some time to prepare for your return to Texas," Coulson said in a diplomatic tone. Clint sighed heavily and set the file down.

"Who's making up the extraction team?" he asked. "The file doesn't say."

"Palmer, Wood, and Massey," Coulson answered. Clint smiled at the mention of Palmer.

"At least he'll be there to suffer in my pain with me," he said. The only name Natasha recognized out of the three mentioned was Palmer's. It'd been a while since she'd seen the computer genius, and she wondered what he'd been up to. Had he been assigned more missions while Clint was stuck here? She'd caught the way Clint had grinned, and she wondered if he missed being out on regular jobs. She hadn't thought of what Clint was giving up by suffering out this punishment with her—she'd just always kind of assumed that this was what he did, even though she knew that he was a mission man.

She missed going out and doing what she'd been trained for, but she had to admit that her daily training with Clint made up for it. There'd been times in Russia when she'd had a few weeks off, and she hadn't known what to do with herself then. Even in her off time, she'd trained and continued to improve her skills. It wasn't as though she'd had the time to form interests in things. Of course, she'd participated in a number of activities throughout the years so that when undercover, she'd be able to talk knowledgably about her extracurricular activities her cover took on.

"The thing is, the Reed brothers aren't spies. They don't know anything about fighting," Coulson spoke up. "But the security team at their research facility is top notch."

"Actual top notch or civilian top notch?" Clint asked. Natasha would never admit it, at least not yet, but she appreciated Clint's assessment of the definition of top notch.

"Civilian top notch," Coulson replied. "Like I said, this mission will literally be the easiest one you've ever been assigned. But." He paused to look back and forth between the two spies. "That doesn't mean you get to be careless. There are two guards assigned to each entrance and exit of the facility. Our Level Four agents will be taking care of them while you two sneak in through the underground level via the manhole out by the street."

"Underground level," Natasha repeated. "Of course there's an underground level."

Coulson sheepishly shrugged, as if he felt as though he were to blame for the fact that the Reed brothers had an underground level in their research facility. "It's an evil lair."

"Touche," Clint conceded. "Where's the map outlining our entrance and exit plan?"

"Right here." Natasha pulled the map out and studied it, her green eyes scrutinizing every square inch of the diagram in front of her. The mission seemed too simple to be true, but she wasn't going to complain about it. A mission was a mission, and each mission she was assigned, she would be able to prove to Director Fury that she deserved to go on this damn manhunt for Voloshin. Making a mission personal was always dangerous, she'd been taught, but this time, things were different.

So even though she wanted to roll her eyes and declare that she could do this in her sleep, she didn't. She would happily accept whatever Fury threw her way. Curiously, she glanced over at Coulson and saw how at ease he was with her. He didn't seem to be terribly bothered by the fact that he was sitting next to an internationally wanted killer. He'd even shaken her hand.

Natasha thought that the people at SHIELD were the strangest damn people she'd ever come across; Clint wasn't afraid of her, Director Fury wasn't afraid of her, Maria Hill didn'tseem to be afraid of her, and now Agent Coulson was someone else to add into the mix of people who treated her as if she were another agent, not the cold-blooded killer she'd been trained to be. She tried to think back to all the times that she'd brought back people for Voloshin to interrogate—violent, angry people who'd wanted to murder her simply for bringing them in. She hadn't felt terribly overwhelmed by them, but she'd definitely felt afraid of what they could do if they ever got free. But Voloshin, true to his word, made sure these people he ordered her to capture never got free.

Natasha passed the map over to Clint and leaned back in her chair. She watched his sky blue eyes run over the detailed plan, and then he gave a short nod as he comprehended it all.

"Ok. Sounds good," he said.

"If you have any further questions before the day of, you know where to find me," Coulson said easily. He stood up and nodded towards both Clint and Natasha. "Barton, it was great to see you again. Miss Romanoff, I enjoyed meeting you."

Natasha didn't say anything back as she calmly regarded the agent with a cool, detached stare, but he didn't seem all that bothered by it. He shook hands with Clint and then turned, opening the door and leaving. He left as quietly and unassumingly as he'd entered.

"Who's that?" she asked as soon as he was gone.

"Agent Coulson? He's going to be our man in charge," Clint said. "He's cool. You'll like him."

"Will I?" Natasha challenged. Clint gave her a mildly bored look as he pulled the rest of the files towards him to finish perusing.

"You finally get assigned a mission, and you're still snarky," he remarked without looking up. Natasha felt her temper start to rise, and she leaned forward in her chair, mimicking Clint's typical stance of resting his elbows against the edge of the table on purpose.

"I'm prepared to take Voloshin down," she said in a determined tone.

"I know," Clint replied, again without looking up. "As long as we don't fuck up this one or any others, we'll be as good as gold."

"We?" Natasha asked with an uncharacteristic snort. Clint finally looked up. "If we fuck up, I won't get to be a part of it. You still will."

"Not true," Clint argued.

"Yes, it is," Natasha countered. "Director Fury said that this is one of the most important missions SHIELD has ever taken on. And he talked to you about being a part of it. Clearly that means you're good. If we fuck up, you're too valuable for him to leave behind."

Clint's lips pressed together the slightest bit more, and he leaned in towards her. "We're not going to fuck up. Don't lose your head in there—which I can't imagine you doing, anyway—and we'll be ok. It doesn't matter if Fury will bring me in on the mission or not. Just don't fuck up."

"It does matter if—"

"Hey." Clint's sharp voice cut Natasha off. He'd never spoken to her quite like that before. "That anger you're feeling? Save it. Keep it in the back of your mind, and use it when we find Voloshin."

"Why are you mad?" Natasha asked, effectively throwing the topic from her. Clint blinked.

"What?" he asked.

"You're angry. Why?" she asked.

"I'm not mad," Clint replied as he adopted a defensive look.

"And I'm not stupid," she said back. She narrowed her eyes at him, and he narrowed his at hers.

"I'm pissed I'm going back to Texas," Clint answered.

"That's all?" Natasha asked and raised her red eyebrows at him.

"Yes," he said slowly and evenly, his own eyes staring back at her. Either they were constantly challenging each other or constantly watching each other—there was no in between, Natasha had realized. Whenever they weren't throwing physical and emotional challenges back and forth as they tested their boundaries, they were slowly circling, carefully watching what their opponent was doing and what they were going to do next. Clint still kept a wall up that Natasha couldn't get past yet, but she was somewhat decent at predicting how he was going to react in the masked version of himself.

"I don't believe you," she said finally.

"I sincerely believe that Fury is sending me back to Texas as part of my punishment," Clint said in a bored voice.

"Do you miss working missions?" Natasha asked without batting an eyelash.

"Yes," Clint answered.

"Are you pissed you're working a Level One mission when you could be working a Level…whatever you are?" she pushed.

"Why do you want to know?" Clint's tone was suspicious, but she didn't waver.

"Just curious," she said. "You don't seem like the type who enjoys staying cooped up in a windowless room all day every day. No distance to see from in here."

Finally, a smile appeared on Clint's face, though it was small. "True."

"The bird doesn't like being caged," Natasha said, silently appreciating her own metaphor. Clint lifted his blond eyebrows at her in amusement.

"You think you're the first one to make bird jokes?" he asked.

"I wasn't making a joke," Natasha protested. "I was making a metaphor."

"Metaphor. Joke. Same thing," Clint dismissively replied. "You really do have a sense of humor. Coulson was right. You're funny."

"No, I'm not. I purposefully state facts and opinions without the intention of being funny," Natasha countered. "Russians don't have a sense of humor."

"You were just trying to prove that you weren't funny but only proved that you are, in fact, funny," Clint pointed out in a slow drawl. He picked the file back up and began studying it again. "I knew you had it in you."

"How do you know I'm not humanizing myself to get you to convince yourself that you're doing a successful job turning me around when really, I'm just manipulating you into doing what I want?" she asked. Clint looked up from the file with an odd look on his face.

"I don't," he replied. She waited for him to continue, but he didn't. He looked back down at the files and continued to read. His eyes took on that slightly squinted look he got whenever he read over something, and Natasha watched him briefly wet his lips as he read more in detail. He was always looking like he was searching for something, and when he found it, his gaze became even more piercing. In a way, he really was like a bird, Natasha thought, a glint of amusement appearing in her eye at the idea.

"What do you want to work on in our last three days before we get shipped out?" Clint asked. Natasha tilted her head as she thought—they'd done a lot of sparring over the month, so she felt pretty on top of that. She could probably get some more use out of going back into the target practice room to work on her shooting, but she would also be ok to work with some knives to better her short-range weapon skills.

"Shooting," she said.

"Oh, good," Clint replied happily. "I was hoping you'd say that."

Clint's aim with a bow and arrow proved to be just as perfect when he had a gun in his hands. The man's eyes weren't real, Natasha had decided. She'd watched him shoot targets that she wasn't sure she'd be able to get first time around; his abilities were unreal, and she was definitely impressed by him. Admittedly, it was a treat for her to watch him shoot. He always had perfect form, and there was something about the way he became calm and leveled out that Natasha liked seeing. Clint Barton was a calm person to begin with, but he entered a different kind of zone when he was shooting, and whether she would ever admit it to him or not, she liked watching him reach that zen place inside himself; it was the same kind of zen feeling she got from hand-to-hand combat with martial arts.

"You just want to show off," she said bluntly.

"And you say we don't know each other," Clint returned, grinning infectiously. Natasha stood up and started towards the door. When she reached the door, she looked back over her shoulder.

"Are you coming?" she asked.

"Where?" Clint asked, confused.

"To go shoot." Natasha's tone was tinged with the slightest impatience, but if Clint noticed, he let it roll off. Natasha wondered how he always let those little things like that roll off without the slightest bit of a reaction; everything she did like that was for a reaction. She was dying to see what kinds of buttons she could press, but so far, all she'd gotten was that Clint really didn't like to talk about his life before SHIELD, and he really fucking hated Texas.

"You want to go now?" Clint asked incredulously. She nodded. "What about dinner? We can get dinner first."

"Seriously?" she deadpanned.

"Yeah, seriously." He gave her a disbelieving look. "You can't shoot on an empty stomach. It's the Golden Rule."

"Rules are meant to be broken," she answered. "I think I'm a good example of that."

"Wow, I think that's the fourth joke you've made today. You're really on a roll, Natasha." Clint smirked at her, but she shot him a bored, dull look that he'd gotten so used to by this point that it really didn't faze him at all. "Come on. Let's have dinner first. We have reason to celebrate."

"Celebrate." Natasha blinked at him.

"Yeah. We got our first mission. We're going out with the big kids," he said. "Even though we're doing Level One bullshit. Honestly, we could have that whole thing taken care of quicker than the Level Fours could capture the Reed brothers, but whatever."

"Then we shoot?" Natasha asked. Clint nodded.

"Then we shoot. Promise. Trust me, I want to get back in there as much as you do. Shooting's what I do best," he said. Reluctantly, Natasha went and sat back down at the table. She had to admit that she was hungry, but the adrenaline and excitement from finally having received her first mission was enough to drive her to want to get to work right away.

"Won't Agent Hill get mad about you not going to the cafeteria again?" Natasha asked. Clint snorted and rolled his eyes.

"She's not actually mad," he said. He paused and reconsidered his statement. "Well, she is, but she isn't. She has too much to worry about than me asking the kitchen staff to flip up a few burgers. What do you want tonight?"

"Salad," Natasha answered immediately.

"Do you want the fried chicken one you had last week or the Asian chicken one?" Clint asked.

"Asian chicken." Natasha felt uncomfortable with telling Clint what she wanted. Even just ordering food made her feel as though she were continuing to let him in places she didn't want him to be. On some level, it'd been much easier when she'd been silent, and he'd ordered everything for her. He hadn't been able to tell what food she'd like and what she hadn't and had therefore been held at a distance.

It seemed ridiculous to feel uncomfortable about telling another person what she wanted to eat, but it was those little details like that that revealed everything, she knew. Anything from the way she wore her eyeliner to the way she liked her salad was considered important.

"I feel like I'm going to feel guilty about eating a burger when I see your salad," Clint said with a sigh. "Looks like it's a healthy night for me, too. Anyway, I've been lying to Palmer and telling him I'm eating healthy, so I guess I better stop lying."

"He doesn't strike me as a health nut," Natasha said.

"You'd be surprised." Clint rolled his blue eyes, and he lifted the communication device off the table and put it up to his mouth. "This is Agent Barton—yes, I'm still in that training room. Could we get an Asian chicken salad and a chicken salad wrap up here? Awesome. Sounds good."

"What level agent are you?" Natasha asked as soon as he'd lowered the device. The question had been on her mind since Agent Coulson had explained a little bit of the level process to her. Clint smirked at her and shook his head.

"Classified," he said.

"Your level is classified?" she asked in annoyance. She folded her arms over her chest. "Why?"

"Because technically you're still a prisoner of SHIELD, and I'm not supposed to reveal my level to you," Clint replied. Natasha openly rolled her eyes and sighed.

"These rules and regulations are ridiculous," she announced. Clint laughed appreciatively, and he leaned back in his chair, slouching down a little bit.

"Actually, speaking of, we can review some SHIELD protocol while we wait for dinner," he said. "Also, terminology would be good. I don't think I've explained what an 084 or anything like that is, so we can start on that."

"That sounds like hell," Natasha said with a scowl.

"So's Texas, but we have to do a lot of things that sound like hell," Clint countered. She wished that she had the grounds to argue with him, but she didn't. As usual, the archer had meant the statement as a joke, but she found more truth to his words than she'd wanted to. And she knew by the way his gaze faltered just the slightest bit that Clint did, too.


Chapter Text

Chapter 9


Natasha didn't look away from the window of the SHIELD jet. She liked having the window seat best of all, and she'd been glad that everyone else on the small jet had been scared enough of her to step back and watch where she went before they sat down anywhere.

"Ignoring me. How original," Clint remarked good-naturedly from the seat across from her.

"No, I'm not nervous," Natasha said, not taking her eyes away from the window. She could feel the others staring at her, and she was determined not to give them too much to go off of. She wasn't sure which ones were which, but she'd been able to identify Palmer right off the bat. He'd glanced up at her nervously from his computer before looking back down and typing a long thing out at the speed of lightning. Natasha was a fast typist, but damn, Palmer's speed was a thing of beauty.

"How do you like your uniform?" Clint asked. Natasha pulled her eyes away from the passing view outside and looked down at the form-fitting black uniform that SHIELD had scrounged up for her. It was a little loose in some places and too tight in others, but it would work for the simple task they had ahead of them.

"It makes me feel official," Natasha answered.

"You are kind of official," Clint replied. One of the agents snorted in the background. Natasha's face remained cool and level, but irritation passed over Clint's. His blue eyes darted away from her face to shoot a sharp glare in the agent's direction.

"So chivalrous," Natasha murmured quietly, just so Clint could hear her. He grinned his infectious grin at her.

"No, I'm not," he said. "You can stand up for yourself."

"So why didn't you let me?" Natasha asked. Clint's grin widened.

"It's not that I didn't let you," he corrected. "I just thought if I didn't do anything, we probably would lose an extraction team." Natasha gave him a blank look. "Because you'd kill them."

"Is that a joke about me being an assassin?" Natasha asked coolly.

"What? No. No, not at all," Clint said quickly, a look of sudden shock passing over his face. "I was just meaning—"

"I know," Natasha interrupted, her face still calm. "It's called a joke."

Clint blinked. She blinked back. Finally, his wide grin returned, and he chuckled loudly. "You had me. You really had me. That was a good one. I really thought you were pissed because I fucked up and made an assassin joke."

She wanted to smile at him, but she didn't. Instead, she looked back out the window and slowly inhaled and exhaled as she thought about the mission that was ahead of them. The plan was perfectly set—the Level Four agents would distract the guards while Natasha and Clint sneaked inside; once inside, Hawkeye and Black Widow would take back the box and escape through the nearest window in the hall outside the box's room. The extraction team for them would be right outside in a black car while the extraction team for the Level Fours would come via jet. After picking up the Level Fours, Natasha and Clint's car would meet up with the jet at a rendezvous point and then start back to HQ from there.

It was short, simple, and sweet. Natasha didn't even have to go undercover, even though she enjoyed doing undercover work, and she got to make that first step in getting her foot in the door for the Voloshin kill mission. For her, everything would lead to that. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Agent Coulson appeared and eased into the seat beside Clint.

"Agent Barton. Miss Romanoff," he greeted pleasantly. Natasha nodded at him while Clint reached over and shook his hand. "We're about to land at our first location. Your team will drive you over to the facility, and we'll get started."

"Sounds good," Clint replied. "Bing, bang, boom."

"Exactly," Coulson agreed, even though Natasha wasn't entirely sure what that meant. He turned his gaze to the redheaded assassin. "You'll receive your guns when we land right before you go in."

"Oo, I get to be one of the big kids now," Natasha drily remarked. Coulson grinned brightly at her.

"You really are funny," he said appreciatively. He glanced over her shoulder towards the cluster of agents who'd very carefully chosen their seats far away from her. "They giving you any trouble?"

"Not at all," Natasha replied. Coulson gave her a look that said he didn't believe her and looked back at the agents again.

"They're not used to being around world-renowned killers," he said. Natasha lifted her eyebrows in mild surprise—again, Agent Coulson had proved that he wasn't going to tiptoe around her, and she had to admit that she liked that about both him and Clint.

"Could've fooled me," she said nonchalantly. Suddenly, Coulson's face changed, growing more alert, and he pressed a hand to his right ear. Quickly, he nodded and stood up.

"Roger that," he replied. He looked down at both Clint and Natasha. "It's show time, kids."

Natasha unbuckled her seatbelt and stood up, enjoying the feeling of stretching her muscles out. The flight had felt longer than it had probably been in all actuality, and she was ready to move. Clint stood up across from her, grabbing his bow and quiver of arrows, and as Natasha took a glance at him, she thought back to how ironic it was that the first time they'd been on a plane together, Clint had had her in taser-cuffs, and she'd been feeling the effects of a broken arm. Now, however, they were on this plane about to complete a mission together. Were they partners? Natasha didn't know the answer, nor did she dwell on it for much longer. The only thing she was focused on was completing the mission successfully.

Well, she was also focused on how nice Clint looked in his long-sleeved all-black uniform, but she never would've admitted that one in a million years. Something that confused her about Clint was that he'd never given her that typical onceover that always accompanied males who were in her presence. She'd been working with him for close to three months, and he'd never once looked anywhere other than her face or parts of her body that he needed to in order to beat her when sparring.

And Natasha didn't like that. As much as she hated the disgusting male attention she was used to receiving, she disliked that Clint wasn't giving her anything. He was treating her as if she were any other guy, and she was most definitely not accustomed to that. Then again, Natasha knew herself well enough to know that even if Clint did show anything more than what he was, she would hate him and never trust him. Not that she had any plans to trust him.

The wheels from underneath the plane began to descend, and she turned towards Clint to look at him. He had on sunglasses with the lenses tinted to dark she couldn't see his sharp blue eyes. He caught her looking at him, and he cocked an eyebrow at her.

"Ready?" he asked.

"I was born ready," Natasha answered.

"Good thing about daytime missions is that we don't have to worry about all the alarms we'd have to turn off," Clint added. Natasha half-nodded and half-shrugged.

"But we'll have to deal with those top notch security guards," she said.

"True," Clint agreed. "Eh, we've got this."

"It'll be fun," Natasha deadpanned, earning a hearty laugh from Clint. He was always laughing at the things she said, even though sometimes she didn't mean for them to be funny at all. She winced as she felt the pressure in her ears build, signifying that the plane was descending. Clint lifted his head, and she assumed he was looking at the agents getting ready behind her.

"Guns out, Palmer!" he called out.

"Fuck you, Barton!" Palmer called back, but instead of getting mad, Clint grinned. He looked back at Natasha.

"It's kind of our thing," he said.

"How sweet," Natasha sweetly replied. She couldn't see his eyes, but from the way he moved his head, she could only guess that he was rolling them.

"Palmer handles guns as little as possible," Clint said by way of explanation. "When I say he does the tech shit, that's literally all he does."

"Does SHIELD even allow that?" she asked as she and Clint went to the back of the jet where the ramp would slide out, and they would descend. "I thought all SHIELD agents had to be proficient in weapons management."

"Sometimes they make a few exceptions," Clint answered.

"Like me," Natasha pointed out. Clint turned his head to look at her, and he nodded.

"Yes. Like you," he agreed. The two didn't say anything for the rest of the landing, climbing into the black car that would carry them to their destination. Palmer took the passenger's seat, an agent that Natasha didn't recognize took the driver's, and she and Clint were pushed into the back with another agent that Natasha already decided she didn't like.

"GPS up and running?" the agent in the driver's seat asked as he shifted into Drive and started moving down the lowered ramp and onto the concrete outside.

"Yep," Palmer answered, not taking his eyes away from his laptop. "We're in business."

Natasha glanced down at the ID hanging off the agent next to her. Wood, Brendon. So if Agent Wood was the one sitting next to her, the agent driving must be Agent Massey, she deduced. She lifted her eyes to look directly in front of her and caught Agent Massey looking in the backseat at her; for the millionth time that day, she resisted the urge to roll her eyes. It was obvious that the agents in the car with her were uneasy because of her, but what they didn't know was that she valued her status in Fury's eyes too much to lash out at them. She wasn't sure what level these agents were, but she was confident enough in herself to feel that she could easily take them down. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Agent Wood place his hand on his gun.

"I'm not going to kill you," she said out loud, keeping her eyes straight ahead of her. She felt Agent Wood's body go rigid next to her. In the rearview mirror, both Agents Massey and Palmer looked back in alarm.

"Habit," Agent Wood shortly replied. Natasha scoffed.

"I wouldn't believe that even if I had a gun to my head," she said. She felt Agent Wood's stunned eyes lift off of her and flick over to Clint. She saw Clint give the young agent a bright, characteristic smile.

"Isn't she hilarious?" he asked cheerfully. "Never a dull moment with you, Romanoff."

The rest of the car ride continued in silence, and Natasha noticed that Agent Wood's hand remained in his lap away from the gun in his thigh holster for the remaining time. As the car drove along, her green eyes scanned over everything around her as she drank in details about where she was and the direction from which they were coming. So far, the biggest conclusions she'd been able to reach were that it looked hot outside, and Texas wasn't just one huge desert full of cacti and tumbleweeds. In fact, this area of Texas appeared to be pretty rural, much to her surprise.

Also to Natasha's surprise, Clint hadn't mumbled one word about how much he hated Texas so far. He'd grumbled about it enough on the plane, regaling his account of sitting on the rooftop for five hours and thereby obtaining a fierce sunburn that would've made an Irishman on Hawaii jealous—his words, not hers—but he'd managed to be a good little agent and not say anything now that they were on the ground.

As the car rolled along, Natasha was painfully aware of how close she was to both Clint and Agent Wood; she made sure that she held herself in such a way that she wouldn't touch either of them without it being obvious that she was trying to avoid physical contact with them. Fortunately for her, both of them seemed to be wary of her space, as well. Natasha had a feeling that Agent Wood's avoidance was more out of caution than respect, though, while Clint was definitely taking the respectful route.

Approximately 10 minutes passed, and the car pulled to a stop in an alley behind a large building. Natasha looked over at Clint and found him looking at her. His sunglasses covered his eyes, and now that she was close to him, she could see that his sunglasses weren't standard sunglasses designed just to make him look like a badass—they were sunglasses with enhanced features on them, though she wasn't sure what they did.

"Ready?" Agent Massey asked with one last glance into the backseat.

"Yep," Clint spoke up, looking away from Natasha. "See you on the other side."

"We'll be parked right out front of that window. Don't fuck up," Agent Massey said brightly. Palmer turned so that he could see Clint, and he held his hand up in a mock salute. Clint returned it, and then he opened the door, his bow and quiver in hand. Natasha slid out behind him and saw that they were standing right in front of a manhole.

"This is it," she announced.

"You're correct," Clint said. He slung his quiver over his shoulders and tucked the bow in place beside it as he knelt down and began to remove the cover of it while Natasha lifted her watchful eyes up and around to make sure that no one was watching them. Her eyes landed on a camera, and she paused.

"Clint, there's a camera," she said. Clint didn't even look up.

"Palmer's already hacked the feed," he said. Natasha glanced back at it. Good going, Palmer, she thought to herself, though she didn't dare say it out loud. She turned back around and saw Clint descending into the street through the manhole. He looked up at her. "You coming?"

She didn't bother gracing his snarky question with a response, and she ducked down into the manhole behind him, carefully bracing her legs on the ladder as she pulled the manhole cover over them. Now all traces of their presence was gone, and they could proceed accordingly. Silently, the two spies lowered themselves into the belly of the sewers; Natasha could smell the sulfuric scent that accompanied sewers, but it didn't bother her. She'd smelled much worse in her lifetime, so the smell of some shit-filled water wasn't exactly going to bother her.

Finally, she heard Clint's soft tread as he dropped from the ladder to the ground. She lowered herself to the very bottom of the ladder and followed suit. Once she was down, too, Clint looked around in the darkness of the sewer, and he pressed a button on his glasses.

So that's what they do, Natasha thought. They weren't the same goggles that he'd worn when he'd caught her in that hotel room—an instance that felt as though it'd taken place years ago when really, it'd only been about three months—but they seemed to do the same thing from the way he looked back and forth in the lowly lit tunnel.

"Bingo," he said quietly and started walking to the left of the ladder. Natasha followed him, noticing how he kept glancing over his shoulder to make sure she was there. In the darkness, she could feel her senses coming alive and taking over as she tried to identify any possible threats in the dark air around them. She could still see a little bit, but she knew that Clint was the one with the fancy glasses and could therefore see a lot more than she could.

"So they don't keep this entrance guarded," Natasha spoke up in a quiet voice.

"Not really," Clint replied, the volume of his voice mirroring hers. "They're supposed to, but they don't."

"It's an escape route," Natasha added. "They can get in and out as quickly as they want without being detected."

"Exactly," Clint agreed. He slowed as he appeared upon a door. "Well, that was easy."

"Level One, remember?" Natasha asked. She caught his grin in the dim light of the sewer. Casually, the archer reached into one of his many pockets and pulled out an earpiece, holding it out to Natasha. Natasha cautiously held her hand out and accepted it. She stared at it. "So I really am one of the big kids now."

"Almost," Clint said, watching her as she brought it up to her ear and positioned it. "Now you can hear the commands. Our Level Fours should be here any moment." He lifted his hand and pressed the communication button on his earpiece. "Hawkeye and Black Widow in position."

She could hear his voice in her ear and in her earpiece, signaling that she was tuned in to audial communication system that the agents had set up. She'd used these numerous times in the past on her own missions, and having it back in her ear made her feel somewhat more at home, more comfortable."

"Gotcha. Agents 20, 30, 36, 22, and 11 are in position. Ready?" a voice said back.

"Ready," Clint confirmed. Natasha's muscles tensed in anticipation. In just a few moments, she would be on the move. She looked over at Clint and saw that he was tense and ready to go, too. Gone was the carefree archer with the snarky comments and cheerful morning disposition; in his place was the SHIELD agent, professional, prepared, and unafraid. She was reminded of how he'd looked when she'd first seen him—she hadn't been able to see his face in its entirety, but as she saw him now, she knew that that was the exact look he'd had then.

"Clear." The voice in her ear was breathless in the way that only fighting can bring out. And with that, Natasha knew it was their cue. Clint lifted a device out of his pocket and held it up to the keypad beside the door. A green light scanned out over the keypad, illuminating the numbers used to punch in the password. After a few seconds of calculating, the light displayed the correct password. Clint punched the numbers in and then stood back as the door popped open.

"Oh, before I forget," he said suddenly. Moving quickly, he ripped a gun from his other thigh holster and tossed it to her, trusting her to catch it. Natasha nearly froze at the feel of having a gun in her hand again, a gun that she would potentially use on a mission, but she didn't let her delight hold her up for long. She moved into place behind Clint with her gun at the ready. From what she could tell, the underground level they were on was full of extra supplies. There was no one down there, and she couldn't detect any immediate or potential threats.

"Hawkeye and Black Widow are in the building," Clint said into his earpiece. As he walked farther into the room, he moved silently and stealthily, not glancing back at Natasha to check in with her now that they were inside. She held her gun up and kept her senses high on alert. According to the map, they were about to come across a stairwell, and they'd have to take that all the way up to the third floor where the box was being held. Faintly, she could alarms sounding in the distance. Apparently the facility already knew about their security guards being incapacitated.

She caught sight of the door, and she nudged Clint from behind to catch his attention. He looked back at her and then looked in the direction she'd pointed out to him. He gave her a thumbs up, and they both began to move towards it. Sure enough, Natasha had been right that that was the door to the stairwell. Guns still up and ready, the two spies began to ascend upwards.

One by one, they passed the first floor, second floor, and then they were at the third floor. Clint stepped to the side of the door, keeping his back pressed to the wall as he turned to Natasha.

"Want to take this one?" he asked.

"I would love to," Natasha replied. Carefully, she peered out into the hall and saw a number of men in black bulletproof vests and people in white lab coats running around. "About 10 people out there. Six civilians, four security."

"I take the passcode to the door, you hold everyone off?" Clint asked.

"Sounds like a plan," Natasha said. She started to move when Clint quickly stopped her by placing a hand on her arm.

"Shit, hold on. I forgot these. You'll want them," he said. She turned to look at him and saw him holding out two familiar bracelets. Her green eyes grew huge with recognition, and she eagerly snatched them from him.

"My Widow's Bites!" she exclaimed, though she was careful to keep her voice low. "I thought Director Fury confiscated them."

"Well, he un-confiscated them," Clint said. Natasha quickly slipped them on and looked up at the blond archer with a look akin to appreciation. She'd forgotten that Clint had slipped them off her almost immediately after having taken her into custody. Now that she was fully prepared, she felt a thousand times better. Without waiting a second longer, she opened the door and started running down the hall, Clint hot on her heels. Thankfully, scientists weren't exactly the type to stay and fight when they saw two people dressed in black wielding guns come running into the hall, but the four guards were exactly the type.

Natasha stowed her gun in her thigh holster and launched herself at the nearest guard. Performing her signature move with ease and grace, she flipped herself upside down, wrapped her thighs around his neck, and twisted him over her so that he was on the ground. With a quick glance, Natasha saw that he was effectively knocked out. One down, three to go, she thought breezily with a casual glance up to the rest of the men who were now running towards her.

She quickly brought herself back to her feet and advanced towards the guards. Her eyes landed on the one who was closest to her, and she sprang towards him. He lifted his gun to shoot her, but she was too quick, latching onto his shoulder and pressing her Widow's Bites into him. The man jerked as the electricity surged through him; right as he was about to fall, Natasha swung herself off his shoulder and used the momentum to knock the next guard hard across the temple with her boot. Three were now down, and she had one more to go. She landed and flipped her hair out of her face; the guard lifted his gun to shoot her, but she pulled hers out quicker and shot him in the leg.

With a loud cry of pain, the guard was down. Natasha calmly tucked her gun back into the holster and crossed towards him, removing his weapons and smirking at him as she did it. She didn't want to kill him, but a leg shot wouldn't necessarily keep him down for long. Coolly, she knelt down beside him and administered another one of her Widow's Bites. Just like that, he was out.

A slow clap from behind her caught her attention, and she whirled over her shoulder to find Clint standing in front of the open door with an impressed smile on his face. She couldn't see his blue eyes from behind his glasses, but she could only picture them. Even though she didn't want to picture them. Nonetheless, she was able to picture the amused glint in his eye.

"Good job, Black Widow," he called down the hall to her.

"You're supposed to be getting the box," she called back, crossing back towards him.

"I am," he replied, though he stood and waited for her until she was next to him. She'd barely broken a sweat, and her breathing was only the smallest bit labored. Being back in tiptop shape had never felt better, she realized.

"Waiting on you," she said as she started to cross into the room. She turned to look over her shoulder to make sure that the window was, indeed, outside the room in the hall just like the exit plan had dictated. Clint passed her to start searching as she swiftly stuck her head back out into the hall. "Found the window."

"Excellent," Clint replied. He pointed to a lab table in front of him. "Found the box."

Natasha looked back towards him and saw the silver metal box sitting in a glass case. "Grab it, and let's go."

"Waiting on you," Clint retorted as he pressed the button to lift the glass case protecting the box. Natasha openly rolled her eyes, and she crossed her arms over her chest as Clint reached out and grabbed the box.

Suddenly, the sound of something whizzing through the air caught Natasha's ear, but it happened too quickly for her to shout out a warning to Clint. The archer clapped a hand to the side of his neck as the little dart pricked his skin.

"Shit," he hissed. "Shit, shit, shit."

His legs started to collapse, and Natasha leapt forward without hesitating.

"Clint," she said urgently as she lowered him to the floor.

"It's a sedative," Clint said, his voice already thick. "I've been hit with this before."

Natasha was not surprised. However, she didn't say that. Instead, she grabbed the metal box, careful to avoid any more sedation darts headed her way, and she shoved it into Clint's hands.

"Clint, look at me," she said firmly. She couldn't see his eyes to know if he were really looking at her or not, but she just guessed that he was, and she shoved the box into his hands. "You've got to hold this. I can't carry both you and the box."

"Ok," Clint answered, though his voice faltered.

"Don't you dare drop this," she said. "Stay awake."

"Nat," he said suddenly, and she turned just in time to see two guards appear in the doorway. Letting out an annoyed sigh, Natasha ripped her gun out of its holster and fired two shots into their shoulders. Again, she didn't want to kill them, but this was enough to incapacitate them. She turned back to Clint and pressed her lips together firmly in determination. She grabbed him around the waist and slung him over her shoulder fireman-style. Already, she could tell that he was going to weigh a lot more than he looked, but she steadied herself, reminding her body to lift from the legs, and then she eased her way up.

Sometimes Natasha hated when she was right, and this was one of those moments. Clint Barton was much heavier than he looked, and she had no choice but to hold his dead weight as she tried to dart as quickly as she could out into the hall and towards the window.

"Shit," she snapped, realizing that they no longer had their way out anymore. Clint's quiver was designed to have special arrowheads, and one of them was specifically designed to turn into a grappling hook-type thing, leaving a strong cable behind that could be used safely lower the archer to the ground. Their original escape route was to shoot it up to the roof, and they'd repel down the side of the building to the parked car, but it didn't look like that was going to be an option. Or did it?

"Clint, how do you use your quiver?" she asked. She could tell he was losing consciousness by the second, and she was about to snap at him again when suddenly, his bow and an arrow appeared in front of her. Running feet distracted her, and she lifted her gun to fire three more shoulder shots into the appearing guards. Carefully, she leaned down and put Clint down, noticing that he was still holding the box, and she smashed his bow against the window, effectively breaking the window.

Thankfully, luck was in her favor because the large shards of glass fell to the ground outside, and she had a clean exit point. She pushed herself up onto the windowsill and leaned out to look up towards the roof to see how far away it was.

"Ok, that can't be too bad," she mumbled to herself, looking up at the two stories above her. She ducked back inside the building and knelt down beside Clint again. He'd somehow managed to shrug his quiver off of him and onto the floor where Natasha presently picked it up and put it on. "Clint, I'm going to have to put you on my shoulder again."

"Ok," he slurred, even though it was clear that it was a huge struggle for him to remain awake. Natasha lifted him up and over her shoulder, trying not to groan at his weight, and she stood up. Awkwardly, she managed to climb up onto the windowsill, and she peered out at the rooftop again.

"Here goes nothing," she breathed, and she held the bow and arrow in her hands, aiming it up at the roof. She wasn't all that skilled with a bow and arrow, but it was the only choice she had. She steadied herself and breathed in and out, and then she let the arrow fly. For several agonizingly long seconds, it seemed as though the arrow weren't going to reach the roof, but at the last second, it latched over the edge, and pulled tight. "Hang tight."

And then she jumped, one gloved hand holding onto the cable as she steadied her feet against the side of the building and walked her way down. She moved as quickly as she could with Clint's dead weight and a quiver attached to her, but before she knew it, she was on the ground. But now that she was on the ground, she had no clue how to get the cable unattached to her. Quickly drawing her gun out again, she aimed upwards and shot at the cable to dislodge it. The part of the cable attached to her fell to the ground, and she ran towards the car.

Agent Massey was right where he said he'd be, and she started out a dead sprint towards it. She could hear shots being fired behind her, and she silently hoped that none of them hit Clint as she ran. The car door swung open, and she lunged forward with Clint still on her shoulder. As she reached the open door, she roughly slid Clint off of her and shoved him over onto Agent Wood. She reached out to close the door, and she fired several shots over her shoulder as she swung the door shut with a loud, resounding slam.

"Go!" she shouted to Massey, who floored it as soon as the door finished shutting.

"What the fuck happened to him?" Massey shouted over his shoulder shouted right as Agent Wood started something else along the same lines.

"Got hit with a sedation dart. He's fine," Natasha said. Clint had passed out right at the perfect moment; his hands had loosened around the box, but they had the box, and that was all that mattered. That and the fact that they were alive, of course.

"Son of a bitch," Agent Wood said with a laugh. "I'll be goddamned."

"The box was rigged. As soon as he touched it, he got hit," Natasha added. Agent Wood looked up at her with a cautious look, though he looked more amused than cautious.

"Son of a fucking bitch," Palmer agreed from the front seat, turning around to look back at the three agents. Natasha silently agreed, but true to her nature, she didn't give anyone the satisfaction of knowing she did.

For the first time in two and a half months, Natasha was without Clint Barton watching her. It was strange to no longer have his blue eyes on her or his presence beside her, but she felt a strange sense of freedom in regards to it. As soon as all the agents had gotten back to the plane, Clint had been whisked off to the Infirmary to make sure that he was ok. Natasha felt awkward with being around all the other agents, but she didn't show it. Instead, she sat calmly in her window seat and looked outside the window.

After they'd been up in the air for an hour, Agent Coulson appeared.

"Good work, Miss Romanoff," he said. Natasha's green eyes stared at him, and she nodded once.

"Thank you," she replied.

"Agent Barton's asking for you," Coulson said calmly. "He just woke up and was asking to see you."

Natasha tried to mask her surprise, and she blinked. Slowly, she stood up and followed Coulson as he turned and started leading her down the hall to another part of the plane.

"Because of you and Agent Barton, we've got our fun little element back," Coulson said. He took a sideways glance at her as they walked through the hall. "That was a good first mission for you, Miss Romanoff."

"Thank you," Natasha said again. "It could've gone better."

"Missions always can," Coulson agreed. He slowed in front of a pair of glass doors and nodded towards an examination bed. Natasha could see a black uniform through the glass, but she couldn't actually see Clint. Suddenly, she felt strangely nervous about seeing him again, and she wasn't sure she could go in. "Director Fury will be pleased to hear about the success of your mission."

Natasha quickly looked up at Coulson, wanting to smile, but she stopped herself. "I hope so."

"He will. Well, this is where I take my leave for now, Miss Romanoff. I'm sure I'll see you again before the plane lands. If Agent Barton holds true to character, he won't want to be stuck in that bed for much longer," Coulson replied warmly. He smiled at her, and then he was gone. Natasha paused for a second, staring after the agent. He and Clint surprised her more than anyone she'd ever met, and to say that it threw her off track was an understatement.

She turned her green eyes back to the glass and saw the top of Clint's blond hair. She was filled with nervousness again, and she even briefly considered leaving. But as she saw him lying there, she couldn't make herself do it. So she took a deep breath, and she opened the door. The medics glanced up at her and paused as soon as they realized who'd walked in.

"Miss Romanoff?" a young woman with brown eyes and dark brown hair asked. Natasha's eyes landed on the woman, quietly assessing her. The medic pointed towards another set of glass doors. "Agent Barton's in there."

"Thank you," Natasha shortly replied—it seemed to her as though she were saying that a lot today—and she slowly crossed towards the second set of doors. She placed her hands on the door and pushed, making sure to be quiet. However, Clint's sensitive ears heard her, and he turned to look at her. His light blue eyes pierced through her, and she swallowed hard, trying to keep the sudden wave of emotions down.

"Hey," he greeted. His voice was a bit lower in pitch than usual, and he still looked pretty lethargic, but other than that, he seemed his usual self. "Good work out there."

"Thanks," she replied. "You, too."

"A compliment from the Black Widow? I'll take it," he said happily.

"I didn't compliment you," Natasha answered, though her tone wasn't as biting as the words were. Clint's grin widened, and he shook his head languidly.

"Yes, you did. Don't even try to deny it, Nat," he said. At the shortened version of her name, Natasha paused. He'd called her that back in the building when he'd warned her of the guards coming towards them. She thought about calling him out on it and telling him not to call her that, but she didn't.

"Keep dreaming," she said, and she did something that she'd never done for Clint before. She smiled.


Chapter Text

Chapter 10

Natasha darted a quick look over to Clint as they walked down the hall of SHIELD's headquarters to Nick Fury's office. Clint still looked a bit shaky on his feet after the whole sedation dart thing, but he was a proud son of a bitch, and he was going to be damned if he said anything about it. Just like Agent Coulson had predicted, shortly after Natasha had shown up in the Infirmary to see him, Clint had insisted that he was perfectly ok to get up and walk around as if he'd gotten a paper cut and nothing more.

In all reality, Natasha knew that he was lucky; he could've been hit with a poison that could've killed him—hell, he could've been hit with a bullet and been killed in less than a second. So getting shot in the neck with a sedation dart really wasn't that bad when she compared it to all the other things that could've happened to him, but Clint was still choosing to act as though nothing had happened at all.

"You doing ok there, Hawkeye?" she blandly asked. He smiled at her; even though he wasn't 100%, his smile turned on just as bright and ever present as it usually did.

"Of course I am," he said. "Takes more than a sedation dart to take me down."

"Someone's a little cocky," Natasha replied. "Looks like you're feeling better."

She slowed in front of the now familiar door that led into Director Fury's office, and she looked towards Clint for him to knock. Even though she felt a shift in their power dynamics after this mission, she felt that now they were back at HQ, Clint was back in charge of everything. Clint lifted his hand and knocked on the door.

"Come in," Director Fury called out in his typical bored tone. Clint twisted the doorknob and stepped through, not even turning back to look and make sure that Natasha came in without trying anything funny. Natasha noticed Agent Coulson in the office, standing by Director Fury's desk as Director Fury messed around with something on the holoboard in front of his desk. "So I hear you didn't completely fuck up."

"Not quite, sir," Clint answered, his voice professional and authoritative the way it always was whenever dealing with the director of SHIELD. Director Fury didn't look away from the holoboard until the two spies were all the way into the room and standing off to the side as they waited for him to be done. Finally, he turned around to look at them.

"How you feeling, Agent Barton?" he asked.

"I'm feeling fine, sir," Clint answered calmly.

"That was a nasty shot you took," the director replied. "Thank God Miss Romanoff was there, or else this whole mission would've gone under."

Natasha figured that this was the closest thing to praise that Director Fury would ever give her, and she held her breath. The director turned his eye on her, his gaze hard but somewhat curious as he took the sight of her in.

"You also surrendered your weapons immediately to Agent Coulson once you were on the plane again," Director Fury said. Natasha nodded once.

"Yes, sir," she confirmed.

"It's interesting how almost three months ago, you were very, very against anything to do with SHIELD," Director Fury pointed out. "Yet today you performed quality work. The kind of work I want all of my agents to produce."

"Thank you, sir," she replied and tried not to look as though she were feeling proud of herself, even though she was totally feeling proud of herself.

"This mission for Voloshin's head means a lot to you, I can tell," Fury said, and he folded his arms over his chest. "That was the one thing that got you to straighten up and drop the attitude."

"I have something to fight for now," Natasha spoke up; it was probably the most honest she'd ever been with the director—hell, maybe it was even the most honest she'd been in front of Clint, but her admission was now out there and couldn't be taken back. She kept her gaze level and her face calm and reserved as she looked up at Fury.

"Remember when I told you not to prove Agent Barton wrong?" Fury asked suddenly. Natasha blinked, and then she nodded, confused.

"Yes, sir," she replied.

"Well, I kind of wish I'd told you not to prove him right. When he's wrong, he sulks, but when he's right, he won't shut up about it for five months or so," Fury drily replied. He turned his gaze over to Clint, and Natasha looked, too. The blond agent was actually smiling, and he nodded in agreement.

"You're correct, sir," he said. Fury rolled his eye and looked back at Natasha.

"So far, you've shown that Agent Barton was right about you. Every opportunity you've had to fuck up, you haven't. Either your infiltration skills are that good, or your good streak wasn't as far down as we all thought it was," he said. "Now don't think I trust you. Because I don't. Not by a long shot. But if all goes according to plan, you should consider staying with us here at SHIELD."

Natasha was quiet for a few moments as she tried to process what he'd just said to her. She tilted her head, her red hair falling in a curtain over her shoulder, and she twisted her mouth to the side. "Sir?"

"If you successfully complete your next missions and then the Voloshin kill mission, there's always a spot for another agent here," Fury replied.

"You're asking me to think about joining SHIELD," Natasha said, the realization dawning over her. Fury nodded calmly.

"You've said yourself that you don't know what you're going to do after Voloshin's dead. Assuming we actually do kill the bastard," Fury answered, his tone mildly annoyed at the mention of Voloshin's name. "Your work is well known throughout the world, and it'd be stupid for me to let you go without offering you a spot with SHIELD."

Natasha had received more shocks in the past two and a half months during her time with SHIELD than she had in her entire life, and she still wasn't sure whether or not she felt that that was a good thing. This was the most unsure of anything she'd ever been—she'd always been trained to be strong and unwavering on her opinions and about what she wanted, but as she sat there in Nick Fury's office with Agent Coulson and Clint Barton looking at her, she realized that she'd never been so unsure about basically everything in her life than she had been since Clint had brought her in.

"I'll consider it, sir," she said finally.

"Good," Director Fury said in a monotone. "You're dismissed. Agent Coulson, I'd like to discuss that thing with you."

Clint and Natasha quietly stood up and exited the office as Agent Coulson and Director Fury turned towards the holoboard and started messing around with it. Natasha couldn't stop thinking about everything that had just happened inside that office; Director Fury had offered her a job with SHIELD. He'd told her that they could use someone like her there.

Clint shut the door behind them as they walked out of the office and into the hall. When he turned back to face her, he couldn't hide his wide, open smile. "Looks like you made an impression on Fury. This is seriously the only time he's ever done this. With anyone."

"I find that hard to believe," Natasha replied.

"Are you kidding? All agents have to go through the Academy," Clint said. "Even took a few courses at the Academy."

"Why?" Natasha asked.

"When SHIELD caught me, I didn't know shit about international law and procedures, so I had to sit through all those boring classes after I'd de-stressed and made the official switch from rogue-archer to SHIELD agent." He cocked an eyebrow at her. "Be glad you don't have to do any of that. It was boring as hell."

"How do you know I don't know all about it?" Natasha challenged.

"I guess I don't," Clint admitted. "You just seem like the type of person who knows but doesn't really give a shit about international law and procedures."

For the second time that day, Natasha allowed herself to smile as Clint managed to see through her. She wasn't sure how he was able to see her so clearly; maybe it really wasthose sky blue eyes of his that could see better from a distance. She noticed how his eyes flicked down to her mouth as she smiled, and his own smile seemed to soften a little. She wasn't sure if she were making it up, but she swore she saw a flicker of something pass over his face.

"I want a uniform that fits," Natasha said out loud. Clint's eyes darted back up to meet hers, and he acted as though he hadn't been distracted by her smile.

"I'll see what I can do," he said.

"And that'd better mean I get a uniform that fits properly before our next mission," Natasha answered in a nonplussed tone.

"So that means you'll stick around after we take down Voloshin?" Clint asked. She heard a hint of hopefulness in his voice, and she wondered why. It wasn't as though many people in her life had ever really wanted her around for anything other than business-related affairs. Or sex. Both men and women wanted her for her body and what she could do to them, but to have Clint sound hopeful at the thought of her sticking around made her really, really want to.

"If I get a uniform, I might as well," she nonchalantly replied. "Wouldn't want you to go through all that trouble for nothing."

"Understandable," Clint agreed. She glanced over at him and saw him rubbing his forehead, a mildly distracted look on his face.

"How's your headache?" she asked. He glanced back at her and frowned.

"Who said anything about a headache?" he asked.

"That sedative they hit you with? Midazolam. It can leave a nasty headache afterwards," she replied. "You usually don't rub your forehead, so I put my thinking cap on and deduced that you have a headache as a side effect from being knocked out."

"It's nothing that a few Advils can't help," Clint said with a shrug.

"Ibuprofen's better," Natasha answered. He looked over at her, and she shrugged innocently. "I think it's better."

"Thank you for your input," he said. They slowed to a stop in front of the elevator, and she watched him lean forward to press the button to call it. As he stepped back to wait, he looked at her again, this time a little more cautiously. "Thank you, by the way. For getting us out of there."

"It's what anyone would've done." Natasha shrugged dismissively.

"And you're not half-bad with a bow and arrow from what Palmer and Wood were saying," he pointed.

"I'll leave the bow and arrow to you." She gave him a half-smirk. "Anyway, now we're even."

She expected Clint to nod and agree with her, but instead, he frowned at her, looking genuinely bothered by what she'd just said.

"Even?" he repeated.

"Yeah," she said, frowning back at him. "You didn't kill me when you were supposed to, and I didn't let those people kill you."

"What the hell are you—no, that's not the way it works," Clint argued, his frown deepening. Natasha folded her arms over her chest as the sudden feeling of defensiveness settled into her.

"What are you talking about?" she asked.

"There was never any score to settle," Clint protested. "You don't owe me anything if that's what you're thinking. Is that what you're thinking?"

"I do owe you," Natasha argued, and she tightened her crossed arms. "You should've killed me back in Russia, but you didn't. I owe you the same respect that you showed me to square things off."

"No." Clint shook his head in frustration. This was the first time he'd ever really looked angry or exasperated with her, and Natasha couldn't figure out why. He looked so bothered by her words when he shouldn't have been. "You don't owe me anything. I don't play using a debt system or whatever it is you're thinking of."

"I can't not do it," Natasha said, her green eyes flashing as her temper rose. "I'm indebted to you, and I can't be. That's a weakness. It makes you vulnerable, and that's the last thing a good spy needs to be."

"This isn't the KGB," Clint said firmly. "I didn't make the call to not kill you because I wanted you to pay me back or some bullshit. I made that call because it was the human thing to do. You don't owe me a goddamn thing."

"Why are you angry?" Natasha asked. Clint lifted his eyebrows, and then he shook his head, a small, bitter smile coming over his lips.

"Don't change the subject," he said.

"I'm not," she bit back. "It's still on the same subject."

"It's a sub-subject," Clint corrected in a dismissive tone. Natasha rolled her eyes and slowly inhaled to keep her temper down.

"Ok, fine. It's a sub-subject," she conceded. "But why? Why are you angry?"

The elevator dinged and slid open. She glanced into it and saw that it was, thankfully, empty. She and Clint both stepped onto it.

"The holding cells," Clint said out loud to the elevator to tell it where to take them. Natasha turned her head sharply towards him—so they weren't going to the training room. He was leading her back to her cell. She was about to call him out on it when he folded his arms over his chest in return and turned to look at her. "Did you save me back there at the Reed facility because you felt you owed me?"

"No," Natasha angrily answered. "I made that call because I wanted to."

Clint's lips pressed together into a thin, firm line. "Why should I believe you?"

"Don't. No one's making you." Natasha was aware that she sounded like a child as she taunted Clint, but in that moment, she really couldn't give a fuck. She'd been honest when she'd said that she'd saved him because she'd wanted to. And she had. When she'd seen his knees start to give out beneath him, she'd run towards him without another thought in her head. She'd been concerned and worried for him, and she'd pulled him out of there because the thought of leaving him for the enemy hadn't even crossed her mind.

"You've spent the past three months trying to convince me that you have an ulterior motive, and now you want me to believe you," Clint challenged. She narrowed her eyes at him.

"No one's making you believe me," she stressed.

"So you don't want me to?" Clint asked. "You don't give a fuck whether I believe you or not?"

"It doesn't matter," Natasha said dismissively, and she pulled her eyes away from him, seeking the safety of looking outside through the glass windows on the elevator. It dinged to a stop, and she mentally sighed. Of course, as soon as she'd look out to the window to appear occupied, the elevator would have arrived. The doors slid open, and she stalked out of the small space and down the hall towards where her cell was.

"It does matter," Clint called out from behind her. She could hear his footsteps trailing behind, and she felt her annoyance rise up. The guards outside her cell looked cautiously at her and then back at Clint. Clint must've given them some kind of signal because they unlocked her cell and stepped back, leaving the door open as Natasha and then Clint walked in. "Dammit, Natasha, I'm talking to you."

"It doesn't matter whether or not I want you to believe me," Natasha flippantly replied as she carelessly climbed onto her bed and flipped herself around so that she could lean against the wall and stare at Clint. His arms were down by his sides, but he still looked pissed.

"Maybe not to you," he countered. She studied his face for a few quiet seconds.

"Why would it matter to you?" she asked.

"I'm your partner," Clint said in a frustrated tone.

"This is news to me," Natasha replied.

"If we're being sent out on missions together, I think that kind of constitutes as a partnership." Clint narrowed his eyes at her, and she narrowed hers back at him.

"I thought you were supposed to train me. Make sure I didn't do bad things. Keep me from figuring out how to break out of here so I could hightail my ass back to Russia," Natasha said.

"Not anymore," Clint replied.

"So then what am I still doing in a locked cell with guards parked right out front?" she asked angrily. "Partners don't keep partners locked up with guns right outside to neutralize them if they act up."

"You want out of here? Fine. I'll talk to Fury," Clint snapped.

"Thanks," she snapped back. Silence passed as they continued to scowl at each other, neither of them wanting to be the first to break the silence and figure out where they were going to go from there. Clint was usually the one who broke the silences, and Natasha was feeling the increasing pressure to be the one to take care of it this time. Finally, she slowly exhaled and spoke. "It would be nice if you believed me. That's all I'm saying."

"Was that so hard?" Clint asked with narrowed eyes.

"Yes. It was," Natasha sniped. "It really was. I'm nearly dead it took so much energy and effort to say it."

"Your sense of humor never disappoints," Clint quipped, though his face was still angry. "I'll see you later."

"So I'm just going to be stuck here the rest of the afternoon?" Natasha asked, the pitch and volume of her voice rising as Clint turned over his shoulder. He looked back and paused.

"Yeah," he said. "No training for the rest of the afternoon. You have an evening off."

Natasha stared at him in unbridled disbelief, and then she finally tossed her hair back over her shoulder. "Can I at least have some clothes to change into? I don't want to wear this damn uniform when it doesn't even fit."

"You're demanding today," Clint said. She continued to glare at him. "I'll go look in the Lost and Found or something. I'll see you later."

And then just like that, he was gone.

Natasha was left to fume by herself, and fume was exactly what she did. Who the fuck did Clint Barton think he was? He clearly didn't understand some things about the way that the whole life-saving thing worked—she'd learned early on that anytime someone saved her life, it was expected of her to pay back the debt somehow. Sometimes paying back her debt meant she saved that person in return, and sometimes it meant a night of lying underneath a man as he groaned and thrust his hips pathetically into her while she faked the pleasure he so thought he was giving her.

She'd learned the hard way that there was always a debt to be owed; it was just one more thing she didn't have a choice between. Angrily, she pulled her legs up into a criss-cross position and leaned her head back against the wall. The day had been going so well—the mission had gone not exactly according to plan, but it'd been successful, and that was all that mattered to her. Fury had even offered her a fucking job with SHIELD, and then Clint had to go and get all mad for no reason.

He was such a person sometimes, she thought to herself. He didn't take her little brush offs as answers, and he pushed her until she gave him an answer that satisfied him. And the worst part was that he was a good enough agent to know when she was telling him what he wanted to hear and when she was being genuine. She didn't know how he managed to do it because she was damn good at hiding her inner feelings, but somehow, Clint was able to distinguish the truth and the illusion.

She'd gotten to the point where she didn't mind his sense of humor and snarky little side comments; in fact, now that she was by herself with no more eyes on her, she could even admit that she liked those parts about him, but for Christ's sake, the man was annoying. He pressed her buttons, and he knew it, and she hated that he did it, and she hated that he was aware he was doing it.

Unfortunately, when Clint Barton had a target, he rarely missed it.

The next morning, Clint was several hours late. When he finally decided to show up, he stalked into the room and tossed her a t-shirt and what appeared to be men's basketball shorts. Natasha caught the items in her hand, and she stared at them, blinking once. Underneath all of her confusion, she noticed that Clint wasn't wearing his typical black SHIELD uniform; instead, he was wearing black jeans, a tight black t-shirt, and a black canvas jacket over top of it. Even outside of his uniform, he was rocking the black look, she noticed. However, she kept that thought to herself.

"What the hell are these?" she asked. She decided to pursue the confusion she was feeling instead of the anger since it was clear that Clint didn't appear any more thrilled to be around her than she was to be around him.

"They're clothes," Clint monotoned. "Get dressed."

"I could've used these last night instead of sleeping in this uniform," Natasha pointed out, refusing to move from her spot. "And why did you give me these? Where are the usual black ugly things you guys make me wear?"

"Can you get dressed? I'll explain when we leave," Clint shortly answered. Natasha visibly rolled her eyes and started lowering the zipper on the front of her uniform. "I'll be waiting out in the hall."

Again, Natasha felt mildly irked that he seemed to have no reaction to her whatsoever. The only time he'd ever really shown anything more than a cool glance towards her physical features was when he'd looked down at her mouth yesterday as she'd smiled. She was certain she'd seen a change of emotion come over him when he'd looked at her lips, but that was the one and only time he'd given her anything.

She dropped the uniform onto the floor and slipped into the basketball shorts and t-shirt. The t-shirt fit just fine, but the shorts were a little baggy on her. Making a face, she took the fabric between her fingers and rubbed it. She'd never been a fan of the American style men liked of wearing basketball shorts. In her opinion, if you weren't playing basketball, you had no reason to be wearing them. She let go of the material and crossed into the hall. Clint looked up at her.

"Let's go," he said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of keys; however, these didn't look like a set of keys to cells—besides, SHIELD didn't use keys to lock and unlock the cells. They were fond of using ID cards to scan in everywhere, so it wasn't as if he'd even unlocked her cell. If Natasha weren't mistaken, and she rarely was when it came to this kind of thing, the keys in his hand appeared to be car keys.

"Are those car keys?" she asked out loud.

"Yep," Clint answered in a clipped tone. So he's still pissed, she thought to herself.

"We're leaving?" she asked, unable to hide the shock in her voice. Clint nodded.

"Yep. We're going shopping," he said, and from the sound of his voice, the thought sounded torturous to him. He started walking down the hall, and she quickened her pace to keep up with him.

"For what? Why are we going shopping?" she asked.

"We're getting you clothes. Coulson gave the order," he replied. "Seems that SHEILD got tired of keeping you in those black clothes you hated, anyway."

"And you expect me to go out like this?" Natasha retorted, and she gestured down to her t-shirt, basketball shorts, and SHIELD-issued sneakers. Clint glanced over at her, and for the first time that morning, a hint of a smirk ghosted over his lips.

"Yep," he said. "After we hit the first store, you can always change if you want." He noticed her scowl. "On the bright side, you won't have to worry about anyone recognizing you dressed like that."

He had a point.

"This is a terrible outfit," she said.

"It was the only thing that looked like it'd fit you in the Lost and Found box," Clint replied.

"SHIELD has a Lost and Found box?" Natasha asked, amusement creeping into her voice.

"You'd be surprised the things that turn up," Clint said. Silently, she followed him down the hall and into the elevator, watching him announce that they were going to the garage.

When the doors slid open, she looked around and saw that the SHIELD garage looked like every other parking garage in the world. She didn't know why this delighted her so much, but she liked that the organization hadn't taken something as simple as a parking garage and turned it into something ultra-fancy the way they did everything else. She'd taken a look at the coffee maker in the lounge once, and that thing had looked way more intricate than it should've been.

Clint stalked his way to a sleek black car and unlocked it, the car releasing two short brassy beeps to signal that it was unlocked. Natasha knew her fair share of cars, and she was definitely impressed by the car they were going to be riding in. Glancing down at her outfit again, she felt another flash of annoyance come over her. T-shirts and basketball shorts were not the kind of clothes to wear to ride in this kind of car, she thought.

"Is this yours?" she asked as she ducked into it. Placing the key into the ignition and turning, Clint let out a short laugh while shaking his head.

"Hell no," he said. "SHIELD would never let me drive my own wheels in a million years. This baby belongs to them."

So the topic of cars had made him a little less hostile, she noticed.

"It's a nice car," she commented.

"Isn't it?" Clint agreed, his standoffish demeanor slowly evaporating. Natasha looked out the window as he backed out of the spot and shifted the car into Drive.

"Where are we going?" she asked.

"The mall. It has a lot of stores that you can choose from." As he eased out of the parking garage and onto the bridge, he dug around in his back pocket, shifting awkwardly in the driver's seat to get it out, and then he pulled out his wallet. "And I've got Daddy's credit card."

"So SHIELD's buying my clothes. I feel like I'm a trophy wife," she said smoothly.

"Your bosses have never bought you clothes before?" Clint asked, and he risked a glance over towards her. Natasha paused.

"More or less," she said. Clint didn't push the issue.

By the time Clint had rolled into the parking garage of the mall and put the beautiful black car in Park, Natasha was able to conclude three more things about him:

1. Clint Barton was a classic rock junkie, preferring the sounds of Led Zeppelin and AC/DC over bands such as The Who or The Clash.

2. Clint Barton didn't like anyone else touching the radio while he drove.

3. Clint Barton didn't give a shit if she adjusted the temperature all she wanted.

She kept these valuable little pieces locked away in the back of her mind to remember for the future. Clint had said that they were partners now, and even though she still got the feeling that he was taking on more of a make-sure-she-doesn't-kill-anyone role, they were more partner-like than she'd originally thought. Unhappily, she opened the car door and eased out of the passenger's seat, trying not to feel like an asshole in her ridiculous clothes.

It's better than being naked, she silently told herself. Just think. It's better than being naked.

She didn't wait for Clint, choosing instead to lead the way with her head held high and her red hair tossed back as she started towards the signs that pointed to the entrance of the mall. If she'd bothered to look back at Clint, she would've seen him smile.

Natasha knew the stores she liked, and she hit them as soon as she set foot through the door. Clint was silent, following her like the good little archer he was. She could sense his resentment for being in the mall, and it amused her. It wasn't until she was scrolling through the racks at the third store, bags already hanging off her arms and a new outfit on her body that she brought it up.

"Not a fan of the mall?" she asked.

"Nope," he answered dully. "I'm more of an online guy."

"Now why does that not surprise me?" Natasha pulled out a pair of jeans and studied them. Jeans were always tricky because the legs were usually longer than hers were. At 5'3", she wasn't the tallest of women, but she wasn't the shortest of women, either. However, it was a never-ending frustration for her to find jeans that didn't hang off the ends of her feet.

"It must be my loner attitude," Clint deadpanned. Natasha wished that she didn't find that to be hilarious, but she did, and she suddenly burst out laughing. She'd never laughed in front of Clint before, and that did the trick to lower away the rest of his resentments because his blue eyes widened, and he paused.

"Yeah, right," Natasha returned, acting as if she hadn't done anything out of the ordinary. She could feel Clint's cool, surprised gaze on her as she decided that she did, in fact, want these jeans. After a complete examination, she'd been able to determine that they wouldn't be too long for her. And as a bonus, the fabric seemed to be stretchy enough to make combat that much easier. She definitely always appreciated a pair of pants she could fight in.

She looked up to walk around the rack to the other side. She started perusing through the clothes on that side when she noticed a woman staring hard at Clint. Instantly, her guard went up. Who was this woman, and why was she staring? What did she want with him? Who could have sent her? But as Natasha looked back, she realized that her first instincts of Clint being tailed were wrong—Clint was being admired.

"Secret admirer on your five," she announced smoothly and pleasantly. Clint was on the other side of the rack where she'd just come from, his face still in shock from having just seen her laugh, and he rolled his eyes.

"Funny," he said.

"No, I'm serious," she replied. "There's a woman in a burgundy scarf and a white button down who thinks you're the bees knees."

"That's a terrible expression," Clint said, but he discreetly turned so he could look in the direction that Natasha had indicated. When he turned back, his blue eyes held that mischievous glint to them. "Huh. I guess you're right."

"I think she wants to be your Lady Hawk," Natasha added. Clint made a face and sighed.

"I never should've encouraged you to start talking," he sighed.

"I can go back to being silent, if that's who you want me to be," Natasha replied in her dry tone.

"No, that's not who I want you to be." Clint smirked. "As appealing as silence sounds."

"So who do you want me to be?" she asked, no longer joking. She paused for a just a brief second to glance over the top of the rack to take in his expression. Clint's face was thoughtful and calm as he looked at her, his eyes sharp but relaxed. He kind of looked the way he did whenever he was about to release an arrow.

"You," he said.

"Mmm, that option is not on the table," she easily replied as she pulled off a jacket from the rack and looked at it. "Next choice."

"Nonexistent," Clint replied. She paused and frowned.

"The next choice is you'd like me to be nonexistent, or is the next choice itself nonexistent?" she asked.

"The next choice itself is nonexistent," Clint clarified.

"Then it looks like we're at a draw," Natasha said, and she looked back down to examine her jacket. "So you're done being mad at me, I noticed."

"I can go back to being angry, if you'd like," he pointed out. Natasha considered this, and then she shook her head.

"No," she said. "You're more bearable to be around when you're in a good mood."

"I'm not in a good mood," Clint argued. "I'm in a mall, and there's a strange woman over there making eyes at me."

Natasha glanced over to the woman again and grinned. "She definitely wants to be your Lady Hawk."

"How much longer are you going to be? I'm hungry," Clint announced.

"Not much. I'm just about ready. I'm getting a little hungry, too, now that you mention it," she said and threw the jacket over her arm to purchase. "Daddy's credit card paying for lunch, too?"

"You bet," Clint said. He followed behind Natasha as she walked up to the cashier and placed the items she'd picked out on the counter. Natasha stood patiently and waited for the woman to ring through everything before announcing the total. So far, Natasha had racked up about $500 in clothes, and she really wasn't feeling guilty at all. Clint passed over the credit card, and the cashier took it.

"Where do you want to go for lunch?" he asked.

"What's good around here?" Natasha asked back.

"There's always the food court. That's not bad. There is a nice café place right by the house, though," Clint said. Natasha noticed that he referred to HQ as the house instead of Headquarters, and she nodded to show that she was picking up on it.

"We can always go there," she said. "I'm in the mood for a good coffee. Our coffee maker at home is good, but I'm in the mood for real coffee."

"Sounds good," Clint said happily. Natasha caught him glancing over at the woman who was staring at him, and she smirked. He made eye contact with her and widened his eyes slightly. Getting out of there couldn't happen fast enough for Clint Barton.

By the time the two spies had gotten a quick bite to eat and a coffee and returned to HQ, they were both tired but in a different way than they had been from yesterday. Clint's headache was gone, and Natasha felt better about everything that had happened since then. They walked into the building and started towards the elevator when a female agent reached out and grabbed Clint's arm as she passed him.

"Agent Barton, Agent Coulson's been looking for you," the agent said.

"Ok. Is he in his office?" Clint asked.

"That's where I saw him last, but that was about half an hour ago," she replied. Clint nodded authoritatively.

"Thanks, Agent Lopez," he said. The woman turned and walked off, leaving Clint and Natasha alone. He turned and looked at Natasha.

"Ready to go see what our pal Phil has to say?" he asked.

"He's looking for you. Not me," Natasha replied. Clint half-rolled his eyes, and he shrugged as he walked over to the elevator, Natasha beside him.

"He's probably expecting you to come, too," he said, and then he looked pointedly at her. "Since we're partners."

Natasha didn't say anything as they both waited for the elevator to come pick them up. Partners. She ran the word through her head. She'd never really been much of a team player, always preferring to work solo. That was how she'd been trained in the Red Room, and that was how she'd worked with the KGB. Of course, every now and then she'd been a part of a "team" effort, but really, for the most part she'd worked alone.

She sneaked a peek to her left to look at Clint. Her partner. Weird. It'd take some getting used to when thinking of having a partner, but she figured that if she could get used to marching to the beat of Fury's drum, she could get used to referring to smartass Clint Barton as her partner. She inwardly winced at the thought of herself beating to Fury's drum—she hadn't made a fully official decision to stay with SHIELD, even though everything seemed to be leaning in that direction, but she hated the idea of following someone else's orders. Then again, she didn't know any differently. She'd always followed orders no matter what.

The elevator slid open, and she and Clint stepped on.

"Holding Cells," Clint said out loud to direct the system to what floor he wanted. He noticed Natasha's frown, and he nodded towards her bags. "You really want to go see Coulson dragging those along?"

"Fair enough," Natasha replied. They finished the ride down in silence, and Clint held the elevator door open while the guards unlocked her cell door so she could drop her bags off before getting back on with Clint.

"Field Operations," Clint ordered as soon as she was back on.

"What does Coulson want with you?" she asked.

"I talked to him about some things, so he's probably just getting back to me on them," Clint replied in a casual tone. Natasha nodded but didn't say anything. Finally, the elevator reached the floor they'd wanted, and the doors slid open. She stepped out first and looked around before realizing she didn't know where she was going, and Clint did. Some of the agents were staring at her, but she didn't show any acknowledgement of it as Clint exited the elevator and started walking down the hall.

He slowed to a stop in front of an office and knocked on the doorframe before sticking his head in. "Agent Coulson?"

"Agent Barton," Coulson greeted from inside. "Come in."

Clint crossed into the room, Natasha at his side, and he sat down in one of the chairs in front of Coulson's desk while Natasha sank into the other. Natasha looked over at Agent Coulson and gave him a small smile, simply a return of the one he was giving her.

"I'm glad you came, Miss Romanoff," he said. "I was hoping you would." He looked over at Clint. "Agent Barton here came to me asking if there was any way we could get you out of the cells since Fury's all but offered you a slot here. I didn't think Fury was going to go for it. You know…he's very against stuff like this, but he surprised us all, and he ok'd it."

"Wait, really?" Natasha asked without bothering to hide her surprise.

"Yes," Coulson replied. "You're being moved to a room, so you'll no longer be living in a cell. Now keep in mind that the room will be monitored for any suspicious activity. You may have passed the first mission with flying colors, but there's still a certain amount of caution that Director Fury wants to use."

"I understand, sir," Natasha said quickly to show that she wasn't putting up a fight.

"I'm issuing you a temporary ID Visitor ID card. That means the only places you'll really have access to are the cafeteria, the bathroom, the shower room, and your room. You'll be moved in effective immediately," Coulson said. He held out a plastic card to her, and she took it, stunned.

"Thank you, sir," she said.

"Director Fury likes you a lot. He's not the warmest of men, but…" Coulson's voice trailed off, and he shrugged. "Anyway, that's what I called Agent Barton here for, but we've got that all taken care of."

"Thank you," Natasha repeated, and she looked down at the card in her hands. Beside her, Clint stood up and mock-saluted Coulson.

"Good seeing you, Phil," he said. "Any idea when our next mission will be?"

"Currently taking care of that," Coulson replied with a smile. Natasha eased out of her chair, feeling mildly dazed, and she followed Clint out the door as he gave the older agent a thumbs up. Clint looked at Natasha's card and smirked.

"Told you I'd see what I could do."

Clint knew that he was pushing his luck with every request he had for Director Fury in terms of Natasha Romanoff. He'd been pushing his luck since the day he'd brought her back alive, and he was fully aware of it. So after he'd angrily stormed out of Natasha's cell yesterday and cooled down, he'd gone to Agent Coulson instead of Fury, knowing that Fury would get more annoyed with seeing him than he would with seeing Coulson.

He hadn't expected Fury to agree to letting Natasha out of the cell, but it seemed that he was in for a lot of surprises these days. Yesterday, Natasha had smiled, and today she'd even laughed. And to top it all off, Fury was letting her move out of her cell and into a room on one of the floors that housed the agents who chose to live there. Coulson was right in saying that Fury liked Natasha—Clint had been able to pick up on that much as well. Even though the Russian assassin was sharp and prickly, there was also something about her that'd made him like her within the first few days of training.

She'd been silent and angry, but he'd known she was listening—at least, he'd been hoping she was listening—and little by little, she'd slowly started to lower her defensive weapons. That being said, she still hadn't completely lowered her defenses, but they were down low enough to the point where she'd laughed in front of him today, and that was worth it.

She'd actually laughed. The tough, no-nonsense Black Widow had laughed. Yesterday, he'd been distracted by her mouth as she'd smiled, but today he'd been even more distracted by the sound of how nice her laugh was. He'd been trying very hard to never look at her lips while she was talking, to never show what he really thought about her in terms of her looks. He remembered the first time he'd seen her, and he'd felt his mouth go dry.

Natasha Romanoff was beautiful, but he refused to let her know that he thought she was, too. He knew she was used to men only wanting her for her physicality, and he didn't want to be another skeevy man, so from Day One, he'd made the conscious decision to never reveal the fact that he thought she was gorgeous, and God, was it a challenge.

All this time Natasha had thought she'd been compromised, but little did she know that Clint Barton had been compromised, too.


Chapter Text

Chapter 11

"Morning, sunshine."

Clint slid into place across the table from Natasha. Natasha paused, her spoonful of cereal halfway up to her mouth.

"How'd you find me?" she asked.

"I'm smart," Clint smoothly replied. He picked up the knife and fork on the plastic red tray and eyed his omelet happily. "How you like your room?"

"I almost didn't know what to do with myself knowing that there weren't any armed guards outside my door," she quipped. Clint's blue eyes lit up with amusement as he started cutting into his omelet. Natasha could smell it from where she sat, and she had to admit that it smelled good; she wasn't terribly fond of omelets, but Clint's definitely looked appetizing.

"Oh, you'll get used to it," he answered, his tone playing off of hers. "Almost like a security blanket, isn't it?" He paused and tilted his head to the side. "Pun not intended but fully applicable."

"Angry men carrying guns are exactly my definition of a comforting security blanket," Natasha replied, her tone unreadable. She felt Clint's blue eyes on her, and she could feel his cautious stare as he tried to figure out if she were being serious or not. As much as she wanted to smile to let him know she was just fucking with him, she didn't. Instead, she kept her eyes on her cereal and took another bite of it.

"So Black Widow likes Raisin Bran," Clint said. "That doesn't surprise me."

"Oh, yeah?" Natasha asked with a smirk. Clint smiled and nodded.

"You don't stay fit just by working out a lot," he said.

"What are you, my nutritionist?" Natasha quipped good-naturedly.

"Yep," Clint happily answered. "Didn't I tell you that? I'm here to make sure you eat healthily. All that junk you've been eating…the damage it'll do to your body…" He shook his head to make his point. He didn't bother to include the fact that he didn't think any amount of healthy eating could damage Natasha's perfect body—that was just something he'd keep to himself.

Natasha allowed herself to give him a small, genuine smile, and she ate another spoonful of her Raisin Bran. She actually hated Raisin Bran, but she knew it was healthier than Froot Loops or any of the other cereal options SHIELD had in their cafeteria. She really wasn't a fan of Froot Loops, either, but at least it had more flavor than Raisin Bran.

Clint was wearing his black SHIELD uniform again, and she had to admit to herself that she kind of missed seeing him in his other clothes from yesterday. Sometimes Clint was so human that it pissed her off, but other times it was nice to see him looking like every other person. Though every other person wasn't quite as good-looking as he was. Discreetly, she studied him from behind her glass of water as she took large gulps from it.

She'd studied Clint Barton many times in the past, and she felt that she had studied him enough to really know his face, but she hadn't studied him—she hadn't truly looked at him, and she used the opportunity to do so then. He had a wide-set face, and normally she didn't think that that would be attractive, but on him it was. His sense of humor was practically written all over his round, widened features as well as a degree of honesty she wouldn't have expected from him.

Thinking back, she remembered the first time she'd seen him. He'd been in the doorway of the hotel room with his gun drawn and cocked, ready to land a bullet in her skull. It'd bothered her that she hadn't been able to see his face behind his goggles—she'd wanted to look at his face even then. But at that time in her life, he'd been a stranger. A stranger sent to kill her. As she looked at him now, she found it hard to believe that this man had ever sought her out with the intentions of ending her life.

And yet it didn't really seem all that impossible. She still didn't know much about Clint's background, but she knew that he was every bit as much of a killer as she was—had she been in his place, she would've pulled the trigger on the spot and then hightailed it out of there to avoid whatever negative repercussions had come next. But then again, she wasn't sure if she could've killed him. Not when he'd looked at her with those stunning eyes of his. She liked to think that she would've been able to keep her wits about her long enough to blast him to kingdom come, but she really wasn't convinced of it. Clint Barton really, really got to her.

"What are we going to do today?" she asked.

"More training," Clint replied. "I think we have another basic mission coming up."

"Will it be as ridiculous as this last one was?" she asked. Clint smirked.

"Probably," he said. "Remember, Fury only wants us doing Level One work."

"I know," she drily replied. "I hate it."

"Trust me. I do, too." Clint sighed. "If I had my way, we'd be working at our own levels."

"So what's your level?" Natasha asked. Innocently, she lifted her spoon to her mouth and put it between her lips. She was purposefully doing this in order to get some kind of reaction out of the sarcastic archer, but he kept his gaze on her face, totally unfazed.

"Not letting that one go yet?" he mused. She shook her head.

"You said we're partners," she countered. "Wouldn't partners know what each other's levels are?"

"I hate when you're right," Clint deadpanned. "I'm Level Six."

"Oo, impressive," Natasha answered as she lifted her red eyebrows at him. She lowered her eyelids slightly as she ducked her head down the tiniest bit to spoon another mouthful of cereal into her mouth. She never thought she'd be seductively eating Raisin Bran at a cafeteria in Washington D.C., directing her bedroom eyes towards someone who'd tried to kill her only several months before.

Clint merely shrugged and hacked another piece of his omelet off onto his fork. He lowered his blue eyes towards his plate and ate it. Natasha tried to figure out if he'd looked away from her because he'd noticed she was trying to seduce him via Raisin Bran or if he genuinely wanted to look at his omelet so he didn't cut a finger off.

"When do you think we'll ship out?" she asked.

"I don't know. Coulson'll probably call us up to his office sometime soon," he said.

"What exactly does he do here?"

"He leads missions—he's the main guy who supervises us all. Figures out the plan, maps it out, explains it to us, answers any questions. Basically, he's the reason we're all not dead yet." Clint smiled. "He's cool."

"He's one of the only people here who hasn't acted afraid of me," Natasha remarked.

"He's a big believer in the second chance thing," Clint explained. "He worked a lot with me back when I was dabbling in my days of crime."

It was then that Natasha realized she really didn't know very much about Clint Barton. She knew he liked classic rock; she knew he could turn anything into a joke; she knew he didn't like talking about his past; she knew he had nightmares and loved the sound of rain and views from the tops of buildings. She knew all of these little things about him, but she didn't actually know him. She wondered how badly she'd be fucking herself over if she did get to know him. And then she realized just how badly she'd been compromised—the Black Widow had never been interested in learning about anyone else before.

Suddenly overwhelmed, she looked away from him and down into the milky mess of her abhorred Raisin Bran. Natasha Romanoff was many things, but vulnerable was something she'd never been before. Until now.

Natasha grinned at the final product of her shooting practice. She peered into the booth beside her to take a look at Clint—he had absolutely perfect form whenever he shot a gun or a bow and arrow, and for the thousandth time, Natasha found herself appreciating his physicality and his musculature as he shot. He seemed to feel her green eyes on him, and he paused, turning over his shoulder to look at her.

"You good?" he asked.

"It was a successful round," Natasha replied. "Almost as good as yours."

"Gee, Nat, at least buy me dinner before you start trying to woo me," he said dramatically. Natasha lifted her eyebrows in an almost bored expression, and the corners of her mouth tilted up into a smirk.

"I woo much better than I shoot, Barton," she said dismissively. She noticed the muscles around Clint's jaw tightened, and she inwardly smiled to herself; however, she didn't show any signals of triumph on her face. "But I'm almost as on point as you are."

"If I didn't know any better, I'd think you were trying to compete with me," Clint said. He finally lowered his gun and turned around to face her completely. Natasha stepped around the wall of the booth and folded her arms across her chest as she leaned against the side of the wall.

"I'm not used to someone being better than me at something," she said honestly. "I mean, I'm good, but you're good. Your aim…your eye for it…"

Clint shrugged with a half-modest look on his face. She waited for him to say something, but he didn't. They were there in the same small booth, and they were close, and they weren't speaking. The tension wasn't exactly uncomfortable, but it wasn't comfortable, per se.

"Where'd you learn how to do it?" she asked. Clint stared at her with his sharp blue eyes, but he didn't say anything, though she saw the muscles of his mouth twitch a little bit. "Hey, you know where came from."

"The circus," he said shortly. Natasha tilted her head in surprise—out of all the answers she would've expected from him, that was the last one.

"The circus," she repeated. "Color me surprised."

"I know. Hard to believe," he answered.

"You don't look like a circus boy," Natasha remarked. She allowed her eyes to drift over him head to toe. "You look liked a military man."

"Just because I started out in the circus doesn't mean I didn't get any military training," he said vaguely. Natasha's green eyes stared hard at him as she tried to figure him out.

"What's your full name?" she asked.

"Why do you want to know?" he countered. She paused. Why did she?

"We're partners, aren't we?" she returned in a matter of fact voice. Clint didn't do anything a few seconds, and then he slowly nodded.

"Clinton Francis Barton," he said finally.

"Clinton," Natasha repeated. "You should go by Clinton."

"Should I?" he asked back with an amused smile settling onto his lips. She nodded earnestly.

"It's nice." In that one compliment, she felt as though she'd been more honest with him than she'd ever been in these three months. Clint sat on the ledge of the booth that stuck out from the window, and he looked at her.

"Thank you," he said. Then he grinned. "You really should take me out to dinner before showering a boy with too many compliments."

"You're right," Natasha agreed with a conceding shrug. "A boy. Not a man." Before Clint could respond, she started talking again. "Were your parents with the circus?"

"How does this help us be partners?" Clint asked. His tone wasn't defensive or accusatory—it was genuine and curious all at once, as if he were really trying to understand her motive for asking.

"The more I know about you, the more I can figure out who you are," she said, another honest statement pouring free from her lips.

"A good spy never gives away his secrets," Clint said, that same amused smile passing over his mouth again.

"Touche," Natasha said. They were at their millionth impasse, but this one wasn't out of a challenge—they were circling each other as they tried to figure out who they fit in with one another. Natasha tried to picture herself becoming an agent of SHIELD, becoming an American who used her skills for good.

She thought about her past, even though that was something she generally tried to avoid. She'd killed more than she'd saved—hell, she'd barely saved anyone, if she'd saved any people at all. She'd been trained to be a weapon, and that was exactly what she'd been. She'd been a lethal, cold-blooded weapon with no emotions, no control, and no choices; it hadn't been until the past year or so that she'd really started to wonder if what she was doing was right. And every time those thoughts had started to rise up in the back of her mind, she'd shut them down because those were the kind of thoughts that got you killed.

Technically, the KGB had collapsed in 1991. Voloshin had been a powerful leader involved with the Russian organization, and when the KGB had fallen, he'd kept his people together. He'd taken his followers and worked secretly, slowly turning into a Russian mob, an agency that killed and took and did whatever the fuck they could to stay afloat. To stay in control.

And that was what Natasha's role had been; she'd been raised and trained in the Red Room to be one of those who killed for the KGB, and they'd even loaned her out to allies as a "weapon." Several times she'd even worked silently for opposing agencies because they'd offered her quiet money that she just hadn't been able to turn down. In fact, the mission that she'd been working when Clint had intervened had been for an opposing agency.

That was the real reason why she was so afraid. Voloshin had found out, and that was the real reason why he wanted to kill her. She wanted to tell all of this to Clint, but she couldn't seem to make her mouth move. So she stopped trying. She kept her eyes on his face and her mouth shut as they looked at each other.

Natasha was a firm believer in the saying that actions spoke louder than words, but eyes spoke the most of all. Finally, she stopped leaning against the wall and lowered her arms from over her chest. "I'll let you finish."

"Ok," Clint said.

"I'm probably going to try another gun. See if I can get my scores up," she said, and then she ducked back around the wall of the booth so she didn't have to look at him anymore. Clint could see through her—she knew he could. Those addictive eyes…it was unfair how he could see straight into her like that. Or at least that's how it felt, and Natasha could only take being naked for so long.

Clint Barton and Natasha Romanoff spent the next month pulling back-to-back Level One missions. They were quick, they were efficient, and they were everything Fury could have hoped for them to be. Neither of them felt challenged by the simple things they were assigned to do, but they never complained about it to either Coulson or Fury; instead, they complained to each other, moaning about how they could work so much better than the others.

However, that all came to a stop one day when Agent Coulson called the two of them into his office.

Natasha was wearing her black SHIELD uniform that'd been custom-made for her—to say that she was ecstatic to be out of the one they'd originally given her would have been an understatement—and Clint was in his own specially outfitted black uniform as they both eased into the two seats in front of Agent Coulson's desk. Natasha noticed Agent Hill in the corner of the room—she didn't know Agent Hill as well as she would've liked, but she'd heard amazing things about the woman, and she knew she already liked the sharp-looking brunette.

"Congratulations," Agent Coulson said. Clint and Natasha stared at him with blank looks on their faces.

"Sir?" Clint asked, the pitch of his voice rising up at the end to indicate his question.

"I'm congratulating you two on your happy union," Coulson replied by way of explanation, and he placed a set of wedding bands on the desk. Again, the two spies gave him blank looks. "Well, I should probably back up first."

"That'd be appreciated," Natasha spoke up.

"Your next mission," Coulson said. He pushed the manila folder stamped with the SHIELD emblem on the top of it towards the two. "You're going undercover."

"Undercover?" Natasha repeated. She was unable to keep the happy tone out of her voice and the sparkly look out of her green eyes. She'd always loved going undercover—there was a reason she was so fucking good at espionage, and it wasn't because she knew how to handle a gun.

"You heard correctly," Coulson said. Eagerly, Natasha reached out and snatched up the file before Clint could, and she started reading over it. Words on the page jumped out all over: England, gallery, Derek Carnegie, biochemist. She raised an eyebrow and glanced up at Coulson.

"A biochemist who's into art?" she asked. "If that doesn't sound like a contradiction, then I don't know what is."

"Let me see," Clint said. She glared at him.

"I'm not done."

"You've been looking at it for 10 minutes."

"It's been more like 10 seconds."

"Same difference."

"No, it's not."

"Can you just give me the file?"

"You're so impatient."

"See, you're already falling into the parts of a married couple," Coulson said, beaming brightly at the two spies as if they were his own children. Natasha paused, and Clint jumped on the opportunity to take the file from her hands. Coulson nodded towards the rings on the table. "Hence my earlier congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Blake."

"Honey, I'm home," Clint smartly quipped, meriting a scowl from Natasha. He leaned back in his seat and skimmed over the file. "So Derek Carnegie likes planting human genes into animals to see what they can do. Nasty son of a bitch."

"Precisely," Coulson agreed. "And he has a penchant for art. This weekend there's a soiree at The National Gallery. Carnegie's on the guest list."

"And so are Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Blake," Natasha confirmed. Agent Coulson nodded again.

"Oo, I'm the CEO of a very successful medicine company," Clint announced out loud. "And Samantha Blake, my vivacious wife, is an accomplished polo player with all kinds of medals and awards. Wow, we are quite elite."

"Oh!" Coulson exclaimed. He reached down and opened a drawer, pulling out a slip of paper. "Miss Romanoff, you have a hair appointment bright and early tomorrow morning."

"Hair appointment?" Natasha asked. Coulson nodded.

"Your red hair makes you stand out a bit," he said. "We're going for something a little more…subtle."

Natasha didn't need to ask what subtle meant—she'd been through enough dye jobs that it no longer fazed her to hear that she was going to need to die her hair again. She just hoped that it wasn't platinum blonde; the last time she'd had to dye her hair blonde, it'd come out almost whitish and had ruined her hair for a long time. She absentmindedly brushed a hand over her long red hair. Her hair was her pride and joy, one of her favorite things about herself. After all the care she'd put into it to get it healthy again, it sure as hell had better be one of her favorite physical features. Off to her right, Clint was still scanning over the file. Suddenly, he frowned and glanced up at Coulson. "This is a Level Four operation."

"You're correct, Barton." Coulson barely bat an eyelash.

"I thought we were only supposed to do Level One," Clint replied, still looking confused.

"Every single mission has been successfully completed," Coulson said. He leaned forward onto his desk, his sincere eyes quietly regarding the both of them. "This is it."

Natasha glanced over at Clint and saw him looking just as confused as he'd been before.

"I don't understand," she said.

"This is it," Coulson slowly repeated. "The last mission."

"And if all goes according to plan…" Clint's voice trailed off as he began to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Natasha's green eyes widened, and she felt her breathing stop—she understood.

"Voloshin," she said. Coulson nodded.

"Yep," he said. "When you get back from England, we'll go into specific details and discussion regarding the mission. Your knowledge of the organization will be essential to understanding how we're supposed to get straight to him."

The feeling had left Natasha's body, and she found her body moving without realizing that her brain had sent the commands. She was nodding slowly with huge eyes as she understood precisely what Coulson was saying. If she and Clint were able to capture Derek Carnegie and bring him in for questioning, she'd be good as gold—she was going to kill Voloshin. She slowly inhaled and then exhaled as her heart started beating again.

Coulson nodded towards the file. "Look over that file. Spend the next 48 hours studying the plan. We'll meet again in two days, same time. If you have any questions, ask them then. If you have any suggestions or corrections, we'll talk about them. You have five days until you ship out."

"Yes, sir," Clint said. He leaned forward and picked the set of wedding bands off the table before looking down at Natasha. She was still rooted in her seat, her body almost completely frozen. "Nat?"

At the sound of her shortened name, she looked up at him as if she'd suddenly remembered he were there. She blinked, and then she quickly stood up. She could hear Clint exchanging pleasantries with Coulson, and she was pretty sure that Coulson said something to her, but she was so busy thinking and planning and trying to remind herself to breathe that she didn't know what he'd said or what the words that came out of her mouth in response were.

She followed Clint out of Coulson's office with stiff, robotic legs. As soon as Clint closed the door behind him, he turned towards with a half-concerned, half-excited look on his wide face.

"Are you ok?" he asked. Stiffly, she nodded.

"I passed," she breathed.

"Of course you did," Clint said, his tone showing that he hadn't thought there'd be another option. "You want this bad enough."

"I do," she said. He saw her green eyes slide off to the side and grow distant, and he moved himself so that he was right in front of her.

"Hey. Hey." He bent his knees so that his face was in front of hers. As always seemed to be the case, the shocking blue of his eyes was what brought her back to Earth, back to him. "Nat? Come on, we've got to stay focused all through this weekend. If we're not focused—"

"I know," she interrupted quietly. Finally, she gave him a tiny half-smile. "It's actually funny that this mission's so important."

"Why?" Clint curiously asked, his eyes searching over her face. She forced herself to inhale and exhale again.

"Last time I was in London, I was working a mission for Voloshin. I was undercover for three months trying to infiltrate this—this gang that'd been sending threats to him," she explained almost breathlessly. "It's funny. I was there working a mission for him, and this time I'll be working a mission for him again. But for him in a different way."

She'd never willingly opened up about her past to Clint before; she'd never talked about any of her past missions or her past kills—hell, he still didn't even know the real reason that Voloshin would strip the skin from her piece by piece if he got a hold of her. And as she looked up at him, she suddenly realized that he couldn't know that about her. Everyone at SHIELD's main concern about her had been her loyalty towards the KGB; if they found out that she'd been taking jobs outside the KGB, they'd question her loyalty and thereby question how much they could trust her. She needed any amount of trust from them because she needed to be in on this mission.

"That's irony for you," Clint said. "Bites like a bitch."

"It does," Natasha murmured in agreement.

"Let's go back to the training room, and we can figure out what exactly we're going to be doing," he said. He started to walk down the hall to the elevators, Natasha falling into step beside him. Every sense of her body was simply tingling with anticipation. This was it. This was really it. One more mission, and then she'd be in.

The mission sounded simple enough—it was like a thousand other missions she'd done before. She would be bringing in someone for questioning, an arrogant jackass who thought he could fuck around with genetics and animals. Well, the KGB hadn't been all that big on catching people who did shit like that, but her part of the mission was the same: catch him. And that was precisely what she planned on doing.

"Do you know how to ride a horse?" Clint asked.

"Of course I do," Natasha answered in a bored tone.

"Do you know how to play polo?" he followed up. She looked up from the sheets detailing the persona she was supposed to play, and she considered his question.

"I can learn," she said. "I know the basics of the game, but I've never actually played it."

"So you know terminology and everything?"

"Terminology's my middle name." Natasha flipped the page. "You know anything about medicine?"

"I know a shit ton about pain medicine."

She glanced up from her file again. "I bet you do."

"Is that supposed to imply something about my character, Romanoff?" Clint raised a cheeky eyebrow towards her.

"It's meant to imply that I'm sure you get hurt a lot," she returned. Clint narrowed his eyes playfully at her, and he shook his head.

"I'm not going to grace that with a comment," he said.

"Oh, thank God."

"Watch it." He looked down and started reading again. Natasha took a sneak peek over her sheets of paper and saw that Clint wasn't looking at her. She couldn't see much of his face, but she could see the top of his blond head. His hair wasn't completely blond—the kind of blond that obviously set him apart as being blond. It was a dark blond, so dark that it could almost pass for a light brown. But in the lights of the SHIELD facility, the blond glint of it stood out.

She could imagine what he must have looked like as a little kid. All blue eyes and light blond hair—he'd probably been much blonder then. She wondered how long he'd been wielding a bow and arrow. Would he have been five years old running around with a toy bow and arrow? Would he have been a pro at shooting by the time he was 11? She wondered all of these things about him, all the while scolding herself for allowing these dangerous thoughts to creep in.

"You're staring," Clint bluntly pointed out. Her first instinct was to shift in her spot and make up some excuse, but she didn't. She used a different tactic instead.

"Cookie Crisp," she said out loud.

"Hmm?" Clint tore his eyes away from his undercover profile and met Natasha's.

"I like Cookie Crisp cereal. I actually hate Raisin Bran," she said. The muscles of his face softened, and he lowered the file down to the top of the desk.

"You eat Raisin Bran almost every time you have cereal. If it's not that, it's some kind of other disgustingly healthy, fiber-filled cereal," he said.

"It's healthy," she replied. "I don't like it. I actually hate Raisin Bran. I think it's bland and has no flavor. I love Cookie Crisp. I've got a bit of a sweet tooth."

"No Trix or anything like that?" Clint asked. She made a face and shook her head, her red hair swinging down past her shoulders.

"No," she said. "I hate fruity cereal. Actually, I hate fruit-flavored anything. I only like fruit when it's fruit."

"I've noticed." Clint smiled when he saw Natasha tilt her head to the side with a confused look on her face. "Yeah, I pay attention to the food you eat. You seem to forget that I'm a spy."

"I don't," Natasha answered quietly. "I never do."

Suddenly, the mood got strangely serious, and the playful moment was gone. Natasha wondered what the hell that'd been, but she couldn't come up with any answers. Clint nodded slowly.

"Neither do I," he replied.

He lowered his head, and she lowered hers, and just like that, they were studying their undercover profiles with a brand new kind of ferocity.

When Clint slept, he always had vivid dreams. The detail to his dreams was astounding, so precise that he often wondered if his dreams had been real; however, this fact was disturbing when it came to his nightmares because they were filled with the same kind of vivid detail.

He'd gotten pretty good at managing his dreams. Coulson had figured out about them back when he'd been working with Clint to bring him over to the good side, and Clint had wound up in a few therapy sessions to talk them out with a therapist who specialized in dream psychology. He'd been surprised when his nightmares had abated, slowly fading until they just kind of simmered on the back burner of his brain. Every so often they came back in full force for a few nights, but for the most part, he was nightmare free.

Lately he'd been dreaming about something completely different, something he'd never dreamed about before. A woman. Specifically Natasha. Even more specifically Natasha Romanoff. For the past month or so, she'd been popping up in his dreams. At first it'd just been brief little appearances. Usually the dream version of her showed up just to make a smartass comment and eye roll before leaving. But as time had passed, her role in his dreams had expanded.

Now she was always with him. It was kind of a cruel reminder of his increasing…something for the woman. He wasn't sure that what he felt was attraction. Well, that wasn't true; Clint definitely felt attraction towards Natasha. For Christ's sake, he felt a shit ton of attraction towards the redheaded assassin; however, he couldn't say that he was having increasing feelings towards her. He hated that term, anyway. Feelings? That was such a vague description. Then again, so was the term attraction. Neither of those terms could explain what exactly it was that the Russian stirred up in him.

He was with Natasha all day every day, and now it seemed that she was with him at night. He wasn't sure if he were taunting himself or if it were fate that was taunting him. Clint didn't even fucking believe in fate, and yet there he was contemplating if there were some greater force out in the world that were tempting him with this damn woman.

And to make matters worse, Natasha loved to try to get a reaction out of him. He hadn't officially decided on whether or not she knew that he picked up on what she was doing, but he definitely did. She tried to get as many reactions out of him as often as she could, and that was just another complex layer of confusion for him. She was always so guarded but other times so open; was she honest? Could he think of her as honest? After all, she was Black Widow. Black Widow had never had a reputation amongst her enemies as someone who oozed honesty and sincerity.

But Clint couldn't help but decide that yes. She was honest. Maybe she wasn't with everyone, but the way she looked at him sometimes…he couldn't see anything but honesty in her. But only sometimes. Most of the time he had to struggle to figure her out and even then felt as though he were coming up flat.

There were times he felt like she was really letting him in and then other times when he felt like he'd never been held at a farther distance. One thing about Natasha Romanoff was that she was a goddamn mystery, and he'd always been attracted to mysteries.


Chapter Text

Chapter 12

Clint had thought that he was damn good at hiding his reactions to Natasha's physical features, but as soon as she stalked into the training room on time, he couldn't stop staring. In fact, the archer's mouth literally dropped open as he stared at her. She turned her green eyes on him and lifted her dyed eyebrows.

"Well?" she asked.

Clint just stared.

"If you hate it, go ahead and say it," Natasha flippantly added. Quickly, Clint shook his head.

"No. I don't hate it," he protested. "It's just…different. Very different."

"Different? That's all you have to say about it?" She was almost bored with his answer. Clint shrugged and nodded his head all at the same time, clearly at a loss for words.

"I never would've thought that color—"

"—would look like this on me?" Natasha finished. Clint blinked, and then he shook his head.

"No. No, it looks good," he said. "You look good. Blonde looks good on you."

Natasha wished she could have hidden her smile, but she was unable to. "It's a change, for sure."

"Coulson was right about it being more discreet," Clint added. "Don't get me wrong—I think you look amazing as a redhead, but the blonde is definitely less noticeable. Besides, anyone who knows you as Black Widow might spot you, and that could fuck up the Voloshin mission."

"Yeah, I've thought about that, too," Natasha admitted.

"Hey, is your red hair natural?" Clint asked suddenly. Natasha beamed brightly at him and tilted her head to the side.

"A good spy never reveals all her secrets," she replied. Clint smirked, his blue eyes mischievous and fun.

"What about 'we're partners'?" he threw back at her. "And so we have to get to know each other?"

"Is your hair its natural color?" she asked.

"Of course it is," Clint replied. Natasha smiled, and then she didn't say anything else. Little did she know, Clint was dying inside because of how playful she was, of how her smile was small, but it was genuine. And little did Clint know that Natasha couldn't stop thinking about how he'd told her she looked good. And he'd said it three times.

"So you know how to ride a horse," Clint spoke up, breaking the silence.

"Yeah," Natasha replied.

"When's the last time you rode?" he asked.

"Two years ago, I think?" Natasha paused as she thought. Had it really been two years ago? Or had it been last year? She couldn't remember when exactly since all of her missions just seemed to kind of blur together in one horrible, long stream of memories that didn't connect but couldn't be separated from each other.

"Perfect. Coulson gave the order to brush you up on your riding skills," Clint said cheerfully. Natasha narrowed her green eyes at him.

"What?" she asked.

"He said that if you haven't ridden in over six months to get you back out so you can brush up. Method acting. Something like that. So you'll be prepared in case any of the top, bright elite members of society invite you to go for a ride with them before the gala just for networking purposes," Clint replied.

"Oh." Natasha twisted her mouth into a frown. She wasn't very fond at all of horses and never had been—she'd only learned because it'd been required of her for a past mission, and as always, she'd done what she'd had to do in order to successfully complete it. And just as she'd done then, she would do it now.

"SHIELD's got a stables out in the countryside of Virginia not too far away. Let's go." Clint started walking towards the door, Natasha staring after him with a confused frown on his face. Sometimes he could be so still she was sure that he was actually a statue instead of a person, but other times he was so restless that it was impossible for her to remember that he could be that motionless.

"SHIELD never fails to surprise me," she remarked as she wound up following him out the door. As she followed Clint out the door, she found herself realizing that she followed him much more than she would've liked. Admittedly, the power balance seemed to be half and half for the most part, but she did find herself following him sometimes, and she disliked that because it was just another sign of her growing attachment to him that she still preferred to deny existed.

After three hours of riding and reacquainting herself with a horse, Natasha severely hoped that none of those stuck up assholes at the gala invited her to go out riding. It wasn't that she disliked horses per se—it was just that she didn't trust them. They were tricky and unpredictable, the exact reason she didn't trust people, either. She finished leading the horse she'd ridden—a high-spirited thoroughbred named Jimmy—into his stall to brush him and get him nice and cooled down.

She sensed Clint before she even saw him.

"Hey, looking good out there," he said. She glanced over her shoulder at him and scowled.

"You're only so happy because you didn't have to go do it, too," she said. Clint held his hands up innocently.

"Hey, I'm not the famous polo player," he replied. "That's your job, wife."

"Don't call me that," she deadpanned as she picked up the hard, round comb to run over Jimmy's hide. The horse half-closed its eyes as she started rubbing it in circles on his neck. "You're already getting a free pass with the whole 'Nat' thing."

"What, you have something against nicknames?" Clint asked. He folded his well-toned arms—damn those arms, Natasha thought to herself without allowing herself to look over at him—across his broad chest, and he leaned against the wall.

"No," she easily replied. "I just think of gnats. The bugs."

"No, I think you have something against nicknames," Clint said. She shot him a bored look.

"Why?" she asked, moving her brush farther down Jimmy's neck and towards his withers. In addition to damning his arms, she also damned Clint's know-it-all attitude and his cocky smirk and his stupid blond hairstyle.

"You told me I should go by Clinton," he said.

"I just think you look like a Clinton," she said without betraying the fact that she liked the way his full name rolled off her tongue. She wasn't a fan of his middle name because it didn't seem to fit him very well, but she loved his first name and how crisp and clear it was in her mouth.

"Oh, yeah?" Clint asked. She nodded without looking at him and continued moving her brush towards Jimmy's back and stomach.

"Yeah," she answered.

"Why do you say that?" he asked.

"It's a solid name," Natasha said by way of explanation. She glanced over at him and saw him smile slightly, amused. He didn't appear to be agreeing with her assessment of his name, but he looked as if he didn't mind it.

"Do you like riding horses?" he asked.

"No," she answered immediately. "Why?"

"You're good at it."

"Well, when your life depends on how much you can convince someone of your skill, then you can become pretty good at anything." She looked over at him again and found him mulling over her words. He'd been wearing sunglasses earlier, but now he had them off. The light was streaming in through the door, catching one half of his face. She swallowed hard and looked back at Jimmy as she moved towards his quarters.

"Fair enough," he said, repeating a phrase she'd said to him many times before in the past few months. "Well, after catching just a few minutes of you riding, I think you'd definitely be able to convince anyone of the fact that you're my polo-playing wife."

"About that," Natasha said suddenly.

"What about it?" Clint asked.

"We're going to have to convince everyone that we're married," she said. "We haven't been partners for very long. We don't know each other as well as we should know each other if we're married. But we're going to have to give off the impression that we do."

"I know." Clint waited for her to continue, his face open and patient. He was always surprisingly patient with her, no matter how much she tried to press his buttons. The one time he'd ever really lost his patience with her had been that time she'd told him she'd paid back her debt towards him.

"So we're going to have to be damn good at convincing them," Natasha continued. Clint blinked, clearly not picking up on what she was implying. "We've got to have chemistry."

"Chemistry," Clint repeated.

"Chemistry," Natasha confirmed easily. "Method acting, Barton."

Inside, Clint started choking on himself. Outside, he kept his face calm. "You mean kissing."

"Yep," Natasha said cheerfully in a tone that mimicked Clint's usual chipper morning voice. "Method. Acting."

"What, are you trying to say we should do that now?" Clint asked. Natasha rolled her green eyes and walked back to the bucket of brushes on the floor beside Jimmy, kneeling down to pick up the hard brush to start cleaning the dirt off of the thoroughbred.

"We're in a barn, Barton. Be professional," she said. Clint snorted.

"So now you're saying that a barn is a bad idea."

"Do you really want to practice kissing in a barn with a horse watching us?" Natasha droned. She finally allowed herself to look up and over at the blond archer. Clint was damn good at going undercover, and his face looked completely relaxed and unbothered, even though he was farthest thing from those two things.

"Method acting. That's all I'm saying," he said in a tone that clearly conveyed he was trying to challenge her. And Natasha loved a challenge. A flash of irritation passed over Natasha's face, and the now blonde Russian turned to look at him, placing one hand on her hip.

"You know what? Let's do it," she said.

"Oh, are you sure?" Clint's tone showed that he was definitely challenging her.

"Yes. Come here," she said methodically. Clint glanced up at the horse to make sure it wasn't going to do anything stupid, and then he took a few steps into the stall. Jimmy looked like he couldn't give less of a shit at Clint's entrance, and he kept calmly standing still, waiting for Natasha to keep brushing him.

Natasha stared up at Clint, determination written all over her lovely face. She kept one hand on her hip and her face tilted up. Clint was close to her now, so close that his proximity reminded her of their sparring sessions together—it was interesting how fighting and sex were only separated by a fine line, she thought to herself as she looked up at him.

"So?" Clint asked.

"So," Natasha said back. They both stared at each other. His eyes were doing that thing where they were seeing right through her, and she realized she was holding her breath. The tension was thick between them, and Natasha found that she was having difficulty breathing. "You going to sweep me off my feet or not, Mr. CEO?"

So Clint leaned forward, and he put his hands on either side of her face, tilting her head up just enough for her mouth to meet his, and he kissed her. It was gentle and heartbreakingly slow, two things Natasha hated when kissing. But not this time. She wasn't all that surprised since Clint was constantly doing things that she hated except for when he did them, but on some level, she was. His mouth was soft and warm, his lips slightly parted. She wanted to place her hands on the back of his head and tighten her fingers around the soft, short tufts of his hair, but she kept her hands down by her sides. When Clint pulled back, he stared at her, and she stared at him. Quickly, she swallowed.

"I can work with that," she said quietly.

"Yeah, I can work with that, too," Clint replied.

"Kiss me again," Natasha ordered. "Harder. Use a little tongue but not a lot. Wrap your arm around my lower back and pull my waist into yours."

"Yes, ma'am." Clint lowered his mouth to hers and kissed her exactly how she'd told him. Natasha's head was spinning. She'd kissed many men in her life, but she had to admit that she'd never experienced a kiss quite like this. She found her body responding, naturally pressing in closer to him and opening to allow him to touch her, to kiss her. She placed her free hand—the other one still holding the brush—on his chest, and she took a hold of his shirt in a loose fist. His body was completely flush with hers, and she could feel the muscles of his torso beneath his shirt. Careful and teasing, Clint's tongue slid into her mouth, lightly flicking against hers, and then he stepped away from her.

Natasha felt her chest rising and lowering as she regained control of her breathing. The two spies stared at each other, neither one of them wanting to initiate anything in terms of physical or verbal communication. Natasha kept her eyes glued onto Clint and noticed how his pupils had dilated, his blue eyes darker than they were usually. The tension was thick and not necessarily uncomfortable, but it existed all the same.

"Method acting," Natasha said, finally being the one to break the silence between them. Swallowing, Clint nodded.

"Got to love doing research," he said.

"I know, right?" Natasha replied. They stood there for another few seconds as they tried to re-center themselves, and then she turned towards Jimmy to finish brushing him. She was uncomfortably aware of the fact that her heart was racing beneath her ribcage, and she could still feel Clint's eyes on her as she picked the brush up and continued to run it over the bored thoroughbred in front of her. "So I'm blonde, and you're a CEO. Sounds like it'll be fun."

"For lack of a better word." Clint backed up so that he could lean against the doorframe of the stall. "But hey, we get a free trip to London out of it, even though we won't be staying there for longer than a night."

"Will Coulson be accompanying us?" Natasha asked in what she hoped was a nonchalant tone.

"Of course," Clint replied. "He's still supervising us. Honestly, I'm surprised Fury gave the ok for this level mission. I guess that means something."

"A good something?" Natasha asked.

"Yeah. I can't imagine how it'd be bad." Clint folded his arms over his chest again. "And then after that, I guess it's welcome to SHIELD."

Natasha wished that she could think of some biting comeback to make him think that she wouldn't be joining up with SHIELD after all, but she couldn't; all she could think about was how good he'd felt against her and how his mouth had molded against hers.

The next few days passed in a blur. Natasha and Clint spent all their time preparing, reviewing the plan, revising the plan, and coming up with questions for Coulson. By the time they were on the plane and on their way to London, they were all talked out and all ready for everything that was ahead of them. They were spending the night in a hotel the night before the actual gala took place, and then on the night of the gala itself, they were going to take Derek Carnegie into custody, taking him back to the plane and immediately shipping out of there to go back to HQ.

Clint was lightly sleeping in the seat across from her when Agent Maria Hill slid into place next to him. Natasha looked at the dark-haired agent, and she gave what she hoped was a slight smile. Hill smiled back at her.

"Director Fury wouldn't have assigned this mission to you two if he didn't believe you could handle it," Maria said.

"I would hope so," Natasha replied. "Hopefully Level Four will be a bit more of a challenge than Level One."

"I think it will." Maria crossed one leg over the other and leaned back in her seat. "How was horseback training the other day?"

"It was fine. I'm not a fan of horses," Natasha said with a tiny wince on her face. "I see why I had to go touch up on my riding in case I get invited to anything before the actual event, but I'd much rather prefer to rely on my own body to get me places." She paused and looked out the window. "Or a plane."

"I understand that exactly," Maria replied with an amused smile. "I've had to do my fair share of horse training in my day, and I'm on the same page as you."

"I still can't believe this is happening," Natasha murmured quietly to the dark-eyed agent. "Had you told me last year that I'd be working for an American government agency…and look at me now."

"So you're going to join SHIELD then," Maria stated. Natasha paused—she'd always just kind of implied that she would, but she'd never actually said it. Not even to Clint. She looked over at the sleeping archer; his blue eyes were closed for once, and this was the most vulnerable that she'd ever seen him. He was more vulnerable than he'd been the day they'd kissed in the barn.

She still couldn't believe that that had happened. Even more so, she couldn't believe that she'd been thinking about it nonstop since it'd happened. She couldn't look at him without remembering how firm and solid his body had felt against hers, how soft and warm his lips had been as he'd kissed her. And it was funny to think about because it hadn't been that long ago that he'd held a gun at her head with all the intentions in the world of killing her. He'd set out to kill her, wound up saving her, and then he'd kissed her in a barn in some place in Virginia. And all because Agent Coulson had been thinking ahead about Natasha's undercover role as a professional polo player.

"Yes," she answered. "I am."

"Good," Hill replied with a calm, easy smile. "I know Fury was hoping you'd agree to it."

"Why has he put me on such a long leash?" Natasha asked suddenly. "I haven't done anything to show him he can trust me. In fact, I've told him time and time again that he shouldn't."

"When was the last time you told him that?" Maria asked. Natasha paused. She couldn't remember. "Exactly."

"I've spent my life working for the KGB. He took a huge risk just by agreeing to not kill me on the spot when Hawkeye showed up with me," she argued. "He's said it before. Coulson's said it before. Everyone knows it. I just don't understand why."

"He likes Barton," Maria said thoughtfully. "I think he saw how Barton made a turnaround and was hoping you would, too, especially after he saw how serious you were about getting in on this mission." She tilted her head and studied the now blonde spy. "You know, you keep saying that you haven't given him a reason to trust you, but you have. That night you attacked Barton and could've killed him. You could have. You had the opportunity right there in front of you. But you didn't. And then the first mission you and Barton went on where you saved him. You've done a lot more than you think you have."

Natasha looked away from Maria and out the window as she processed what Maria had just told her. In her opinion, she really didn't think that she'd done anything to gain anyone's trust, particularly Clint's. Had she been in Nick Fury's position, she probably never would have trusted anyone who'd come in with her history, her debts, her kills. She'd always known that she was much more untrusting of other people than the average person since she was trained to detect the darkest places in people, but she hadn't realized until then how much she shut people out.

That being said, she didn't think that SHIELD trusted her. Not in the slightest. SHIELD may have been less hostile than she was, but she knew that there was no way in hell they fully trusted her because she had a feeling that SHIELD didn't trust anyone, even their own agents.

"It doesn't feel like it," she finally admitted out loud. "I've done so much…too many things. Too many horrible, awful things."

"It's not your fault," Maria said quickly and earnestly. Natasha kept her gaze focused out the window, and she nodded, trying to believe that what Maria had said was true. She swallowed and looked down at her hands before lifting her eyes back up to look out the window.

"How much longer until we're there?" she asked.

"Another hour or so," Maria replied. "We've got two rooms reserved at the hotel. One for Coulson and me, the other for you and Barton."

Natasha glanced sharply at Maria, but she kept her eyes calm and level so that Maria couldn't detect the sudden jolt she'd just felt in her solar plexus. She nodded and kept her face devoid of any particular emotion. "Alright. Sounds good."

"Get some rest. You'll be able to sleep some more when we get to the hotel, but you need it." Maria's voice was kind, and she gave Natasha a small, genuine smile. Agent Maria Hill wasn't the type to smile very often, and in a way, she was similar to Natasha in that regard, but when she did, her smiles were genuine. Without saying anything else, she got up and walked away, leaving Natasha alone with Clint.

These days, it seemed that Natasha was always alone with the archer, though she wasn't going to complain about it. Even if she couldn't stop thinking about their kiss. The two spies hadn't talked about what had happened, nor did she think they were going to. Truthfully, she was ok with that. She wouldn't even know what to say if they did talk about it. After all, there really wasn't anything to say, she told herself. It'd just been a stupid challenge and some method acting. It wasn't as if she'd kissed a guy she was pretending to be linked to in order to make their affection look convincing on a mission before. She'd done it thousands of times, and it'd never meant anything. There was no reason in the world that it would mean anything now. Clint was Clint Barton, and she was Natasha Romanoff. He was Hawkeye, and she was Black Widow. That was all there was to it.

By the time the plane landed and the SHIELD agents got to the hotel, Natasha was completely and thoroughly exhausted; she hadn't gotten a chance to sleep on the plane, but now she was so ready for it. She and Clint hadn't spoken that much on the way to the hotel, but now as she unlocked the door to their hotel room and walked through, she let out a sigh of relief.

"My sentiments exactly," Clint announced from behind her, his voice quiet but light. Natasha crossed farther into the hotel room and inwardly let out another sigh of relief when she saw that there were two separate beds; she definitely wasn't a prude when it came to sharing a bed with someone else, but she didn't think she'd be able to share a bed with Clint when she hadn't been able to stop thinking about that damn kiss.

She walked over to the bed farthest from the air conditioner, and she collapsed on top of it, completely allowing her muscles to drain of energy. She lay on her stomach and turned her face to the side. "I'm so tired."

"Me, too," Clint added.

"At least you got some sleep on the plane," Natasha pointed out.

"Yeah, I was smart by thinking ahead," he replied. He moved towards the open bed and lay down on it, letting out his own groan of relief and exhaustion. "I could sleep for nine years."

"So could I." Natasha closed her eyes. "I don't think I'm even going to brush my teeth tonight. Is that gross? Are you going to judge me if I don't?"

"Not at all," Clint easily answered. She could hear rustling over on his bed as he moved about on it. "And since you're not, I won't."

"Uh oh. You shouldn't give in to peer pressure." Natasha opened her eyes and looked over only to see that Clint had gotten off the bed to take his shirt off. His back was to her, and he was in the middle of lifting his shirt up over his head; Natasha froze, watching the way the muscles of his back moved and contracted beneath his skin. She'd always had a thing for muscular backs, and, well, Clint Barton had a muscular back. He still wasn't facing her, and she was glad for that just so she could watch him without him realizing it. She realized that this was creepy, but she was too tired to care.

Clint began unbuttoning his jeans and unzipping them as he started to turn in her direction. Quickly, so she wouldn't be caught staring at him, Natasha started to remove her jacket. She sat up and slid the piece of clothing down over her shoulders before she stood up to remove her black jeans.

Quietly, the two spies changed out of their day clothes and into their night clothes. When Clint turned out the lamp in the room, he was wearing boxers and a plain black t-shirt while Natasha wore a dark grey cami and black cotton shorts. She slid down farther beneath the covers and watched Clint reach out to turn the lamp off. Suddenly, it dawned on her that the sound of water wasn't filling the room. In a matter of seconds, the exhaustion she'd been feeling melted away from her, and she was left with a mild sense of panic. She'd been able to fight off the horrible nightmares she'd had about Voloshin due to Clint's suggestion of running water. Even in her room at SHIELD, she had a tiny kitchenette that had a small sink in it.

Now she was without it, and she wasn't sure what to do. She looked over at Clint and saw that he seemed to be sleeping; if she got up and went to the bathroom to turn the water on, it might wake him up, but even if it didn't, how was she going to explain the running faucet to him tomorrow morning? She lay completely still in her bed as she thought about all of her options. She could try to go without it, but there was the very strong possibility that she'd have a nightmare, and she didn't want another repeat of that to happen.

"Hey, Clint?" she said before she could stop herself. She'd never said his name out loud to him before, always choosing to call him Barton or Hawkeye, but now she'd broken a personal barrier she couldn't unbreak.

"Yeah?" His voice didn't sound sleepy anymore; it was soft and rumbly, reminding her of how he'd sounded the night she'd nearly killed him in her cell.

"Is it ok if I turn the sink on?" she asked. He was quiet.

"Yeah," he said finally. "I was hoping you'd ask that."

"Were you really?" Natasha pulled the covers up around her chin and kept her arms tucked underneath to hide herself from him. She couldn't exactly see him in the dark of the hotel room, but she could make out the shape of him beneath his covers.

"Yeah," he answered. "The sound's relaxing, isn't it?"

"It is." Natasha lay still, breathing slowly. Now that she'd received the ok from Clint to turn the water on, she didn't want to get out from underneath her warm covers. She was glad that Clint hadn't tried to switch beds with her because she really hated being next to the air conditioner while she slept, but she was still too comfortable and warm to want to get out just yet. "I didn't realize it until you made me sit in the lounge that one time back when I was still in the taser-cuffs."

"I've always liked the sound of rain," Clint said. "Makes me feel zen."

"I thought shooting made you feel zen."

"That, too. Only difference is shooting doesn't make me sleep easier at night."

"I understand." Natasha wished that she could see Clint's face in the darkness, but she was glad that he couldn't see hers because then he'd see how much she really did understand. "Why did you save me that night you were supposed to kill me?"

"I've told you like, 30 times. I thought you deserved a second chance." Clint's voice was matter of fact and simple, stating something he'd said probably at least 30 times before.

"No, I mean…why? Why did you decide that I deserved a second chance?" she asked. Clint was quiet for a long time. Natasha thought about lifting her head to check and see if he were still awake, but then he spoke.

"Your face when I broke your arm," he said softly. "I saw that look of pain, and I couldn't do it."

Natasha processed what he'd just said. "That's the strangest reasoning I've ever heard."

Clint laughed in the darkness, a hearty, appreciative laugh. "I know. It's weird, but…I don't know."

"My arm still hurts sometimes. Just so you know," Natasha added flippantly.

"I feel like that's something I'm never going to live down." The amusement was plain to hear in Clint's voice, and she smiled.

"You're right," she said. "It's not."

"Looking forward to tomorrow?" Clint asked. "Living it up with London's elite?"

"Of course I am," Natasha answered in a drab tone. "I absolutely love dressing up and going to galas with a shit ton more money than I'll ever have. It's my favorite thing to do."

"That sense of humor never fades, does it?" Clint remarked and then paused. "What happened to you being all tired?"

"I'm still tired," Natasha protested. "You're the one who started up a conversation with me."

"I was peacefully drifting off to sleep until you woke me up," Clint playfully argued. "I think it's safe to say that you're the one who started it."

"You're such a child," Natasha said, but her tone wasn't harsh; if anything, it was soft.

"Truthfully, I feel like when I fall asleep, all I'm going to dream about is this damn mission. We've been going over it nonstop so much these past few days that I swear it's imprinted all over the inside of my skull," Clint said as he changed the subject.

"I'd agree with that," Natasha said. She pulled the covers back up around her chin again; her grip had slackened, and as a result, the comforter had slid down an inch, thereby letting cold air under the covers with her. "But after we get this son of a bitch, we can finally get around to taking Voloshin down."

"You've waited long enough for it," Clint replied.

"Yeah, I've waited months for this," Natasha said with a sigh.

Clint paused. "I was thinking along the lines of your entire life."

"I'm surprised you thought there was a second chance to save me after reading my file," Natasha said. "I wouldn't have given it to me if I'd been in your shoes."

"Well, then it's a damn good thing you weren't in my shoes," Clint replied. "Nat, you can't keep blaming yourself. You can't keep…beating yourself up over it. It'll kill you faster than any bullet ever will."

"Everything I learned in the Red Room—"

"You're not in the Red Room anymore. You don't work for the KGB. Voloshin doesn't give you orders. Nat, you're ok now." Clint's voice was firm but gentle all at the same time, and she thought about how his voice matched how he'd kissed her—no matter what, her mind always traced back to that goddamn kiss in that goddamn barn, whether or not she wanted it to.

"I'll sleep better when he's dead," she said, repeating the words she'd said to him back when she'd decided she wanted in on the mission. A pang of guilt ran through her as she thought about the fact that she wasn't telling him the whole truth. How could she? How could she get him to know that she was someone whose loyalty was meant to be trusted when she'd been betraying the person who'd made her into who she was? It wouldn't make sense to him, just as it hadn't made sense to her then.

But when she thought about it now, it made sense. She'd simply been a killing machine, and she'd loaned herself out to whoever paid the highest price. If that meant she killed for someone who wasn't exactly an ally of Voloshin's, so be it. As long as she'd received her paycheck and the chance to exercise her fine skills, that was all she'd cared about. However, she hadn't known at the time why she'd been so willing to secretly go out and kill for other people, but now she did. She'd felt the stirrings of realizing just how wrong she'd been all those years underneath Voloshin's thumb. Even then, she'd known that what she was doing was wrong, and she'd blamed it on Voloshin because it'd made sense—Voloshin had made her into who she was, so he was the one to betray in order to get free. Her reasoning had been screwy, but it was a little bit of a comfort to her to know that she'd started to realize what she'd been doing for Voloshin had been wrong.

Again, she wished that she could see Clint's face through the darkness. She could see the rough curves of his bicep muscles in what little light reflected through the curtains in the windows, but even then, she couldn't make out much else of his still form. How could she possibly explain to Clint that Voloshin wanted her dead because he would have found out that she'd betrayed him? There wasn't any way she could do it while still holding Clint's trust; even though the archer hadn't told he trusted her, she had a feeling that his trust grew for her a little bit more and more every day.

She'd always known that her sketchy loyalty would come back to bite her sooner or later. And now as she lay in the darkness with a man who had meant to kill her but decided to save her, she realized that that time was now. Clint would lose whatever trust he'd built up for her if he ever knew that she'd been betraying Voloshin, and she'd be all over at square one again.

"He'll be dead before you know it," Clint said reassuringly. "No one lives long once Black Widow has set her sights on him."

Natasha knew that was unfortunately true, but she didn't allow it to depress her too much. Clint had said it in an attempt to make her feel better, and if she let herself get too dragged down in her own angsty mind, she wouldn't be doing anyone a favor now or tomorrow. "That's the plan."

"What color's the dress Coulson wound up ordering for you again?" Clint asked suddenly.

"Turquoise," she replied. "He thought it would look good with both of our eye colors."

"Sometimes I don't think the man's real," Clint deadpanned. Natasha laughed genuinely; had she been able to see through the dark, she would have seen Clint Barton smile at the knowledge he'd made her laugh. "What other man would think to order a turquoise dress because it would look good with both of our eye colors?"

"A really good spy," Natasha replied.

"True," Clint conceded. "Just so you know, we're dancing tomorrow."

"I wouldn't expect anything less," Natasha said in a tone that was fake offended, this time making Clint laugh. "I like dancing. I love it."

Clint paused. "You do?"

"Yes," she answered, her voice gentle. "I really do."

"Good," he said. "We'll dance tomorrow. And for the record, I'm an excellent dancer."

"Oh, really?"

"Oh, yeah."

"You can talk the talk, but let's see if you can walk the walk tomorrow."

"Challenge accepted."

"I never challenged you, Barton."

"Yeah, you did. Get ready."

"I'm very ready. If you can keep up with me, I'll be impressed."

"The real challenge will be to see if you can keep up with me."

"I doubt it." Natasha could feel herself getting sleepy, so she finally pushed the covers off of her and quickly moved to the sink in the bathroom to turn it on just enough to hear it in the bedroom without it being overpowering. After she got it at the right volume level, she turned and moved swiftly back to bed, jumping back under the covers and pulling them back over her to warm her up again.

"Get some sleep," Clint said simply. "We'll need all the rest in the world for tomorrow."

"It should be easy, though," Natasha replied. "All we have to do is get Carnegie alone, and then we capture him before anyone notices he's missing."

"As long as we stay focused, we'll be in the clear. Good night, Nat."

"Good night, Barton." Natasha finally closed her eyes, and she snuggled beneath the comforter. She loved being warm and all wrapped up, safe and protected from the cold air that lay outside of the comforter. That kind of protection and warmth had been about the only kind of protection she'd felt throughout her life—she remembered being a little girl and sleeping the exact same way with the blankets tucked up under her chin.

There was a degree of vulnerability in sleeping in the same room with Clint. She'd never allowed him to see her so physically vulnerable like this, but she didn't have anything to fear when it came to him. She felt that she could trust him not to kill her in her sleep, something she hadn't felt in regards to a male in a long time. After all, Clint had gone through so much trouble to save her that it wouldn't make sense for him to kill her now.

As she drifted off to sleep, she realized that something had changed between her and the blond archer with the striking blue eyes. Something had deepened and become even more complex between them since their kiss in the barn. She didn't know what that could mean, nor did she really allow her thoughts to linger for long in such dangerous territory, but whatever it was that had changed, it'd made them more aware of each other and how they moved and acted.

There was also an added sense of comfortable quiet that hadn't been there before; of course, things had been comfortable between them since they'd started going on missions together, but this was different. She didn't know what it was, but she knew that she liked it and didn't want it to change. Then again, having those feelings wasn't something she wanted. She wanted to be the bold, fearless Black Widow who wouldn't hesitate to kill; she wanted her reputation to stand strong.

As Natasha finally surrendered to her exhaustion, she wondered just how vulnerable she could become without letting it kill her.


Chapter Text

Chapter 13

When Natasha woke up the next morning, she had the strangest sensation of feeling safe. Her arms were tucked underneath the covers the way she liked them best, and she was facing the wall, her back to Clint. She slowly blinked her eyes to bring herself back awake. She'd learned over time that she could make herself wake up in a fourth of a second, so whenever she had the opportunity to slowly wake up, she took it. Behind her, she could hear Clint breathing, and she carefully turned over to look at him.

He was sprawled out on his stomach, his face turned towards her and his arms thrown up above his head. Even in his sleep, he was easy and carefree—however, Natasha didn't doubt that if she tried to attack him, he'd have her on the ground in a second. Though actually, now that she thought about it, the thought of Clint throwing her on the ground gave her a different kind of thrill than it had before. As she lay there, she noticed Clint's arms. It was either his arms or his eyes that caught her attention, and she took the time to appreciate his toned, muscled arms, even though she noticed them and appreciated them a lot.

Suddenly uncomfortable, Natasha threw the covers off of her and crossed into the bathroom to brush her teeth. She glanced in the mirror at her reflection and paused in surprise when she saw her blonde hair. She still wasn't used to it yet, but thankfully she wouldn't need to have it for long. Squinting her eyes, she inspected the dye job on her eyebrows and subsequently felt satisfied with it. It was probably the best eyebrow dye job she'd ever had, so she didn't feel the need to complain.

Quickly and efficiently, Natasha brushed her teeth, enjoying the minty freshness of her mouth when she was done. When she was done, she smoothed a hand over her hair and crossed back into the room. Clint was still passed out; she paused as she looked at him. She could continue to let him sleep, or she could use his unconscious state to her advantage without doing anything that would make him distrust her.

She crossed towards him and sat on the edge of his bed. He didn't move, still continuing to sleep hard, and she ran a single pointer finger lightly down his bicep. "Good morning, Hawkeye."

She'd barely finished her greeting when Clint's eyes snapped open, and he was instantly awake. For a moment, Natasha thought that he'd been awake this whole time, but his eyes were still slightly glassy with sleepiness. He didn't look afraid or freaked out at all to see her—his abrupt wake up was just one of a spy's when being woken up by unexpected touch. His eyes registered her presence, and then he slowly relaxed. The corners of his mouth even so much as eased up into a smile, and Natasha felt her mouth go dry.

"Good morning, Mrs. Blake," he said.

"Don't push it," she replied, but her tone wasn't biting.

"You're not excited to play the part of loving married couple?" Clint asked. He rolled onto his back and shoved his arms beneath the covers. The gesture was so child-like and adorable that Natasha had to look away.

"I'm jumping for joy," she said drily.

"You're so sweet." Clint covered his mouth as he yawned. When he lowered his hand, he sleepily frowned at her without lifting his head from the pillow. "Why are you on the edge of my bed?"

"It's a free country," Natasha replied with an easy smirk.

"You're Russian," Clint pointed out in a good-natured tone. Natasha smiled, and she offered up a half-shrug.

"Was," she corrected. "Was Russian. My accent's completely gone."

This fact was true; over the past four months that Natasha had been at SHIELD, her very slight Russian accent had thoroughly and totally disappeared. Clint hadn't noticed it at first until one day he'd been listening to her unique voice speaking to him and had realized that she sounded every bit as American as he did. They hadn't spoken in Russian since the night she'd had that horrible nightmare and had attacked him in her cell, and he didn't try to make her speak it. He figured that if she ever wanted to, she would. Until then, however, he was perfectly happy to keep using English.

"Nothing really changes where we come from, though," he pointed out. Natasha's lips curled up into one of her famous tiny smiles that he'd come to appreciate and enjoy so much.

"Deep topic for waking up, don't you think?" she asked. "We should be focusing on the mission."

"Hey, I'm method acting," Clint protested, his blue eyes large and innocent as he looked up at her. "If we're married, we've probably had conversations like this, so I'm just method acting."

"We're playing the part of super rich people who have nothing better to do than go to this gala tonight," Natasha droned. "I doubt we have the mental capacity, maturity, or intelligence to have these kinds of conversations."

"Wrong," Clint said without missing a beat. "We're different from the rest."

Natasha paused, and she thought about his words; he'd meant them in reference to their undercover positions, but they also applied to the two spies in real life. Nick Fury was constantly reminding them that how he'd handled the whole Natasha situation wasn't how he handled every other prisoner, and Natasha felt that this whole connection or whatever it was she had with Clint definitely set her apart from anyone else who worked at SHIELD. It was incredibly unprofessional to get too involved with a partner unless it was part of the mission, but she couldn't help thinking that maybe she was starting to feel a little extra something about him that she hadn't felt ever.

"Well. Let's at least be clean like everyone else," she said, and then she stood up and walked over to her suitcase—technically it was SHIELD's suitcase, and they'd given it to her for her to use—and she glanced back briefly over her shoulder. "I'm taking first shower."

"Sounds good," Clint answered, yawning as he pushed himself into a seated position. Natasha grabbed a pair of clothes to relax in since they wouldn't be going out and about until before the gala, and she crossed into the bathroom, shutting the door behind her. She set her clothes down on the sink and walked to the shower to get it started, sighing as she did so. It was going to be a long day.

And Natasha was right. The day passed slowly, and she and Clint were stuck together in the same room; to some degree, Natasha felt like she'd just been captured by SHIELD again. However, it was different this time because they could leave the room if they wanted to—they just chose not to since that was always the safer bet. They'd checked into the hotel last night as Aaron and Samantha Blake, and they had to play the part.

Samantha and Aaron Blake had only been married for a little under a year, so they were still newlyweds, making it perfectly acceptable for them to stay in their room all day until the gala. Natasha knew that the people at the front desk would be thinking that she and Clint were having crazy sex that entire day, but she didn't care. She just wanted to get this mission over with successfully so she could start in on helping with the Voloshin mission.

Finally, the time came to start getting ready. Natasha and Clint comfortably set about to preparing their clothes and getting dressed. They'd spent the day talking every so often, but Natasha had brought along a book, and she'd started reading that, and Clint had turned on the TV. Natasha could tell that he wasn't really a TV guy from the way he fidgeted in front of it, the look on his face conveying that he'd rather be doing something else. He only really seemed to loosen up and relax a little bit more when he found a soccer game and decided to watch that.

The blonde Russian assassin went to the bathroom to put her make up on. Since she was now blonde, she had to do her make up differently. She could hear Clint fumbling around out in the main part of the hotel room, and she was pretty sure she heard the distinct sound of a zipper sliding up. Behind her, her turquoise dress hung on one of the hooks on the wall. Natasha had to admit that it was a gorgeous dress; it was floor length with a Greek collar that went up high around the neck and clasped in the back. The dress showed just enough cleavage to not make her worry about her breasts spilling out when dancing while also making her feel sexy and gorgeous.

She hadn't seen what Clint looked like in a tuxedo yet, but she had a feeling she'd appreciate it just as much as she appreciated the way his bare forearms looked. Even just the thought of Clint in a tuxedo left her mouth dry in a way that was becoming uncomfortably familiar. She finished her foundation and started working on her eyebrows, noticing how the wedding band on her left hand glinted in the light of the bathroom. She'd put it on right before she'd started getting ready just so she could get used to the feeling of it; it always felt strange whenever she had to put a wedding band on. She'd never seen herself as the kind to get married—hell, how could she with the kind of work that she was? She didn't like it, and she wanted to get it off whenever she could. That was definitely something she was looking forward to when the evening was over.

After what felt like 45 minutes but was probably only 30, Natasha was done with her make up and hair. She was wearing it curled and up in an elegant high ponytail that showed off her cheekbones and the fine bone structure of her face. She certainly knew her best angles, and she wasn't afraid to show them.

Clint knocked on the door. "Are you done yet?"

"No," she said in a dull monotone.

"How much longer? We need to be leaving in like, 10 minutes."

"I'm almost done."

"You said that half an hour ago. I've been in my tux for an hour now."

"You've been in it for half an hour. You asked me like, two minutes after I came in here if I was done."

"Well, are you?"

"If you'd quit asking me, I'd be done quicker." She narrowed her green eyes at the door and waited for some kind of response, but it was quiet on the other side. Clint had proven to be quite the stereotypical man when it came to getting ready for formal events; unsurprisingly, he was able to slip into his tux and feel comfortable enough to leave within 10 minutes at the most, and he wasn't feeling shy at all about bugging Natasha to see how much time was left until she was ready.

Now irritated, Natasha slipped her feet into the four inch silver strappy heels and walked over to her dress. She reached out and grabbed it and slipped it over her head. The good thing about it was that it went on nice and smooth with no trouble. As it settled around her, she looked down at it. She didn't get to wear nice things like this too often, and she liked to relish in it when she did. Of course, wearing fancy clothes wasn't always fun and games, but she did like to notice how good she looked in them.

The dress fit perfectly—it wasn't too long, it wasn't too short, and there was no extra space or extra strain in the breast area. The measurements were literally perfect, and she couldn't help smiling as she held the back of the collar up around her neck shut. It was then that she realized she was going to have to ask Clint to hook the collar; it wasn't that she couldn't do it—she just had some trouble with it. She slowly breathed in and out to herself.

It's just Clint. All he'll be doing is fastening your collar. That's it. He's never made any kind of sick passes at you, and he's your partner. He'll just be fastening your collar, she told herself. She hated whenever she got nervous over seemingly stupid things like this; again, it was a sign of weakness and vulnerability, two things she couldn't afford to have in her life.

Sighing, she decided to just jump in. So she did. She twisted the handle on the bathroom door and walked out into the hotel room. "Barton, can you hook my collar?"

Clint looked up from his spot on the edge of the bed, his face only slightly annoyed with having had to wait for longer than he'd expected, but when he saw her, he froze. "You look great."

"Thanks. Can you hook my collar?" Natasha repeated, trying not to show that she liked the fact that he told her she looked great. Clint blinked, his blue eyes taking in the sight of her, and then he nodded. He stood up and crossed towards her as he kept his eyes glued on her; his blue eyes always saw so much of her at all times, and she could never hide from him. She held his stare as he came closer and then moved behind her. His hands were careful as they took the pieces of fabric from her and slowly moved the clasps together.

"There you go," Clint said quietly. He was so close to her. He was right behind her, and she could practically feel the warmth of his body. She turned around and looked up at him, her green eyes warm and hidden all at the same time. She glanced down at the rest of his body and lifted her dyed blonde eyebrows.

"You clean up ok," she said.

"Thanks," he replied. He lifted up his left hand so she could see his wedding band. "Method acting."

"Of course," she said back. They stood in silence for a few more moments as they allowed their eyes to travel over each other without even bothering to hide the fact that that was what they were doing. Finally, she stepped away and moved to the bed where she'd last left her clutch. "Are you ready?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm ready," Clint said. He turned and crossed to the table to get his keys, and Natasha sneaked another look at him. Goddamn, did he look amazing in that tuxedo. He looked sharp and put together and smart and…he just looked amazing. That was the best word she could come up with. He didn't look so much the hard spy he really was. Just by looking at him, she never would have been able to tell that he had the most perfect aim of anyone she'd ever known, that he could kill someone with his bare hands, that the way his hands held his bow and arrow was the exact same way they'd held her.

And little did she know that Clint Barton was trying not to stare at her with obvious eyes that showed how beautiful he thought she was. He picked the keys up in his hand and turned around to walk out the door only to see that he was looking directly at her. She looked so stunning he could barely breathe. Her bright green eyes were cool and calm, nonplussed. However, he saw her throat tighten as she swallowed. By now, he felt as though he knew Natasha Romanoff well enough to know the little things she did like that, to at least be able to guess what she was thinking and feeling, and he got the feeling that Natasha was majorly thrown off. She never really did that swallow thing unless she was severely taken aback by something.

Tightening his grip around his keys the slightest bit, he took a step forward. "So let's go."

"Waiting on you."

When Coulson—serving as Clint and Natasha's driver—pulled to a park in front of the enormous art gallery, Natasha had to take a deep breath. This was it. She'd had many moments in the past few months where she'd thought those three words to herself, but this was really it. Natasha held her breath as Coulson got out and crossed to Clint's side of the backseat to open the door. Clint looked back at her, and he smiled.

Then the door was open.

Clint slid out first; behind him, Natasha could hear the sounds of people talking, cameras flashing, and car doors opening and closing. She pushed herself to the seat that Clint had just left, and she put her hand in his extended one as he helped her out of the car. Instantly, she put on the smile of a young woman clearly in love with her brand new husband. She pulled in closely to the archer and wrapped her arm around his waist as he wrapped his around her shoulder blades.

"Shall we, Mrs. Blake?" he murmured in her ear. Beaming, she looked at him and nodded.

"Of course," she said cheerfully. She pulled her hand back from around Clint's waist and dropped it down towards his hand, lacing her fingers with his. She could hear cameras flashing around them; she even heard a few people murmuring "the Blakes" from somewhere off to her left—SHIELD definitely worked quickly in establishing their cover, she realized. Clint gently squeezed her hand, and he led her inside.

After that, it was only a matter of minutes before they were swarmed by people.

"Aaron Blake?" A man in a tuxedo with dark, sparkling brown eyes asked as he approached. Clint smiled the bright, easy smile of a young, rich man who'd had the world given to him.

"Yes, that's me," he replied calmly.

"Marshall Anderson. Anderson Plastics. We do business together, so I'm told," Marshall Anderson said. He extended his hand out towards Clint, and Clint firmly took hold of it and shook it.

"Right, right! Of course we do," he smoothly answered. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you."

"Likewise, my boy," Marshall said. His eyes drifted over to Natasha, and he lifted his eyebrows as his eyes scanned her up and down in a way that made her hate him instantly. "And this gorgeous thing must be your wife."

"Yes, this is my wife Samantha." Clint glanced over at Natasha, his blue eyes soft and warm, and he smiled at her.

"Nice to meet you." Natasha held her hand out to Marshall, and he took it.

"The pleasure's mine," he said. "How long have you and my boy Aaron been married again?"

"A little less than a year," Natasha replied. She turned her large, luminous eyes onto Clint with the expression of a hopelessly in love young wife, and she snuggled into him as he reached his arm out and put it around her waist. As he drew her into his side, she noticed how her hip fit perfectly against the side of his body. It was always these little things that caught her off guard the most because the irony was too perfect. Clint had been her biggest opponent only four months ago, and now she was noticing how well they physically fit together.

"Best damn year of my life." Clint winked at her and playfully kissed her temple. She tried to look at him with a face that was scolding, but she successfully failed at looking anything less than adoring and proud. "Surely you keep up with polo, don't you, Anderson?"

"Of course I do!" Marshall exclaimed. "And I know all about you, Samantha Blake. Winning trophies and awards like it's nobody's business."

"It's just a hobby," Natasha replied in that flippant tone that gave off aristocratic arrogance and feigned humbleness all at the same time. Marshall laughed.

"A humble girl. I like that, Aaron. She's a good catch. Just gorgeous, too." Marshall's eyes trailed over her again, and even though Natasha was inwardly vomiting, she smiled and acted as though she wouldn't expect any other kind of response from a man.

"We were just on our way to find a table," Clint spoke up. "Have you seen ours by chance?"

Marshal grimaced and shook his head regretfully. "No, I'm afraid not. I'd probably check over there by the wine bar. They like to keep the medicals over there, for whatever reason. Is this your first year here?"

"Yes, it is," Clint replied. He glanced over at Natasha; she was easily scanning the crowd with a face that showed off excitement but was really scrutinizing each person's face for Derek Carnegie. Both she and Clint had studied his pictures a thousand times each until they'd practically memorized the smile lines around the man's eyes. "The past few years have been a little crazy, and this has been my first chance to slow down long enough to accept the invite."

"You won't regret it. There's excellent wine here. Well, I'll let you two go off and find your seats. It was wonderful meeting the both of you." Marshall stuck his hand out and firmly shook Clint's again before turning to Natasha, his smile now soft and docile. "And it's not every day that I get to meet a beautiful young woman such as yourself."

"Thank you," Natasha warmly replied, and she allowed him to take her hand and kiss the top of it before giving a slight nod back to Clint and walking out. She looked up at Clint with an adoring face. "How sweet."

"Yes, he's a real charmer," Clint murmured. "See anyone you recognize, my dear?"

"No. Not yet," Natasha easily answered. "He said that all the medicals sit together, usually. That means we should know someone at our table."

"Right you are. You're so smart." Clint beamed at her and put his hand in hers as he started moving towards the direction that Marshall Anderson had suggested they would find their names. It didn't take long, but the two spies located their table and subsequently set up camp there. Natasha kept her eyes and ears alert, looking for anyone and listening for anything that could give away a hint as to where Derek Carnegie was. "Shall we dance?"

"So soon?" Natasha asked. Clint nodded eagerly, his precise blue eyes lighting up with interest and excitement.

"Why not?" he asked. "The music's going, and there are already people out dancing."

She thought back to how he'd told her he was a good dancer yesterday, and she narrowed her eyes at him in a way that was very un-Samantha Blake-like but very Natasha Romanoff-like. She caught the smile in Clint's eyes, and she nodded. "Fine. Let's go dance."

Still holding her hand, Clint led her out onto the area where people were dancing. She looked down and saw that a small floor had been build on top of what normally made up the floor in order to prevent scuffs and heel dents, and she resisted the urge to roll her eyes at the whole aristocracy of it. She moved with Clint past a few couples who were already moving to the quick-paced song.

"You sure you know what you're doing, darling?" she called out over the music towards Clint. He shot back a bored look in her direction and then smirked.

"Of course I do, honey," he called back and then turned to face her, giving a small but firm tug on her hand to draw her in close to him. The sudden movement caught Natasha off guard, and she blinked in surprise as Clint wrapped one arm snugly around her waist and took her hand in his other one. He grinned at her reaction. "I have a few moves."

She wished she could find it in herself to scowl at him, but she was unable to help smiling, so she didn't try to hold it back. She just smiled and started to move. Clint was right up against her front; he was firm and unyielding, 100% muscle the way she liked her men. The hand that held hers was calloused enough to show signs of hard work throughout his lifetime; she imagined what those hands would feel like running up and down her arms, over her shoulders, her back.

Swallowing, she looked up at Clint began to mold her body into his as they danced. Clint was, unfortunately, a good dancer. Natasha had been hoping that he was terrible at it so she'd have something to tease him about, but as he danced with her pressed against him, she knew he was anything but. Whenever he went to do anything drastic, his body always gave signals before he did it; right before he pulled back to spin her out, the muscles of his shoulder had flexed a little bit, and he'd tilted his head back just the tiniest bit. She was never thrown off or left behind because she couldn't figure out what his next move was. However, Natasha was a good enough dancer that even if he hadn't given her any hints, she would have been able to keep up.

When Clint's shoulder and arm flexed again, he lifted his arm and spun her underneath it, ending it so that she was facing away from him. Her back was against his torso, and he dipped his head down against her neck. Natasha wanted to close her eyes and enjoy the sensations of it all—her neck was a huge weak spot—but she didn't. Instead, she looked the part of a wife enjoying dancing with her husband.

"Check your 10 o'clock," Clint murmured into her ear. Natasha continued to move her body, but she discreetly looked up and over in the direction Clint had suggested, and that was when she saw Derek Carnegie.

"Bingo," she said back with a giggle and a facial expression that made it look like all they were doing was sharing a private, intimate, silly moment. She wanted to lean into Clint, into his solid body so he could support her; she'd never liked the idea of having anyone support her before, but in that moment, she found herself wanting to let him hold her up.

They weren't grinding, but they were moving closely together, comfortably and snugly pressed into each other. Clint's head was still by her ear, and she could acutely feel how close his lips were to her neck—she prided herself on being a grade A seductress, but Clint was proving to be a grade A seducer himself. She wondered what they looked like through someone else's eyes. Did they look madly in love? Did they look inseparable, unable to go long without touching each other? Did they look comfortable? Happy, even? All of these thoughts raced through Natasha's mind, but she didn't allow them to linger there long.

One of Clint's hands was holding her hipbone, and the other lightly but firmly grasped her hand as they danced together. She leaned her head away from his so that he'd have easier access to her neck and her ear, and she smiled genuinely while also trying to make it look like she was in character to Clint. Changing her head position, however, not only gave Clint an opening to an intimate part of her body, but it also gave her a better view of Carnegie.

Derek Carnegie was talking to a group of people she briefly recognized from studying profiles of who all would be at this gala. Her green eyes scanned over faces and matched names to them as she continued to dance with Clint. Carnegie wasn't the center of the group he was with, but he seemed to be enjoying himself; he was laughing and smiling, and she caught him shaking another person's hand.

Suddenly, the song came to an end, and Natasha found that she and Clint had to pull themselves away from the dance floor in order to carry through the rest of the mission. She reluctantly pulled her body away from the archer's, and she smiled lovingly up at him.

"Want to go sit?" she asked. "I'm ready for a drink."

"Yeah, me too," Clint replied. Natasha turned and began maneuvering her way back to their table, Clint right behind her as they politely pushed their way through the mass of dancing people. She could feel people staring at her, and she allowed herself to revel in it—she knew she was beautiful. That was one of the reasons why she was so good at playing the part of seductress. Her body was curvy and slim and toned in all the right places, and she knew how to play up her best features in order to get what she wanted. She knew what colors brought out the color of her eyes, what cuts of clothing showed off her figure the best, which hairstyles were most flattering with the shape of her face—all of it. Not only had she been trained in the Red Room to kill people about a thousand different ways with her bare hands, but she had been trained on how to get information the most efficiently, and usually, that meant with sex.

She was used to people staring at her. More specifically, she was used to men staring at her, and that was why it bothered her so much that Clint hadn't really seemed to pay much attention to her physicality. Really, she hated herself for thinking about it. She wanted him to notice her, but she also didn't. She loved that he paid attention to her skills, that he appreciated what she could do as a professional; she loved that he laughed at her dry sense of humor and told her she was funny; she even loved that he asked her questions about herself and tried to guess the things she liked based on the few things he did know about her.

She and Clint reached their table and sat down, hands brushing against each other. She looked over at the other couple sitting at their table, and she smiled. "Hi."

"Hi," the woman said back and gave a small, overly polite smile that meant she wasn't all that interested in conversing with Natasha.

"Aaron Blake. My wife Samantha," Clint said and politely nodded towards the man and woman.

"Jonathan Everett. My fiancée Eliza," the man said back. "What brings you two here?"

"We're regular donors," Clint replied without a moment's pause. Then he gave a small smile and glanced towards Natasha. "Interestingly enough, we both were donors even before we got married."

"Newlyweds?" Eliza asked with newfound interest. Natasha smugly nodded, noticing the woman's interest now that she knew they were newlyweds when she, herself, was about to get married.

"Almost a year," she replied.

"That's wonderful. Congratulations," Jonathon said. "Where did you two honeymoon? We've been talking about Tahiti, but we haven't made a decision. She wants to go to Bali, but I think Tahiti would be a wiser choice."

"We went to Thailand," Natasha said.

"Isn't that where Derek and that girl he was seeing last year went during Christmas?" Eliza asked, turning to Jonathon. Jonathon paused, and then he snapped his fingers, his face lighting up as he remembered.

"Yes! Yes, I think so," he said. "Have you met Derek? He's not the usual type you see around here, but he's fantastic. Brilliant man. Absolutely brilliant. Wouldn't think he's into art until you get to talk to him. He's also been a donor here for years."

"Derek Carnegie?" Clint asked innocently, as if his and Natasha's undercover profiles hadn't purposefully said that they'd gone to Thailand for their honeymoon.

"Yeah, that's him," Jonathon said. "One of the greatest scientific minds of our generation, I'd say."

"Yeah, I've heard some things on him," Clint replied. "He does a lot with DNA, right?"

"I don't know," Jonathon admitted with a shrug. "I just know that he's always getting awards and getting all kinds of recognition for his work. All that science stuff is way over my head."

"I'll have to meet up with him later. See where all he went in Thailand. We've been thinking about buying a place there actually, we loved it so much." Clint looked at Natasha and exchanged a fond look with her.

"Yes. It was just gorgeous," the blonde spy added.

"He's been to Thailand a lot. Hold on. If you'll excuse me, I'll go get him and bring him over. I don't think he's sitting here, but he's around here somewhere. I saw him a little earlier." Jonathon stood up and pushed his chair away from the table before anyone could protest, even though this was exactly what Natasha and Clint had wanted. It would be much easier to get Carnegie alone if he already had a connection with either one of them. Natasha looked at Eliza and smiled sweetly.

"Thailand's great. You should really go there," she said.

"Personally, I think Bali has a little bit more culture," Eliza casually responded with an equally casual shrug. "That's always been my cup of tea."

"Depends on how you define culture," Natasha said coolly.

"I definitely think so, too," Clint responded. Natasha smiled at him as she realized he was backing her up, and he returned the smile. Suddenly, Jonathon was back at the table.

"He's mingling right now, but he should be over soon. Until then, would you like to dance?" He turned to Eliza and held his hand out. Eliza beamed up at him and accepted his outstretched hand; Natasha looked over at Clint and rolled her eyes as soon as the couple had their backs turned to them. She knew she was risking possibly blowing their cover just with the one tiny gesture, but it made Clint smile, and that was enough for her.

"Well, want to show them up?" Clint asked. "I mean, I know we just danced, but…"

His words trailed off, but Natasha nodded. She wasn't about to pass up on another opportunity to dance with him—she had to admit that he was just as good as he'd said he was. He wasn't better than she was, but he was definitely on her level. She allowed him to take her hand and lead her out to the dance floor, her body wanting to get close to him again. The DJ was playing a slow song Natasha didn't recognize it. As Clint slowed to a stop on the dance floor and pulled her in to him, she looked up at him.

"Who sings this? What song is it?" she asked.

"Buddy Holly. 'True Love Ways.'" Clint's blue eyes darted down towards her. "It's a good song."

"It is," she quietly agreed. Despite herself, she found that she was snuggling in closer towards him. He was just so…solid. That was the only word she could think of. Solid and reliable. Those were the two things he'd always been for her, even when he hadn't known her. He'd been her enemy, and he'd been solid and reliable. She listened to the words of the song and carefully moved in tandem with him. His hands were gentle and strong as they touched her, again reminding her of the way he touched his bow and arrows.

Without thinking, she laid her head against the space between his chest and his shoulder—she was at the perfect height to do it, and she figured that they were married so why the hell not?

"We've got this," she murmured under her breath so just he could hear.

"We do," he said back, his lips brushing over the top of her head. Natasha swallowed. She wasn't sure what was happening between them as they danced, but again, something was happening to deepen the connection they had with each other. And Natasha was terrified. She'd never felt anything that unnerved her as much as this did, and it terrified her more than anything ever had before. Even Voloshin. Because Voloshin knew all the ways to kill her in the ways that she feared best, and yes, that horrified her, but knowing that Clint could break her on the inside in a way she'd never been broken before just short of paralyzed her with fear. She'd been broken physically, but she'd never been broken the way that Clint had the potential of breaking her.

The thought scared her so much that she drew back just enough to stare up at him, a quizzical look on her face. Clint noticed it, and he immediately frowned with concern, his eyebrows furrowing and causing lines of worry in his forehead that shouldn't have been there.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"Nothing," she said. They were still moving, still dancing, still listening to the music. They were so close, and Natasha thought back to all the times they'd fought, moving and countering each other's movements. She thought back to the kiss in the barn, how she'd told him how to kiss her, and he'd done it, again their bodies moving and countering each other. His blue eyes were searching into her dark, dark soul again, and she realized just how deep she was in this now. She couldn't get out, and she wasn't sure that she wanted to.

Clint blinked, almost in surprise, and then before either of them could do anything, he lowered his mouth, and he kissed her. He kissed her. His lips were on hers, and they were slightly parted, and he was kissing her. A sensation similar to drowning—or being waterboarded—flooded Natasha's body, and it was just as terrifying as she'd thought it would be, but she didn't pull away. She kissed him back and accepted everything he gave to her while giving him more than she ever could have predicted she would give. She pulled back, startled, and she stared at him.

Clint looked shocked by what he'd done and maybe even slightly bothered by his own forward actions; he opened his mouth to say something, but Natasha didn't give him the chance to. She tilted her head up and pressed her mouth to his. They were kissing in the middle of a mission on a dance floor in The National Gallery in London while undercover. It sounded so outrageous, like something straight out of a movie, but that was the reality of it and nothing less.

Natasha thought to tell Clint that she wasn't method acting this time—she wasn't just kissing him because they were undercover and needed chemistry. She wanted to tell him that she wasn't method acting and hoped he wasn't method acting, too. And maybe if she'd opened her mouth and said something then, she would have known the truth because the truth was simple.

He wasn't.


Chapter Text

Chapter 14

When Natasha ended the kiss, she didn't move away from him. She closed her eyes, and she kept slowly dancing, moving in lazy, gentle circles. She wanted to say something to him, but she couldn't think of anything to say. Any amount of words could ruin the peaceful, strange moment they'd just had. As she and Clint moved to the right, she caught sight of Derek Carnegie over Clint's shoulder.

"He's walking to the bar," she said. Smoothly, Clint stepped back from her and took her hand in his, a calm smile on his face but his blue eyes saying it was game time. Natasha already missed dancing with him, missed the feeling of kissing him, but she kept her face even and steady so as not to betray how she felt inside.

"Let's get that drink we never quite managed to get before," Clint said, and they both began walking to the bar. Natasha had been able to time Derek's arrival and their arrival just right so that all three met at exactly the same time at the counter. Her instinct was to jump straight into conversation with Carnegie, but her undercover position was as an upper class wife, and she knew that in these circles, it was the men who talked about their successes and initiated conversation. She was just a background piece. So she had to resign herself to standing and letting Clint start.

"Derek Carnegie?" Clint squinted his eyes slightly at the young man as if he weren't quite sure he'd gotten the right person. Carnegie looked over at him in surprise, and then he nodded, a small smile crossing over his mouth.

"Yes, that's me," he replied.

"Aaron Blake." Clint stuck his hand out to shake Derek's. Derek took Clint's hand and gave it a solid, firm shake. His eyes drifted over towards Natasha; at first, he started to glance down at the rest of her, but he managed to stop himself, and he kept his eyes level. Clint gestured back towards her and put an arm around her waist. "My wife. Samantha Blake."

"Lovely to meet you," Natasha said and lightly held her hand out to shake his. As Carnegie took her hand, Clint jumped in straight away.

"Jonathon Everett said we should talk to you about Thailand. We went almost a year ago for our honeymoon. Great place, isn't it?" he asked. Derek released Natasha's hand, and he nodded enthusiastically.

"Yeah, it's great. I absolutely love it there. I've been telling him he should go there for his own honeymoon," he replied. Natasha raised her hands up as if in surprise, and she grinned.

"See? I told him the same thing," she said enthusiastically. "His fiancée was saying that she thought Bali had more culture, though."

Derek politely rolled his eyes—at least as politely as he could—and shook his head. "Eliza likes to think she's on top of culture, but if she really were on top of culture, she'd want to go to Thailand."

"Smart man," Clint said. He glanced over at the bartender. "Two champagnes, please."

"Samantha, what do you do?" Derek asked innocently, though Natasha could see that he definitely was attracted to her.

"Polo," she said. "I seem to have a knack for it, so I've made that my career."

"You know, I want to say that I actually heard about your most recent game. I could be wrong, but I could swear I saw the scores online or something like that," he replied. Natasha smiled and shrugged in that humble but still arrogant way that everyone else around her was so natural at, and she moved in a little closer to Clint.

"I'm just glad I get to do something I love," she said. "Unfortunately, you can't live forever off polo winnings, so that's why I keep Aaron around."

Derek laughed good-naturedly and glanced over at Clint, who had let go of Natasha's hand to get the two glasses of champagne that the bartender had handed to him. Natasha was actually pretty eager to get her hands on some of the drink—there were fewer things she loved in life than fine, expensive champagne, and she wasn't about to pass up a chance on having some.

"You think she's kidding, but she's not," Clint said, still in character. He put his free arm back around Natasha's waist and nodded towards Derek. "Alright. We'll see you around. It was great meeting you. We'll have to discuss more particulars about where we were in Thailand. We've been thinking about getting a place there, anyway."

"Yes, yes, of course!" Carnegie enthusiastically agreed. "I'm in the process of buying my own place out in the countryside, so we'll definitely have to get in touch."

"Of course," Clint said. His arm still around Natasha's waist, he gently but firmly guided her back to their table. When they were seated, he leaned forward, acting as though he were whispering sweet nothing in her ear. "The first chance we have to get him alone, we jump on it."

"I'd hope so," Natasha replied, giggling in character. She wasn't really a giggler, and she hated the sound of her giggle, but she knew that it was necessary for her to stay in character, so she bit the bullet and giggled like the damn girly girl she'd never been.

Two and a half hours later, they saw their chance. In the middle of a speech about the generous contributors and donors, Natasha and Clint saw Derek Carnegie place his wine glass down on his table and slip out behind some plants. Natasha glanced over at her partner, and he glanced back at her. She leaned over and whispered to him that she was going to use the bathroom, and she got up and walked off, carefully trailing Carnegie.

She made sure to keep him in sight, not letting her eyes off of him once. She'd learned the hard way that if you so much as glanced over your shoulder, your target could be gone, not to be found again. She didn't even feel the need to glance over her shoulder—she trusted that Clint was doing his part. It felt strange that she would just naturally trust someone to do his part—she'd spent her entire life knowing that the only person she could rely on was herself, but she knew that she relied on Clint.

Carnegie looked back over his shoulder and saw Natasha. Slowing to a stop, he smiled. "Samantha Blake."

"Derek Carnegie," she greeted.

"Are you following me?" he asked in an amused, flirtatious tone, not realizing that he was right on the money. She shrugged and smiled coquettishly.

"If this is the way a lady can get to the restroom, then yes," she said.

"Aren't women the ones who are better with directions?" he asked, his smile widening. "We men can't seem to figure out where we're going, even though we like to say we can."

"I prefer not to put men and women into gender stereotypes," Natasha replied.

Carnegie's eyebrows rose, his amused look deepening. "Ah, you're one of those feminists then."

"Something like that." Natasha smiled as he turned to face her full on. And right on cue, Clint appeared. She couldn't see the gun in his hand, but she knew from the look on Derek Carnegie's face that Clint's gun was pressed up into the center of his shoulder blades.

"What the fuck—" Carnegie's voice was cut off as Natasha reached out with her hand and covered his mouth firmly.

"You're going to be quiet," she said. "I know you don't want to, but you're going to because you can either be quiet and get out of here unharmed, or you can do this hard way and get out of here with a bullet through your shoulder. Don't make this any harder on yourself or us."

Carnegie struggled against Clint's grasp, but Clint kept the gun trained on him as Natasha moved behind the scientist to slip a pair of handcuffs around his wrists. She smiled at him, looking as girlish and innocent as she possibly could, and she started walking down the hall.

"Where are we going?" Carnegie asked. Natasha tossed him a bored glance.

"Keep your voice down," she said. Carnegie stopped walking, his eyes wide.

"You're with SHIELD, aren't you?" he asked. Natasha beamed at him, a genuine, bright, beautiful smile that made Clint swallow hard, though Natasha didn't notice. The blonde spy nodded happily, and she kept walking, gesturing towards him to start walking with her.

"Yep," she said. "I am a bona fide agent of SHIELD. Word on the street says you haven't been returning our calls."

"And this is how you get me to answer you?" Carnegie spat. "I don't owe anyone any answers for my work."

"Well, if you'd just answered the calls and come in like SHIELD so nicely asked, we wouldn't be in this position," Clint said in a clipped tone. "Now shut up, please. I'd prefer to not gag you. I'm not a fan of it, so I'd prefer to not do it to you, but I will if I have to."

"Fuck you," Carnegie said angrily.

"Last chance," Clint said as he kept walking. Carnegie glowered at the two spies, but he didn't say anything else as they continued to lead him out through the back of the museum where they knew that Coulson would be parked in their car.

And Coulson, as good as gold, was right there with their swanky black car. As Natasha climbed into the backseat with Clint and Carnegie, she couldn't help thinking that this was much easier than she'd even thought. Just one quick swipe, and they were done. She remembered Clint saying that the only reason this wasn't a Level One mission was because of the espionage involved; espionage missions weren't generally assigned until Levels Two or Three, depending on the agent and the agent's strengths.

Carnegie managed to keep his mouth shut all the way back to the jet and even all the way back to the cell. Natasha was glad because she was judging the shit out of him; she couldn't exactly consider herself a tree hugger, but she secretly loved animals and hated anyone who mistreated them. Knowing that Derek Carnegie was in charge of infusing human DNA with animal DNA made her sick, and she didn't want to hear anything he had to say.

She didn't give a shit about evolution or the supreme human or the ultimate species; she gave a shit about rights for the defenseless, and any animal that was forced to go through that shit Derek put it through was considered defenseless. She looked over at Clint, who was walking beside her down the hall towards their separate bunks on the plane. His face was drawn, and he'd been quiet for such a long time that it was starting to make her nervous.

"Hey," she said when they slid the door to their sleeping quarters behind them. Clint's bunk was opposite of hers, and she leaned against the wall that turned into the space where he would fall asleep.

"Hey," he said back. He turned his blue eyes on her and calmly regarded her, though deep down, she could see a bit of nervous energy darting around. She tilted her head to the side and pursed her lips in a confused expression.

"What's up?" she asked.

"Nothing," he replied.

"False," she said back. "Something's up. Talk to me."

"Funny. The woman who wouldn't talk now asking me to talk to her." Clint's familiar smile slid across his face, and she found herself smiling back at him. He folded his arms over his chest, a gesture she recognized as one to hide vulnerability, and he leaned back against the wall that led to her bunk.

"You're hilarious," she said out loud.

"It's true, though."

"Stop changing the subject."

"I'm not changing the—"

"Yes, you are. What's up?"


"Barton." Her voice was firm, and he stopped talking. She could see the resignation in his eyes as he tried to decide what to do, how to handle what was going on. They stood in silence, the both of them staring at each other. And then she made a decision she never would have thought she would make. She had too much at risk, and if she fucked this up, she was losing everything. But she made her decision, and she jumped in headfirst. She was already drowning, so she figured she might as well follow through.

Lashing out quicker than Clint could process, she pressed her body up against his, and she kissed him. She grabbed his face, the tips of her fingers brushing against the tips of his ears, and she opened her mouth to taste him and allow his tongue to delve into her mouth. Clint wrapped his arms back around her waist, pressing her hard against him, and just as she was starting to lose herself in it, he pulled back. His blue eyes were a shade darker, and his lips were slightly damp and parted. As the tension between them increased, she could see his chest rising and sinking as he breathed in and out.

"What are we doing?" he asked.

"I don't know," Natasha honestly replied. They were at their millionth stalemate. She tried to read his body language, trying to see if he approved of what had just happened or if he hated it. From the look in his eyes, he looked totally into it, but there was something in the way he held his shoulders, as if he were forcing his arms to stay down, that told her he was purposefully putting up a resistance.

"I don't want to do this," he said. She jerked her head back hard, and she felt a tightening in her solar plexus that signaled she was upset and about to shut down. He saw the look on her face, and he quickly held up both hands. "Wait, wait, wait. I didn't mean it like that. I meant—I mean—goddammit—I do want to do this. I do. God, I do." His eyes flicked down to her mouth and then back up to her face. "But I'm doing this right."

"Right," Natasha repeated, finding her voice. Clint nodded carefully.

"Right," he said back to her. "I'm not going to just fuck you on an airplane because I can and because I want to."

"Why not?" Natasha frowned.

"Well…I like you," Clint admitted simply. Natasha blinked. He blinked back at her. She blinked at him again. No one had ever told her they'd liked her before, and she didn't know what to make of it—hell, whenever anything happened that involved Clint, she never knew what to make of it. She thought of a thousand things she could say to him out of anger, frustration, or even embarrassment, but she didn't go any of those routes. Instead, she went the simple route.

"Ok," she said. Clint's eyebrows shot up into his hairline.

"Ok?" he asked. "You mean I didn't have to argue with you or anything?"

"You're acting like I argue with you over everything. I don't argue about everything," Natasha protested as she frowned.

"Yeah, you do," Clint pointed out.

"No, I don't!"

"Look, we're arguing right now."

Natasha paused. He had a point. She tilted her head to the side again and narrowed her eyes at him as she studied his face. "I don't like talking about things."

"Oh, I picked that up the first time I met you," Clint answered with a smirk. She narrowed her eyes even more at him, but she wasn't mad, and he knew it because his mouth slid into a grin.

"You're not as funny as you think you are," she said.

"Now who's changing the subject?" Clint countered. She pursed her lips at him and folded her arms over her chest.

"Fine," she said. "Getting back to the subject. I don't like to talk about things. It makes everything awkward, and I don't do awkward."

"I can live with that," Clint said with an affirmative nod.

"Ok. And we're going to be adults about this."

"Of course."

Natasha was quiet, and he was quiet. They both stared at each other. Finally, she spoke. "Kiss me."

"Gladly." Clint stepped forward and put his arms back around her waist and pulled her flush with his body. Natasha kissed him, and she let him run his hands up her back, enjoying the feeling of his hands sliding over her. He knew how to get the right results from bow and arrow, and he knew how to get the right results from her, too.

Even just the way he held her and touched her told her that she knew they'd fit together well during sex. Her body molded right into his, and she couldn't remember the last time she'd felt so physically comfortable with another human being; she couldn't remember the last time she'd felt so physically comfortable with a man. She'd known that Clint Barton was different from the start, and he insisted on showing her every day just how different he really was.

"Congratulations, Miss Widow. Welcome to SHIELD." Nick Fury folded his hands together and stared at Natasha with what she supposed was the closest thing he could muster to a smile on his face.

"Thank you, sir," she said.

"And welcome on board to the Voloshin mission. I know you've had your eye on this for a while," Fury continued. She nodded.

"Yes, sir," she said. "I can give you any kind of information on him, the whole organization…anything."

"Perfect. Because that's exactly what we'll need." Fury leaned forward and stared hard at her. "Tell me everything you know."

"Voloshin heads the last remaining part of the KGB. Since the KGB's fall, he's turned it into kind of an underground mob thing. Everyone knows about it, no one talks about it. He has a hierarchy of men that he trusts, and I was at the top of it. Not because he trusted me as a person but because he trusted me as a killer. He doesn't wait. He doesn't listen for excuses. His weakness lies in his hierarchy. He doesn't trust many people, but those few he chooses? He puts full trust in," she said.

"How many people are in the hierarchy?" Clint asked from the seat beside her.

"Seven, including me. Six now, unless he's replaced me," she said.

"What does this hierarchy do?" Fury asked.

"Whatever he tells them to, honestly." Natasha's voice was flat and dull. "Typically, he has one man for each line of business. One man handles money, the other handles weapons, another handles businesses, another focuses on rivaling mobs…the whole deal. My focus was as a hit man."

"And you can lead us to him?" Fury questioned, tilting his head to the side. Natasha smirked.

"I can lead you to him when he's got his whole hierarchy with him," she said. "The passwords have probably changed since I've been gone, but I can lead you in, and we'll fight our way to the top."

"And if they hired you, they've got to be top notch fighters," Clint added. Natasha nodded once.

"The best," she confirmed. "The best security teams, alarms, combat soldiers…literally everything. Voloshin watches his back."

"Sounds fun," Clint said, though the look on his face showed that he didn't think it sounded fun at all.

"They know all my aliases, so they've probably been tracking me nonstop. Or at least trying to," Natasha added. "But lucky for us, I know all of theirs, unless they've changed that, too, since I've been gone."

Fury sighed and leaned back in his chair, his brown eye calmly regarding her with a slight curiosity. "Well, Miss Widow. It sounds like we have a shit ton of work ahead of us. Welcome aboard."

Natasha glanced over the sketch of Voloshin's headquarters she'd made. She'd spent all week diagramming different buildings and creating charts and profiles for the men involved with Voloshin and his hierarchy; she'd even created profiles for all the rival organizations that were also out for Voloshin's blood. She would have to suggest to Fury enlisting Voloshin's rivals to help out, to get the inside scoop on what was happening in Voloshin's circles these days. She knew the rivals would only agree to it for a pretty price—avery pretty price—but she was sure that they would want in since they wanted Voloshin as dead as she did.

Clint had been a saint. For the most part, he'd left her alone, quietly sitting off to the side studying profiles and diagrams unless she asked him to get something for her or to silently slip out and bring back two cups of coffee for the both of them. Since they'd come back from the Carnegie mission, they'd been carefully circling each other even more so than usual.

They didn't kiss in front of anyone else, instead choosing to press against each other, fingers in hair and tongues grazing lips, when there was no chance of anyone else walking in. They'd been lucky so far, and Natasha wasn't ready to test the waters with anyone finding out what was going on between her and the archer. Truthfully, Natasha didn't know how to explain it if someone asked. What was going on?

They kissed when no one was around, and they carried a calm, steady banter with each other when they were working. Their whole arrangement was confusing, even to her, but she'd set the rule that they weren't going to talk about it, so that was exactly what she was going to. Until the day something more serious happened between them, whether it was positive or negative, she would just keep acting the way she was.

She had to admit that she was finding herself becoming slowly addicted to Clint Barton. Sometimes it was hard for her to look at him without wanting to leap on him on the spot. She loved how he touched her, how he kissed her, and even how he looked at her. She craved him all the time—even the snarky, sarcastic comments that made her smile or laugh 90% of the time when she was in the right mood.

"Why'd you choose Natasha instead of Natalie as your Americanized name?" Clint asked suddenly. Natasha looked up from the diagram she was attempting to make, and she looked at him—she wasn't really all that surprised whenever he asked questions like this anymore. She shot her questions back at him just as quickly as he shot them out to her, so it was only fair. Besides, they spent a lot of time talking and getting to know each other, though they were still careful about just how much information they shared.

"Natalie's the first name they would have looked under," she replied evenly. "It's so similar to my Russian name."

"And Natasha isn't?" Clint asked. Natasha thought back to the time they'd sat in the training room, and he'd had a laptop pulled up in front of him while he'd searched for names. She remembered how apprehensive she'd been about taking on the name Natasha because of that one memory she may or may not have actually had of someone calling her that.

"It's a nickname," she said, careful to keep her voice steady. "It's a very personal nickname. Only close friends and family use the nickname Natasha for a girl named Natalia."

"Really?" Clint asked with interest. Natasha nodded.

"Yeah," she said. "Voloshin and his men wouldn't think of searching for a Natasha because it's so personal. They know I don't have anyone who would want to give me that nickname. I don't have any connections close enough to do so."

She watched Clint's face turn inwards on itself, and he completely readjusted his body language so that he was facing her directly.

"Seriously?" he asked. This time his voice wasn't interested or curious; it was slightly angry. She paused and looked at him, feeling her eyebrows start to lower into a confused frown.

"Yes," she said.

"Nat." He didn't say anything else. He just said that one word, that one nickname of her Russian nickname, and she understood why he'd suddenly become angry. She'd basically just told him she didn't have a personal connection with anyone, and here she was feeling herself getting addicted to Clint, and from the way Clint was looking at her, she got the feeling that he felt the same way. She didn't know how to respond, suddenly feeling vulnerable and caught off guard.

"Clint," she said back, her tone almost apologetic. They continued to stare at each other, eyes roaming over the other's face as they tried to figure out what exactly was going on in this moment. She could see Clint's anger melt away to confusion and then resignation as the silence progressed. Finally, she spoke. "I've been compromised."

"Nat." This time when he said her name, it was quiet. Not angry, not confused, just quiet. He understood what she meant without needing her to explain any further. She forced herself to keep her gaze on him.

"I'm used to fucking and killing. Not…this," she finished lamely as she tried to think of another way to phrase it. If Clint were surprised by the first swear word she'd laid out in front of him since being brought in, he didn't show it. "I'm also not used to talking about things."

"It makes things awkward, and you don't do awkward," Clint said, repeating the words she'd told him on the plane that night they'd flown back from London. She offered him one of her infamous half-smiles, and she nodded.

"Exactly," she said. "I do simple. I don't do complicated."

"Who said anything about complicated?" Clint asked.

"Well…you were assigned to kill me, but instead of killing me, you brought me in to SHIELD and trained me to be a SHIELD agent, and now we've spent the past week making out like a bunch of teenagers," Natasha said in a monotone. A smile cracked Clint's face.

"Ok, I guess that's complicated," he said.

"Just a little," Natasha agreed. "And technically, couldn't we get fired if anyone found out? I just got my badge. I'm not looking to lose it so quickly."

Absentmindedly, she put her hand on the SHIELD badge she'd been issued the day after she and Clint had returned from their Carnegie mission. She wasn't the kind of person to get all caught up in sentiment over things such as a badge, but she definitely liked having it. It made her feel like she had some kind of purpose, some kind of importance.

"Ok, so you're right that it's complicated," Clint said. "But we wouldn't exactly get fired."

"Exactly?" Natasha repeated.

"Yeah. Not exactly," Clint said. His blue eyes drifted up and off to the side as he thought about how to word it. "SHIELD doesn't expect us to be saints, but as long as there's nothing affecting the way we work, it's ok. It's kind of an unspoken rule."

"So good. We don't let this affect how we work," Natasha said. Clint nodded in agreement.

"Right," he said. "You don't risk your life for me, and I won't risk my life for you."

"That sounds like a good deal to me," Natasha said, even though she knew that she'd risk her life for Clint. She didn't know that Clint was thinking the same thing. "So that's not complicated anymore."

"And look, you're talking about it. Is it awkward?" Clint asked, lifting his eyebrows in amusement.

Natasha shrugged. "I'm looking at this from a business standpoint."

"Oh, good idea," Clint said, his eyes lighting up. "Business. This is business."

"Right. Business."

"I still like you, though."



"Why do you go by Clint and not Clinton?"

Clint smirked. "This again?"

"Clinton sounds nice. You look like a Clinton," Natasha protested.

"Clinton is long and old-fashioned. Clint is short and to the point. No extra syllables," the archer explained.

"So why don't you go by Hawk instead of Hawkeye?" Natasha asked. Clint rolled his eyes.

"How stupid is that?" he asked. "Hawkeye is way cooler."

"Personally, I think it's foul." Natasha grinned at her own pun while Clint let out a groan.

"You know what's not funny? Bird jokes," he said. "Seriously, you're not the only one here to bust out a bird joke and think you're hilarious doing it."

"I'm very funny," Natasha said, grinning brightly at him. "You've told me hundreds of times before. No take backs."

"Who's the child now?" Clint countered. He was smiling softly at her, and she found herself smiling softly back at him. He shifted back in his seat so that he was leaning backwards a little bit. "Come here."

Quietly, Natasha got up and crossed towards him. Usually, she didn't like when men gave her orders like that, but she liked Clint—even if she wouldn't tell him that she did—and she liked the way her body responded to him, the way her mind responded to him. She walked towards him and came to a stop in front of him; he was still seated, and she was standing above him a head higher than he was.

"If you want to kiss me, you're welcome to," Clint suggested in a nonchalant but quiet tone. Natasha's smile widened, and she tilted her head to the side as she crossed her arms over her chest and raised her eyebrows.

"Who says I want to?" she asked.

"I'm just leaving the option open for you," he said.

"You're making things complicated."

"No, I'm not."

"Yes, you are. You're giving me the option. That's complicating things."

"No, Nat, it's called asking for consent."

"I like a man who asks for consent." She saw a look of something flash over his eyes, but she didn't get to ask what it was about and why. However, she had a feeling that she knew what it was—as a spy, she'd had to have sex with men she normally wouldn't have touched with a 10 foot pole. When it came to sex and missions, she didn't have a choice. If she needed to use sex as a way to get information, then that was the tactic she was supposed to use. She knew that Clint suspected she was speaking from experience, and she didn't want his pity or his pain.

So she bent forward, placed her hands on the table in front of him to balance against, and she leaned down and kissed him. She felt that sense of warmth and calm rush over her the way it always did when she kissed him, and she even felt a growing heat rise up throughout her entire body. She wanted Clint in all ways possible, but she kept control over herself. She never would have thought she would enjoy kissing someone so slowly, but she did.

Clint placed his hands on either side of her face, and he gently pulled away from her lips, slowly drawing her head down to kiss her on the forehead. The gesture was so sweet and surprisingly intimate that Natasha felt her heart tug beneath her ribcage. She opened her green eyes and looked at him. She was becoming used to the piercing sharpness of his eyes and how they seemed to look directly into her. She no longer felt the need to cover herself up, and she wondered if that were a dangerous feeling to have.

Allowing herself to completely open up to Clint left her vulnerable, and being vulnerable only led to being killed. Or to Clint being killed. The thought passed through her brain so quickly it left her nearly breathless. For the first time in her entire life, she'd thought of someone else. She'd been trained just to think of herself and how she would survive, how she would get out of not being murdered by her targets or people who'd made her the target, but now she thought of Clint. Her vulnerability could lead to him being killed.

She closed her eyes and lowered her mouth to his ear, repeating the words she'd murmured to him earlier that day but this time in Russian.

"I've been compromised."


Maria Hill's voice came from over Clint's right shoulder, and he turned to look at her. He wasn't surprised to see her there; his sensitive ears had picked up on the sounds of her footsteps even before she'd spoken. His sensitivity to sound always came in handy for moments like this—he was able to recognize anyone's footsteps once he'd heard them only one time.

"Hill," he greeted. "How are you?"

"I'm well. Snack?" Maria nodded towards the apple in his hand. Sheepishly, he grinned and nodded. Technically, he wasn't supposed to take food out of the cafeteria, but he'd needed a quick snack break from training, and he'd taken a quick voyeur to the cafeteria.

"Yeah," he replied. "On your way to get dinner?"

"I was going to, but after thinking about it, I'm going to grab something out in the real world. The thought of cafeteria food isn't all that appealing to me right now." Maria half-winced, and Clint let out a soft chuckle.

"I understand," he said. "Don't blame you, either."

"How's the mission coming along? I've been studying the profiles as they've been coming in. Natasha's a detailed worker," Hill said in an appreciative tone. Clint smiled—Maria Hill loved details and precision, and Natasha filled out of her profiles, diagrams, and lists with as much precision as possible.

"It's good. Feels like we've been working nonstop, and we've barely even scratched the surface. It'll be fine, though. Fury putting together the finalized team?" he asked.

"Yes. There'll be 10 of us. That includes you, me, and Natasha," Maria replied.

"Sounds like a party," Clint said.

"Has she been handling all of this ok? No triggers or anything?" Maria asked, her eyebrows drawing in together slightly with concern. As much as Maria presented a stony face to everyone else, Clint knew she had a soft heart deep down. She'd taken a liking to the redheaded assassin—Natasha had dyed her hair back to its natural color the instant they'd stepped off the plane—and the two women had formed an easy friendship.

"She seems to be ok," Clint replied carefully as he thought. He'd been paying special attention to Natasha just in case she did freak out about anything, but true as ever, she was her usual level self. He knew she still slept to the sound of running water, but that wasn't anything unusual.

"Good," Maria said. "You know, I'm surprised Fury didn't make her go to therapy sessions when you first brought her in."

"I think he knew she was on the right track. He fought my call the whole time, but I think he knew she wasn't as hopeless as he'd first thought. He believes in second chances just as much as I do."

"Rightfully so," Maria agreed with a professional nod. "Have you told her about the chance he gave you?"

Clint paused, his face going still, and then he shook his head. "No."

"Why not?" Maria tilted her head to the side and studied him with a frown on her face. Clint shook his head and looked away, squinting his eyes in fascination at the wall.

"No point in it," he said. "Why talk about it?"

"Connections," Maria said simply. "She'll understand why you chose to save her instead of kill her."

"She already does," Clint protested.

Maria gave him a bored look. "She doesn't."

"We don't really talk about the past. That's been a bit of a silent, mutual agreement," Clint said. "Aren't you always the one saying it's not the past that defines you but who you choose to be?"

"Kind of paraphrased me close," Maria said. "And this is different. She'd know just how much you understand."

Clint wanted to tell Maria Hill about how he couldn't find the words to tell Natasha all about his past, everything to do with the circus and his training and how SHIELD had gotten their hands on him. He wanted to tell Maria about how he felt about Natasha. He wanted to tell her about the feelings Natasha stirred up and moved around, but he didn't.

That would complicate things, and Clint couldn't afford to do complicated.


Chapter Text

Chapter 15

One fact that surprised Natasha about SHIELD was the lack of rules in regards to agents living in HQ. She would have thought that a top notch government agency would have been all over controlling the agents on what they could and couldn't do, but much to her surprise, she was basically given free rein to do whatever she wanted whenever she wanted.

Given that information, Natasha wondered how far she could push the rules without being reprimanded, and she found that with each little thing she tried, she got away with. Clint had even grinned at her with that irresistible smile of his and told her that she could horde as much food in her room as she wanted, but SHIELD still wouldn't give a shit about it as long as she didn't attract bugs or mice.

"What about if I stay in your room?" she'd asked him, and he'd lifted his eyebrows quizzically.

"They don't give a shit about that, either," he'd said, and she'd nodded once in response. She hadn't spent the night in Clint's room, nor had he stayed the night in hers. He'd never brought it up, and neither had she. She was trying the slow approach since that was what Clint seemed to be fond of, but it was hard because she wasn't used to it. Had they been moving at her pace, she would have fucked him on that airplane on the way back from London. But Clint was calm and cool about their intimate partnership the way he was cool and calm about everything else.

She kept waiting for him to say something, to suggest staying the night with each other, but he hadn't uttered a word. And Natasha liked it and hated it all at once. She hated it because it was so different than what she knew and had always known, but she also liked it for that very reason. When she was with Clint, she didn't feel like he wanted her strictly for her body. He asked her opinion on things, and he consulted her advice on personal and professional matters, and he complimented her ideas more than he complimented her looks.

So when Clint woke her up in the middle of the night, she was shocked to see him.

She'd been sleeping dreamlessly, completely lost in her own little world when she heard her name being whispered.


Her eyes snapped open, and she saw Clint kneeling by the edge of her bed so that he was on the same eye level as she was. She didn't jump, nor did she gasp—she didn't make a big deal over being woken up at a random hour of the night. Instead, she blinked her eyes several times as she reoriented herself with consciousness, and she started to push herself up onto her elbow when Clint stopped her by holding his hands out.

"Clint?" she sleepily asked.

"Hi," he replied, his voice nervous. Natasha blinked several more times and used the heel of her palm to rub her dry eyes before frowning slightly and looking at him with a confused, sleepy expression on her face.

"Hi. What's wrong?" she asked.


"You're lying."

"What? You can't even see my face."

"I don't have to see your face to know you're lying. I think I know you a little better than that."

Clint paused, and she could tell that he was thinking about what she'd just said. "I couldn't sleep."

Natasha didn't hesitate to scoot back towards the wall on the bed, pulling the covers up to open them for him. For a few seconds, Clint didn't move. And then he silently slid underneath the covers with her. Natasha had cuddled with many men in the past—part of the job—but she was mildly nervous about cuddling with Clint. They'd never done anything like that before, but when she felt her body sliding towards him without any moment of pause, she knew that there wasn't any use in fighting it any longer.

Again, she was reminded of how well their bodies fit together as she curled up into a ball, her back against his chest with him lightly wrapped around her; it didn't escape her notice that he positioned himself so that he wasn't in any kind of a physically repressive position. He was careful to make sure that she didn't feel trapped down, and she felt her heart skip a little beat as she noticed his consideration for her, even when it was obvious that he was going through something himself.

"Do you always have trouble sleeping?" she asked.

"No," Clint said. Silence passed between them for a few seconds. "I like that running water CD you got. Where'd you get it again?"

"That CD store across the bridge. It was on sale, and I figured I might as well stop wasting good water," Natasha replied. She paused. "Preserving the environment is important."

"You're right," Clint agreed. "Smart thinking."

"What's wrong?" Natasha asked, deciding not to beat around the bush any longer. "Why can't you sleep?"

"Remember those nightmares I was telling you about a while back?" Clint's voice was quiet, still calm as ever.

"You never really told me about them aside from a brief mention, but yeah," Natasha replied.

"They're not exactly nightmares. Flashbacks to my past. Things I prefer to not relive." Clint's tone conveyed to her that he didn't want to talk about it, and Natasha knew better than to push anything.

"I might not have the ears of a hawk, but I'm a pretty good listener," Natasha softly answered. "No rush, though."

"Thanks," Clint said, and he didn't say anything else about what he'd dreamed about. He didn't want to go into details about his memories, about the circus, about how he'd come to be who he was. He especially didn't want to talk about how SHIELD had found him and how violent he'd been. Sometimes he couldn't even believe that he'd once been that person—angry, dangerous, and virtually alone. Now he was reminded of how unbelievably not alone he was with his body wrapped close around Natasha.

He carefully rested his forehead against the back of her hair and breathed in the smell of her shampoo. He didn't know shit about women's shampoo, but he knew that he liked whatever smell hers was. Hell, he figured that she could have had shampoo that smelled like rotten eggs, and he would have enjoyed it simply because it reminded him of her.

"Is this what partners do?" Natasha asked out loud, breaking him out of his thoughts about her damn shampoo.

"Not usually," Clint replied. "But we're not like other SHIELD agents. We're the rare case."

"I would think so. Circus Boy and Russian Assassin. Sounds like a really bad TV show," Natasha pointed out. Clint smiled against her red hair, careful not to pull her too close into him so that she wouldn't feel trapped down.

"Military," he softly corrected.

"Hmm?" Natasha asked, her tone sleepy and confused.

"Military. I learned how to shoot in the circus. I learned how to fight in the military," he replied. Natasha turned her head towards him slightly, several strands of her red hair falling back against his face.

"You were in the military?" she asked.

"Something like that." He shook his head so that Natasha's hair moved and uncovered his face. "My aim caught a lot of people's eye. It can be difficult to stay under the radar when you're the best at what you do."

He wasn't being cocky, and Natasha knew that he wasn't—he was just being honest. If she were being honest, she knew that she was the best at what she did, too, and that was just simple fact. There wasn't any use in trying to be modest or humble about what they did because there was little glory in how they'd come to be as good as they were.

"I can relate to that," she drily remarked.

"So…yeah…" Clint didn't know what else to say. It just felt good to lie in bed with Natasha and hold her. Suddenly, the sound of pattering rain gently hitting the glass windowpane in Natasha's room distracted the both of them. Clint felt Natasha lift her head up a centimeter to look up at the window. He was about to say something to her, but before he had the chance to, she smoothly pulled herself away from him and rolled to her knees as she pulled back the standard issue curtains and lifted the blinds up to reveal the rainy night outside her window. He watched her pause, her green eyes uplifted and bright as she looked out, and then she looked down at him.

"It's raining," she said.

"Really?" he asked in a mild snarky tone that made her smile.

"Yeah," she said. She turned her eyes back out to the window, but Clint didn't let her linger too long. Reaching out, he wrapped one arm around her waist and pulled her back down to him. A surprised inhale and then a laugh escaped from between her lips as Clint pulled the covers back over them and buried his face in the back of her hair. "I was looking at the rain!"

"Well, I was looking at you," Clint said. She stopped squirming against him, and she rolled on her back to look at him, still smiling.

"The rain's a better view," she pointed out.

"False," he said.

"Liar," she murmured, switching into Russian. They very rarely spoke in Russian, and that was Natasha's choice more than Clint's. Of course, Clint always preferred to speak in his own native tongue, but he was fluent enough in Russian to easily speak the language without batting an eyelash.

"Fine, I'm a liar," he answered. He lowered his head down onto the pillow so that he was looking directly at her. "Why the switch into Russian?"

"I don't know." Natasha's eyes passed over his face and then flicked down to his mouth before looking back up into his blue eyes. "I try to avoid it as much as possible."


"Russian is who I was. English is who I am now."

"You can never fully get rid of the past. Our nightmares are proof of that."

"I'm going to try my damnedest to leave all of it behind me." Natasha's voice was quiet as she spoke. Clint blinked, memorizing the little details of her face in the low light of the rain.

"What made you want to?" he asked as he switched back into English.

"Honestly, at first I just wanted to kill Voloshin. I was looking out for myself and my own interests. Survival of the fittest," she admitted shamelessly. "But the more I thought about it…I realized I didn't have to keep doing what I've been doing for so long. I could turn around if I wanted to. For the last year or so I was with the KGB, I'd started questioning what I was doing. If it was right. If I actually had enough of a heart to care about the people I was killing. And then when I was here…I got a second chance."

"Knew you'd choose to take it," Clint said smugly.

"How?" Natasha asked, grinning at him.

"Because I chose mine," he evenly replied. Natasha lifted her red eyebrows at him.

"And because you chose yours, you thought I'd choose mine?" she asked.

"Yep. You and I are way more alike than you think, Miss Romanoff," Clint answered with his own grin as he looked back at her. Natasha wrinkled her nose.

"Please, don't insult me," she remarked. "Also, don't call me Miss Romanoff. I prefer Fury's nickname: Miss Widow."

"Oh, excuse me, Miss Widow."

"You're excused." Natasha glanced down at his hand draped lightly over her waist. "I love your hands."

She normally hated admitting whenever she liked something about Clint because Clint got all smug about it, but telling him that she liked something about him also opened up another door to being vulnerable. She lifted her hand and traced one finger over the back of Clint's hand, over his knuckles and tendons and fingers.

"That's what my nightmares are about, actually," he spoke up in a matter of fact tone. Natasha paused her actions, and she looked up at the archer. He was looking down at her hand on top of his with an expression as matter of fact as his voice was. "I was taken in for questioning one time, and they broke my hands when I didn't give them the answers they wanted to hear."

The weight of Clint's admission made Natasha's throat swell up, and for a few seconds, all she could do was just stare at him. Clint didn't need to tell her that his hands were his most valued part of his body for her to understand how horrifying and traumatic it must have been for him. She also didn't need him to tell her that having his hands broken probably meant that whoever had done it had continued to torture him with the pain of his broken hands.

She swallowed and gently took the hand resting on her between her own two hands, carefully running her fingers over his skin. As she looked at the part of Clint she loved so much, she couldn't imagine his strong, solid hands being broken. Slowly, she curled his hand into a loose fist, and she brought it to her lips, carefully kissing his knuckles. Clint closed his eyes, a look of peace coming across his face.

"I'm sorry that happened to you," Natasha said quietly. She'd always hated whenever people said that in response to hearing about a tragic event, but she really was sorry. She didn't like people's pity, and she knew that Clint didn't want hers, but the thing was: she wasn't pitying him. She didn't want to pity him just as much as he didn't want to be pitied. So she gave him what she'd always wanted instead of pity: support. She lightly kissed the tips of his fingers and cradled his hand against her face as if she were handling something delicate.

"Thank you," Clint softly replied. And she knew that he wasn't thanking her for what she'd said—he was thanking her for what she was doing. She kissed the tip of his pointer finger one last time and lowered his hand, still wrapped in hers.

"Just remember. I'm a good listener."

"I'll remember."


"We can't just go in guns blazing, Romanoff," Nick Fury said with a hint of irritation in his voice.

"Why not? It's the element of surprise," Natasha argued, leaning against the top of the table. The table was a mess, and she hated looking at things that were a mess. Papers and diagrams and profiles covered the entire top while the team argued for the millionth time about the best way to infiltrate Voloshin's main building. They'd figured out the plan on what they'd do once they got inside, but it was the whole getting inside part that was throwing them off.

"Element of surprise? That's messy and chaotic. Our asses will be shot to kingdom come," Fury snapped. "This is too big an operation for the element of fucking surprise with guns blazing. If this were some little mob operation, ok. Cool. I can live with that. I can dig it. But this? It's too big. It's too much, Romanoff."

"If someone slips up while trying to infiltrate slowly, it'll give them time to prepare a defense. Any defensive plan they come up with, no matter how small, could be enough to fuck us up big time," Natasha sharply replied. Fury barely batted an eye, and he shook his head.

"It's too risky," he said.

"The sooner they figure out who we are and why we're there, the sooner they'll figure out that I'm there, too, and once they discover that little fun fact, they won't rest until each and every SHIELD agent on this mission is dead." Natasha paused. "Or worse."

"Let's just scrap both approaches and try something else," Maria suggested, her tone bored and frustrated at the same time. She glanced up between Fury and Natasha, her brown eyes calmly regarding the both of them, and then she looked over at Clint. Clint didn't look up from the map in front of him.

"That's an idea," he added.

"I'm telling you. This is the best way," Natasha argued.

"Well, at the end of the day, I make the call, and if you ain't down with it, you don't get to go," Fury pointed out. Natasha scowled, her green eyes flashing, and she leaned back in her chair. Clint finally looked up from the map and exchanged a look with Maria—they'd been sitting through these meetings with the whole 10-person team for the past few days, and each meeting had been full of arguing. Coulson was usually the only one who managed not to get dragged into the arguments of best strategy, but even today, he was looking a little testy and had spoken up in disagreement to several ideas a few times.

"You've got to trust me on this," Natasha insisted, her voice more calm after she'd taken a few seconds to recompose herself. "I know them. I know how they work. I know how they'll be after they figure out I'm there. They will not let anyone leave alive."

"Russian torture isn't exactly fun," Clint spoke up from his spot. Natasha nodded once in both agreement and a silent thank you for his input. Fury irritably ran a hand over his face, and he sighed.

"Sometimes I think everyone in this room thinks I'm a child," he said heatedly. He turned his eye to Coulson. "Do I look like a child?"

"No, sir," Coulson politely replied with a calm look on his face.

"Do I look like a grown ass man to you?" Fury demanded.

"Yes, sir. You do," Coulson said. Fury turned back to glare at the team in front of him.

"That's the answer I want to hear," he said. "Now get your fucking heads out of your asses and listen the fuck up for a second. If we go in guns blazing, we'll lose a shit ton of agents. Most of the team. If we go in quietly and then attack one by one, we can save a lot of people."

"It can also alert more people," Natasha spoke up. "Voloshin's men work quickly. If even the slightest hint that we're there gets out, they'll be on us. I promise you that they will kill each and every one of us."

"Well, then it's damn good that we're too good at our jobs for that to happen," Fury smartly retorted. He sighed again and stood up. "Alright. Take an hour to eat or whatever it is that you all do."

Natasha unfolded herself from her chair and stood up, enjoying the feeling of standing up again. She glanced over at Clint and saw him standing up and looking towards the door with a longing look in his eye. He'd been right several nights ago when he'd told her that they were more alike than she thought—they both hated sitting still and being cooped up for longer than a few minutes. However, they were both professional enough and good enough at their jobs to sit motionless for as long as they needed to.

She crossed towards him, meeting him at the same time that Maria did. Maria wore her usual expression, but this time it was tinged with irritation. Her brown eyes met Natasha's green eyes, and she exhaled sharply through her nose. "I was expecting this to take much longer."

"Ever the optimist," Clint quipped with a grin. "We're so close to being completely finished with the plan."

"Close but not close enough," Natasha added. She folded her arms over her chest while Maria and Clint started talking about lunch and where they were thinking about eating if they decided not to go down to the cafeteria. She knew she'd been extra testy today, and it was specifically because of the fact that Fury was risking their entire cover being blown in they went in individually. Yes, she was terrified for the team, but she was also terrified that they would find out she'd been double-crossing Voloshin towards the end of her time with him.

She looked over at Clint, taking in the way he smiled and talked. He had no idea. No idea that she'd been betraying her former boss. If he knew…she didn't want to think about it. If Clint knew that she'd been going against the man who'd basically made her into who she was, he would question what her loyalties and her morals were, and she wasn't sure how she was supposed to explain herself.

She swallowed and pushed the thoughts out of her mind. This wasn't what she wanted to think about right now. All she wanted to focus on was how she was going to convince Fury that the best way to deal with Voloshin was to go in all the way. Her instinct told her that she was right, but she knew she couldn't go against Fury's orders—if he made the call that they were going to go individually, she just couldn't go against it.

"—to you?" Clint was asking her. She paused and looked at both Clint and Maria, realizing that they were looking back at her with expectant faces. "Nat?"

"Sorry. I was lost in my own little world," Natasha said casually with a sheepish grin and shrug to cover up the fact that she'd been thinking about something that was very much the opposite of what her face conveyed. Clint and Maria bought it because neither seemed to bat an eyelash.

"Japanese or Thai? Which sounds good to you?" Clint asked.

"Thai," Natasha answered, barely missing a beat. "Always Thai."

"I can second that," Maria declared. As the three agents started walking out towards the exit of SHIELD, food and future plans on their minds, all Natasha could think about was how real this was finally starting to become. Even though it felt like they would never actually get the mission going, she knew that the team was right around the corner from finalizing everything and heading out.

And Natasha couldn't wait.

For the past few nights, Clint had never slept better. Ever since that first night he'd made his way into Natasha's room and been welcomed into her bed, he'd gone back every night. He waited for her invitation: an expectant look, holding the door open a few beats longer than she would have if she were telling him good night, her fingers tightening slightly around his when her hand brushed past as she opened the door. He always waited for some kind of indication that she wanted him to stay.

Clint wasn't a stranger to nightmares. He'd had them for years. However, he did a good job of keeping them at bay with the sound of running water, some meditation, and even a few sleeping pills whenever things got really bad. Three hundred nights out of three hundred sixty five nights of the year were nightmare-free.

And yet sleeping beside Natasha gave him the most peaceful sleep he'd ever had. Hell, he couldn't remember if he'd even slept that well before he'd gotten mixed up into anything bad in the first place. He could remember how well he'd slept before his hands had been broken, before he'd been tortured that way. He could remember how he'd been able to fall asleep at once without fear of getting grabbed out of his bed. He could remember the peacefulness that had once accompanied his sleep, and he hadn't experienced that until Natasha.

Little did Natasha know, Clint was just as terrified of the feelings he had for Natasha. He didn't exactly do relationships. He'd had relationships in the past, and they'd all ended horribly, so he'd started keeping himself distant from women and getting involved with them. Besides, he knew that realistically, it was safer all the way around in doing so. By holding himself at arm's length, he was able to keep anyone he was involved with safe, and he was able to keep himself safe.

But damn, was he far from safe now.

Out from the darkness, Natasha's arm came shooting up and over his waist, loosely draping around as she curled in closer around him. Clint, half-awake, always found this hilarious. It didn't surprise him that Natasha would like to be big spoon when spooning, and it definitely didn't surprise him that she would take the initiative to just fling her arm over him and tuck herself in.

She was smaller than he was, so her head came to just between Clint's shoulder blades. He felt the shape of her forehead against his back, and he knew that she slept as well as he did. They'd never discussed it—because that makes things awkward, and Natasha didn't do awkward—but she looked more alert and energetic in the morning the way someone did after having had a fantastic sleep the night before.

So when Clint drifted off to sleep finally with Natasha's arm over his waist and her forehead between his shoulder blades, he didn't dream of broken hands; he didn't dream of what they did to his broken hands after.

In fact, he didn't dream at all. He slept.


Chapter Text

Chapter 16

The mission was simple enough. On paper. Land, send in Barton, send in the rest one by one, take down every member of Voloshin's team, take down Voloshin. One, two, three, four, five. Natasha would have been lying if she said she wasn't nervous. In fact, her emotions were quite the contrary. She was very nervous, and she was nervous for a variety of reasons. She was nervous the mission would fail, and they'd all die; she was nervous Voloshin would escape as the only person alive; she was nervous that Clint and Fury would find out that she had been a double agent right before they'd found her.

After a frantic, painstaking week of finalizing plans, the mission had been completed, and that was how Natasha found herself on the SHIELD jet headed to Russia. She'd been going over the plan nonstop in her head, but she couldn't stop now. All she could think about was how easily they could all fuck up and how easily they could all die; of course, Fury hadn't listened to her when she'd told him that going in quietly was the worst possible way to handle this, and that was exactly what they were doing.

"Romanoff, Barton. You ready?" Fury asked, breaking Natasha's racing mind. Her green eyes flicked over towards him, and she nodded. "Good. The two of you will be working together. I know. Big surprise."

"The pleasure is all mine," Clint chirped happily. Fury shot him a look and then folded his arms over his chest.

"Just don't fuck up," he said. "Agent Palmer will be feeding you information the whole time, so keep your ear piece in."

"Yes, sir," Natasha answered before Clint could come up with some other smartass remark that may or may not piss Fury off.

"I'm serious," Fury insisted. "This is your first mission as STRIKE Team: Delta. Do not fuck it up."

"Sir, you can count on us to come through," Clint said, suddenly sobering up. Fury's dark eye landed on the archer, and then he exhaled through his nose before turning around and walking away without another word. Clint and Natasha were left relatively by themselves, and Clint turned to look towards Natasha—they were both dressed in their black SHIELD uniforms, prepared for landing. "I need to find Palmer."

"Picking up your bromance from where you left off?" Natasha asked with a smirk. Clint smirked back at her, his blue eyes flashing.

"There is only one person I'm romancing, and there's no fucking way it's Palmer," he said quietly. His voice was low and suggestive, and Natasha swallowed as she maintained her ever calm, ever cool face.

"What a shame," she drily remarked. She took her eyes away from Clint's face that she'd come to appreciate so much, and she snatched a quick glance around them. "You better be careful, you know. Ears everywhere. For all we know, Palmer could have bugged this plane, and he could be listening to us right now."

"Then we might as well give him a show." Clint's eyes flashed again with a suggestive grin. Natasha wished that she could scowl at him, but she found the corners of her lips desperately wanting to curl upwards into a smile. She folded her arms over her chest and glanced up at him.

"You are really very determined to blow our cover, aren't you?" she asked, not really meaning the question—she meant it as more of a rhetorical question. A joke. But she saw the way Clint listened to the question, and she saw the way he tilted his head just the tiniest bit to the side, and she wished she hadn't asked it. Clint looked as though he were seriously considering saying or doing something that would reveal their strange relationship to the rest of the plane. Natasha's eyes grew wide. "Barton, that wasn't a serious question."

"I didn't even answer you!" Clint protested with wide eyes.

"I know what you were thinking," Natasha countered. Amusement passed over the archer's face, and he lifted a hand to run it through his cropped blond hair.

"Really?" he asked.

"Really," Natasha replied in a deathly serious tone.

"So then what am I thinking right now?" Clint challenged. Natasha sighed, and she resisted the urge to run her hand over her hair. It was pulled back into a ponytail to keep it out of her face, but she didn't want to mess it up.

"You're a child," she said, repeating words she'd said to him thousands of times in the past few months.

"I'm just challenging you," Clint argued.

"Because you're a child," Natasha insisted. Clint scowled, but he didn't say anything else. Natasha watched the look on his face, and she felt the urge to smile. There was something strangely adorable about the way he was looking just then—so cross and disappointed that it made her mouth curve into one of her infamous tiny smiles. "You win. I don't know what you're thinking."

Clint's face spread back into one of his own customary smiles that made Natasha's knees feel weak—as much as she hated the cliché expression, that was the truth—and her heart beat a little bit faster. "You never let me win."

"Well, there's always a first time for everything," Natasha answered. Clint took a step in closer towards her, his arms folded over his chest, and he looked down at her with such a large smile on his face that Natasha's chest grew tight.

"Yes, there is, Natasha Romanoff," he quietly replied. Natasha tried not to look up and meet his eyes, but she could feel the heat of his body he was so close to her. She knew she should push him away—she should try to keep this weird relationship she had with him under wraps, but she didn't want to. Instead, she wanted to wrap her arms around him and pull him in close to her and bury her face in his strong, solid chest.

Despite herself, she lifted her green eyes upwards and met his blue ones. The same blue eyes that had stunned her from Day One. The same blue eyes that had watched her from beneath the night goggles he'd worn as he'd lifted his gun to her head to kill her that night. She looked up and into his eyes, and it hit her that she didn't want to lose him. She didn't know what the fuck was going on between them, but she knew that if something happened to him on this mission, she wouldn't know what to do.

Realistically, she knew that she would continue to live the rest of her life without him because she didn't need him in order to stay alive. Even though she felt this weird attraction and connection with him, she knew that if something horrible were to happen to him, she would continue to exist day in and day out. It was what she'd always done, and it would be what she would always do. However, that wouldn't mean she wouldn't feel pain. She definitely knew what it was like to live with pain that never went away.

As she looked into his eyes that captivated her so much, she wanted to tell him, to show him that she wanted him to come out alive. She wanted to kiss him and press her nose against the skin of his neck. But there were people around them, and she valued their discretion in relation to each other, so she didn't. She wanted to more than anything, but she made herself stand still and look up at him.

"Barton." Palmer's voice caught her ear, and both she and Clint turned to look at the computer genius. Palmer had gotten over his fear of Natasha, but she still made him a little nervous. His eyes glanced over to her and then back to Clint. "We should be ready to land soon. STRIKE Team: Delta needs to be in place immediately."

"Roger that," Clint replied. "Guns out, Palmer."

"Fuck you, Barton." Palmer scowled at Clint, but he didn't appear to be genuinely angry or even annoyed. It was a routine they'd done many times in the past, and it was clear from the way they did it that the words had passed between them numerous times before. Natasha wondered if Clint ever missed working with Palmer—since she was now in the picture, it was usually the three of them who went on missions whenever Palmer was needed in the comm department. And even when it was just the two of them, it was no longer Clint and Palmer who went on missions together; they were no longer a team. STRIKE Team: Delta was Natasha and Clint, and that was it.

Natasha knew that Palmer was probably the closest thing Clint had to a best friend. Whenever he had guy time, he spent his guy time with Palmer; they'd worked so many missions in the past that they knew each other and were familiar with each other in the way that only best friends could be. And so Natasha felt only the tiniest bit guilty that she had come into the picture and taken Palmer's place as Clint Barton's partner.

She pulled the ear piece out of one of her many pockets, and she put it in her ear. She and Clint looked at each other.

"Ready?" Clint asked.

"Yeah," Natasha replied, hoping that she looked the total opposite of nervous. She looked around at the rest of the team on the plane with them. Everyone was getting into position, knowing that this mission was one of the most dangerous, most serious missions they'd ever had to take on before. She looked around at each of their faces, and she swallowed.

If she got these people killed, it would just be more blood on her hands, and that was the last thing she wanted.

An hour later, Natasha was out and about in streets she never thought she'd see again. These streets were familiar to her. She knew each and every street like the back of her hand, and it all rushed back to her in that moment. She and Clint and the rest of the team had been moving silently through the small Russian city, doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing. Palmer's voice from time to time quietly announced any people up ahead, anyone or anything who might be dangerous.

She hadn't expected to feel so strongly about being back in the place she'd spent her life growing up. All around her, she could hear people quietly talking in Russian, and she felt her mind starting to slip back into Russian thoughts. It'd been a while since she'd thought in Russian—she always made a conscious effort to think in English. Just as she'd told Clint, her Russian side of her was gone. Natalia Alianovna Romanova was gone, and Natasha Romanoff, the American, was here to stay.

As she crept down the silent streets, she looked over at Clint. He looked professional and totally focused, his blue eyes darting all around him. A sudden motion from up ahead caught Natasha's attention, and she paused for a second to see what was going on. It was Granger, a quiet but competent agent who had been assigned to their mission. He had lifted his arms up into a stretch, the sign that it was ok for them to keep advancing towards the target building.

Natasha knew that there were already agents stationed outside of the building. They were all just waiting for the rest of the team to finish filling in before they started slipping in one by one. Despite herself, Natasha glanced back over to Clint again. He would be the first one inside the building. She didn't know why—she'd protested that call when Fury had announced it, but as usual, Fury hadn't seemed to think much of her plan. Clint would be more useful out on another rooftop securing the perimeter from a distance.

Clint usually went along with whatever Fury said, but he'd even argued this one, too, agreeing with Natasha. So when Natasha looked over at the archer, she found herself wishing that he weren't the first one going inside Voloshin's headquarters. She wished that he were far away, safe on a rooftop with his bow and arrows and quick eyes that could see more from a distance than she could up close.

"We're close," Clint murmured beside her.

"We are," Natasha quietly agreed. She looked forward and felt his eyes turn to look at her.

"You ready?" Clint asked. The question had kind of become their own thing with them, Natasha realized. Clint and Palmer had their "guns out" moment, and now Clint and Natasha asked if the other was ready. Natasha also realized that she never got tired of hearing Clint ask her.

"Yeah," she whispered. The building loomed up ahead in front of her. From her distance in the dark, she could picture everything about it. She couldn't see the fine details, but she could picture them as if she were staring at them in broad daylight. Again, she felt Clint turn to look at her.

"Are you ok?" he asked.

"Perfect," she mumbled. She didn't want to tell him of the fear that was starting to swell within her chest—she didn't want to tell him how scared she was, how afraid that she would be the reason for their team's death. For his death. If anything happened to him…

"Hawkeye, your entrance point is clear. What's your 20?" Palmer asked.

"Coming up on the South side. Approximately 30 seconds away from entrance point," Clint whispered back into his comm piece. He looked at Natasha again—he never got tired of looking at her—and he saw the guarded look on her face. He saw the focus and the determination, but most of all, he saw how she had shut herself off. Quietly, they crept forward, and Clint was at the door. "Hawkeye at entrance point."

"Entrance point clear on the other side, Hawkeye. Any second now," Palmer said. Natasha felt her body go stiff. This was it. This was the moment that their mission truly began, the moment that everything could go uphill or downhill, and she knew realistically which it would be. She looked up at Clint, careful to keep her face clean of any fear or worry.

"I'm going in," Clint said into his comm, and he started forward. Lightning quick, Natasha reached out and grabbed his arm. Startled, Clint paused and turned around. Natasha wanted to kiss him, to grab him and tell him to get the hell out of there because this was her fight and not his.

"Be careful," she whispered.

"I always am," Clint whispered back. And quick as a blink, he was gone. Natasha felt her throat swell. He was supposed to go in and disarm every person he saw until he got to his check in point. Once he reached his point, two more agents were supposed to slip in on the level above, and they'd keep filing in bit by bit like that, silently disarming—that meant killing—each person until they got to Voloshin.

Voloshin liked the top level of his building. His headquarters weren't tall at all, but he liked the view that he got; Natasha knew that he still liked the top floor so he could look out at the city he'd managed to control by getting everyone to fear him. She nervously glanced back at the door that Clint had just disappeared through. So far, everything was going smoothly.

Palmer had been able to easily disable the security system, hacking into the security cameras and destroying the alarm so that neither would show anyone else's presence. That had gone without any glitches, and so she just hoped that the rest of the night would go that easily.

"I'm at the check in point," Clint said, his voice filling her ear through the comm device. Natasha mentally let out a breath of relief.

"Agents 6 and 35, your entrance points are clear," Palmer said smoothly. Natasha couldn't see Agents 6 and 35, but she knew that they were in position, quietly and slowly slipping into the building. She was the next call in if they all got where they were supposed to. She would slip in the same way Clint had, and then she would punch in the codes to access the fourth and fifth floors. They always could have had Palmer hack in, but she'd specifically asked to do this job, and surprisingly, Fury had let her.

She calmly waited. Her heart was thrumming loudly in her chest, and she kind of felt as though she were going to throw up everywhere, but she kept reminding herself to breathe. She needed to breathe and get through this—if she kept a positive attitude, then the mission would turn out positively, she told herself. Then she smirked quietly to herself. She'd never been much of a positive thinker. She didn't exactly consider herself to be a negative person, per se, but she most definitely was not a positive thinker. In fact, she liked to call herself a realist.

"Black Widow, your entrance point is clear," Palmer said.

Fuck it, she thought, and then she opened the door, her gun up and ready. The hall was dark and quiet in front of her. Out of habit, her eyes scanned for Clint, even though she knew he was at his check in point on the floor above her. At least that's where she hoped he was. If he wasn't there, he was assisting other agents with their disarming.

She kept walking down the hall, her senses 110% alive. She turned her trained eyes, her trained ears, to everything around her. If there were anyone in this hall with her who had the intention of killing her, it could easily happen if she had her guard down for a second. And thank God Natasha Romanoff was too well-trained to let her guard down.

Silently, she made her way to the stairs and began to walk up. Being back in her old headquarters brought back a rush of memories. She remembered all the times she'd walked these stairs, all the times she'd been covered in blood—sometimes hers, sometimes someone else's—all the times she'd pushed someone in handcuffs up the stairs to Voloshin's office…she remembered everything.

She swallowed again and kept walking. If she weren't careful, she'd get lost in memories, and then her guard would most definitely be down. When she reached the landing at the second floor, she paused to hear if there was any commotion, any signal that people were fighting. Nothing. Silently breathing another sigh of relief, Natasha kept climbing the stairs, walking up and up and up.

At the third floor, she paused again to listen for any sounds. Nothing. She started to feel that maybe they had a chance at this, but she didn't allow herself to get her hopes up too much. It would just about kill her if she started to let herself think that they would win, only to lose in a devastatingly tragic manner. So she didn't allow herself to think or to hope. She just kept walking.

"Black Widow, what's your status?" Palmer asked.

"Just passed the landing of the third floor in the South stairs," she answered quietly into her comm device. "Where's everyone else?"

"Fourth floor," Palmer answered.

"Waiting on you," Clint's voice said, suddenly filling her ear. Natasha closed her eyes but only for a quick second. He was alive and well, and he sounded like his usual smartass, cocky self. She grinned to herself in the darkness and kept climbing. Again, hope began to grow deep down, but again, she pushed it down. They were too close to the end for her to get excited.

She reached the landing of the fourth floor, and she pushed the door open to let her out into the hall. Immediately, she saw the agents standing nearby, their chests heaving and their guns drawn.

"Kind of you to join the fight," Agent 35, also known as Oliver Davis, said smartly.

"Just letting you warm up for me," Natasha just as smartly returned. "Black Widow at check point."

"Alright, Black Widow, wow us with your skills," Palmer replied. Natasha grinned, and she stepped forward to the door that the agents were crowded around. As she walked through the small group, she brushed past Clint, and she felt her heart skip another beat. She took a quick sneak peek at him only to see him looking back at her with a serious but encouraging look on his face. She swallowed, and she turned to look at the door.

Most likely, Voloshin had changed the passcode. There was no way he'd keep it the same when she'd gotten free and left without any trace. However, she figured that she might as well chance trying the password that she knew. She could feel the other agents' eyes on her, and she felt the pressure to follow through on her promise that she knew everything there was to know about Voloshin, his men, and his headquarters.

She lifted her hand and punched in the familiar numbers. An even more familiar click let her know that it'd worked. And that was when she knew that the mission was doomed.

"Stay here," she said out loud to the agents who were covering her back behind her. "I'll go in."

"Nat, we're supposed to go in with you," Clint argued. She turned over her shoulder, and she shook her head quickly.

"I don't care," she said. "Stay here."

"Natasha." Clint stepped forward, but she took a step away from him, her green eyes flashing with a warning look.

"Clint," she said firmly, another warning. "Let me go."

"Romanoff, you can't go against the plan," Agent 6, Amy Evans, added. Natasha shot the female agent another warning look.

"Watch me," she said. And with that, she turned around and walked through the door. She could hear the whispers of the confused, annoyed agents behind her, but she kept walking. She should have known this was a trap. It had been going too easily, too well. They must have noticed from Palmer's hack that something was wrong, and this was how Voloshin and his men were retaliating.

Natasha's throat tightened, but she kept forcing herself to walk. Suddenly, footsteps came up behind her, and she started to turn when Clint grabbed her arm. "Natasha."

"Let me go," she hissed and looked up at him furiously. Even though it was dark and Clint couldn't see the entirety of her face, the small bit that he could see was enough to make him nervous. Natasha's anger was something he didn't like messing with very much, but he had to bite the bullet and just do it.

"Don't go by yourself," he said.

"Clint, you need to get back," she replied. "Go back with the others. I can do this alone."

"Bullshit," Clint snapped impatiently. "The whole team is supposed to go in because it's too much for one person to handle without back up. That's why we're all fucking here, Natasha. Now—"

Before Clint could say anything else, the door that separated Clint and Natasha from the rest of the agents slammed shut. Neither member of STRIKE Team: Delta jumped in surprise—instead, they immediately went into a defensive position. The room was almost entirely dark now, and they needed their senses on overdrive to tell them where the danger was.

"Natalia. We haven't seen you here for some time," a voice said in Russian. Natasha was glad that the room was dark because she knew her face had gone deathly white. She swallowed and looked around in the darkness, trying to identify from where the voice had come.

"Looks like I'm back," she said in her native tongue.

"Voloshin will be very pleased. You've been greatly missed." The voice was so familiar that it made Natasha feel nauseated. She knew the voice to belong to Nikolas Barinov, Voloshin's right hand man. She'd told SHIELD all about Barinov and who he was to Voloshin; SHIELD was prepared for him, and so was she. But standing there in the dark with a man she'd known all too well for all the wrong reasons, she felt herself growing sick.

The lights flipped on, and Natasha blinked to adjust her eyes to the sudden light. There, off to the side, was Barinov, and he looked exactly the same. He was dressed in a business suit, and he looked genuinely happy to see Natasha. His dark eyes flicked over to Clint and then back to Natasha. Natasha saw the gun in his hand, the gun that was pointing towards the both of them.

"Darling," he said softly, an undercurrent of danger coloring his tone. "It's wonderful to have you back. You've been gone for so long."

From behind the door, two gunshots sounded, and Natasha felt her entire body tense up. Barinov smiled, looking even more pleased by the sound of the gunshots. He glanced over his shoulder back towards the door and then back to Natasha and Clint.

"Who's your friend? A new recruit?" he asked. He took a step forward and started walking towards the two agents. Natasha's first instinct was to jump in front of Clint and protect, but she knew that rationally, that instinct was stupid. Clint could protect himself just as well as she could protect herself, and even if he couldn't, that move to put herself in front of him would have told Barinov that she had a softness for Clint, and Barinov wouldn't hesitate to use that piece of information against her.

"The farthest thing from that, actually," she replied. "I see you're still Voloshin's bitch,"

Barinov laughed, a deep, colorful laugh that was authentic in every way. "That was always you, my dear. We might as well get around the bad stuff and straight to the good. Voloshin's not happy, but seeing you here will make his night better. This whole…invasion has been a bit of an irritation to him." He paused and smiled. "Yes, we noticed as soon as your company hacked into our surveillance system."

"Upgraded on tech?" Natasha asked.

"Yes. Better security. We needed it once we learned that you'd disappeared." Barinov turned his eyes up towards the ceiling, and he squinted them, as if he were trying to see something up top. "So who'd you say your friend was again? He doesn't look Russian. Where'd you drag up this filth?"

"America," Clint interjected. Natasha wanted to hit him, but she just turned to look at him. His blue eyes were steely and cool as he regarded Barinov. "Land of the free, home of the brave."

"Home of the brave. I can see that." Barinov looked back towards Natasha. "Natalia, stop looking so angry. You've gotten weaker since you left. You used to be so good about hiding your emotions."

"What did you do to the agents outside?" Natasha asked darkly.

"Shot them. They were about to radio in for back up after the door shut. We had some men stationed outside to take care of them." Barinov glanced back towards Clint. "You were supposed to be out there with them, but I guess you're in here now."

"How long have you known I was here?" Natasha asked.

"As soon as you stepped foot in the building," Barinov replied coolly. "We've been formulating a plan since then, and you walked right into it. Natalia, you're supposed to be the Black Widow. You have a reputation to live up to, but it looks like your time in America has softened you. What happened to our beautiful little Natalia who killed young girls without a second thought?"

Natasha genuinely thought she was going to throw up. She felt Clint turn to look at her, and she was certain that she was going to throw up right then and there in front of him and Barinov and most likely Voloshin's cameras. Barinov didn't look away from Natasha, and he stepped forward.

"Remember Drakov's daughter? I know you do. You used to be so good." He kept walking towards her, and then he stopped when he was a few feet away. Clint started to lift his gun, but Barinov directed the barrel of his own pistol towards Natasha's head. Natasha froze.

"Lower your weapon, Hawkeye," Barinov said smoothly. Natasha looked over at Clint, and she saw his hand tighten around his gun before finally lowering it down to his side. He didn't look at her, instead keeping his eyes fully directed on Barinov.

"Let her go," Clint said quietly. Barinov narrowed his eyes at the archer, as if he were studying the blond American. He didn't lower his gun away from Natasha's head, but he took a tiny step towards Clint.

"The American knows Russian," he said. Had anyone else been holding Natasha at gunpoint, she would have made a move to take the gun away, but Barinov knew every move in her book, and she was basically helpless. He knew how she liked to fight best, and he would be able to predict her movements; besides, she'd learned from the best, and she wasn't even sure she could take him on.

"I had some schooling," Clint answered flatly.

"Cocky. Like all Americans," Barinov said, his voice just as flat as Clint's. He turned and looked back at Natasha. "Though it looks like you're pretty American now. I heard this man call you Natasha. No wonder we had trouble finding you. Natasha. A nickname so personal that only loved ones use it."

"What can I say? I'm sentimental," Natasha cheekily replied. Barinov smiled, really enjoying Natasha's quip, and he lowered his gun the tiniest bit.

"That's the Natalia I know. So funny. I was worried the Americans had gotten rid of your sense of humor, as well," he said. He looked back at Clint. "I'm surprised that your boss would take her in, considering her past. She's done things no one should ever do. Did you know that?"

Natasha looked over at Clint, but he didn't look at her.

"We all do things we're not proud of," Clint levelly replied.

"But did you know about Drakov's daughter? Young girl? She was a revenge kill that Voloshin ordered, and Natalia was assigned to it. Drakov had murdered one of our men's wives, and Voloshin struck back. Natalia had to have been around the same age as his daughter, now that I think about it." Barinov looked back and forth between the two agents. "So how do you like America, Natalia?"

"Why are we doing this?" Natasha snapped back. "You're stalling. What's going on?"

"Voloshin's upstairs. I'm just supposed to entertain you until he's ready for you. So I'm entertaining." Barinov shrugged. "You used to do this a lot, too."

Clint looked at Natasha and saw the way her face had gone still. "Nat?"

"Entertaining. So that's what this is," Natasha quietly murmured. "You sick bastard."

"Nat," Clint said, his voice a little louder. Something was happening that he didn't understand, and he could feel himself starting to get more and more anxious with each passing second. Whatever Barinov was meaning in his words was getting a strong reaction out of Natasha. Her eyes were wide, and even though he couldn't see much fear in her eyes, he knew she was terrified.

"Hawkeye," Natasha snapped in English. She was careful to avoid saying his name, to reveal anything personal about him in front of Barinov.

"Be nice to the boy. He doesn't know what entertaining is. Tell him," Barinov said, and he gestured with his gun towards Clint. Natasha's jaw tensed, and she turned to face Clint. If Clint didn't know any better, he would have thought that her eyes were extra shiny with tears. But just as quickly as the thought crossed his mind, the tears were gone, and her eyes were back to normal.

"Entertaining," she said in a dull monotone. "We get tortured until we're called up."

Clint's breathing slowed as Natasha's words sank into him. He thought about all the torture he'd experienced in his life. He thought about having his hands broken and then stepped on. He thought about everything, and then he came to the conclusion that no amount of torture would be worse than to see Natasha in pain. He tried to calm his face, to keep himself under control so that Natasha wouldn't see how panicked he felt inside.

"Oh," he said humorlessly. "Well."

He was about to say something else, but then a gunshot rang out from Barinov's gun, cutting him off as he watched Natasha sink to the ground. Natasha had been shot.


Chapter Text

Chapter 17

Natasha felt the pain of hitting the ground before she felt the pain of the bullet hitting her thigh. She felt her elbow go numb from having just smashed into the ground, and she swore out loud in English. Off to her right, she saw Clint, and she was about to start shouting at him to run or do something to fucking save himself when she suddenly felt the pain of the bullet start to shoot up and down her leg. Her first instinct was to make some kind of pained sound, but her second instinct—her smarter instinct—was to shut the fuck up about it and stay calm. Showing Barinov that he'd successfully put her through pain wasn't something she wanted to do.

"Natalia." Barinov's voice was soft, caressing her gently with his words, but she stopped listening. All she could focus on was the pain that was emanating from her right thigh. Gritting her teeth, she swallowed the urge to vomit down, and she forced herself to breathe. She'd been shot more times than she could count, and this was just like any other time; however, that didn't mean it hurt any less.

"You son of a bitch," she hissed between her teeth.

"Natasha." Clint's voice brought her back into herself, and despite her instincts telling her not to look at him, not to check in with him, she glanced over towards him. Had she not known him as well as she did, she wouldn't have seen the worry and concern—fear, if she weren't mistaken—written across his face as plainly as if she'd taken a Sharpie to his forehead and scrawled it there for everyone to see. But since she did know him, she saw all of those things as bright and clear as his eyes were.

"I'm fine," she said tersely to him. Her green eyes flicked back towards Barinov, and she knew she was wearing the face she put on whenever she was assigned a kill mission, and she was about to complete it. She knew she looked murderous because Barinov almost seemed to falter but just for a second.

"Natalia, I've always admired your tolerance for pain," Barinov said, sounding genuinely impressed. "I know you don't believe me, but I don't want to do this."

"So don't," she snapped. "If you really didn't want to, you wouldn't."

"No, I don't want to," Barinov said calmly. "I just have to. You know as well as I do that with Voloshin, there's no choice. We never have a choice."

Natasha thought back to the very first time Clint had told her that she had a choice. She'd still been furious with him—she'd hated him. She'd hated everything he stood for, she'd hated how cheerful he was, and she'd hated that he hadn't killed her. However, most of all, she'd hated him for telling her that she really did have a choice. Clint's words had shattered her vision of the world she'd grown up in and shaped for herself, and she'd found herself shattered and confused as a result of it.

As she looked up at Barinov, she wondered just how much he believed that he didn't have a choice. She wondered if he'd ever heard someone tell him that he could decide what he did in life, that he didn't have to take orders. But as she stared into the face of a man who'd once trusted her but was now ordered to torture her, she knew that just like her, he'd probably never been told those words that had shaken her and turned her inside out.

"Yes, we do," she spat back at him. "We always have a choice. This whole shithole just trains us to think that we don't."

Barinov stared at her for a few extra beats, and then he turned his gun on Clint. Natasha felt her throat tighten, and she physically had to force herself to stay quiet, to not give away any kind of sign that she was concerned for Clint's life.

"Is that what you Americans have been telling Natalia?" Barinov asked coolly. The barrel of the gun was pointed directly at Clint's head, but Clint acted as though it weren't there at all.

"We've only been telling her the truth," Clint replied. Barinov paused.

"Interesting," he said. "Well. Let's get to work."

Fifteen minutes felt like 19 lifetimes. Natasha kept wondering where their back up was—surely someone should have come to get them by now, she thought over and over to herself. The pain was blinding. Crippling. For the past 15 minutes, Barinov had set into both Clint and Natasha in that office, not seeming to care at all about the fact that he was getting their blood on the nice carpet. Natasha kept thinking about how much it'd cost to get a new carpet.

She lifted her hand and wiped some strands of hair out of her face. Her red hair was sticky with red blood, but she didn't look at the blood on her hand. She turned her green eyes back up towards Barinov, who was now standing over Clint. Surprising how much power one man could have over two assassins with just a gun in his hand. She probably could have made some kind of attack move, done something to disarm him back before it'd gotten to this point, but there was too much to risk. Clint stood in the way of getting hurt, and Barinov was damn good at what he did; he was just as good as Natasha, if not better.

Which was why for the past 15 minutes, he'd started torturing her the way he knew he could get to her the best. Blood trickled down the side of her face, but she barely registered it. She saw Barinov step back, and Clint came back into her line of vision. Blood was streaming from the bullet wound in his arm—Barinov believed in equal opportunity—and his face was clouded with muted pain. Barinov looked down at his watch.

"Your 15 minutes has passed. We can go upstairs now." He pressed a button on his watch, his comm device. "Send in two men to bring the Black Widow and Hawkeye up to Voloshin."

Natasha would later remember two men half-carrying, half-dragging her up a flight of stairs. She hated being carried, and she tried to fight them off as much as she could, but there was so much blood and so much pain that she didn't make much of a dent in the arms of Voloshin's men. She looked up at them and stared at their faces—she didn't recognize them. They must have been new because she'd known everyone who worked for Voloshin at the time that she'd worked there, too.

Finally, she saw a door she'd never wanted to see again loom in front of her. She couldn't find Clint. She kept looking for him, but she couldn't see him, and she felt afraid. But she couldn't pinpoint one reason why she was afraid. There were just too many reasons. She was afraid for herself. She was afraid for SHIELD. She was afraid for those two agents who'd been shot outside the office. She was afraid for Clint. She was afraid of Voloshin.

Fear was a bitter, sour taste in her mouth, and it left her feeling even more exhausted than she'd been feeling in the first place. She didn't want to know what was behind that door because she already knew; back behind the door was Voloshin and whatever punishments he'd dreamed up for her. She braced herself, and then one of the men half-carrying her opened the door, and she stumbled in.

She smelled Voloshin before she saw him, but it was only by a millisecond that went by before she caught sight of him. Abruptly, the guards on either side of her released her arms, and she went falling to the floor for the second time that day. A string of English curse words ran through her head as the bullet wound in her thigh and the new one in her calf started to burn even more brightly.

Behind her, she heard a familiar grunt, and she turned, only to see Clint falling onto the floor beside her. He was covered in blood, and she could only imagine how she looked in comparison to him. The archer was awake and conscious, his face pissed as hell as he pushed himself into a half-sitting, half-kneeling position. As Natasha took in the sight of how awful he looked, she couldn't help being impressed that Voloshin's men still knew how to inflict the most pain possible in such a short amount of time. Just like she always said, she'd learned from the best.

Voloshin was sitting behind his desk, looking as if he were expecting company with a friend, not with someone he now considered an enemy. He looked exactly the same, though there was also something about him that was different. His dark hair was still cut short, still peppered with grey, and he still donned the same professional, expensive suits he always did, but there was something very different.

"Natalia. When I learned that you were here, you can't imagine my surprise," he remarked, sounding surprised. "I had no idea what to expect, but you've surprised me as always. You were always good at that."

Natasha swallowed down the bitter taste of fear in the back of her throat, the fear that was threatening to turn itself into full on vomit. "I'm sorry."

The words were out before she'd even thought about them. She didn't know they'd been lurking down in the bottom of her stomach for some time, but the words were there, and she couldn't take them back. Being in front of Voloshin, seeing him again…she could hardly stand the fear she felt. She shakily inhaled and exhaled without looking at Clint. She could feel his piercing eyes on her, but she couldn't bear to look at him and see the look of shock and horror on his face.

"I can imagine you are. You don't know what it's like to find out that your best, most trusted employee is missing. And she was working a mission that I hadn't even assigned her." Voloshin sounded genuinely hurt and bothered by this, and Natasha tried not to feel true remorse. Inside, she hated herself. She hated herself for allowing this to still affect her when she really wanted to turn herself around, to get away from this life. But she couldn't do anything about it.

"I'm so sorry," she whispered out loud.

"I believe you." Voloshin stood up. "You were my good girl. So show me that you still are."

Shock filled Natasha's throat as Voloshin walked around the edge of his desk, a Glock in his hand, and she stared at him with huge green eyes as he walked directly up to her and bent down so that he was on the same eye level as she was. She could smell his expensive cologne, and just the smell of it made her want to gag with all the memories it filled her with. She held her breath and stared at him. Slowly and carefully, Voloshin held the Glock out to her and then looked over at Clint.

"I don't beat around the bush, Natalia, and you know this. Show me," he said calmly. And then Natasha understood what he was saying. Her eyes grew even wider, and her lips parted slightly. She hadn't even imagined a situation like this; she'd imagined Voloshin or someone else killing Clint.

"Sir—" The words got stuck in her mouth, partly because she'd just called him sir, an address of respect, and partly because she didn't want to do what he was asking her to do. No. He wasn't asking her. He was telling her. His dark eyes stared down at her, and she could have sworn that she saw a glimmer of knowing in them, a glimmer of knowing that she'd do it.

"Natalia." He pulled out another Glock from his jacket pocket and aimed it point-blank at her. "Show me."

Natasha stared at him—that seemed to be the only thing she was capable of doing in this state—and she saw the way he looked so smug and satisfied and, well, triumphant. She hadn't even shot Clint yet, and he was rejoicing in this victory. Slowly, she reached out and took the gun from his hand.

"Natasha. Natasha, think." Clint's calming voice came from behind her. How the fuck had she gotten herself into this? How had she managed to put herself in this situation? This was a thousand times worse than any nightmare, any memory she ever could have put herself in. Clint and the rest of the SHIELD team was about to die because of her, and she would be the one emptying the bullets into them. In that moment, the physical pain she was feeling didn't feel so bad anymore; it was numb and within the confines of her brain.

"You think I didn't know you were playing me? I got you this job, Natalia. I taught you tricks of the trade. I know that you're capable of playing double-agent, and that's exactly what you did. Granted, I didn't find out until after you'd disappeared, but I know now. You could be playing me now for all I know. So we'll settle this. If you're sorry…really, truly sorry…show me." Voloshin's silky words were caressing her spine, caressing the words that entered her ear. Natasha looked up at him as he stood up and backed away from her, his gun still trained on her.

And then she looked at Clint and noticed the irony of the situation. Here she was, on the floor with an assailant pointing a gun at her, and she was basically helpless. It was almost the exact same situation of when Clint had come to kill her. So when she looked over at him and looked into those goddamn blue eyes of his, she froze.


"Natasha. Nat…Nat, think about this. You have a choice."

"Stand up."

Painfully and agonizingly slowly, Natasha found herself pulling up into a standing position.

"Natasha. Think about this for a fucking second. You said you wanted to turn yourself around. You have a fucking choice. Listen to me. Listen to me."

"Shoot him."

Natasha lifted the gun, the pain in her body fairly registering. Blood still ran down her face, and she could feel the stickiness of it beginning to dry. Suddenly, she felt exhausted. Her muscles were fully and thoroughly exhausted, and her head started to spin. The world became a spin of colors, a rush of sound, and she could barely stand.

"I trust you, Natasha. I trust you to make the right choice. I trust you." Clint was staring at her, and she was staring at him. Despite everything swirling around her, she could make him out. He was still on the ground, still on his knees, and he was looking up at her, and by God, he looked as though he did trust her. She had a gun pointed at his head, and he looked afraid, but he also looked like he trusted her.

"You shouldn't trust her, American. She was a double-agent for me. She'll just as easily turn her loyalties on you. Let her tell you about all the things she's done. All the innocent lives she's taken," Voloshin said smoothly. Clint glanced briefly over at Voloshin and then back at Natasha. She was so tired. All she wanted to do was lie down, but she couldn't. She could feel Voloshin's eyes pressing in on her, and she couldn't breathe. Frantically, she turned to look at him, and he was just staring at her. She felt everything start to crumble down on top of her. She could barely breathe, barely think.

She looked at Clint, and all she could see was the blood on his face from where Barinov had broken his nose downstairs just moments before.

"Do it, Natalia. You can do it. Let me know I can trust you again." Voloshin was right there, and he was expecting her to do this. She didn't know how she was going to get out of this whole thing. "I know you. I know how you think because I helped shaped the way you think. You were born to do this. You were made to do this. You know I'm right."

Clint was bleeding. He was hurt.

"I trust you."

She cocked the pistol, tightening her grip on it as she straightened her arms out and leveled the gun to Clint's head, and she saw the look on his face. Faster than anyone in the room could process, she drew all of her energy together, and she turned and fired a shot into Voloshin's head. Immediately, the Russian leader went down. There was another shot, but Natasha didn't know who had fired it. She wouldn't get to know because everything went black.

The first thing that Natasha felt was heaviness. Her entire body felt heavy and weighted down. She hated that feeling. Despite the heaviness that threatened to pull her back down into the darkness she was tired of, she forced herself to open her eyes. There was low lighting, and she couldn't see very much, but she could make out something around her. People? Were people around her? Where the fuck was she?

Suddenly, everything came back to her. Voloshin. She remembered shooting him, and she remembered him falling, and then she couldn't remember anything after that. Panic started to rise up in her throat, and she started to fight the heavy feeling even more.

"Natasha. Natasha, you're ok." Palmer was suddenly beside her, and she was staring up into the face of the computer tech that had once been Clint's partner before she'd replaced him. Clint.

"What—what—" She tried to get herself to speak but found that it was much more difficult to move her mouth than she thought.

"What happened?" Palmer asked to clarify. His eyebrows crinkled together in confusion as he tried to decipher what she was saying. She managed to nod, her head feeling unbearably painful and thick, just like the grogginess that was surrounding her.

"You got shot. A lot," he said. "One in your quad, one in your calf, and then you got a nice one through the back. That's not even mentioning the knife marks around the wounds in your leg that that one fucking asshole gave you."

"What hap—"

"I'm getting there. Jesus, Barton always said you were impatient." Palmer's face split into a small, quiet smile that almost looked proud. "Voloshin's dead. You killed him. You killed him and then got a shot in the back from one of his henchman, but Barton covered you and shot him down."

"Barton." Natasha frowned. "He ok?"

"Yeah. Yeah, he's fine. He's just fine. In shitty shape, but he's fine. You're in shittier shape, though, so compared to you, he's fine," Palmer clarified and then sighed. "Honestly, we thought the two of you were dead. As soon as those bastards shot Evans and Davis, we though it wouldn't be long until they got you, too. Fury pulled everyone out and started forming a rescue mission, but by the time we'd managed to locate your position and put everyone into position, everything went to hell. You shot Voloshin, Clint shot that one bastard, and he got you out of there while we all went in and cleaned up the job."

"Got me out?" Natasha asked. She'd seen him. He'd barely looked able to stand, let alone get her out of there.

"Yeah. Carried you out fireman-style," Palmer said. "He should be getting the ok to leave his bed today."

The longer that Palmer had talked, the more the grogginess had started to drift away from Natasha's brain. She could see more clearly and think more clearly; now that she was more conscious, she allowed herself to process Palmer's words as she looked down at herself to assess the damage. The heaviness she was feeling must have been from the painkillers that were dripping into her via IV, she realized. She could feel pain but not a lot of it, meaning that the painkillers were effectively doing what they were supposed to.

Clint was ok. That was all she'd wanted to know. Well, that and if Voloshin had died. So now that she knew those two things, she wasn't sure what to do. How could she explain what had happened to her back there in Voloshin's office? She'd literally picked up a gun and aimed it at him because Voloshin had told her to. She'd nearly killed him for the second time since she'd met him.

"Ok," she said.

"He'll want to come see you. Been bitching about it the whole time he's been here," Palmer sighed.

"Where are we?" Natasha asked, making her mouth form the words.

"Germany. Secret location. Too dangerous to go back to the U.S. right now. We've been here about two days, in case you were wondering. You sleep hard," Palmer pointed out. She looked at him curiously. The Palmer that was in front of her now was a different Palmer than she'd ever seen, and she wasn't sure what to make of it. He was usually nervous around her, but now he looked perfectly at ease.

Suddenly, there was a knock on the door, and Natasha looked over to see Maria Hill in the doorway. Palmer stood up.

"Agent Hill," he greeted.

"Agent Palmer." Maria nodded at him. "I'd like a moment with Agent Romanoff. Get the doctor on your way out."

"Of course." Palmer quickly glanced back at Natasha, and he gave a quick nod by way of saying good bye before he darted out of the room. Now that looked more like the Palmer she knew, Natasha thought to herself. She looked up at Maria and watched the dark-haired woman cross in towards her.

"Welcome back, Romanoff," Maria said with a smile. "You had us worried."

Maria's words normally would have made a lump rise up in Natasha' throat—no one had ever told her that she'd been the cause of worried. No one had ever been worried about her, and she wouldn't have known how to take it. However, the pain medication was too strong, and she just smiled lightly back at Maria.

"I try," she said.

"Barton's currently in the process of getting his last check from the doctor. He's doing ok. Cut up and bruised pretty badly, and he's got that broken nose and a bullet hole in his arm, but he's had worse," Maria said reassuringly, as if she'd known that Natasha were secretly worried about him. "He'll want to see you."

"Ok," Natasha replied, not knowing what to say.

"Congratulations. STRIKE Team: Delta was successful." Maria sat down in the chair beside Natasha's bed where Palmer had just been. "You just helped SHIELD eliminate a man who was becoming one of our biggest enemies."

"Barely," Natasha dully answered. Ashamed, she looked away from Maria.

"Don't do that to yourself. Don't you do that." Maria's voice was firm and serious. "I mean it, Natasha. This was a difficult mission, and you did the best job you knew how to do. The mission was completed successfully."

"I nearly killed…I almost…" Natasha's throat swelled up, and she stopped talking, instead choosing to look at the IV that was dripping painkillers into her arm. She couldn't even imagine the kind of pain she was actually feeling if this was what she was feeling on meds, she thought silently.

"Don't do that," Maria said again. "Barton doesn't think any less of you, you know."

"Yeah?" Natasha looked up, and her gaze hardened. "He found out a lot of ugly secrets about me while we were there. Barinov…Voloshin…there are a lot of ugly things I kept from him, and they spilled out while we were there."

"And you don't think he has his own share of ugly secrets?" Maria countered. "He does. Trust me. He keeps them hidden from you just as much as you kept yours hidden from him."

Natasha was quiet, and she stared at Maria with confused eyes. Maria folded her hands calmly in her lap and crossed her legs.

"You have this view of Barton as someone who does no evil. Well, he has. He has a dark past, just as you have your dark past. He's done stuff, Natasha. Don't keep thinking he's a saint." She paused and took a breath. "I'm not saying this to reveal his secrets because that's not my place. But you've got to let go of this whole idea that he'll hate you when he learns everything you've done. Out of everyone here, he can probably relate to you the most. Just keep that in mind."

Natasha paused. She didn't know what to say. In the back of her mind, she'd been unconsciously thinking of him as some kind of savior, and she guessed that she'd been treating him as such. Even though she saw him as an equal, as someone who could fight just as well as she could and sometimes beat her, she still did see him as someone who was innately good. Maria was right in saying that he hadn't told her anything of his past, and Natasha knew that he must have had a sticky story in order to be so tight-lipped. But then again, so was she. Maria had also been right in saying that if someone could understand what Natasha had gone through, that person would be Clint. Natasha had always known it, but she just hadn't allowed herself to believe it until then.

Clint was so good—he had such a good heart, and he talked about doing the right thing, about having second chances and turning around. He was sometimes so unbelievably good in the things he said and did for her that it was hard for her to see him as someone who could have done things as terrible as she had, but yet she knew that he'd once been violent and had needed to be contained by himself for a good solid month before he'd been let around anyone else. She hadn't even needed that amount of time.

She swallowed and nodded against her pillow. "Ok."

Maria sighed and sat forward. "I didn't come to give you a lecture. I really did come to see how you're doing. Everyone's worried about you. Fury's been coming by every few hours to see what's going on with you, so now that you're awake, don't be surprised if he stops by again."

Natasha gave a small smile. "Alright. Thank you."

"No problem. I wanted to bring you some fruit, but the doctor has to take a look at you first," Maria said, and she stood up. "I'll be back later, ok? Technically, I'm supposed to be finishing up some paperwork."

"That sounds like so much fun," Natasha deadpanned. Maria smiled, and she shook her head once.

"You know it," she said. And with a professional, quick turn on her heel, she was gone. Natasha was by herself, and she didn't want to be. Uncomfortably, she shifted her weight in the bed and tried to push herself up to a seated position. Pain erupted throughout her lower body, and she sharply inhaled.

"Agent Romanoff." A female, tall with short brown hair, walked in. "I'm Dr. Gibson, and I'll be looking at you today. How are you feeling?"

"Fine," Natasha replied. "The pain meds are working."

"Good. That's what I want to hear. Is your head hurting?"

"Yeah, it is." Natasha winced. "My wounds don't hurt until I move."

She sat back in the bed and let the doctor do a quick assessment of her. All she could think about was Maria's visit and everything the agent had said. Clint was getting checked out right now, and he could be free to visit her. She didn't want to get her hopes up in case Clint didn't come, but she wanted to see him more than anything. Her heart thumped loudly in her chest, and she hoped that Dr. Gibson didn't hear it when she checked the agent's heartbeat, but she didn't spend much time thinking about it. All she had to do was get through this and then the rest of the day. All she had to do was get through the pain.

So when several hours passed, and Clint didn't show, Natasha tried not to be disappointed. She tried to think of everything but that. It still hadn't fully registered in her mind that Voloshin was dead—some parts of her consciousness were a little fuzzy, so she wasn't 100% on her game the way she usually was. She knew that Voloshin was dead, but she hadn't fully realized the impact of it. Until Clint walked through the door.

There was a brief knock, and then the door opened, and there he was. Natasha froze, her eyes large as she looked at him. He looked ok, but he had a sling on his arm, and his nose was black and blue, painful. Yet despite it all, he looked ok. His mouth moved up into a grimace.

"You scared the shit out of me." He crossed in closer, and that was when Natasha realized that he was trying to smile but couldn't because of the pain.

"I'm sorry," Natasha said. She instantly remembered the last time she'd said those words; she'd been apologizing to Voloshin for leaving, for betraying him. She looked down at her hands, suddenly ashamed of herself again. "I'm so sorry."

"Natasha." Clint sat down in the chair beside her. So many people had already sat in that chair today, Natasha thought. Fury had been by earlier and had reprimanded her for all the stupid shit she'd pulled, but then he'd ended it by congratulating her and telling her she'd done ok by not completely fucking up. To her, she felt that that was a compliment. Or at least the closest thing to a compliment that Fury would give.

"I'm sorry," she repeated. She had a flashback to Barinov punching Clint, the sound of Clint's nose breaking echoing through the room. "I nearly killed you. I don't know how I can…how I can ever make it up to you. There are no excuses."

"Natasha," Clint said again. "You saved me."

She quickly shook her head. "No. You saved me."

"You took a goddamn bullet for me."

"I didn't know that asshole was going to shoot me. I just…" Natasha's voice trailed off, and she looked back down at the covers. "I'm sorry."

"Stop saying that."

"Well, I am. I don't apologize often. Take it when I offer it," she said bluntly. She looked up at him and found him staring at her, unashamed. "I don't want to talk about this."

Clint looked hurt, and he didn't bother hiding it. "I'm not here to upset you, Natasha."

"Well, I don't want to talk about it." This was not how Natasha had wanted her reunion with Clint to go at all. She'd wanted to leap for joy; she'd wanted to hug him, to kiss him, anything. Just not like this. But as she saw him in front of her, not angry and so trusting, she found herself growing angry. He'd told her that he wouldn't risk his life for her, but he'd done just that by following her when she'd told him, Davis, and Evans to stay out in the hall. "I told you not to risk your life for me."

"And I told you the same thing, so I guess we both didn't do what we promised." Clint's irritation was evident in his voice.

"You did it first, and I owed you." Natasha knew she would piss him off by saying that. Deep down, she hated herself for egging Clint on, for doing this to him when all he'd done was be wonderful to her. She stared at the archer, and she saw the reaction she'd wanted. His face clouded over, and he pressed his lips tightly together.

"You don't owe me shit, Nat," he snapped. "I told you that before, and I'll tell you again."

"That's not how I work. I owed you. My debt is repaid," Natasha said shortly. Clint glowered at her, his blue eyes dark and angry.

"Pushing people away isn't going to keep people safe," he harshly retorted.

"I never said—"

"You know what? I don't want to talk about it," Clint said, throwing Natasha's words back at her. Natasha blinked, stunned. He'd been mad at her before, but he'd never been purposefully hurtful. She felt her eyes starting to sting despite herself, and she looked away. She'd hurt him knowingly, and this was what she got for it, she told herself. But she couldn't help her anger towards him, even though she knew it was technically wrong. He'd nearly died—she'd almost killed him because he'd risked his life for her.

"Is this what partners do?" she asked out loud, repeating words she'd asked him before. Clint paused, and he stared hard at her.

"Yeah," he said. "I guess they do."

Without saying anything else, he got up and left. Natasha was alone. She was supposed to be feeling better than she ever had in her life, but she'd never hated herself more.


Chapter Text

Chapter 20

Clint could be stubborn as hell when he wanted to be. If he thought he was in the wrong ever, he owned up to what he'd done, and he apologized, but when he felt as though he were not in the wrong, his stubborn streak came out, and he would not apologize. He'd made the decision that he wasn't going to apologize to Natasha, and he was going to stick by it. She'd gotten mad at him because he'd gone after her instead of letting her go in by herself, and for that, there was no way in hell he was going to apologize.

That being said, it'd been three days since he'd last seen her, and he was missing the hell out of her. He hadn't realized how much a part of his life she'd become until he was suddenly without it. Whenever someone said something funny, the first thing he thought to do was tell Natasha. Whenever something got on his nerves, his first instinct was to groan about it to Natasha. Every goddamn thing he did looped back to Natasha, and by the third day, it was starting to drive him crazy.

"See Romanoff today?" Palmer asked, breaking Clint out of his brooding thoughts. Clint scowled at his former partner.

"No," he said shortly.

"No wonder you're so fucking testy," Palmer remarked. Clint narrowed his eyes and pressed his lips together as he thought of all possible retorts he could give. He knew that Palmer didn't really have a filter, and he just kind of said whatever was on his mind, but the last thing Clint wanted to do was talk about Natasha. He'd been thinking about her and the fact that he wasn't going to apologize to her all day.

"I'm fucking testy because I'm in the middle of Germany when I could be home," Clint replied dully.

"If you say so." Palmer shrugged and picked up the sandwich in front of him with a mildly disdainful look on his face that Clint couldn't blame him for. The food here at the safe house wasn't very good, and he was already sick of it after three days. Honestly, he just wanted to go home. He wanted to go back to his small, private room and be by himself. Well, if he were being honest with himself, he'd admit that he wanted to be in his small, private room and be by himself with Natasha, but he wasn't feeling very honest with himself; he was still too pissed and stubborn to feel anything overly sentimental towards the redhead.

The thing that bugged him the most was how Natasha thought she owed him because he'd saved her life. Not only did she think she owed him, she thought she would never stop owing him no matter many times he told her she didn't. That fact alone pissed him off. By far, Natasha Romanoff was the most frustrating woman he'd ever known in his entire life, and that was saying something. The women he'd been connected with in the past had been unendingly frustrating, and yet, Natasha passed all of those women without a doubt in the frustrating department.

She was so detached at times but so open at others; one second she was smiling at him from beneath the covers, cuddling in close to him, and then the next second, Clint could have sworn that she'd made the temperature in the room drop by 20 degrees with her cold behavior. It just didn't make sense to him; sure, he considered himself to be a detached person, definitely much more so than the average person. The thing was, he was much better at making himself look like he wasn't than Natasha was. Natasha didn't let her standoffish demeanor fade unless she was undercover, whereas Clint could keep himself closed off while still being able to function like a decent human being.

Clint Barton was by no means a people person, but he was a hell of a lot better at faking it than Natasha.

"Word on the street is they'll probably let her out of bed by the end of the week," Palmer said.

"The longer she's down, the crankier she gets," Clint replied in that same dull voice.

"She's probably been up already without the doctors knowing." Palmer shrugged. Clint shook his head thoughtfully.

"No. She values getting better the right way more than she does her pride, which is hard to believe," he said.

"Makes sense." Palmer yawned and set his sandwich back down. "God, I hate that we can't fucking leave."

"You and me both," Clint shortly answered. He knew he wasn't being his usual self, but he just didn't feel like it. This should have been one of the happiest times of his life. He'd helped take down one of the biggest threats SHIELD had had to eliminate, and here he was sulking and feeling shitty. He knew he was feeling shitty because of the whole Natasha thing, but then acknowledging that made him feel even shittier. He hated how upset he was by the whole thing because he didn't want to be. He didn't want to admit that this redheaded, lethal assassin that he'd only known for a few months had enough sway over him to affect his moods.

"We'll be out of here before we know it," Palmer said with a sigh.

"Always the optimist."

"Well, since you're being so shitty, someone has to be."

"That's fair."

"Going to see Romanoff later?"


"We'll see if you stick to it."

"I will. Trust me."

Clint stuck to his word. He didn't go see Natasha that day, and he didn't go see her the day after, and he didn't go see her the day after that. He left the small room that he'd wound up taking over in the safe house, but he never went towards the direction of the Infirmary. He was stubborn as hell, and once he'd made up his mind on something, he wasn't very keen on changing it.

Even though he lost sleep at night sometimes, and even though he missed her smartass comments and half-smiles, he didn't go see her. There were a few times that he thought he would break—particularly in the middle of the night when he would have a dream that wasn't quite a nightmare but not quite a dream—but he forced himself to stay away from her.

And true to Palmer's prediction that Natasha would be out of the Infirmary by the end of the week, when the end of the week came around, Clint saw her moving slowly down the hall towards him. Just like out of a stereotypical movie, they both froze. Natasha's face hardened, letting Clint know that she was still mad. She looked tired and in pain, but more than anything, she just looked pissed. Clint couldn't help noticing how good she looked while wearing a pair of black spandex biking shorts and a black cami with a dark grey sweater over top. He might have been pissed, but he could appreciate that she looked good. Really good.

"Long time, no see, stranger," Natasha said sharply, breaking the tense silence between them.

"Hi," Clint shortly answered. "You didn't seem to be terribly fond of my last visit."

"Sorry. You'll have to forgive me. I just forgot what it's like to not be around you 24/7, so it's a shock to see you again," she snapped in response. Clint wasn't all that surprised by her sharp retort, and he would have been lying if he'd said that her words hadn't slapped him across the face, but he kept his detached expression on his face.

"Now you're just being cruel for the sake of being cruel, Natasha," he said calmly. He watched her green eyes lower to the floor for just a second, and then she looked back up at him.

"Sorry," she said in a clipped tone.

"You don't mean it," Clint said dismissively, and then he started walking towards her to pass her.

"I do," she said.

"No, you don't. You're just saying it because you're upset that I said you were being cruel." Clint impatiently looked down at her and saw her gazing up at him with furious green eyes. Well, she certainly didn't hold anything back, he thought to himself.

"I'm still mad at you," she said quietly.

"Well, I'm still mad at you, so that makes the both of us," Clint snapped. Sighing, he ran his good hand over his face and looked around discreetly in the hall. "Look, I'm not going to argue with you again over it."

"Ok," Natasha answered, but she still didn't move. They both stared at each other in silence; for whatever reason, this had become their thing, Clint realized, and he wasn't sure whether he liked it or hated it.

"You should know that if stepping in to save you means I might be risking my life, I'm going to do it," he finally said, his voice so quiet that even he wasn't sure that he'd said it.

"That's stupid," Natasha replied firmly.

"Yeah, I fucking know." Clint's blue eyes flashed with anger. "But it's not just you. That's how I work. I don't let my partners down. There've been numerous times in the past that I've risked my ass to save Palmer."

"Don't do it for me," Natasha said in a simple tone. Clint snorted, and he shook his head in disbelief, his eyes wide.

"You can't tell me what to do, Natasha," he said tersely. "Sometimes you might forget, but I'm a grown man, and you can't order me around."

Natasha blinked in surprise, and then her face softened. Her green eyes didn't look quite so angry, and she looked almost sorry. Reaching out, she placed her hand on his good arm. "Clint—"

"No." As if he'd been burned, Clint pulled his arm back, away from her touch. "I'm not one of your targets to seduce, Natasha. Don't treat me like one."

A flash of hurt and shock came over Natasha's face, but it was gone before Clint could fully process it. She looked away from him, but when she brought her eyes back to his face, she looked pissed again. "Then don't treat me like I work the same way you do."

"Don't give me that bullshit, ok?" Clint's face drew downwards into an intensely unhappy frown. "I do not treat you like you work the same way I do. The only thing I really expect from you is to have my back when I need it out in the field and to drop this whole notion of owing me. You don't owe me shit, ok?"

"But that's not how I was trained." The frustration was evident in Natasha's voice. Irritated, her eyes quickly darted to the left to check the hall. "If we're going to talk about this, can we at least go somewhere where we're not in the middle of the damn hallway?"

"Is that what we're doing?" Clint asked. "Are we talking? Because I thought we were fighting."

"Can you be mature for five minutes?" Natasha snapped. "Just five minutes."

Inwardly, Clint felt chastised, but he didn't show it on his face. Patiently, he nodded and waited for her to move. She didn't. She just kept looking expectantly at him, and then he lifted his eyebrows. "Are we going to my room?"

"Yours is closer than mine," Natasha said, so Clint didn't argue. He turned and started walking down the hall back towards his room. He knew it was a dick move for him to not wait for her, but he was still pissed, so he kept his normal stride. He scanned into his room and left the door open for Natasha, sitting on the edge of his bed as he waited for her.

Slowly but surely, Natasha appeared in the doorway, looking a little bit more tired and pained but somewhat less pissed, though Clint wasn't sure if she were looking less pissedbecause she was more tired and in pain or because she was genuinely less angry. He sat calmly on the edge of the small SHIELD-issued, standard-size bed and looked up at her.

"So where were we?" he asked, even though he remembered exactly where they'd been. Natasha shot him an annoyed look as she leaned against the small table he had in his room and then hoisted herself up onto it to sit on top, wincing as she did so.

"I was trained that when someone does something nice for you, it's not because they're generally nice people. It's because they'll eventually want to cash in that favor someday. That's how I've worked since I was a child, and that's the way I work now," she said evenly.

"Well, I don't work by that system. No one in SHIELD does. When you do something nice for someone, it's because…I don't know. It's because you just do it," Clint replied, his tone mirroring hers. "I didn't not kill you because I thought you'd be of use to me someday. I made the kill to bring you in instead of kill you because I thought you deserved a second chance. Simple as that."

"And that's what I don't get," Natasha said with a sincerely disturbed frown. "That's why I can't figure you out, Barton."

"Clint. My name is Clint. We're past that last name shit," he irritably corrected. When he looked over at Natasha, he saw that she was staring at him with an unreadable expression on her face.

"Clinton Francis Barton," she said softly. If her goal had been to unnerve him, she'd done it. Clint found himself becoming increasingly uncomfortable, and he didn't like it. Hell, he just didn't like the fact that she had this much power over him, and the worst part was that she probably knew she did.

"My dad used to call me Clinton when he'd yell at me. Right before he'd pummel me. That's why I shortened my name to Clint when I got older," Clint said. Natasha stared at him with huge eyes.

"Clint." Her voice was quiet and gentle, everything that typically wasn't associated with the Black Widow.

"I don't want your pity," Clint said. His tone wasn't corrective or angry; it was just simple and matter of fact. In fact, it was probably one of the times that he'd been most open and honest with Natasha now that he thought about it. He always tried to be honest with her, but the admission that had just passed between his lips was probably his most honest moment with her.

"You know I know how that feels," Natasha said, her face dead serious. And Clint did know. He knew she understood how he felt, but that didn't mean she wouldn't pity him. So he looked away from her and pressed his lips together.

"You don't owe me anything. Now or ever. I don't want to hear you talk about owing me again," he said slowly and evenly, his words coming out one at a time as if they were marching squarely.

"I can't promise anything. It's how I was programmed." Natasha was back to all business. Any glimpse into her soft side was gone, and she was professional, stern, and unflinching. Inwardly, Clint sighed.

"You're not a robot, Natasha," he said wearily. "You don't get programmed."

"You don't—"

"Don't tell me I don't understand!" Clint stood up from his bed and put his good hand on his hip. "You don't know what life experiences I've lived through, just like I don't know what life experiences you've lived through. You don't know what I do or don't understand."

"You know far more about me than I know about you," Natasha countered defiantly. "You've seen my whole goddamn file, Clint. You read it right before you set out to kill me."

Clint ran a hand over his face for what felt like the millionth time that day, and then he lowered it down to his side. As he looked at Natasha, all he saw was a confused, angry woman in front of him. If he'd been looking at himself, he would have seen an exhausted man with an arm in a sling and a broken nose that looked shot to hell; between the two of them, Natasha looked as though she were faring better than he was in that moment.

"I don't want to talk about this anymore," he said. "We're not getting anywhere. Look at us. We've been fighting and snapping at each other this whole time, and we haven't gotten anywhere at all."

"Fine." Natasha looked resigned, but she didn't look sad about it. If anything, she looked even more angry. Deep down, Clint felt a stab of disappointment. As much as he didn't want to admit it, he'd wanted her to fight for…something. Whatever it was that was going on between them. He'd wanted her to not be so calm and cool about it, but that was what he'd gotten.

"Ok," he said. Natasha didn't move, and neither did he. They just stared at each other the way they always did. For a second, he thought that she was going to say something, to put up that fight that he secretly wanted her to, but then she stood up and walked out the door without saying anything else. Clint was left alone in his room to himself.

He'd never felt more shut in.

A week later, the Voloshin team was allowed to return back to the United States. In that time, Clint and Natasha didn't speak unless they had to. If they passed in the hall, they would curtly nod and continue about their way, but they never exchanged words unless it was necessary.

Another week passed, and they still didn't speak. Clint slept alone in his room at night, and Natasha slept in her bed without anyone to keep the other half of the bed warm. They both carried on throughout their days at SHIELD, processing back in and taking their days off that they were assigned after having completed such a large mission. But aside from that, the two agents didn't have any communication.

Clint's presence just down the hall pressed into Natasha's awareness at all hours she was in her room. She could practically sense him whenever he was in there, but she wasn't sure if it were her mind playing tricks on her. Sometimes when she couldn't sleep at night, she'd lie very still in her bed and think about what Clint was doing. Usually, she pictured him sleeping. He slept very still and very quietly, never taking up more space than was necessary. Even in his sleep he was alert and cautious.

Sometimes—and she hated these times—she pictured him unable to sleep because memories of his past had flashed across his eyes as he'd tried to go to sleep. She didn't know much more about his past than she had before the Voloshin kill mission, but she couldn't forget that small detail he'd revealed to her back in the safe house in Germany when they'd last spoken—she couldn't forget the look on his face as he'd told her that his dad had called him Clinton right before he'd gotten the shit beaten out of him.

Guilt plagued Natasha whenever she thought about that. All these months she'd bugged him about how she liked the name Clinton and thought he should go by it, and every time she'd said his name, he'd most likely been hearing the syllables shouted in his father's voice in a flashback. She hated herself for doing that to him, and then she hated herself even more for allowing herself to feel bad for him.

She understood all too well what it was like to not want pity because that was exactly how she was; granted, she didn't talk about her past because it just wasn't something she liked to remember, but she also didn't talk about it because she didn't want to see that look of pity in his eyes she was sure she'd get. She hadn't experienced the pity of other people very much in her life, but the few times she'd gotten it, she'd hated it, and she definitely didn't want Clint's pity.

So she understood him. She understood him, and that was why she felt horrible for feeling guilty over the possible triggers she may have been poking at by calling him by his full first name. Clint just looked so much like a Clinton, and she loved the way his name sounded. She loved the crispness of it, the lightness and precision that came from saying his name. It was so Clint Barton that it was impossible for her to think of it as anything other than him.

And yet, his full name was just a reminder of his past. A past he was still unwilling to share.

Natasha didn't blame him for that. She definitely didn't feel any resentment towards him for his unwillingness to talk about the things he'd done and seen in the years of his life before he'd joined up with SHIELD. She wasn't even mad at him for that; she was just mad, and as each week passed, she found herself wondering why she was even mad. Technically, she knew exactly why she was mad, but she also couldn't help thinking that now maybe she should drop it. She'd lived two weeks without the man who'd basically become her best friend, and she wasn't too proud to admit to herself that she'd missed him.

She just couldn't make herself leave her room and walk down the hall to apologize to him. She'd tried. Oh, God, she'd tried hundreds of times to get her still aching legs to pick her up and move her just several doors down to the door that separated the rest of SHIELD from his small space in the world. But no matter how many times she tried to get herself to move, she just couldn't. So she sat alone in her room and wondered how the hell she was going to get the fuck over herself.

So far, she'd come up with nothing.

It wasn't until Maria interrupted one of her solo training sessions that things really began to change.

"Natasha." Maria's voice made Natasha look up from her spot on the ground. She was stretching as part of her cool down and also because her leg was still somewhat sore from the healing bullet wounds, and Maria's interruption was more than welcomed by the Russian assassin.

"Hi," Natasha greeted. Maria crossed towards her and waited as Natasha pulled herself up to a standing position.

"Coulson wants to see STRIKE Team: Delta later tomorrow. He asked me if I saw you to swing by his office around 5:00 with Barton," Maria said. Natasha felt her stomach sink and leap all at the same time at the mention of Clint.

"Ok," she said, and then she frowned. "We still have a few more days off. We should be back in business on Friday."

"Technically, Barton's already back in business," Maria replied. She frowned slightly and stared curiously at Natasha. "You didn't know that?"

"What? No. What are you talking about? What do you mean he's back in business?" Natasha asked in a confused tone. Maria blinked, and then she looked away, slowly inhaling and then exhaling as she realized that she'd just spilled some information she probably shouldn't have.

"Barton's on a mission right now. He's been gone for the past four days," she said. Natasha didn't bother to hide her shocked face. Crossing her arms over her chest, she stared at Maria in pure disbelief.

"He's been on a mission for four days?" she asked incredulously. "You're kidding."

"No. I thought you knew." Maria turned her gaze back to Natasha, and she pressed her lips together in a deeper frown. "He asked to come back a few days early, so Coulson sent him out on a mission."

"That—that doesn't even make sense," Natasha protested in confusion as her brain calculated the last time she'd seen him and how he'd looked in terms of physical recovery. "I've seen Palmer around here the past few days."

"Palmer wasn't his partner," Maria replied uncomfortably. "He filled in last minute for Agent Carlson."

"Agent Carls—who the fuck is Agent O'Neill?" Natasha asked, feeling like an idiot for not knowing that all of this had been happening and feeling even more like an idiot because she wasn't bothering to hide her surprise. She usually liked to act like she knew everything, but this time, she just couldn't help her reaction.

"Erin O'Neill. Special Projects," Maria said in a professional, clear voice, as if she were reciting Agent O'Neill's resume. Natasha moved her jaw to the side, and she tilted her head.

"Ok," she said slowly. "No, I didn't know about any of this."

"That's strange. I thought he would have told you," Maria said. "I did think it was odd for him to come back to work without you, though. The two of you have been inseparable since you came into the picture."

"That wasn't by choice," Natasha pointed out wrily. Maria's mouth twitched into a half-smile.

"Nothing was by choice for you then," she said. "But look now. You have a thousand choices to make every day."

And they all end with Clint, Natasha thought.

"You're right," Natasha said. She looked down at her hands and flexed them and clenched them as she tried to think of something to say, something to divert from the fact that she'd just let Maria see a vulnerable side of her that she usually only kept reserved for Clint. Fuck, even the fact that she had a side that she kept only for Clint pissed her off. However, she found herself feeling more pissed at Clint than at herself. "So where'd he go? What was the mission?"

"I don't know. All I know is that he and O'Neill shipped out bright and early several days ago." Maria paused. "Speaking of Barton, has he seemed a little off to you?"

I wouldn't know since we haven't spoken in two weeks, Natasha thought.

"A little. I think he's still recovering from everything that happened in Russia," Natasha said. She wished she could play the indifferent card, but indifference towards anything that had to do with Clint would most likely get Maria suspicious, and she definitely didn't want to tell Maria about the fight that she and Clint had had those weeks ago.

"That's fair," Maria said. She squinted her eyes slightly at Natasha. "How have you been holding up after that, anyway?"

Natasha gave the dark-haired agent a stony look. "Fine. Coulson's making both Clint and me go to these stupid therapy sessions every few days to make sure we don't have any lasting trauma or PTSD. I think Coulson's more worried about me than Clint, but it looks more fair to have the both of us go."

"Well, you both were tortured," Maria said bluntly. That was something about Maria that Natasha liked—Maria didn't skirt around the edges to find a nice way to say sings. She just said them, and Natasha appreciated that more than she knew how to express in words. "It makes sense. Whenever that happens with any agents on a mission, the agents in question have to attend a few sessions and make sure everything's ok before they start back."

"I guess Clint was cleared," Natasha said smoothly, even though in her head she definitely said it bitterly.

"Looks that way," Maria replied. "You think you will be, too?"

Natasha gave her another stony glare. "Yes. There's no reason I wouldn't be."

Without batting an eyelash, Maria nodded. "Ok. That's good since Coulson's got a mission in mind for our one and only STRIKE Team: Delta. You two have made a name for yourselves around here after your last mission. People are talking and saying good things."

"My goal was to be a SHIELD legend, so now I guess I can die in peace," Natasha drily replied. Maria smiled at her.

"That's the spirit," she said. "Hey, I'm going to catch dinner now. You want to come?"

"God, I'd love to." Natasha put one hand over her stomach and sighed. "I didn't realize how hungry I was until now."

"Perfect timing. I think a few of the others were wanting to go get Italian tonight. I don't know what you're in the mood for, though," Maria said, and she started walking towards the door of the training room with Natasha following at her side.

"Italian sounds good to me. I could use some pasta tonight. I have to go change out of my training clothes first," Natasha replied. "Wait, so if Coulson has a mission in mind for Clint and me, is Clint getting back tomorrow to be back for the meeting?"

"Yes, he's supposed to get in early, early tomorrow morning. I think something like, 2:49 in the morning. Some crazy time like that," Maria answered.

"Ok. Just checking," Natasha said back, and she kept her face calm as she always did. She wasn't the best at espionage for nothing.

The next day, Natasha showed up to the meeting outside Coulson's office 15 minutes early. She always liked being early whenever she could, but she had a specific mission in mind for today. Dressed head to toe in her SHIELD uniform, she waited quietly outside the closed door. If she'd calculated everything correctly, she would be in position for the exact moment she was anticipating.

She hadn't slept much the night before. However, she hadn't lost sleep because of nightmares; she'd lost sleep because of how much she'd been thinking about how she was going to approach the topic of Clint's returning back early to work to Clint himself when he got back. She didn't want to go in pissed off and indignant because that only got him pissed off and indignant, but she didn't want to emotionally manipulate him by being soft.

Sometimes being an agent was hard because normal people didn't have to think about shit like that, she'd realized late last night as she'd lain awake in her bed. As much as she didn't want to admit it, her sleep lately had been pretty shitty. She hadn't realized how much better she slept with Clint around until he wasn't there at all, and she wished that that fact weren't true. She wished she could sleep soundly with just the sound of running water playing from her CD player, but the true of the matter was that she always slept better with Clint beside her.

Natasha was ripped out of her memories of last night when she saw that her calculations had been perfect. Right as she'd anticipated, Clint walked down the hall. His nose looked as though it were healing fine, and he had just a little bit of bruising left, but other than that, he looked the same as he always did. Natasha landed her gaze on him, and at first, he didn't notice her. He just kept walking with his still, expressionless face.

And then he saw her. His face hardened, and Natasha could have sworn she saw his jaw tense, but he kept walking until he was directly in front of her.

"So we have a meeting," he said calmly.

"So I heard," Natasha replied. "I also heard you requested to go back to work several days early."

"I did," Clint shortly answered. "I just got back from my mission early this morning."

"Heard that, too." Natasha folded her arms innocently over her chest. "I would have liked to know."

"Why?" For the first time since he'd arrived, Clint looked at her. He actually looked at her with genuine curiosity, and Natasha felt her heart leap up into her mouth just from being under his gaze.

"You promised me you'd tell me when you were going to leave," she said in a matter of fact tone. She watched his face, and she knew her words had left the impact she'd hoped for. Honestly, Natasha wasn't trying to manipulate him. She was trying to remind him that he'd once made her that promise when she'd once been so angry she could barely function, so stubborn she couldn't even make herself speak. So she watched his face soften and his eyes widen just the tiniest bit, but before he could say anything, the door opened, and Coulson poked his head around the corner.

"Oh. Hello," Agent Coulson greeted in surprise. "I wasn't expecting to see you guys here so early."

"Surprise," Natasha said in what she hoped was a convincingly cheerful voice. Agent Coulson looked back and forth between the two, and then he gestured in towards his office with his head.

"Come on in," he said. "Since you're early, we can get this finished early."

Without looking at Clint, Natasha walked into the familiar office and took a seat in the chair she always did while Clint sat down in the chair he always claimed as his. Coulson pulled out some files, and then he slapped them down on the table with a resounding smack, smiling as he did so.

"I've got a good mission for you two. It should be relatively simple after the one you both just came off of," he said.

"I like simple," Clint interjected.

"Good. Now, it's not Level One simple, but I think anything's simpler than after the Russia mission," Coulson replied. Natasha noticed how everyone at SHIELD called the Voloshin kill mission the "Russia mission" now; she didn't particularly care either way, but it'd caught her attention.

"Sounds good to me, sir," she answered. "Where are we going?"

Coulson pushed the files closer towards her and Clint.



Chapter Text

Chapter 19

"Budapest." Clint clicked his tongue. "I actually don't think I've ever been to Budapest. Good job picking somewhere new for me, Coulson."

"I was there a few years back working a job," Natasha added. "Lovely place."

"I'm glad you like it there." Coulson smiled. "This mission won't be like one you've ever done before." He glanced at Natasha. "At least for SHIELD. You're being assigned as escorts to Dr. Stefan Munroe, an English scientist whose work is highly respected here at SHIELD. In fact, he teaches a few of our courses at the Academy in our Science division. Anyway, Dr. Munroe needs to get across the border into Austria undetected. That's where you two come in."

"All this protection for just one man on a small trip?" Clint asked with a frown.

"He's caught the attention of some very dangerous men who would love to him on their side. We have to use the utmost caution," Coulson replied seriously. "However, you won't be shipping out for another week and a half since Romanoff is still healing from her bullet wounds."

"I'm feeling much better, sir," Natasha spoke up, irritation flashing through her as she thought about Clint having already been out in the field for the past four days while she'd been stuck at SHIELD. "I'm improving more and more with each passing day."

"I can see that. You're in far better shape than you were in when Barton first brought you out of that building." Coulson's face was grim as he looked at her, and Natasha wondered what that sight must have looked like, what everyone must have been thinking as Clint, bloodied and beaten, had come running out of Voloshin's headquarters with Natasha, also bloodied and beaten, thrown over his shoulder.

"So I've heard," Natasha said in a solemn voice.

"You two are lucky. You work well together, and you seem to enjoy each other's company outside of work, too, which can come in handy for forming a solid partnership. That's why I chose the two of you to complete this mission. There are plenty of other agents who are just as qualified to escort Dr. Munroe, but I know that there's less chance of failure with STRIKE Team: Delta doing the escorting. Now, like I said, I know it's not your usual mission, but it's something to do, and it'll be something to ease you back into the field," Coulson explained. He turned his gaze to Clint. "Speaking of, I heard that your mission with Agent O'Neill was successful."

Clint nodded professionally. "Yes, sir, it was. We got exactly what we needed, and we were out of there. No casualties and no trace us ever having been there."

"Beautiful. That's exactly what I like to hear, Barton. How did you like working with O'Neill?" Coulson asked pleasantly. Natasha didn't want to hear Clint's answer, but she was also dying to at the same time. Nonchalantly, she turned her head to look at him and make sure he knew she was looking at him as he replied.

"It was wonderful," Clint said smoothly. "Agent O'Neill is a delight."

"Yes, she is. That's great that you got a chance to work with her. She's fabulous." Coulson beamed brightly.

"I can definitely agree with that," Clint replied. "But I do have to admit that there's always going to be something missing when you're not working with your usual partner, so I'm more than ready to return to being a part of STRIKE Team: Delta for our next mission."

Seemingly ignoring the archer, Natasha picked the file up off of Coulson's desk and began flipping through it. The route that she and Clint were supposed to take was already mapped out, and from what she could tell, basically everything looked like it was in place and good to go for whenever they got the call telling them they were supposed to ship out next week.

"I understand that. A partner has your back and is always there for you. I can imagine that you're happy to get back to Agent Romanoff," Coulson said with that same smile on his face. He noticed Natasha flipping through the file, and he turned his attention back to her. "Are you familiar with the route?"

"More or less," Natasha replied. "I've never been much of an escort—at least for a mission like this—but I'm familiar with the areas close by." Suddenly, a particular section of the route through Budapest caught her attention, and she frowned before glancing up at Coulson with a disturbed look on her face. "You have us going through a section of the city that's overrun with rivaling Hungarian mobs."

Coulson frowned back at her. "There shouldn't be any parts of the route that take you through areas like that at all. Where are you talking about?"

Natasha placed the map on Coulson's desk and stood up to point to the parts of the city she was talking about. "Right here in Eastern Budapest. This is the right next to the exact line where the Karmazin mob meets the Sanko mob. If they catch wind of anything suspicious, particularly SHIELD-suspicious, they'll be on our asses."

"What?" Coulson shook his head, his frown deepening. "The Sanko mob hasn't been active for years now. SHIELD neutralized them four years ago. I remember because I was there."

Pressing her lips together in a firm line, Natasha shook her head. "No, they're still active. They're staying under the radar, but they're active. I had a mission involving them about two years ago."

Coulson lifted his eyes to meet her, his face confused and unconvinced of what she was saying. "Are you sure? Because I made contact with my connections over there while I was routing this plan for you guys, and they said that the Sankos have been inactive since SHIELD's involvement."

"I'm sure. I have connections with or at least am familiar with a large number of mobs in Europe, and the Sankos are still going strong, even though they're keeping their heads down these days," Natasha insisted.

"Nat knows European mobs like the back of her hand," Clint interjected. He'd meant to sound encouraging, but the tone of his voice made him sound as though he were being more snarky than anything, and he got a scathing look from Natasha.

"I do," she said impatiently. "I know firsthand what the Sankos can do."

Before either Coulson or Clint could reply, she turned around and pulled her long red hair away from her neck. Behind her, Coulson let out a low whistle.

"Jesus, Romanoff," he said quietly. "The Sankos did that to you?"

Natasha felt some enjoyment in the fact that she was shocking both Coulson and Clint with the long scar on the back of her neck almost invisible by the way it was hidden up underneath her hairline. She let her hair fall back into place, and she turned back around to face the two men, noticing Clint's furrowed brow as she looked past him.

"Yes," she evenly answered without batting an eyelash. "They did that to me two years ago when I was there. Thankfully, no matter how short I cut my hair, it'll always stay hidden." She paused and then considered her statement. "Mostly."

"How the hell'd you get that?" Clint asked, unable to keep his curiosity at bay.

"I was infiltrating their inner circle to take back information to the KGB. One of their men recognized me from a description he'd heard from a friend of a friend of a friend, and I got that little beauty during their interrogation." She cocked an eyebrow. "The Sankos love their knives."

"I'll get making more phone calls to see what else I can figure out about this whole deal, even though I'm pretty sure they're inactive now. I don't know. I'll just make some calls, and I'll let you know. We have a week and a half to figure this out," Coulson said as he took the file back, sliding it towards him on his desk. "Until then, you use this time to get better and on top of your game, and you," he looked towards Clint, "use this time to just get on top of your game."

"Always do, sir," Clint replied with a respectful nod. "Thank you for the briefing."

"Thank you, sir," Natasha added as she tried to lose the worried feeling over the whole route Coulson had made.

"I'll see you two later. Stay out of trouble," Coulson said, smiling as the two agents got up and left his office. Natasha didn't bother on slowing down and waiting for Clint, nor did she take the time to look at him. She just started walking, and then the sound of his quickening footsteps behind her let her know that he was jogging to catch up to her.

"I've never seen that scar on you before," he said quietly as he slowed his pace to be right next to her. Natasha didn't look at him.

"You haven't seen very many of my scars at all," she retorted.

"I would have thought I'd see that one by now. It's not exactly like it's hidden under clothes," Clint said. She thought about calling him out on his statement, but she was tired, and she didn't want to.

"Well, now you've seen it," she said shortly.

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you I was going back into the field." Clint's voice was quiet and sincere, and it made Natasha's chest ache with how much she missed him, how much she'd missed this side of him the past week or however long it'd been since she'd last seen him. Finally, she allowed herself to glance over at him, and she swallowed, nodding.

"Thank you," she said.

"You're welcome," Clint replied. And just as quickly as he'd caught up to her, he slipped away, and she didn't look back over her shoulder to see where he'd disappeared to. Natasha just kept walking down the hall back to her room, alone again.

Natasha could see fire. She could hear voices screaming.

"Natasha. Think about this for a fucking second. You said you wanted to turn yourself around. You have a fucking choice. Listen to me. Listen to me."

There was blood.

"Shoot him."

"I trust you, Natasha. I trust you to make the right choice. I trust you."

Sounds of screaming and flames crackling filled Natasha's ears, and there was blood all around her.

"You shouldn't trust her, American. She was a double-agent for me. She'll just as easily turn her loyalties on you. Let her tell you about all the things she's done. All the innocent lives she's taken."

So much blood.

"Do it, Natalia. You can do it. Let me know I can trust you again." Voloshin was right there, and he was expecting her to do this. She didn't know how she was going to get out of this whole thing. "I know you. I know how you think because I helped shaped the way you think. You were born to do this. You were made to do this. You know I'm right."

"I trust you."

Natasha's eyes snapped open, and she rolled over onto her back as her chest rose and sank with each heaving, silent breath she took. Her hands shook, and her entire body was covered with a light layer of sweat from the exertion of the dream—no, of the memory she'd just had.

It had been years since she'd dreamed about the fire that had killed her parents. And even though it had been years, she could still remember the exact dream and the exact things she'd seen, heard, and felt in her dream, just as she remembered the same things she'd seen, heard, and felt in her dream she'd had only moments ago. God, she hadn't thought about it in forever.

Lifting a shaking hand, she tried to smooth her hair out of her face but found that she was trembling far too much to really do anything all that useful in getting the pesky strands away from her. Physically and emotionally, she felt drained. Having a flashback to just one of those memories was exhausting enough, but she'd just experienced a dream combination of nearly shooting Clint in front of Voloshin and of the fire that had killed her parents, and it was just too goddamn much.

Natasha's heart thumped loudly beneath her chest, hard and strong. Her throat was dry, and she could hardly swallow. Slowly, she threw the covers off of her and moved herself into a seated position, throwing her legs over the edge of the bed.

"Oh, God, get yourself together, Romanoff," she murmured out loud to herself, even though she felt ridiculous for talking to herself as if she were in some cliché movie. She lifted a hand and pressed the back of it to her forehead, trying to stop the shaking, though she was failing horribly at it. For a brief second, she thought she was going to throw up, but she kept swallowing her nausea and horror down to keep herself under control. If she and Clint weren't doing this weird fighting thing, she would have gone to him without a second thought. She would have crept into his room and into his bed, and she would have let the feeling of his body next to hers give her comfort, but now things were too complicated.

As soon as she thought the word "complicated," she thought back to all the times she'd told him both jokingly and seriously that she didn't do complicated. And that was when she realized that she didn't have a choice in that matter. Everything in her life was complicated, and she could only let them stay complicated, or she could uncomplicated things. And in that moment, her choices were clear. She could stay there in her room, shaking and unnerved, and let things remain complicated. Or she could get up and get the fuck over her own goddamn pride.

And she chose the latter.

Without wasting another second—and before she could talk herself out of it as she was bound to do—Natasha pushed herself up to her feet, grabbed her ID, and walked out into the hallway without even putting socks or shoes on. With a mission in her mind, she walked down the hall to the door she could never lose awareness of, and she slid her card in between the door and the lock in the wall. She maneuvered the card the exact way she wanted, and within seconds, the lock had sprung free, and she was twisting the doorknob open.

Quietly, the light-footed assassin stepped through the doorway and into Clint's room, being careful not to make any sound at all. She turned back to the door and silently shut it behind her, pressing her hand against the door to muffle whatever small sound it might make. Satisfied that the door was shut, she turned back over her shoulder and saw Clint in his bed, one hand rubbing his eyes and the other one half-propping him up.

"Nat?" he sleepily asked. Natasha froze. She hadn't anticipated him waking up just yet. She'd actually been planning on waking him up once she'd crossed to his bed, but she just had to roll with the punches now.

"I didn't mean to wake you," she said softly.

"Are you here to kill me?" he asked, sounding genuinely confused and half-worried in his sleepy state. Carefully, Natasha started to approach him, her green eyes cautious and watchful.

"No," she said. Clint blinked several times and squinted at her through the darkness.

"Why are you here?" he asked. He wasn't accusing her of anything, nor was he implying that he didn't want her there; he was simply curious, and she was secretly thankful that he still genuinely wanted to know what was going on with her.

"I'm sorry," she said out loud in the darkness.

"You came here at 2 in the morning to tell me you're sorry?" Clint asked, again his tone nowhere near accusing or angry in the slightest.

"It's 2:17," Natasha corrected.

"Oh. Two-seventeen," Clint corrected himself.

"I had a dream about…" Natasha paused as she thought of what to say. She hadn't planned on telling him about her nightmare, but it seemed that she couldn't take her words back now. "…about what happened on the Voloshin mission."

Now alert, Clint sat straighter up in bed and looked at her, his eyebrows drawing in close together as he processed what she was saying. "Flashbacks?"

"Yeah." Natasha stared at him. "I'm sorry. About everything."

"Stop apologizing. I hate when you do that," he said gently. She tilted her head to the side.

"You hate when I apologize?" she asked.

"No. I hate when you blame yourself." Clint stared at her, and even though she couldn't see his blue eyes in the muted darkness of the room, she knew without a doubt that he was staring at her. "It wasn't your fault. None of it was."

Natasha's first instinct was to argue with him and passionately insist that it was, but there was something in his voice that made her truly wonder for the first time if maybe everything that had happened back there in Voloshin's headquarters really hadn't been her fault. So she accepted what he said. "Ok."

Clint didn't speak. They both just accepted the silent tension around them for a few moments, neither of them moving at all. Finally, Clint spoke. "You have no idea how hard it was to keep away from you."

"So why did you?" Natasha asked before she could stop herself.

"Honestly…I have no idea how the hell to act when you're angry. What the right thing to do is. And I'm really fucking stubborn when I want to be." The amusement was there in Clint's voice, just a hint of it, but it was enough for Natasha to know that he was letting these past few weeks of negative feelings towards her go.

"That doesn't surprise me," she said quietly. "I can be stubborn, too."

"No shit," Clint said. It was too dark for Natasha to tell if Clint was smiling, but she hoped he was. Carefully, he scooted back and pulled the covers open. "You're more than welcome to have a seat. You've just been standing there this whole time, and it's making me nervous."

Natasha didn't say anything, but she slowly crossed towards him and slid under the covers, allowing him to pull them back over her. To her surprise, he didn't start immediately spooning her or drawing her into him. Instead, he lay on his back and turned his head towards her to face her. They weren't exactly touching, but they weren't not touching, either.

"I'm sorry, too," Clint said. "For not visiting you and for being a stubborn jackass."

"I can accept that apology, I think," Natasha quietly replied. Clint could feel her shaking just the smallest bit, but he didn't say anything about it; he knew her well enough to know that if he brought it up, she'd be out of his bed and down the hall quicker than he could say her name to stop her. Suddenly, Natasha broke the silent reverie. "We do too much of our serious talking in bed."

Now she was close enough to see the small smile flit across Clint's mouth.

"That's probably the first time I've ever heard a woman in my bed say that," he answered with a smirk. "Typically, I don't use my bed for talking."

Natasha found herself returning his small smile, and she felt her throat tighten at the implication of his words. "That doesn't surprise me, either. Though I can't imagine the women you date being the kind who'd actually want to have deep conversations during pillow talk."

"Excuse you, I date smart women. I have no idea where you came up with that assumption about me, but I'm offended," Clint said, his voice miffed.

"I think I'm basing it off that one woman who was eyeing you that one time in the mall when we went shopping. She didn't look like the kind who would want to strike up deep life talks in bed."

"One, that's judging a book by its cover, which isn't the most recommended thing to do, and two, pillow talk can be very useful, Romanoff," Clint murmured, his voice starting to sound tired. And now that Natasha was back in a place that she felt safe, she noticed that she was starting to get tired, too. Her hands were no longer shaking, and she'd stopped sweating long ago, though she couldn't remember when she had. All she felt was the warmth of Clint Barton beside her, the taut muscles of his arm next to hers, and she tried to clear her mind of the flashback she'd had before.

"It can be useful for extracting information from someone," she pointed out. "But lucky for you, I'm not trying to extract anything from you."

"Good. Too tired for work tonight," Clint replied. And there was something about the way his voice sounded, the way his words were strung together that made Natasha turn on her side to face him directly.

"Clint," she said softly. She lifted her hand and placed it on his face, gently caressing the warm skin beneath her palm as if she were half-afraid she'd break him, and she looked at him. "Clinton. Kiss me."

She felt his jaw tense at the sound of his full name, but then she felt his muscles relax, going slack under her hand. He took one arm and wrapped it around her hips as he placed his hand on her lower back, and he pulled her in close to him. His mouth lowered to hers, and then he was kissing her. He was sleepily, energetically, slowly, roughly kissing her. His tongue parted her lips, and they were heatedly kissing with open, hungry mouths as if they couldn't ever get enough of each other.

Finally, Clint pulled away, and he rested his forehead against hers, his cheek still pressed against the cool fabric of his pillow. His beautiful blue eyes were closed, and he looked completely relaxed. "Tasha."

He whispered her name as if he were whispering a prayer, as if he were saying a sacred word that couldn't be spoken any louder than the volume at which he'd exhaled it out. Natasha loved it. She took his free hand in hers and gently tucked it into her chest. Clint opened his eyes and looked at her.

"Do you know what the name Clinton means?" Natasha asked suddenly. Clint blinked, clearly startled by the sudden question.

"No," he said slowly.

"It can mean 'town on the hill,' 'town on the river Glyme,' or 'settlement near the cliff.'" Natasha gazed back at him. "It's open for interpretation."

"How do you know this?" he asked curiously.

"I got bored one day. I like knowing the meaning behind names. Yours is anti-climactic," she said seriously. Clint smiled softly.

"Ok, well, what does yours mean?" he asked.

"My name means birthday. Not much better," Natasha replied with a slight smirk. "Also, your last name means 'barley farm.' Nice to meet you, Settlement near the Cliff Barley Farm."

"This is what you do in your spare time?" Clint lifted his eyebrows as Natasha shrugged noncommittally.

"Call me a nerd," she said. "I just like knowing what names mean."

"Barley farm. Not very badass."

"Not at all. Hey."


"Kiss me again?"

"Right away, ma'am."

"Goddammit, Romanoff, maybe they should have left you in the middle of Russia."

Natasha grinned as she leaned down and offered her hand out to Maria. The dark-haired agent eagerly took hold of Natasha's hand, and she let her pull her up into a standing position.

"I haven't had my ass kicked like that in a while now," Maria added.

"For a while there, I thought you were easily going to take me down. It was just that last minute bit there at the end where I got control again," Natasha replied. "I've been dying to get back to training again."

"You're a workaholic, Romanoff. Just like me. No wonder we get along well," Maria mused out loud as she began crossing over to where she'd left her water bottle. "Who needs a man when you have…SHIELD."

"Yes, such a thrilling prospect. Wonderful suitor. Courts like a real gentleman," Natasha quipped, following Maria to get her own bottle of water. "God, I'm going to be sore as hell later."

"All in a day's work," Maria replied. Natasha gulped down large swallows of her water, and then she eased herself down to the floor, leaning against the wall to catch her breath. She was dripping with sweat, and she knew she probably stank to high heaven, but she'd never felt better in all her life. Sure, her mostly healed bullet wounds were giving her some aches, but otherwise, she felt amazing.

"I needed this," she said out loud.

"Me too," Maria agreed. "Sometimes it's nice to get your own ass kicked for a change."

"I can agree to that." Natasha lifted her water bottle up as if she were leading a toast. "In just a few days, Barton and I are shipping out, and I am more than ready to get back on the ball."

"Budapest, you said, right?" Maria asked. Natasha nodded.

"Yeah. We're serving as escorts to one of SHIELD's doctors," she said.

"Dr. Munroe? Yeah, I heard Coulson talking about it." Maria took a sip of her water. "It should go smoothly, don't you think?"

"Yeah, it should," Natasha said slowly. Maria's eyes darted over to her and locked on.

"What is it?" she asked.

"It's…" Natasha paused, and she twisted her mouth to the side as she thought. "How would you rank your knowledge of Hungarian mobs?"

"A little of this, a little of that," Maria diplomatically answered.

"Fair enough. Have you heard of the Sankos? Originally a family-based mob back in the day but now just a full-fledged, bloodthirsty mob?" Natasha asked.

"Yeah, I've heard of the Sankos. SHIELD neutralized the entire Sanko mob a few years ago," Maria replied. "Why?"

Natasha sighed, and she shook her head impatiently. "See, that's the thing. The Sankos are still going strong, but Coulson insists they're inactive, and he mapped our route through one of their combat zones. But I got knifed by them two years back. I know they're still there."

"You're sure?" Maria lifted her eyebrows.

"Yes, I'm sure. I remember every single person who's given me a scar," Natasha murmured as she leaned her head back against the wall.

"The Sankos aren't neutralized?" Maria asked in surprise. "I find that impossible. SHIELD doesn't leave a mission unless it's completed successfully. Or if it's too risky, and there have been too many men hit."

"I don't know. I don't have all the answers, but I know that the Sankos aren't as defeated as SHIELD seems to think they are. I mean, I guess we should be relatively safe. I can't imagine that a Hungarian mob is out to get a SHIELD doctor. As long as Barton and I keep our noses down, we should be ok," Natasha replied with a shrug, though a slight frown still remained on her face. "It's just a little concerning is all."

"No, I don't blame you. That's definitely something to check into," Maria added, her own frown taking place.

"Coulson said he was looking into it, but I haven't heard anything since. I don't know. I'm probably worrying too much. I always worry too much." Natasha smoothed a hand over her red ponytail. "Ready to go again?"

"Give me a few more minutes, Romanoff. I need just a few seconds more to get myself back together again," Maria said with a smirk. "So what's going on with you and Barton?"

Natasha froze. "What?"

"You and Barton. You seemed pretty pissed at him the other day, but now it looks like you guys are back to normal," Maria continued. Inwardly, Natasha let loose a secret sigh of relief. She'd definitely thought Maria had been referring to whatever strange relationship she and the archer had going on, but knowing that that was still a secret filled her with more relief than she'd thought possible.

"Partner spat. Typical stuff," Natasha answered, shrugging dismissively. "Sometimes we don't see eye to eye on certain strategies."

"Oh, trust me, I know all too well how that path goes." Maria lifted her dark eyebrows and sighed. "You know, I wouldn't trade my job for anything. I love what I do here at SHIELD, and I'm good at it, but goddamn, sometimes I feel close to quitting with all the ridiculous childish bickering that goes on here."

"I can easily second that," Natasha said. She paused, and then she looked over curiously at Maria. "Is it typical for partners to be friends outside of work responsibilities?"

"Like you and Barton?" Maria asked. Natasha nodded. "It depends. Sometimes partnerships are better suited for the workplace and only the workplace, but other times it works well to be friends outside. It really just depends on the two people involved."

"I never really did a lot of partnering before SHIELD. I worked alone, and it was very rare that I'd work with someone else. Even when I did work with someone else, it was typically part of a team, and I found I could do better with a team than with a one-on-one partner," Natasha replied.

"I think the key to working with a partner is trust. I know SHIELD always says stuff about how you need to trust your partner and all that, but I mean it. How can you have someone's back if you don't know if they'll have yours? It's corny, but…" Maria shrugged.

"No, I get it. I think that was probably my issue before. In this line of work…especially when it's been your whole life…it can be hard to figure out how to trust someone when everyone's always told you to trust no one." Natasha unscrewed the top of her water bottle and brought it up to her mouth, tilting it back and eagerly swallowing the cool liquid.

"Ok, now I think I'm ready." Maria set her water bottle to the side and stood up. "Ready to get your ass kicked, Romanoff?"

"I was born ready, Hill."


Chapter Text

Chapter 20

Budapest was fucking cold. Natasha wrapped her thick black coat tighter around her, and she leaned her head back impatiently against the headrest of the driver's seat she was currently in.

"I hate this," she remarked out loud.

"You hate everything," Clint dismissively replied without looking back at her. His blue precise eyes were looking at the window as the two spies waited for Dr. Munroe to come out to the car so they could begin their journey to Austria.

"No, I don't," Natasha argued.

"Yes, you do. Name one thing you like."

"Chocolate chip pancakes."

"Ok, fine, you can name one thing. Name five things."

"Socks, guns, how my face feels after I exfoliate, cleanse, tone, and moisturize, the smell of your shampoo, and leather jackets," Natasha listed without hesitating a single second. Clint finally tore his eyes away from the window and looked at her with an impressed expression.

"Huh, that didn't take you long at all," he said. He paused, and then his eyebrows lifted into a smirk. "You said you like the smell of my shampoo."

"Yes, I did," Natasha confirmed with a nod while giving nothing away on her face.

"You just gave me a compliment."

"Technically, I gave your shampoo a compliment but…" Natasha let her voice trail off, and she gave a shrug. Clint kept looking at her with that obnoxious look on his face, and he wouldn't look away. She rolled her eyes and glanced out the window. "But yes. I like it. It smells like a meadow, and I like that."

Clint made a face. "A meadow? I just bought it because I liked the picture on the bottle."

"Why does that not surprise me?" Natasha's lips curled up into one of her small signature smiles. Behind Clint's head, she caught sight of the doctor walking out of the hotel and towards the car. Dr. Munroe didn't seem to be all that nervous of being caught, but she knew he was nervous enough to have accepted the fact that SHIELD had assigned him two escorts without fighting the decision at all. He neared the car, and he opened the door, sliding into the backseat. Natasha and Clint turned around at the same time to look at him.

"Hello, Doctor. I'm Agent Barton," Clint said professionally.

"I'm Agent Romanoff," Natasha added with a quick nod.

"Please, call me Stefan," Dr. Munroe said kindly. "Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. I'm sure that escorting a scientist isn't exactly the most thrilling job."

"Oh, we needed a break. More than happy to do it," Clint replied. "We're actually going to be heading out tomorrow bright and early, so for tonight, we're going to a safe house just down the street here. If anyone's trying to track you, it'll be a little bit more difficult to."

"Whichever's easiest," Dr. Munroe replied. "So you two are graduates of the Academy?"

"No. Not quite," Clint answered with a hint of amusement. "I took a few classes there on international law and procedures, but I didn't actually attend the Academy."

"Neither did I," Natasha added, not giving much away with her short, clipped sentence.

"Oh, I would have assumed you both did. Don't most of the agents?" Dr. Munroe asked in a confused voice.

"Yes. Technically, you're supposed to…but we're special cases. The rare exception," Clint said. Natasha glanced out the rearview mirror and then the side mirror before pulling out into the street. He'd driven there from the airport, and Natasha was supposed to drive to the safe house where they would stay the night before heading out tomorrow morning. Clint took a brief look at Natasha, allowing his eyes to scan over her and assess how she was doing.

He knew she was mildly nervous over the whole Sanko gang situation. Several days before the agents had left for Budapest, Coulson had called the both of them into his office for a last minute meeting.

"So I got in contact with my connections over in Budapest, and they insist that the Sankos were neutralized back when we took care of them. Now, if you're still nervous, I can reroute the trip for you. You can take a different way if you want," Coulson had said, sincerely meaning every word. Clint had looked at Natasha and waited for her to give the cue. She was the one who was more concerned than he was—he would be willing to do whatever she wanted.

"No. That's ok," she'd said, even though her forehead had been drawn into a frown. "The Sankos don't want Dr. Munroe, so we should be ok. There shouldn't be any worry of getting drawn into a battle while we're over there. The route is fine."

"Are you sure? I'm more than happy to reroute it if it'd give you even a little bit of peace of mind."

"No, I'm sure." Natasha had insisted that she didn't mind, but Clint knew that she was still worrying about it to some degree. Truth be told, he couldn't blame her. He didn't know very much about Hungarian gangs—at least not as much as Natasha knew—but he didn't want to fuck with the kinds of people who'd slashed Natasha across the back of the neck.

The rest of the drive to the safe house was silent. Natasha wasn't much of a talker around other people, and Clint couldn't think of anything to say, and Dr. Munroe seemed more interested in reviewing some files from his briefcase than conversing, which was totally fine by the two spies. Natasha glanced up at the tall building in front of them, and then she looked down at the coordinates Coulson had given her.

"X marks the spot," she said out loud as she pulled the car into the hidden garage around the side, putting it in Park and shutting the engine off. "Time to go brave that cold."

"At least it's not raining. It's miserable when it rains during this kind of weather here," Dr. Munroe remarked. Natasha glanced back at him, but she didn't say anything else as she and Clint got out of the car. She was so used to working in her SHIELD uniform that it felt a little strange to be out of it. She liked the stretchy black material and the belts with everything she needed on them. And most of all, she liked it because it had the SHIELD emblem on it, and every time she looked at it, she finally felt as though she were a part of something.

Clint walked in front of Dr. Munroe while Natasha held up the flank. She kept her hand on her gun where she could pull it out at any time, but she was pretty sure that they weren't being followed. Coulson had been confident in saying that this location was out of the way and typically unmonitored by anyone except for SHIELD. As far as she knew, the safe house they were staying the night in was in neutral territory, so even though they were virtually safe from the warring gangs, that didn't mean they were safe from any other organizations that might have been trying to snatch up Dr. Munroe.

Silently, Clint led the way up a set of dark stairs until he reached a door at the top. Natasha watched as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a key that unlocked a box beside the door. The box opened, and he lowered his face down to the front of it where a laser scanned over his retina to determine that he was, in fact, a friendly. Natasha waited, her sense on high alert, as the door unlocked, and Clint pushed it open, walking into the small dark apartment.

When Natasha crossed over the threshold and shut the door behind her, Clint turned the lights on. Impressed, Natasha lifted her light red eyebrows and looked about her. "Well, this is nicer than I was expecting it to be."

"Yeah, me too," Clint replied. He started walking around and looking for any kind of surveillance equipment, his blue eyes as sharp as a hawk's. Natasha joined him while Dr. Munroe stood awkwardly in the center of the living room area. She crossed towards the rooms in the back and poked her head around the corner.

"Hey, it's a two bedroom," she called back. "No sleeping on the couch for us."

"Excellent," Clint called in response. "Looks like we're good. No one's been in here probably since the last time an agent needed a safe spot."

"Doctor, you can have the room right here. We'll take the one across from you," Natasha said as she crossed back into the main room. "It won't be too miserable to stay here. In and out in one night."

"I don't mind at all. Again, I'm just grateful that I have your assistance," the doctor replied with a kind smile.

"Look, we've got Ramen for dinner," Clint added. He stepped in from the kitchen and held up one of the colorful plastic-wrapped packs. "We're living the high life here."

"Just what I like to hear," Natasha deadpanned. She crossed into the kitchen where he was, and she took a look around. Behind her, Dr. Munroe entered the room he would be staying in for the night, and she heard the sound of his briefcase clasp flipping open. Natasha walked beside Clint and leaned against the counter, her hip next to his, and she lowered her voice. "You think this is a good place?"

"Yeah, as far as I can tell, it looks clean," Clint said. "I didn't detect anyone following us, either."

"Neither did I," Natasha agreed. "I hate doing escort jobs. I'm totally ok if something bad happens to me, but if something bad happens to the person I'm escorting on my watch? I hate that."

"Definitely understand," Clint said, still keeping his voice quiet. "At least we're not in Texas."

Natasha tried to suppress her smile. "Your hatred of Texas is unnatural. At least in Texas, it's warm. I hate the cold."

"You're Russian. Or you were Russian," Clint said. "I thought it was cold in Russia."

"It is," Natasha said with a serious nod. "That's why I hate the cold. I grew up with it, and now I like to be warm as much as I possibly can."

"That's why you sleep funny," Clint said suddenly, a look of realization coming over his clear blue eyes. Natasha frowned, and she took a step back from him.

"I sleep funny?" she repeated in confusion. "What the fuck's wrong with the way I sleep?"

"There's nothing wrong with it. It's just funny. You sleep with your whole body under the covers. You tuck your blankets up by your neck like you don't want the cold to get in," Clint calmly answered. Natasha paused, and then she narrowed her green eyes up at the archer.

"Do you watch me sleep?" she whispered fiercely.

"What? No! That's creepy!" Clint protested, making a face. "Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night because you take the blankets, and I'm observant."

"Well, I think you sleep funny," Natasha countered. Clint raised his eyebrows in surprise.

"sleep funny? How do sleep funny?" he asked.

"Sometimes you sleep on your back, and that's weird. Who sleeps on their back?" Natasha asked with a scoff.

"So have you been watching me when I sleep?" Clint asked. Natasha rolled her eyes.

"You're ridiculous," she said. "No. Of course not." She turned over her shoulder and started walking to the room they were going to share. "Come on. Let's get our stuff set up for the night."

Clint followed her back to the room, only pausing in front of the doctor's room to tell him that the kitchen was stocked with plenty of Ramen if he wanted it and to let them know if he wanted anything, reminding the doctor one last time that they were going to roll out at 5:00 the next morning. Natasha sat on the bed and waited for Clint to come in. She watched him quietly close the door behind him without making a sound and then cross to the small duffel bag they'd thrown their things into for the night they were going to be up in the safe house.

"Do you need anything right now?" Clint asked her. Natasha shook her head, her long red hair swishing over her shoulders with the motion. Absentmindedly, she looked down at it and sighed.

"I should cut my hair," she said. Clint glanced up at her for a brief second as he kept digging through the duffel bag.

"Why?" he asked.

"I think it'd be easier to deal with if it were shorter," she said. Clint shrugged diplomatically.

"Your hair will look good at any length," he said in a matter of fact tone. Natasha stared at him without saying anything. Sometimes he said the strangest things to her, and that was one of them. She sat still, completely motionless, and then he looked up from the duffel bag, triumphantly lifting up a flannel shirt. "Here we go."

Natasha stared at him in silence, and he turned to face her, shirt in hand. He saw her staring blankly at him, and he blinked. "What?"

"You spent all that time digging for a flannel shirt?" she asked. Clint looked offended.

"Yeah, I did. This is my favorite flannel," he said defensively as he started shoving his thick black coat off of him. Natasha continued to sit on the bed. She'd seen Clint with his shirt off numerous times—God, and was each time fucking amazing—but she'd never gotten a chance to really explore every inch of his bare shirtless skin as much as she'd wanted to. She kept her eyes on him as he slowly stripped layer by layer until he was completely topless. He glanced over at her and smirked. "I can see you, you know. You're not being very subtle at all."

"I'm not trying to be, Hawkeye," she replied with her own smirk. "Just enjoying the view."

"You've been unnaturally flirtatious recently, and I can't say that I mind all that much," Clint said. Natasha leaned back against the pillows and watched him slip the comfortable black and blue plaid flannel on over his shoulders. She allowed her eyes to skim over his chest, his shoulders, his abs, every part of him, even though she knew he would totally gloat about this at a later date.

Natasha and Clint had not had sex yet. They hadn't even done anything aside from kissing. That being said, Natasha would have been lying if she'd said that she hadn't thought about it. God, she thought about it a lot. Clint had a body like no other, and she would be damned if he couldn't use it the way she knew he could. And yet, they hadn't made that final cross into having sex. On one hand, Natasha felt that Clint was waiting for her to give the ok, but on another hand, she got the feeling that she was waiting for him to give herthe ok.

Maybe if they weren't doing this weird little relationship thing, she would have had some more clues as to how Clint Barton's thought process worked. She was constantly trying to figure out what was going on in his head, and she usually found that she came up blank. He was good enough to make it come across to others as though he were open and friendly, but now she knew that he wasn't naturally that way at all. He was just as closed off and hidden as he was—he was just goddamn good at pretending he wasn't, and that impressed her.

"I don't flirt," Natasha said with a wider grin than usual.

"Then what do you call that eye thing you totally just did to me right now?" Clint challenged.

"That was me appreciating your God given body," she answered in a professional tone. Clint snorted and rolled his eyes.

"You don't even believe in God," he said, crossing towards the bed and sitting down on the edge of it.

"Neither do you," she replied. She paused as her eyes flicked down to his now buttoned flannel. "Since when do you wear flannel? I've never seen that shirt in your closet before."

"Why doesn't it surprise me that you've gone through my closet?" Clint murmured with a sigh. "I keep this with my regular clothes. The clothes I wear when I'm not at SHIELD. Which is never."

"We don't really spend much time away from SHIELD," Natasha remarked out loud. She tilted her head back against the pillows, and she looked up at the ceiling. "Even on our off days, we're training, or we're watching other people train, or…whatever it is that we do."

"SHIELD isn't a job. It's a lifestyle." Clint leaned back onto the bed, and he placed his head beside hers, though he didn't look at her. "Most jobs don't send people off as escorts for doctors who are wanted by the bad guys."

"Why do you have a guitar in your room?" Natasha asked. Clint was quiet for a few seconds, and she felt afraid that she'd crossed some kind of line by asking. She looked at him and saw him with a half-smile on his face as he kept his eyes coolly up towards the ceiling.

"Because I play it from time to time," he said.

"You never told me you play guitar," Natasha said accusingly.

"You never asked," Clint replied.

"Excuse me for not thinking that should be one of my top questions in getting to know the man who kidnapped me," Natasha said, amusement coloring her voice. Clint turned his head slightly towards her, and she caught his smile. "Do you play any other instruments?"

"Piano," Clint said. She waited for him to elaborate, but he didn't.

"Are you any good?" she asked.

"Yes," he said. Again, she waited for him to say something else, but he stayed quiet. She also knew him well enough to know that when he didn't keep talking about something, he generally didn't want to for a reason.

"Ok," she replied.

"Do you have any rare talents I should be aware of?" Clint asked. She knew he was turning the subject away from him on purpose, but she didn't call him out on it; instead, she just let him.

"I used to dance," she said slowly, the words feeling foreign in her mouth.

"Like, Russian ballet kind of dance?" Clint asked. Carefully, Natasha nodded, but she didn't say anything else.

"Ok," he said. "That doesn't surprise me. You move like a dancer."

"Thank you," Natasha said quietly. They both lay in silence for a few minutes, simply enjoying each other's company. Natasha couldn't pinpoint the exact moment that she'd started feeling comfortable around Clint—she couldn't remember the day she'd been able to lie in silence next to him and not think anything of it, but that was how things were with them now. Even though they were doing this weird flirting, kissing thing, she considered him a friend.

"We should get an early night tonight," Clint said, finally breaking the comfortable silence. "We're rolling out pretty early tomorrow."

"You're right. And early mornings mean it'll be cold as hell," Natasha added. "Got to bundle up."

"The good thing about being escorts is we don't have to wear our uniforms," Clint said.

"I like wearing them," Natasha said with a shrug as she stood up to strip her own clothes off. "They're comfortable, and they help get the job done."

"Sometimes it's nice to just dress like a human," Clint said. Natasha smiled, putting her back to him as she started to unbutton her coat. The only pieces of clothing she'd really have to change would be her pants since she was currently wearing black jeans. Underneath all of her layers, she had on a cami that she was perfectly comfortable to sleep in, and all she needed were her customary pair of cotton shorts.

"I do have to admit I feel better in these," she said as she slipped her black jeans off and put her legs into her shorts. "Alright. Ready to go to sleep?"

"You bet I am. Look how early it is." Clint picked up the clock, revealing that it was only about 10:00 at night. "We're hitting a new low."

"Yeah, we are. Alright, super spy, hit the lights." Natasha moved back into bed and wiggled under the covers, her back to Clint. She felt Clint scoot backwards a little bit, but he still wasn't touching her. Taking the initiative, she moved all the way back until her back was touching his back.

"Good night, Natasha," Clint said into the darkness.

"Good night, Clint."

The next day, Natasha got ready and dressed more quickly than she ever had. Clint managed to dig up some stale bagels from one of the cabinets, and even Dr. Munroe was ready to walk out the door by 5:00 A.M. Surprisingly, Natasha didn't mind early mornings. She preferred the quiet peacefulness that came with an early morning wake up instead of an afternoon wake up. She also felt that it was wasting a day to sleep in too late, so she really didn't mind getting up early.

However, what she did mind was the cold. She moved quickly down the stairs behind Dr. Munroe and Clint as they cleared out of the safe house and down to the car.

"Keys, Nat," Clint said out loud. Natasha reached into her pocket and pulled out the keys, throwing them to the archer in one, smooth, fluid movement. As she waited for Clint to unlock the car, she tilted her head forward so that her long red hair would cover some more of her neck.

"Is it always this cold out here in Budapest, Doctor?" she asked, turning and eyeing the doctor who didn't seem to be as cold as she was.

"No, but during this time of the year it is," he replied. "Not a fan of the cold?"

"Not at all," Natasha replied dully. Clint unlocked the car, and she slid happily into the passenger's seat as he climbed into the driver's spot.

"Think they play AC/DC over here?" Clint asked Natasha. Natasha shrugged.

"Maybe," she said. She looked into the back where Dr. Munroe was. "Know any good classic rock stations?"

Stefan Munroe stared blankly back at her before shaking his head. "I'm not really into the classic rock genre. I'm more of a jazz man myself."

"I can appreciate some good jazz music," Natasha said. She sighed just to watch her breath fog up the inside of the car. Even though she hated the cold, she still got a little bit of satisfaction and enjoyment out of watching her breath make clouds in the air. "Barton, can you get some heat going?"

"I'm trying," Clint said with a frustrated sigh. He held his hands up to the heaters. "It feels like all it's doing is blowing out cold air."

"Because that's what it is doing. Are you sure you know how to work that?"

"Yes." Clint gave Natasha a sharp scowl before putting his hands back up to the heaters. A satisfied smirk crossed over his face. "There we go. We're finally getting some heat. Can you feel that back there, Dr. Munroe?"

"Yes, I can. Please, you don't have to use such formalities. Feel free to call me Stefan," the doctor said from the back.

"Sorry. It's out of habit," Clint said. Slowly, he eased the car into Reverse, and he backed out of the garage and into the street. The sound of water dropping onto the windows made Natasha squint her eyes as she looked up at the window shield. "Well, would you look at that—it's raining."

"It's raining and cold," Natasha said in a monotone. "This should be a fun day."

"Thankfully, we won't be in this area too long. All we have to do is get across the city, and then hopefully, the weather'll let up," Clint said.

"So, Stefan, what exactly do you do again?" Natasha asked. "I mean, I know you're a physicist, but what do you do?"

"I work with gravity. I spend a lot of my time researching gravitational pulls, and I work with manipulation of gravity," Stefan replied. "That seems to have attracted a lot of attention from less trustworthy organizations."

"That's what word on the street is," Natasha said drily. "I don't think you'll have anything to worry about on our journey, though. SHIELD made sure you'd be safe and sound. If anything happens, Agent Barton and I will be able to take care of it."

"Yes, Agent Coulson reassured me that you two are quite competent in your job," Stefan replied. "I have all the faith in the world in you two."

"Thank you. That's very sweet, Doctor. I'll keep that in mind," Natasha said as she looked out the window. The day looked dreary and absolutely awful, the kind of day where she would have much rather preferred to stay inside with a good book and a cup of coffee with the curtains open so she could watch it.

Clint pulled the car out into the main street and began to drive. The rain continued to pelt them from all sides, the sounds more like bullets than actual rain. The irony didn't escape Natasha as Clint maneuvered the car along the road. The place seemed to be deserted—then again, it was 5:00 in the morning, and most people were still in bed at that time, but she would have expected a little bit more movement than what they were getting.

SHIELD had picked a good place for the safe house. It had been quiet and discreet, and no one had seemed to know that they were there. That was exactly what agents needed when going to a safe house, and SHIELD had managed to pick the best place possible in Budapest. Clint passed through the roundabout, and Natasha kept her eyes peeled for any kind of activity that could be construed as enemy action. Beneath her layers, tucked in various places over her person, she had weapons. She had knives and guns and her Widow's Bites ready for at any moment.

Her green eyes lifted up to the tops of the buildings around them, and she began to look for any sign of anything at all. Clint turned the radio on, and music softly filled the car.

"Well, I found a station in English," he said.

"That's a start," Natasha agreed. "So what'll you be doing in Austria?"

"I'm meeting with a group of physicists to discuss some new research we've been thinking about taking on," Stefan answered. "I discovered this new theory I'd like to test, and I want to run it by a bunch of my colleagues first."

"SHIELD scientists?" Clint asked.

"Yes. There's a secure location in Austria that we've agreed to meet at. It should be fun," Stefan said pleasantly.

"I like Austria," Natasha said absentmindedly. "I had a good time there the last time I was visiting."

"Austria isn't bad," Clint agreed. Natasha winced at the sound of the music coming through the radio.

"Barton, what is this?" she asked. "Is this that screamo shit?"

"Uh, yeah," Clint said vaguely with a worried glance down at the radio. "But it's in English."

"Can you change it?" she asked. "I don't care if it's in Hungarian, Swedish, or Vietnamese. Just as long as it's not this."

"Yeah, well, you can understand all those languages," Clint retorted. Natasha smirked, but she didn't look back at him—she kept her eyes alert outside the window, even though it was kind of useless since it was raining so hard she couldn't see much of anything at all.

"My Hungarian is a bit rusty, but I can always improve," she said.

Suddenly, a gunshot rang out, and she drew her gun.

"Where the hell did that come from?" Clint snapped, leaning forward to look around him. Another shot sounded, and it hit the glass of the window right next to Natasha's head. The redheaded assassin stared at it in disbelief for a few seconds. "What the fuck—"

Clint didn't get a chance to reply because the shots started pouring in like the rain itself. For a few seconds, Natasha wasn't sure which sounds were those of the rain and which were those of the bullets hitting the car.

"Keep driving! I'll cover the doctor!" she shouted as she flipped back over the seat and into the back with Dr. Munroe. Quickly, she looked over him and saw that he was unhurt. "Do you know who's firing at us right now?"

"What—what—no, I don't—I don't—" Dr. Munroe frantically began looking about. "I have no idea."

"Would anyone in Hungary be trying to get you right now?" she demanded, raising her voice over the sound. Behind her, she heard Clint swear loudly out loud.

"Nat, they shot out the tires!" he shouted. Natasha kept her face calm, and she nodded to let him know she'd heard him.

"Doctor, think. Would anyone in this area want you? There are numerous gangs around here. Can you think of anyone in those gangs who would—"

Clint busted out the window, and he began firing back. Natasha wouldn't be able to get an answer from Dr. Munroe right now when she knew Clint needed her back up. Scrambling to cover Dr. Munroe, she moved to the window, punched it out, and she began to shoot.

"I can't see a damn thing!" Clint shouted back to her.

"Neither can I!" she shouted in response. "It's raining too hard!"

"How the hell can they see us?" Clint asked. "Jesus."

Another round of bullets began slamming into the car, and Natasha was knocked back against the doctor from the force. Swearing under her breath, she pushed herself into a relatively upright position, and she grabbed Stefan Munroe's arm, yanking him down to the floorboards.

"Dr. Munroe, we can't stay here," she said quickly and urgently. "We've got to get out of here before they shoot us all up. Do you understand me?"

Shakily, the scientist nodded. "Yes, yes—I—I do."

"Good. Because we've got to run now." With that, Natasha grabbed the man's arm, she moved to the side where the least amount of bullets was coming from, and she put her hand on the door. "Barton, you take Dr. Munroe, and I'll cover you!"


"I'll cover you!" she shouted. Clint looked back at her briefly, and then he nodded once. She turned over her shoulder and looked at Dr. Munroe. "Ready, Doctor?"

Speechless, Munroe nodded, and Natasha moved out of the way as he climbed past her and out the side of the door with Clint covering him. Natasha squinted into the rain. She was unable to see anything at all, and she mentally swore to herself. The bullets were starting to leave her direction and track behind Clint and Dr. Munroe, and even though she had no idea where the hell she was shooting or at what, she began to fire in the direction she thought the bullets were coming from.

She didn't see the grenade launch through the air, nor did she see it hit the car parked 30 feet in front of the one she was leaning out of, but she felt it as it exploded. She found herself flying through the air, completely free of the car, and then she was on the wet pavement. Gasping for breath, she pushed herself back up into a defensive position and began to fire. Thankfully, she wasn't too stunned by the blast, but she could feel that her aim was off just the tiniest bit.

Off to her left, Clint started firing his guns and giving her back up. Natasha moved into a crouch, and she ran behind the remains of the car she'd just been blasted out of. Silently, she thanked her lucky stars that there were just remains of a car and not remains of herself, Clint, or Dr. Munroe. Suddenly, Clint was at her side, and he was firing.

"Munroe's safe," he said to her. "I got him in a secure location. They won't be able to find him in there."

"Then why are they still fucking shooting?" Natasha asked.

"They know they have to take us out in order to get to him!" Clint grunted. He ducked back behind the car and began to switch the magazine on his gun while Natasha covered. "Fuck, it's so cold."

Ironically, Natasha couldn't even feel the chill as the adrenaline coursed through her veins. If anything, she felt too warm and too overheated to focus on any amount of cold or rain. Well, the rain was pissing her off because it kept running in her eyes, thereby messing up her clean shots. She could feel her hair plastered to her neck, and no matter how many times she tried to shake it back to stay out of her face, it wouldn't move.

"Nat, you were right," Clint said as he popped up beside her. More guns started shooting at them from the direction they were hiding in. "Run!"

Natasha followed him as they dove under a nearby truck, hiding up safe and dry beneath it. Bullets followed them, and the tires began to pop and hiss as the shots hit them.

"What do you mean I was right?" Natasha asked.

"Those are the Sankos firing at us right now. Munroe taught a class where a lot of the members of the Karmazins take classes. He's been working with some of the Karmazins on this theory he's come up with—some kind of gravitational manipulation," Clint said. Natasha paused as she processed Clint's words underneath the hailstorm of gunfire.

"Why the hell would he be working with the Karmazins?" she asked. "Fuck. Fuck."

"They're students of his. Some of them are trying to make their own way in their own areas of study. Of course they're going to go to the best of the best. It's no secret that he works for SHIELD most of the time," Clint replied. His eyes suddenly got wide, and he grabbed her. "Nat, we got to run."

She didn't wait for any kind of explanation. She just rolled out from underneath the truck and began to run. Underneath the sound of the bullets and that goddamn rain, she heard the truck explode before she felt the fire of it, before she felt the lift of the explosion catapult her through the air. She always hated getting caught in explosions because she could never control what they did or what happened to her—she had to just wait until she landed.

And land she did. She found herself falling to the ground, and the side of her head smacked hard off the pavement, the sound of it dull and loud in her own ears. Unable to move, she just lay there. She could hear Clint shouting something, but there was too much rain for her to hear what he was saying. Besides, she could barely open her eyes. Why couldn't she stay awake?

She forced herself to keep her eyes open, and she saw Dr. Munroe running out into the street. He was shouting something, but she couldn't hear that, either. She tried to get her body to move so she could run and knock him down, but suddenly, he wasn't running anymore, and he wasn't making any more noise. He was down on the ground like she was, but he didn't look like he was going to get back up any time soon.

Natasha's vision was blurry and fading in and out with each passing second. She'd lost sight of Clint, and she couldn't move, she couldn't hear, and she couldn't feel anything around her. As she lost the fight with consciousness, the only thing she felt was heat.


Chapter Text

Chapter 21

Natasha felt herself slowly start to come back into her body. The last thing she remembered was being in the rain but feeling uncomfortably hot. Now she was cold again, and she kind of wished she was back to being hot. She let out a quiet groan as she rolled onto her back. Her head was pounding, and she was afraid to open her eyes—ten bucks says that when she opened her eyes, the room would be spinning, and her headache would get worse.

Forcing herself to open her eyes, she lifted her hands up to her face to cover the bright light she was expecting to blind her. But as she opened her eyes, she saw that she was on a bed in a dark room. She winced and pushed herself up into a seated position, only to find that she wasn't in an unfamiliar place. She recognized exactly where she was. She was in the safe house.

She felt dizzy and discombobulated, and for a second, she was fairly sure she was going to throw up. Swallowing hard, she tried to keep herself under control, but she leaned over the side of the bed and threw up.

"Natasha?" Clint's voice caught her attention, and she groggily looked off in the direction that his voice had come from. "Oh, shit. Shit. Lie back down."

"I threw up," Natasha blankly stated.

"I can see that. Lie back down, Nat. Stop trying to get up. I'll take care of it." Clint crossed towards her and put the back of his hand on her forehead. "How do you feel?"

"Terrible," Natasha honestly answered. "What happened?"

"You smacked your head off the ground and got a nasty concussion. I brought you back here to the safe house. It's not really…safe for us right now," Clint replied.

"How'd you get us out of there?" Natasha asked. She watched Clint's face go still, and he avoided her eyes.

"I eliminated the threat," he said. He lifted his eyes slightly and looked at her seriously. "I got my bow."

"How could you tell with all that rain where they were?" she asked.

"I'm just that good," he answered, but his voice and his eyes were dull. "You managed to hit two of them, even though you couldn't see through the rain."

"Dr. Munroe?" she asked. Clint swallowed, and he shook his head grimly.

"Didn't make it out. Ran out into the middle of the street yelling about giving himself up, and they shot him." He ran a hand through his short hair. Natasha closed her eyes and let out a quiet sigh, careful to keep the flow of her breath away from Clint.

"Goddammit," she hissed. "We were so fucking close."

"I know." Clint looked at her, and then he walked out of the room. Natasha wanted to ask him where he was going, but she didn't have the energy. All she wanted to do was brush her teeth and go back to sleep where she didn't have to fight this horrible nausea and dizziness, where she didn't have to fight the realization that she'd failed on her mission.

Clint walked back into the room carrying a trash bag and a roll of paper towels. Quietly, he walked over to the side of the bed where she'd thrown up, and he expertly set about to cleaning up the mess she'd made. Natasha felt only slightly embarrassed, and she knew that it was because she felt too bad to feel the height of embarrassment that she normally would. Throwing up was strangely vulnerable, and now Clint had experienced this side of her.

As he carefully cleaned up her throw up, Natasha noticed a stream of blood coming from one of his ears. She leaned back up onto her elbow, the movement catching Clint's attention and making him pause. He opened his mouth to tell her to lie back down again, but she lifted a hand and pointed to his ear.

"You're bleeding," she said. Frowning, he touched the area that she was pointing to, and he drew his hand away to look at it.

"From the explosion," he said.

"Are you hurt?" Natasha asked.

"Not really," he replied. She waited for him to elaborate, but he just kept quietly cleaning. Neither of them spoke when he finished. She watched him stand and leave the room, and she used this opportunity to get up. Her duffel bag was in the corner, and she weakly staggered over to it. Standing up was a whole different story than sitting up, and she felt a thousand times more dizzy and nauseated than she had before, but she willed herself not to throw up again.

She could hear Clint coming back down the hall right as she found her toothbrush and toothpaste. Putting one hand against the wall to steady her, she walked to the bathroom that was attached to the small bedroom, and she started to brush her teeth. Hygiene was something that was important to her, and she was going to be damned if a fucking concussion kept her in bed the whole time. Clint stuck his head in the doorway of the bathroom with a frown on his face.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"Brushing my teeth," she answered with the toothbrush in her mouth. "I just threw up."

"You shouldn't be up and moving around," Clint said worriedly.

"Don't tell me what to do," she said, her voice coming out more harshly than she'd intended it to. She saw Clint's face harden.

"Natasha, let's not do this." His voice was tired.

Natasha paused to spit into the sink, all the while her head was still spinning. She glanced at him in the bathroom mirror. "Do what?"

"Fight right after another mission. We literally just made up after the last one," he said. "I've been worried sick about you. I really don't want to fight with you right now."

Natasha resumed brushing her teeth, but she didn't say anything. She knew she was being unfair to him, especially after he'd just cleaned up her vomit without uttering a single complaint. She also knew it was a defense mechanism—she wanted him more than anything. She was her most vulnerable after missions, and she didn't want to let Clint see herthat defenseless and raw.

She spat into the sink again and washed her mouth before rinsing her toothbrush off and putting it on the side of the sink. She glanced up into the mirror again and saw that Clint was leaning against the doorframe with his arms crossed over his chest, and he wasn't looking at her.

"Thank you," she said finally. He still didn't look up at her.

"You're welcome," he replied. She turned and crossed towards him until she was standing in front of him.

"I mean it," she said. "You saved my ass back there. And you cleaned up my puke. That was nice of you."

"That's what partners do," Clint replied. His blue eyes lifted and met hers. "You should get back in bed. You need rest."

"So do you," Natasha replied. "Ten bucks says you're more injured than you're letting on."

"No, I'm not," Clint retorted with a frown. Natasha lifted her red eyebrows.

"You sound like me," she said.

"Get in bed," Clint ordered. She thought about asking him what was wrong with him, but she didn't. Besides, she was too cold to be defiant, and the thought of getting back in bed sounded appealing. She waited for him to move so she could walk past him. He'd already changed out of his clothes he'd been wearing when they'd headed out early that morning; now he was back in that flannel he'd been wearing last night.

She thought about changing out of her jeans and sweater, but she was too cold and felt too sick. Instead, she just made her way slowly back to the bed and lay down in it. Clint didn't move from his spot in the doorframe—he just stood there with his back to her without looking at her.

"Clint," she said out loud. He turned towards her.

"Yeah?" he asked expectantly.

"You need rest, too," she said. Pressing his lips together, he shook his head.

"I need to stay on guard," he said. "Even though the place is armed, we can't take any chances."

"I'm cold," she said. She watched his face soften as he thought about what to do. Slowly, he crossed towards her and sat on the edge of the bed, removing his shoes and lifting the covers to get underneath with her. Instantly, she moved towards him and let him wrap his arms around her. As she relaxed in his arms, she finally let herself have what she wanted. Him. She pressed her nose into his chest and slowly breathed the smell of him in. He always smelled like soap, gunpowder, and bow oil.

She loved it.

She knew that letting him in like this was dangerous, but in that moment, she didn't care. She'd failed her mission, and she felt like shit, and all she wanted was for him to hold her. Above her, she felt him tuck his face down against the top of her hair.

"Are you warm?" he asked her quietly. She shook her head, and he tightened his hold on her just a little bit and pulled the covers around her so that she was cocooned in nicely between him and the blankets. Absentmindedly, he began to rub her back.

"Is it still raining?' she asked.

"Yeah, it is," he answered. "Why?"

"I just wanted to know." She closed her eyes and let her arms stay tucked in between their bodies. "Clint?"


"I'm sad." She opened her eyes.

"I know," he said softly, his voice deep and warm to listen to. Natasha remembered that when she'd first been brought into SHIELD, he hadn't shut up. He'd talked and talked and talked nonstop, and at first, she'd hated it. Nothing had been more annoying than the sound of his voice talking, but after a while, she'd grown to like it. He was naturally somewhat soft spoken, and his voice was deep and rumbly when he talked. She especially liked the sound of it right after he'd woken up when it was sleepy and adorable. God, she hated herself for thinking of him as adorable.

Outside, a new torrent of rain began to fall down, and she could hear it clattering against the roof. In that moment, she felt as though nothing existed outside of them. All that was left in the world was this safe house, the rain, and Clint Barton holding her tight. She knew she was risking so much by allowing him to be this close to her emotionally, especially after she'd been holding him at such an emotional distance, but she didn't care. Not anymore. She'd been compromised since the first day he'd walked into her life, and each day that had passed had only compromised her even more.

"Are you hungry?" Clint asked. "I can make some Ramen."

"No," Natasha replied. "I feel too sick to eat right now. Maybe later."


"Please don't leave." It was the concussion that was taking away her filters, her defenses. Had she not suffered that head injury, she probably wouldn't have been saying all these things and letting him get so close to her, but she was concussed, and she couldn't stop herself from speaking.

"I won't." Clint pressed his lips to the top of her head, and she closed her eyes again. Feeling safe, she allowed herself to fall back asleep.

As soon as Clint had seen Natasha go still on the ground, the rain falling hard on her, he'd never been more afraid. He'd felt conflicted as he'd watched both Natasha get thrown to the ground and Stefan Munroe get pummeled with bullets. It had been a lot for him to process, but it had been Natasha's stillness that had made something inside him snap. He hadn't been inspired to take out the enemy after he'd failed to keep Dr. Munroe safe—he'd been inspired to eliminate the threat after he'd felt fear for Natasha's safety.

He was disgusted with himself. He had been trained to be the best agent that he could be, to always protect and serve the people. And yet the one person he'd been assigned to protect that mission had been the one person who'd been killed. Because of his own personal attachments, he had lost sight of what really mattered: the mission. That being said, Clint knew that realistically, Dr. Munroe would have been killed even if Clint had been focusing 100% on keeping him safe. If Clint hadn't been worried about Natasha's well-being, Dr. Munroe still would have run out into the street, and he still would have been shot. That was inevitable. But maybe Clint would have eliminated the threat out of respect to Dr. Munroe's memory instead of fear for Natasha and himself.

He'd been beating himself up over it ever since it'd happened. As he'd carried Natasha to the safe house and put her in bed, he'd become more and more disgusted with himself and his personal priorities, letting it make him sullen and angry. He'd been a mixture of self-loathing and concern for Natasha—there was always Natasha—and even after Natasha had woken up, he hadn't been able to shake it. But as he lay in bed with her, her head tucked into his chest and her body soft and warm against his, he started to release the blame he was holding to himself.

Natasha's breathing was deep and even, signaling that she was asleep. She was still in pretty rough shape after her concussion, and he was nervous to let her sleep too long, but he also didn't want to disturb her. This was the closest she'd ever let him get to her, and it was new for him. For the first time, the Black Widow was snuggled up tightly against him and holding onto his shirt as if she were afraid he would get up and leave her alone.

But what she didn't know was that she never needed to worry about that. He couldn't have gotten up and left her even if he'd wanted to. He was in too deep now. Shifting slightly, Natasha let out a sigh, and she nuzzled against him. Unable to help himself, Clint discreetly smiled. He'd lied when he'd said that he didn't watch her sleep. Well, he didn't do it on purpose—it just sort of happened. In his defense, he did wake up a lot in the middle of the night because she took the blankets—she was always pulling them tight around her to keep out the cold air—and he just happened to look at her while she was sleeping.

Secretly, Natasha was a cuddler, and she only ever really cuddled with him while she slept. But today was different. She was holding onto him and willingly putting herself in his arms. At first, she'd tried to start a fight with him, but he'd shut it down, not in the mood to put up with her strange defensive behaviors and erratic mood swings. And after he'd expressed that he wasn't having it, she'd switched. She'd snuggled up to him and fallen asleep, and Clint was going to be goddamned if he disturbed her.

He let her sleep for two hours, and she didn't move at all during that time unless it was to shift where she had been keeping her weight. Clint didn't dare move, either—he just kept his arms around her and his hand gently rubbing her back. As he tried to get the nerve to wake her up, he realized he was in love with her. He was in love with this fascinating, hilarious, talented, amazing, breathtaking woman, and there wasn't a single fucking thing he could do about it. He'd known it before to some degree, but he'd never allowed himself to admit it. God, how could he? Admitting that you were in love with someone was akin to signing your death certificate. He knew that. And yet, here he was hopelessly and undeniably in love with Natasha Romanoff.

"Hey. Natasha." Gently, he moved his hand to her arm, and he lightly tapped her to get her attention. "Tasha."

Slowly, she started to open her eyes, curling up further under the blankets and blinking up sleepily at him.

Fuck, I'm a goner, Clint thought.

"Are you hungry?" Clint asked. "Do you want something to eat?"

"Yeah," she sleepily replied. "How long did I sleep?"

"Two hours," he said, his blue eyes looking down at her with more concern and affection than he would have liked to show in that moment. He was still feeling pretty rattled from having just admitted to himself that he was fucking in love with his fucking partner, aka the most complicated woman on the face of the Earth, but no big deal. "Do you know where you are?"

"Safe house in Budapest." She untangled herself from him and rolled onto her back, lifting her arms up above her head and straightening her legs out to stretch her muscles. "Fuck, I'm sore."

"Me too," Clint said. "You going to join me in the kitchen?"

"Yeah. Just…give me a second," she groaned out with a wince as she pushed herself up into a sit. She blinked several times to get herself reoriented with the room and the rest of the world around her. She felt as though she'd been asleep for nine years, not two hours, and she still could have used another year or so of sleep.

"You ok?" Clint asked.

"Mmhmmm. Just sore as hell and a headache to boot," she answered drily. Carefully, she pushed herself up into a standing position and shakily took a few steps. She hated whenever she was out of control of her own body, and now was one of those times—she especially hated that it was happening in front of Clint, the last person in the world that she wanted to look weak in front of but always managed to.

"I know how that goes," he said patiently and waited for her to make her way around the bed before he started walking out to the kitchen with her. Natasha may have been concussed, but she was still aware enough of her surroundings to know that Clint wasn't being his usual self. He was normally more cheerful—which was annoying—and humorous—also annoying—but he was quiet and pensive. Natasha quietly walked out to the small kitchen with him, and she took a seat at the tiny table and chairs in the middle of it while Clint started working on the Ramen.

It didn't escape her notice that they were so in tune with each other that they just kind of knew what the other person was going to do without talking about it. Sometimes it made Natasha uncomfortable because she didn't like knowing that someone knew her that well, but just then, it made her feel safe. It reminded her that Clint had her back. Even though he'd proven that multiple times that day with the whole eliminating-the-threat-by-himself-and-then-carrying-her-back-to-the-safe-house-and-cleaning-up-her-puke thing.

He moved about the kitchen with the ease and grace of a man who actually knew his way around the kitchen. This kind of surprised Natasha; she hadn't exactly pictured Clint Barton, master assassin to be all that knowledgeable about a kitchen and how to make food, but he was always surprising her. She watched him get the water boiling in the pot. His shoulders were down and slightly curved forward, and his head was tilted downward, too. Natasha knew Clint, and she knew that this was the posture he adopted whenever something was wrong.

"Are you ok?" she asked. Clint turned to face her, and he leaned against the counter, putting his hands on the counter behind him as he waited for the water to reach a boil.

"Yeah," he said. "I'm fine."

"You don't look fine," Natasha replied. His blue eyes calmly regarded her in silence for a few moments, and then he shrugged half-heartedly.

"I'm fine," he repeated.

"How did you learn your way around the kitchen?" Natasha asked, suddenly changing the subject. Clint was used to her randomly changing the subject now, and he didn't show any surprise at the new twist to their conversation.

"I've picked up a few tricks here and there," he vaguely answered. "I like cooking."

"You do?" Natasha found herself smiling at him in surprise. He nodded.

"Yeah. I don't know why. I think I probably enjoy the eating part more," he said. Natasha's smile grew a little bit.

"Now you sound like you," she answered. Finally, he smiled back at her.

"I guess so," he replied quietly.

"Look at you. You're like the perfect man. You cook, you play guitar and piano, you know how to kill someone 100 ways with your bare hands, and your hair smells like a meadow," she quipped. His smile widened, and he shook his head.

"Damn, Nat, you sure know how to turn a man on," he said drily. Natasha softly laughed.

"There he is. I knew the Clint Barton I knew was in there somewhere," she said. He glanced over at the pot to check on the water, but the smile still stayed on his face. "How long do we have to stay here?"

"I don't know," Clint replied.

Natasha frowned. "You didn't contact someone at HQ?"

"How can I? Our comms are down right now with how bad this fucking rain is," Clint said with a bitter look towards the ceiling as if the ceiling were to blame for their current predicament.

"Right," Natasha said. She sat back in the chair, her knees tucked up into her chest, and she just watched Clint as he finished making their Ramen. She never would have thought that she'd like seeing the archer in flannel, but admittedly, it was growing on her.

It wasn't long before he brought over two steaming bowls of fresh Ramen noodles, placing one in front of her with a fork sticking out the middle of it. He sat down in the chair across from her and mirrored her stance as he leaned back against the back of the chair. Natasha studied his face, noticing how out of it he seemed. Even though he'd told her he was fine, she didn't believe him. Normal Clint would have been making some kind of joke about the whole situation to make her laugh, but he was quiet and pensive.

"You're worrying me," she said out loud. He looked up at her with a surprised look on his face, and he blinked.

"What?" he asked.

"You're worrying me," she repeated. "You're not being you."

"I'm a spy. When am I ever being me?" he countered. She pursed her lips and nodded in a conceding manner.

"Ok, I guess that's fair," she said slowly. "But you're not acting like the you I know."

Clint looked away from her and back down at his bowl without saying anything. Natasha felt a flash of frustration pass over her; for the first time, she wondered if this was how Clint felt whenever she did that to him. She decided that she didn't like it. Finally, he let out a quiet exhale.

"Dr. Munroe is dead because of me," he said. "I wasn't as…as there as I should have been."

"Clint, it's not your fault," Natasha said automatically. "You couldn't have stopped him from running out into the street."

"But I could have gotten him somewhere safer. I could have been more focused on keeping him safe. I could—"

"You can keep talking about all the things you could've, should've, would've done, but that's not going to change the outcome of what happened," she interrupted. Clint gave her a hard look.

"How are you so calm about his death?" he asked. Natasha blinked in surprise.

"I'm not," she said. "Trust me, it's eating me up inside, too. He was under my watch, and now he's dead." She paused. "I just don't waste energy trying to take back something that's already happened. Or at least I try not to. I'm always going to remember seeing him die in the street in a way he didn't deserve. I remember every single one of my failed missions, every single person that died because of me. I never get them out of my head. Ever."

"How do you deal with it?" Clint's voice was quiet and flat.

"I take it out on the next person I fight. The next person who's trying to hurt me or hurt someone else under my protection. That's how I handle it," she replied, her voice the same level as his. "Is that the only thing that's bothering you?"

Well, I'm in fucking love with you, Clint thought.

"Yes," Clint said.

"It's not your fault." Natasha pulled her bowl a little closer to her and curled a scoop of noodles around her fork. Tentatively, she brought it up to her lips and gently blew on it to cool it off a little bit more before she put it in her mouth. In a way, this whole thing that was happening with Clint was new for her. Usually, he was the one giving her the pep talk, and she was the one hung up on something, but now their roles were reversed.

Clint Barton may have been all solid muscle and sturdy build, but that didn't mean he could always hold himself together as well as he looked like he could.

Quickly, they ate their Ramen in silence. When they were done, Clint took both of their bowls to the kitchen and washed them. Natasha wished that she could help him, but she was fairly certain that if she tried to stand up, she might not be able to keep her balance the whole time. One of the most frustrating injuries, in her opinion, was a concussion because of how much it just threw everything off. With a gunshot wound, you didn't get disoriented or dizzy while trying to recover. She would gladly take a bullet over a concussion any day.

"Ever played Two Truths and a Lie?" she said when Clint was done washing the dishes. He gave her a curious look.

"Yeah," he said. "Are you suggesting we should play it now?"

"You bet I am," she replied.

Clint stared at her for a few seconds. "Are you feeling ok?"

"What? Of course I'm feeling ok. I'm not allowed to ask you if you want to play a game?"

"No, you can. That's just usually not your scene."

"Well, it is today. You first."

"Why do I have to go first? It was your idea."

"You have to go first because I'm concussed."

Clint gave her a bored look, but he crossed back to the chair and sat down in it, sighing as he thought. "Ok. I was playing Mozart by the time I was nine, I have a brother, and I prefer hot tea to coffee."

Natasha furrowed her eyebrows as she thought. "The brother. That's a lie."

"Nope, that's a truth," Clint replied. Natasha's eyebrows rose, and she stared at him in shock.

"You have a brother?" she asked. He nodded, his eyes locked on hers, but he didn't say anything. "Is he older or younger?"

"Older," Clint said. "The lie was Mozart. Your turn."

Natasha wanted to ask more, but she knew better, so she kept her mouth quiet. "I don't like wearing make up, I can braid my hair 64 different ways, and my favorite type of alcohol is vodka."

"The braid," Clint said instantly. Natasha snorted.

"Wrong," she said. "I actually know how to braid my hair 64 different ways."

"Wow. I was impressed with you before, but now…" Clint's voice trailed off as he thought some more. "Vodka?"

"Correct. I hate vodka. I like wine," Natasha said with a smile. "Your turn."

"I hate classical music, I love my family, and when I'm drunk, all I want to listen to is country."


"Nope. That one's true, unfortunately. Family."




"You should rest some more, Nat."

"Will you stay with me?"

"Of course."

For a long, unsuccessful hour, Natasha tried to go back to sleep, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't. Clint had never been more candid with her, and she couldn't stop thinking about it. She'd seen him at an all time low today, and she wasn't sure how to handle the way he was opening up to her. She'd allowed him to get close to her physically, and now it appeared that she'd let him get close to her emotionally, too. Deep down, she wished she could push him away. But she was in too deep, and she knew it.

He was holding her the same way he was earlier. If she positioned her head just right, she could hear his heartbeat beneath the warm flannel of his shirt, and she didn't want to take her head away. Clint Barton brought out a side of her she'd never known existed. She never would have thought she'd be willingly cuddling in bed with a man who'd tried to kill her, not wanting to let him go.

Outside, the rain poured down steadily just as it had been since that morning. It didn't look like it was about to let up anytime soon, and Natasha couldn't say that she minded. She always slept better with the sound of rain coming down, anyway. Above her, she felt Clint shift his head downward and plant a kiss in her hair.

"Thank you. Again," she said out loud.

"I thought you were sleeping," Clint replied, a hint of amusement creeping through his voice.

"I couldn't sleep," she said, pulling back a little bit to look him in the eye. He stared curiously at her, his own blue eyes fully alert without the tiniest bit of tiredness lurking in them.

"Neither can I," he said. "Is your head hurting?"

"A little. It's not as bad now. Has your ear stopped bleeding?"

"Yeah. I don't know where that came from."

"What are the rest of your injuries?"

Clint shrugged. "Minor."



She looked up at him, and he looked down at her. Neither of them spoke. His hand lightly rubbed her back, and it felt good and comforting to Natasha. She wasn't used to people comforting her, but it felt nice. It felt unspeakably nice. Reaching up, she put her hand on the side of his face and brushed her thumb over his cheekbone, mirroring the way he always did it to her.

Clint took his cue from her, and he kissed her. His lips were soft and warm, and they didn't take more than she gave him. She slid her hand to the back of his neck and lightly tugged on his short blond hair. Quietly, Clint sighed into her mouth and pressed his hand more firmly against the small of her back. Natasha was so close to him that she was already snug against his body, but that was ok. That was exactly what she wanted.

As Clint continued to kiss her, her hands moved to the top button on his flannel, deftly unbuttoning it. Clint stilled beneath her touch, and she paused to gauge his reaction.

"Tasha," he whispered worriedly. "I…you're hurt…"

"You won't hurt me," she whispered back. "Clint…"

"You're not thinking clearly—you have a concuss—"

"I'm thinking perfectly clearly. I want this." Natasha stared hard at him. "I want this."

Clint processed her words, and then he nodded quickly, his blue eyes wide. "Ok. Fuck. Ok."

He lowered his mouth back down to hers and began kissing her again as she continued to unbutton his flannel. She could feel her blood growing more heated with each passing second. God, she wanted this. She'd been wanting it for a while, but she hadn't wanted to act on it; she hadn't wanted to scare him off. Though really, this was Clint she was with. She doubted he scared that easily.

His tongue delved deep into her mouth, and he swiftly and effortlessly moved so that he was on top of her. Nope. He didn't scare that easily. Natasha couldn't get his shirt off fast enough. Her fingers fumbled with the buttons; she barely even noticed Clint's hands tugging at her leggings and her sweater to get them off of her. It wasn't until Clint nudged her arms to signal to her to lift them that she registered he was undressing her.

Her stomach muscles clenched, and she found that she was growing breathless with each kiss she devoured from him. Finally, she got his shirt unbuttoned, and she quickly pushed on his chest, pushing him up so that he was sitting up on his knees, and she was in his lap. His arms circled around her, the heat of his skin driving her crazy. She brought her hands to his chest and shoved them back into the shoulders of his shirt to push it off of him.

Beneath her hands, he flinched, and she pulled away to look at the place she'd touched. His shirt was now halfway down his arms, and she could see that someone—Clint—had sloppily stitched up what looked like a grazed bullet. She looked at him with concerned eyes.

"Did this happen to you out there?" she asked.

"Yeah," he said. "I've had worse."

"You didn't tell me. I could have stitched that up for you," she replied. Clint's lips were swollen, and his eyes were glassy as he looked up at her, looking mesmerized by the redhead in his lap.

"I did an ok job, I think," he answered. She lifted her eyebrows.

"No one should have to stitch themselves up alone," she said. He looked at for a few seconds.

"Kiss me," he ordered. She didn't wait for further instructions. Instead, she kissed him hard with every ounce of concentration she had—she wasn't sure if she were feeling dizzy because of him or the concussion, but if she had to bet, she would have placed all her money on Clint. His lips moved to her neck, leaving behind a fiery trail across her skin. Gasping, she stilled as he kissed her collarbone and then her chest. Silently, she thanked herself for having thought to put on a decent bra that day instead of a comfortable one.

"Clint," she breathed. Placing her hands back on him, she pushed him back down onto the bed so that she was above him. She was finally getting what she'd been waiting for: the chance to touch him. Clint watched her with rapture-filled eyes as she pressed her lips to his collarbone the exact way he'd put his on hers, and she slowly mapped out a path down to his chest and his abs. Her hands skimmed over every inch of him, every single inch that was covered in well-toned, solid muscle. "Jesus, Barton."

"What?" he exhaled, his eyes still glued to her.

"You're built," she replied. His muscles tightened beneath her mouth as he let out a quiet chuckle.

"Thanks," he said appreciatively. Natasha pushed herself back up into a straddle over him and began to unbutton and unzip his jeans. Clint didn't need much encouragement to lift his hips up, allowing her to drag them all the way off before throwing them to the ground. As she came back up to continue her scientific exploration of his body, he surprised her by flipping her over onto her back. His hands felt like fire in the most wonderful way. Every touch, every kiss, every sigh felt unbelievably good to her.

Clint's mouth traveled to her collarbone; despite herself, Natasha let out a quiet moan. He felt her reach between them and push her leggings off, shoving them off with her toned assassin legs and feet and pushing them to the floor to join his jeans. Without wasting any time, she wrapped her legs around Clint's waist and arched her back. She could feel him hard and firm between her legs through her underwear, and she swallowed hard in anticipation.

Every sensation was better than the last. Clint's hand slid to her back, and with a quick twist of his fingers, her bra was unhooked. Natasha couldn't help the smile that spread over her face, and in a sudden fit of need, she took his face between her hands and pulled his mouth back to hers. She never got tired of kissing him, of having his lips move over hers as he kissed her in return. Admittedly, she'd thought about what it would be like to be here in this moment with him, and by God, he was not disappointing her fantasies.

She moved her hands back down over his chest and over his waist until she got to where she wanted. Hooking her thumbs into the waistband of his boxers, she pushed down and eliminated the last piece of clothing on his body. He let out a quiet groan when she took his length in her palm, grasping him firmly. His size was everything she needed and more, and she felt her throat go dry. Clint was kissing her breasts, enveloping a nipple in his mouth, touching her, licking her, everything. Briefly, she considered the fact that she might explode just from an overload of sensation.

A startled gasp came from her throat when he discarded her underwear before she could even process it. When he lowered his body back down to hers, the both of them completely naked, she was unable to look away from him. His face was flushed, and he was breathing deeply with his eyes scanning over her face. He seemed to be looking for any sign that she didn't want to continue, that she wanted to stop, but she gave him none.

"We need a—"

"We don't. I've got it covered," Natasha said, interrupting him with a swift kiss. Nodding against her lips, Clint didn't argue. She took him between her thighs and felt him move his hand between their bodies to help position himself just right. She could barely catch her breath. Licking her lips, she stared up at him, and with one slow push, he was inside her. At the feeling, Natasha closed her eyes, and she sighed. The feeling was indescribably amazing, unbelievably right. He didn't move, instead allowing her body to get used to the feel of him inside her.

"Tasha," he whispered, his voice quiet and reverent. She'd never heard her name murmured with such sweetness before. Lowering his mouth to that space just below her jaw, he kissed her, and he began to move. His movements were slow and unhurried, almost worshipful of her. He touched her with his hands and with his mouth, all the while wondering if this were really happening. He'd been imagining this moment for so long, and now here he was moving within her body and kissing her and doing all the things he'd wanted to.

It was terrifying and liberating all at the same time. Nothing had ever felt better emotionally or physically, and it nearly paralyzed him to the core. Each push and withdrawal he made brought him closer and closer to this stunning woman and the realization that by God, he was in love with her. He had expected her to want to take the lead, but she was letting him lead her to her orgasm.

Beneath him, she arched her back, and the angle changed, causing him to moan at the feeling of it. He started to pick up the pace and the force of his thrusts. Natasha could feel her orgasm starting to build up, and she didn't fight it. There was no sense in delaying what they both wanted, what they both needed to happen. She didn't want to wait, and she could see from the look on his face that he didn't want to, either.

She rolled her hips beneath him and ground against him as he pushed into her deeper and deeper with each thrust. Taking one of his hands in hers, she moved it to her breast and closed her eyes at the feel of him firmly but gently cupping her, his fingers brushing over her nipple. He continued thrusting deeper, moaning quietly again as she pressed her lips roughly to his shoulder in a kiss. She could feel that familiar heat building up between her legs, and she knew it wouldn't be long. She tilted her hips back and was surprised to feel him loop an arm beneath her back to keep her hips in that same angle. With three more thrusts, he had her. Her climax ripped through her body, sending electricity throughout every muscle of her body. A cry escaped from her throat as she rode out the sensation of falling and losing every sense in her body but this one. She couldn't see, and she couldn't hear. All she could do was feel.

At the feeling of her tightening around him, Clint could no longer hold back, and he followed after her, his climax rendering him incapable of speaking or thinking of anything. Except for her. There was always her. Natasha held him in her arms as he fell apart, his own cry resounding in her ears. She held him, and she watched him with dilated pupils as his forehead crinkled, and his jaw tensed. She held him as he came, and she held him as he came back down, his head resting on her chest.

"Natasha," he breathed out loud.

"Shhh," she said soothingly. She started threading her fingers comfortingly through his short, thick hair, and she closed her eyes. "Shhh, Clinton."

She felt his chest expand and contract with each breath he took in time with hers, and she couldn't help smiling. Clint Barton was in love with her, and she didn't know it. But what Clint didn't know—hell, what she didn't know, either—was that she was in love with him, too.

He had compromised her.


Chapter Text

Chapter 22

Clint was in fucking heaven. He lay on his back with his eyes closed as the warm woman sprawled above him kissed his neck slowly and sensually. "Who the fuck are you, and what the fuck did you do with Natasha Romanoff?"

"I'm concussed," Natasha replied in a deadpan, pulling back long enough to speak. Clint opened his eyes and looked up at her, noticing her long hair falling around her face in soft, gentle waves. His blue eyes flicked down to what she was wearing, and he smirked.

"You look great in my shirt," he said.

"I've never been a big fan of flannel until now." Natasha leaned down and pressed a firm kiss to his bare chest before sliding off of him and settling to the side with her back to him. Immediately, Clint missed the feeling of her, and he turned on his side so that he could spoon her. "You were right. It's comfortable."

"Mmhmm," Clint agreed, kissing the back of her neck. She tilted her head down just a little bit so he'd have easier access. "How are you feeling?"

"Is that in reference to my concussion, or is that implying that I should be feeling sore after having sex with you?" Natasha asked in an amused tone.

"I was referring to your concussion, but…" His voice trailed off as Natasha jerked her elbow back into his ribs. Softly laughing, he buried his face in her hair. "I'm kidding. I'm kidding."

"I feel a lot better now," Natasha replied. "Still a bit out of it, but I feel much better than I did before."

"I wish this fucking rain would stop, so we could try to get in touch with Coulson and figure out what the hell to do. We missed our rendezvous an hour ago," Clint said. "They'll be trying to find us soon."

"It's monsooning out there," Natasha remarked quietly. "We'll have to figure something out if it doesn't stop soon."

"And risk getting caught up in another gunfight?" Clint asked. Natasha rolled onto her back slightly so that she could face him, a frown on her face.

"No," she said slowly. "But we can't just stay here. As nice as that would be, we can't."

"Coulson didn't even come up with an extraction plan in case something like this happened," Clint said with a sigh. "We're flying blind here."

"That's ok." Natasha sounded as though she were trying to convince herself more than him. "It'll stop raining at some point." She paused and looked out the window where the rain showed no signs of letting up. "Hopefully."

"I'm in no hurry to leave, anyway. I could use a few days of just doing nothing," Clint said honestly. Natasha looked back at him, her eyes skimming over his chest and arms.

"You didn't tell me about your other wounds," she said accusingly. "You gave yourself a total of 17 stitches."

"I'm still able to function like a normal human being, right?" Clint asked. "It's fine."

"You're just as injured as I am, Barton," Natasha flippantly replied. Clint rolled his eyes at her.

"No, I'm not. Takes more than a bullet and some shrapnel to injure me. Lucky for me, these were really minor injuries. Trust me. I've had worse," he said.

"You keep saying that," Natasha replied with a disturbed frown.

"Because it's true."

"I know it is, but—"

Clint cut her off by moving on top of her and kissing her slowly and languidly. Natasha knew he was doing this to get the topic off of him, and well, it was working to his advantage. Her body responded exactly the way he wanted, arching against him and opening up for him. With one hand, he reached between them and pulled her underwear down before removing his own boxers. He kept kissing her as she wrapped her thighs around his waist, inviting him in. She wanted to keep talking about the fact that he was avoiding the subject, but she was too distracted by the feel of his abs against her.

Slowly, he slid inside her and began to move. Natasha moaned and wrapped her legs tighter around his hips, driving him farther inside her. His hips slowly rocked in and out between her thighs, and she closed her eyes because it felt so goddamn good. She just wished that she could watch every single muscle of his body tighten and contract as he worked himself above her, and she felt her mouth go dry at the thought of it.

"Don't think you're distracting me too much," she moaned out against his lips.

"I'm not…trying to distract you," Clint murmured back, his voice catching in the back of his throat.

"Yes, you are. You don't want me to keep asking about your injuries and what you mean every time you say you've been hurt worse."

"Not true."

"Yes, it is. I can—can read you well."


"You know I'm right."

"Natasha." Suddenly, Clint pulled out of her, still hard, and rolled onto his back. For a few seconds, Natasha lay stunned, and then she looked over at him. He wasn't looking at her; instead, he had his head facing the opposite direction so she couldn't see his face.

"What's going on?" she asked.

"I don't want to talk about my past injuries. Jesus Christ," he muttered.

"Clint, I'm not trying to make you," Natasha snapped. "I just know when you're trying to distract me."

"So let me fucking distract you!" he snapped back. Angrily, Natasha snatched up her underwear, and she shoved them back on.

"I'm not trying to fight with you, Clint," she said sharply, the "t" at the end of his name snapping against her teeth as she pronounced it. "You've been in a really shitty mood since we got back here to the safe house."

"What kind of mood am I supposed to be in?" Clint retorted. "Munroe died on my watch. It's raining so fucking hard I can't get enough signal to call Coulson and ask for orders on what the hell we're supposed to do. All there is to eat in this safe house is Ramen, and there's only enough to last us maybe two more days. The Sankos might be rallying more men together to put bullets through our skulls after our showdown in the middle of the street. Things aren't looking very good right now."

Natasha felt her face got hot the way it always did whenever she got angry. "The one time that it would actually be useful for you to be your annoyingly optimistic self, and you're using it to be pissed at everyone." She threw the covers back and stood up unsteadily, feeling the room spin around her, though she refused to show much of a physical reaction as she glowered furiously at Clint. "I am the last person you should be yelling at right now, Clint. The last. You should know that I'll never force you to talk about parts of your past that you don't want to because I'm showing you the same respect you show me. Whenever I call you out on the fact that I know your distractions are distractions, I'm letting you know that I see you, Clint. I'm not looking past you—I'm letting you know that I see you."

Without waiting for a reaction, she turned and stalked out of the room, crossed the hall into the room opposite theirs, and she shut the door quietly behind her. Instinct had made her want to slam the door for dramatic effect, but she knew that that was childish. Now that she was by herself, she needed to lie down. So much anger and quick walking had made her dizzy and nauseated, and all she wanted to do was stop the room from spinning. Slowly, she crossed towards the bed and climbed on top of it, all while trying to stop thinking about the fact that the night before, Dr. Munroe had slept there, and now he was dead.

She felt her pulse even out as the anger started to ebb away, leaving her feeling even more exhausted and sick than she'd been feeling before. Anger was always so draining—she tried not to let herself be angry if she could help it simply because it was so exhausting. But as usual, Clint Barton brought out a side of her that she couldn't deny.

Clint felt like shit. More than anything, he wanted to go up someplace high where he could be surrounded by fresh air and miles and miles of unobstructed view, but he was trapped to this shithole of a safe house. In all actuality, it was a very nice safe house—much nicer than others he'd stayed in in the past, but still, it was easy for an archer to get claustrophobic when he was stressed and feeling shut in with no way out.

He hadn't meant to snap at Natasha. It'd just kind of…happened. Every time he thought about his past injuries, he always went back to some memory inside himself that he would rather not relive, and that memory set him on edge. Of course, he thought of every other broken bone, every other gunshot he'd received, but he always stopped at this one memory in particular and couldn't get past it. Yes. He'd definitely been injured worse.

He swallowed hard and rubbed a hand over his face while silently willing his erection to go away. He'd pissed Natasha off—hell, he'd pissed himself off—and there wasn't anything to be done about it tonight. His muscles tensed with the desire to go out, to walk around and get up on the roof, even just to get by a window that was high up. After pulling his boxers back on, he got up and walked over to his duffel bag that was beside Natasha's to find another shirt to put on since Natasha had taken his.

Jesus, that'd been a beautiful sight, he thought to himself. Seeing Natasha Romanoff in his favorite flannel was something he never thought he'd see since she didn't really strike him as the post-coital-man-shirt-wearing kind of woman, but damn, she'd managed to surprise him again. The evening had been going so well after their Ramen dinner. For Christ's sake, they'd had sex. Clint Barton and Natasha Romanoff had had sex, and she hadn't even said that she regretted it afterwards.

The sex had been perfect. It'd been everything and nothing at all like Clint had imagined, and he'd been looking forward to Round Two until it'd been interrupted by his own bad temperament. God, he hated himself sometimes. His relationship—for lack of a better word—with Natasha had taken a step forward, and then he'd managed to ruin it. Just like he ruined everything else good in his life.

Clint tried not to be melodramatic about the situations that happened to him, but even an archer with the best aim in the entire world deserved a pity party from time to time.

Natasha slept soundly throughout the night, and she managed to sleep lightly enough so that she could wake herself up to do a mental check-in with herself just to make sure that she was still ok from her concussion. As night turned into day, she wondered what she was going to do about the whole bathroom situation. The bathroom was in between the two rooms, and that meant she could easily run into Clint, someone she wasn't looking forward to seeing right now.

Her mood went sour as she replayed the end of her night last night. That was not at all how she'd planned on ending the day. She'd been prepared to stay naked with Clint all night long; instead, she'd wound up sleeping alone in a bed without much to keep her warm. Silently, she got up and crossed to the door of the bedroom. She put her ear close to the door and listened hard. There was noise coming from out in the main area of the safe house, so either someone had invaded their little sanctuary, or it was Clint. She decided to go with the safe choice and think it was Clint.

Still being careful not to make any noise, she walked to the door that led to the bathroom, and she quietly pushed it open. If she went quickly enough, she would be able to get a fresh change of clothes from her duffel bag, shower, and brush her teeth before Clint needed to come shower or do anything he wanted to do. She swiftly snatched her duffel bag up and moved it into the bathroom before stripping and jumping into the shower.

She was in and out in a record three minutes, also managing to brush her teeth in the shower. Normally, she wouldn't resort to brushing her teeth in the shower, but she really,really did not want to have another run-in with Clint, so she was allowing these desperate times to push her to use desperate avoidance measures. After all, she was the Black Widow—she was very good at avoiding people when she set her mind on it.

When she was done, she retreated back into the bedroom and sat on the bed, wishing that she'd brought a book or something to read with her. Of course she wouldn't have foreseen that Dr. Munroe would get killed, and she'd be holed up in some safe house in Budapest with no way to call HQ for further orders. Crossly, she leaned back in the bed and looked up at the ceiling. Her wet hair was starting to soak the comforter of the bed, but she didn't give a shit. She wondered if it were still raining outside. If Clint hadn't been a fucking dick to her last night, she could have just asked him.

Suddenly, a light knock at the door caught her attention. "Nat?"




"Nat, I know you're in there, and I know you're ignoring me."


"I came to apologize."

More silence.

"If you don't say anything, I'm going to take that as a sign that I can come in."

Natasha didn't say anything.

Slowly, the doorknob turned, and there was Clint, his face 100% nervous and worried that Natasha might be hiding somewhere with the intention of killing him. He saw her on the bed, and his expression became more anxious than anything. Lifting his hands, he held them up where she could see them.

"I come in peace," he said. She stared at him. Deflated, he sighed and lowered his hands to his sides, hanging his head a little bit. She could see that he'd already showered and changed his clothes, and she wondered how she'd missed the sound of him getting in the shower and moving around the bathroom. His hair was wet, making it look brown instead of the dark blond it usually was. She even noticed that he had the slightest bit of scruff starting to grow in around his jaw, and she hated that she thought it looked good. He sighed again and looked up at her. "I fucked up. Big time. You didn't deserve me yelling at you. I was an asshole."

She kept her green eyes calm and unexpressive as she stared at him. He waited for her to say something, but she didn't. Mildly frustrated, he ran a hand through his wet hair and tentatively took a few steps forward.

"This is giving me severe déjà vu right now," he muttered. Natasha felt the corners of her lips twitch with the hint of a smile, but she didn't allow herself to fully smile. "Look, I was an asshole. A huge asshole. Biggest asshole on the face of the planet."

She blinked. Clint blinked back at her.

"Well, it's not raining. I called Coulson, and they're sending a helicopter to our location to get us. Not very subtle, but it's the quickest thing they could muster at last minute. We'll be transported to a SHIELD base in Austria, and we'll jet back home from there." He eyed Natasha nervously, and still didn't say anything. Slowly, he walked the rest of the way to the bed and sat at the end of it, still looking at her as if he were afraid she'd punch him. Carefully, he took a breath, and he started to talk.

"My parents died when I was five. I didn't miss much in becoming an orphan. They were shitty parents. My dad used to beat up on me when I was a kid. One time…" He slowed down, and he took a deep breath in and out. "One time he fractured my skull, broke three of my ribs, split my lip open, and lacerated my liver, and I remember every second of it."

"Clint." Natasha closed her eyes, a look of pain coming over her face. "You don't have to tell me this."

"I want to," Clint said evenly. She squeezed her eyes shut even harder. "So when I say I've been injured worse…I've been injured worse."

Her eyes popped open, and she looked at him with that same look of pain. "I'm glad your father's dead because I would hunt him down and kill him if he were still alive."

To her surprise, Clint's mouth spread into a small smile. "I know."

"And I'm not sorry for saying that, either," Natasha added fiercely added with a look of dead seriousness in her eyes.

"I know," Clint repeated. And he did. He knew she meant every word of what she'd said. He looked down at his shoulder where the bullet had grazed him, even though he couldn't see the actual wound through his shirt. "These 17 stitches I gave myself are a breeze. Barely even an injury."

Suddenly, Natasha felt tearful, and she looked away from him. She hadn't wanted to know that about him. Well, she had, but she hadn't all at the same time. As she forced herself to look back at the man in front of her, she could picture him as a little boy with light blond hair and those stunning blue eyes of his. She could picture him already having perfect aim at five years old but just not knowing it. She could imagine him looking young and innocent and terrified as his father raised his fists, and she felt her heart rip in two.

"Clint," she said quietly.

"Nat…I don't want your pity." He looked up at her with honest, clear blue eyes, and Natasha couldn't stay away from him any longer. She moved towards him and fluidly settled onto his lap, one knee straddling each side of his hips. As he stared at her with curiosity and surprise written on his face, Natasha wrapped her arms around him and tucked her face in towards his neck.

"I'm not pitying you," she said quietly against his warm skin. "I want to protect you."

"Tasha." Clint's voice sounded thick with an emotion she couldn't quite identify. He wrapped his arms back around her and tilted his head in towards her hair. "Natasha…"

For a long time, they didn't say anything. They simply sat there holding each other wordlessly because there was nothing to say. Natasha couldn't express the feelings that she was feeling in the back of her throat, and he couldn't express how much he was falling in love with her each passing second, so neither of them said anything. Their actions said enough.

Finally, Clint cleared his throat and offered up a quiet laugh. "Like I said yesterday…who the fuck are you, and what the fuck did you do with Natasha Romanoff?"

"Remember when I said I've been compromised?" Natasha asked without moving her face away from the spot by his neck. She noticed how he tensed up a little bit as if the vibrations of her voice had found a ticklish spot.

"Yeah," he replied curiously.

"I've been compromised," she said without elaborating. She pulled her head back and looked at him with a smirk on her face. "Are you ticklish?"

"What? N—no. Why—why would you ask that?" Clint asked with a snort and an eye roll.

"You got all tense when I was talking against your neck. And that was ticklish tension. Not injury tension," she said. Clint scoffed and let his hands drop to her hips.

"What—please, I'm not ticklish," he said. Natasha lifted her red eyebrows.

"I think you are," she said.

"No. NoI'm not. Natasha, if you fucking try to tickle me, I'm going to be so fucking mad at you," Clint warned with large eyes. Natasha couldn't hide her small grin, bringing her hands up to the back of his neck so she could lightly play with his hair.

"Well, I'm still mad at you for not apologizing for the last thing you should be sorry for, so why should I show you any mercy?" she asked in a challenging tone. Clint frowned, confused, and he tilted his head to the side. Natasha couldn't help thinking that the gesture looked vaguely bird-like.

"You're still mad?" he asked. "What didn't I apologize for yet?"

Natasha slipped her hands up under the hem of his dark grey t-shirt and pressed firmly against his abs. "Not finishing what you started yesterday."

"Oh," Clint said in a thick voice. "That."

"How much longer until the helicopter gets here?"

"Eight hours."

"I can think of plenty of things to do in eight hours. Starting with you finishing what you began last night." Natasha lifted his shirt up and over his head, and Clint had no choice but to go with what she was doing, not that he was going to say no. God, he would never be able to say no to her.

She pushed him back down onto the bed and pressed her lips hard against his collarbone. Even though Clint was having a very hard time concentrating on anything except the feel of Natasha's mouth working its way across his chest, yes, he could agree that they had plenty of time before the helicopter got there to finish what he'd started.

Natasha remained low on the roof of the building with Clint by her side as they both kept their heads down in case of any nearby Sankos that might have been targeting them.

"So…what do we tell everyone when we get back?" she asked casually. Clint looked over at her with a typical Clint Barton confused face.

"What are you talking about?" he asked. "The mission?"

"No," she said impatiently. "Unfortunately, we know how that one goes. I'm talking about like…STRIKE Team: Delta. What do we tell them about that?"

Clint gave her a bored expression. "I have no idea what you're talking about. Our injuries?"

Natasha impatiently sighed. "No. I don't mean that, either. I mean, like…don't get too excited, but I mean…us. What do we tell them about us?"

Clint paused as he understood what she was saying. "Well…we could keep holding our cover, or we could tell them the truth."

"What even is going on with us?" Natasha asked. Clint frowned.

"You're the one who doesn't like to talk," he replied, smirking. "Makes things awkward. You don't do awkward."

"Ha ha, you're so funny, Hawkeye," she said drily. "But what do you want to do?"

"Your call, Black Widow. Though knowing Coulson, nothing really gets past him," Clint offered. Natasha nodded, and she didn't say anything. Clint suddenly squinted his eyes and looked out towards the distance. "Chopper's coming."

Natasha popped her head up and looked out over the horizon. "What? Where?"

"Northwest," Clint replied, his eyes glued in the direction of it. Natasha looked in the same direction and squinted her eyes. Sure enough, very distantly, was a tiny helicopter that seemed to be making its way towards them.

"Wow. You are good," she said. Clint rolled his eyes obnoxiously.

"You say that like it's such a surprise," he said. "Have some faith in your partner, Miss Widow."

"I have all the faith in the world in you," Natasha replied. He stared at her for an extra few beats and shook his head.

"You're still concussed," he said.

"What? No, I'm not."

"Yeah, you are. You're normally not this nice. That's ok. I like you when you're not nice. I mean, I like you when you're nice, too, but I also like—"

"Clint." Natasha pulled his head back down and kissed him hard on the lips. "Shut up."

"Right away, ma'am." He grinned at her and then pushed himself into a standing position. "Come on. We've got to be ready for them."

"Roger that." She pushed herself up into the same standing position. "What do you think is going to happen with the Sankos?"

"I don't know. We seem to have gotten lucky and not run into them this past half hour. I'd love to know how SHIELD's going to get around this one," Clint replied. Natasha glanced over at the stuff he held in his hands.

"Have Munroe's briefcase?" she asked. A flicker of unhappiness passed over Clint's face, but he nodded.

"Yeah," he said. "I grabbed it. All of his work's inside. At least the Sankos didn't get that. Manipulation of gravity sounds like tough shit."

And then the helicopter was there and lowering onto the roof, and STRIKE Team: Delta was jumping on board. Natasha got on behind Clint, and she settled herself into place. Sitting right across from her and next to Clint was Agent Coulson with a look of worry and relief written all over his face.

"STRIKE Team: Delta. Good to see you again!" he shouted over the sound of the helicopter's whirring blades. "You have no idea how worried we were to see that you missed your rendezvous point."

"We ran into some difficulties!" Clint shouted back.

"So I heard! We're en route to Austria right now! We'll be able to talk more there!" Coulson replied. Natasha looked across over at Clint, and they both exchanged a look. Once they landed, they were going to have to talk about their mission, and neither of them wanted to go into detail of how Dr. Munroe had died. Most of all, Natasha didn't want to talk about the past 24 hours she'd shared with Clint. They were private, intimate moments that she felt strangely protective of and wanted to keep holding quietly to herself.

Now that they were back to reality, things went back to being difficult. They always did.

When the helicopter reached the SHIELD base in Austria, Clint realized how tired he was. He'd gotten a decent amount of sleep the night before, even without Natasha by his side, but he was still exhausted from the high tension and anxiety that came with being on a mission. Knowing Coulson, after hearing about their mission and the danger they'd faced, he'd give them some time off to recover. Then again, that could mean some time spent in therapy sessions to make sure that both he and Natasha were psychologically ok and ready to handle the next mission they were given. That was totally something Coulson would do.

"We're unloading straight to the jet. Once these doors open, we're hopping planes, and then we'll be good to go. We'll use that time to debrief and figure out what went wrong," Coulson said genuinely. Clint nodded once to show that he understood, and he stood behind both him and Natasha as the helicopter's door opened and let them out.

Straight ahead of them was the jet, and he made a beeline straight for it. He didn't mind riding the SHIELD jets because they were usually comfortable with lots of extras that SHIELD probably shouldn't have had but definitely did have. Out of all the planes he'd been on in his life, SHIELD's planes were by far the best he'd been on. As soon as he was on the familiar plane, he followed Coulson straight back to the secluded group of chairs in the far corner. That was always the best place for privacy, and that was exactly what Coulson wanted.

He sat down in the chair beside Natasha and looked earnestly towards the agent who'd helped make him into what he was today. He held Coulson in high regard and respected the man a hell of a lot more than he respected many other people. Coulson was one of the few people at SHIELD that he actually trusted, and he'd made sure to earn Clint's trust back when he'd first brought Clint in to SHIELD for questioning and neutralization.

"First off," Coulson began, "I want to say that I'm so sorry I didn't catch anything on the Sankos. Natasha, you were right, and I should have listened to you. I don't know why my connections over in Budapest said the Sankos remained eliminated because it appears that they're not."

"I picked up some Sanko shells just to back us up," Clint offered. He felt Natasha staring at him in surprise, but he didn't look at her. He hadn't told her he'd done it because he hadn't wanted to discuss the mission beyond what was necessary.

"Excellent work, Barton," Coulson said appreciatively. "We'll send those straight to the labs for testing and examination. We'll have our weaponry experts get right on that." He looked back at the both of them, sharing his attention. "Second of all, I want to hear exactly what happened."

"My memory's still a little foggy, but literally, we were in the middle of the street, and the shooting happened. I dove into the back to see if Dr. Munroe had any idea who was shooting, but he didn't. Barton started firing back, and I backed him up, and Barton got the doctor to safety while I covered them," Natasha said in a dull voice.

"I got him secured inside an alley. There was only one way in, and you couldn't have found it unless you were looking for it," Clint added. "That was when he remembered the Sankos and the Karmazins. He told me that he taught some of the Karmazins and worked with them. Helped them to get ahead in their own fields, and the Sankos had most likely targeted him as a result. It was no secret that he was an expert in his field. They wanted to hit where it'd hurt."

"And that's what they wound up doing," Natasha added. "After that, that's where my memory gets blurry."

"I came back and helped Agent Romanoff in attempting to take down the enemy, but we didn't have much luck since it was raining. A grenade caught Romanoff, and I got my bow and finished eliminating the threat. I always do better with my bow," Clint said.

"You eliminated everyone?" Coulson asked. Clint grimly nodded.

"Everyone," he said. "Agent Romanoff had hit two of them, and I took care of the remaining four. It was around the time Romanoff went down that Dr. Munroe ran into the street screaming about giving himself up."

Coulson sighed and ran a hand over his jaw. "Dammit. I feel responsible for all of this."

"It's not your fault," Natasha said automatically. "He was in our protection."

"He shouldn't have run out in the street," Coulson said quietly. "I just…I can't believe the Sankos are still out there."

"Somewhere. We don't know where or how, but they're there somewhere," Natasha said. Coulson turned his concerned eyes onto her, and he frowned.

"You need to go to the Infirmary," he said. "A doctor should examine you more thoroughly to assess your wounds."

"She got a pretty nasty concussion," Clint added. Natasha glanced casually at him.

"Clint has some painful looking bullet grazes and shrapnel he should get looked at, too," she said with just enough innocence to truly make it believable that she was looking out for him. Technically, she was looking out for him, but she was also bringing it up just to make sure Clint go the same treatment she did since he'd brought up her concussion.

"I'll get this report filled out. The both of you…get out. I don't want to see you until the Infirmary's cleared you," Coulson said firmly but with a good-natured smile on his face. "We can't have our best agents at anything less than 100%."

"You got it, sir," Clint said with a professional nod, and he turned to look at Natasha. Coulson watched them get up, and then he suddenly narrowed his eyes at them.

"Is everything ok with you guys?" he asked. Natasha paused, and she looked back at Coulson.

"Yes, sir," she replied in her best confused voice. "Why do you ask?"

"Something's different. Are you sure you're ok?" Coulson asked. Calmly, Natasha nodded.

"Yes, sir," she said.

"Yes, sir, everything's fine," Clint added. Coulson blinked several times, his eyes clearly studying them, and then he nodded.

"Ok," he said. "But seriously. Get out of here."

"Got it, sir," Clint said, and then he turned over his shoulder, Natasha right by his side as they exited the main area of the plane and began walking their way to the Infirmary. He tilted his head down towards Natasha. "That was close."

"Think he suspects anything?" Natasha asked.

"Eh, I don't know," Clint replied with a shrug. "It's hard to tell. Even if he did, I'm not sure he'd let on."

"I don't think he figured it out," Natasha said confidently.

"Neither do I." Clint glanced over at her. "So are we going to keep this a secret?"

"You said we wouldn't get fired if anyone found out?" Natasha asked. Clint made a face, and he shook his head.

"No," he said with a scoff. "Plenty of agents have had their own little thing in the past. As long as it doesn't get in the way of anything we do."

"And it won't," Natasha said, though her tone was unconvincing, both to herself and to Clint.

"Of course not," Clint said. They'd both made this promise before, and they both figured they'd break it again, but neither of them was about to offer up that last bit. Instead, they just smirked at each other and kept walking.

"First thing I'm doing when we get back is taking a nice, long hot shower. And then I'm going to sleep for 90 years," Natasha said.

"Ninety years? That's a long time. First thing I'm doing is shaving, and then I'm going to drink a whole pot of hot tea, and then I'm going to sleep for about 87 years."

"You're going to shave?" Natasha asked in a regretful voice.

"Yeah. I don't do the whole beard thing." Clint brought his hand up to his jaw and rubbed the slight five o'clock shadow that was starting to form.

"Honestly, I'm liking the scruff," Natasha said casually, tossing a heated look in Clint's direction. "I think it's sexy."

Clint nearly choked on himself right there in the hallway. "Well. The scruff may have to stay a few days then."

Coulson watched Natasha's red hair disappear around the corner, and he picked up the phone, punching in a familiar number he knew by heart.

"Hill," Maria answered in her typical, clipped tone.

"Hello, Agent. How are you?" Coulson asked.

"Coulson, good to hear from you. I'm doing just fine. How was the flight to Budapest? You're on the jet back from Austria, I'm assuming?" Maria replied.

"Yes, ma'am. I just finished listening to the mission report from STRIKE Team: Delta," Coulson said smoothly.

"I heard the mission ended badly. Are they ok, at least?" Maria asked, the worry evident in her voice.

"Yes, they are. But something's different with them. Something's off," Coulson said. Maria paused over the line.

"No," she said finally.




"I don't believe it."

"I'm telling you—they've got a thing going. I called it."

"You've got to stop placing bets on agents you think may start something up. Romanoff hasn't mentioned anything like that at all to me."

Coulson laughed quietly. "Do you really think she would? They've been keeping this a secret for God knows how long. I just wanted to call you to tell you I was right."

"Fine, Coulson. By the way, Director Fury wants to meet with you when you get back in. He wants to go over details regarding the Sankos," Maria said.

"Got it. Alright. I'll let you go now. I need to get back to my paperwork, anyway."

"See you, Coulson."

"See you. I told you they had a thing." As Coulson hung up the phone, he couldn't help the triumphant smirk on his face. God, he loved being right.


Chapter Text

Chapter 23

"I can't believe this is our first day off since Budapest, and you want to spend it fucking grocery shopping." Clint made a face as he walked through the sliding glass doors of the grocery store, even though he was the one pushing the cart.

"I don't want to, but we need to," Natasha replied coolly. "I'm getting tired of paying for cafeteria food. It'd be much better and much healthier if we cooked from time to time. And healthy will not kill you, Clint."

"Goddammit, why are you so practical?" Clint unhappily sighed. "We could've spent this entire day sleeping, Natasha, but no, we had to go grocery shopping."

"We can spend tomorrow sleeping. We have a full week to do whatever the hell we want. I'm just glad Fury felt sorry for us and decided to give us a week instead of like, two days," Natasha said. She pulled out her list and started examining it. "Alright. Fruit first."

Clint sighed again. "Right. Fruit."

"And then vegetables."

"Great. Vegetables."

"I can make a killer stir fry, Barton."

"I don't doubt your cooking abilities at all, Romanoff. Not going to lie, I can make a killer gumbo," Clint said with a smug smirk. Natasha looked at him with an impressed expression on her usually impassive face.

"Gumbo? You know how to make gumbo?" she asked in disbelief. Clint snorted and rolled his eyes.

"Of course I do. I grew up with the circus. I travelled everywhere," he said. Grinning, he put on a thick Southern drawl. "Learned how to make me some genuine, state of the art gumbo from the best Cajun cooks in the world."

"Oh, God, never do that accent again," Natasha said, but she was laughing quietly as she said it. She looked up at him appreciatively as he pushed the cart through the store to get to the fruit. He was smiling softly, the smile lines of his mouth creasing and looking well worn. She always liked whenever he smiled, though she'd never tell him. When he smiled, he got these kind of dimples that weren't really dimples in the sides of his mouth, and she liked seeing them there.

And true to his word, the archer had let the scruff around his jaw go instead of shaving it as soon as they'd gotten back to the Triskelion, and goddamn, was she happy he'd made that decision. She wasn't terribly fond of men with facial hair, but Clint Barton knew how to rock a five o'clock shadow.

"You love it," he said with a smirk.

"Whatever, Barton," she murmured as they approached the fruit section. "We need apples."

"Apples. What are we doing with apples?" Clint asked curiously.

"Eating them," she deadpanned.

"Ok, smartass. I'm not that stupid," he said, rolling his eyes. "Are we using them to make something, or are we just having them around to have them around?"

"They're snacks," Natasha gently corrected. "You like red or green?"

"Green," Clint said without hesitating at all.

"Ooo, you're a Granny Smith kind of guy," Natasha said lightly. She picked up five Granny Smith apples and put them in a plastic bag after thoroughly examining them. "I'm personally fond of Gala apples, myself."

"I love that extra sour taste," Clint said, happily sighing. She peeked up at him through her eyelashes and smiled.

"I like the sweet," she said innocently.

Clint raised his eyebrows and smirked. "I know you do."

"Don't smirk at me like that—you're the one with the hickey. Not me." Natasha's green eyes darted down to the dark purple spot that was threatening to peek up and over the edge of his shirt collar. Unable to help herself, her smile widened.

"At least not where everyone can see it," Clint said innocently. Natasha rolled her eyes and kept walking.

"We need strawberries, too," she said.

"Mmm, I love strawberries." Clint eagerly pushed the cart alongside Natasha. "In Iowa, we had the best strawberries in the summertime."

Natasha stopped dead in her tracks as she turned her gaze onto Clint, her face shocked. "Are you from Iowa?"

Clint seemed to realize his little slip up, and his face went still. "Uh…yeah."

"Jesus Christ, I should've known." Natasha stared at him with a look that could have been confused with amazement. She shook her head in disbelief. "You totally have that Midwest look about you. I was originally thinking New England, but—no. This makes sense. You're such a Midwest boy."

"Man. I'm actually a man," Clint said blithely. "And what does that even mean? Midwest look? How the fuck does a person look like he's from the Midwest?"

Natasha started walking again to the vegetables, images of green peppers, tomatoes, and spinach on her mind, and she shrugged. "I don't know. He looks like you. You just have that look I'd associate with the Midwest."

"You're not even from America!" Clint exclaimed in disbelief, his hands still on the cart as he stared at her.

"I know." Natasha picked up some tomatoes and bagged them, tossing them into the cart as she moved down a little farther and started examining the green peppers. Personally, she wasn't a fan of green peppers, but she certainly did enjoy them in stir-fry. "I just—I think you look like you'd be from the Midwest. You have the whole blond hair, blue-eyed thing going. You look like you would have been very happy growing up on a farm."

"Oh, fuck you, Nat."

"You did last night." She grinned cheekily at him, noticing how he tried not to smile but lost the fight.

"Whatever. You have a filthy mind, Black Widow," he said dully. "Hey, we should invite Palmer to stir-fry night. He loves stir-fry."

"Really? Ok. Whenever one of us sees him, we'll extend an invite. Sound good?"

"Sounds good." Clint paused, watching Natasha pick up a bag of baby spinach. "He likes you, you know."

"Palmer?" Natasha asked and shot a glance back in Clint's direction. "I thought he was terrified of me."

"He thinks you're funny."

"Good. Well, I think he's funny, too."

"Look at you. You have friends."

"Fuck you, Barton."

"You did last night."

As Natasha started to wake up, she realized that something was very different. First off, she was alone. Secondly, it was only 7:00 at night. Thirdly, there was soft guitar music playing. She lifted her head from her pillow slightly to see Clint sitting in the chair at the small table he had in his room, his guitar in his lap. He was playing it, strumming softly so as not to wake her up, but she didn't mind being awake. Quietly, she rolled from her stomach onto her side so that she could listen to him.

He didn't quite see her—he was facing her, but his head was looking down as he played. The song wasn't familiar to Natasha, but she didn't care. It sounded good—quiet and soft. Silently, she watched him play. His fingers were deft and quick, skimming over the strings without much pause, and she inwardly smiled to herself; he wasn't good with his fingers for nothing. He played freely and self-consciously in such an honest way that Natasha couldn't help listening and watching.

She didn't know how long she watched him, but she tried to stay as still and as quiet as possible so as not to distract him. If she knew Clint as well as she thought that she did, he would stop playing as soon as he knew she was listening, and she didn't want him to stop. At one point, her arm started to go numb, but she didn't dare move it. She simply lay there and listened.

After some time had passed, Clint seemed to grow aware of her, and he finally looked over at her. "Hey. You're awake. How long have you been up?"

"Not long," Natasha said vaguely. "I was listening to you play. You're good."

"I didn't mean to wake you up," Clint said, lowering the guitar and crossing towards her with it still in his hand. He sat on the edge of the bed and placed one hand on her back. Natasha noticed how naturally it came to the both of them to be together. Even before Budapest, they'd had an easy atmosphere between the two of them, but now, something was different, and she couldn't exactly pinpoint what it was. She knew that things were different since they'd started having sex—she didn't regret that at all. But the way they moved around each other, looked at each other, and even touched each other was completely different from how it'd been before.

Clint touched her as if he didn't want to touch anything else, and he held her the same way he held his bow and arrow when he shot—firm, gentle, unafraid that she would break, and yet worshipful all at the same time. His touch felt like fire and ice, and she didn't know how that could even be possible. After all, he was just a man. Jesus, that was all he was: a man with perfect aim and an amazing body to boot. He was simply a man who had more of an effect on her than anything ever had in her life.

"You didn't," she said softly. "I'm glad I got to listen to you. You really are good. I loved listening to you play."

"Thanks," Clint said, a soft smile on his face.

"Where'd you learn?" she asked.

"The circus. A lot of the people there played musical instruments, and I picked up some stuff from them," he replied.

"Well. I'm glad you did. You should play more often."



Natasha smiled at him, thinking to herself that she would listen to him talk, play, or even just breathe if it meant that she was close to him. But she couldn't bring herself to say it. As much as she felt about Clint, she couldn't bring herself to vocalize it. Saying it out loud meant acknowledging it, and acknowledging it meant they'd have to talk about it, and she didn't know how to do that. So instead of saying anything, she sat up and moved behind him, wrapping her arms around his waist and resting her head on his strong, solid back as he picked up his guitar and started to play.

"Look at you, you son of a bitch! Piece of shit." Clint grinned as he walked over to Palmer, who was sitting with his laptop at the end of the hall on one of the couches. "It's about time I saw you again."

"Well, I wasn't the one in Budapest with no comms up," Palmer replied.

"Touche." Clint sat down in the chair across from him. "What have you been doing to keep yourself occupied since I was gone?"

"Hacking into stuff I shouldn't," Palmer said without pausing a beat. Clint laughed and looked at his former partner with unbridled surprise.

"I thought you didn't do shit like that anymore," he said. "You're a rule-follower now, Palmer. Your hacker days are over unless it's for SHIELD."

"I just like living on the edge from time to time." Palmer shrugged.

"Who're you hacking?"


Clint physically reacted, and he moved to the edge of his seat. "What the fuck did you just say?"

"I'm hacking SHIELD," Palmer repeated, his voice calm as he kept typing into his laptop. He glanced up and gave Clint a bored face. "Come on—this is of interest to you, too. Also, don't get all righteous on me and act like you play by the rules. How did Natasha get to be here? You following the rules? No."

Clint wished that he could come up with a retort, but he couldn't. Palmer had a point. "Why is this of interest to me, Palmer?"

"When you and Agent Widow were lost in Budapest, Coulson came to me to hack into some camera systems over there to try to find you and track you. I had to pull up your mission files and your individual profiles in order to get your ID numbers. So while I was on Natasha's profile, there were some additional classified documents that caught my attention," Palmer explained. Clint frowned.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"Classified documents. As in, old school classified documents that are not supposed to be on her profile. Technically, agent profiles aren't allowed to have any classified information—not so classified that a Level Six agent such as myself can't have access to. So whatever it is—"

"It's not good," Clint interrupted. Palmer nodded.

"And I want to know what they're hiding," he said.

"So my profile doesn't have any classified documents?" Clint asked.

"No. Your profile's totally open. If anyone with the proper clearance wanted to look up your profile, they'd be able to see it." Palmer paused and glanced up at Clint again. "And like, they can see everything."

"Great," Clint said with a sigh. He rubbed his hands together and looked out the window.

"Still haven't told her about…anything in your past?" Palmer casually asked. Clint shook his head.

"Nope. I don't talk about mine, she doesn't talk about hers. It's a good system," he said.

"You know, the two of you act like you think you're the only person in the entire world who's ever done anything shitty, but the thing is, you're looking right past each other," Palmer remarked. Clint stared blankly at the computer genius as he processed his words.

"What's that got to do with anything?" he asked.

"You think you're a piece of shit. She thinks she's a piece of shit. Put you two together, and you're not pieces of shit because you've both done shitty things," Palmer answered, as though his theory were obvious. Clint blinked.

"That makes no sense," he said. Palmer sighed and shook his head.

"Whatever, man. I'm just trying to tell you that you'll understand each other a little more if you know more about the other. Partners. You know all my personal shit, and I know all your personal shit," he pointed out. Clint rolled his eyes.

"You only know mine because you hacked my profile," he said. "And you got in trouble for that."

"Well, it looks like I'm going to get in trouble again because I'm hacking Natasha's," Palmer said easily. "See, I'm totally ok with getting in trouble for hacking, but I'm generally not ok with getting yelled at by Nick Fury for disobeying direct orders. Like you."

"How much longer until you're done hacking in?" Clint asked as he ignored Palmer's last half of his statement.

"The documents are encrypted, so it'll probably take another hour or so. I just started. Haven't really had a lot of free time over the past few days." Palmer paused to push his glasses up quickly.

"Hey, we're making stir-fry tomorrow night if you want to come. Beats paying for cafeteria food. Or any food, really," Clint said suddenly. Palmer grinned, and he stopped looking at his laptop to look over towards the blond archer.

"Sign me up," he said. "You know I'm never going to turn down free food. So who's the 'we' in the 'we are making stir-fry tomorrow night?"

"Natasha. We got some food two days ago at the beginning of our week off, and she says she can make a killer stir-fry," Clint replied with a grin. Palmer narrowed his eyes at Clint as if he were studying him for the first time in a very long time. Despite the fact that this was his best friend looking at him, Clint felt uncomfortable, and he wanted to shift his weight on the couch, but he didn't since that would give off nervous vibes.

"What's going on with that?" Palmer asked.

"What?" Clint asked innocently.

"You and Natasha. You're inseparable. Attached at the hip. Always together," Palmer said. Clint scoffed and brushed it off dismissively with a hand. "Dude, I know how you act after you've gotten laid."

"What the fuck!" Clint exclaimed, staring at Palmer with large eyes.

"What? You get all zen and shit after you get laid, and it's a big enough contrast compared to how you usually are."

"Which is what?"

"A pain in the ass."

"Ha ha, fuck off, Palmer."

"Tell her you love her yet?"

Clint wrinkled his forehead in a perplexed frown at Palmer's question. "What—we're—we're not even like—"

"For an operations agent, you're so fucking transparent. Don't think I don't know you, Barton. I know you." Palmer smirked at Clint's reaction. "We were partners for how many years?"


"Exactly. I think I know you well enough to tell when the hawk's in love."

"First of all, fuck off for that bird metaphor. Secondly, I've never been in love before. I don't do relationships."

"Precisely my point. This is the longest relationship you've had with a woman the entire time I've known you."

Clint scoffed. "She's my fucking partner. Of course we're going to have a…a relation to each other."

"You know what I meant. Jesus, stop acting like you don't. The women you usually date suck, anyway," Palmer said with raised eyebrows. Clint's eyes widened, and his mouth dropped.

"I don't date women who suck," he protested. "And since when have you gotten all personal talk? This is definitely not your style."

"Ok, you dated that one girl who cheated on you with a heroin dealer after four days, then you dated that other girl who cried whenever you left her place, and then you dated my personal favorite—the one who liked to hit you with no warning during sex and then laugh about it, and that—"

"Ok! Ok, you made your point. But…whatever, man. I don't love her."

"Ha. Ok."

"I don't."


"Let me know what you find, ok? Nat will want to see them, too."

"Roger that, Barton."

"I come bearing gifts!" Palmer didn't even bother knocking on Natasha's door. He just walked right in as if he owned the place. Natasha looked over her shoulder from her place in front of her tiny oven to see him.

"Hey, Palmer," she greeted. "What'd you bring? Please tell me you brought wine. I forgot to pick up wine."

"Dammit. No. I didn't bring wine, but that would have been a good thing to bring. Dammit." Palmer snapped his fingers and sighed, but he held out a manila folder with a SHIELD emblem on it. "I did some digging that I thought you'd be interested in."

"Ooo, I like secrets," Natasha said cheerfully. "What's it about? Are you going to get in trouble?"

"Yeah, I'm going to get in trouble whenever SHIELD figures out who did it. And it's about—"

"You," Clint interrupted. She turned back over her other shoulder to see the blond archer sitting at the small table as he diced up tofu. Careful to keep an eye on the sizzling vegetables, she looked curiously at him.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"Your SHIELD profile had all kinds of classified documents attached to it, and I hacked them," Palmer said. Natasha paused. What the fuck? She didn't know whether to be happy or angry or suspicious about the whole thing. She'd never taken the time to look at her own SHIELD profile—she'd figured that SHIELD had made her one, but she just hadn't looked at it. "I'm a Level Six agent, and that means I should be able to access every single agent's profile. The full thing. But I couldn't access yours."

"So you decided to breach my privacy? How nice," she deadpanned. For a second, a flash of fear passed over Palmer's face, but she shot him a dry smile. "I'm kidding. If there are any classified files on me, I'd like to know what they're about. Secrets, secrets are no fun unless you share with everyone."

"Well. Here you go." Palmer crossed towards her and gave her the file. "You…might want to let Barton take over the cooking while you read this."

She gave him a curious look as she accepted the file. She looked down at it and wondered what could be inside. "Did you read it?"

"Not purposefully. I just caught some phrases here and there while I was printing it. I didn't think it was my place. Well, I was intending on reading it, but…" His words trailed off, and he looked away. Natasha frowned, more disturbed by the fact that Palmer had decided not to read her file after having gone through the trouble of hacking it. Quietly, she crossed towards the table and sat down as Clint got up to go stir the vegetables and add in the tofu. She glanced up at Palmer and saw that he was giving her the privacy she needed by going and helping Clint cook. Carefully, she looked back down and opened up the file.

There on the first page was a picture of a little girl. The little girl couldn't have been older than seven years old, and she was staring blankly at the camera as if she had no emotions whatsoever. Natasha held her breath. She knew exactly who that little girl was. Even if she'd never seen a picture of herself at that age, she knew it was her. That emotionless face staring back up at her was herself as Natalia Alianovna Romanova at seven years old.

She'd been seven years old when she'd started being pushed into spy duties; that'd been part of her training in the Red Room. She'd trained for hours and hours every day; she remembered how tired she'd always been, how her body had always been bruised and her muscles sore from all the constant physical work they'd pushed her into. She took in a shaky breath and kept reading.

After reading the first sentence, she wished she hadn't.

The next few pages detailed the tortures and brainwashing she'd undergone. Her throat tightened up as she read over the explicit details, fighting her brain as her memories threatened to pop back up. This couldn't happen again. Voloshin had gotten rid of this for her—that had been part of the deal when he'd hired her to be a part of the KGB. He had helped her overcome the brainwashing effects, and she had killed whoever he'd told her to kill.

Clint didn't know about that.

She silently read everything on the pages in front of her, reading her history in more detail than she'd ever known it. She'd always been aware of her past, of everything that had happened to her. It'd been no surprise to know that she'd been brainwashed and tortured. Sometimes she had flashbacks that were so fast they didn't even seem like flashbacks, and other times she dreamed about them and wasn't sure if they were really dreams or actually just buried memories.

But as she read, she realized that everything she'd ever dreamed…all the tortures, all the blood, all the psychological twisting that occurred in her dreams…it was all real. Suddenly, it struck her that these files belonged to SHIELD. How had they known all of this about her? How had they gotten their hands on it? She hadn't even known the details, but they did? Actually, it made sense that SHIELD would have them. If they'd sent Clint to kill her, they would have known everything that had ever happened to her.

Natasha reached the end of the file, and she quietly closed it. When she looked up, she saw that Clint and Palmer had already finished eating, and there was a plate of stir-fry in front of her. Clint looked over at her with a concerned look on his face. He always looked at her like that whenever he was worried about her, and she felt her chest tighten.

"Are you ok?" he asked. Pressing her lips together, Natasha nodded stiffly.

"Yeah," she said. "I'm ok. Just…reminders." She looked over at Palmer. "Where'd you say you got these again?"

"They were attached to your profile. Classified documents," he said warily, looking as though he were half-afraid she was going to kill him. Slowly, she nodded to acknowledge his response.

"Well. Thank you for getting them to me," she said, and she forced herself to smile. "Thanks for fixing me a plate, too."

She ate the meal calmly, making sure to keep her face free of any negative emotion as she talked and laughed with both Clint and Palmer. This wasn't something she wanted to talk about in front of them, so she didn't. She just played along and pretended she was on an undercover mission. That was what she did best, anyway.

By the time Palmer left, Clint was full out worried about Natasha. She'd been able to play off the evening in a cool, collected manner, but he'd seen her as she'd read over the things Palmer had given her; he'd seen the look of shock and realization passing through her green eyes as she'd read. So when Palmer was gone, and the dishes were washed, Clint was careful in his approach. If he pushed anything, he knew without a doubt that Natasha would freak out on him.

However, she was one step ahead of him.

"The documents Palmer gave me…they're from when I was a child," she said out loud. Clint paused, turning to look at her as he threw away the last of the paper napkins. She was finishing drying the last pan, and her eyes were glued to the pan, but he knew she was opening up to him. He hadn't expected her to volunteer the information, but she just had.

"Were they…surprise documents?" he asked. Unexpectedly, her mouth twitched up into a half-smile, but she shook her head.

"Not really," she said. She paused and set aside the pan before folding the dishtowel neatly and placing it beside the faucet. "A little bit."

"Yeah?" Clint asked. Quietly, she nodded, and she looked up at him, her large eyes scanning over his face as she studied him. "You ok?"

"I was brainwashed when I was a kid. All the way up until I was about 13. I started working for Voloshin when I was 16, and that was when I really started questioning what had happened to me…the things I'd lost." She stopped talking and looked away, the look in her eyes distant. Swallowing, she took a breath and slowly exhaled it. "He told me he'd give me my memories back if I would work for him. Take orders, no questions, done and done. So I agreed. I let him restore my memory with some extensive therapy and hypnosis."

"And you held up your end of the bargain," Clint quietly finished. Natasha nodded, her eyes not seeing him.

"Yeah. For years, I did that. Eliminated whoever he told me to however I was supposed to. I did…horrible things, Clint." She swallowed again and drew her eyes back to him, clearly disturbed by herself. "Horrible, horrible things. I can't…I wish I didn't remember some of the things I've done. And I kept doing them until it hit me one day that maybe what I was doing was wrong. I'd been Voloshin's little lapdog for years—I'd upheld my part of the bargain, just as he'd upheld his. I wanted to get out of there, so I started pulling jobs for other people. And you know how the rest ends up."

"You were brainwashed?" Clint asked softly. Natasha turned and walked away from him, walking towards the table. She picked up the file she'd left sitting there, and she turned back to Clint.

"Brainwashed and tortured," she said dully. Her eyes looked up to meet his. "When you say you've been injured worse, I understand. Because I have been, too."



"You're not damaged."

She stared at him with huge, shocked eyes, as if the thought had never even occurred to her. She blinked several times slowly as she absorbed his words, and then she leaned against the table behind her, the file still in her hand. Quietly, she looked down at it and then back up at Clint.

"I should get rid of this," she said quietly. Without saying anything, Clint crossed towards her and took the file from her hand. She looked up at him with curious eyes as he took the file over to the trashcan and held it up, digging into his pocket. "What are you doing?"

"Getting rid of it," he said and gave her a look that conveyed he thought that that was the obvious answer. He found what he was looking for, and he yanked it out. It was a lighter. He held the lighter up and lit it. Natasha watched as he put the flame to the paper, and the paper began to burn.

"The fire alarm's going to go off," she said in a monotone.

"No, it won't," Clint said dismissively. "I burn papers all the time in my room like this. SHIELD's used to people accidentally starting fires in their rooms, so this won't set the alarm off."

Natasha raised her eyebrows, unimpressed. "What are you burning in your room?"

"Sometimes I like to light up protocol sheets when I get really pissed off," he said casually. He caught Natasha's slow smile lighting up her face.

"You burn protocol sheets?" she asked incredulously. "Barton. What if you forget protocol?"

"I never forget it," Clint replied and shot her an offended look. "Ye of little faith, Romanoff."

The flames started creeping down closer to where his hand was. For a second, Natasha thought he was going to burn himself, but at the last possible second, he dropped the remaining corner of paper to the floor and stomped it out against the tile. "There we go."

"You're certifiably insane. It's official," Natasha said, still watching him as he picked up the burnt paper and dropped it with a satisfied smile in the trashcan.

"Not the first time I've heard that," he said. He crossed towards her and put his hands on the table's edge on either side of her hips. His face was soft as he looked at her, his blue eyes clear and poignant as they always were. Natasha's eyes heated to a darker green, and she tilted her head back a little farther so she could see his face fully.

"Thank you," she said. "For…for everything. For burning the documents and for helping cook and for what you said."

Clint shook his head. "Thank you for telling me what you did."

"It was only fair," Natasha replied. Unable to hold back anymore, she put a hand on his solid chest and firmly rubbed it. "You told me about some of the shit in your life. It was about time I told you some of mine."

"That's not why I told you, Nat," he said, disturbed by the thought that she was going off of the whole "owing" system again. Quickly, Natasha nodded in agreement with a frown marring her face.

"I know," she said. "And that's not why I told you, either. I just…I don't know."

"I don't know, either," Clint murmured back to her. It felt so good whenever she touched him. Her hands were calloused but perfect. Even through the fabric of his shirt, he could feel her warmth, could feel the heat she left behind her. He leaned down and kissed her on the forehead, noticing how she closed her eyes and softly smiled. "Basically, ever since you showed up in my life at the beginning of the year, I don't know shit about anything."

"I tend to have that effect on people," she replied with a smile.

"You're an asshole. You know that?"

"Of course." She smiled at him, and then he kissed her.

I love you, he thought. I love you, I love you, I love you.


Chapter Text

Chapter 24

Over the next month, Clint and Natasha slowly stopped making a huge effort to hide every part of their relationship. Clint allowed himself to look at her a few seconds longer than he would have before when he and Natasha were around other people, and he noticed that she would do little things like touch his arm or allow her hand to brush against his as she passed the salt to him. Little by little, they stopped hiding.

"So I heard from a reliable source that you and Barton are partners," Maria's voice distracted Natasha from the mission profile she was looking over in the hall on the bench outside the training rooms. Natasha looked up from the piece of paper, and she looked at the dark-haired agent with calm eyes.

"STRIKE Team: Delta. Not exactly news," she replied coolly.

"I'm not stupid, and neither are you," Maria said with an uncharacteristic smirk. She crossed towards the redheaded assassin and sat down beside her. "So how long has it been going on?"

Natasha thought about denying it still—she knew she was good enough to convince Maria that she and Clint weren't really a thing—but she didn't. Instead, she just smiled and tilted her head coquettishly to the side. "How'd you figure us out?"

"Please, I'm just as observant as you are about these things. It's no secret that you and Barton are inseparable. I don't know how long this thing between you two has been going, but from the very first day he brought you in, you were together all the time. Though at first, it wasn't his choice," Maria said. "After Budapest, though…something changed."

"Budapest was…an eye-opening experience," Natasha said vaguely. Maria lifted her eyebrows.

"Eye-opening? That's all you're going to give me?" she asked. Natasha grinned and nodded her head.

"I'm a spy. I don't give away my secrets so easily," she said. "How do you think I earned the name Black Widow?"

"I'm assuming since Barton's still walking around, ripping men's heads off after sex isn't something you incorporate into the Black Widow title," Maria said mildly. Natasha wished she could have hidden her laugh back, but she couldn't. She threw her head back and laughed heartily.

"Well. I guess you are observant," she said. Good-naturedly, Maria stared at her, and then she narrowed her eyes at the redhead.

"I'm watching you," she said. "Just keep that in mind. Whenever you and Barton think you're safe from these prying eyes…you're not."

"I will keep that in mind, Agent Hill. Thank you for that intimidating warning," Natasha said in her typical dry voice. Maria grinned and then looked down at the mission report in Natasha's lap.

"Coulson got you on a new one?" she asked. Natasha sighed and shook her head.

"Not really," she said. "More like a new strategy for an old mission. We've been hunting someone who keeps slipping away."

"I always love those missions. Well. If anyone can track someone down, it's STRIKE Team: Delta," Maria said.

"I hope so," Natasha murmured, though it was directed more towards herself than Maria. She could feel Maria's blue eyes on her, and she glanced over in her direction. "What? I can feel you staring."

"Just be careful," Maria said seriously. "Be very careful."

"On the mission?" Natasha asked, lifting her red eyebrows in confusion. "I'm always careful."

"Well, with that and with Barton," Maria replied. She opened her mouth to speak and then closed it, her thoughts racing behind her eyes as she thought of the right way to word it. "I know you don't need a lecture from me. You're one of the most level-headed people I know around here, Natasha—"

"But…" Natasha interrupted, knowing that Maria wasn't going somewhere she exactly wanted with this. Maria's face took on a guilty look, and she tilted her head to the side slightly as she surveyed the spy in front of her.

"Sometimes romance is more dangerous than violence," she said evenly. "But I think you know that more than anyone else does."

A flash of something passed over Natasha's eyes, and she nodded. "Yeah. I do."

"Don't get hurt. And don't hurt Barton. He's a pain in the ass, but he's useful around here." The corners of Maria's mouth slid up into a smile, and Natasha couldn't help but return the smile.

"I won't," she said innocently. "Scout's honor."

"I'm holding you to that, Romanoff," Maria said, pulling herself into a standing position. "If you hurt him, you're going to be held 100% accountable."

"I will keep that in mind, Hill. I promise you I will not hurt the archer," Natasha answered. Maria's smile widened, and she took a few steps backwards in the direction she'd come in.

"Good. I'll see you around, Natasha. We should catch lunch later if you're not busy," she said.

"That sounds perfect. I'll see you later," Natasha replied, smiling as she watched the dark-haired agent walk off. She knew that Maria had meant to warn her of the risks that being in a relationship with her partner could bring, but she'd already thought all of those things through. She'd been thinking nonstop about them since she and Clint had started whatever it was that they were doing now, but she found that she was willing to take the risks.

There was something about being with Clint that left her feeling more satisfied than she could ever remember feeling. That had to mean something. For a while, in the beginning, she'd considered the fact that she might be feeling some kind of fucked up attraction to him as a result of him taking her away from Voloshin and Russia—the whole savior complex. But as time had progressed, and she'd gotten to know him more…as she'd gotten to know herself more…she hadn't been able to deny the fact that she was attracted to him because he was him. He was just so…Clint.

It wasn't like her to trust anyone easily—God, that was what her training had been against her entire life. She'd learned to never trust anyone, and yet, here she was trusting Clint and opening up to him in ways that she never could have imagined herself doing before she'd met him. Opening up meant making herself vulnerable, and no one had seen her more vulnerable than Clint.

Surely that meant something. It had to. If it didn't, this feeling she had towards him wouldn't feel so terrifying and so undeniably right all at the same time.

"The Omega. Who wants to call themselves the Omega?" Natasha asked and wrinkled her nose. "If you're going to have a badass villain name, you might as well choose like, the Alpha or something like that."

"That's so cliché, though," Clint argued. "The Omega is the last letter of the Greek alphabet. It's the end. His name could be symbolizing the end."

"I guess so," Natasha conceded. "All I know is that I'm tired of hunting him down. We've been on his ass for what, a month now?"

"Something like that." Clint shifted in his seat and looked out the window of the jet, taking in the sight of the light sky and the fluffy clouds. He really did enjoy flying; if he could choose any method of transportation, it would definitely be airplane. Then again, he always had loved heights.

For the past month, he and Natasha had been hunting a man known only as the Omega, the leader of a major drug trafficking circle in Chicago that was starting to spread throughout the nation. To say that STRIKE Team: Delta felt frustrated at not having been able to capture the Omega yet was an understatement—they were beyond frustrated. They'd been able to complete every other mission over the past month successfully, but the Omega still managed to get away from them every single time.

"He's got to have the jump somehow," Clint had said to Agent Coulson at their last meeting before they'd gone up into the plane.

"How? Are you suggesting we have a double agent among us?" Coulson had asked with a frown. "Because the only people who know about this job are the two of you, Fury, and me. No one else knows about this mission because the mission's too high-risk."

"Well, I can promise you that neither Clint nor I is trying to give the Omega anything but a nice, swift kick in the ass," Natasha had said drily. "I think he's just really good at giving us the slip. He knows how to keep his head down. Come on—he's a drug lord, one of the most hardcore drug lords we've ever come across, so of course he's going to be good at getting away from us. We've tracked him from Miami to Detroit, now we're tracking him to Chicago. He's picked up a pattern."

"A pattern that we've gotten off of him and his movements," Clint had pointed out.

"That's what he's trying to do. Get us moving in a pattern and throw us off. He wants us to think that we're chasing after what's important, but we're not," Natasha had said. "SHIELD has found more of his men in minor cities setting up more connections and forming more networks. He's expanding. He's trying to get us to follow him to these big cities while he has his other men doing his dirty work for him."

"But if we catch him, we catch the others," Coulson had said. That had been the part they weren't quite sure how to complete successfully.

As Clint sat on the airplane to Chicago with his face turned towards the sun, he thought about how Natasha was right. The Omega was leading them to all the major cities in an attempt to make them think they were going after the real problem. Yes, the Omega was leading them on a wild goose chase, but that was the point. He wanted them to chase him so that they'd be thrown off the scent of the new circles he was building in the smaller cities. It all made sense—even Coulson had agreed and established more teams to cover the small cities that had already established contact with the Omega.

"He knows who we are," Natasha said, frowning as she also looked out the window. "After our last mission where he got our picture, he'll be looking for us just as much as we'll be looking for him."

Clint thought back to their last Omega mission. They'd engaged in a car chase with the Omega, and they'd wound up nearly careening over the edge of a high bridge as the Omega—masked and cloaked to boot like a stereotypical fucking villain out of a comic book—had stopped his car and jumped over the edge to where a helicopter had been waiting below for him. As the helicopter had lifted up into the air, the Omega dangling off the side, STRIKE Team: Delta had been unable to do anything but stand and watch as he'd pulled out a camera and snapped their picture.

"Well, that's why we have the jump on him," Clint said. Natasha pulled her gaze back towards him and regarded him with cool green eyes.

"Do we?" she challenged. "Do we actually have the jump on him this time, or is he just one more step ahead of us?"

Clint wet his lips and shrugged his shoulders, helpless. "I don't know, Nat. I don't know. I'm trying to think positively here."

"Hey. BlackHawk. I need to fit you for your comm devices," Palmer said as he approached the two of them. He held out the familiar earpieces, one in each hand, towards the agents. "Put those in. I made some cool new adjustments to them, and I think you'll like them."

"You're an inventor, too? I thought you were just a computer genius," Natasha said as she took her earpiece from Palmer. The dark-haired agent smiled at her with a smug look that made her think he'd been hanging around with Clint for too long.

"I know a little something about something," he said. "The sound should be like, 30x clearer, and if you wanted to wirelessly connect to an iPod and listen to your music, you could do that. But I don't suggest doing that on this mission."

"Dammit, Palmer. You got me. I was definitely going to do that," Clint said flatly. "But these are cool. I'll remember that for the next time I want to listen to music without anyone knowing I'm listening to music."

"That'd be nice for Fury's next meeting," Natasha said with a smirk. Clint's eyes widened at the idea.

"You're right!" he exclaimed. He squinted his eyes and looked up at Palmer, who was now standing with his arms over his chest and trying not to look like he felt accomplished and satisfied with himself. "Palmer, sometimes you're not 100% useless."

"Thanks, I love you, too," Palmer said. "I'm going to head back to my gear and get set up. Last I heard, we had 15 minutes until landing."

"Perfect. See you later, man."

"Bye, guys." Palmer turned and left the room, once again leaving Clint and Natasha to themselves. Natasha tapped on the device in her ear to make sure that it was in, and she tried to fight the nervous feeling in the pit of her stomach. The mission had become strangely personal to her over the past few months; she didn't like failing at what she was good at. She didn't like having to go back and report to Director Fury that she hadn't been able to follow through because the bad guy had outsmarted, and that was exactly what she'd had to do the past two missions.

She glanced over at Clint and watched him fiddle with his own earpiece. She knew he didn't really like having them in because he didn't like anything messing with his hearing. All of his senses were sharper than hers ever could have been, and for her to admit that was saying something about Clint Barton and his abilities. His hearing and his eyesight were uncannily on point, whereas hers were just slightly better than average.

The Omega had pissed Natasha off a long time ago, but she was determined to get him now. She looked down at her gloves to make sure that her Widow's Bites were in place. Everything was exactly where it should be, but she knew she'd keep checking it up until the last moment. Hell, she knew she'd be in their stakeout position and checking her gear, even though by then it'd be too late to gear up.

"I want to get this guy, Clint," she said out loud. "I don't want to chase after him anymore."

"Me, too," Clint agreed. "We've got this. We're STRIKE Team: Delta."

Natasha gave him a wry smile. "I think you like saying our title more than Coulson does."

"What can I say? It's a cool title. We sound badass," Clint said with a small smile. "And we are badass enough to take care of the Omega tonight. Once and for all."

"I hope so," Natasha said thoughtfully. "I keep running through the plan over and over in my head. I know it, but…it's just more out of habit. For if I freeze up, and I completely forget everything I was supposed to do."

"You won't," Clint genuinely replied. "Trust me. I'm doing the same thing in my own head."

Natasha looked back out the window and took a deep breath to calm her nerves. If this were any other mission, she would have felt ok. Had it been their first mission to catch the Omega, she would have felt perfectly at ease, but now she was done. She was completely done with chasing after this asshole while he continued to dangle under SHIELD's nose on purpose.

SHIELD had received word that the Omega would be meeting with some other important drug lords in the area in a warehouse right on the outskirts of Chicago. One of those drug lords was an undercover SHIELD who'd been working for a year and a half to maintain this cover, so if tonight went badly, it could mean an agent's death. She and Clint were supposed to take cover in the warehouse across the street and wait for the Omega, who always showed up last to meetings.

Once the other drug lords were inside, the undercover agent would make his move with a SHIELD tactical team to back him up while Clint and Natasha covered the Omega outside. It was simple enough, Natasha told herself silently. She'd done stuff like this before. Clint was supposed to take his position up high, and she was going to be his ground back up. She was good at doing that—she'd always been good at having his back since their first mission together.

"We've got this," she said out loud, though it was more to herself than to Clint.

"Of course we do. We're…what did Palmer call us again?"

"BlackHawk. It's kind of original."

"Yeah, it was. Well. We're BlackHawk. We've got this." Clint turned his piercing blue eyes on her, his expression completely calm and relaxed. "I've got your back."

"And I've got yours."

After three hours of being crouched in the same position, Natasha was ready to cut off her own legs. It wasn't necessary for her to remain in the same spot, but she liked challenging herself and seeing how long she could go; three hours wasn't her record, but she was well on her way to just throwing in the towel right now.

"The one thing I hate about stakeouts is how early we have to be," she said quietly to Clint.

"I don't mind it," Clint easily replied. "Just as long as I'm not perched on top of a building getting sunburned."

"Clint, you need to get over your irrational hatred of Texas. It really wasn't that bad at all," Natasha gently chastised. She heard him snort beside her, and she looked over at him. The warehouse they were hiding out in was dark, and she couldn't see much, but she could at least make out that he was wearing his night glasses now that night had fallen. She could also see that he was in his full SHIELD uniform, complete with fancy-schmancy quiver that Natasha didn't like to get near since it was so complicated. Every time she tried to tell Clint his quiver was complicated, he'd try to show her how it wasn't complicated, but he only wound up confusing her even more as he quickly breezed through the settings and explanations.

"Let you get sunburned after five hours in the sun, and then let's talk," Clint retorted. "Where the hell is this guy? All the other drug lords are in there, and he's at least 15 minutes late now. They're all just stalling in there."

"He'll be here. Hopefully," Natasha said. "If he caught wind of this and split town, I'm going to be so pissed."

"I love dogs, I know all of the Gettysburg Address, and I've seen The Princess Bride at least 20 times," Clint said suddenly, his voice still low. Natasha grinned as she realized what he was doing to pass the time. Admittedly, getting a game going would get her noisy mind away from her cramping leg muscles.

"Gettysburg address," she thoughtfully guessed.

"Wrong. I know the Gettysburg Address by heart."

"Princess Bride?"

"Yeah, that was it. Even though I've seen it probably 15 times," Clint said with a smug look on his face. "Your turn."

"My favorite color is purple, I like cats, and I have a secret stash of Sour Patch Kids in my room."

Clint couldn't help the quiet chuckle that escaped from his mouth. "Purple. I already know about your Sour Patch Kids."

"How?" Natasha exclaimed with shock. "I keep those hidden!"

"I'm not blind, Natasha. You forget that my eyes are sharp. I know you keep your Sour Patch Kids inside the vase on your table," Clint said, now looking pleased with himself.

"Fine. You win that round. And yes, you were right. The lie was purple. I don't like purple," she said. "It looks horrible with my hair."

"So what is your favorite color?" Clint asked, glancing curiously at her.

"Blue," she said, and she turned her head to look at him. "All shades of blue. Light blue, dark blue…just kind of blue in general."

"Blue's a good color," Clint agreed.

"It also goes with the red hair." Natasha looked down ruefully at her long red hair before looking back up and out the window to scan the street. Even though she was playing this ridiculous game with Clint, she could still keep a watch out for the Omega—God, what a fucking stupid name that was. "Your turn, Hawkeye."

"I hate wearing sweaters more than I hate Texas, I love you, and I don't think people who wear sunglasses indoors are douchebags," Clint said, his voice even and casual. Natasha froze as she heard the second possible truth or lie, and she turned to face Clint with huge green eyes.

"What did you say?" she breathed.

"What?" Clint shot back, giving her a strange look. She couldn't see his blue eyes behind his night glasses, but she could feel them staring at her. Silently, she repeated his words to her over and over again; each time the result came out the same—he'd told he loved her.

"Clint…" Her voice died away as she thought of what to say. She didn't know what to do, how to respond. Clint loved her. Truthfully, it didn't come as a surprise. She'd known it for a while now. Jesus, she'd known it since Budapest, maybe even a little bit before, but she'd chosen to ignore it because that was how she dealt with things like this.

"Get down," Clint suddenly snapped, his voice all business, and without hesitating, she ducked. As soon as her head got below the window, the glass exploded, and bullets began pouring in. "Shit!"

"I think he found us!" Natasha shouted to her partner without chancing a look in his direction.

"You think?" Clint retorted with a half-smirk on his face. "At least the glass is taken care of for us."

He stood up and whipped around to aim out the window, launching one arrow out the window so fast Natasha barely saw it. She never got tired of watching Clint shoot; she saw the muscles in his back lock as he got into his perfect stance and pulled his arm back to let loose another arrow. He ducked back down. "I hit someone, but I don't think it was the Omega."

"Got a grenade arrow in there somewhere?" Natasha asked. Clint nodded without hesitation.

"Of course I do. Think I'd come unprepared?" he countered.

"You got me there. I'm going to make my way down into position since he knows we're here." Natasha turned and ran down, catching Clint's quick nod to acknowledge that he'd heard her. The bullets had stopped, and she let her senses become aware of everything around her as she ran through the darkness, one hand against the wall to keep her from running into anything. She would have killed for a pair of Clint's night glasses just then.

She raced down the stairs one flight at a time until she was down at the first floor. Running to the right, she got herself into position, and she looked out the window onto the street in front of her. "Hawkeye, do you have a visual on the Omega?"

"No. I never even had one on him in the first place. Dammit," Clint hissed back into her ear.

"I'm not getting one on him, either," she replied. "Where the hell is he? Are you getting a visual on anyone at all?"

"No. I'm going to go scope out from the floor above me. Maybe I'll be able to see something from up there," Clint said.

"Roger that," Natasha shortly replied.

Clint started running out the door and towards the stairs when a door suddenly smashed into his face.

"Fuck!" he exclaimed and backed up, dazed from the blow. As he continued to back away, he heard something reaching out for him in the darkness. He quickly lifted his head and blocked the strike from someone's arm coming from the side to hit him square in the center of his temple. He couldn't see who it was, but he knew enough to know that someone was trying to hurt him, and he was going to be damned if he let that happen.

He advanced on his assailant, still feeling his head spin with each step he took. He didn't need a doctor to tell him that he had a slight concussion from that painful collision with the door—he'd gotten enough of them in his day to know when he was concussed. His night glasses were sitting askew on the bridge of his nose from him having run into the damn door, but he could still see just fine through the crooked angle. The only thing that was really messing with his fighting ability was his head feeling like it was turning around and around on top of his neck. Unexpectedly, his attacker brought his elbow down on the back of his head, and Clint went down to the ground, his glasses clattering off into the darkness. He didn't even notice some of his arrows fall out onto the ground behind him, nor did he notice his attacker picking them up.

As his eyes quickly tried to sweep the darkness for his glasses, he knew he didn't have enough time to find them and pull them back on. Instead, he just got up and started running. "Black Widow, I've encountered an unknown attacker, and I'm in pursuit in the North side hallway heading up the Northwest corner stairwell."

"Got it, Hawkeye," Natasha said back in his ear. "Need back up?"

"I'd love some, Black Widow," he smartly replied. Natasha turned and started out the room, hurrying as quickly as she could to the Northwest corner stairwell.

"Palmer, what's my quickest route?" she asked.

"The way you're going right now is the quickest. The only other stairwell that would get you there quicker is shut down," Palmer replied. Natasha saw movement out of the corner of her eye, and she turned and blocked the hit. Easily, she moved forward, kicking and swinging herself around her attacker so that she clocked him in the jaw with her heel. He staggered backwards, and she heard the sound of a knife being pulled. She really, really wished she had a pair of Clint's glasses. She watched with tensed muscles as the dark shape ran towards her. It was too dark to really tell where his knife was, so she would have to go down instead of around.

"Black Widow, I could really use some help," Clint said into her earpiece.

"Working on it," she said quickly as she braced herself for the man's attack as he raced towards her. She saw him pull his arm up, and she ran, sliding between his legs and yanking one of his legs out from underneath him as she came out on the other side. He fell to the ground with a loud thump, and she took the opportunity to jump on top of him and stun him with her Widow's Bites. Just like that, he was immobilized. Quickly, Natasha snatched up his knife, and she disarmed him. She was resourceful if nothing else, and she was more than happy to take his weapons with her.

Mentally, she thanked the SHIELD uniform design team for putting in so many pockets because they definitely came in handy for moments like this. She put her hand up to her comm device. "Where are you now, Hawkeye?"

"Running down the North hallway. Fourth floor," Clint breathed back, his voice sounding as if he'd been running for a while.

"On my way," Natasha replied, and she started to run.

 Clint rounded the corner, sprinting as fast as he could. It was so goddamn dark, and he could barely see shit since that fucking asshole had ripped his night glasses off. He'd have to rely on his hearing, the one sense he relied on just as much as he did his eyesight. He slowed down after he turned the corner, and he tried to listen as hard and as acutely as he possibly could. Where the hell had the guy gone?

He took a step forward. There was just darkness. Darkness and silence and nothing else. Clint couldn't even hear the sound of his own breathing, that was how quiet he was trying to be. Suddenly, an idea came to him. If he took out his earpiece, he'd be able to hear more, and he desperately needed every ounce of hearing he could get in this current situation. He knew he was risking a lot by removing his comm device, but he needed all of his senses to be at 100%, and the earpiece was blocking a good portion of the hearing out of his right ear. Quietly and cautiously, he took it out, putting it in his pocket, and he took another step forward. Still nothing. Mentally swearing, he wished he'd thought to grab an extra pair of glasses the way he always did. Of course, the one time he needed them, and he wouldn't have—

Clint didn't get to finish his thought because the sound of movement behind him caught his attention. However, he was too late. As soon as his ears registered the fact that he wasn't alone, there was a blinding, excruciating pain that emanated from both sides of his head. He couldn't think, he couldn't breathe, he couldn't see. All that there was, all that existed was agonizing, white-hot pain. He didn't even realize he'd let out a scream of pain. There was just that burning—oh, God, it was consuming him. There was nothing left but the pain and the darkness—oh, God. God, he couldn't move. God—oh, God—there was so much pain.


Natasha froze at the sound of the scream that ripped throughout the dark warehouse. Without waiting, she began to run faster than before.

"Clint?!" she shouted, no longer bothering to be quiet. "Clint, where are you?!"

She tried to guess where the sound had come from, and she just ran. It had been the sound of his voice. That had been Clint's scream—she would know his voice anywhere, but even so, she'd never heard that kind of sound come from him before. He'd never made a sound that sounded anywhere close to that even. Her heart started to pick up with fear, and she tasted her terror in the back of her throat.

"Clint! Where the fuck are you?!" she shouted, the tone of her voice rising higher. She could hear gasps and pained, tight cries. Her chest tightened even more as she recognized Clint's voice. She was close, but she couldn't fucking see. Pulling her flashlight out, she turned wildly about her as she tried to identify the location. Panic started to rise up in every muscle of her body. Clint was making those godawful sounds, and she couldn't find him. Where the fuck was he?

The cries began to sound off from her right, and she picked up her pace, full out sprinting to get to him. She had to find him—Jesus, where was he—she couldn't get to him fast enough; she couldn't run quick enough. She made her legs move faster and faster, and then, there in the dark, she saw him lying on the ground.

He was covered in blood and holding his ears, making those horrible noises that didn't even sound like they were coming from him. Natasha ran to him and knelt on the floor to find where he was hit.

"Clint—oh, fuck—fuck—Clint, talk to me. Where are you—show me where you're hit. Clint—fucking Christ—Clint—" The words tumbled out of her mouth quicker than she could process as her hands pressed all over his chest, his torso, his forearms. She couldn't stop touching him as she tried to find his wounds. Pressing one hand to her ear, she shouted into her comm device. "Hawkeye's down! We need immediate medical assistance! Get someone here, now!"

"Black Widow, there's a bit of a delay—"

"Now, Palmer! Track my location!" Her voice became sharp and lethal as the hysteria began to rise up inside her. She looked down and lowered her hand as she kept trying to search him. And then she saw several feet away from him were two arrows. Each covered in blood. Frantically, she looked down at Clint and saw him covering his ears, and it hit her. "Oh, God. Oh, no. Clint. Clint, look at me. Clint, can you hear me?"

He was losing consciousness and quickly as his body went into shock. Panicked, Natasha took his head in her lap, and she began to stroke his hair that was now turning a dark color from the blood leaking down into the short blond tufts.

"Get someone in here, now! I am not fucking around!" she shouted shakily into the comm device. Her hands were wet with Clint's blood; his hot, red blood was all over her hands.

"We—we have someone on the way. They're in the building right now," Palmer said quickly.

"Clint…Clint—stay with me. Do you hear me? Stay with me—you stay with me!" Natasha felt herself getting borderline hysterical, but she didn't care. The enemy had long ago disappeared, and Clint seemed to be slowly slipping away from her. Blood trickled down out of his ears, leaving red, wet trails as each stream rolled down his neck and disappeared into the black fabric of his uniform. Swallowing, Natasha kept threading her fingers through his hair as her words began to bleed together. "Staywithmestaywithmestaywithme."

Oh, Christ, his ears. The guy had stabbed Clint through the ears with two arrows. Natasha's hands were shaking uncontrollably, and she felt hot liquid falling down the sides of her face. She barely registered the medics coming up behind her and pulling her away. Somehow, she managed to find the rationality inside herself to step back and let them work on him, on her partner. Quietly and calmly, as if she hadn't just been freaking out, she backed away from the scene just enough to where she could still see without being in the way. Unable to tear her eyes away from the medics working on Clint, she knelt down to the ground and shakily picked up the arrows that had been used to stab him.

His ears—Clint's ears. All that blood. Before she could try to put a lid on it, she turned around and threw up on the ground. She coughed several times and waved off one of the medics that came near her, throwing up again and emptying her stomach onto the floor of the warehouse. Clint's blood was all over her hands. Out of habit, she wanted to run her hands through her hair, but she didn't. She couldn't get his blood in her hair.

The medics began to move him out on a stretcher, running and talking quicker than she could process, but she followed them without thinking, her entire body feeling numb as she tried to draw oxygen into her paralyzed lungs. She wasn't the one who had been injured, and yet she felt like she was going to die.

I hate wearing sweaters more than I hate Texas, I love you, and I don't think people who wear sunglasses indoors are douchebags.

His words from earlier came streaming through her brain again. It didn't feel like he'd only said them to her just moments ago. Was it moments or hours ago? God, she couldn't even tell. Everything was happening so quickly, and there was so much blood. She tried to think about how long ago it'd been as she closely followed the medics down the stairs and out of the warehouse.

I hate wearing sweaters more than I hate Texas, I love you, and I don't think people who wear sunglasses indoors are douchebags.

His blood was still on her hands. She couldn't get his blood off her hands.

Be ok, Clint. For Christ's sake, be ok. Just be ok, Clinton.

All she could do was follow along with him and the medics, but that didn't surprise her. She knew by now that wherever Clint Barton went, she would be right beside him.


Chapter Text

Chapter 25

Natasha stayed with Clint in the SHIELD van as they raced him to the closest civilian hospital, listening to Palmer shout into his earpiece that Clint was in no condition to try to make it to a SHIELD hospital. She stayed with him as the medics began to stabilize him in the van, listening to them talk in a low stream of medical terms she couldn't quite understand. She stayed with him as they wheeled him into the hospital, listening to them shout out his condition to the doctors that had already been alerted to their arrival thanks to Coulson.

She stayed with Clint until they told her that she couldn't.

As she tried to wash her hands of his blood in the bathroom, she consciously made herself breathe. She felt that if she stopped telling herself when to inhale and when to exhale, she simply wouldn't. She would stop breathing altogether, and she would dying on the outside as much as she was dying on the inside. The water rushed over her blood-stained hands, but she couldn't get the red stain completely off her skin. Pressing one soapy hand into the other, she began to scrub as hard as she could.


She jumped at the sound of Coulson's voice, completely unprepared for it. She glanced up into the mirror in front of her and saw the agent standing behind her.

"It's going to be ok," Coulson said gently. He took a few tentative steps towards Natasha as the redheaded assassin kept scrubbing her hands. There were several spots that didn't look like they were about to come clean any time soon.

"I know," Natasha replied in a steady voice. "I just needed to get the blood off my hands."

"You've been in here for a while. I thought I'd come check on you," Coulson said. Natasha nodded without looking up at him.

"It's just the blood," she said. "It won't come off. There are some spots that are being extra stubborn. Blood is so stubborn."

"It is," Coulson diplomatically answered. Natasha heard him cross towards her with more confidence in his step. "You don't have to get it all off right now."

"I know. I just want to," she said dismissively. "So how'd they know it was us?"

"We don't have to talk about the mission right now." Coulson's voice was almost too quiet, and for some reason, it pissed her off. She glanced sharply over at him with green eyes, still digging into her hands to get them clean. Why the fuck wasn't the soap doing anything? She squirted some more onto her hands and kept rubbing hard.

"I want to," she tersely replied. "I want to get out there as soon as I can. The Omega needs to be stopped. He needs to be killed. He can't do this. There are laws for a reason, and he's breaking them, and he needs to be stopped. I need to stop him."

"You will," Coulson said reassuringly. She could feel him staring at her.

"I will," she stressed firmly. "But first I've got to get…all this…blood off."


She began to scrub even harder. "It's not coming off."

"That's ok."

"It's not." She felt the pain of her skin growing more and more raw with each second. Her arms seemed to be moving all by themselves. "I've got to get it off. I can't stand feeling his blood on me. He was bleeding all over me, and I need it gone. He's so fucking stubborn."

Coulson was quiet for a few seconds. "Natasha."

"What?" The shout erupted from her throat louder than she'd expected, and she whipped her head around to glower fiercely at Agent Coulson. "I need to…" Her voice began to trail off as she blinked wildly, suddenly not knowing what she was going to say. "I need…"

"I know." Agent Coulson reached out and gently set a hand on her shoulder. Blinking hard, Natasha looked away from him and down at the sink, taking in the sight of her now unmoving hands. The water continued to rush over them, and she could feel the sting from where she'd rubbed off bits of her skin. "He's going to be ok. Just like you said—he's stubborn. He's not going to let something like this kill him."

Carefully listening to him, Natasha nodded her head. Clint was strong; he was the strongest person she'd ever known. For a brief second, she allowed herself to imagine what her life would be like without him. Life without Clint Barton didn't look like the kind of life she wanted to have. If she had to live without him, she could do it, but God, she really didn't want to.

"If I'd gotten there a little sooner—he asked for back up, and I was too slow getting there," she said quietly.

"It's not your fault," Coulson said firmly. "None of this is your fault. It's the Omega's fault. And if I know you they way I think I do, I know you're not going to let this defeat you. You're going to use this rage, this—this pain you're feeling right now, and you're going to let it fuel you when you come face to face with this son of a bitch next time. Am I right?"

Natasha looked at Coulson, her face serious. "Yes." She pressed her lips together as she tried to find the words to say. Her thoughts were swirling around in her head, and her emotions were at war in her chest, but she couldn't seem to get either side to coincide long enough for her to speak. She swallowed, her face crumpling for a few seconds as the wall in front of her heart fell. When she looked back at Coulson she looked at him with wet eyes. "I need him…to be ok."

"I know," Coulson said softly. And the thing was, Natasha knew he did.

For hours, Natasha sat with Palmer and Coulson in the waiting room. Her nervous energy threatened to tear her apart, but she used it as a challenge to keep herself calm. She could look calm if she wanted to. She'd been trained by the best of the best to look calm when she was anything but. So she looked at the magazines and read through articles of how to get the perfect smoky eye, the perfect sex noises from your partner, and the perfect summer body.

Palmer had been characteristically quiet, not offering up words of sympathy or support, nor did he pass the time by telling funny stories about the stupid shit Clint had done in the past to get everyone to laugh. He simply sat there with his eyes on the TV or on the ground, and he stayed still. And yet, Natasha could feel him silently giving her his quiet support as she gave him hers.

No one spoke about the mission or the Omega. No one spoke about what was going to happen next. They just sat there in their uncomfortable chairs and relived the night over and over again. There was no other choice. When Natasha had first sat down in the chair beside Palmer, she'd thought about how she needed to tell Clint about this. And then it struck her that she couldn't. How could she tell Clint about how worried she was about Clint when Clint was the one who was hurt?

"Do you want any coffee?" Palmer asked beside her. She nodded. "You, Coulson?"

"Yes, please."

Palmer got up and walked down the hall to find the coffee machines. Natasha looked over at him and watched him walk away. "When will forensics be able to get back to you on any fingerprints on the arrows?"

"I don't know. I haven't checked in with them. I just passed on the arrows to their department," Coulson replied. She waited for him to tell her that they shouldn't talk about the mission now, but he surprised her by not saying it. At this point, she wanted to talk; she wanted to fill the waiting area with noise so she could drown out the memory of the awful sounds that Clint had been making when she'd found him.

"I feel like we've been waiting forever," Natasha murmured out loud.

"Patience is a virtue," Coulson said wryly. She found it in herself to give him a small smile. It was odd for her to be sitting in a hospital waiting room with Agent Coulson and Agent Palmer—it was odd for her to be waiting with anyone but Clint. As she became increasingly aware of Agent Coulson's presence and Agent Palmer's offer to bring her coffee, she realized that these people were here for her just as much as they were there for Clint. The realization made her eyes sting a little bit, and she blinked several times to keep herself from crying right there on the spot.

A few minutes later, Palmer was back with two cups of coffee balanced in one hand and another cup of coffee in his other hand. Careful not to spill any of the cups, he slowly walked towards Coulson and Natasha. Natasha took hers from the tech specialist's hand and held it between her palms, allowing the hot cup to warm her hands. Even though Clint's bloodstains were still there, she'd been able to forget the feeling of his blood on her skin for a few minutes.

"They didn't have any hot tea down there," Palmer said. He didn't elaborate on the fact that he'd been looking for hot tea solely for Clint's benefit, but Natasha knew that that was why he'd said it.

Suddenly, a doctor came around the corner. "The family of Clinton Barton?"

"That's us." Coulson was up in a second. Natasha followed close beside him, Palmer on the other side as they walked up to the doctor. The doctor looked calmly and curiously at all three of them.

"My name is Dr. Parker. Are you his family?" he asked. Without hesitating, Natasha nodded.

"We're his team," she said without glancing at Palmer and Coulson beside her. "We're the closest thing he has to family."

Dr. Parker paused as he looked at all three of them, and that was when Natasha knew that she wasn't going to like what he was about to say. He took a breath. "Well, Mr. Barton was stabbed in the ears with two arrows. His body went into shock, and we nearly lost him because of that alone. The arrows ruptured his eardrums and caused severe damage to the middle and inner ear. Unfortunately, there's too much damage for us to medically repair, and as a result, that means there's not much we can do."

"What the hell does that mean?" Natasha angrily snapped. "Can he hear? Can he hear?"

"No," the doctor said simply. He stared at Natasha with sympathy in his eyes. "The damage was too severe. Mr. Barton is deaf."

"My God," Coulson breathed behind her.

Natasha balked, and she covered her hands over her face. "You're not serious."

"Ma'am…I'm so sorry," Dr. Parker genuinely replied.

"Can I go see him?" As she looked up at the doctor, she felt like a little kid asking for permission. Her eyes stung with tears, and honestly, she just wanted to get away from him so she could be with Clint. "Is he awake?"

"You can see him, but he's not awake right now. He probably won't be for another hour or so. We gave him a high dosage of painkillers to help relieve his discomfort. When he wakes up…he'll be in a great deal of pain. You'll want to think of a way to calm him down as quickly as possible because the realization that he can't hear will happen almost instantaneously. He'll be distressed and in pain." Dr. Parker gazed at her regretfully. "I'm so sorry."

Natasha didn't say anything else. She just turned and walked into the hospital room where she knew Clint lay unconscious without waiting for Coulson or Palmer. She crossed through the doorway, and she froze. Clint was lying on the bed with his eyes closed and his head wrapped in bandages. He was pale, so pale he looked like he could light up the room with how fucking pale he was. Natasha swallowed, and she took a few steps closer to him.

He's alive. He's alive. Natasha, he's alive, she silently told herself over and over. And yet, it didn't do a world of comfort as she stiffly worked her way over to the chair by his bedside and sat down. He was alive, but he'd never looked more broken or closer to death than he did right then.


"Shit," Palmer murmured out loud behind. "Shit."

"Agent Palmer—" Coulson started to speak, but he was cut off by an angry Palmer.

"Look at him. The Omega did this to him. That son of a bitch—"

"Agent Palmer." Coulson's tone was still even and quiet. "It won't do any good to be angry right now. At this moment in time, we need to focus on getting Barton better."

"Will he get better?" Palmer snapped. "He's deaf."

"That doesn't mean he's damaged," Natasha said softly. She felt Palmer and Coulson's eyes turn towards her. She remembered Clint telling her that just a month earlier when he'd learned more of her past. He'd had the faith in her to tell her that she wasn't damaged, just as she believe he wasn't damaged now, either.

Clint felt the pain before he felt his own awareness. It was dull, as if someone had pressed mute on a remote control; he knew that it was there, and he was perfectly aware of it, but he couldn't really feel it or make out where all it was spreading. He felt as though he were swimming underwater. From all the number of times he'd had to be on painkillers in the past, he knew that he was on some kind of hardcore drug that was numbing everything. His eyes weren't even open, and he was groggy and lethargic.

He had to open his eyes. The pain was starting to get worse with each passing second, and he wanted more of those drugs. He didn't like asking for pain medication, but God, this was some of the worst pain he'd ever felt. Forcing his eyes open, he blinked blearily and heavily. There was the familiar fluorescent lighting that he associated with hospitals, and if he tried to focus hard enough, he could see those pathetically thin blankets over his lap. Off to his right, there was a flash of red, and he tried to focus on that. Fuck, the pain was overwhelming.

There was warmth covering his hand. As his eyes began to focus, he saw Natasha. She was holding his hand and bringing it up to her throat. Natasha. Despite the pain, there was a warmth that filled his stomach to see her there. "Tash."

He knew he'd spoken, but he hadn't heard his voice speaking. He tried to open his mouth again, but Natasha looked at him with those green eyes of hers, and he saw her shaking her head at him. Frowning, he tried to figure out what she was saying. She was speaking, but he wasn't getting what she was saying.

"Can't—can't hear." Alarm started to fill his body as he realized that he couldn't hear himself speak again. Beneath his fingertips, he could feel the warm vibrations of Natasha's voice as she started talking. Blinking, Clint stared at her as she carefully lowered his hand, held up one finger for him to wait, and she started to write something down.

Clint knew what she was going to write before she'd finished writing. As he became more aware of his surroundings, he became more aware of his memory. He remembered being in the dark warehouse and then that pain. He remembered the pain in all its full swells before it'd been placed on mute the way it was now. His throat tightened as he realized that he had bandages wrapped around his head to cover his ears.

Natasha lifted the thing she'd been writing on so Clint could see that it was a notebook, and he saw what she'd written.

Back in the warehouse, someone took two of your arrows and stabbed you in the ears with them. Your eardrums are ruptured, and your middle and inner ear suffered severe damage.

"Ruptured?" Clint mumbled out loud as more of the fogginess continued to wear off. Clarity was slowly starting to return to him, but he couldn't seem to figure out how to make his mouth move for more than a few syllables at a time. Natasha looked at him with an expression he couldn't identify, and then she lowered her head to start writing again.

You're deaf.

Clint stared at the notebook when he saw the two words. The cloud over his brain caused by the medication seemed to lift a little bit as the shock of the words Natasha had written set deep into his bones. Frowning, his blue eyes darted over to her. He wanted to shake his head in disbelief, but he was in too much pain. Honestly, he felt that if he so much as moved his head, it'd explode into a thousand pieces. Natasha stared back painfully at him, and Clint knew that she wasn't fucking around—this wasn't the kind of joke she'd pull, anyway.

"Fix it?" It was strange—knowing he was speaking but not being able to really hear it. Panic started to make his chest feel tight. He didn't even know how loud he was speaking. He couldn't hear Natasha speak—that was why she'd put his hand to her throat when he'd woken up; he would know she was speaking to him.

There was too much damage.

"I—I can't—I don't—what—" Clint stopped talking as he realized that he still couldn't hear himself speak. And he wouldn't. With huge eyes, he gaped at Natasha. She looked so relieved and pained all at the same time. She took his hand again and placed it on the side of her neck again, moving forward so that she was sitting on the edge of his bed. Her lips moved, but he couldn't hear what she'd said. He could make out what looked like his name, and he could feel the vibrations of her voice again, but he couldn't hear her.

The panic began to flood in even more, and he started to breathe heavily. Suddenly, the room was spinning around him as he tried to catch his breath. Natasha was there, but she wasn't there, and all he could do was try to hear. He wanted to rip the bandages off his ears to show her that no, he really was fine. The only reason he couldn't hear was because the damn bandages had been there in the first place.

His chest grew so tight he thought he was having a heart attack. The room was too fucking small, and he couldn't stay there. He needed to be up high where he could breathe in the fresh air and see for miles and miles all around him—he'd be able to hear up there. He wouldn't be able to do a damn thing in here with all these walls around him. Everything was so closed in down here. Suddenly, Natasha's face was right in front of his, and she was holding either side of his face, shaking her head at him. She didn't bother trying to speak, but he could see she was telling him no.

Natasha kept shaking her head as she looked down at the stricken look on her partner's face. Clint's blue eyes were cloudy from a mixture of pain, shock, and pain medication, but they were bright and alert with panic. Generally, the archer was good at keeping himself closed off when it came to his thoughts and emotions, but just then, everything was written across his face as plain as day. He was terrified and horrified.

All of a sudden, his body went slack as he'd given up a fight, and he stared at her with those broken eyes of his. She kept her hands on his face, lightly touching his forehead and smoothing back the bits of his hair that were sticking up through the gauze bandages around his head. Without turning his head, he looked away and off to the side, blinking rapidly and painfully.

Quickly, she pulled her hands away from him and scribbled something down on the notebook. She placed her hand on his arm, and he looked back.

You're going to be ok.

But as she showed him what she'd written, despite how strong she wanted to be for him just then, two tears fell from her eyes. She tried to press her lips tightly together to keep her emotions inside, to keep staying strong for him when he needed her to be, but she failed at it. Once those tears had fallen, more began to follow.

Clint's face crumpled as he saw hers fall apart. He began blinking even more quickly, the strange silence overwhelming, but then Natasha had moved farther up, and she'd leaned forward, and his head was against her chest where he didn't have to fall apart where she could see him. She gave him the privacy he needed while still being there with him.

Natasha didn't go back out into the waiting room until all signs of her tears were gone. Right after the doctor had come in, thoroughly examined a stony-faced Clint, explained his condition to him, and given him more painkillers to knock him out, Natasha's eyes were still red. She didn't want Palmer and Coulson to see her tearful and vulnerable, so she stayed by Clint's side.

He'd taken it better and worse than she'd hoped for all at the same time. She'd expected anger from him, a stubborn determination that she was wrong, even. But he hadn't given her that at all. He'd been accepting of it, almost as if he'd been expecting her to give him that diagnosis. He'd only fallen apart briefly, and it was because he'd seen her being a mess. Inside, Natasha chastised herself for breaking down in front of him like that. Her crying had been the last thing he should have seen, and yet, she'd been unable to help herself. When he'd opened his eyes, she'd felt relieved and afraid, unable to separate the two feelings from each other. He was awake, but she couldn't tell him just how she was feeling in that moment when she had to tell him about his hearing.

After the doctor had left, she'd moved back to her spot by his side, and she'd laid her hand gently on his cheek. The medicine already coursing through his veins, he'd turned his hand slightly into her palm as a look of peace came over his features. She'd moved her hand up to his hair, threading her fingers through and smoothing the unruly blond tufts the way she knew he liked.

As she walked back into the waiting room, Coulson and Palmer looked up to see her. Coulson was by her in a heartbeat. "Did he wake up? How is he?"

"He woke up. He was…upset." The word didn't feel right in her mouth; it didn't feel right to use it to describe Clint's feelings as that. He'd been more than upset—he'd been angry and panicked and devastated, but she couldn't bring herself to say that. Instead, she swallowed hard and kept her face calm and relaxed. "Thank you. For letting me be there with him when he woke up. To give him the news."

"I knew he'd take it the best from you," Coulson said quietly. "What's happening now?"

"He was in a lot of pain, so the doctor came in and checked him and gave him some more painkillers." Natasha felt like a robot answering any and all questions thrown her direction. "Last time I saw him, he was asleep."

"Good," Coulson said. "I'm going to do another coffee run. Do you want any?"

"Yes. Black is good," she murmured.

"I'm fine," Palmer added in a flat monotone. Coulson nodded once, and then he was gone. Silently, Natasha crossed to the chair beside Palmer, and she sat down.

"How was he really?" Palmer asked, his voice soft. Natasha considered lying to him, too, but when she looked up and saw the knowing look in his eyes, she knew he couldn't. She forgot that he knew Clint better than she did in some ways; in the back of her mind, she knew she should have known.

"Not good," she said in a stilted tone. "He was very upset."

"What the hell are we going to do," Palmer mumbled, the question open for anyone to answer. Natasha wished that someone would answer it for her because she didn't know.

"I don't know," she said honestly. She glanced over at Palmer. "Does he know American Sign Language?"

"Uh, kind of." Palmer didn't look at her. "He's fluent in it, but I don't remember the last time he used it. He had to learn it for SHIELD training."

"Good," Natasha said. "Mine's a bit rusty, but I can brush up on it."

"Coulson was talking about hearing aids, too," Palmer added.

"Good. Good. They'll be top of the line, too. If Coulson's getting involved," she replied.

"Yeah. He still has to be able to function and shoot straight," Palmer said, though from the way he said it, Natasha wondered if he were forcing the sound of a positive attitude because he didn't sound convinced at all of anything. She glanced at him again and saw him frowning at the floor.

"He doesn't need his hearing to shoot," she said. "He still has his eyes."

"Yeah. He does," Palmer vaguely answered.

"He speaks with his eyes and his hands. He'll be ok." Natasha knew that her voice sounded fake even to herself, and she knew she hadn't convinced Palmer of anything by the way that he finally glanced up at her. However, he didn't call her out on it. He nodded and let her think she'd done something in some way to comfort him.

Coulson walked back with two cups of coffee in his hand. Eagerly, Natasha stretched up and took her cup from him; she had a feeling that she'd be living on this stuff as long as Clint was here. She knew that Coulson planned to have Clint transported out of here to a SHIELD hospital as soon as Clint was stable enough to be moved, and really, she couldn't wait for that to happen. It wasn't much of a difference to be in a SHIELD hospital versus a civilian hospital, but Natasha could use any bit of familiarity to her.

"As soon as he's healed, I want to get him fitted for hearing aids straight away," Coulson said. "Did the doctor say anything about when he'll be stable enough for transportation?"

Natasha shook her head. "No. He just came in and wrote everything down for Clint to read about what had happened to him. He didn't say much to me."

"I'll have to ask him then." Coulson took a sip of his coffee, not even seeming to notice that it was still steaming until after the hot liquid touched his lips. "Dammit. That's hot. Palmer, do you want to go sit with him for a while?"

Palmer silently nodded and got up, walking away without so much as a look back towards the two agents. Natasha looked down at the dark cup of coffee in her hands, and she wished that she were anywhere but there. She wished that she were back in that warehouse but only a few minutes faster. She wished that she were beside Clint when that figure in the dark had tried to run at him. She wished that she'd done anything else.

She'd told Clint that he would be ok, and she didn't doubt it because he was Clint Barton—he was Hawkeye. She just needed him to believe it, too.


Chapter Text

Chapter 26

Clint woke up several times over the next few hours, and each time, his eyes searched until he found Natasha. He didn't say anything, and Natasha wasn't sure if it was because he was choosing not to speak or if he were too drugged up to speak, but she knew that he saw her and acknowledged her being there with him. And for the first time, she didn't think about what Coulson or Palmer would do if they saw her with him. When Clint was awake, she sat on the edge of his bed and touched some part of him without saying anything, sometimes occasionally saying his name softly. She touched his hand or his forehead, or most often, she gently brushed her hand through his hair because she knew he loved that more than anything in the world.

Palmer was the first one to bring it up when Coulson was out making phone calls in the hall.

"He loves you," he said evenly in a steady matter of fact voice. Natasha looked over at Palmer, her hand still running through Clint's hair as he finally gave up the fight to stay awake. Palmer looked at her with his light brown eyes. "He really, really loves you."

I hate wearing sweaters more than I hate Texas, I love you, and I don't think people who wear sunglasses indoors are douchebags.

She could hear Clint's low, warm voice breaking through the silence of the warehouse, the words melting out of his mouth. She could hear the exact way he'd said "I love you." At the moment, she hadn't paid much attention to it because she hadn't been expecting it—he'd just said it. But later, as she'd played the words over and over in her mind while she'd lightly touched a barely conscious Clint to let him know that she was there with him, she'd noticed more details about the way he'd said it. Soft and gentle and confident. He loved her. He really and truly loved her.

And as she looked at Clint's unconscious face, the square lines of his skull wrapped in gauze bandages, she knew that she loved him, too. God, she loved him the way she loved the smell of his shampoo. She loved him the way she loved listening to him play guitar. She loved him the way she loved watching his perfect form before he relaxed his hand and let his arrows fly. She loved him the way she loved his lips on her neck, his hand on her hip, his skin against hers. She loved him the way she loved the rain.

Just as she'd known for a while that Clint loved her, she knew that deep down, she'd loved him for longer than she'd ever had a clue. She tried to think about the exact moment she'd starting loving him, but she couldn't pinpoint that one, solitary second that had been the starting point for her. She just knew that she loved him now. He was so perfect and so imperfect that it drove her crazy. There were so many things he did that annoyed the hell out of her. She hated that he wouldn't throw his empty pizza boxes out for like, a week, and she hated that he liked dogs over cats. She hated how he could take just one look at her and know that she was upset. But God, she loved him for it, too. She loved each and every little thing she hated about him because it was a part of him, and she loved him.

The realization left her breathless, and she found her throat growing tight as she lowered her hand from his hair and moved it to rest on top of his hand. Even his goddamn callouses were perfect. He'd touched her a million times with those hands, and she would never get tired of feeling the hot burn of his touch because he was hot like the fire that existed inside him. He was fire and water all at the same time because his passion and his energy and his enthusiasm burned brighter and hotter than God could have ever made the Sun, but he was soft and soothing, and he molded to her better than any sea, ocean, or lake. He was a sentence she never wanted to finish but always wanted to begin.

She loved him as Clint Barton the SHIELD agent, Clint Barton the archer, Clint Barton the former rogue, Clint Barton the orphan who'd grown up with the circus, and Clinton the damaged little boy who'd been abused so badly by his father that every time he mentioned his injuries, the first memory he thought of was of his father nearly killing him. She loved him because he was her partner and her best friend and someone who'd saved her but would always insist that she'd saved him, even though she would never be able to give him what he had given her. He was fucked up, and truthfully, he fucked up a lot more than he would ever willingly admit, but Natasha loved him all the more for it. He was perfect and beautiful and fucked up and everything she ever could have wanted in someone.

It struck her then that she'd always known that their agreement to never risk their lives for each other was stupid because she would risk hers for him—she'd done it before during the Voloshin mission when she'd pulled the trigger and fired a bullet into Voloshin's brain. If she could keep him safe forever, she would. If she could have protected him from those arrows driving into his ears, rupturing his ear drums, and robbing him of one of his senses, she would have.

She wanted to drown in him simply because he was him but also because she knew he would never let her drown completely because he always had her back and because he loved her and because he was her partner and because he loved her the way she loved him, too.

Overwhelmed, she finally looked up at Palmer and met his eyes, and she spoke the only words she could bring herself to say in that moment of realization. "I know."

She'd never felt more vulnerable or more alive.

Coulson was the second person to draw attention to it.

"I totally called your…your romance," he said, his voice somewhat smug. She found herself smiling as she looked at the man who'd never once made her feel as though she didn't belong at SHIELD.

"How long ago?" she asked.

"About a month before Budapest. I'd suspected a little bit sooner, but I didn't want to jump the gun too soon." His smile spread into a wider, smugger expression that looked more like a smirk than an actual smile. Natasha wrapped her hands tightly around the millionth cup of coffee she'd ingested in the last God knew how many hours since she'd been at the hospital, and she smiled.

"Well. You're not wrong," she quipped. Sometimes she felt ok enough to smile for just a few seconds, and then she'd look back at Clint and remember that he was now deaf, and her smile would slowly fade away. As her smile slipped away this time, she remembered the feeling of what it was like to smile and to feel good, and she bottled it away in the back of her brain to use for when Clint came back to the world of the living again.

That night when the nurses tried to escort the three agents out of Clint's room, all three of them refused to budge. No one wanted to leave Clint alone, even if he were sleeping so hard that Natasha would have thought he was dead had it not been for the steady rise and fall of his chest. Selfishly, she wished that he were awake so that she could reassure herself that he really was ok, but selflessly, she was glad that he was asleep, oblivious to the pain that he would be in when he woke up.

She wanted him to be without pain as much as possible, even if it meant that he was lost to the world around him.

The next day, Natasha woke up to find herself curled up uncomfortably in the same chair she'd occupied the entire night before. Coulson was already awake, but Palmer still appeared to be dozing a little bit. Slowly, Natasha straightened her legs out and stretched her muscles, wincing as she felt her cramped muscles start to release.

"Natasha. Here. I managed to dig up a few of these," Coulson said. She looked over at him and saw him holding out a brand new toothbrush and tube of toothpaste that looked like it'd been bought in the gift shop on the first floor. Eagerly, Natasha took it and held it in her hands.

"Thank you," she said. Her gaze drifted over to Clint. "Has he woken up?"

"No. The last time he was awake was about two hours ago when the nurse came in to give him another dose," Coulson replied. "She said they're going to start trying to wean him off a little bit today."

"Did she say when he's going to be stable enough for us to transport to a SHIELD hospital?" Natasha asked as she brought the heel of her palm to her eyes, rubbing the sleep out of them. Grimly, Coulson shook his head.

"No," he said. "She said the doctor had some things he wanted to share with us in regards to Clint's condition."

Natasha's face became worried. "What does that mean?"

"I don't know," Coulson said honestly. "We'll just have to wait and see."

Worriedly, Natasha got up and went to the bathroom where she brushed her teeth and winced at her hair in the mirror. It looked dirty and messy from having been unwashed in over 24 hours, and she wished that she could shower to get it clean again. Self-consciously, she pulled her hair up into a ponytail and hoped that it hid how dirty it really looked.

When she walked back out, Palmer was blinking himself awake with a tired, pained look on his face. He sat up and rubbed his eyes, blinking hard several times. "Coffee. For everyone."

"That sounds amazing," Natasha murmured in response. Without saying another word, he got up and left the room. She was quiet as she waited for her coffee, and she was quiet when she took the coffee from Palmer's hands. She was quiet all the way up until Dr. Parker walked into the room.

"Good morning," he greeted.

"Good morning, Doctor," Coulson said. Gratefully, Natasha glanced over at him, relieved that he was willing to take the lead for them when she felt as though she couldn't handle it. "One of the nurses said you had an update for us on his condition."

"Yes. I got the results of the tests back. It seems that he's doing fairly ok for himself, but his heart is the problem at this moment in time," Dr. Parker said.

"What do you mean?" Palmer asked with a frown.

"When a person goes into shock, it can put a lot of stress on the heart. As I said yesterday, we nearly lost Mr. Barton on the operating table as a result of his body going into shock. His heart started to work overtime to keep him alive, and right now, it seems like he's going to need to take it easy," Dr. Parker explained. "Too much stress isn't a good thing for him right now."

"Doctor, he just found out that he's deaf. How can he not be under too much stress?" Natasha asked incredulously. Dr. Parker gave her a regretful look.

"I know it'll be difficult," he said slowly. "But that's the fact of the matter."

"When will he be stable enough to move?" Coulson asked, frowning.

"That's hard to say. I would like to think that after another day or so, he'll be stable, but that's only if he remains as calm as possible. Upsetting him could lead into cardiac arrest, and that could lead to—"

"Him dying," Natasha finished flatly. She stared at the doctor as if he were to blame for all of this, even though she knew he wasn't. Reluctantly, Dr. Parker nodded.

"That's another reason why we've been trying to keep him as sedated as possible over the course of the night." He paused and shook his head with a tired sigh. "I admit—this has been a, uh…a brand new injury for me. I've never treated anyone who's been stabbed in the ears with—with arrows before. This is the first time I've seen anything like it."

"When will he able to receive fittings for hearing aids? Hearing aids will help, won't they?" Coulson asked, his voice sounding concerned and worried. Dr. Parker nodded enthusiastically.

"Yes—yes, hearing aids will help. He should be able to use them. I wouldn't advise a fitting for at least another week. We want to avoid the risk of infection or anything that could come as a result of his injuries. We also don't want to put him in any more pain by inserting something into his ears," he said.

"Right. Of course," Coulson said gently. "Of course."

"Do you guys have any questions or anything else?" Dr. Parker glanced at each of the agents.

"Where's the closest hotel?" Coulson asked.

"It's about a 10 minute drive. The Holiday Rest Inn," Dr. Parker replied. "If you turn left out of our main entrance and drive 10 minutes straight in that direction, you'll find it there on your right."

"Perfect. Thank you," Coulson said. And with a nod, the doctor was gone. Natasha looked over at Coulson as he dug around in his pocket for a cell phone. "I'm going to see about securing us a room at the Holiday Rest Inn. Looks like we'll be staying a little while longer."

"Ok," Natasha said.

"I could use a shower," Palmer added. Natasha allowed herself to smile.

"Me, too," she agreed. Coulson smiled back at all three of them.

"Hell, I think we all could use a shower and a nap at some point today," he said. "I'll call if anything comes up, alright?"

Natasha nodded to show that she'd heard, and she went right back to the seat she'd kept vigil in all night, and she waited. That seemed to be something that she was good at these days, so that was exactly what she did. She sat, and she waited.

"Oh, Clint. Come here, sweetie. He doesn't mean it. He just…he gets angry sometimes, and he takes it out unfairly on you."

Clint stared up at his mother through tear-filled blue eyes as she looked at the cut on his lip. He wished she would stop his dad when he started yelling. He wished she would stop him when he started swinging his fists around.

"My lip hurts," he said, his voice quivering. He knew Barney was watching him, and he knew Barney would probably hit him later for crying about this, but he couldn't help it.

"I know it does, baby. I know. Just…let me take care of it for you. I can do that at least. I can at least do that," his mother said. He waited for her to wet the washcloth in her hands, and he mentally prepared himself for the sting of the alcohol against the open wound. Despite himself, tears began to flow freely down the sides of his cheeks again. "It's not that bad. Look. It'll be all gone before you know it."

"Stop crying," Barney whined from off to his right.

"Barney, stop," his mother gently chided. She smiled brightly down at Clint, though he was sure that if he looked closely, he could see tears in her eyes. She smiled at him with a closed mouth. "You're good as new. You know your father loves you, right, Clint?"

"Yeah," Clint replied, but he only said it because he felt that that was the right answer.

"Good. Because he does. He loves you just as much as I do." His mother smiled at him with that watery look on her face again, and he wished she didn't look like that. He wished she didn't look so sad all the time. Most of all, though, he wished she didn't have a bruise on her cheekbone that foreshadowed what his lip would look like in a matter of days. "You know that, right? You know he loves you?"

"Yeah," Clint repeated.

"Good," his mother said, patting him gently on the side of the cheek that wasn't bruised. "Good."

Coulson managed to pull Natasha away from Clint long enough to drive her back to the motel and get her showered. Her duffel bag from the mission was on one of the beds, and she silently breathed a sigh of relief to know that she could finally change out of her uniform and back into some regular clothes. She tried to remember what she'd packed, but she found herself unable to remember.

"I'll be quick," she murmured as she snatched up her bag and hurried to the bathroom. Once inside with the shower running to get the water heated, she started to dig through her bag. She'd packed comfortable clothes the way she usually did for missions. Whenever she packed for missions, she preferred to pack a pair of leggings, a cami, and a cardigan to wear on her way back home. She spotted the three simple pieces of clothing and eagerly pulled them out. All she wanted to be right now was comfortable.

Quickly, she undressed and got in the shower and began to wash her hair with the motel shampoo. She normally wasn't a fan of motel shampoo, but at that point in time, she didn't give a fuck. Getting clean and getting back to Clint was the most important thing to her at that point in time. Suddenly, as she was washing the shampoo out of her hair, it hit her that Clint would never hear the pattering sounds of the shower hitting the porcelain floor of a bathtub. He would never hear the shampoo in his hair or how the snap of opening the cap to a bottle of shampoo slightly echoed in the hollow space.

Swallowing hard, she picked up the bottle of conditioner and put it in her hair before she started to wash her face. Clint loved music. He loved his guitar. He wouldn't be able to play his guitar without his hearing aids—he wouldn't be able to hear AC/DC or Led Zeppelin blaring through his speakers as he drove in such a way that was probably considered unsafe. God, how had he even passed his driver's license?

It was funny how these thoughts came to her in the shower. It was ridiculously funny how she realized all of these tiny, seemingly insignificant things about him when he had suddenly become more significant to her than she'd ever acknowledged before. Quickly, she pushed the thoughts out of her head and finished out the rest of her shower in numb peace. The quicker she was done, the quicker she would be able to get back to Clint in case he woke up.

Natasha climbed out of the shower and swiftly got dressed in her relaxed clothing that she realized Coulson had never seen her in. He'd always seen her in either SHIELD uniforms or undercover clothing. Maybe he'd seen her in some jeans and a jacket, but that would have been the most casual he'd ever seen her. At the thought of him seeing her so casually dressed, she felt strangely vulnerable. She made herself walk back out into the main room. Coulson was seated on the bed with his feet propped up. As soon as he saw her, he sat right up.

"Ready to go back?" he asked. Suddenly, a wave of unexpected emotion hit her. All the things that Clint would never be able to hear…all the times she'd wanted to protect him and had, but the one time she'd failed…all the moments she would never be able to take back. Everything started rushing into her head, and she felt hot tears sting her eyes.

"Um…hold on a moment," she said shakily. "I think I need a minute."

"It's ok. Take your time," Coulson said gently. Natasha blinked several times and looked up at the ceiling, but her eyes kept getting hotter and hotter, and the burn was getting more intense. Finally, she blinked and closed her eyes, and she felt tears start to roll down the sides of her face.

"I'm sorry," she said immediately apologizing and wiping her cheeks. "I'm sorry. I'm just stressed out and worried."

"Don't apologize. You have nothing to be sorry for." Coulson stared at her levelly. "Barton's hurt. You care about him. It's only natural to have a strong emotional response."

"You and Palmer are keeping it together pretty well, and I can't seem to make it through the day without having some kind of meltdown," she muttered as she sniffed. She wiped her face again, feeling embarrassed.

"Emotions aren't something to apologize for, Natasha. I know you like to pretend that you're a robot who doesn't feel anything, but you're human. It's ok. This is normal. And if you think Agent Palmer and I are having an easy time of keeping it together, you're wrong," Coulson said mildly. Natasha turned her green eyes towards him. "Agent Palmer's a mess. I'm worried out of my mind. Nothing is easy for anyone right now."

Tightly, Natasha nodded. "Yeah. I just…don't like this side of myself."

"Well, it's ok," Coulson said, his voice still gentle. "Just remind yourself of that."

She swallowed and nodded again, frowning thoughtfully as she listened to his words. "Thank you."

"No problem. Do you feel ok to leave?" Coulson looked at her patiently. She briefly considered putting make up on, but then she brushed it off. Putting on make up would mean she would have to take more time out of her day, and she didn't want to do that. She just wanted to get back to Clint.

"Yeah," she said. "I'm ok."

She had always been a gifted liar.

"What the hell did you do this time?"

Barney scowled at Clint as he examined the younger boy's busted up nose. Clint glared up at his older brother and kept his mouth shut. Barney looked annoyed.

"You going to tell me, or am I going to have to punch you to get it out of you?"

"They were calling me a circus freak," Clint said dully as he avoided his brother's eyes.

"What? Who did that?" Barney demanded. "Was it those entitled assholes in the audience?"


"That's stupid. You're not even part of the freak show," Barney said dismissively. Clint's blue eyes shot back defiantly to his older brother. He looked up at him and thought of a million things he could say, a million names he could call him, a million ways to punch him, but he didn't do anything. "You need to let it slide."

"I can't," Clint protested.

"Yeah, you can. You trying to get your ass beat up every night?" Barney's face twisted into another annoyed scowl. "I can't bail you out of all your fights."

"You don't have to do that for me anymore," Clint snapped angrily. "I can do it myself."

"Yeah, your broken nose speaks worlds about that," Barney sarcastically drawled with an eye roll. "Look, you need to learn how to fight."

"I know how to fight," Clint defensively answered, his eyebrows furrowing into an angry glare. He was totally lying his ass off. He didn't know how to fight. He just started punching and hoped he connected.

"No, you don't. If you keep fighting the way you do, you're going to end up dead somewhere. I'm sick of you getting your ass kicked, so I'm going to teach you how." Barney's tone showed that there wasn't any room for argument. However, Clint didn't give up without a fight. He felt a flash of anger deep down in his stomach.

"I'm not learning from you," he said.

"Don't be a dumbass. Of course you are." Barney shot his younger brother another annoyed look. Sometimes it was hard to believe that they were brothers. Barney had dark hair and dark eyes that their father had had, whereas Clint had inherited his mother's blonde hair and blue eyes. Looking at the two of them, there was no way anyone would have been able to tell they were related. Their personalities and mannerisms, however, were just similar enough to give away a tiny hint to the average stranger.

"No, I'm not!" Clint growled. Suddenly, Barney swung his hand out and smacked Clint on the side of the head. Clint lunged at his older brother, succeeding in knocking him down to the ground, but it wasn't long before Barney was sitting on top of him with his arms pinned down at his sides.

"Stop it!" Barney ordered. "I ain't going to be here to always keep your ass out of trouble. You're going to have to do your own fighting. When the other adults start hitting you, those entitled little shits, you hit them back, ok? Fight for yourself. You hit them backand you hit them back right."

Natasha walked through the doorway into the room and saw Clint awake. Instantly, her heart leapt into her throat, and she walked towards him. His blue eyes lifted up to look at her. Usually, where she saw clarity and sharpness in those beautiful eyes of his, she saw fogginess and dullness.

"Clint," she said out loud. He looked at her, and his lips moved into a tiny fraction of a smile, but it was so small that she nearly missed it.

"He was able to brush his own teeth and everything," Palmer said. "We've just been talking."

"You've been talking?" Natasha looked at Clint, half-expecting him to reply. He stared blankly in return.

"No," Palmer said with apprehension to his voice. "He hasn't been talking. He won't sign, he won't speak…he's just quiet."

My signing's a bit rusty. Can you understand me? Natasha signed to him, her hands moving slowly as she wracked her brain in an effort to remember the ASL she'd learned a long time ago. She knew Clint saw her, and for a second, she thought he was going to ignore her, but then he nodded.

Are you hurting? She signed. He nodded again. The nurse said they were going to start weaning you off some of the painkillers today.

Clint nodded again. She knew he understood her and that he wasn't just doing it to breeze over the fact that he didn't understand.

"Hey, we're going to go make a food run. We'll be back," Coulson said. She glanced over at him, watching him beckon to Palmer, and then she looked back at Clint, making the sign for food. As Palmer walked past her, he handed her the notebook and pen he'd been using to communicate with Clint. Then it was just the two of them, and they were alone.

Clint kept his gaze on her, and she tried to recall that happy, laughing feeling she'd had earlier with Palmer and Coulson, but she couldn't quite remember it. All that she saw was the sadness and the anger and the confusion in his face, and it killed her all the way down to her very soul. She desperately wanted to tell him everything she was feeling about seeing him awake, but she didn't know how. The words were on the tip of her tongue, but he wouldn't be able to hear them if she allowed her mouth to let them spill over.

Carefully, she crossed over to the edge of his bed and sat down the way she always did. She put her pen to the paper and began to write, all the while feeling Clint watching her like a hawk. When she was done, she held the notebook up.

You have no idea how happy I am to see you're ok. I was worried sick.

His eyes skimmed over the message, and then he glanced over at her with a tiny, worried frown on his face. Instinctively, Natasha wanted to reach out and wipe away the wrinkles in his forehead with her thumb, but she didn't.

I thought I'd lost you.

She held the notebook up again. Tentatively, as if he were afraid of the pain, Clint shook his head. His entire face looked exhausted and haggard, defeated. This was the lowest she'd ever seen him, and it made her chest shatter on the inside. She leaned back over her notebook and wrote.

You can speak. You don't have to be quiet.

Clint wet his lips, but he didn't say anything. Taking a risk, she reached out and took his hand, gently curling it into a ball. Curiously, he watched her bring his hand up to her mouth, and she kissed the back of his knuckles the way she had that one night he'd told her about his broken hands. She held his one hand between both of hers and looked back up at him, only to see his eyes wet the way they'd been the night before after she'd told him his diagnosis. His lips were trembling, and she could see that he was making a conscious effort to breathe as slowly and as steadily as he could so that he wasn't giving anything away.

And then she got an idea. Releasing his hand, she picked up the notebook and pen, and she began to write again.

I prefer wearing socks instead of just going around in my bare feet…

He frowned in confusion, tilting his head just a fraction to the side. She went back to writing.

I can do 10 consecutive pull ups…

Clint kept staring at with that confused look. If he weren't drugged up and horrifically injured, he'd look adorable, Natasha thought to herself. Lowering the notebook, she set it down on the bed and picked his hand back up, bringing it up to her mouth so that he could touch her lips.

"And I love you," she said out loud. Clint's gaze was blank for a few seconds, and then raw understanding passed over his eyes. His face went from being confused to disbelieving. Carefully, he moved his hand from her lips to the side of her face so that the flat of his palm was against her cheek, his touch warm and hesitant as if were trying to figure out just how real she was. He stared at her quizzically, and she nodded tearfully at him. "I love you."

"Come here," he said quietly, his voice a low, husky rasp from lack of use. And Natasha didn't hesitate to follow his order. She would do whatever his rumbly voice told her to do in that moment because she loved him and wanted him to never forget it. She moved closer to him and let him draw her face down to his, her lips colliding with his own warm ones. He tasted of mint and sadness and love, and she swallowed as much of him as she could.

"I love you, Clinton," she murmured against his lips. "I love you."

And even though he couldn't hear it, she knew he could feel it because he nodded against her mouth. His kisses were groggy and pained, but they were perfect the way he was: flawed and beautiful and just everything. He was alive and the farthest thing from perfect, but he was alive, and that was all that mattered to her.

This pain will pass, she wanted to tell him.

You are not damaged, she wanted to say.

You are enough, she wanted to whisper to him.

"I love you," she said.


Chapter Text

Chapter 27

The next day, Clint was stable enough to be transported to a SHIELD hospital. He spent the next 24 hours throwing up every time he tried to get up and walk, and he received a diagnosis of acute unilateral vestibulopathy as a result of the trauma his ears had endured.

Two days later, he was released from the hospital. He was able to walk short distances, but his head wouldn't stop spinning, and he couldn't take his hand away from the wall when he walked. He specifically avoided eye contact with anyone in the halls as he slowly made his way down the hall to his room, his palm pressed firmly to the solid wall. He didn't need his hearing to know that Natasha was beside him, her eyes carefully watching him. The irony didn't escape him. All that time that he'd spent monitoring her, observing her and scrutinizing her with his sharp eyes, and now she was doing the same to him.

He swallowed and willed the nausea to go away. He'd been given a bottle of painkillers and nausea medication to last him for a week, and he couldn't wait to get his hands on it. Honestly, he couldn't wait to get into bed and lie down. Technically, he wasn't supposed to be doing that. He'd received strict orders that that was the worst possible thing he could do in his situation. In order to get over his goddamn acute unilateral vestibulopathy in a timely fashion, he'd have to get up and walk around. But today wasn't that day.

As he approached his door, he felt a sigh pass through his nose. He kept his mouth shut as often as he could these days. He knew it was frustrating Natasha, Palmer, Coulson, and now Hill, but he didn't care. He didn't care about much right now. The only thing he really cared about at this moment in time was getting into his bed. Fumbling awkwardly, he leaned against the wall and reached into the pocket of his jeans to pull his ID out. He could feel Natasha still watching him as he scanned it. Blinking, he suddenly realized that he wouldn't be able to hear the door pop open. Everything was going to be silent.

Beside him, Natasha gently touched his elbow, and he took that as his cue to turn the doorknob. Still without saying anything, he pushed the door open and walked inside. All of his stuff was back in his room. He wanted to ask Natasha if Coulson had taken care of it for him, but he couldn't bring himself to open his mouth to say the words. And he would be goddamned if he used sign language to ask her.

He crossed to the bed and lay down on it. He watched Natasha silently—hell, everything was silent now. He considered himself lucky if he could hear any faint mumbling—shut the door behind her before she crossed over to him. He looked up at her with tired blue eyes. He just wanted to sleep. The doctors had warned him of abusing pain medication, a lecture he'd gotten all too many times in the past, considering the number of times he'd had to take pain meds, but he really wanted to sleep.

Experimentally, he closed his eyes and tried to listen. He'd been doing this off and on over the past few days—if he closed his eyes long enough and concentrated hard enough, he had convinced himself that he might be able to hear something. Realistically, he knew that he wouldn't, but he had to try. He had to try something. He couldn't just be like this for the rest of his life, even though that's what the doctors had been telling him.

Without any warning, he felt a tentative hand on his back, and his eyes snapped open. He looked up at Natasha almost accusingly, frustrated with himself for not having been able to hear her hand move towards him. God, he couldn't even hear the simple things like that. He swallowed hard and rolled onto his back, allowing her hand to naturally slip over his side and rest on his stomach. He looked up at her and tried to imagine the sound of her voice.

He'd always loved the sound of her voice. From the moment she'd first started speaking, he'd enjoyed it. When he'd first brought her into SHIELD, she'd had only a slight Russian accent, but it hadn't been long before it'd completely disappeared. He knew her well enough now to know that she'd listened hard to him as he'd talked nonstop to her day in and day out in that training room in his attempts to form a connection with her, to convince her that she deserved the second chance he was literally shoving in her face.

And after she'd clearly said her first sentence to him, he hadn't been able to stop wanting to listen to her talk. Listening to her talk in Russian was a whole other story. Jesus, when she spoke in Russian, it was like watching the rain fall outside against the window pane. But then again, looking at her was like that, too. She brought every single one of his senses to life, but now he'd been robbed of one of those very senses.

Deafness was peculiar. His head felt heavy, and he kept thinking that all he needed to do was shake his head around several times, and he'd be able to clear out the obstruction in his ears so that he could hear again. But that wasn't the case. There was nothing obstructing his hearing. His hearing just…wasn't there. It didn't exist. He was without it. He'd never realized how much he relied on it until suddenly, it'd been yanked out from underneath his feet. He couldn't hear the alarm clock, he couldn't hear the sound of footsteps in the hall, he couldn't hear the ding of an elevator, and he couldn't hear someone give him orders. He couldn't hear shit, and he was useless.

Now he couldn't even seem to fucking concentrate on anything due to the fact that each and every one of his senses was betraying him. He couldn't hear since, well, his ears had been murdered by his own arrows; he couldn't see very well thanks to his acute unilateral vestibulopathy, which would wear off the sooner he got back up and started making himself walk around; he couldn't even really notice his smell or sense of touch anymore because he was too busy focusing on how he felt like he was going to throw up every few seconds.

Except when Natasha was near. When she was around, he could feel her touch more accurately than he could feel anything else. She had always been like that for him, even before he'd known that he loved her. As he looked up at her, he considered trying to find a way to communicate to her that he wanted to be left alone, but he just couldn't. He needed her so badly that the thought of pushing her away didn't seem feasible to him. So he drew back the covers of his bed, started to remove his jeans, and he gave her a look that he hoped told her he wanted her to stay.

For a few seconds, she studied his face as if she didn't understand, but then a light seemed to come on in her head. With the practiced ease of someone who had done this many times in the past, she unbuttoned her own jeans and slid underneath the covers with him. Clint curled around her and willed himself not to throw up. And as he started to drift off to sleep, a thought that he'd been dwelling on since she'd told him she loved him came back through his head to taunt him: he wasn't able to hear her tell him she loved him.

"Give me the low down, Miss Widow." Fury surveyed Natasha from his chair and waited for her to give him an update on Clint's condition. Natasha felt mildly uncomfortable being dressed in only jeans and a casual shirt in his office since she'd never been in there outside of her SHIELD uniform, but she tried not to think about it.

"Agent Barton is having difficult keeping his balance and focusing his eyes on anything as a result of his acute unilateral vestibulopathy. He also isn't speaking or signing with anyone, and he hasn't picked up his bow and arrow since everything happened. He hasn't even asked for it," Natasha said. Fury didn't bother to hide the surprise on his face. He leaned forward as if he had heard the most fascinating secret in the whole world.

"He hasn't asked for his bow?" he repeated. Natasha shook her head grimly. "This is Agent Barton we're talking about, right?" She nodded. "This is the man who, after breaking his arm in a car accident that completely totaled one of our armored vehicles, was trying to figure out how to use his bow with only one good arm two days after. He doesn't stay down for long without his bow."

"Well, he's shown no interest in it so far," Natasha drily replied. "He hasn't even asked if it's ok, where it is, or anything."

"Did he go to his therapy appointment today?" Fury asked. Natasha shook her head.

"No, sir. I didn't press the issue with him," she said.

Fury sighed. "Dammit, Barton. Alright. So he's pretty bad off right now."

"Yes, sir," Natasha confirmed. Fury looked like he was about to tell her she could leave, but before he could open his mouth, she jumped in. "Sir, what's the status on the Omega mission?"

"Are you sure you want to open this can of worms right now, Romanoff?" Fury asked, eyeing her with caution. "Considering everything you've been through—"

"I haven't been through anything, sir. It's all Agent Barton. He's the one who's hurting right now. I want to know what's going on with the Omega and how we can track this son of a bitch down," Natasha interrupted. Fury took a few seconds just to look at her, and then he let out a tired sigh.

"I'm going to regret this," he said. He moved to open one of the drawers in his desk when he paused and looked back up at Natasha. "Why am I always saying that whenever it has something to do with you?"

Natasha smirked. "I guess I'm a bit of a risk to take."

"That much is true," he replied. He pulled out a thick file and set it on his desk. "You know, I got a lot of flack from the World Security Council for hiring you here."

"That doesn't surprise me, sir," Natasha answered.

"They wanted to fire Agent Barton. Punish him for disobeying direct orders to such a drastic degree. They reminded me of how they'd been worried about his performance as an agent since the whole reason he was brought into SHIELD in the first place was because he was doing things he shouldn't have been," Fury continued. "But he could have turned out worse. And so could you."

Natasha figured that that was the closest thing she was ever going to get to a compliment from Nick Fury, so she nodded her head once. "Thank you, sir."

Fury pushed the file towards her and watched her open it. "The Omega's been off the chart for the past few days. We haven't been able to track him down. There are rumors running around these drug rings that his next big stop was in Seattle, but we haven't been able to get a confirmation or a denial from a reliable source."

"I don't want to be pulled off of this mission, Director," Natasha said as she skimmed over the file. Clint's accident report had already been added to the manila file, and she ignored the lump in her throat as she read over it. Suddenly, she saw something that caught her eye. "The forensics report came back on the arrows?"

"Yes. The fingerprints on the arrows belonged to fingerprints we've matched before to the Omega," Fury replied, his voice mildly reluctant. "It looks like he's our man."

"When are you sending people out to go after him?" Natasha asked, swallowing her emotions down as she lifted her eyes to calmly look at the director.

"Whenever we can get a 100% positive confirmation. That could be anywhere from a number of hours to a number of months, depending on how this guy wants to play this game. I've been looking for a replacement for Agent Barton to join—"

"No replacement," Natasha interrupted sharply. "He'll be ready."

Fury gave her a look that plainly and obnoxiously told her he didn't believe her. "Romanoff, he hasn't even asked for his bow."

"After working three missions to find this guy, if I'm calling the patterns correctly, he's going to want to lay low for a while. Over the past month, he's run into us three times. This last time was a message. A warning. Besides, if he feels like we've learned our lesson, it'll be easier to lure him out. Give him a false sense of security," Natasha said.

"You're just trying to buy time for Barton," Fury pointed out.

"Well, yes, but I also have a point. Waiting a while to go after him is what would be best. And trust me. I can't wait until we get this guy. I want to go after him right now and search day and night until I find him. But he's smart. He's very smart," Natasha said. Fury narrowed his eye at her.

"Do you really think you can get Barton back up to speed? And soon?" he asked suspiciously.

Natasha confidently nodded, looking the director straight in the eye. "Of course, sir."

Natasha had no idea how she was going to get Clint back on his feet. As she left his office and started walking down the hall to get back to Clint's room, she inwardly panicked. She hadn't lied when she'd told Fury about how Clint was doing because honestly, Clint was a mess. He'd been out of the hospital for a full 24 hours, and he didn't seem to be doing any better than he'd been doing there. She kept trying to get him to talk to her, but he just…wouldn't. He sat there and watched her sign to him, and he nodded his head, shook his head, or shrugged to answer anything she said.

She wasn't under any impressions that he felt fine physically because she knew he felt like shit. He could barely see straight or walk straight, and every time he moved more than 20 feet, he became so overwhelmed with nausea that he either had to stop until it passed, or he threw up. The doctors had said that this would get better with time. The more he got up and moved around, the more his body would adjust to the sudden trauma he'd experienced and would adapt.

However, Clint didn't seem to want to get past it. And that's what killed her. Watching the man who had saved her from Voloshin, from Russia, from SHIELD, and the path that she would have continued to go down had he not shown up deteriorate in front of her was more painful than she ever could have imagined it being. She remembered how she'd thought he was unbearably cheerful the first few months she'd known him, even going so far as to accuse him of being an optimist. It'd annoyed the hell out of her at the time, but now she would have given anything to see that side of him again.

When she got to his room, she pulled her ID out and slid it between the door and the doorframe to jimmy the lock open. Clint wasn't able to hear her knock on the door, and the doors automatically locked when closed, so she'd had to resort to the good old-fashioned way of letting oneself in. The door opened, and she walked in to find Clint sitting at the table, his face drawn tightly together. His blue eyes drifted up from the bowl of—cereal? Was that cereal?—something in front of him, and they landed on her eyes.

Hi, she signed. He nodded towards her. How are you?

He gave a noncommittal shrug, watching her cross towards table and sit across from him on the other side.

I met with Fury, she signed. He frowned and looked at her curiously. He wanted to know how you were doing.

His frown deepened, and he held his hands up as if to ask her what she'd said. Inwardly, she felt frustration start to rise up inside her. She knew he knew sign language—he was just choosing not to use it. She'd learned American Sign Language back in Russia as part of her language training, but she wasn't as up to speed with it as she was on her other languages. Ever since she'd learned that Clint was deaf, she'd been brushing up her skills. She'd taken to scouring the Internet and watching videos, reading information, and looking through online dictionaries to get her skills back up to par. And now Clint wouldn't even sign back.

I didn't lie, if that's what you're asking, she replied with a gentle but rueful look on his face. I told him the truth.

She expected him to be angry with her, and she watched for the telltale signs of Clint Barton shutting down on her, but he didn't show any. Instead, he just shrugged and leaned back in his chair, slumping over in a way that was extra sloppy of him. He reached out and picked up the mug by his bowl of—God, was that mess in the bowl actually cereal?—to take a sip of it.

Natasha's first instinct was to give him a lecture on how he needed to pull himself together. She wanted to drop hints about his bow and arrow to try to entice him to get back to training. Hell, she even wanted to suggest to him that he shower, but she knew that those things would be the worst thing to do. Clint was hurting. Physically and mentally. If she pulled out any of those tricks, he would only resent her for trying to push him into something he wasn't ready for just yet. She knew this from firsthand experience, so even though she wanted to encourage him to take his place back in the real world, she kept her mouth shut, and her hands still.

Over the next week, Clint deteriorated at a remarkably fast pace. He still didn't go to any of the therapy sessions he was supposed to, he still didn't speak, he stopped shaving, he wouldn't shower, he wouldn't see anyone who came to visit him, he skipped his hearing aid fitting, and he started drinking. Natasha knew that alcohol could sometimes ease the pain, but it wasn't looking to ease what Clint so thought it would. So on the ninth day of coming back to his room to find him with a bottle of whiskey in his hand, she stopped keeping her mouth shut.

Put it down, she signed sharply. He gazed up at her with bleary, unfocused eyes, challenging her. Furiously, she crossed towards him and pulled the bottle away from him. She turned over her shoulder and started walking to the sink when suddenly, she felt Clint's hand close around her arm.

And that was when she'd had enough. Immediately, she switched into fight mode, dropping the bottle and hearing it shatter on the floor. Turning on him, she twisted her arm out of his grasp and backed him up against the wall, locking him in place. It was depressing how easy it'd been to immobilize him. He was one of the few people who actually gave her something to work with when sparring, but he'd simply let her put him in his place. He looked down at her, his face unreadable.

"Stop this," she said out loud. She didn't know if he understood her, so she slowly lowered her arms from his, and she stepped back to sign it. Stop this.

Smirking, Clint rolled his eyes and went to take a step forward, but Natasha shoved him back into the wall, fury coursing through her body.

This isn't you, Clint, she signed quickly before putting her hands back on him. Apathetically, he shook his head and let out a little sigh through his nose as if he were impatient with her. His eyes slid off to the side, but she shook him to get his attention. Lifting her right hand, she signed, Look at me.

"Let me go, Natasha," Clint said out loud, his first words in over a week. Natasha normally would have been surprised, and she normally would have rewarded him for speaking to her, but she was angry now. Solidly, she shook her head. Frustration flashed over Clint's face, and she couldn't help feeling a little bit of triumph deep down. This was the first sign of emotion he'd shown since the day at the hospital when she'd told him she loved him. "Let me go."

"No," she spoke, shaking her head.

"Let me go, dammit!" he shouted.

"Get angry!" Natasha shouted back. "Be angry, Clint! Fight back!"

Suddenly, Clint jerked his knee out, kneeing her effectively in the groin. Natasha doubled over, and he used this advantage to slip his arms out of her grasp. As he started to bring his elbow down on top of the back of her shoulder, she reached out lightning quick and roughly jerked his knee forward. It didn't take much to topple him. In seconds, he was seated on the ground with a shocked look on his face and the realization that that had been the worst performance of his life. He leaned his back against the wall and instinctively went to pull his knees into his chest, but Natasha quickly scrambled onto his lap so he couldn't. She put one knee on each side of his hips and made him look up at her, using her hands to tilt his face up.

You fought back, she signed.

"I can't—I can't do this," Clint said out loud. "I can't—"

"Yes, you can," she interrupted, nodding her head firmly so that he could understand what she was saying. You can do this. You just need to stop drinking. You need to train.

"I can't," Clint whispered. "I can't do anything, Nat." It felt so good to hear him call her by her nickname again. "I can't…use the phone. I can't hear the timer on the oven go off. I can't hear you knock…I can't do anything. I can barely even fucking walk."

You look at me. You're not useless. You're not damaged. You lost your hearing.

"I lost everything," he stressed brokenly. Suddenly, his blue eyes were wet, and he leaned his head back against the wall as he closed them. She tapped him on the shoulder, and he opened his eyes.

No, you didn't. You can get what you lost back. You just need to make the decision to do it, she signed. Sadly, Clint shook his head.

"I can't," he said quietly. "I can't even hear myself talk right now."

You don't need to hear in order to shoot a bow and arrow, Natasha signed. He gave her a heartbroken look, opened his mouth, shut it, and then sighed.

"I can't use it," he said.


"I can't," he insisted. "My…my balance is thrown off and everything. I'm still shaky."

So take baby steps.

"It's not that simple," Clint protested, his eyes flashing with frustration as Natasha couldn't understand what he was trying to communicate to her. She stared at him with understanding green eyes. "I can't do it anymore. I'll never be the way I was. I won't ever be able to shoot like that again. And…and if I can't do that…what am I supposed to do? What—what am I supposed to do if I can't be Hawkeye? What do I…what do I do?" His voice broke, and his eyes filled with a pain that slashed Natasha's heart in two. "What do I do, Natasha?"

His breath started to come out in ragged spurts, and then he was gasping, and then he was breaking, his face pressed into Natasha's shoulder as she held him tight. He clung to her as if she were the last thing on Earth, the only thing on Earth that could save him. He wept as a man who was broken would weep, and he clutched onto her to keep from drowning inside his own depression that soaked the room from ceiling to floor.

And because he couldn't hear the sound of his own heartbreak, he broke hard, and he broke loudly. He held her and let her hold him as he shattered into a million pieces he wasn't sure he'd ever be able to recover. For the first time, he allowed himself to break, and so he did.

At some point—he wasn't sure how much time had passed—he felt drained. His head was tight, and his eyes were sore, and his entire body ached, but he was drained completely. He kept his face pressed into Natasha's shoulder, and that was when he felt the vibrations coming from her body, signaling that she was talking. Hesitantly, he pulled back to look up at her, only to see that she had tears streaming down her own face, her green eyes resembling a stormy, rollicking sea.

He couldn't figure out what she was saying, but he watched her lips. And then it hit him. She was saying, "It's ok" over and over again. Her hands were on his face, and she wiped the tears off his cheekbones as she continued to tell him it was ok. He stared up at her silently, almost afraid to see her in tears, too. Natasha had only cried in front of him once, and that had been when she'd told him he was deaf. Even then, she hadn't completely lost it. As he looked up at her now, unable to hear anything but able to feel and see everything, he saw the Black Widow—no, he saw Natasha in all her vulnerability. Every wall she'd built up had been torn down. Every mask she'd worn had been ripped away. She was tearful and emotional and completely open to him, just as he was to her.

You're not broken, she signed to him slowly when she pulled her hands away from his face. You can get it back. You just have to make that choice. Remember what you told me when you first brought me in. There's always a choice. This is your choice, Clint.

"I don't know if I can," he said quietly, his voice raw and torn and still somewhat shaky.

You can. It'll be hard, and it'll take time, but you can. Clint, you can wear hearing aids. You'll be able to hear. It won't be the kind of hearing you had before, but you won't be completely lost in the dark. Natasha smoothed her hands over his face and his jaw, watching him close his eyes and lose himself for a few seconds in her touch.

"I should probably stop skipping the fitting appointments then, shouldn't I," Clint said mildly, more of a statement than an actual question. Natasha gave him a small smile, and she nodded when he opened his eyes to look at her.

And you should probably shower. And stop drinking. Her eyes darted over to the bottle that had broken and soaked the floor with alcohol. Clint looked over at it and then back up at her, his face suddenly nervous.

"I'm still not very good at walking," he said. "I can't walk very far without feeling like I'm going to fall over."

Then we'll start there. We'll work on getting your balance back. The doctors said that even though it sucks, you've got to face it instead of hide from it. Your body needs to get used to not having that sense there to help balance it out the way it was before, she signed. Clint was quiet for a few seconds, his eyes skimming over her face and studying her. Doubt flashed through his eyes, and she felt her heart clench up as she realized that he was going to say no.

"Ok," he said finally.

Actually, start with the shower first. You need that, Natasha signed with a grimace on her face. His eyes red and swollen, he gave her a small but genuine smile, and it was the most beautiful sight Natasha had ever seen. He put his hands on her waist and took a breath.

"Ok," he repeated.

Come on. We have work to do. I don't want it to be that easy to kick your ass ever againNatasha signed with a stern look on her face, but Clint smiled again.

"I love you," he said suddenly, his voice thick. "I can't hear myself say it, and I can't hear you say it back, and I'm a piece of shit. But I love you."

Natasha's throat tightened up, and she felt her heart thump loudly in her chest. Carefully, she leaned over and kissed him on the mouth. It was the first kiss they'd had in several days, but it was probably one of the most rewarding ones she'd ever gotten from him. She kissed him slow and long and hard, pleasantly surprised to discover that even if he hadn't showered, he'd at least brushed his teeth, and then she pulled back. God, she'd missed him so much. She knew that what they were going to do wasn't going to be easy. Clint could be stubborn and impatient and just plain difficult, and she knew that those sides of him were going to come out in the next few weeks to come as they got him back to normal.

"I love you," she said back. I've got your back.

"Is this what partners do?" Clint asked quietly, his eyes searching her face for the answer, and Natasha smiled.

Yes. This is what partners do.


Chapter Text

Chapter 28

Clint walked out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his waist. Leaning against the doorway to the bathroom, he steadied himself and tried to regain his balance. He was proud of himself for managing to make it through his shower without feeling overwhelmingly dizzy, even though it was still strange as hell to not hear the water falling down around him.

As his vision focused a little bit more, he saw Natasha sitting on his bed with crossed legs, her eyes glued to him. Half-heartedly, he offered her up a tiny smile. "What?"

You, she signed back with her own small smile. Come here.

Clint gave her an odd look, but he slowly and cautiously crossed towards the bed. He sat down on the edge of it and watched her roll forward onto her knees so that she was right beside him. With one hand, she put her hand on the backside of his head and gently pulled him closer so that she could bury her face in his wet hair. He couldn't hear her inhale, but he knew that that was what she was doing. Carefully, she nuzzled in more towards the side of his face, along his cheek, down by his jaw, and then she was kissing him on the mouth.

Clint inhaled slowly and deeply, kissing her back. Lightly and deftly, her tongue skimmed across his bottom lip. She felt so good—she always did. And admittedly, being clean felt good, too. He lifted his hand and placed it on the back of her neck as he kissed her. Everything was soft and slow, as if they were afraid to rush anything. Clint wasn't ashamed to admit that he could have lived in this moment forever.

Gracefully, Natasha swung her leg over his lap and sank her hips down so that she was straddling him neatly over his towel. As she started kissing him again, Clint became painfully aware of the fact that she was sitting right on top of the most sensitive part of his body. Furthermore, the way she was sitting on him applied the right amount of pressure in the right spot to get him going, and, well, it was working. Quietly, he groaned against her lips, his hands skimming down her waist and down to brush over her hips. His fingers pushed up under her shirt, his fingertips grazing over the space of skin directly above the waistband of her jeans.

"Tasha…" he whispered. The vibrations against his mouth signaled that she'd either moaned or said something in response. "Tasha…God…you're killing me…fuck…"

Quickly, she pulled away long enough to yank the hem of her shirt up and over her head, throwing it haphazardly to the floor. Clint didn't care—he couldn't bring it in himself to care when the most beautiful woman in the world was straddling him half-naked. He watched her remove her shirt, and then it hit him that he'd always thought of her as a speeding bullet: unpredictable and moving so quickly that it was impossible to see her or stop her. But in that moment, he realized how wrong he'd been. Natasha was anything but. She was a white water rapid, flowing and changing and tumbling over herself. She was never the same, but she was consistent.

His hands moved between their bodies, and he used his fingers to deftly flickthe button of her jeans open and pull her zipper down—at least he could still do that, he thought to himself with what little concentration he could muster up to think. He might be fucking useless everywhere else, but he could still unbutton and unzip Natasha's pants. Without wasting a beat, she moved off of his lap and shoved her jeans down to her ankles before kicking them off to the side to join her shirt. In the light of his room, Clint could see her soft curves, the gentle swells of her body, and he swallowed hard. Reaching forward, he hooked his thumbs in the band of her black lace-edged underwear and pushed them down.

Natasha stared curiously at him for just a few seconds, and then she untucked the towel from the spot on his hip where he'd fastened it to keep it from falling down. She untucked that one corner, and then just like that he was bared to her. He put his hands on her as she straddled his lap again, her skin a rush of softness and warmth that felt more like home than any circus show. He slid his hands up her back and snapped her bra open with one hand. Yep. He'd always been good with his hands. His mouth soft and warm and open, he pressed his lips to center of her chest, and he kissed her carefully and tenderly. He ran his hands up and down her back, feeling her muscles beneath her skin. He could feel her breath catch in her ribs by the way her ribcage stuttered under the touch of his fingers.

And before he could get any further with her, without any warning, she lowered herself down and took him inside her. Clint couldn't help the sharp hiss that sounded from between his teeth as he inhaled, his eyes screwed shut as he struggled to get some semblance of control over himself. But this was strange. This felt weird. His eyes were closed, so he couldn't see, but he also couldn't hear. All he could do was feel. He could feel her body and her breath and the short vibrations that signified a moan rippling off of her. Every few seconds he felt those vibrations on a different part of his body. First, his shoulder. Then his neck. His cheek. The hollow of his throat beside his collarbone. He could feel everything a million times stronger now because there was nothing to do but feel.

Overwhelmed by the sensations, he opened his eyes and stared up at Natasha. She was so gorgeous. He'd always thought she was stunning. Her high cheekbones and those perfect lips…even if she hadn't looked the way she did, he would have found her to be the most breathtaking woman he'd ever seen because he could see her for who she was on the inside, and that was more beautiful than who she was on the outside. Her hips curved and twisted with every movement, and he could barely focus on anything other than how it felt to be inside her. She was hot and wet and sliding over him without abandon, and God, she felt perfect.

Drawing her closer to him, Clint snaked his arm around her lower back and pulled her in tight against his body. Not only was she touching the whole length of his torso, the position gave him enough leverage to push up into her and match her thrust for thrust. Her lips against his temple, his nose against her neck, he could feel the warm rumble of her voice as he got the exact reaction he'd wanted to elicit from her. He kept thrusting slowly, enjoying the feeling of Natasha countering his movements with every motion of her hips. Slowly, he tightened his grasp around her and moved so that she was on her back beneath him, and he was above her.

He was always surprised by how often she let him take the lead with her. Of course, true to her nature, Natasha loved leading, and she definitely didn't hesitate to let him know when it was her turn to lead and his turn to follow. But today, she followed him. Clint pressed his hips forward so that he was sheathed completely inside her body. Quietly, he groaned, and he withdrew almost all the way out before he slid fluidly back in.

Again. That's amazing, Natasha signed, the movements of her hands jerky and unfocused. Eager to please, Clint repeated the motion. He pulled out just enough so that it made her start to worry as to whether or not he would fully slip out of her, and then he slowly pushed back inside. Carefully, he repeated the motions, rolling his hips deeper and deeper each time, and he watched her face in order to distract himself from how close he was to his climax.

Each time he pushed in, he could feel her clench around him tighter and tighter. He knew from the signs of her body that she was close—probably closer than he was—and he was silently grateful that he wouldn't have to try to last much longer because God, was he really fucking close. That familiar pressure was starting to build up painfully behind his hips, telling him that he was going to come before much longer. He longed to close his eyes, to lose himself in the feeling of moving inside Natasha, but he didn't want to lose another one of his senses.

Jesus, sex without sound was strange. He couldn't get over how different it was—the longer that he was without his hearing, the more he missed it, but he realized that he especially missed it right then. He missed listening to the natural sounds of sex that they made together; he missed hearing his own heartbeat pick up. He missed hearing Natasha's hands running over his skin. He couldn't hear her breaths or her moans—he could have written a goddamn symphony just from listening to her—and he didn't want to give up seeing her, too.

He moved his mouth from her lips to her neck, lightly skimming his teeth over her sensitive skin. As soon as his mouth skated down to her shoulder where he lightly nipped her near her collarbone, he felt her orgasm. If he'd thought that having sex with her with his eyes and his ears taken away was weird, he found it even more weird to rely solely on his eyes and his body to tell when Natasha reached that point. He quickly lifted one hand to put on her ribcage, and he tucked his mouth into her throat so he could feel her sounds, absorb her cries through the tips of his fingers and the tip of his tongue.

His hips pushed in deeper and deeper and deeper, and then he was coming. That pressure back in his hips started to release, and he felt himself shudder and moan deeply into Natasha's mouth as he came so hard he saw angels and devils and a god he didn't believe in. Out of habit, he waited for the familiar sound of blood rushing in his ears to start in, but he was still lost in silence. Careful not to rest his full body weight on Natasha, he dropped his head down to the area of the pillow above her shoulder as he tried to breathe.

Ok, so maybe sex without sound hadn't been that bad, he thought to himself. As much as he loved listening to Natasha gasp and moan in his ear, he had been able to focus the rest of his senses on feeling her and seeing her. He was surprised that his senses had been able to pick up the slack so quickly, but on the other hand, it didn't—Natasha always brought that out in him.

After the buzzing in his head had stopped and the feeling had returned to his muscles, he realized that Natasha was lightly rubbing his back with feathery fingertips. He pulled back and looked at her, his eyes soft. And then he lifted up his right hand, curled his fingers into a fist, and then extended his pinky, his pointer finger, and his thumb before placing it on the space above Natasha's heart. Natasha stared up at him with glassy, amazed eyes as she recognized the sign he was making—the first sign he'd bothered to make since he'd learned he was deaf.

I love you.

And when she wrapped her hands around the back of his neck, making it so he couldn't look away from her, she whispered the words back to him.

"I love you."

Clint was able to surprise himself with his own progress over the next few days. He pushed himself to walk when he thought he was going to fall over, and he forced himself to focus. He hated to admit to himself that it'd been a while since he'd actually challenged himself, and he was starting to see just how far behind he'd fallen.

He retrained himself on his own, usually. Natasha went somewhere for hours during the day. She didn't volunteer, and he didn't ask. If she wanted to tell him, she would have, and since she hadn't said a word to him about it, he took that as her silent way of saying that this was for her to take care of on her own. Besides, he was thankful for the time to himself. He wasn't sure he would be able to keep his pride about him if Natasha were there to see how bad off he really was.

His balance just from walking was so out of whack that he could barely stand on one foot for longer than a few seconds without the room twirling around him. He had accomplished standing on two feet for a decent amount of time—it was just one foot that was throwing him off, and he knew that he couldn't accept that as his new standard. He had to be just as good as he had been before.

Clint knew that his balance wouldn't come back overnight, but it was still depressing to realize that that wasn't the case. He was used to being able to try something a few times before perfecting it, but as it turned out, he would have to try more than just a few times this round.

Frustrated, he placed his hands on his knees and leaned his body against the wall of the training room down on the lower levels of the Triskelion. He'd been trying to get himself up to a jog for the past 15 minutes, but he was unable to run more than a few steps at a time. He would start out doing just fine, but somewhere between the fifth and the sixth step, everything would go to shit, and he'd be dizzy, and the room would be blurry. He closed his eyes and focused on re-steadying his vision. If he could barely run without feeling like he was on one of those damn bouncy bridges kid's playgrounds had, how the hell was he supposed to shoot a bow and arrow?

Truthfully, he wasn't looking forward to getting his bow and arrow back. He didn't want to hold it and feel its usually comforting weight in his hands. He didn't want to try to feel that zen feeling set over him. He didn't want any of it. If he were being honest with himself, he didn't want anything to do with his bow. He just wanted to get back to normal as quickly as he possibly could. When the time came, he would figure out how to get around his bow.

Even though, however, the thought of being without his bow was terrifying. It was his safety net, his weapon of choice. He'd earned the name Hawkeye because of his skill with a bow and arrow. If he didn't use it, how could he be Hawkeye? Who was Clint Barton without Hawkeye? Silently, he asked this question to himself over and over. Maybe, whenever his head stopped turning cartwheels, he'd be able to redeem the name through his aim with a gun. He was a better shot than even Natasha was, but it was the bow that had gotten him the title of Hawkeye.


He was Hawkeye. That had to mean something. It had to.

"You called?" Natasha sat down in the comfy armchair in Coulson's office across from his desk and looked at him with curious eyes. Normally, Agent Phil Coulson had a pleasant disposition and was a wonder to be around. One of the reasons she liked him so much was his inherent sweetness and belief that everyone could be something better. He'd given that chance to Clint, and he'd helped give it to her. But today, as she sat in his office with her civilian clothes on, he didn't look pleasant or happy at all. He looked stressed and upset, two qualities that looked foreign on his face.

"Yes, I did," he replied steadily. "How's Agent Barton doing?"

"Better," Natasha honestly answered. It was true. Clint wasn't doing great, but he was doing better. "He's up and moving around. Trying to get his balance back. He had a doctor's appointment yesterday, and they told him that he really needs to push himself in order to get back to where he was. He also went to his hearing aid fitting appointment, and he's willingly going to therapy on Friday."

"That's good," Coulson said, his face showing that he genuinely meant it. "I'm glad he's showing signs of improvement. Do you know how long until he'll be back up to speed?"

"Not really," Natasha said reluctantly. "It'll take some time. His body has a lot of readjustments to make, and he's basically got to start his training all over again."

Coulson's expression turned grim. "Natasha, I wanted to talk to you about some very upsetting things I discovered yesterday."

Natasha paused, her eyes unmoving. This could only be about the Omega. Something had happened, and she wasn't going to like what Coulson was saying. The look on his face said as much. "What is it?"

"Back before you and Agent Barton went to Budapest, you warned me about the Karmazins and the Sankos. You told me that the Sankos still controlled parts of Budapest, and Itold you that we had neutralized them years ago. Even after I checked with my contacts, I was insistent on the fact that the Sankos were gone. It wasn't until after your mission that I saw how wrong I and my contacts had been. So I had a little chat with them," Coulson said. Natasha waited, and she realized that she was holding her breath. Coulson pressed his lips together, and he stared at her as if he were trying to hold onto this last moment of normalcy. "Turns out we had a false contact in our system this whole time."

"No," Natasha said quietly. Coulson gave her a look.

"Oh, it gets worse," he said. Natasha held his gaze as he continued to talk. "And on top of that conversation I had with my contacts, the report on the bullet that Barton picked up from your gunfight in the street with the Sankos came back from forensics."

"And?" Natasha prompted.

"There's an Omega symbol burned into the side of it. Just like the bullets the Omega himself uses," Coulson said quietly. Natasha felt her blood turn cold, and she shook her head.

"What? No—how is this possible? How are the Sankos and the Omega connected?" she asked. "I thought we got caught in the crossfire over in Budapest because of Dr. Munroe. I thought that that was just a Sanko-Karmazin rivalry going on."

"I don't know the connection, Natasha. I've been trying to figure it out," Coulson replied. "The Omega is a drug lord in the United States. It doesn't make sense how he could have his bullets over in Budapest."

"We've got to get out there and figure it out," Natasha said sharply.

"We have an agent working to infiltrate the Omega's circle right as we speak," he said. Natasha's eyes widened in disbelief. She scooted to the edge of her chair and put her hands on Coulson's desk.

"Coulson, you said you weren't going to bring anymore people into this," she said. "This is Clint's and my mission."

"The Omega knows your faces. He'd be able to spot you in half a heartbeat, Natasha. I know that this is a personal mission for you, but you've got to look at it logically. We have an agent establishing a cover. It'll take at least a month for our agent to make it in there," Coulson said. "This gives you time to work with Barton. Get him back up to speed. If anyone can do it, you can."

Natasha frowned as she listened to Coulson. She wanted to argue with him and tell him that his plan was shit, but his plan actually wasn't that bad. If Clint worked really hard for the next month, he could get back up to speed. She knew he was pushing himself every day as it was, but he needed to really step it up if they were going to be ready for the Omega.

"Sir…" Her voice trailed off as she thought about what to say. Coulson gazed at her evenly, and she took a deep breath. "Ok."

"I think this is probably one of the first times you haven't argued with my plan," he said with a light smirk. "Maybe I'm doing something right."

Natasha smiled back at him. "I guess so, sir. Also…Agent Palmer is going to complete the Omega mission with Agent Barton and me, right?"

"I wouldn't dream of replacing him," Coulson said. Natasha's smile widened.

"Perfect," she said. "Thank you, sir."

"I'll see you later, Natasha."

"See you, Coulson." Natasha got up from her seat, giving him one last wave as she walked out the door and into the hallway. Her mind was racing a thousand miles per second. The Omega and the Sankos were somehow connected—how, she couldn't possibly guess, but they were. The facts were undeniable. The bullet had been from a Sanko gun, and every bullet that the Omega used had an Omega symbol burned on the side.

Those were the facts. All she needed now were theories.

Natasha burst through the door of one of the training rooms to find Clint leaning against the wall with a bottle of water in his hand. He looked up as he saw her, his eyes brightening a little bit. Lifting a hand, he gave her a wave as he brought the bottle of water up to his lips. Natasha could see that he was sweaty, and she secretly felt pleased. Sweat meant hard work, and hard work meant that maybe he'd been able to do something other than walk.

She crossed towards him, also feeling secretly pleased about Clint's new haircut. He'd bitched and fought against a haircut so much that they'd nearly gotten into another physical sparring session over it. His blond hair had been starting to look shaggy, and if he looked shaggy, he sure as shit acted shaggy, and she was trying to get him out of his funk. Honestly, Natasha felt that the only reason he'd agreed to her anywhere near his hair with scissors an electric razor was because he'd known that she was capable of kicking his ass again if he kept refusing.

"Hey," he quietly greeted as she approached him. Over the past few days he'd been speaking extra quietly since he was self-conscious of the fact that he was unable to hear how loud he was speaking. He looked up at her with a look that only hinted at adoration, and she couldn't help feeling her heart melt a little bit as she looked back at him. Whenever they were out in public, they tried not to look as though they were an item, and so far, they'd been able to do a pretty good job.

Natasha didn't know how to refer to Clint anymore. It was pretty obvious that they were more than partners, more than friends, and even more than best friends, but she still didn't know how they were supposed to refer to themselves. Saying that they were a couple sounded gross; even the thought of referring to Clint as her boyfriend made her want to wrinkle up her nose. The word "boyfriend" just sounded so juvenile and adolescent that it didn't seem to fit Clint. Well, she was able to admit that Clint could definitely act like an adolescent, but still. Calling him her boyfriend just sounded ridiculous.

HeyWhat have you been up to? You look sweaty, she signed.

"I was able to run a little bit," he said with a bit of a smug look on his face. "Not much. But a little. I tried to come at a time when other agents wouldn't be here."

Natasha had noticed that there weren't that many agents in the gym, and she'd guessed that. Nodding, she glanced around to see where they were, and then she looked back at him. How are you feeling?

"Like I'm going to keel over and die," Clint murmured out loud. "But whatever."

Perfect. Just what I want to hear, Natasha said. I met with Coulson today, so I have some news.

Clint frowned. "News?"

He started to sit down, but Natasha stopped him. You'll want to stand for this.

"Nat, I'm dizzy as hell. I've worked my ass off today. I'm going to sit," Clint said, shooting her a terse glare that told her to back off. Natasha's instinct was to fold her arms over her chest, but if she did that, she wouldn't be able to sign to him, so she sucked it up and gave him her own sharp glare.

Coulson has an agent establishing a cover inside the Omega's ring right now. It'll take at least a month for the cover to be solid, and then that's we're supposed to step. Coulson also told me that the Sanko bullet you found in Budapest has the same Omega symbol on it that the Omega's bullets have, she signed. Clint frowned at her, looking up from his spot on the bench that he'd stubbornly taken.

"Nat…what?" he asked in disbelief. "The Sankos and the Omega are working together?"

I don't know. That's all that Coulson told me, but we tend to think that yes, that's the case. I mean, look at the facts, Clint. That's what it's pointing to, Natasha signed with a grim look on her face. Clint blew out a breath and ran his hand threw his newly cut short hair, resting his hand on the back of his neck.

"Does that mean Munroe was working with the Omega?" he asked.

Probably not. I don't think the Sankos would have been shooting at him if he were on their side. But you never know. Natasha shrugged. Clint twisted his mouth to the side as he thought; Natasha could see the wheels in his head starting to turn as he got back in the process of planning for a mission. This was the Clint Barton she knew—this was the Clint Barton she respected and loved and knew better than she knew the sound of her own heartbeat.

"How long is there going to be a cover?" Clint asked, his voice lowering even more.

A month, Natasha signed. Suddenly, apprehension crossed his face, and gone was the Clint Barton, SHIELD agent, who'd just started to make his comeback. In front of her was the heartbroken man she'd held on the floor of his room as he'd cried. He looked lost and confused and unconvinced.

"I don't know if I'll be back in a month…" His voice was hesitant and unsure. For the first time, he didn't sound confident in himself or his abilities, and Natasha hated that. She'd always teased him over his self-assuredness, telling him that it was going to be the reason he got killed, but now it looked like it would be his lack thereof that defeated him.

You'll be ready, she confidently signed. That's why I told you to keep standing. Your training is going to be amped up. Think you'll be ready to try target practice with your bow next week?

She didn't miss the look of sheer panic that entered his blue eyes at the mention of his bow. "Natasha—I…I just started running today—I can barely balance on—on one foot. I don't know—"

Confidence, Clint. Confidence, Natasha signed. I have confidence in you. Now find it for yourself.

"I don't—goddammit—"

Clint. Natasha sat down on the bench beside him. Stop second-guessing yourself. You'll be ready. It'll be hard as hell, but you'll be ready. Now prove me right. Because if you prove me wrong, I'm going to kick your ass into next week, acute unilateral vestibulopathy or not.

"You're so mean to me."

I'm the push you need, and I'm not afraid to push you.


Life coach.



"Mean, Natasha. Mean."

Clint had never loved her more.


Chapter Text

Chapter 29

Stop scowling.

Don't tell me what to do, Romanoff.

I'm just telling you that you look mad.

I'm not mad. This is my resting face.

Fuck you, Barton.

You did last night, Romanoff.

Dr. Kelly Shetland, the audiologist, cleared her throat as she turned away from her computer to face the two silently arguing assassins as they signed back and forth to each other. Clint didn't hear the doctor clear her throat, and he kept smirking like an asshole at Natasha while Natasha waved her hand at him to pay attention to Dr. Shetland. Still smirking, Clint turned his blue eyes from Natasha and put them on Dr. Shetland.

These are your brand new hearing aids, Agent Barton, Dr. Shetland signed. They are state of the art, custom-made hearing aids that only SHIELD can get. The quality of sound will be far better than the average hearing aid. The quality and range is close to perfect—but remember. Close. Not fully perfect. She held out the hearing aids for Clint to take. He took them lightly in his hands and looked at her, unsure of what to do with them as Dr. Shetland passed him the small pack of batteries. If you take those out, I'll show you how to put them in.

Natasha could tell from the way Clint was holding himself that he was nervous. There was no guarantee that these would be any better than the silence that he was already in, but she knew he hoped they would be. He hated being without his hearing. He didn't need to tell her for her to know it. She could see it from the way his mouth set whenever he realized he couldn't hear something commonplace, something simple and every day that he should have been able to pick up. She could even see it in the way he moved his head around as if he thought that by shaking his head sometimes, he could shake loose his hearing.

He hadn't told her anything in regards to how he felt about his deafness since he'd fallen apart in her arms last week. Mostly these days, he was exhausted from his hard days of training, and any free time he had, he used it to sleep. Ever since she'd told him about the Omega mission, he'd been training even harder, pushing himself even further in order to get back to where he'd been. She tried to keep an eye on him as much as she could for fear that he would push himself too far and only hurt himself, but he seemed to be doing ok. His recovery was slow, but it was coming.

She watched Dr. Shetland explain how to insert the batteries into the hearing aid and how he would put the actual aid in his ears. The aids were small, so tiny that Natasha was sure that they weren't meant for Clint in all his 6'0" glory. A small smile passed over her face as she watched him peer cautiously at the small pieces of plastic in his hands. After he'd inserted the batteries, he glanced back up at Dr. Shetland with a doubtful expression on his face, watching her as she showed him how he was supposed to put the actual aids in his ears.

These are the CIC hearing aids, so they're completely in the canal. Usually, CIC aids are for mild to moderate hearing loss, but we've programmed yours for severe hearing loss. On your left hearing aid, you can control the settings, so say, if you want to dull out the background noise and make the sounds in front of you louder, you'd press the button, and it'd change the setting to Setting 2. Or if you want to amplify the background noise, you'd change it to Setting 3 just by pressing the button. On your right hearing aid, you have the volume control, and that's pretty basic. Your aids are waterproof, they're shock absorbers, they'll act as your comm device. No more earpieces since, well, they're your permanent earpieces, Dr. Shetland signed. Natasha watched Clint's face go still at the word "permanent," but he didn't linger on Dr. Shetland's word choice for long. Instead, he took a quick glance over at Natasha, and then he put the right one in his ear and then the left one, awkwardly fumbling with them as he did so. Once they were in, he looked expectantly at Dr. Shetland.

"What now?" he asked out loud.

I need to calibrate them with the computer, so I'll turn them on with the actual computer itself, Dr. Shetland signed in response. He sat with an apprehensive look on his face as the audiologist turned to her computer and began typing. Natasha watched him look around the room as she saw him try to find an outlet for his nervous energy. He was usually good at keeping his anxieties down—on a good day, she couldn't tell whenever he was anxious, but today he looked like he was going to die if he didn't get up and move or do something.

And then his face changed. His whole body went still, and his eyes widened just the slightest bit. He jerked his head to the left where Dr. Shetland was typing on her computer and clicking with the mouse.

"I can hear that," he said. As soon as he started speaking, his lips parted, and he put a hand up to his ear. "I can…I can hear myself talking."

"Yes, Agent Barton. I turned your aids on." Dr. Shetland looked over at him with a grin on her face. "How do you like them?"

Clint's jaw tensed, and he quietly nodded, the slight swell of his Adam's apple moving as he swallowed hard. His gaze travelled to Natasha, and he was unable to hide his smile any longer. Watching Clint gain back this part of himself nearly brought Natasha to tears, and she hated herself for being so emotional while also reveling in Clint's victory. She'd never been a particularly emotional person, but goddammit if Clinton Francis Barton hadn't managed to touch a part of her heart she thought the Red Room had destroyed forever.

As she watched the man across from her take in the new sounds around him, answering questions whenever he was asked, choosing preferences on volume and settings, she knew he wasn't really paying attention to Dr. Shetland. Judging from the way his eyes were all lit up and sparkling, she knew he was just dying to get out of that room and to go dosomething, to go hear something. But she was proud of him as he sat patiently through Dr. Shetland's explanation of the hearing aid dehumidifier he was supposed to put his aids in every night, of the cleaning and care that came with them.

But when they got outside into the hall, Clint nearly lost it.

"I can hear. I can actually fucking hear!" he exclaimed, nearly shouting it in the tiled hallway. His voice ricocheted through the long stretch due to the bad acoustics, but he didn't seem to care. Honestly, Natasha couldn't bring herself to care, either. He was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen, and she wouldn't dream of taking away this moment from him. "Everything's back. It's all back. My ears…I can hear again. It doesn't sound the same as it did before, but it's here. I can hear it all."

Natasha let out a quiet laugh at his sudden enthusiasm. He'd been so quiet and withdrawn over the past two weeks that seeing him now was a breath of fresh air— it was like having pre-accident Clint back. He just looked alive, and that was something she hadn't seen from him in a while. Granted, he'd slowly been coming back to life since she'd forced some sense into his head, but now he looked as though he were 100% back in the swing of things. At the sound of her laugh, he suddenly stopped walking, and he turned to look at her.

"I can hear your laugh," he said, still beaming. "I can fucking hear your fucking laugh."

"I love you," Natasha said with a soft laugh rolling out from between her lips. The words spilled out of her mouth and into the air before she could catch them and shove them back down her throat. They were out there, and they were free. Clint's face turned from thrilled to a quiet, subtler happiness. His eyes grew soft, and his mouth relaxed.

"Tasha," he said quietly. That was one thing she'd learned about him over the past few months. On a daily basis, he generally called her Nat. When he was being serious and professional, she was Natasha. When he was drugged up and injured, he could mumble out a Tash. But when he loved her so much he could barely breathe, could barely speak, he called her Tasha. She loved each and every name that he called her because each of those names belonged to him. He started to reach out, but she cocked an eyebrow at him. The movement was enough to stop him, and he smiled.

"Be professional, Hawkeye," she murmured quietly enough so that no one else but Clint could hear her. Clint's smile widened, and he looked around at the people in the hallway surrounding them. They were still quiet about what they really meant to each other in front of people who weren't close to them, and he'd nearly blown their cover. When he looked back at her, he nodded once to show that he understood her.

"You're the one that slipped up," he countered, still grinning. "Not me."

"I hate you, Barton."

"That's the spirit."

Clint spent the rest of the day listening to everything he could. He was fascinated to realize that water had about 20 different sounds mixed together instead of having just one in general sound, and he couldn't stop talking just because he wanted to hear the sound of his own voice again. He even went so far as to mention the possibility of stalking directly into Nick Fury's office for the sole purpose of having Fury yell at him simply so he could hear what that was like again.

After walking around the Triskelion with him all day, Natasha was ready to retreat back to the quiet of one of their rooms. She didn't care if they went to his room or her room—just so long as they got back to a room where they didn't have to be around other people. However, Clint had something else in mind when he got on the elevator and told it to take him to the SHIELD Shadow Division.

Natasha frowned. "That's way past our floor."

"I know," Clint said.

"Where are we going?" she asked. She saw the look on his face, and she tilted her head to the side. "Clint, don't tell me this is a surprise. I hate surprises."

"I think you won't completely hate this one. And I didn't plan this. It just kind of…came into my head literally just now," he offered with a shrug. Natasha couldn't argue with him. He was too happy and too excited and too pre-accident Clint. Even so, she'd never seen him this elated throughout the entire time she'd known him. So she stepped back and waited for the elevator to slide open once they reached the correct floor.

Clint was out through the doors in a heartbeat, barely waiting for her. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure that she was still coming, and he kept making his way down the hall.

"Where are we going?" she asked. Clint grinned, but he didn't say anything as he started for the stairwell at the end of the hall. Natasha lifted her red eyebrows in surprise, but she didn't press him for any answers. He was clearly doing all of this for theatrics, and she was just going to have to go along with it. Not that she was enjoying it or anything. Natasha Romanoff was not the type of person to enjoy theatrics, anyway. But even as she followed by his side, she had to forcibly hide the smile that threatened to overtake her lips.

Clint pushed the door to the stairwell open and began to climb. Natasha squinted her eyes and looked up. "Where does this go?"

"You'll see," Clint vaguely answered.

"I didn't know this stairway existed." Natasha began to climb up beside him, carefully noting how well he was moving up the stairs. Stairs had been a bitch for him the week before, but now he seemed to be managing them smoothly.

"Not many people do," Clint said. He didn't offer anything else, and she didn't ask. She just kept climbing alongside him. Finally, they reached the last landing, and there was a door. And when Natasha saw the door, she knew exactly where they were.

"Are we—"

"Yep." Clint cut her off with a huge smile as he twisted the doorknob and pulled. Natasha half-expected the door to be locked, even though that wouldn't be a problem for either of the two deadly SHIELD agents, but she also wasn't terribly surprised to see it swing open for Clint. Giving Clint a curious look, she stepped through the doorway and out onto the roof of the Triskelion.

The view was amazing. She could see D.C. stretch out for miles and miles in each direction no matter where she looked. She could spot every monument, every museum…hell, it seemed that she could see every single street if she paid close enough attention. Her gaze dropped down to the Potomac that ran right beside the Triskelion, and she watched the river stream by, quiet and untouched.

"Birds' eye view," she murmured out loud.

"What?" Clint asked as he stepped forward to join her.

"Birds' eye view," she repeated a little louder and clearer. Her eyes swept around the whole landscape. "No wonder you come up here."

"Best view in all of D.C.," Clint said with pride tingeing his voice. He glanced briefly at her. "And yes, I've been on almost every single rooftop trying to find it."

"Why doesn't that surprise me," Natasha said flatly. Clint softly laughed, and he gestured to her with his head to follow him. Quietly, she walked with him to the edge and sat down beside him on the cool concrete that lined the Triskelion's rooftop. She wouldn't admit it out loud to Clint, but sitting up here was definitely better than just going back peacefully to one of their rooms for the rest of the night.

"God, I can hear everything up here," he said with a slow sigh. "I never thought I'd hear this again. The wind, the cars, the planes…even the fucking air. I can hear the air, Nat."

"Never has a Hawkeye been happier," Natasha smartly quipped, meriting a grin from the blond archer.

"I came up here right after SHIELD started letting me out of containment, and after that, I just kind of kept coming back," Clint said casually. Natasha paused, and she turned to face the archer. Out of all the things she would have thought he'd want to talk about, and he'd chosen something he'd kept inside himself for such a long time.

"You needed fresh air," she filled in thoughtfully for him. He nodded, looking happy that she'd guessed the reasoning behind it.

"After spending a month in that damn cell, I needed to be out here," he replied. His voice wasn't regretful or painful—it was just matter of fact. As if he were stating his name and birthday.

"I can relate to that," she wryly added. Clint's smirk returned, and he shot her a rueful look.

"I know," he shot back. "You know, I was expecting you to be in containment for much longer than a month."

"Were you really?" Natasha gazed steadily at him with amusement painted lightly over her face.

"Yeah," he said. "From everything I'd read, you were a much more lethal killer than I was when I was first brought in, so I thought you would need more time to level out."

"I do always try to keep you on your toes," Natasha remarked. She paused and watched Clint look out towards the sky. "Who brought you in?"

"Agent Coulson," Clint replied smoothly. "He was supposed to bring me in for neutralization, and long story short, that's what happened." He looked at Natasha and saw all the questions written in her eyes. "I was a bad person, Nat. I did a lot of shit."

"I know," Natasha quietly replied. "You know I do." She studied the unreadable expression on his face, and she leaned back into her palms as she placed them behind her to steady herself. "I've been doing bad shit since the moment my parents died in that house fire."

"Since my brother and I escaped the orphanage and wound up traveling with the circus," Clint added. He saw more questions enter Natasha's eyes. "You ever heard of Trick Shot? Or the Swordsman?"

"Trick Shot, yes. The Swordsman, no," Natasha replied. Suddenly, her green eyes widened, and her lips parted as her mouth fell open in shock. "Trick Shot. That's who taught you how to shoot, isn't he?"

"Give the lady a prize," Clint quipped drily, his face still unreadable. Natasha's eyes searched over every feature as she tried to pick up any emotions from him, but he was doing that thing where he closed himself off. She wasn't mad at him for doing it—she couldn't be mad at him for being safe and closing down because it was what she did to stay alive, too. "Trick Shot and the Swordsman trained me, and then I found out after it was too late that they did things they shouldn't. They were thieves. Murderers. And they wanted me to join up with them. Said I owed it to them."

"And you agreed," Natasha added. Appreciatively, Clint nodded.

"Wound up helping them steal and kill more people than I'd care to remember," he answered.

"Your brother?" Natasha asked carefully, not wanting to overstep any boundaries. She saw a flash of something unhappy pass through Clint's clear blue eyes, but it was gone before she could even think of bringing it up to him.

"He was part of it, too," he said. "All of us got on SHIELD's radar. Coulson came out to bring in whoever he could, and I was the only one he managed to snag. I held him and the rest of his SHIELD team off so that my brother and the others could get away."

"Where's your brother now?" Natasha asked. Clint took in a breath, and he shrugged carelessly.

"Don't know, don't care," he replied easily. "Barney never did shit for me. Well, he taught me how to fight, but…"

"Barney Barton," Natasha said, testing the name in her mouth. "Is he the one who taught you all of those military techniques?"

"No. That was the Swordsman," Clint said dismissively. "Barney just taught me enough to make sure I could save my own ass in a fight. It was more for me than my old man ever did, so I guess that's something."

"Does it bother you that I call you Clinton sometimes?" Natasha suddenly asked. Clint looked at her with a surprised look on his face, and he shook his head.

"No," he said simply. "I love it when you do. It's different when you do it."

Without smiling, Natasha nodded, and she thought about everything Clint had shared with her. She supposed that now was the time to make good on a promise she'd made herself a week ago. Mentally, she prepared herself for the shit storm she was about to start, and then she started speaking.

"In some ways, I guess it's good my parents died in that fire," she mused aloud. She felt Clint sharply look at her. "I didn't have to find out if they'd beat the shit out of me."

"I guess so," Clint quietly agreed. Without warning, Natasha turned and swung her legs out in front of her, leaning back so that she could put her head in his lap. She bit down her grin at his amused face.

"That's my first memory, actually," she said. "The fire. I used to have a lot of nightmares about it."

"Yeah?" Clint asked.

"Yeah," she replied without allowing her voice to shake. "My childhood's a bit shaky. I remember bits and pieces. Not everything. I mainly remember just what I got out of it, though, which was my training. I don't remember actually getting the training, but I remember the training itself if that makes any sense."

"It does." Clint nodded his head.

"I guess that's why it was so important for me to get my memory back when Voloshin offered it to me. I was stupid. Still a kid," Natasha sighed. She frowned and let her eyes drift up towards Clint's face. "Do you remember what Barinov said about Drakov's daughter?"

"Yeah, I do," Clint said. He looked at her patiently, waiting for her to either continue or stop the conversation, whichever she was most comfortable with.

"That was one of the worst things I ever did. Like Barinov said, it was a revenge kill. Voloshin ordered me after her. She couldn't have been any older than I was. But I still emptied my gun into her head." Natasha's voice was flat as she spoke. Without pausing, she kept speaking. "I also burned down the children's ward of a hospital, I left a group of innocent men with families back home to die in Sao Paolo, I purposefully framed—"

"Natasha. Natasha, hey." Clint's voice interrupted her, and he was bringing her up into a seated position. "You don't have to…you don't need to tell me this. I told you I don't talk about the past for a reason, and I don't expect you to tell me anything to do with yours if you don't want to. You don't have to tell me any of this. Why are you telling me now?"

"I made up my mind last week," Natasha said, speaking clearly and evenly as she stared directly into his eyes. "I told myself that when you got your hearing aids, I was going to come clean to you. So you could hear me exactly as who I am and not this—this version of me you think you know."

"What the fuck?" Clint asked incredulously as he twisted his face into an expression of confusion. "Nat, I know you've done things. I don't have some false image of you. You were trained to work a certain way, and that's what you did. I don't…Jesus, I don't tell myself you're something that you're not. I know you're dangerous and bloody and flawed."

"Thanks," Natasha said with a smirk. Clint allowed himself to smile a little.

"I didn't mean it like that," he said.

"I know." Natasha smirked back at him. "I just…wanted to tell you."

"You're not perfect, Natasha. You are so not perfect at all. But I'm not perfect, either. I have innocent blood on my hands, too. A lot of it. Believe me when I say that I did a lot of stuff I knew I shouldn't because I felt I owed it to those guys the exact same way you felt you owed it to Voloshin," Clint said. He longed to reach out and touch her, but he didn't want to scare her away. Unable to help himself, he started laughing.

"What is it?" Natasha asked. He could hear the displeasure in her voice, but he couldn't stop laughing. "Clint."

"God, look at us," he choked out. "We're the two most fucked up individuals on this goddamn planet, and we're partnered together, and I love you. I think that's hilarious."

The corners of Natasha's mouth twitched, and she gave him one of her slow, genuine smiles that he wished he could tuck away in his pocket to keep with him forever. "I guess that's kind of funny."

"We're a shit show is what we are," Clint said as he continued to laugh. "I mean, look at us. We're sitting on top of the roof of a top secret government agency because this was the best possible way I could think of to celebrate the fact that I can hear again."

It really wasn't funny, but it was the fact that it was so not funny that made it hilarious, and Natasha found herself laughing harder and harder the more she thought about it. Her life seemed like a ridiculous comedy sometimes—it was either a tragedy or a comedy. No in between like one of those nice dramedies that had a good balance of both. But today was a comedy. It was a comedy because her tragedies could defeat her, or she could defeat them.

She lay on her back on the roof of the Triskelion and laughed. She laughed until her stomach hurt. She laughed until she thought Clint was going to die he was laughing so heartily. She laughed until her lungs burned for oxygen, and her stomach screamed for a rest. Finally, she gasped deeply and took in a deep breath, trying to slow her chuckles. She turned her head and saw Clint lying down next to her, wiping his eyes with the backs of his hands to clear away his laughter-tears.

"I fucking needed that," he said on the last trails of a chuckle. "I really fucking needed that. God, I missed hearing. The sound of the wind and the air and how you sound when you talk."

"You missed the sound of your own damn voice is what you mean," Natasha corrected as she looked back up at the sky above her. The stars were starting to come out now that it was getting darker. The thing about D.C. was that the city environment made it difficult to see the stars, but sometimes on a good night, she'd been able to find a few from looking through her window.

"I missed all of it," Clint said. "I think this is the best day of my life."

"Really?" Natasha asked curiously. She didn't take her gaze away from the sky.

"Yeah," Clint replied, his voice serious again. "I feel like I got everything back. I mean, I've still got a long way to go. I haven't even picked up a gun to start shooting, and I need to ease back into sparring to see just how bad off I am there, but I'm getting it all back."

"I told you you could do it," Natasha said ruefully. "I don't know why you doubt me."

"I don't doubt you. I doubt myself."

"Well, that's fucking stupid, too." She heard Clint turn on his side to face her, and she allowed her head to drop to the right so she could look back at him. "How are your ears holding up? Dr. Shelton said you might get a little over stimulated from having the aids in since you've been without sound for so long."

"They're ok," Clint answered. "Honestly, if I could leave them in forever, I would."

Natasha rolled onto her side so that they were on equal ground. "Just because we had an easy day today doesn't mean I'm going easy on you for training tomorrow, by the way. Just so you know, Barton."

"Wouldn't dream of it, Romanoff." Clint smirked.

"It's nice having this side of you back. Missed having your annoying, smirking self around here."

"Must have been pretty bad if you're going to be this nice to me."

"Don't get used to it. These past few weeks have been a once in a lifetime thing."

"So you were being nice to me just because I couldn't hear?"


"You really are mean to me."

"Really?" Natasha closed the space between them and kissed him slowly. She remembered the first time he'd kissed her in the SHIELD barn in Virginia. They'd been kissing strictly for research purposes, she'd said. Method acting. And he'd kissed her softly and gently, and she remembered thinking that she usually hated kisses like that, but now she couldn't get enough of them. She couldn't get enough of him.

"Well, when you kiss me like that it's pretty hard to say," Clint said, his voice getting the slightest bit huskier. "Dammit, Tasha."

"Hey, Clint?" Natasha pulled back just the tiniest amount. She couldn't really see him all that well in the dark, but she could see just enough of his face to satisfy her.

"Yeah?" he prompted.

She took his hands in hers. "Did Trick Shot or the Swordsman do this to you?"

She knew no further elaboration was necessary. She watched his face go frozen for just a few seconds, but then he nodded briefly. Inside her chest, she felt her heart break for him, and she peppered kisses all over his knuckles and his fingertips. "I like your callouses."

Clint let out an unexpected snort. "That's the last thing I ever would have thought you'd say to me. No one's ever complimented me on my callouses before."

"Well, there's a first time for everything. I see them, and I like them." She pressed one last kiss to the back of his hand.

"Want to go inside?" Clint asked, taking her hands between his and lightly rubbing them to warm them up. "What do you say to a cup of hot coffee for you, tea for me, and lots of time under the blankets?"

"Heaven," Natasha replied. She eased herself into a seated position and then a standing position, turning to look down at Clint. He looked a little unsteady pushing up into a sit, and he looked even more unstable as he drew up into a stand, but she didn't offer him help. He would have killed her if she'd asked him if he wanted help, and his good day would have been ruined.

He'd told her that this was the best day of his life, and she paused as she realized that this had been a damn good day for her, too. She'd been so scared back at the hospital in Chicago two weeks ago thinking that he wouldn't come out of this alive. She'd been terrified that she would lose him, but here he was in front of her with more life in him than she'd ever seen. Sure, he wasn't steady on his feet, and he probably wouldn't be able to shoot a perfect bulls eye the first time he got a gun back in his hand, let alone his bow, but he was alive.

He took a few extra moments to steady himself, and then he looked down at her. They stood in silence for a few moments, simply looking at each other in the artificial illumination of the nearby buildings that helped shape the skeleton of D.C. Clint wasn't good with words, and neither was she, but in that moment, neither of them felt as though they needed to speak to express just how much they felt for each other. Clint knew it from the way that her eyes swallowed every inch of his face. Natasha could see it in the set of his mouth when he looked at her or thought about her. They both knew it.

Sometimes the right words to express the right emotions simply didn't exist.


Chapter Text

Chapter 30

Clint tried not to fling the gun across the open space of the shooting range. He was getting better, he told himself. He had to at least admit that about himself if nothing else. He was getting better. Maria peeked her head around the corner and lifted her eyebrows at Clint's score.

"Good job, Barton," she said genuinely. "Not too shabby."

Clint shot her a look that expressed he thought his score was, in fact, very shabby. "I'm still off. I keep shooting a little too far to the right."

Maria came around the corner and folded her arms over her chest as she looked more closely at the marks Clint had made, her blue eyes squinting as she examined the marks. "Is your vision still jumping around on you?"

"No," Clint lied, and he lied hard through his teeth. "It's fine."

If Maria caught onto the fact that he was lying, she didn't show any indication of it. He'd been lying about his vision for the past week to everyone. Natasha, Hill, Coulson, his psychiatrist…everyone. Technically, his vision was good enough to pass the SHIELD physical, but it wasn't good enough to pass his own standards, to pass Hawkeye's standards. He was used to having perfect aim, and his aim was slightly off, meaning that he wasn't good enough.

Lately he'd discovered that whenever he focused on a target, his eyes started to swim. The room began to tilt from side to side, and he couldn't get the room to be still, hence why he kept shooting slightly off to the right. He suppressed the sigh that started to build up in the back of his throat as he changed out the magazine of his gun.

"Have you picked up your bow yet? Maybe that'll help," Maria suggested. Clint's jaw tensed. He hadn't touched his bow since the Omega had stabbed his ears to kingdom come—hell, he hadn't even looked at his bow in his closet since the accident. Nonchalantly, he shook his head and reloaded the gun in his hand, keeping his face calm and bored.

"No," he said.

"Well, color me surprised," Maria remarked, sounding every bit as surprised as Clint had imagined she would. "I thought you would've been itching to get back at it."

"Just trying to get my bearings back," Clint dismissively replied while also trying to keep his tone casual. He glanced towards the dark-haired agent and smirked. "What with my brand new hearing aids and everything."

"Nat says you like them. I can imagine it's an unimaginable relief to have your hearing back," Maria said with a gentle smile. Clint nodded back in response.

"Yeah," he said. "It's different, but it's worth it."

"Is it?" Maria asked curiously with a look on her face that Clint couldn't identify, and he paused, thinking about everything that had happened to him. Pre-accident, his hearing had been perfect. Above average. He'd been able to hear things that normal people couldn't. But now that he had his hearing aids, his hearing was less than perfect. Not by much, but it was still less than perfect.

"Yeah," he slowly answered. "It is."

"Welcome back, Agent Barton!" Coulson beamed brightly at Clint from behind his desk, and Clint smiled back at the agent who'd given him his second chance all those years ago.

"Hello, sir. Good to be back," he replied with ease. He felt Natasha's eyes on him as he took a seat in the chair beside her, and he turned to give her a smile, too. As he looked at her, he noticed that she was dressed in the clothes she always used for training, giving him a clue as to what she'd been up to that morning while he'd been improving—or at leasttrying to improve—his shooting.

"I just got your physical back, and you're officially cleared for field work again," Coulson said. "And the timing is just about perfect, too. I knew neither you nor Agent Romanoff would let me down."

"Couldn't have done it without her," Clint honestly answered. He caught the sides of Natasha's mouth twitching into a smile, but she didn't allow it to go much farther in Coulson's presence. Now that she was at work, she was cool, calm, and professional, much like the way he was whenever he was working on a mission. He turned his gaze back to Coulson and tried to mimic her expression.

"She's told me that she's been keeping you updated on the Omega mission?" Coulson asked with lifted eyebrows, checking in with Clint as he opened a file on his desk. Clint nodded.

"Yes, sir. She told me that the Omega is apparently working with the Sankos, and you've sent an agent in to establish a cover," he replied.

"That's correct," Coulson confirmed.

"Who'd you send in?" Natasha asked curiously, speaking for the first time since Clint had come into the office.

"Agent May. She's one of our best. You haven't met her, but she's one of the greatest martial artists I've ever known. She's just kind of altogether awesome," Coulson said. "She's establishing a cover as a smuggler for the Omega's products. She'll be in contact with us whenever she has solid information on the Omega's location."

"Do we know how the Omega and the Sankos are connected?" Clint asked, frowning. Coulson pressed his lips together and shook his head.

"Still working on that part. We don't know much of anything about the guy, not even his real name," he replied.

"So we're flying in the dark here," Natasha threw in. "Still."

"Trying to fly in the light can sometimes be a little tricky. What have you been able to gather about him in your few interactions with him?" Coulson leaned forward on his desk and surveyed the two agents. Natasha shrugged as she thoughtfully turned her head to look at Clint.

"He's smart. He likes to stay one step ahead of the game. He's not afraid to handle things himself." Natasha nodded towards Clint. "He personally went after you. Didn't send one of his badass henchmen to do it for him. He went after you directly, so he's capable of doing his own dirty work. He knows how to fight."

"Do you think…do you think maybe the Omega was a former Sanko?" Clint asked. Silence filled the room as all of the agents considered this.

"My God," Coulson breathed. "It's a possibility. We don't have enough information to confirm or deny it, but it's definitely a possibility."

"Well, I was just thinking...SHIELD insisted that the Sankos had been neutralized. So say that the Omega needed a new job since the Sankos were keeping their heads down. He's already a gang member, so he knows how to maneuver his way around dark circles. That's what he does best," Clint explained. Natasha's eyes widened, and she stared at him with a look of realization passing through her eyes.

"It…it would fit," she admitted.

"I'm not saying that that's 100% exactly what happened, but I'd believe it," he said. He turned his gaze to Clint and gave the blond archer a curious look. "How'd you put all of this together?"

"Well, I was thinking about it after Agent Romanoff told me about the bullets. When I was finishing eliminating the targets in Budapest, the men I fought had a specific fighting style. It was very specific. And when I fought the Omega at the warehouse in Chicago, it was the same style. I didn't put those two together until just a few days ago," Clint replied. Natasha frowned as she listened.

"When did you fight the Sankos?" she asked. "Hand-to-hand combat?"

"Yeah, you were passed out in the middle of the road," Clint answered. Natasha's eyes lit up with recognition, and she nodded in agreement.

"You're right," she confirmed. "I was definitely passed out in the road, so that's why I don't remember you fighting anyone. But Agent Coulson, Agent Barton has a point. Being able to link the fighting styles together is enough of a clue to give us a possible theory. It's always the details that make these cases."

"I'll get digging up more information on the Sankos and anyone who possibly could have left Budapest anytime after SHIELD's involvement," Coulson replied. "Well, Agent Barton, you may have been laid up for a little while, but you're back and better than ever. You never disappoint."

Clint smiled thinly back at Coulson, trying to feel as though he deserved the compliment the older agent had just given him but failing at it. If Coulson knew that he couldn't shoot like he used to, Coulson would be so disappointed in him. Hell, even Natasha would be disappointed in him, and he didn't think he could bear feeling them know that he'd let them down. He could live with his own disappointment, but he knew he just couldn't live with theirs. Especially Natasha's.

"Thank you, sir," he said coolly.

"I'll call you guys back in whenever I find anything," Coulson said as he looked back down at the file in front of him, making notes as he did so. "Be ready to ship out at any moment. I expect Agent May to give the ok anytime now."

"She's good at what she does. I have no doubt she'll have secured a good cover," Clint said. Coulson smiled fondly at the thought of the female agent, and he nodded.

"I have no doubt, either," he said. He looked over at Natasha with his typical pleasant face and gave her a knowing look. "You'd like Agent May a lot. I can't wait to introduce you two. Don't you think she'd like Agent May, Barton?"

"I think she'd love Agent May," Clint answered. He caught Natasha's curious expression, and he grinned at her. "She's badass and doesn't take shit from anyone. She's kicked my ass a couple times in training."

"Perfect. I already love her," Natasha deadpanned, meriting a laugh from both men. She stood up and waved over her shoulder to Coulson as she and Clint headed towards the door. "I'll see you later, Agent Coulson."

"Take care, you guys. Hey." Coulson paused as he watched the two agents stop in their tracks to look back at him. "It's great to have STRIKE Team: Delta back. It really is. I've missed having you two around."

"Thank you, sir," Natasha replied. She looked up at Clint, allowing a soft smile to cross over her face. "It's great to be a part of STRIKE Team: Delta again."

"I agree," Clint said. And then they were out of Coulson's office and walking down the hall. Clint looked over at Natasha. "I've got to go see the shrink this afternoon, so I'll probably be a little late for dinner."

"Ok," Natasha calmly answered. "Do you want to go out tonight? We haven't really gone out since everything happened. It might be nice to actually have a few hours outside of SHIELD."

"I don't know. I was thinking I should probably train after dinner. Grab some food in the cafeteria and get back to the shooting range," Clint said casually. He felt Natasha glance worriedly at him.

"You're going to the shooting range tonight?" Her voice was laced with surprise. "Clint, you passed your physical with flying colors. You scored above average in everything. Your hard work these past few weeks has paid off. You don't need to keep training."

"I'd feel better if I did," he said with a shrug. "I don't know. I just feel like I've fallen behind, and I don't like feeling that way. I like feeling on top of my game."

"Are you still having trouble with balance?" Natasha asked. Ruefully, Clint glanced at her and shook his head. "Vision?"

"No, Natasha," he tersely replied. "I just want to go practice. I was out of the game for like, two weeks, and I want back in."

"Clint, you are back in," Natasha argued in an even, rational tone that made Clint more annoyed than anything. "Are you even listening to anything I'm saying?"

"Yes, Natasha," he sighed. Suddenly, Natasha grabbed his arm, and she pulled him out of the hall and into an empty office, closing the door behind them. Secretly, Clint admired her ability to do that. She always seemed to know which offices were locked, which had people in them, and which she could use whenever she wanted. She stared up at him with confused eyes, and even though he searched her face to find anger, he couldn't find any.

"What's going on with you?" she asked quietly. "After you got your hearing aids, you've been different."

"Of course I've been different," Clint scoffed with an eye roll. "I was deaf for two fucking weeks, and then I got my ears back. I think I have a right to act different."

"One, you're still deaf. Just because you have hearing aids doesn't mean you're magically back to being hearing, and two, you know what I mean. You're just being a little shit about it." A hint of anger edged into Natasha's tone, but he could barely hear it over the concern that took the stage in her voice. He sighed and shook his head as he looked away from her.

"I just want to train, Nat. That's all. There's nothing wrong with me." He knew his voice was convincing from the way she let up on holding her mouth so tightly. Her eyes scanned over his face as if she were searching for any kind of sign that he was lying to her, and then she tilted her head to the side.

"Even when you're normal, you don't want to train this much," she said sharply. Clint's blue eyes flashed with anger and indignation at her words, and he folded his arms over his chest in a stance that mirrored hers.

"Normal? What the hell is that supposed to mean?" he snapped.

"Goddammit, I'm not making some bad joke about your hearing. Pre-accident Clint didn't want to train this much. That's all I meant by it," she replied. Clint thought about snapping back at her, but he took a breath to calm himself. Getting mad and fighting with Natasha wouldn't do anything to help him right now; if anything, it'd be against his favor because she'd start watching him to see how he was coping, and he didn't need her watching his every move.

"When I got hurt, there was no way I could have had your back the rest of that mission," he said slowly. "I want to train so I don't have to put myself in that position again."

Natasha chewed the inside of her cheek as she processed Clint's words. "You don't have to watch out for me like I'm some helpless rookie. I've been doing this my entire life."

She didn't say it angrily, nor did she say it to argue with him—she said it simply because it was true. Clint felt an unexpected pull in his chest as he realized the truth behind her statement. It was moments like these that he remembered that this stunning, capable woman in front of him had had the shittiest childhood ever, and he instantly felt guilty for making her think about it.

"I know," he said quietly. "But as long as I have the ability, I want to protect you."

"And I want to protect you, too," she replied. She tightened her arms over her chest as if she were uncomfortable with revealing this to him. It was funny how she could tell him she loved him with an awed smile on her face, looking surprised by her own capability to love, but then when she talked about how she wanted to keep him safe, she looked like she wanted to run and hide underneath a rock.

"I know, Tasha." Clint wanted to reach out and touch her, but he saw from the way she held her shoulders and her head that she would run if he tried to touch her. Knowing that that was her reaction to his touch whenever she was upset and vulnerable was enough to kill him, but he swallowed it down. "I'm ok. I'm fine. I just want to train."

Natasha stared at him without giving anything away as to how she was feeling. He wished he could read her expression, but she kept her gaze level and empty.

"I don't believe you," she finally replied softly. "But if you don't want to tell me, that's ok."


"Clint." She interrupted him by placing one hand on his cheek as she let her tough exterior drop down a little bit just enough for him to crawl inside. Her skin was always so soft and warm, though her hands were calloused just like his. Unable to help himself, he turned into her touch and tried not to close his eyes. "Clinton. It's ok."

"Ok," he said, unsure of how else to respond. He wanted to believe her. God, he so badly wanted to believe her just as he knew she wanted to believe him, but he couldn't bring himself to when he knew that his shooting wasn't anywhere near it had been. He hadn't even told her that the thought of picking up his bow again made him sick for reasons he had no way of knowing how to identify. As if she were reading his mind, she lowered her hand from his face and put it back down to her side.

"Have you started training with your bow again?" she asked. Clint made sure to keep his jaw relaxed and his eyes gentle. She could pick up on his anguish probably quicker than even he could, and the last thing he wanted to do was alert her to the panicky feeling he got in his stomach whenever he thought about holding an arrow in his hands again.

"Yeah," he said. "A little bit."

"Maria told me you hadn't," Natasha said with a slight frown.

Fuck, Clint thought.

"I just started back today," Clint said.

"Oh. Ok," Natasha replied without pushing the issue any further. "How did it feel to be back in business, Hawkeye?"

"Oh, you know," Clint said and shrugged his shoulders, acting as if it were no big deal. He watched the apprehension enter Natasha's face, and then he grinned at her as if he'd been teasing with her the whole time. "It was amazing. I don't feel right until I've got my bow back."

"There he is. I knew the Clint I knew was in there somewhere," Natasha replied, repeating words she'd said to him in Budapest. She reached out with her hand and lightly placed it on his torso right above his ribs. Sometimes Clint had a hard time believing that this complicated, unbelievably fascinating woman loved him, and as he watched her touch him, he had trouble believing and accepting it. She wasn't all that affectionate, and she was probably meaner to him than she was nice, but he knew she didn't really mean it. He took everything she had to offer, snarky comments and eye rolls and soft touches and everything in between.

"I have to go," he finally said, the reluctance in his voice genuine. "I have to go to my goddamn appointment."

"Ok," she answered. She looked up and gave him a look that was almost a smile but not quite. "But we're taking a rain check on this night out, ok? Because we deserve a night out.You deserve a night out."

"Ok. We'll have a night out whenever I feel like I'm back to being on top of my game again."



"I'm holding you to it."

"I know you are. And I wouldn't dare back out. I'm too scared of the Black Widow to break a promise."

"That's just what I like to hear."

"Kiss me."

"Yes, sir."

A week later, Agent May contacted Agent Coulson using an encrypted line. The Omega was going to be in Seattle in three days' time, and she would be travelling with him, assigned with the task of smuggling 20 bags of drugs over the Canadian border without being caught. Agent Coulson moved Natasha and Clint out of the Triskelion as quickly as he could and onto the next jet out to Seattle.

And that was how Natasha wound up poring over last minute mission plans in a sleazy motel room. She scrutinized each and every detail, going over every single possible play in her mind. Last time, she'd been worried about forgetting the plan. This time, she was worried about how she was going to handle Clint. Of course, she hadn't expressed her worries to anyone since that would mean Clint would have to go through extra screenings, and she didn't want to do that to him, and really, she was probably being paranoid more than anything.

But she wasn't under any false illusions. Clint might have gotten his hearing back, and physically, he was improving much quicker than everyone had been expecting, but he was still not ok emotionally. Ever since the accident, he'd been a different person. Sometimes flashes of his old self would come through, and he would be silly and goofy andannoyingly optimistic, but most of the time he was quiet and watchful, much more than he'd been before. He wanted to train at all hours of the day to the point where even she thought he was going overboard with it, and he just wasn't…Clint. He wasn't Clint.

She'd taken to watching his every move over the past week, trying to be as discreet as she knew she could be. Even though he'd cleared his physicals, there was some reason as to why he wanted to keep training that he hadn't shared with her. And little by little, she'd noticed it. He'd kept blinking his eyes extra hard before staring at something, and she'd recognized it as the same gesture he'd used to get his eyes to focus back when his acute unilateral vestibulopathy had been particularly bad. It'd hit her that his vision wasn't as good as he'd insisted it was.

"Natasha. Natasha. Agent Romanoff?" Coulson called her back to reality. Blinking, she looked up from the written plan in front of her and focused her eyes calmly on the older agent.

"Sorry. I was strategizing," she said.

"About?" Coulson prompted.

"If there were possibly a better plan," she replied. A hint of amusement flashed through Coulson's eyes, and she inwardly breathed a sigh of relief that he hadn't picked up on the fact that she'd actually been lost in thought. "There isn't, by the way. This looks like the best plan to go with."

"Glad to have your stamp of approval, Agent Romanoff. Especially considering the fact that it's far too late to back out now," Coulson drily answered. "Alright. We'll head out in five minutes. Be ready."

Natasha turned her head to look at Clint as soon as she realized that Coulson had had his back to both of them as he'd said his last two sentences. Sure enough, the look on Clint's face confirmed what she'd suspected: Clint hadn't heard what Coulson had said. She waited for him to turn and ask her what he'd missed, but true to form, Clint Barton didn't ask for help. Instead, he turned to look at her with a blank expression on his face.

"Ready?" he asked, repeating a question they'd asked each other numerous of times during past missions. Quietly, she nodded and held his gaze.

"Are you?" she asked. He nodded in return. "You feel ok to go back into the field?"

"Natasha, you don't have to monitor me like I'm some new agent who doesn't know a pistol from a rifle," Clint said, his voice just the slightest bit tight. Natasha swallowed to keep her sharp retort down. Now was the worst possible time to get into a fight with Clint, and so she bit back her comment, and she nodded.

"You're right," she admitted. "I don't. I just want you to be ok. I can't…I can't let you down again."

"Nat…" His voice dropped away, and he held his hand out to her as an invitation to close the space between them. That was one thing that had remained the same between pre-accident Clint and current Clint—he let her be the one to decide how many steps she was going to take; he let her have the option of touching him instead of just assuming that she wanted to, even though she almost always did want to. After a few seconds, she reached out and interlaced her fingers with his, feeling the warmth of his palm and the fading roughness of his callouses. "You didn't let me down."

"I did," Natasha quietly insisted. "You called for back up, and I didn't come through, and what if that happens again this time?" Her eyes searched his face desperately for an answer. "I can't fail you again, Clint."

"Dammit, Nat, you didn't fail me the first time," he protested gently. "You couldn't have done anything."

She gave him such a sad smile that he could practically hear his own heart breaking. "That's what people say whenever they want to ease the pain."

"Well, I'm telling you the truth. Nat…it'll be ok." His voice was so soothing and wonderful that Natasha suddenly felt guilty. She looked up at him and pressed her lips together slightly as she studied his face. She would have been able to pick out his features from a line up if the only thing she'd been allowed to use was the skin of her cheek. She knewhim, inside and out.

"I should be telling you that," she murmured. "This is your first mission back after that asshole—"

"I'm fine. One-hundred percent fine." He paused and saw her apprehensive eyes. "I promise."


"I promise, Natasha. We've been chasing this son of a bitch now, and trust me…I'm going to make him pay for what he's done to the both of us." Clint's eyes hardened in a way that Natasha didn't like, and she shook her head the tiniest bit, the movement so small Clint half-wondered if he'd dreamed it up on the spot.

"Don't do it for us," she said quietly. "Do it for you."

"If I say something kind of romantic and really corny, will you make fun of me?" Clint asked. Despite the seriousness of the conversation they'd just had, Natasha found herself smiling.

"Of course," she said. He let out a tiny sigh and half-rolled his eyes.

"Well, I'm going to say it, anyway because it'd be a bit of an asshole move to back out now, but…I'm glad you're my partner. And I'm glad I didn't kill you when I was ordered to," he said, his tone serious but his face light. For just a second, Natasha thought that she had her old Clint back, and her smile spread even wider.

"How was that romantic?" she asked. She'd been expecting one of his corny one-liners he threw at her whenever he wanted to make her laugh, but he'd surprised her with this one. "It was corny, but I don't get the romantic part."

"Because we're partners. In more ways than one, I'd say," Clint replied, as if it were the easiest answer in the world. She felt her throat go tight, and she squeezed his hand hard in hers.

"I'd say so, too," she said. "And it wasn't that corny and romantic, even though it did make me feel kind of nauseated just listening to you."

"Romanoff. Why you gotta do me like this?" Clint leaned his forehead against her shoulder, and she could feel his smile. Out of habit, she pressed her cheek against the back of his blond head and turned her mouth down into his soft hair to inhale the scent of his shampoo before kissing him on the top of his skull. "I can hear you smelling my hair."

"Ok, so shoot me. It smells good. Really does smell like a meadow, Barton." She smiled at him as he pulled away.

"Calling me by my last name, Romanoff. Trying to turn me on before we go into battle?" Clint smirked, and she openly rolled her eyes and heaved a sigh.

"I swear," she murmured. "Has Palmer checked to see if your hearing aids are working well with the feed?"

"Not yet. Last time I saw him he was out in the van getting everything set up. Damn bastard has the easiest job out of all of us," Clint muttered under his breath. Before Natasha could reply, Coulson stuck his head back in with a grim smile on his face.

"Alright, kids. We're rolling out," he said. Natasha lifted her gun off the table and checked the magazine before raising her eyes up to meet Coulson's.

"Perfect," she said. She glanced over at Clint and noticed that he grabbed his gun before he took hold of his bow and quiver. That wasn't like him at all. He always grabbed his bow first. Always. Never before had he grabbed his gun before his bow, and she felt an edge of uncertainty run down her spine. Quickly, she shook it out of her head and started walking out to the van out front. Now was most definitely not the time to start worrying about Clint, even though she'd already been worrying about him.

She approached the van with Clint by her side, and she hopped into the back, smirking at Palmer, who was seated at the control panels the way he always was. Palmer looked up and nodded towards the both of them.

"Romanoff. Barton," he greeted.

"Felix," Natasha replied. Immediately, he winced and shook his head.

"Nope. That's where I draw the line," he protested. "You can call me anything but Felix. Palmer is so much more preferable."

"You totally look like a Felix. The whole computer genius thing…the stereotype fits you to a tee," Natasha remarked.

"Exactly," Palmer deadpanned. "Barton, can you hear me?"

Clint nodded and tilted his head into a funny angle. "Yeah. I can kind of hear you twice, though."

"That's what should be happening right now. You're hearing my voice in real life time, but you're also hearing it through the mic in your hearing aids. Everything sound good?" Palmer asked.

"Sounds great to me," Clint replied. Natasha put her earpiece in and let Palmer run the sound test on her before he declared that they were both ready to go.

"Don't fuck up this time," he remarked lightly. "God, Barton, I swear, any mission I'm involved with that has to do with you, it gets fucked up."

"Guns out, Palmer."

"Fuck you, Barton."

Natasha smiled at the normal exchange between the two agents, and she willed herself not to look at Clint. She didn't know why, but she had a horrible sense of foreboding deep in her stomach. She wished that she could believe that everything was going to go perfectly this time, but her instincts were rarely wrong. Back during the last mission she'd worked—the one that had deafened Clint—she'd felt an extra sense of nervousness, and she hadn't been wrong. That mission had gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Despite how much she didn't want to look at him, she did. He looked so calm and ready. Little did she know that inside, he was trying to hold himself together because his heart was racing from anxiety. Little did she know that he kept looking around the small van in hopes that his eyes would actually focus on something and stop jumping around.

He looked back at Natasha, and he gave her a half-smile. "We've got this."

She thought back to the last time he'd said that and then the events that had directly followed, and she nodded slowly. "Yeah. We've got this."

I can't let anything happen to you, Clint thought.

I can't let you know I can barely fucking see, he wanted to say.

I can't fail you, Natasha. You didn't fail me. But if I fail you, I'll never forgive myself, he longed to express.

"Ready?" he asked.



Chapter Text

Chapter 31

Natasha always went into a different mindset when she was on a mission because that was how she'd been trained. For as long as she could remember, she'd been taught that the most important thing was to get the job done. Get it done, and get the hell out of there if you could still move. She could practically hear her handlers screaming it at her if she closed her eyes long enough and allowed her memories to come pouring in like water filling a vase. As soon as she and Clint exited the van and started moving towards—surprise, surprise—another abandoned warehouse that was currently serving as the Omega's hotspot for the moment, she could feel herself moving into that mindset.

She didn't feel the need to look at Clint, even though her heart wanted her to. She wanted to look over at him to make sure that he was really there with her. On some level, she felt as though she were being irrational by intensely worrying about his ability to perform during this mission, but on another level, she knew that she was perfectly justified. Clint was having some kind of trouble with his eyesight, and he wasn't telling her.

They were barely out of the van before she stopped and looked at him, though she didn't look at him with worry—she looked at him with surprise. "Your bow."

"What?" Clint asked, frowning.

"Your bow," she repeated. "You left both your bow and your quiver in the van."

"Oh. Right." He took his eyes off her face and turned around to climb back into the van to grab his bow and quiver. Natasha watched him with a frown marring her features—behind his head, she saw Coulson watching him intently, and he glanced at Natasha, making eye contact with her. Neither she nor Coulson exchanged any verbal words or physical cues, but they exchanged enough in their facial expressions to let the other know that something was going on with the archer whose work was unmatched by anyone.

He popped back out of the van with his bow and quiver in place over his shoulder, and he started walking. "I'm going to my entrance point now."

"Ok," Natasha replied. "I'll let you know when I've eliminated the targets. Agent May should be inside prepping for her attack."

"Alright. I'll be in position," Clint said. He started to move off, but Natasha reached out and grabbed him suddenly. Caught off guard, he turned to look at her and found her staring up at him with huge, open eyes. "Nat?"

"Be careful," Natasha quietly warned. He thought back to the time she'd told him that right before the Voloshin mission—any time she thought that the mission was going to be particularly dangerous, she murmured those two words to him as a partner and as a friend, but today, there was something extra lingering in her meaning. Swallowing, he nodded.

"You, too," he said. Frowning, Natasha shook her head sharply.

"No, Clint," she protested. "I mean it. We need to be on top of our game. The both of us."

Her meaning stood out heavily in her words, and that was when Clint understood that she suspected something was wrong with him. He felt his heart plummet down to his stomach, and he waited for her to give him a short, Natasha-esque lecture, but she didn't. Instead, she just looked hard at him as if she couldn't remember what his face looked like, despite the fact that she was standing right in front of him.

"I will," he said. "I promise. Everything's fine, Nat."

"I'm trusting you," she said. "You can do this. I have faith in you."

"Nat," he insisted, though his voice was gentle. His eyes softened as he held her gaze. "I'll be ok."

"I hope so," she murmured with a worried frown, and then, without another word, she was gone, just a shadow melting into the rest of the shadows around her. Clint worried about what she'd been trying to tell him—she was Natasha. She gave cryptic messages like that all the time, but Clint knew that she'd been trying to tell him she knew something was wrong with him without directly saying it. He wanted to ask her how she'd known, but he should've known by now that Natasha always knew. She was trained to pick up on small subtle details, and it only made sense that she would have been able to pick up that something was wrong with him. God, there was nothing that woman didn't already know.

Feeling the pressure of everything surrounding this mission start to come down on him, he blinked hard and started stalking silently to his point of entrance. This was a mission, and at some point, she would need him, and he would have to come through for her. He couldn't let her down. If he did, he'd never forgive himself.

Once Natasha figured out how the Omega's men fought, she was able to silently take them down with little to no effort. It wasn't long before she was at the final door that led into the warehouse. Lifting her hand to her earpiece, she spoke quietly. "Black Widow at final entrance point. Waiting on cue."

"Currently waiting on May to say the word," Palmer said back in her ear. "Hawkeye is in position."

"Roger that," Natasha murmured. Keeping her back against the wall and her eyes alert, she started to wait. She didn't know how much longer she'd be there, but she didn't suspect long. On the inside, Agent May had planted a device that led the audio feed out to Palmer's van. As soon as Palmer heard May say, "Where are the others," he would give Natasha the cue, and she was supposed to go in and neutralize the Omega's men inside.

Clint was positioned as the sniper—that was his role, and he was good at it, but Natasha couldn't help the feeling of uncertainty start to bubble in her stomach. Everything just seemed off with him; granted, she knew she couldn't expect him to be back 150% when he was still trying to figure out how his ears worked now—that wasn't even getting into the lasting emotional trauma—on this first mission back.

Come on, Clint, she thought silently. Come through for me. I know you can.

She had to have faith in him because she knew he needed it. He needed to know that someone believed in him when he didn't seem to have much belief in himself these days. And if that's what he needed, she would give it to him. She would always give it to him. Closing her eyes for just a brief second, she sent more good thoughts and positivity towards him. She didn't exactly believe in all that New Age shit about positive energy and vibes, but she was desperate, and she sent out all the positive vibes that she could possibly muster up.

This mission was just as important to her as the Voloshin mission had been. For her, there was no excuse for fucking up this time. If something went wrong, it would mean that she, Clint, and possibly even Agent May would all be killed. She'd taken down all of the guards inside and outside the building, but that didn't mean that the Omega wouldn't take care of them himself or call someone to do it for him. Besides, Natasha was tired. She was tired of the Omega, and she was tired of hunting him. She was tired of hearing Clint's horribly pained cries in her brain whenever she thought of the Omega.

The Omega would not be walking away today.

"Black Widow, go," Palmer said shortly into her earpiece. Without waiting another second, Natasha took a breath and burst through the door with both of her guns raised. Right away, she counted eight guys in the room in addition to a woman and the Omega himself. She pointed her guns and fired each of them, sweeping them across the room and taking down three of them. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a woman yank out a gun and shoot the man closest to her.

Hello, Agent May, Natasha thought silently to herself as she pulled out a Widow's Bite and tossed it to the nearest man as he fired a shot above her head. Off to her left, she heard grunts as three of the men grabbed hold of Agent May, forcing the gun out of the other agent's hand.

"You dirty bitch!" one of them was shouting. One of the men pulled a gun out on Agent May, and she stopped moving. Natasha, however, kept advancing forward with her gun trained on the Omega. She would have known his face anywhere.

The Omega was standing with his gun drawn, a wide-eyed look of astonishment on his face. He looked exactly as he looked in pictures—tall, dark hair with grey streaks, and a face that could have been described as kind. He looked nothing like the ruthless man he'd proven himself to be, and as Natasha looked at him, she hated him more and more with each second. She tasted the bitterness of hatred in the back of her throat, and she tried to swallow it down. She couldn't lose her cool now—she was too well trained, and she'd come too far to lose it right at the last second.

The Omega stared at her with awed eyes, as if he couldn't believe what was happening. Behind her, his men pointed their guns at her, but she didn't lower the Glock in her hand. She just stood still in her spot and kept her gun lifted up to the level of the Omega's skull. If she fired the trigger now, he would be dead. That was all it would take. One shot, and everything he'd put her through, everything he'd put Clint through would be paid back in full. It would have been worth it. Silence filled her eyes so loudly that she swore she could hear it echoing around her.

"Hello, Agent Romanoff." The Omega's voice was soft and quiet, almost shy as he spoke. He regarded her with confident but quiet eyes. Natasha held her gun level to his head, her finger poised on the trigger. She didn't say anything—the only sounds in the warehouse were the sounds of her breathing and Agent May's barely audible grunt as the men tossed her down to the ground. Just from a quick glance, Natasha could see that the woman had somehow managed to wound both her leg and her arm and was holding them awkwardly into herself to keep them protected from the men above her. "I thought you'd catch up with me at some point."

"Well, here I am. Coming to collect my dues," Natasha said flatly. The Omega didn't smile, nor did he frown at her. Instead, he just gazed gently at her. Even though she'd known what he looked like, it startled her just how fatherly he looked—he looked as though he should have been at home with his wife and adult children, not here in this dirty, rundown warehouse.

"Yes, your dues," he said softly. "SHIELD has been after me for a while now."

"And you've been running for a while now," Natasha replied. She could feel the barrels of the other men's guns breathing down her back, but she refused to lower her weapon.

"I have," the Omega admitted. "I've probably been running for longer than you even realize, Agent."

"I can guess. You're a former Sanko. You took off right after SHIELD tore you guys apart," Natasha coolly answered. The Omega gave her a gentle smile, and he looked down at the ground. Natasha's fingers itched to pull the trigger, but she knew that as soon as she did that, his men would shoot her until there was enough brain matter oozing from her skull to show that she really was down.

"You noticed," he said. "That doesn't surprise me. How did you figure it out?"

"My partner." Ice entered the redheaded assassin's voice—ice that she hadn't even expected to come out so cold and sharp it was like a poisonous frostbite. "You've already met him. Remember him?"

"The archer," the Omega supplied. "Yes. I remember him."

"Before you stabbed him through the ears, he fought with you. Matched your fighting style with the Sankos we fought back in Budapest a few months back," Natasha said. She forced herself to relax. Nothing good could come from her getting too tense.

"I was made aware of the fact that my colleagues attacked the two of you back when it happened," the Omega said. His eyes looked at her as if he were afraid she'd formed a bad opinion of him, and she hated him for it. She hated him with a sickness she reserved only for Voloshin, the KGB, and the Red Room. "Your partner…he is a good fighter."

"The best," Natasha snapped. "He was able to figure you out."

"Did he?" the Omega asked. "He managed to put together that I am a member of the Sankos. Did he put together my motivation?" He looked calmly at Natasha, who stared back at him with disdain written all over her face as she refused to answer. "No. Alright. I'll put those pieces together for you then. You'll want to put the gun down, Agent Romanoff. It's a long story."

"I think I'm ok," Natasha shortly answered. The Omega gave her a look as if to say, "Suit yourself, but I warned you," and he started talking.

"I was born and raised in Budapest. And in the area where I grew up, if you were a boy, you had two choices. Kill or be killed. It didn't appeal to me to be killed, so I wound up following my father's footsteps into the Sanko mob. I devoted my life to the Sankos, going up higher and higher in position until I was at the very top. Four years ago, SHIELD came and neutralized nearly all of my men. All that I had left was a group of 23 young men who had that same fear as I'd had when I was young: the fear of being killed. SHIELD left us with nothing. Absolutely nothing. The Karmazins were gloating in our victory, and they were determined to take the rest of us out. We had no way to defend ourselves, so we went into hiding for a little while to stay safe." The Omega paused, and he looked hard at Natasha. "And then I made a choice. I chose to come here to America and establish myself as a seller in your American drug rings. I did that, and I sent the funds back home to the rest of my men so they could build up the Sankos again. Agent Romanoff, this isn't a story of death or defeat. It's a story of survival."

"Survival?" Natasha snapped incredulously, her green eyes flashing. "You didn't give my partner a chance to survive when he nearly died from your little stunt with his arrows."

"Agent, I never said it was a story of survival for everyone," the Omega gently corrected, his eyes genuinely soft and regretful. "It is a story of survival for me and my people. A people that were eliminated by SHIELD and would have been completely erased from the planet if I had not done something to protect them."

"That's honorable. It is," Natasha said darkly. "Trust me, I understand what it's like to need to survive. I've thrived on that need my entire life, and it's why I've done some of the things I have—"

"Yes, Agent Romanoff. Don't think I've forgotten you," the Omega said with a hint of amusement in his voice. "I remember you perfectly. Just much younger. I didn't get to see you two years ago when you ran into a few of my men, but I've always been aware of you. You may be American now, Natalia, but you are always the Black Widow."

"You're right," Natasha said quietly, so quietly that she barely even heard herself speak. Suddenly, she turned and fired her gun on one of the men standing by Agent May. May took her cue, and she lunged towards the man on her other side. Underneath the raging beat of her heart, Natasha felt a quick surge of concern for the other agent, knowing how injured Agent May was, but she turned on the Omega to fire at him. However, he was right up at her, and he hit the gun out of her hand.

Natasha ducked as he went to punch her across the cheekbone, and she went to counter with a blow to his ribcage, but he somehow managed to knock a sharp hit to her kidneys. Gritting her teeth with pain, she used the momentum of the hit to grab his elbow and flip him over her head, throwing him hard onto the floor. She went to leap on top of him to hold him in place, but he swung one of his legs out and knocked her to the ground. In an instant, he was over her, his hand twisting through her hair, and he yanked her up to her feet with her back to him. She was immobilized at the hands of the Omega.

Clint watched with hard blinking eyes from his perch up high. He watched as Natasha and the Omega stopped flinging each other as the Omega got the upper hand. With one smooth motion, the Omega pulled a gun out and trained it on Agent May so that May couldn't even think of attacking him. Clint's jaw tensed as he watched the Omega place his other hand on Natasha's jaw in such a way that he knew with a sharp jerk, the Omega could snap her neck.

"Do not move, Agent," the Omega said slowly as a warning to Agent May. He paused. Clint could see the Omega studying Agent May, seeing her for the very first time. "You are good. I never would have suspected you as a double agent among my people."

Agent May glowered at the man, but she didn't say anything in response. As Clint watched with his less-than-sharp eyes, he lifted his long-distance rifle and set it into place, breathing deeply as he did so. He was a good shot. He could make this—he'd made plenty of risky shots before, even though he'd always preferred to have his bow as his weapon of choice. Over his shoulder, he felt the burn of the familiar weapon, the heat from the only thing that had been his stabilizing agent over the years until Natasha. He flexed his hands and lowered his face down to the scope to aim.

His heart stopped beating. Even through his blurred vision, he could see that Natasha was directly off to the right, just a little bit. If Clint missed the Omega, he would hit and kill Natasha. His throat swelled up as the realization slapped him hard across the face, and panic began to consume him. He had to do something—she was counting on him. She was waiting for him down there.

"Where's the archer?" the Omega asked suddenly. He lifted his eyes up into the rafters and the balconies, trying to find Clint. "I know I didn't kill him. I know he's here."

"What makes you so sure of that, you bastard?" Natasha growled out, her voice tight and choppy from the angle at which the Omega had her head turned.

"I know," the Omega simply replied. "He's here."

"Hawkeye. Make the shot." Palmer's voice was in his earpiece, and it was so loud that for a second, Clint thought that he'd never been deafened at all. Silence passed as the Omega waited for any kind of movement, any sign that would give away where Clint was. "Make the shot. Do it now."

I can't, Clint thought.

I'll kill Natasha, his mind screamed.

If I miss this shot, this will all have been for nothing, he thought with horror.

"This is a story of survival," the Omega said, his voice slow. His eyes were still glued upward, but he wasn't looking anywhere that could give Agent May the advantage of rushing in on him. "It is either my survival or yours. Agent Barton, I know about you. Not as much as I know about Agent Romanoff, but I know who you are. As soon as I found out you were hunting me with the Black Widow, I did my research."

"Hawkeye." Palmer was starting to sound panicked. "Pull the fucking trigger!"

"I know that your hearing is valuable to you. That was why I chose to eliminate that instead of just eliminating your life. I thought you would be out of the game for good," the Omega said. "I'm glad to see I was wrong. However…like I said…this is about survival. And I intend to survive."

Suddenly, the Omega pulled the trigger on Agent May, and she sank to the ground. Clint couldn't see where the blood was coming from, but he could see it start to spread across her clothes, bright and red and sticky. The Omega dropped the gun to the ground and pulled out a knife. When Clint saw the Omega press it to Natasha's side, he stopped breathing.

"You are here, Agent Barton," he said. "I know you are. But the thing is, if you shoot me, I may die, but so will your partner. You and Agent Romanoff have been tracking me for a long time. If I'm going to go, she will, too." The Omega stopped talking, and he turned his head to look at Natasha. "The world will not miss you, Black Widow. You have done far more bad than you've ever done good."

"Barton! Now, Barton!" Palmer barked.

"Clint," Natasha's voice sounded through the dark warehouse. "Clint, do it."

"I don't think he will if he knows it will kill you, too. It is a high price to pay," the Omega said softly. "But you will die no matter what, Agent Romanoff."

"Clint, do it!" Natasha shouted a little louder, an obvious edge and shake in her voice. Clint felt his heart stop beating. No matter what he did, Natasha was going to die. If he shot the Omega, he would either wind up shooting her by accident, or he'd hit the Omega, but the Omega would kill Natasha. If he didn't shoot the Omega, the Omega would still stab her. His breathing quickened, and his heart rate picked up as the panic increased inside his chest. "Clint!"

"Go ahead, Agent Barton," the Omega challenged. "Survive."

"Clint!" Natasha shouted. Clint's body was frozen, but his eyes swam. The room began to spin and dance around him. He couldn't make this shot—oh, God—he couldn't do it. He couldn't. But the panic in Natasha's voice, the knowledge that she was trusting him to have her back…he had to. He couldn't back out now, but he was frozen.

Is this what partners do? He heard her voice inside his head, repeating a line she'd asked him a long time ago, a line that she still sometimes asked him. Is this what partners do?


Suddenly, he grabbed his bow off from over his shoulder, pulled an arrow out of his quiver, and fit the nock against the string. The room was still moving—the Omega and Natasha were still moving—but he started to breathe. He breathed, and he looked, and he aimed. And just like magic, the room began to melt away, leaving him with a peacefulness he hadn't felt in a long time. There was nothing that existed as he inhaled and exhaled and found the target in the Omega's eye socket. As if he were in a dream, everything lost color and sound. It was only him and the Omega. He had to make this shot.

Finally, he inhaled, felt the muscles in his back lock, and he relaxed his hand on an exhale. Now all he could do was watch with his sharp, attentive eyes as his arrow whizzed through the air and found its home in the Omega's skull with a dull thwump. For a second, he almost couldn't believe it, but as he watched the Omega crumple to the ground, he realized that he'd done it. He hadn't missed, and the Omega was dead.

Natasha stared up into the balcony and squinted her green eyes in the direction that she'd seen the arrow come from as she tried to locate him. "Clint?"

Her voice snapped him out of it. Just like magic. Faster than he could ever remember moving, he was dashing down the ladders and the stairs that led down to the main floor of the warehouse where Natasha was.

"We need immediate medical assistance. Agent May is down. GSW to the shoulder," Natasha said urgently into her earpiece as Clint approached. His eyes couldn't look away from her, nor could his body stay apart from her for another second. Quickly, he approached her, noticing the blood on her face that had come from his arrow making its mark.

"Nat," he breathed out loud. In a second, his arms were around her, and he was holding her.

"I'm so proud of you," she whispered to him in a whisper that was loud enough for him to hear with his hearing aids. "I'm so proud, Clinton."

When Clint pulled back, that was when he saw it. Natasha was pale, and her hand was pressed to her side instead of pressed against his back the way it usually was whenever she hugged him. Blood covered her fingers the same way blood covered Agent May's shoulder.

"Nat…no," he said, but when he managed to get the words out of his mouth, Natasha was already leaning and falling into him, her eyelids fluttering over her glassy green eyes. "Fuck. Natasha. Natasha. Palmer, send in more medics. Black Widow's down. Stab wound to the side and bleeding profusely. Natasha."

"Son of a bitch actually stabbed me, Barton," Natasha muttered, allowing Clint to ease her down to the ground, and she winced. "He wasn't lying about the whole me dying with him part."

"Shut up," Clint snapped, and he saw the smile that crossed her face at the sharpness in his voice. "You're not dying. Not today, ok? Not while I still need you to clean up my messes."

Natasha smiled faintly up at him, and Clint felt his stomach turn as he noticed how pale she really was. "You clean up my messes."

"No, I don't," he insisted with a firm shake of his head. He swallowed hard and tried to ignore the warm blood starting to cover his fingers. With his other hand, he stroked her hair back away from her face, using the same motion she'd so often used to run her fingers through his hair. "I'm so sorry, Natasha."

"Stop," she ordered, though her voice wasn't as commanding as it should have been. "Stop, Clint."

He put his hand on top of hers as she pressed into her stab wound. Suddenly, there were medics filling the room, half of them rushing to Agent May and half of them rushing to Natasha.

"Agent Barton, you'll have to step back. We need to work on her," a medic said to him. Clint only caught every other word, but he understood enough to know that this was where he was supposed to turn her over to them. Numbly, he stepped back and thought of how ironic this was. About a month ago, Natasha had been in this position