It starts earlier than most people would think. Most people look at Natasha and assume that it took her months and months of careful deliberation to warm up to her field partner, but it starts on day one (and most people look at Natasha and assume that she was assigned to work with Clint Barton because he was the only one dumb enough not to be afraid of her, but Natasha never lets anyone choose anything for her).
It starts the first day Natasha’s been cleared for duty and officially registered as a SHIELD agent, and it’s lunch and everyone in the cafeteria is carefully avoiding her, watching her with eyes that are alternately wary of the harsh edge to her frown and curious about the way that her newly issued combat suit hugs her form. They’re looks that Natasha is used to, too experienced in love and war to expect anything else from prying eyes, but it still grates on her nonetheless as she takes an empty table at the side of the cafeteria.
She’s just thinking that it’d be nice to meet someone other than her boss who sees her as more than just danger in human form when a tray drops down on the table across from her, startling her even though she doesn’t flinch. When she looks up, a man is sliding into the seat across from her and cracking open a can of soda, and Natasha vaguely recognizes him as the man on the other side of the trigger in Jakarta, the man who was sent to kill her.
He’s less intimidating up close and out of his tactical gear, the smudges of dirt and debris gone from his skin and the slick combat suit traded in for a pair of old sweatpants with a fading SHIELD logo on them and a t-shirt with holes in the sleeves. The deep creases in his forehead and around his eyes are smoothed out into a casual calm, an easy pleasantness radiating off of him now that he’s not aiming to take a life.
Natasha doesn’t know him at all and they only said maybe a sentence or two to one another when he spared her, but he leans his elbows on the table and nods towards her tray and asks like has any right to, “You going to eat those?”
Natasha looks down at the handful of fries in a pile at the edge of her otherwise empty plate. She looks back up at him and blinks at the lazy smile he offers her. He looks like a goddamn puppy and she wonders how SHIELD ever made an assassin out of someone who looks so warm.
“No,” she says, not sure how to hold herself around him.
He grins and reaches across to grab a couple of her fries and shove them in his mouth. “I’m Clint, by the way,” he says with his mouth full, which Natasha should find appalling, except that he’s been sitting with her for at least a minute now and she’s yet to feel like she’s being thoroughly picked apart and inspected, so she can’t find it in herself to be disgusted. “Thought I’d get to know you since I no longer have to kill you.”
Natasha leans back in her seat and crosses her arms, wondering why she can’t get a read on him. “There’s really not that much to know,” she evades evenly, deciding to go for neutral until she knows what he wants from her (because she’s learned by now that everyone wants something and in her line of work, that usually means bad news for her).
Clint shrugs and takes a sip of his soda. “They stick you in boot camp with all the other newbies?” he asks, carefully sidestepping instead of pressing forward like he can tell she’s wary.
Natasha blinks again, feeling somehow wrong-footed even though he’s the least threatening person she’s met here so far.
The wide grin surfaces on Clint’s face again and he laughs. “Oh man,” he says. “I heard it’s Agent May’s turn to break in the new recruits. She’s brutal. You’re going to love her.”
Natasha arches an eyebrow at him, feeling like there’s some joke she’s not getting. Clint just shakes his head and sticks his hand out to steal the rest of her fries from her plate.
Four hours later, Natasha leaves her training session understanding the joke that Clint was trying to make earlier (Agent May is indeed brutal and even better than Natasha at using her body as a weapon and she makes several new recruits almost cry at how hard she pushes them, but she’s good and Natasha walks out of the session sore in places she hasn’t felt in years with a pleased sense of respect for the woman who’s teaching her how to fight for the right people) and immediately heads to Director Fury’s office.
He looks up and raises his eyebrows at her when she shoves her way into his office. “I wasn’t aware you had an appointment,” he says mildly.
“I want Clint,” she says instead of rising to his bait.
Fury leans back in his chair and folds his hands together thoughtfully. He’s been bothering her for weeks to decide who she’d like to be her partner, but judging by the look on his face, he hadn’t expected her to choose Clint. If Fury asked her now, she doesn’t think she’d be able to articulate why she’s making this choice, because she hasn’t spent enough time around Clint to pinpoint the exact reason, but there’s something about him that’s so refreshingly without agenda when it comes to her that she feels comfortable learning how to trust him.
After a long moment, Fury nods and says, “I’m alright with it if he is.”
And that’s how it starts.
It doesn’t take Natasha long to figure out that she enjoys Clint’s company outside of strictly professional situations.
There’s a SHIELD safe house in Helsinki that’s really meant for one person that Natasha and Clint squeeze into to await extraction and end up spending the Fourth of July in. Clint raids the DVD collection that has accumulated in the house in its years of use and manages to unearth National Treasure, which he insists on watching. Natasha watches with mild amusement as he pops the DVD into the player and chatters on about how apparently great this movie is and how appalled he is that Natasha has never seen it, and he flops down on the couch next to her, accidentally bumping knees with her as he brings his legs up to sit cross-legged.
He doesn’t jerk away like Natasha’s learned to expect from her colleagues (because everyone knows who she is and knows her reputation and they always act like she’s a second away from going off) and he doesn’t use this easy opportunity to slide closer and closer to her either like she’s learned to expect from the vast majority of people in her life (because they all look at her and see something beautiful and tailored to be wanted and even though this is something that Natasha often likes using to her advantage, it gets tiring when she’s not actively working to deceive anyone). Instead, Clint just radiates a sort of soft warmth, a quiet something like he’s trying to bridge the distance between them without the heavy intent that she’s grown accustomed to, and Natasha thinks she’d feel terrified at the staggering newness of this if it weren’t so comfortable, if it didn’t feel so nice to have someone want her company without actively wanting her.
“God fucking bless,” Clint says meaningfully as Nicolas Cage uses the Declaration of Independence as a shield to defend himself against gunfire.
Natasha snorts and rolls her eyes at the kind of blinding patriotism that only really comes out on this particular holiday, which makes Clint shoot her a baleful look.
“What?” she says, smirking. “I’m Russian.”
Clint narrows his eyes at her and mutters something that sounds suspiciously like traitor under his breath, and the press of the arm he has thrown across the back of the couch against her shoulders is warm and solid, and Natasha thinks that maybe this is what it feels like to have someone she can call a friend.
They start sharing space more after Budapest.
In Budapest, Clint gets shot twice in the shoulder, and Natasha ends up having to keep him alive and warm and awake for several hours in the coldest month of winter in a drafty, abandoned building with little more than sheer willpower. Clint shakes the whole time, and his lips are blue by the time help arrives, but Natasha holds onto him the whole time, more terrified than she can ever remember being, covering him in her own coat and wrapping herself around him to keep him warm and pressing her hands to his wounds so firmly that by the time the medics pull her away from him, it looks like she’s cut her hands raw, the red seeping through her fingers like she’s hurt too.
After Budapest, when Clint touches a light hand to the small of Natasha’s back as they walk out of the gym after a sparring session or Natasha knocks her ankles against his under the table during lunch, it feels so natural that Natasha hardly thinks about it (except when she does, because Natasha has never liked touch the way people should, because she’s been trained too thoroughly to think of things as anything but deliberate, and yet Clint doesn’t bother her, because he’s not touching to gain anything, because he’s just touching for the sake of it, for the solid comfort of it, not asking or demanding, just knowing that she’s there, and Natasha doesn’t know what to do with interactions like this).
The first time Natasha sees Clint’s apartment is when they’re working out of New York, gathering intel on what SHIELD believes is a group of highly militant arms dealers, and Clint drags her out to get tacos after work because he claims they’re the best tacos in all of New York and they’re cheap and the beer is cheap and come on, Tasha, it’ll be fun, I promise. And Natasha tips her head back and laughs because when Clint gets excited about something, he’s an unstoppable force of blinding enthusiasm that somehow comes across endearing instead of obnoxious like Natasha would expect from anyone else, and she can feel the rest of the New York-based research team staring at her, eyes wide and slack-jawed at the open warmth that she’s kept hidden away in herself. It should bother her, the way they look so stunned that she’s more than a pretty face and a shower of bullets, but Clint’s eyes are bright when she agrees, so it’s mostly worth it.
They end up taking the subway all the way to Brooklyn, which Natasha complains about half-heartedly because she’s hungry and tired from a long day of slogging through mindless data, but Clint tugs lightly on where her hair has slipped out of her loose bun and promises it’ll be worth it and the way he smiles at her makes something warm and unfamiliar but not unpleasant settle in her stomach. Clint ushers her off the subway somewhere in Bed-Stuy and leads her down several streets to some inconspicuous, hole-in-the-wall place that Natasha probably wouldn’t have noticed if she weren’t looking for it, and when they walk in, the various employees greet Clint by name.
“You come here often?” Natasha jokes as she stares up at the menu they have written on the back wall in chalk.
Clint grins and suggests the fried shrimp tacos.
They order way too much food and Clint gets each of them a huge glass of beer, and the food is delicious and Natasha laughs a lot and drinks too much even though she usually doesn’t like beer and claims the last fried shrimp taco, which makes Clint whine and throw a crumpled up napkin at her and steal the rest of her drink. Natasha feels light and giddy and too warm all over from the beer and all the food, and by the time they stumble back out into the night, she feels heavy and tired and too full but happier than she’s been in a long time.
“D’you have somewhere to stay?” Clint asks, bumping shoulders with her as they walk down the street.
Natasha shrugs. “SHIELD gave me a place,” she says, shoving her hands into her coat pockets. The air is crisp and cold and kicks at the loose strands of her hair as she walks.
Clint scoffs. “That’s all the way back in Manhattan,” he says, scrunching up his nose. “And anyways, SHIELD apartments are basically glorified dorm rooms.” He nudges her side with his elbow. “You should come stay with me. I’ve got a place a few blocks from here and a spare bedroom.”
And Natasha means to protest, means to say that she can see herself back, thank you very much, but she finds herself agreeing and following him back to his place instead.
His apartment is all organized chaos and homey and he has worn purple curtains hanging over the windows and forgotten dishes piled up in the sink. There’s a wall of newspaper clippings and old polaroids tacked together with red string and scribbled notes like he was in the middle of tracking something important when he was called away on duty.
Clint pulls a stack of clean towels and sheets out of a hallway closet and nudges the door to his spare bedroom open with his foot.
“It’s kind of a mess, but I promise it’s comfortable and clean,” he says as he puts a new set of sheets on the bed and sets the towels down on the nightstand. He jabs his thumb over his shoulder and says, “Bathroom’s across the hall, and I’ll be upstairs if you need me.”
He leaves her with a light touch to the arm and a brief smile, and Natasha almost wants to call out for him to stay, to crawl into bed with her except that he’s never invited that sort of company from her and it’s been a long day and they’ve got an early morning again tomorrow. So she slips into bed alone but ends up tossing and turning because the room is unfamiliar and she can hear the whir of cars off in the distance outside and her body is too aware of itself and everything around her to relax. Natasha waits a stubborn handful of hours, forcing herself to lie still with her eyes closed and take even breaths, trying to will herself to fall asleep, before she gives up and ventures out into the apartment.
There’s an old, creaky staircase that Clint pointed out earlier that Natasha follows up to the second floor, light on her feet on instinct to avoid making too much noise, and when she nudges the door to Clint’s bedroom open, she finds Clint asleep, lying across the bed spread-eagle, arms shoved up under his pillow. The sheets are bunched all around his waist, and Natasha can see in the dim light of the room two knots of raised scar tissue in his shoulder, the exit wounds from the two bullets he took in Budapest, and the various lines and marks across his bare back that Natasha doesn’t know all the stories to yet, and something in her chest hurts just looking at him, exposed and vulnerable and bearing so many signs of a life more rough than anyone deserves.
“Clint?” Natasha calls out into the empty silence of the room. Clint doesn’t wake, just keeps sleeping on, breathing evenly, so Natasha takes half a step closer and reaches out to nudge his shoulder firmly, “Clint.”
Clint jerks awake with a start, jumping back in the bed like he’s expecting something awful. “Wha—?” he mumbles and then squints. “Nat?”
“Hey,” Natasha says quietly, hating the way her voice comes out almost sheepish. She clears her throat.
Clint reaches over to his nightstand and flicks on the small lamp, blinking against the sudden brightness. He frowns.
“You okay?” he asks, turning over to sit up to face her.
Natasha presses her lips together and looks down at her hands, suddenly uncomfortable. She hasn’t felt compelled to be anything close to personal with anyone in years and years, and she finds that she’s out of practice, that the words she means to say feel awkward on her tongue.
“I, uh, can’t sleep,” she says, and tries for a smile when she looks up at Clint again. “I can never sleep in new places.”
Clint stifles a yawn and scrubs a hand over his face. “What do you need?” he asks, his voice low and rumbly from sleep.
Natasha feels something tighten in her ribcage. “Can I sleep here?” she asks and doesn’t even know why she asks it, just that she meant to sit with him and maybe talk for a bit to get her nerves to settle but the words tumble out of her mouth anyways and they hang in the air between them, heavy on Natasha’s skin. She wants to regret asking, because he’s probably going to laugh at her, a grown woman unable to sleep on her own and someone like her no less, but Natasha hasn’t ever backed down from a single thing in her life, so she presses her lips together and doesn’t let herself look away until he does.
Clint looks vaguely surprised, like he hadn’t been expecting her to ask, but thankfully doesn’t look terribly offended by the idea, just a little caught off guard and disoriented and not quite awake. He nods and waves her closer, scooting over to make room for her in his bed. Natasha slips gingerly into the bed next to him, trying to figure out if she feels uncomfortable enough to need to run, as Clint flicks the light off and resettles in the bed. He lets out a long breath as he rolls over onto his stomach again and shoves his hands up under his pillow, head turned to the side so he can watch her with careful eyes like he’s afraid too that she’ll run away the second he shifts his gaze off of her.
“Hey,” Clint says quietly after a moment, rolling onto his side and reaching out to push her hair out of her eyes. His fingertips linger lightly on her cheek, soft and comforting, and smiles. “Come here.”
He holds out his arms for her and after a moment’s hesitation, Natasha lets herself curl slowly into his outstretched arms, lets him pull her close and tuck her head under his chin, lets herself let out a breath against his skin, warm and soft against hers. His fingertips are calloused but gentle as they rub soothing circles into her back, and Natasha feels something settle in her chest, like something inside of her has finally slotted into place, and closes her eyes.
She’s asleep within minutes.
In the morning, when Natasha wakes, Clint is already up. Sun pours through the half-open curtains and colors everything a beautiful, calm yellow-white. Natasha wonders why she didn’t notice when Clint got up. The floorboards creak under her feet as she slips out of bed and heads downstairs to the kitchen she faintly remembers seeing on her way in, and she finds Clint rummaging through the fridge, the comforting scent of fresh coffee already wafting through the air.
Clint emerges from the fridge with a tub of cream cheese and peeks inside, grimacing at what he finds, and then glances up and notices Natasha. He blinks twice like he’s startled, even though Natasha’s sure she made plenty of noise coming down the stairs.
He smiles quickly, though, and says, “Oh, hey. Morning.” And then he pauses like he’s weighing something carefully before he grins, a touch less sincere than Natasha knows he usually tries for, and says, “Sorry, I, uh, wasn’t ignoring you or anything there. I, um, haven’t put my hearing aids in yet.”
Natasha blinks, frantically combing through the SHIELD files she’s read, because she’s pretty sure she would’ve remembered a detail like that. She wonders too why she didn’t notice before either, because she’s good at this, at picking up on the little things, at noticing the slight differences between people. Clint ducks his head and turns away to throw out the spoiled cream cheese, and Natasha notices something defensive and cautious in his stance when he looks back at her a moment later.
“Um,” Natasha says, scrambling for something to say because she feels like she should say something, but she’s not good at this, at the whole treading carefully into something she worries too much about ruining. “How bad?”
Clint shrugs and crosses his arms, leaning back against the kitchen counter, guarded. “About eighty percent,” he says. There’s a beat and then he deflects, like he’s scared but doesn’t want to let it show, “Don’t worry about it. I don’t make a big deal about it. It’s fine.”
Natasha frowns. “You should’ve told me,” she says, and Clint gives her a look like he’s asking her if she really wouldn’t have looked at him differently if he’d said something about it. Natasha shifts her weight and says, “I’m your partner. I’m supposed to have your back. How can I do that if I don’t know all the variables?”
There’s a flicker of relief that passes over Clint’s face, like he’s let out a breath now that he knows she’s not trying to make more or less of his deafness than it is, because really this is all that Natasha cares about – that she knows these things so she won’t be blindsided if it suddenly becomes relevant in the middle of something serious, that she knows so she’s ready, so she won’t lose him.
He smiles. “Coffee?” he offers.
She nods. “Black,” she says.
Clint makes a face. “Ew,” he says, reaching to grab a couple of mugs.
Natasha leans her hip on the counter next to him and rolls her eyes when he glances back at her. “Not all of us like disgustingly sweet coffee, Barton,” she says.
Clint gives her an appalled look and mutters, “You come to my house and insult my coffee? Please.”
And Natasha laughs and laughs and laughs, and she’s still laughing forty-five minutes later when they walk into SHIELD’s New York field office, and with Clint sitting next to her as they slough through an endless stream of phone records and financial reports and anonymous tips, all the looks she gets for letting herself be so casual seem a little less annoying.
Clint teaches Natasha how to sign some months later when they’re eight hours into a very uneventful stakeout in Rome. He raises his eyebrows at her when she asks, but she just leans back in her seat and kicks her feet up onto the dashboard of the van they’ve borrowed and shrugs.
“I know you know how,” she says, “So don’t lie and say you can’t teach me. Anyway, I like languages, and I feel like, as your partner, ASL is something I should know.”
Clint laughs, and that’s how they spend the next several hours signing at each other. Natasha picks up the basics pretty quickly because she’s always been good with languages, and Clint really only ever has to adjust what she’s doing a handful of times before she gets each sign he shows her down, and by the time they can leave and go home for the night, they’re no closer to catching the international art thieves they’re after, but Natasha can’t quite bring herself to think of this day as a waste. And, well, if Natasha spends a handful more hours in her hotel room teaching herself signs that night instead of sleeping like she should, they don’t need to talk about that.
She adds American Sign Language to the list of languages she’s fluent in on her résumé a few weeks later after she and Clint spend an entire briefing sitting at the very back of the room and gossiping in signs instead of paying attention and she makes him laugh so hard he almost starts crying.
When Natasha gets the call, she’s somewhere in Russia interrogating a man who thinks he controls everything. It’s almost too easy, Natasha thinks as General Luchkov taunts her in what he thinks is a demonstration of great power, and she almost regrets wasting a dress this beautiful on something so banal.
When she gets the call, she’s a hair away from getting everything she needs out of Luchkov and she’s feeling the familiar buzz of victory right at the tip of her tongue, but then Coulson’s voice cuts through her easy victory, settling somewhere in her stomach like ice.
“Barton’s been compromised.”
They send her to Kolkata instead of after Clint, and the entire time, even through the sticky heat of the air around her, Natasha feels cold. She’s on edge when Bruce lashes out at her, testing, and whips out her gun on instinct alone, her own heart ringing in her ears, thinking, praying please, please, please don’t let me die here, don’t let me die without finding Clint first.
When they find Loki, it’s like his very presence on the helicarrier sucks the warmth out of the atmosphere, and Natasha feels chilled to the bone even as she goes to confront him, anger burning her skin raw and fear freezing up the breaths in her chest. Loki sees right through her and she lets him, lets him see the places she’s ripped apart, lets him see the weight behind what she says when she demands to know what he’s done with Clint. She lets him see what he needs to in order to find her soft spots and get distracted, and he taunts her in his cell, grinning malice and giddy chaos.
“Is this love, Agent Romanov?” he asks her gleefully, like he’s found exactly the way to drag her to hell.
And Natasha frowns and thinks Is it? Is it? even as she says, “Love is for children” like she’s rehearsed to herself a thousand times in her head, because she’s learned by now that it’s better to be hardened than shattered altogether because she’s put too much faith in something she doesn’t deserve.
The fierce anger in her gut has faded into sickening dread by the time she hears Fury’s voice come through the intercom system much later, urgent like she rarely hears from him.
“It’s Barton,” Fury says, and that’s about all Natasha hears over the ringing in her ears. Just “It’s Barton” and “Does anybody copy?” and Natasha finds herself responding to the call even though she’s shaking and terrified and she’s fairly sure she shattered something in her leg trying to stop the Hulk from tearing the place apart (but it’s Clint, she finds herself thinking, and he’s here, and this may be her only shot and she may be the only one who cares enough to bring him back instead of just putting him down, so she goes and she fights and it’s messy and feral, pulling at hair and biting at skin and desperate elbows and knees, and she hurts all over and his eyes are a horrifying, blinding blue that blocks out any recognition of her, and she thinks, frantically, as he tries to press a knife to her throat, what if I can’t save him?).
It’s a desperate move of a very desperate woman when Natasha flips her body to smash his head into the metal railing of the walkway they’re fighting on. Her smaller body coils tight and narrowly misses colliding with the rail, but Clint is larger and clumsier in tight spots, and his head hits the bar with a dull thunk. He falls to the floor in a heap, and when he looks up again, the startling blue is fading from his eyes, and the sharp harshness in the set of his mouth is melting into something more lost and open and scared.
“Tasha?” he croaks, hoarse and desperate, and Natasha thinks oh thank god, thank you, thank you, thank you and punches him squarely in the face to knock the rest of Loki out of his skull.
With the impending alien invasion, Clint and Natasha only have a handful of minutes to steady themselves before they’re launched back into the thick of battle again, and it’s not until much, much later, when they’re driving off presumably to the edge of the world except that their world seems to end in Brooklyn in Clint’s apartment with its creaky floorboards and threadbare curtains and only half-functional television, that Natasha feels like she can let herself breathe again (because this is good, this is good, they’ve made it this far and Clint’s still in one piece and there are so many people who wouldn’t have even made it out of the helicarrier recovery room, much less a war).
Clint falls asleep that night clinging to Natasha like she’s the only real thing left in the world, and Natasha holds him, stays awake for hours trying to be the anchor that he needs her to be until the exhaustion overtakes him. He wakes several hours later screaming and wide-eyed and clawing at the bed sheets like he thinks if he tries hard enough, he can pull the madness out of him. Natasha catches him in her arms and eases his head towards her chest, letting him rest himself on something solid, and his hands come up to grasp at her so tightly, she thinks that he might leave bruises.
Clint looks up at Natasha with terrified eyes like he’s stared death in the face and she’s the only thing that can save him. Natasha moves to cradle his jaw in her hands and leans her forehead against his, hoping against hope that she somehow has the power to make it all go away.
“Clint,” she murmurs softly. “Clint, shh, it’s okay. You’re okay.”
Clint trembles against her and his breath comes out in ragged gasps, and he rasps, “Loki—He was—I couldn’t—”
“Loki’s gone,” Natasha says. “He’s gone. You’re okay now.”
Clint shakes his head and his fingers dig into her sides where he’s holding onto her and he says, “No. No, you don’t understand. I could hear, Nat. What if he—What if I—”
The despair in his voice cuts all the way down to Natasha’s bones and makes her feel like she’s shattering from the inside out too, crumbling under the sheer desperation in every inch of Clint’s body. But this is Clint’s time to break, to fall apart and figure out how to put the pieces back together in a way that still makes sense, and until he figures out how to simply be again, Natasha has to be strong enough for the both of them, so she tips his face up towards hers and hopes that he understands that she means every word.
“Clint, no,” she says, and then shakes him when he refuses to look at her. “Clint, come on. Look at me. Please.” (His eyes are hesitant when they meet hers, like he still doesn’t trust himself not to hurt her) “Loki did not make you better. He fucked you over and shoved you in a box and used you.” She brushes her thumb lightly over a newly healing cut on his jaw. “This is you, Clint. All of this. Even the messy parts, even the bad parts, even the parts that don’t work right anymore. This is you, and you can’t let anyone change you or tell you that you’re not enough, do you understand? Because once they start, they won’t ever stop.”
Natasha doesn’t quite know what she’s saying anymore, only that she’s frantic and anxious and there’s this unbearable ache in her chest because she can’t stand seeing Clint like this, so thoroughly wrecked and vulnerable and lost, and she can’t remember the last time she cared about anyone like this, but it hurts, it hurts so much, and Natasha almost wishes that she could stop, that she could flip the switch and stop caring (except she doesn’t, because it’s Clint, because a world without Clint is a world that Natasha can’t imagine living in).
When they return to SHIELD’s DC headquarters after their very generous extended vacation, Clint immediately gets sent off for all sorts of evaluations and tests to ensure that he’s still capable of doing the right thing and Natasha gets sent to Fury’s office. Maria Hill smiles apologetically at her as she walks in and Fury just nods in greeting. Natasha crosses her arms and shifts her weight, wondering what they could possibly want chew her out for now.
“I’ve decided to temporarily reassign you,” Fury announces. Natasha frowns and opens her mouth to protest, but Fury holds up a hand and continues, “It’s going to be a while before Barton is cleared to return to the kind of work the two of you do, and in the meantime, I want my best in the field.”
Natasha raises an eyebrow at him. “I thought you said I don’t play well with others,” she says, recalling the notes in almost all of her yearly performance evaluations.
Fury smiles and leans back in his seat like he’s won some sort of game. “Good thing you’re being assigned to work with someone we know you get along with, then,” he says.
And Natasha doesn’t quite understand what he means (because who at SHIELD is both in need of a partner and willing to work with her?) until Maria clarifies, “Captain Rogers has officially joined SHIELD as a field agent. I’m supervising his transition and his missions for the foreseeable future, and we think he’d be a good fit for you.”
Natasha grinds her teeth together in an effort not to lash out and demand to know why the fuck they’re taking her away from Clint at a time like this (don’t they know that she’s trying to help make himself whole again?) and says shortly instead, “Will that be all?”
Fury sighs at the sharp edge to her voice but waves her off, and Natasha turns on her heel and tries her very best not to stomp out of the room, because that would be unprofessional and petty. Maria follows her out and steps into the elevator with her to head back down to Operations Control, all careful calm and the kind of restrained grace that Natasha has come to admire in a fellow agent because it’s a rare gift to master.
“Sorry about ambushing you back there,” Maria says as the elevator whirs softly past several floors. “We’re in kind of a bind here with Rogers. Believe it or not, it’s kind of difficult to find him a partner who’ll treat him as a person first and not just Captain America.”
There’s a wry twist to Maria’s voice that makes Natasha smirk as she shrugs and leans back against the cool glass wall.
“No, it’s fine, I get it,” Natasha says and means it, because it’s not like it’s Maria’s fault that things turned out like this. She smiles at Maria as the elevator slows to a stop and says as she steps out, “I’m a big girl, Maria. I can handle myself.”
And Maria laughs and Natasha walks off to meet up with her new partner and maybe get a little bit of sparring in thinking that okay, okay this might not be so weird after all. Just because Natasha doesn’t like working with others doesn’t mean she can’t, and Steve’s kind and friendly and just enough wit and sarcasm to keep their conversations lively and interesting. He’s a good fighter and he’s the kind of person you want to have at your back in a fight and he’s no marksman like Clint, but Natasha eventually stops checking over her shoulder every time she hears a shot, wondering if she’s going to go down because her partner didn’t cover her.
Many months later, when Clint is back to work and off on the other side of the world doing some undercover work, Natasha finds herself on the run with Steve, HYDRA goons closing in on them from all sides. She pulls Steve in to kiss her to deflect away prying eyes and his body is very warm against hers and his hands go to her waist like he can’t help himself and he lingers just a little too long when Natasha draws away, like his body forgot that they’re supposed to be running and scared.
“You still uncomfortable?” Natasha asks to diffuse the odd tension between the two of them that she doesn’t particularly want.
“It’s not exactly the word I would use,” Steve shoots back, and he doesn’t mean a single thing by it (how could he?) and he’s just falling into the easy back and forth they’ve built up over the many missions they’ve run together, but in that instant, Natasha finds herself inexplicably missing Clint so painfully that she has to remind herself to walk at a normal pace down the escalator instead of turning and sprinting in the opposite direction and not stopping until she finds him like she wants.
It makes no sense, and she’s so caught off guard by the intensity of it all that she lets Steve steal a car for them instead of offering to do it herself.
After she shoots all of HYDRA’s secrets out onto the internet and watches the helicarriers crash and burn over the Potomac, Natasha sweeps her way through several countries, erasing all hints of herself so she can start to build something new. It’s a slow process and by the time she makes it back to America, months have passed without her even realizing it and Clint has sent her an encrypted email to let her know that the team has reassembled since so many of them don’t have anywhere else to turn now.
When Natasha lands in JFK, she’s pleased to find that her new identity makes it through customs without any troubles and then goes to call Tony. He picks up on the third ring.
“Who is this and how did you get this number?” he demands. “It’s private.”
Natasha huffs out a laugh, as she waits for her luggage to come out at the baggage claim, suddenly very aware of how alone she’s been these past few months. “It’s Natasha,” she says.
Tony audibly perks up at this and asks, “Hey, where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you. Wait, hang on. Let me put you on speaker.”
Natasha rolls her eyes and starts to say, “That’s really not necessary” before she’s cut off by a chorus of cheers and shouts from everyone. She sighs and leans over the baggage claim to yank her duffle bag free.
“Look,” she says. “I’m calling because I need a place to stay. You didn’t need to rally the troops or anything.”
“They were worried about you, okay?” Tony says, though his voice is too enthusiastic to be as detached as he means. “Anyway, Avengers Tower is up and running, which you’d know if you actually took the time to look at your texts. I’ll send a car to pick you up.”
Natasha snorts, wondering why anyone actually let him rename his building Avengers Tower. “I’m fine. I’ll take a cab,” she says, always exasperated by Tony’s incredible grandiosity when it comes to kind gestures. “I just need to know I’ve got somewhere to crash.”
Tony laughs, and Natasha thinks she can hear the others making “welcome back” plans for her in the background and hopes that they don’t get any crazy ideas, because really all she wants right now is a hot bath, a good book, and a long nap.
“Well, you know what they say – mi casa es tu casa, et cetera, et cetera,” he says, and Natasha rolls her eyes at how horrendous his Spanish is.
“I’ll be there in half an hour,” Natasha says and hangs up. She goes to hail a cab and hopes that traffic isn’t too bad.
Moving into Avengers Tower is, predictably, a hectic mess. As soon as she pulls up to the curb, Tony comes rushing out and insists on paying her cab fare and then he’s ushering her into an elevator and whisking her up to one of the top floors.
“Top ten floors, all residential,” he chatters, explaining all the changes he’s made to the tower since Loki blew it up, and Natasha is only half listening but even she has to admit that with all the remodeling finished, it looks pretty nice. “We’ve got a full gym, an at-home movie theater, all of your suites, the works. Bruce and I have got R&D back up and running right below us too so there’s new tech for you to try out. Thought I’d try sprucing up that suit of yours with more of those taser things you like so much.”
And on and on, and then Natasha’s spat out on one of the residential floors (the common space, Tony explains, with a full kitchen and bar too) and her teammates are coming to greet her, all warm smiles and eager greetings and tight hugs. Natasha laughs and accepts their welcome graciously, only vaguely uncomfortable because she’s not used to having this many people look forward to her coming home, and Clint catches her eye from across the room and he just shrugs and laughs, lingering a little behind the others and watching her like she’s his personal entertainment for the day.
Asshole, she signs at him and then turns to hug Sam, who Steve must’ve brought with him when he’d come back from his wild goose chase (empty-handed, by the looks of it), pressing a light kiss to his cheek and wondering if he’s here to stay.
“You hungry?” Tony asks, practically bouncing on his feet. “JARVIS is an excellent cook.”
Natasha smiles wearily, feeling taxed from a full day of travel and all the excitement around her. “Actually, what I’d really like right now is a shower,” she says. “Where’s that room you promised me?”
“I can show you,” Clint offers, speaking up for the first time since Natasha has arrived. She notices a scar on his left bicep that wasn’t there when she last saw him and hopes that he didn’t have too much trouble getting out of his undercover op when SHIELD fell.
Natasha raises an eyebrow at him. “You know where my room is?” she says, entirely unsurprised.
Clint shrugs. “Well, I was the one who convinced Tony that you would definitely not enjoy a life-size replica of the Iron Throne in your room,” he says, grinning, “So yeah.”
Natasha snorts and follows Clint out of the room and back out to the elevator with Tony trying to rationalize his decorating choices and the sound of laughter behind them. The elevator brings them up and up and up, and when the doors slide open, Natasha is astounded to find an entire suite of rooms before them, all soft, simple linens and bright, airy space. It looks so much like her old apartment that she almost wonders if Tony’s been observing her life since the team last fought together.
“You should’ve seen this place before I got here,” Clint says, leading her through the living room space and down a hall to the most beautiful, spacious bedroom Natasha has ever seen. “People think your style’s a lot scarier than it really is.”
Natasha laughs and drops her duffle bag by the bed, running her hands over the soft cotton sheets and spotting what appears to be an enormous closet in the corner. Clint goes to sit on the bed next to where she’s standing, leaning back on his hands and smiling easily.
“Do you like it?” he asks, his voice sounding unnaturally quiet in the huge expanse of the room.
Natasha looks at him and smiles. “It’s almost like it was decorated by someone who actually knows how I like to live,” she says, which is probably as close to a yes as she’s going to get.
Clint grins, unfazed. He’s still for a moment, thoughtful, and Natasha suddenly feels something pressing in on her skin like there’s something that needs to be said here, something important, something that maybe they’ve never ever talked about. Clint reaches up and flicks the ends of her hair.
“You cut your hair,” he says softly, and it almost sounds like he’s trying to say I missed you.
“I like it this way,” Natasha says, ducking her chin, and thinks maybe she means I missed you too, except that he’s edging away now, standing to slip away and give her some privacy so she can shower and have some time for herself. She’s had enough time for just herself in the past few months, so she calls out before he can leave, “You should stay. I’ll just be a minute.”
Clint hesitates, halfway to the door, but his posture softens and he says, almost like he’d do anything for her if she so much as asked, “Okay.”
They end up spending that evening together, curled up in her bed, Clint watching a movie on mute and Natasha reading a book she’s been meaning to get around to but never had time for. It’s quiet and calm and wonderful in a way that Natasha can’t remember having in so, so long, and Clint must feel it too because he ends up spending the night, wrapped all around her, and Natasha finds herself feeling warm and safe and like all the shit she’s been through in the months following SHIELD’s dissolution doesn’t even matter anymore, never mind that she’s slogged through too many sleepless nights trying to live another day, never mind that it’s been some of the loneliest work she’s done in years. When Natasha wakes up in the morning, she feels more like herself than ever, Clint’s breaths coming out in quiet puffs by her collarbone.
Clint ends up spending the night the next day, and again two days after that, and again a handful of days later, and after a couple weeks, Natasha starts expecting him every few nights, when he can’t sleep or when he’s lonely or when he’s shaken from a bad dream. It’s not something she’s ever expected from him, because they’ve never really spent time together like this before, so close and sharing so much space without the pressure of work pressing in on them from all sides. But Natasha can’t seem to bring herself to mind either, because it’s nice, the comfort of having someone else there who expects nothing from her except for the same comfort in return, so she doesn’t complain and he doesn’t stop sneaking into her room at night like they’re in high school and this is somehow forbidden.
“So,” Pepper asks one day after she’s roped Natasha into helping her break in her new donut pan, claiming to be too afraid to try making donuts for the first time alone (which is absolute bullshit and they both know it because Pepper is incredible at baking, but Natasha likes spending time with Pepper, so she doesn’t say anything about it). “Are you and Clint, you know…?”
Natasha blinks. “What?” she says, instantly stilling and forgetting that she’s supposed to be measuring out milk to add to the batter.
Pepper laughs and holds her hands up. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to put you on the spot or anything,” she says. “I’ve just heard so much about how you’re so close, and now actually seeing you together for the first time—I mean, it’s obvious that he’s very fond of you.”
“Um,” Natasha says and shakes her head, finding that she can’t find the words for what she means to say. “We’re close, yeah. We’re friends.”
“Are you sure?” Pepper asks, something thoughtful and significant in her voice.
“Yes,” Natasha says, hating how unsure her voice sounds. She clears her throat. “He hasn’t—He’s never said—”
Pepper shrugs, lifting the milk carton gently out of Natasha’s hands and carefully pouring out the amount they need. “Sometimes people don’t just say anything about things like this,” she says. “Sometimes people just do.”
And Natasha doesn’t even know what that means, because she thinks about her and Clint and it’s all quiet closeness and sleepy fingertips on skin and simply coexisting without ever thinking about what that could mean for them, and Natasha doesn’t know what to call that at all.
Pepper must see Natasha’s discomfort because she smiles and puts a light hand on Natasha’s shoulder, saying, “You know what, never mind. I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just asking to ask.”
And then she deflects and starts talking about something else, but the odd feeling that’s surfaced in Natasha’s stomach doesn’t leave, even as they put the donuts in the oven, even as hours pass and they’re all laughing and shouting and talking over dinner, even as Natasha crawls into bed with Clint by her side that night.
Natasha wakes with the odd feeling in her throat and Clint’s hand resting comfortably over her hip. She shifts and rolls over to look at him, at the way that sleep softens the lines around his eyes, making him look less world-weary and tired of fighting than he sometimes is (once, late one night as they passed a bottle of vodka back and forth between them after a mission went south, he confessed to her that sometimes, all he wanted was a normal life, not having to wake up at odd hours to fly all over the world, not having to watch his back at every turn, and something in his voice sat heavy under Natasha’s skin, because there was an understanding in him too that people like them don’t get an easy retirement like that, that people like them never really get out). Clint wrinkles his nose and blearily blinks his eyes open, unfocused and lazy and so unlike the man in the field, pulling the trigger. He smiles when he sees that Natasha’s awake.
“Morning,” he mumbles and yawns.
Natasha smiles back, not trusting herself to speak, because the feeling in her throat is at the tip of her tongue now, threatening to burst out, and Natasha doesn’t know what she would say if she just let herself. Clint draws back a couple inches to properly look at her, eyebrows furrowing.
“You okay?” he asks, and it’s almost painful how well he reads her sometimes.
Natasha opens her mouth to say something, something important, something like I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately or I can’t tell what we are anymore, but instead, when she finds her voice, she ends up saying, “There are some gallery openings tonight that I kind of wanted to go to. If you want to come, we can grab dinner afterwards, maybe go to that pizza place you like.”
There’s just the slightest moment’s hesitation that passes over Clint’s face, like he can tell that she was inches away from saying something else, but then he smiles, soft and warm, and says, “Yeah, sure.”
And it wasn’t what Natasha meant at all, and she wonders if he would’ve given her the same kindness if she’d found it in her to really say it, but she realizes later that night as they’re heading out to the galleries Natasha heard about, bumping shoulders and walking in step with each other, that she’ll run into fire and war and hailstorms of bullets headfirst but she’s really not very brave after all, because she can’t do the thing that matters. But then, they’re strolling around galleries and Clint’s murmuring vaguely philosophical and entirely comical interpretations of the pieces they see like he knows anything about art, and Natasha feels warm all over, like she wants to find a home in his chest and live there because she knows she’ll be okay. She feels it down to her toes and it terrifies her, because this is Clint and he’s unbelievably kind and generous under all the sarcasm and snark and he’s probably the closest thing Natasha has to a best friend and Natasha doesn’t have many friends. She’s terrified because this is Clint and they’ve been partners and friends for years and years now and they’ve had this odd sort of holding pattern for almost as long and Clint’s never said a single thing to her about wanting anything more from her, and he’s the one who’s supposed to be good at this, at real things between real people, and Natasha can’t figure out if that means that this is all he wants or not.
When they get back to Avengers Tower, Natasha is still thinking about what the feeling simmering under her skin means and Clint’s still chattering on like he has been all night, either oblivious to the internal conflict that Natasha is going through or else considerate enough to let her work through it herself the only way she knows how (considering how observant Clint can be, Natasha’s betting on the latter). The others are still lingering around the kitchen when the two of them step out of the elevator, picking at the remains of dinner. It looks like Tony is gushing about something new they’ve developed down in the lab and Bruce looks quietly proud, smiling over a cup of tea. Thor looks absolutely fascinated, and Steve and Sam and Pepper all look varying shades of politely interested, and Pepper nods at them as Clint and Natasha walk in and drop their coats over the back of the couch.
“How was it?” Pepper asks as Natasha walks around the kitchen counter where everyone is gathered to get to the refrigerator and look for something sweet. “Anything worth seeing?”
Natasha grabs a pint of mango sorbet out of the freezer and helps herself to a generous spoonful and tells Pepper about the exhibits that she liked and those she didn’t and only feels a little weird about having someone to talk about this with (it’s nice, she thinks, having a few more friends). She only vaguely notices that Tony’s gone quiet and when she thinks to look, he’s got one eyebrow arched skeptically and he’s looking back and forth between Natasha and Clint, entirely too amused.
“You went to art galleries?” Tony asks Clint, disbelief coloring his voice.
Clint shrugs and reaches to pinch a piece of pasta left on the serving plate on the counter and pop it in his mouth.
You’re disgusting, Natasha signs to him.
Clint grins and licks his fingers.
“I’m impressed, Barton,” Tony says lightly, laughing. “After all this time together, and you’re still doing the little things to get laid. You’re an inspiration to us all.”
And even though it’s just an offhand comment and Tony doesn’t mean anything by it, there’s a second or two of a sort of awkward, stunned silence before Clint says, “I’m not trying to sleep with her” at the same time that Natasha blurts out, “We’re not together. Where do you get that idea?”
Tony blinks, surprised, looking between the two of them like he’s never really seen them before and answers Natasha’s question, “Like everyone at SHIELD?” And then he frowns at the two of them and leans his elbows on the counter, squinting, “You do know that just about everyone you’ve ever worked with is convinced that you’re fucking, right?”
Natasha swallows nervously and just stares, her mouth gone dry because oh god, oh god has she been that blatant all along? Has she really been so obvious about this only very recently realized feeling that people she doesn’t even know have noticed?
“We’ve never fucked,” Clint says bluntly, something vaguely uncomfortable in his voice that Natasha doesn’t like, that she wants to make go away forever if only she knew how.
Clint’s voice breaks through Natasha’s momentary immobility and she quickly sticks the sorbet back in the fridge and drops the spoon in the sink.
“I’m going to take a shower,” she says awkwardly, hating how stiff she sounds and retreating maybe a little too quickly to the elevator.
She can feel Clint’s eyes on her back, but she doesn’t dare turn around. This is not something she’s equipped to deal with.
When Natasha emerges from her bathroom, dressed in one of Clint’s t-shirts that she accidentally stole years ago and towel drying her hair, Clint is sitting on her bed reading a book. He’s already taken his hearing aids out for the night, so Natasha bumps her leg against the bed to greet him. He glances up and smiles, easy despite the uncomfortable situation earlier, and Natasha hopes for a moment that he’ll just forget about it, because this is not a thing that she likes, this talking about feelings. This is not something she’s good at.
Natasha drops her towel in her laundry hamper and goes through the motions of getting ready for bed, and by the time she walks back over to the bed, Clint is setting his book aside and tugging his shirt up over his head (for some unknown reason, he hates sleeping with a shirt on). He settles into bed easily next to her and Natasha curls into him as if on instinct, her body remembering how they’ve always been despite the foreign territory between them. He loops his arms around her and tucks the top of her head under his chin as always, and Natasha tries to let herself relax into the familiarity of the gesture, but she’s got too many thoughts knocking around her head. She does her very best to hold still so Clint can sleep even though no position feels comfortable to lie in.
It only takes about five or ten minutes before Clint draws away and flicks the light on again and says, “Okay, what’s wrong?”
Natasha tries to keep her expression level. What are you talking about?, she signs, not trusting her voice to keep steady if she were to speak.
Clint rolls his eyes and signs back, You’re actively bristling, Nat. What’s wrong?
“I’m not—” Natasha defends herself on instinct and then stops herself, because he deserves more than that. She presses her lips together and signs, I’m just thinking about what Tony said earlier.
Clint blinks, and Natasha watches as his eyes shutter off.
“Is this because I said I didn’t want to sleep with you?” he asks slowly, careful around each word like he’s afraid he’s going to say the wrong thing. “Because you know I’m asexual, right? I don’t—I’m not particularly trying to sleep with anyone.”
There’s something in his voice, tortured like he’s been waiting for the other shoe to drop for years, like he’s been waiting for Natasha to realize that he’s not enough, and the sudden force of it aches in her chest, painful and heartbreaking and awful, and Natasha hates herself for not getting to this place quicker, for being so blind to herself and letting this drag on and on.
“No,” she says, too quickly, and then pauses and backtracks. “I mean, yes, I figured. It’s, um, the other thing. That I was thinking about. The relationship thing.”
Clint’s posture stiffens and he visibly draws back a couple inches, and Natasha wants to scream because she’s never seen him this guarded around her and she hates the way it makes his eyes look hard.
“Oh,” he says, and she can already see that he’s bracing himself for the worst.
“I didn’t—” Natasha says quickly, reaching out and then stopping herself, thinking better of it. She thinks that if Clint weren’t so good at staying still, he probably would’ve flinched. She offers quietly, because she doesn’t quite know how to say the things that she means head-on, “You should—I want you to stay.”
The tense set to Clint’s shoulders soften, just a touch. He furrows his eyebrows at her and his eyes take on something almost playful, almost easy like he always is, and he says slowly, “Are you—Is this your way of saying that you want me to officially be your boyfriend?”
Natasha rolls her eyes and looks away. Clint laughs, warm, the suppressed fear gone from his voice just like that now that Natasha has told him that she’s not just going to run, that she doesn’t want him to run either.
If you ever call me your girlfriend, I’ll kill you, she signs. I hate that word.
Clint grins and brings her back into his arms, warm and solid and everything Natasha never thought she could have.
“Alright then, partner,” he says as they resettle to sleep, and there’s something light and teasing in his voice that makes Natasha feel strange and giddy inside.
They probably have more to talk about in the morning, she thinks, because she’s never really done this for real before, this whole being in a relationship thing, and there are probably boundaries that are going to need to be set, what they’re both comfortable with and what they’re not, and Natasha wants to be especially careful for Clint, because he’s the best thing that’s ever happened to her and for both of their sakes, she wants this to work. But they’re both tired now from walking around the city all night and Clint’s skin is warm against hers, so for now, he just flicks the lights off and curls himself around her again.
This time, Natasha is asleep almost immediately.
When Natasha wakes, it’s late in the morning and Clint is still asleep beside her. He’s sprawled out on his stomach, one arm thrown across her body and the other shoved up under his pillow, and he’s snoring softly. He doesn’t even stir when Natasha wriggles a little closer to him, running her fingers across his bare back, tracing his scars and trying to remember all the stories he’s told her (Budapest, Madrid, Sydney, New York, Buenos Aires). Natasha wonders if she looked hard enough, if she could find their story hidden between them amongst the many marks they’ve left and taken on their skin, the only evidence of the kind of life they’ve lived.
Clint grunts softly and rolls onto his side, a hand warm at the small of her back to bring her closer. Natasha smiles. There’s something grounding, she thinks, in Clint’s love of physical closeness, the way that he curls around her even in his sleep like he’s afraid to let her go, and when Natasha really thinks about it, she’s surprised to find how incredibly intimate their long partnership has been even without the two of them being intimate, and she thinks that she wouldn’t trade it for the entire universe, that she wants to hang onto this forever because it’s enough, it’s always been enough, and it’s been everything Natasha has ever wanted without realizing. She laughs to herself as she presses a light kiss to Clint’s hair, thinking to herself oh god, I think I’ve been in love with him all along, thinking to herself I must be the dumbest person in the world, thinking to herself how could I ever want anything else?.