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Underneath and Unexplored

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1.

Natasha first tried to seduce Clint a few weeks after he helped her defect from Russia. Well, she gave it a half-hearted try back when he was just trying to kill her, but she didn't think that counted.

The first time she tried it, she thought it was a way to repay her debt to him.

She was grateful, you see, that he had looked into her and saw something more than a coldly efficient spy and a killer. She was a coldly efficient spy and killer, but she had always felt something lurking beneath the surface. There was more to her than what she had been trained to do, but she had never really had the opportunity to dredge whatever that was from the bottom of her soul.

He looked at her and saw something. Maybe it was something familiar, something he recognized from himself, from his own past, but whatever it was, it made him stop, think twice about just putting her down. It made him defy his orders, made him help her rather than kill her.

And she thought sex would make up for that.

She was young back then, and her head was still firmly in a bad place.

2.

Four years and five months later, Clint seduced her.

Maybe it wasn't really a seduction. There was attraction between them and had been since they had met, but back then she had been young and messed up, and he was too much of a white knight to take advantage of her, even if she wanted it as much as he did.

Four years and five months later, he stripped off his tactical gear and stood shirtless in a safe house in Mexico City as she wincingly removed her boot from her swollen ankle.

"Hey, Nat."

She stretched out her leg, wincing again as she flexed her foot. "Yeah?" she said, wondering where the first aid stash was; she hadn't been in this safe house before.

"Do you still want me?"

It took a second for his words to filter through her thoughts of sprains and tape and ice packs, but when they did, she gave him a startled look.

He stood there shirtless and barefoot, his t-shirt twisted in his hands, and he was so handsome in that moment, the heat in his eyes glowing through a charmingly uncertain expression. She was tired and sore and bruised from their mission, one with a few more dangerously tight spots than usual, but her heart gave a funny little jump and the slow burn that lived deep inside of her, usually kept damped by friendship and protocol, suddenly flared until it was white hot.

"I mean, I understand if you don't, but after that mission–" he began; she must have been quiet too long, because his cheeks flushed and his mouth twisted into a self-deprecating smirk.

"Yes," she interrupted, and he stopped mid-sentence, blinking at her as if he didn't quite believe that was her answer.

"Yes?" he repeated.

"Yes," she said firmly, smirking at him.

They ended up on the narrow bed, swearing softly as they stripped off clothes and brushed against bruises. He had a condom in his gear bag, which made her laugh. "You never know," he said sheepishly, but she knew he hadn't been sleeping with anyone lately, and neither had she.

He got her off with his mouth between her thighs first, and she came so quickly that she thought she ought to be embarrassed. But it was too good, he was too good, and when he grinned at her from between her legs, she couldn't help grinning back.

He groaned when she rolled the condom onto him, and it took a little jostling to find a position that didn't make one or the other wince with pain, but then he was inside of her, his mouth fused to hers in a scorching kiss, and Natasha didn't care that she was tired and sore and bruised.

Sex wasn't currency. She had come to realize that, that it didn't have to be a bargaining chip or something she used to get the upper hand. But she hadn't had much sex like this, just for the sheer pleasure of pressing her naked skin against someone else's and feeling them shudder at the feel of her.

When it was over, they sprawled out as best they could, panting to catch their breath.

"Wow," Clint said, and she laughed, running her fingers through the sweat on her breast.

"Yeah," she replied, and he grinned back at her for a second before his brow furrowed. "What is it?"

"It's just..." he said, pushing himself up on his elbows. "What does this mean? I mean, I know we just had sex and it doesn't have to mean anything, but I don't... I don't want it to screw things up, you know? Our partnership. Our friendship."

"Why would it screw things up?" she asked, genuinely baffled. "It's just sex. There's no rule that I can't be your friend after you've fucked me."

Something passed through his expression, come and gone so quickly that she couldn't get a read on it. "Well, I know that," he said, his familiar, self-deprecating grin back in place. "I guess I'm just used to screwing things up."

Sitting up, Natasha leaned over and pressed her lips against his, kissing him until she felt the tension melt away from his body. "This isn't going to screw things up," she said, brushing a drop of sweat from the edge of his sideburn. "I think it's good for us. With what we do, it's not like we have the opportunity to meet people and date or anything. We're friends, and let's face it, we're really good at the whole sex thing. Am I right?"

Clint laughed, stroking her wrist as she dropped her hand to his bare chest. "You're definitely right there," he agreed.

"This can be our thing," she said. "Friends with benefits. When we need it, we get naked and horizontal."

He gazed at her mouth for a long second, the corner of his twisting a little. "Sounds like a plan," he said.

3.

It became their habit. After missions, and hell, sometimes just whenever the mood struck, they got together and took turns blowing each other's minds, and all in all, Natasha was happy with it. They were still friends, still growing closer than she ever expected they would be, and they were still a good team. The fucking didn't distract either of them from the mission, and it's not as if the fucking would somehow make her want to save his ass more than she would if they weren't lovers.

Her suit was tugged down to her waist, and she sat on the lumpy sofa in a hotel room in Odessa, trying to rub a kink out of her left shoulder. This mission had done a number on her, emotionally anyway. Kidnapping, sex trafficking, young women... it was basically the perfect recipe for pissing her off, for dredging up old memories, for turning her body into a single knot of tension and anger.

"C'mere," Clint said, and she looked up to find him standing above her, holding out a hand.

After a second's hesitation, she took it and let him pull her to her feet. She didn't feel like fucking right then, but then she really didn't need to worry. Clint was Clint; he could read her better than anyone else, and he knew what she needed.

Pressing a soft kiss against her lips, he turned her to face away from him, his strong hands gripping her shoulders, thumbs pressing into tight muscles. "That good?" he asked, and she knew he meant the pressure.

"Mm hm," she murmured in reply, letting her head drop forward.

He carefully worked at the knotted muscles until they finally began to relax, and by that point, she just wanted to lie down. He followed her to one of the beds, helping her peel the suit the rest of the way down and unhooking her bra. "You want to shower first?" he asked, kneeling down to tug off her boots before pulling the suit over her feet.

"Come with me?" she said softly, feeling strangely uncertain.

It wasn't that she didn't want him–his touch had warmed her, and she wanted more of it–but everything felt strangely fragile, like if she took a step too far in one direction or the other, she would lose her footing and come crashing back to earth. She didn't know what to make of it, and that scared her a little.

He gave her a small smile. "Of course," he said, stripping off his own uniform efficiently.

The hotel was terrible, but at least it had hot water. The bathroom quickly grew warm and steamy, and Natasha let the humid air fill her lungs as she wet her hair.

Clint gently turned her away from him again, and to her surprise, he began working shampoo through her hair. It was strangely intimate, especially considering some of the more intimate things they had done to each other in the past year, but it felt so good, she had to close her eyes and just enjoy it.

She rinsed when he turned her around again, and only then did she open her eyes to find him watching her fondly. "Your turn," she said, her voice a little hoarse.

He practically purred when she massaged suds against his scalp, and she liked the way his eyes slipped shut and his mouth turned up into a content smile.

They made love against the tile wall, gasping and grasping at each other, and as she shuddered against him, she could think just enough to be grateful that he was holding her upright.

4.

They had been assigned to solo missions more and more lately, and Natasha wasn't sure if someone higher up on the food chain had realized they were sleeping together or if it was just the luck of the draw. She didn't particularly like it–she and Clint worked well together, and she didn't trust anyone else at S.H.I.E.L.D. as much as she trusted him–but it was a necessary evil.

"Barton's back," Coulson said over the phone late one night.

The call had woken her up, and that alone was enough to make worry knot itself up in her gut. "Is he okay?" she asked, sitting up in bed and blinking away the last vestiges of sleep.

"Yeah, just a little banged up," he replied, but there was something in his tone that didn't reassure her. "It... wasn't a smooth mission, though, Natasha."

He didn't have to explain that any further, and she probably wasn't cleared to hear the details anyway. But she knew that meant Clint would be having a rough time, and even if Coulson knew she and Clint were sleeping together when they shouldn't be, she knew that this phone call meant he thought Clint needed her.

"Thanks, Phil," she said, switching on her lamp and climbing out of bed.

"No problem," he replied, and the call disconnected.

It took half an hour to get to Clint's apartment, and he looked haggard when he answered her knock at the door. "Hey," she said softly, touching his cheek as he closed the door behind her.

"Hey," he replied, and she could see it in him, that whatever had happened had roughed him up, left him hurting.

"What do you need?" she asked, an ache building in her chest because she hated seeing him like this; she wished she could magically wipe away the pain, take away whatever had set his mouth in such a hard line.

He was silent for a long moment, his eyes searching her face for what she didn't know. "Just… you," he said, and her heart clenched in her chest.

With her back pressed against the door, they struggled out of their clothes. He kissed her desperately, as if he could find the solace he needed in her lips. It was overwhelming, and she loved the feel of him against her. His body was warm from a recent shower, and his touch was searing.

She pushed him down onto the couch and straddled his hips, sinking onto his hard cock in a rush of desperation. "Tasha," he groaned, his hands clutching at her hips, and she quieted him with a hard kiss.

It was so good, so good that it felt like she was dissolving into him, their bodies writhing together in such a close rhythm that she wasn't sure she would ever be able to extricate herself from him again. She wanted to be this close to him forever; she wanted to be his solace, and through the haze of pleasure and emotion, something in her hesitated, knew she was getting in too deep.

But he was holding her against his chest, his arms tight around her and his mouth playing at the curve of her neck. She felt herself spiraling away, caught up in the pleasure they wrought together so well. She came with his name on her lips, and he followed her into that bright oblivion.

She woke in his bed before dawn and slipped away, suddenly more unsure of herself than she had been in years.

5.

Natasha knew Clint was confused and hurt by her sudden withdrawal, but it was better, really. It was better for her to back off until she could get her feelings under control.

It had been three months.

She spent the first week pretending nothing was wrong. She told Clint she had to take care of some things, and that's why she left so early, but she could tell he didn't buy that. So she took a deep cover mission, because what better way to avoid your problems than to pretend you're someone else for a few months?

She shipped out to Moscow without telling him. Coulson would handle that, and she knew it was cowardly, but she didn't know what to say to Clint. "I'm sorry for bailing on you, but I think I'm in love with you, and that's terrifying" was the truth, but she couldn't imagine herself actually saying that. She didn't know why she was so intimidated by this; maybe it was left over from her old life, like shrapnel buried so deep she couldn't pick it out.

She just knew that the way she felt scared her, and the only way she knew to deal with that was to leave. Maybe she could get her head on straight when she didn't have to see him so often.

It was a pretty typical mission for her. S.H.I.E.L.D. used her Russian background often, sending her in to infiltrate groups that would be otherwise difficult to touch. This mission had her posing as a weapons dealer, and she fell into the cover easily.

Truth be told, she had the feeling that things were going too easily. She spent most of the time in Moscow waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And drop it did.

Somehow her cover was blown. She thought someone had recognized her from before, but she couldn't be sure, and really, what did it matter? What mattered was that she was running for her life without an extraction plan because this wasn't supposed to be a dangerous mission. She had sent a message to S.H.I.E.L.D., but that was hours ago with no answer.

Natasha was on her own.

Bullets peppered the wall above her head, showering her in red brick dust, and she swore, diving for better cover. She thought she had lost her pursuers, and she swore at herself again, this time for letting her guard down.

When she checked her extra clips, she found that she had just enough bullets to go down in a blaze of glory. There were at least eleven shooters after her the last time she bothered to take a count, back when she had to go through her apartment window and scale the side of a building to get away from them. Four inside her apartment, another seven waiting for her outside the lobby door. She thought she had shot two of them during that part of her escape, but she couldn't be certain. And really, why underestimate?

If she was going to die, she might as well die feeling like a goddamn hero, vastly outnumbered but bravely fighting to the very end.

Maybe she'd watched too many war movies with Clint.

There was no use in waiting. She spared a moment to regret all the things she'd left unsaid, then took a deep breath and rose to her feet, getting off four shots before–

"Down!" a familiar voice shouted in English, and instinct took over. She trusted that voice on such a deep level that she didn't stop to think; she just dropped back behind cover just as the doorway across from her hiding spot exploded.

She could hear the heavy thump of bodies falling, and someone swore in Russian, but Natasha couldn't focus on that. Clint dropped down from the rafters, unclipping his belt harness. His appearance was so startling that she wondered for a second if she was actually dreaming it, but she shook her head to clear out that ridiculous thought.

"What are you doing here?" she hissed, reloading her gun and trying to get over the shock of having him swoop in out of nowhere.

"I'm your extraction plan," he said, nocking an arrow. "Let's get the fuck out of here. There's a plane waiting at Sheremetyevo, and I've got a car three blocks away."

She let him lead the way out of the warehouse, since he knew where the getaway car was parked. It didn't escape her, either, as she covered his back, that they had fallen right back into their usual roles, back into their partnership as if she hadn't just disappeared for two and a half months without a word. If he was angry or upset, she wouldn't know about it while they were on the mission. He had her back, and she had his; that was the way things were between them.

She pushed through the ache in her chest. Now wasn't the time for feelings to get in the way of surviving.

It took a few more exploding arrows and the rest of her bullets, but they managed to lose the guys on her tail. They even managed to evade the cops, which Natasha chalked up to some sort of miracle. She had lost her equipment, other than her gun and the phone in her pocket, but she'd wiped her laptop remotely, and really, nothing was important enough that she'd regret leaving it behind.

"Buckle in," the pilot called over the intercom. "We're cleared for takeoff."

Natasha fastened her seatbelt and let her head fall back, letting out a huff of breath. Clint did the same in the seat across from her, and even with her eyes closed, she could feel his gaze on her.

"Shit. I thought we were goners a couple of times," he said, but it obviously wasn't what he wanted to say.

She knew he wanted to talk, could feel the tension hanging in the air between them, but a S.H.I.E.L.D. plane wasn't the right place for such a personal discussion. So she kept her eyes closed and tried to sleep.

The jet landed a few hours later in London, and Natasha was whisked off immediately for debriefing on why her mission had gone south. By the time she was finished with that, Clint was nowhere to be seen in the London satellite office. But she was being put on a flight back to New York, and asking about him seemed like it would be too obvious.

Two days later, Natasha woke to the sound of knocking. Her gun was in her hand by instinct alone, but she slipped it back into its holster on her headboard. It was two in the morning; it had to be Clint. Anyone that wanted to kill her wouldn't bother knocking, and Clint knew better than to let himself into her apartment while she was sleeping. That was a good way to get shot.

He gave her a sheepish look when she opened the door. "Sorry I woke you," he said. "I couldn't sleep. Can I come in?"

It still felt like it was too soon, that she hadn't had enough time to get things straight in her head, but she couldn't leave him standing out in the hall, not when he was giving her that look, the one that made her stomach do a strange little flip.

"Yeah, of course," she replied, stepping aside.

She didn't look at him as she locked the door, didn't turn around until she felt his hand on her shoulder, the warmth soaking through her t-shirt into her skin. She wanted to turn and fall into him. She had missed him in her self-imposed sequester, not only his touch but everything about him, from his terrible jokes and questionable taste in movies to the way he liked to cling to her as he slept, something she never thought she'd like.

She had thought sleeping without him, putting distance between them, would help. She thought she could push those feelings to the back of her mind, bury them so they wouldn't distract her, wouldn't become a liability. But it had just made her realize how lonely she had been, how much lonelier she was without him.

"Tasha," he said. "Can we talk?"

"I'm sorry," she said to the bolted door, leaning against it for a second as if it would fix her problems.

"For…?"

When she turned, her stomach flipped again at the look on his face. He looked worried, anxious like she was, but like he was so relieved to see her again that it overrode everything else. She wondered if he could read that in her own expression. She had missed him, and it didn't matter how far she ran, how much she tried to deny it to herself. She was in love with him, and she had no idea what to do about it, especially standing here just feet from him.

"For leaving for Moscow without talking to you," she said, tugging the belt of her robe into a tighter knot, as if the fluffy material was some kind of armor. "For… not talking to you at all. I didn't know what to do."

"I just don't know what's going on, Nat," he said, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand, his nervous gesture, and he must have been tossing and turning before he came over because his hair was sticking up in random spots. "Well, I have an idea of what's going on, but… whatever it is, I want to fix it. You're my best friend. I want you back."

Natasha closed her eyes, smiling a little through the pang in her chest. "It's… I'm afraid I'm getting in too deep," she said, tucking her hands into her sleeves and hugging herself.

"You mean, you and me," he said.

"Yeah."

He sighed softly, and she opened her eyes to find him shoving his hands into his jeans pockets, his mouth twisted in a frustrated grimace. "And why is that a bad thing?" he said softly.

For a second, she was struck dumb. Why was it bad? What they had turned into more than just sex, more than just friendship. It could be used against them, or they could be split up if they were ever found out.

"It's dangerous," Natasha said, her mouth running on autopilot. "It'll be a distraction in the field, and that's too dangerous."

"It's not any more dangerous than what we've been doing," Clint replied reasonably. "At this point, I'll do whatever I have to do to keep you safe, no matter what kind of relationship we have. The missions matter, Nat, but you matter more. You've mattered more for a long time."

He was right, she realized. She tried to imagine a scenario where she would let him die to finish a mission, and she couldn't. She'd try to salvage the mission, but she would do whatever she had to do to make sure he came out all right. And nothing they said today would change that.

"We're not supposed to fraternize according to regs," she said, grasping at straws.

"Yeah, I think that applies to fuckbuddies just as much as two people falling for each other, Natasha."

There was a little hint of humor in his voice, and she scowled at the grin he was trying to hide, but her frustration quickly sapped away. There were regulations that that sense, and then there were the ones that could be bent or even ignored, as long as you didn't get caught. She wasn't a stickler for following the rules, anyway, so it really was a stupid excuse.

"Yeah," she said, crossing her arms over her chest again.

"And since when do you care about regs?" he said, mimicking her crossed arms and pulling a melodramatic frown.

"Well, one of us has to."

His scowl quirked up into a grin, and she pressed her lips together to fight the urge to smile back. She didn't know how to make him understand that was she was feeling… was scary. She was afraid of letting herself love him.

It was a bad thing because she had let herself fall in love before, and it had been an unmitigated disaster. She didn't want to risk that pain again.

And she didn't want to lose him.

But she didn't want to be afraid. She hated being ruled by fear, having any part of her life controlled by it, and she had always fought through whatever had scared her. It was exhausting, fighting what scared her the most, the thought that she could lose him and have her heart broken again.

She was tired of keeping herself in this self-imposed isolation. He was her friend, the closest she'd ever had, but she realized she'd been holding him at an arm's length all this time when she wanted him even closer. She was tired of being alone. She wanted to be in love.

"I'm running out of excuses," she said with a little laugh, tucking her hair behind her ears.

Clint could tell something had changed in her, because his shoulders relaxed, and he stepped closer, reaching out to brush back a lock of hair she had missed. "I don't want to talk you into anything," he said softly, stroking her cheek. "I don't want to talk you out of whatever you're feeling, but I love you, Natasha, and I think you love me, too. If you want to end this, then… we'll end it. I hope you don't, but if that's what you want, then I'll respect that."

Closing her eyes, she leaned into his touch, her skin soaking up his warmth like a sponge in water. If there was anything that would have convinced her, it was that. He respected her enough to walk away if that's what she wanted, but he loved her enough to push a little, to make her sure she was being honest with herself.

She didn't know when she'd become so addicted to his touch, but she wanted to fold herself up in him and never let him go.

"There hasn't been anyone but you," he continued, sighing when she stepped a little closer. "At first it was just because of convenience, I guess. We both wanted it, and it's not like this life gives us time to actually date people. But… then I didn't want anyone else. I don't want anyone else. Just you."

"Take off your clothes," she murmured, resting her palms on his chest so she could feel his heartbeat quicken.

He blinked in surprise, his brow furrowing slightly. "…what?"

"Do you still want me?" she said, looking him right in the eye.

He started to smile a little, still uncertain, but she knew he heard the echo of his own words to her from years before. "Yes."

"Then take off your clothes," she said, one corner of her mouth curving up. "It's our little routine, isn't it? After missions? I don't want to break that habit."

His thumb brushed across her cheek, and the weight of his gaze made her heart pound. In the space of a breath, he was on her, his mouth slanting across hers in a kiss that sent fire racing through her. Catching the lapels of her robe in his hands, he pushed it off her shoulders, and she tugged the belt loose so the robe puddled on the floor around her feet.

His jacket was next, followed swiftly by his t-shirt, and she pulled her own shirt over her head. He fumbled with the fly on his jeans as she pushed him back toward her bedroom, nearly tripping in an effort to step out of his shoes. They were both naked by the time they fell into her bed, and the feel of his skin against hers was so good it made her shiver. She laughed breathlessly when he rolled her underneath his body, tangling her fingers in his short hair as they kissed.

She gasped his name when he pushed inside of her, wrapping her legs around his waist. With a low groan, he wrapped an arm around her shoulders, holding her against his chest. He twined the fingers of his other hand with hers, pressing her hand down into the mattress as he began to move inside of her.

"Clint," she breathed, gripping his hand tight, using it and his weight to ground herself, to give herself something to hold onto.

"God, I love you," he groaned, swallowing her soft mewl of pleasure in a kiss.

The sound of it thrilled her, made her heart beat out a staccato rhythm against her ribs. It was terrifying and beautiful, and she wanted to hear it over and over. She arched into his thrusts, clinging to him, using her legs to work herself on his cock, and before long she was trembling, her body tensing deliciously.

"Wanna feel you come," he said, his voice a low rumble against her ear.

"I love you," she said on a gasp, her body seizing with pleasure.

He held her tight as she shuddered underneath him, whispering words she couldn't quite understand. A few moments later, he came, too, moaning her name and clutching her tightly against him.

"I'm sorry," she murmured later, as they drowsed together.

"For what?" he said, shifting a little closer so he could sling an arm across her waist.

Smiling, she turned her head and brushed her nose against his, letting him cuddle close to her. "This is just… a little scary for me," she said, touching his hand where it rested on her stomach.

He caught her fingers in his, squeezing her hand. "I know," he said, pressing his lips against her shoulder. "But I've got your back."