“He’s in the gym again.”
Clint didn’t bother opening his eyes as Natasha strode through the door of their shared apartment in Stark Tower – no, it was Avengers Tower now, wasn’t it, heels clicking again the carpet. She stopped before his prone form on the couch, and even without looking he knew that she had her arms folded across her chest and was staring disapprovingly down at him.
“I know you’re awake, Clint.”
Clint cracked an eye open warily. His fear of Natasha was very healthy and logical, thank you very much, no matter how many “whipped” comments Tony made. Just wait, the day Natasha decides that she’s had enough of his nonsense, Clint would be standing to the side laughing at him.
“Why are you so invested in this?” he asked. There was no need to clarify who he was – only one person would be in the gym at this hour.
Natasha hesitated, just a quick-flash-gone trace of tension in her demeanour, and Clint was sitting up before he consciously registered moving. “Hey,” he said instead, and she allowed him to pull her down onto the couch, one muscled arm resting loosely around her waist. “What is it?”
“He doesn’t deserve it.”
He deserves a chance too, Clint heard, but didn’t remark upon it. Like the one you gave me.
Captain America had been an idolised ideal, but Steve – Steve was a human being. Painfully sincere, awkward, and two weeks fresh out of World War II. They’d all read the files, known the complicated web of cocoons – Howard, Peggy, Bucky and the Howling Commandos – that the twenty-first century had torn Steve from.
Captain America marched on, like the perfect soldier he was.
Steve Rogers faltered at the alien world he was thrust into, bereft of even a glimmer of his former life, bereft of everything – everyone – he had fought for.
He squeezed Natasha’s thigh. He doesn’t have to fight alone anymore.
He knew, peripherally, that Natasha had taken to sparring with the good Captain every night, but he never joined in any of their sessions. Clint wasn’t a big fan of getting beaten up by someone much stronger than him while off-duty. He didn’t have the sort of enhanced healing factor that they did.
So it was a surprise when Steve cornered him alone one evening.
“Don’t you have a date with Nat to get to?”
Steve, bless his soul, simultaneously flushed and went white. “I didn’t mean – it’s not like –”
Clint considered him for a moment as Steve floundered for words, spluttering disjointed phrases. “But it’s not,” he observed in as neutral a tone as he could manage, “because you don’t like her.”
Steve winced. “She – Natasha is a… gorgeous dame,” he replied warily, clearly expecting Clint to react with some sort of violence. “But I understand that she’s yours,” he added hastily, almost placatingly.
Clint had to snort at that, because the idea of the Black Widow belonging to anyone was ludicrous. But Steve was watching him with a slight furrow in his brow, and Clint felt he owed the other man to try and bridge the cultural chasm.
“Natasha is her own person,” he began slowly, watching Steve’s face carefully. “I know that she was spending the nights with you, and she’s a beautiful woman. If you’ve developed an interest in her, I don’t have any problems with it.”
Steve’s face shuttered, and Clint could almost see the report, impersonal black ink against stark white sheets, subject known to have been close to Barnes, Sergeant James Buchanan, presumed KIA, and Carter, Margaret.
Two weeks fresh out of World War II, and still mourning the death of a man he loved like a brother, the loss of a life he’d he hoped to have one day. Clint should have remembered.
“JARVIS, could you tell Nat that I’m borrowing her sparring partner for a bit?”
“Certainly, Agent Barton.”
Steve looked bemused as Clint led him into one of the lounges that peppered the level they were on, the common living space of the Avengers Tower, but he seemed willing to believe that Clint had no intention of visiting acts of bodily harm upon him. On his part, Clint sank onto one of the couches, pursing his lips.
“Natasha hadn’t always been with S.H.I.E.L.D.” Well, the beginning was as good a place to start as any. “At first, she had been a target.” Steve’s brow furrowed, as if trying to parse the alien concept of the Black Widow working against S.H.I.E.L.D. Given what they’d accomplished together as the only two land-bound Avengers during the Battle of New York, Clint wasn’t too surprised. “I was assigned to take her out.”
“But you didn’t.” Steve was watching him closely now. “Why?”
Clint hesitated. They were treading on private matters now, but everything he knew about Captain America, about Steve the man behind the shield, told him that he could trust the other. “She wasn’t in a good place, and I – I could see it.” See it, and be reminded of who he used to be, fresh from Barney’s betrayal and adrift in the world, without a tether, without a place to call home.
He was just passing on the chance S.H.I.E.L.D. had given him, when a man wearing a smartly-pressed business suit had cornered him on the rooftop during a hit, and offered him a job.
Clint had refused. Naturally. And then tried to respond the only way he knew how, back then.
Phil Coulson clearly hadn’t expected a different answer, for there were two bullet holes through his legs before Clint could even take a single swing, and then dragged him to S.H.I.E.L.D. medical. Both clean through-and-throughs healed without any complications, and six months later Clint was a shiny probationary field agent.
“He’s the first person who looked at me and saw me.” With cat-soft footsteps, Natasha had appeared out of nowhere. She squeezed Clint’s shoulder gently, absently, but her attention was on Steve. “And you are the second.”
Clint swallowed. It was his turn. “On the Helicarrier, after Loki’s attack, you trusted me when you had no reason to. Half the agents I’d served for years with won’t look me in the eye.”
After a moment, Steve gave a slow, tentative nod, clearly understanding what they were implying. “You’re the first person to understand me since Bucky.” He didn’t continue, seemingly lost in thought.
On an impulse, Clint got up and wrapped his arms around the other man in a proper hug. After a moment, he felt Natasha join in, her arms looped over both of their backs. Steve tensed instinctively, but then gradually relaxed into the three-way embrace. His shoulders shook, once, but Clint couldn’t feel any tell-tale wet patches on his shoulder.
One day, they hoped to gain this incredible, selfless man’s trust. But first –
They’d have to offer him the chance.