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fighting fire with firewood

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Natasha was not the kind of person to be curious—at least, not idly so. If there was information she wanted, it was for a specific purpose, to be turned to a specific goal. She'd had little opportunity in her life for indulgence. Now, however, she sat in a tiny shawarma restaurant in downtown Manhattan, cement dust in her hair and blood under her fingernails, gaze fixed on the wall while she watched Clint out of the corner of her eye. His face was closed-off, creased with exhaustion, and he ate mechanically, steadily. Natasha had seen him like this in the aftermath of dozens of missions, when the need for a sniper's preternatural focus was past and the adrenaline was leaching from his system, but she'd never watched him so avidly.

"Do you know what it's like to be unmade?" Clint had asked her, and she'd said yes, but the truth was always more complicated. Natasha knew what it was like to be her, now, and sometimes she woke up in the middle of the night with the phantom sensation of long, cool fingers itching against her temples. What she couldn't remember, try as she might, was who she'd been before that moment, what it was that the Red Room had taken away. Some part of her wondered if she could find the answer to her question in Clint's expression—if she could compare his face now to what it had been the last time she'd seen him, add and subtract a thousand small differences that would add up to this is what they took.

She turned away in order to dip the last of her fries into some tzatziki sauce; when she looked back up, Clint was watching her. Natasha knew there was nothing of Loki lurking behind his eyes anymore, but something in his level gaze still made her flinch.

Natasha was not the kind of person who liked to be observed.

**********

The Red Room sent her out on her first solo assignment shortly after the slow-motion disaster that was the invasion of Afghanistan, when the egos of men who spent their lives behind desks in the Kremlin needed salving and the money that had been lavished on special military programmes needed fresh justification in an age of glasnost. Punishing a man who had inflicted a long-ago injury on Mother Russia was one way of accomplishing this. Drakov's daughter had been born years after her father's defection, but that didn't matter to Natasha's commanders and at the time it hadn't mattered to Natasha, either.

She had infiltrated the girl's circle of friends over a period of several weeks, assessed the possible value of any intelligence Kseniya Drakova may have possessed, and when Natasha determined that the girl's use was primarily symbolic, she'd snapped her neck. Natasha left the body in a Viennese side street, carefully arranging it so that news of the killing would make the front page of every morning paper, without ever leading back to her or to the USSR. Drakov had understood the message regardless. He was dead by his own hand before the month was out.

Natasha had never dwelled on the killing, not even when SHIELD had brought her in and she'd shivered and sweated her way through deprogramming, as if the toxins of a whole life were slowly working their way out through her pores. No. What had come back to her then was not the give of fragile vertebrae beneath her hands, but the three months leading up to that moment: the warm brown of Kseniya Vasilyevna's eyes, the way she'd thrown back her head in teenage abandon when she sang, the tap of her shoes against the tiled classroom floor when she was impatient or nervous. The memories had made Natasha put her head in her hands and weep until she felt hollowed out and aching from it, grieving something she'd never known she'd lost.

Later, Clint had asked her why that one in particular—why Kseniya.

Natasha had looked him steadily in the eye when she told him the truth: "Because she was the first friend I ever had."

The look on Clint's face, then, was what had convinced her not to leave. She'd been killing children since she herself was a child. If he could face that fact without blinking, without expressing something as nauseating as pity, then Natasha had the possibility that one day, perhaps, she could learn to work alongside him.

**********

Natasha's judgment had been good enough for Steve, but not for SHIELD, not once the battle's chaos had passed and people started to regroup. They all had to debrief, of course—to relive each hour that had passed since Coulson had first picked up his phone and told Fury that there was a problem at the New Mexico site. But only Clint was met by a blank-faced field agent when they finally left the shawarma restaurant; only he had to spend several days cloistered with some of SHIELD's more specialised psychologists. There were even rumours that one of Xavier's telepaths had been brought in to examine him. In the end, he was given the all clear—as far as anyone could tell, neither Agent Barton nor Dr Selvig were under Loki's direct control any longer.

"As far as they can tell," Clint said later, when it was just the two of them alone in the gym. His words rasped—he sounded as if he'd been shouting at the top of his voice for hours—but they carried easily in the still air.

Natasha finished rubbing rosin into the soles of her feet and her palms before she looked up at him. "What are you really worried about?" she asked, shaking off the excess in a flurry of white powder.

He squinted at her. His forehead was beaded with sweat from their sparring match; a bruise was already starting to come up over his left cheekbone. "Not sure where I was being ambiguous there, Nat."

"Yes," she said, standing. "You were. You're deflecting onto the shrinks because you're worried that he isn't really gone. Or maybe that he's left something behind him."

Something flickered across Clint's face—something desperate and sad—before he visibly schooled himself. In the gym's fluorescent lighting, he looked jaundiced. "I can't know that he—"

"You think I'm any more sure?" Natasha said, interrupting him. She had patience when it came to the job, but not for things like this. "There are words in my head in languages I don't know; sometimes I wake up saying things I don't understand. I have three different memories in my head about the first time I rode a bike, and I don't know which one of them's true, or if none of them are."

"That's—"

"Different? Not in the ways that matter." She cocked her head. "Minsk," she said, and just the mention of the place was enough to call up the scent memory: gun oil and stale sweat and the cloying, poisonous smoke of blazing plastic. She'd skirted as close then as she'd ever had to losing the last seven years of her life, to remembering all the things which had happened to her in quiet rooms, but Clint had stood by her, and Clint had trusted her, and Clint had given her the handgun when it had counted.

"You are really fucking insufferable sometimes, you know that?" Clint said, but the cant of his mouth said message understood.

"Yes," Natasha said, smirking. "Now give me a boost up," and Clint's grip on her hips was strong and secure as he hoisted her up towards the parallel bars—as she flung herself free.

**********

She'd heard about Clint long before she ever crossed paths with him. There were many people in the world who were willing to kill for money, but few others who operated at the same kind of rarefied level as Natasha and him. The kinds of jobs which they carried out were the sort that inspired gossip—glorified by the words military intelligence and need to know basis, but gossip nonetheless.

Natasha had had enough informers tell her whispered stories of the movements of the Black Widow—invariably inaccurate, but always sufficiently awestruck—to make continuing to operate under the Red Room's ridiculous pseudonym tolerable. Clint's codename, however, had never become common knowledge, and Natasha had only heard of Hawkeye after she came to work for SHIELD.

But she hadn't needed a name to know him—few people still reached for a bow and arrow as their weapon of choice, after all. His kills had usually been easily identifiable, and on the two occasions he'd beaten her to a target, she'd had the chance to examine his handiwork up close. A people-trafficker in Beirut, his external jugular severed; a mid-ranking warlord in the Caucasus, the arrowhead still embedded in his left femoral artery. Both were quick methods of killing, if rather messy given the arterial spray. Natasha had supposed, prodding al-Tamimi's still-warm corpse with the toe of her boot, that considerations like that mattered less from an archer's distance.

"Why 'Black Widow'?" he'd asked her once. "Chyornaya vdova, whatever." His accent was horrendous; the vowels all wrong. They were on their way to a job—perhaps the fourth or fifth they'd ever done together—driving hundreds of miles through the flat heart of America in a misleadingly battered-looking pick-up truck while Clint introduced her to what he called the joys of genuine diner food. Natasha was quietly horrified by the concept of country gravy, but approved of the ready availability of so many different kinds of pie.

She'd quirked an eyebrow at him, added another teaspoon of sugar to her mug in an attempt to mask the taste of instant coffee left to brew for too long. They were sitting in a tiny roadside diner in western Nebraska, one of the few customers there and the only ones who weren't engaged in an animated discussion at the counter about the rising price of fertilizer. "My first handlers didn't do well with original thinking."

"Which'd be why they didn't last long, huh?" Clint said, before shovelling the last forkful of hash browns into his mouth.

Natasha stared back at him, deadpan. It was one of her favourite expressions—it had provided her with endless amusement, seeing how quickly the faintest flicker of an eyebrow could make some people sweat. Clint, however, just cracked up. "Man, you and Coulson are going to get along like a house on fire."

They met up with Agent Coulson in southern Utah where a house had, indeed, gone on fire.

**********

Natasha knew she must have said a first word; knew there must have been some phrase to associate with her earliest childhood that wasn't inadequate or faster or again. She didn't know what those words were, though, and there was no one left who could tell her. She'd been raised to know only the shape of words most useful to her, had built the reputation of the Black Widow as much on the sly cut of her words as on that of her knives. Natasha had learned how to pare away a person's reservations, their loyalties; had baited men and women both into acts that would horrify them on sober reflection. There was no sentimentality that could withstand the sight of someone giving up their friends, signing away their family, for the sake of implied promises and carefully orchestrated smiles.

She could pass for a native speaker, or at least an expat of long standing, in eight languages and could make herself understood in about the same number again. Her years working for SHIELD had shortened her vowels and sharpened her consonants. Now, when Natasha spoke English, Natalie Rushman's East coast speech came far more readily to her than did her old stand-by of a clipped Home Counties accent. In some ways, she'd learned a much better sense of herself since Clint got her out; in others, well, Natasha had long ago trained herself not to dwell on the question of where persona truly ended and the self began.

Once, she'd told Stark that fallaces sunt rerum species—the appearance of things is deceptive.

Natasha had no clear memory of learning Latin as a child, let alone where she'd picked up a knowledge of that particular proverb. There were times when she looked at herself in the mirror—cataloguing the line of her jaw and this month's hair colour and the set of her shoulders—and wondered about the ways in which she was unknowingly deceiving herself.

**********

Some of the other agents had favourite weapons—guns whose polished sheen came from more than a decade of careful maintenance, knives which could be used as props in stories about bar fights in Sydney or a riot in Manila. Natasha wasn't that sentimental. There were weapons whose heft she had refined, guns she'd had match graded to her own exacting specifications, but there wasn't one that she favoured above the others. Instinct could be useful, but routine was deadly. She had no room for favourites.

Natasha knew that Fury had deliberately given them a milk run for their first mission back—one that would have been challenging for a junior agent but an easy task for her and Clint. And it would have been, if there hadn't been a problem with their intel, leaving the two of them ambushed and back-to-back in a warehouse in Mexico City with nothing but a group of pissed off mercenaries for company.

"Your left," Natasha said, and neatly double-tapped one of the group's leaders—former British Special Forces, if she had to guess. He fell backwards, exposing two more behind him. Natasha took down one, saw the other fall back behind some packing cases, if not dead then at least unable to attack for a while.

"Drop," Clint said a few seconds later, and Natasha ducked as he pivoted to launch an arrow into the throat of someone by the entrance. She curved around him, using the jut of his hip to balance herself when she shot the man who was aiming at Clint's head, then reached blindly behind her to pluck a spare arrow from Clint's quiver and slash at the jugular of one of the mercs. The mercs were good and had had the element of surprise, but they clearly hadn't been working together for long, and Natasha's reflexes were honed to match Clint's. She was a weapon of Clint's as much as he was hers.

By the time the building fell quiet, she and Clint were hip-to-hip and shivering with adrenaline. Clint grinned at her and didn't move and said, "Got eleven. I win."

Natasha made a face at him and said, "Three were assists, Barton," and she didn't move either. When she inhaled, she could smell his sweat. Dangerous, she told herself. Worse than that—it was comfortable. No room for favourites, she told herself, and did her best to make it a statement and not a question.

**********

"You've got nice handwriting," Steve said one morning.

Natasha looked up sharply, but he seemed to be neither teasing nor snide. He reddened a little when she cocked an eyebrow at him, but he didn't break eye contact—just stood there in the middle of the communal kitchen, barefoot and in pyjama pants, clutching a mug of coffee and still somehow giving the impression that he was standing to attention in a parade line. It was one of the things she liked about him—once Steve made a decision to do something, he acted on it, and he didn't back away from the consequences.

"Didn't think people these days wrote in cursive so much," Steve said simply and shrugged, leaning in to snag an apple from the fruit bowl that sat in the middle of the table. The mid-morning sunlight that flooded in through the windows bleached his hair white gold. "Or still used fountain pens."

Natasha looked back down at the kitchen table, where her handwriting slanted neatly across several ruled pages. Almost all of SHIELD's reports were now filed electronically, but Fury preferred that some of the more specific analyses which Natasha compiled for him were handwritten—analogue couldn't be hacked, after all. She had never really thought about how she wrote before, never considered in depth the curve of her O's or the elongated loops of her double L's, though her handwriting was perhaps a little more old-fashioned than most. Almost everyone wrote in cursive in Russian, and the habit must have carried over to writing in English; she'd never quite overcome a certain distaste for ballpoint pens. She frowned.

"You know, you're the most predictable unpredictable person I've ever met," Clint had told her once.

"Non sequitur," Natasha said. "And nonsensical." They were standing on the north bank of the Seine, looking westward past the green-painted booths of the bouquinistes and the pale grey stone of the buildings, towards where the Eiffel Tower was sketched indistinctly against a lowering autumn sky. There was a chill in the air, enough to make Natasha tuck her chin into the soft folds of her scarf; if they finished this job quickly enough, she might have time for a hot chocolate before they headed for the airport.

"Oh, come on, Nat," Clint said, and hidden in the teasing there was just enough bite to tell her that he was still irritated by what had happened last Tuesday. "I have no idea how you're planning on taking this guy out when we find him, but I know that when we do, you're going to make sure you inflict a little bit of extra pain because he was tacky enough to interrupt that ballet—"

"Not tacky," Natasha said firmly. "Gauche."

"—whatever, and this offends some sort of unspoken, old-school, Cold War spy code shit. You know, you could just say—" but whatever Clint had been about to suggest was lost when Natasha had spotted their target and strode off down the quays after him.

Natasha realised that she may have found new words since defecting, but many of them were still in the old forms; for a moment she wondered why she hadn't just decided to use red ink when she wrote, and she clutched the pen in her hand hard enough that she was surprised the metal didn't bend. When she smiled up at Steve, she knew from the way he winced a little that she'd shown too many teeth. "Why mess with a classic?" she said, and finished her report before going down to the firing range and worked her way through a hundred rounds of ammo.

**********

The first time Natasha saw Clint and not just his handiwork, he'd been a flicker of a reflection in a shop window across the street. Throwing herself to the ground had been instinctual; the arrow embedded itself deep in the wood three inches over her head and Natasha kicked off her heels before sprinting for cover. It'd taken her twenty minutes to shake him fully, losing herself in a tangle of Milanese backstreets and the ambling crowd of late night club-goers, ripping her stockings to shreds on the pavement.

This meant that for the first three months she'd been at SHIELD, warily figuring out how to fit into a place she hadn't been designed for, Clint had referred to her solely as Cinderella—during debriefs and training and sparring bouts, in the elevator and standing in line in the staff canteen. He'd even called her that in front of Fury once, and Natasha had learned that a man with only one eye was still fully capable of rolling it with complete disdain.

At the end of the third month, she'd reached her limit and snapped, "And you're supposed to be Prince Charming?"

The grin on Clint's face widened, became something real—obviously pleased by something more than just a weak and tetchy comeback. "Well," he said as he tossed a tennis ball against the inner hull of the helicarrier and caught it, over and over, "I am from Iowa. We're raised polite there."

Natasha had heard of Iowa, of course, but that didn't mean she approved of it. "Polite isn't the same as charming."

"Yes, ma'am," Clint said. He had bruises all along his right forearm and he was laughing at her and three months ago he'd been sent to kill her. There was something about him that she didn't understand, and she wondered if she'd have the chance to study him for long enough to figure it out.

**********

Natasha liked her living spaces to be comfortable but minimalist. Clutter irritated her. Her bedrooms were all spare lines and cashmere throws, arranged to allow clear lines of sight and easy escape routes. The one indulgence she'd allowed herself since she'd come to work for SHIELD, her one collection of things, was her books. She'd turned three walls of her New York apartment into bookshelves and crammed them full of cracked-spine airport thrillers and clothbound classics, slim volumes of poetry and weighty memoirs and gilt-edged histories—all the kinds of things for which she was supposed to have neither the time nor the inclination. Natasha had never been idly curious; she knew she was looking for something hidden inside all these pages. The problem was that she didn't know what that hidden thing was.

One evening she sat in an armchair and read about Byzantium—the jewel-coloured icons on the book's front cover had been both appealing and strange to a child of the Soviet era. She read about power struggles and the slow decline of empire and the powers that stood behind thrones. She sounded out rounded Greek syllables like porphyrogenitos, a term reserved for only a few members even of the royal family: the state of having been born inside a royal pavilion made entirely out of purple porphyry. That evening, Natasha lay in bed and wondered if there was a similar term that meant born in the red, if there was a term that marked out a daughter of the Red Room—some name that would follow her always, truer than Natalia or Natasha or Natalie or any other name that she'd chosen for herself, more innate in her than the quiet respect that underlay Coulson's murmur of "Agent Romanov", or Clint's affectionate "Tasha."

When she closed her eyes, she had the vivid sense memory of standing on a patch of dry grass in São Paolo, watching the red glow get stronger behind the orphanage's windows, feeling the heady bite of wood smoke on the back of her throat. Natasha knew that she hadn't been alone there, knew that there had been the shouts of neighbours and the distant wails of fire engines, but in her memory there was always only her, and the roar of the flames, and the red light glowing against the walls. There had been no one there to call her by a chosen name; no one to remind her why it was that names have any meaning.

**********

She and Clint disagreed about Budapest, because it was the first time she'd been on the defensive and the first time in months he hadn't fought right alongside her. Natasha remembered planting her feet firmly against the asphalt and laying down covering fire, buying herself some time to think through her options with the taste of blood rich in her mouth. Clint was an assassin but Natasha was a spy and it felt strange still to work an op in broad daylight, with no pretence of a self to shed along with the last bullet in her gun.

They disagreed about Budapest because Clint had been scrambling to get back to her, sprinting through narrow backstreets, running the odds on all the ways this could go to hell, but Natasha had never let herself think about anything but the odds of success.

He'd stitched her up on the sleeper train to Istanbul, his handiwork neat despite the way the train swayed as it moved over switches and points. "Let's not do that again, huh?" he said, adding another daub of antibiotic cream to her forearm and then handing her a bottle of water to wash down some painkillers. His mouth was a firm line, and he hadn't yet had the time to change his shirt. There were dark patches of sweat under his arms and around his neck.

"Part of the job," Natasha said.

"It's..." Clint stared at her. "You think this is really about that?" he said, pointing at the knife gash on her arm. "Fuck, Tasha."

Natasha didn't understand what he was so upset about.

"You shouldn't have had to go in there by yourself," Clint said, packing up their little first aid kit.

"I can handle myself," Natasha said, feeling the faint stirrings of anger, because they'd been working together for almost a year now, and she knew she'd proven herself a dozen times over—knew that there couldn't be any reasonable grounds for doubt.

"I know that!" Clint snapped, "I know that, Christ. That's not what I..." He scrubbed a hand through his hair. "You shouldn't have had to go it alone. We're a team."

Natasha blinked, realising that his anger wasn't for her—it was for himself. It made her feel uncomfortable; she couldn't quite work out what her true, unmediated response was to that realisation, and she'd had little practice with pretending her way through similar scenarios. She settled for saying, "Thank you," her throat feeling strangely raw and sore.

Sleep wasn't easy to come by that night; Natasha lay awake, listening to the tinny sounds of '80s rock music filtering out through Clint's headphones. She'd been claimed by others before, but she'd never been offered partnership. It gave her an odd feeling in her stomach, as if she was nervous. She wrapped her arms around her middle and stared out the window into the darkness, counting the kilometres slipping past as the train slowly moved south and east.

**********

Pepper Potts was unfailingly polite and friendly to Natasha, but Natasha was well aware that there was always a slight undercurrent of unease whenever they met. Natasha didn't think it was because of her, as such. They had worked well together in the aftermath of Stark's ill-fated birthday party, after all, and Natasha didn't doubt that Pepper viewed her with respect. Still, she hadn't failed to notice Pepper's body language around her—the tension in Pepper's shoulders and the line of her neck whenever she first saw Natasha. In part, no doubt, Natasha was a reminder to her of a time when Stark had almost died, and in part there was always the faint fear that Natasha's appearance was a sign of impending violence. Natasha couldn't fault her for that fear—it had very logical foundations.

An honest, heart-to-heart conversation would no doubt have helped to clear the air. Natasha wasn't much given to those.

Once, though, when they were at one of the receptions that Fury insisted the whole team attend—black tie and neatly combed hair and absolutely no weapons allowed; Natasha always presumed that there was a hidden footnote that excepted the knives she carried in her garters—Pepper had a little more champagne than was probably wise, given the kind of week they'd all just had. She wasn't drunk, but there was a flush to her cheeks, a single wisp of hair had escaped from her chignon, and she was being that little bit more expansive than usual.

Natasha had built thick intelligence briefs from far less opportunity.

"I just don't do well with violence," Pepper said, taking another champagne flute from the tray of a passing waiter. Natasha appreciated how neatly Pepper could pivot on heels that high; it spoke to an innate awareness of her centre of balance that most people could never achieve. "I mean, I got my MBA at Harvard and I worked for Tony for seven years, it's not as if I'm conflict-avoidant, but the whole time he was missing, my imagination was working overtime. I thought I was going to get an ulcer. And then you showed up and I know you were there to help, but it's not like you were minimising the violence, just..." She waved a hand vaguely, as if hoping she could snatch the right word out of the air.

"Re-directing it," Natasha said, smiling faintly.

"Exactly! You're very good at your job," Pepper said. "I do admire professionalism. And the way you took out those guys yesterday was really efficient."

Natasha nodded, accepting the compliment. "Credit where it's due," she said, "You knocked out that one guy very cleanly."

"Well," Pepper said, "Tony bought that statuette and I always hated it. It was a good excuse to get rid of it, really."

There was silence between them for a moment, the two of them looking out at the room full of people: three-star generals and movie stars, tech pioneers and members of Congress and Asgardian diplomats, all of them mingling and talking and here and there, some of them dancing to the soft music played by the jazz quartet that was set up one corner of the room. Steve was in his dress uniform, making a reasonably competent attempt at small talk with a woman whom Natasha vaguely recognised from a TV drama. Thor was charming minor European royalty, thanks to the fact that he'd proved a quick student of the Argentine tango—Natasha suspected the involvement of Jane Foster's research assistant—while Stark was saying something to Rhodes that was making the colonel roll his eyes. She didn't have to look up to know that Clint was watching all of them from the mezzanine level, his bow hidden underneath the well-cut lines of his suit.

"You can make it work for you," Natasha said eventually. "The fear."

"Excuse me?" Pepper said.

"You don't have to find violence enjoyable," Natasha said. "I don't. I'm not a sadist. At least, I'm not anymore." She thought back to the helicarrier—to the growing chill in the air as the environmental controls failed, the ring of the metal flooring beneath her feet, her growing horror at Bruce's transformation because there was nothing that the Red Room had given her that could stand against what he became. What she'd seen on his face as it twisted had been nothing she could use and nothing she could understand—just the same unthinking, unreasoning rage that Natasha sometimes feared the Red Room had buried deep inside of her. When she'd run, it had sometimes been the helicarrier's winding passageways she'd seen in front of her, sometimes the antiseptic walls of the Red Room. Her hands trembled, and she quickly curled them into fists. "But if it scares you, use it. If it reminds you of all the things you can't do against it, use it to think of the one you can. Redirect."

Pepper studied her face, and there was a sharpness to her gaze that said maybe the champagne hadn't affected her as much as Natasha had originally estimated. "You know," she said, "whatever we were paying Natalie, it wasn't enough, was it?"

Natasha let herself look up at Clint. It took him only a moment or two to break off from his constant low-scale scanning of the room to look over at her. He waggled his eyebrows at her in a way Natasha knew meant canapés and penguin suits, Jesus. For once, she let her smile gain an edge of honesty; there was more than one way to be a professional, she supposed. "No."

**********

It had been raining for three days straight, storms pushing in from the Midwest meeting a blustery Atlantic and turning the view from Stark Tower into so much grey. Natasha sat curled under a blanket on the sofa in front of the fire, in the rooms that had been newly presented to her—several million dollars in Manhattan real estate handed over with a wave of Tony's hand and a blasé, "I got you a thing." Sometimes he amused the hell out of her.

"Thinking about paint chips?" Clint said as he swung himself over the back of the sofa to sit beside her. For once he was dressed for downtime, in faded jeans and a blue t-shirt that proclaimed I Went to the Iowa State Fair and All I Got was Type 2 Diabetes; his thigh pressed warm against hers. "Pretty sure Cap's got hives from how much this all cost, but Thor's got a pinball machine in his living room so I think he's being won over as we speak."

Natasha arched an eyebrow at him. "And?"

He opened his mouth, eyes bright like he was planning on some new means of teasing her, but instead he paused and frowned. "Nat? What's wrong?"

"Nothing," she said, which was true. She'd been feeling pretty content at the prospect of a chilly day spent indoors in the warmth, with nothing more pressing ahead of her than a workout with Steve in the evening, and the decision about whether to brew some Earl Grey or some Darjeeling in a little while. A free day was a rare luxury for her.

Clint didn't seem to believe her, though. He reached out and cupped her cheek with his palm, the calluses from his bow rough against her skin. He looked at her steadily for a long moment, a furrow etched deep between his brows, as if he were trying to find evidence of something in the arch of her eyebrow or the line of her cheekbone. Not so long ago, the prospect of holding herself still for long enough to let anyone study her would have horrified her. Now, Natasha braced herself, resisting the sudden, shockingly powerful impulse to close her eyes or, worse, to lean into his touch.

She took a deep breath. "What?"

"Well, I'd offer to let you punch me in the face and work it out of your system, but there's nothing stopping you from doing that anyway, so." The expression on his face was sardonic, wry, the kind that Coulson had been able to do so well, but the look in his eyes was openly worried. "You could just tell me."

He hadn't taken his hand away from her face, and even with the heat coming from the open fire, Clint's skin was hot against hers. For a dizzying moment, Natasha felt as if she were back on the helicarrier, watching another kind of anger rage behind a wall of glass, telling her all the things she'd only ever told to Clint because she'd trusted him. She dug her fingers into the comforting weave of the sofa, and blinked, and when she came back to herself, Clint was still there. Maybe, she thought, it wasn't possible to trust only when you knew you couldn't ever be hurt; maybe she'd never be able to parse Clint like she could an assignment, break him down into his constituent parts and figure out what has been caused when, but she could still have this.

"Yes," she said, and leaned in to press her lips to his.

Clint's lips were smooth and dry, and for a moment he didn't move against her. Still, Natasha knew him, knew them, and she didn't think she'd miscalculated—was proved right when he made a low noise in the back of his throat and his hand moved to tangle in the curls at the nape of her neck. Clint's kiss was focused and thorough and careful; it was all the things she liked about him, because Natasha knew that he was kissing her, and not someone she was pretending to be. He knew all the worst things about her, and Clint still chose to be there with her.

She felt her breath catch, and she reached out to rest one hand against his chest. Natasha could feel his skin warm through the worn cotton, the steady, lulling beat of his heart—much steadier than hers, which was keeping a syncopated rhythm in time with the racing of her thoughts. This —they—mattered to her in ways she'd never fully realised, and the blanket tangled awkwardly around her legs as she moved closer to him. She licked into his mouth, kicked her legs finally free of the fabric so that she could straddle Clint's lap; his fingertips grazed against her forearm, the small of her back, and Natasha shivered.

There was a beat of silence when the kiss finally ended, and then Clint said, "Really? You were getting all worked up about me? That's a hell of an ego boost, Nat." His tone was teasing, but there was still a faint worry shading his face.

Natasha rested her forehead against his. She liked the feeling of her skin against his. "I can still punch you," she said, but there was a chance that her threat was neutralised by the helpless way she was smiling. This was nothing we were ever trained for, she remembered telling Clint, and it wasn't—but maybe there were some things that she had to learn for herself. She wasn't so surprised to find that she welcomed the thought.

"Yeah, but I—"

"You remember," she said abruptly, cutting him off, "when you asked me if I knew what it was like to be unmade."

"Yes," Clint said. He pulled back a little, wariness written in the sudden tension in his spine and the line of his mouth.

"I know what that's like." She took a breath. "I also know what it's like to be remade. To remake yourself."

For a moment, Clint looked startled, and then he clearly saw something in Natasha's face—even she didn't know what—that made him smile, broad and brilliant, lighting him up. "You can do that, huh?"

"Apparently," she said dryly, but she allowed herself a small, tentative smile in return.

Clint took her hand in his and tangled their fingers together, one of his fingers grazing warm against her lifeline. "I didn't think people like us got to do that."

"That?"

"Be this." He shrugged. "Have this."

"We don't," Natasha said, matter-of-fact, and tightened her grip on Clint's hand. "But we take it anyway."