Actions

Work Header

Such Lost Creatures

Work Text:

Natasha notices the plant as soon as she enters the room but doesn’t say anything. She’s got a stack of paperwork for Clint to sign off on and Fury is breathing fire, threatening to ground him if he doesn’t get it done within the next twenty-four hours. Natasha isn’t leaving anything to chance, seeing as she only just got in the field, herself. If it takes her playing errand girl to make that happen, she’s willing to do anything. Even watching over Clint while he signs off on the parts of her evaluations that he’s been in charge of.

She sits next to him on the bed while he laboriously goes through each one, signing his awkward scrawl at every X. Her eyes keep straying to the plant on the chair. Not the desk, where she would have put it. No, it sits on the chair as if it’s the special guest, waiting to be introduced.

It’s too much and she finally has to ask, “Where did you find a plant on the helicarrier?”

“Dr. Tren thinks it’ll be good for me.”

“Because it will add to the air quality?”

He glares at her, his lips pursed into a tight frown that tells her, without any words, that he wishes she wouldn’t pursue this conversation topic. Normally, she would respect his boundaries, but she’s discovering just how much she can learn if she’s persistent and pushes gently at these lines they’ve laid out for each other, on constant watch for anything that might truly be off-limits so that he doesn’t cut her off completely.

This seems fair game so she presses with the other questions that have been swirling through her head. “What sort of plant is it?”

“Dunno.”

“How often do you have to feed it?”

His eyes are stormy as he goes back to the paperwork. “Every day. If I don’t, it’ll die.”

“And that would be a bad thing?” Because he doesn’t seem happy about it. She’s always been told that flowers are something people give to other people when they want to impress them. It’s supposed to be a happy event, receiving a living thing in a pot.

Suddenly, this is dangerous ground as he throws the pen across the room. It hits the off-white wall, bouncing off the metal with a soft ping. “Don’t you like to eat everyday?”

She shrugs. While there are layers of answer to that question, she understands where he’s going with the question. “Nutrition is important.”

“So is attention.” With a sigh, he sits the paperwork aside and wipes at his face with both hands before leaning his elbows on his knees. “I have a problem with commitment. It stems from abandonment issues that go all the way back to when I was a kid. Fury thinks it’s starting to get in the way of how I do the job.”

Natasha feels like she’s sitting in on one of his therapy session and he’s reading the notes in his file back to her, word for word. Seeing as she would never push this deep, she’s confused as to why this is important. There doesn’t seem to be a connection between his issues and the forlorn plant but she knows he’s going somewhere important with this because he’s looking at her knees. Any other time, he’ll look her in the eyes but when they sit like this, talking about things he wants her to understand, he stares at her knees.

Even still, she is loathe to touch this subject, even with what sounds like permission. Instead, she goes back to the original question. “What happens if it dies?”

“I get a new one. It starts all over again until I can keep a damn plant alive for a year.”

“A year? Then what?”

He stares at her from the corner of his eye. “Then I get a pet.”

“A pet? Like... a dog?”

“Or a cat.”

“You don’t seem like a cat person.” As she says that, she shivers. For the life of her, she’s not sure why the image of him sliding his hand down her spine and her arching her back for him suddenly springs to mind. The purr of contentment is thick in the back of her throat as if his hand had only just lifted off her skin.

“Ridiculous,” she murmurs as she tries to push aside a vision so obviously absurd but he takes it personally.

“It’s not ridiculous.” He’s off the bed, making a lap around the room. There’s nothing but the bed, the desk and the chair to get in his way and he’s got a pattern. The same pattern he always takes when he’s irritated. “It’s going to help get my mind in the right place. It’s important.”

Natasha lets him walk off the obvious irritation. He keeps shooting her glances as if he expects her to make him talk more but she’s content to let him wind his way back down to normal. When his shoulders finally lose their tension, she knows they’re back to whatever common ground they’ve found together.

“They have pudding in the mess.”

And just like that, he’s smiling at her as if she’s offered him a pile of gold. To Clint, pudding might as well be a treasure. It’s something that harkens back to his childhood. My mom used to make us pudding every Saturday night. The good kind that you make over the stove. Not this stuff that they have now that you whip together some milk and some stuff in a box and BAM, you have pudding. No, she made us the good kind.

Pudding is a sacred event for Clint Barton. Just like baseball games (he’s a Red Sox fan and hates that she’s chosen the Yankees as her team to root for during the incredibly long season) and fixing his car. The fact that she knows these are special for him makes her special. It’s a strange feeling, one she never thought she’d ever feel. Because he’s shared those with her, she’s shared ballet (both watching and performing because each is special to her in a different and unique way) and pirozhki.

He puts his hand out and she takes it, allowing him to pull her to her feet. The conversation still feels incomplete but she’s not sure how to end it so they can have pudding with only good feelings between them. When he tries to pull her toward the door, she doesn’t move.

“I like you the way you are,” she says when he gives her a quizzical look.

His eyebrows lower over eyes that are stormy once again but he lets the mood pass over him instead of dwelling on it. “And I like you, Romanov. Let’s just leave it at that before this becomes a sobfest and we have to go find a chick flick and some tissues.”

The sarcasm stabilizes the situation better than anything else she can think of and she accepts it with a wry smile. This time, she lets him pull her out of the room.

***

Three days later, she knocks on Clint’s door just because she’s been thinking about the plant. She’s not sure why but she wants to see if the experiment is working. In fact, she wants him to succeed so much that she’s willing to offer to water it herself if he’s having trouble remembering.

“It’s just a plant,” she mumbles to herself. It’s a stupid reason for a visit. Even stupider reason to be up nights, tossing and turning as she works through how a plant is going to help Clint’s headspace clear up.

They’re two peas in a pod when it comes to messed up childhoods. Who is Dr. Tren to imply that Clint is broken just because his wasn’t perfect? While she’s never had much call to talk to the man, she’s pretty sure she doesn’t like him at all. She so angry with the doctor, she doesn’t dare walk anywhere near sick bay for fear that she might run into the man.

“Hey.” Clint leans against the doorjamb, his hands stuffed into the pockets of worn jeans. He’s got his boots on. Usually, when Clint is off-duty, he’s in his stocking feet. Shoes mean he’s got a place he needs to be. Boots mean either business or a trip to the SHIELD garage on the mainland for a visit with Maggie.

“Am I interrupting?”

“Thought about going for a drive. You wanna come?”

Her smile is wide as she nods her head. When she was first introduced to Maggie, she’d had some moments of jealousy. Funny how a car could get between her and Clint when precious little else could. But she understands the car means so many things to Clint. Freedom, for one. From his past and, at times, from his present. He finds SHIELD’s rules frustrating and oppressive where she finds the boundaries soothing.

She can count the number of invitations he’s given over the year they’ve known each other on one hand. Each and every one is special because she never knows if it will be the last. If he’ll decide that it’s too much bother to have her along when he has the chance at a small moment of the freedom his life lacks.

The quinjet is the only aircraft trying to leave the helicarrier so they’re in the air in minutes. Neither one of them like coming up with small talk so it surprises her when he suddenly asks, “How’s your day been?”

“Good.” She eyes him carefully before settling back in her seat. For these trips, being his co-pilot is relatively easy as he knows exactly where he’s going and doesn’t need a second set of eyes to verify his readings. Since he’s trying, she decides to play along. “Fury is talking about letting me take point on missions soon. No more sitting in the background. I can be real SHIELD instead of the Russian defector no one trusts.”

“People around here don’t trust easily. It has nothing to do with who you are or where you’re from.” He looked at her out of the corner of his eye, a smile tugging at his lips. “Besides, you deserve it. You’ve been here long enough to earn Fury’s trust and you’re the best at your given skillset. He’s been an idiot to hold you back this long.”

After a moment of silence, she realizes it’s her turn to ask a question. “How’s the plant?”

His jaw clenches together for a brief moment. “It died.”

“Did you forget to water it?”

“No.” She thinks he’s going to leave off with the explanation there but he takes a deep breath and shakes his head slightly, as if he’s getting rid of a particular bad memory. “I watered it too much. Dr. Tren says I was overcompensating.”

“Is he a botanist now?” Even though he doesn’t look upset, she still feels angry for his sake. “Would you like me to come water it for you?”

That earns her a small chuckle. “No, I think I’ve figured it out. I should be good to go now.”

It worries her that something important is wrapped up in something so trivial as a plant. While she’s debated actually asking the questions, knowing she’s nudging at things that he might well not want to answer, Still, she wants to know if he’ll let her this close or if it’s still closed off to her.

“Do you still feel abandoned?”

“What?”

She glances over, concerned that he’s using the question to veer her away from her original intent but he looks legitimately confused. “The first day with the plant. You said you had abandonment issues. Currently, or just in the past?”

“Well... mostly in the past.” When he begins to struggle to find words for the concepts he’s been told to work through, she looks away. “But I still wait for people to leave me now. I guess I don’t give them enough credit. It just feels better to be the first to leave.”

“Before they can hurt you. Easier to hurt than to be hurt.”

His snort of laughter is loud in her ear thanks to the headset even though she doesn’t think it was intended to be. “Have you been listening in?”

The intensity of her frown wipes the smile off his face. “I would never do that.”

“Okay, okay. It just sounds a lot like something I said to Dr. Tren last week, is all.” Clint reaches out to smooth a hand against her arm, physically smoothing over his words. With anyone else, she would do her best to evade the touch but it feels right that he’s always assumed he could touch her. That she wouldn’t make him suffer for daring to try. Now, it helps even out her blood pressure as she struggles not to demand he turn around so she can physically hurt Dr. Tren the way the man has mentally hurt Clint.

“It’s how... how I... feel.” A light sweat breaks out on her forehead as she struggles to share the truth with him. “I’ve never thought of it as an abandonment issue, though. I guess that’s the difference between the two of us.”

“What is?”

“You let people in but leave them behind. I don’t let people in.” The truth of the words makes her teeth ache. A sharp pain in her chest makes her conscious that she’s been holding her breath, waiting for him to retort back that she couldn’t be more wrong.

But he’s just nodding, his face drawn into a thoughtful gaze as he looks out the window, surveying a vast blanket of blue. “You should get a plant.”

The laughter bubbles up to the surface as she struggles not to let it turn hysterical. Trust Clint to take a deep conversation and turn it on its ear.

He’s dead serious, though. “Let it in, Tasha. Give it a home and see if it doesn’t get easier to do the same thing with a human being.”

“Like you?” She means for the words to wound but he gives her a grin that ends the conversation there because she’s afraid of where it might end up.

***

Almost as soon as they arrive back on base, Natasha finds herself submerged into mission personalities and protocols that seem foreign in ways she isn’t prepared to deal with alone. Suddenly, there’s a team behind her but they’re just a wall of people designed to keep out external interference. In the heat of battle, they became their own sort of interference. She was taught to submerge into a role but her team is always wanting to know how Natasha is faring when Natasha is not supposed to be present.

But even worse than the struggle of the mission is the attempts of this new team to pull her into community life. This is a different sort of breaking as she tries to figure out what they want from her, attempting to find the right disguise that looks like a Natasha who understands frivolous conversation and cares about their individual lives. So many times she finds herself merely shutting down and standing in the middle of a room without realizing how she got there. It’s disturbing for a person, as trained as she is, to get lost in her own life.

One episode is nipped in the bud when Clint captures her hand in his. At first, she attempts to pull away from him, still caught up in the haze of confusion. “Tasha,” he barks, pulling her back to herself.

“Was I supposed to be meeting you somewhere?”

He shakes his head but begins pulling her toward an exit she’d known was there but knew she couldn’t take. It leads to the roof, his domain. Her trips here are sporadic and special, but only when invited.

“Sit,” he instructs, pointing to a blanket spread out as if he was expecting guests. She thinks about declining just to prove (mostly to herself) that she doesn’t need this intimacy. It’s so dark that she can’t see anything but she puts her hands in front of her face just to prove it. Carefully, oh so carefully, she sinks down onto the worn cotton and waits.

The silence becomes a welcome distraction as she tries not to think too much. All the stress of entertaining just wafts away as she takes her first breath of the night. There is no one here she needs to talk to. No one that needs to be smiled at in reassurance that she’s a friendly creature. All the smoke and mirrors she’s had to erect are nothing against the void of the night sky.

“Better?”

She tries not to jump as he lands beside her, a cool bottle pressed against her arm. Even though she has no idea what it is, she takes a long drink of it anyway.

“This is soda.”

“Ah, your powers of deduction never fail to amaze me,” comes his sarcastic reply.

“It’s just that I figured you’d try to ply me with alcohol.”

“For what purpose?” He leans back and she follows suit, balancing her weight on her elbows as she stares up at a sky suddenly awash with stars. “You’d only mock me for my choice in beer. Besides, you need the sugar. You were as white as a sheet down there.”

In the darkness, she can imagine he isn’t there. The warmth pressed against one side can be written off completely so that she’s alone, drinking a cold beverage that she never would have picked on her own. “They want me to be so many different people, all at one time, “ she tells the stars, seeking their counsel.

“You only ever have to give them yourself.”

“And what if that isn’t good enough?”

“Then they don’t deserve you.”

She doesn’t offer up a retort, only rolls the words around in her head until the soda is finished and she’s curled up against his side as the stars begin to fade.

One conversation doesn’t solve all her problems. In fact, trouble starts to haunt her until the only peace she has is when he pulls her out of the path of her demons. On one particularly bad day, he hauls her into a quinjet (she prowls the length instead of co-piloting as she struggles not to let the claustrophobia get the best of her) and then hands her a set of keys when they land.

“Those are Maggie’s.”

He only nods, pushing the keys into her hand. The engine purrs as she finally works up the courage to get in and give over to her hypnotic engine and the smooth road that leads to nowhere and everywhere, all at once.

She picks a spot to pull over and leans forward to pillow her forehead on the steering wheel. The cool leather feels good against her skin, as if she’s pulling on her SHIELD uniform. “Why are we friends, Clint?”

“Because we understand the ghosts we see in the other’s eyes.”

It’s true and so infinitely sad that she gives in to the dry sobs that threaten to choke her. He lets her get it all out before handing her a sad-looking tissue. There’s nothing to wipe away but she worries the soft material between her fingers as she finally looks at him.

His expression is guarded, as if he’s not sure if she’s going to burst into actual tears or not. He should know by now that she only cries when she’s in character. Not that she’s sure if she’s a character or Natasha. Or a mix of both. This was so much easier to handle when she was cold. In character or out, she was only one temperature and she always knew where she stood with her handlers and the other girls.

Now, she has to deal with looks like this from Clint. “I’m not going to cry.”

“I almost wish you would.”

“Have you killed the plant yet?”

Now it’s his turn to look uncomfortable. “What’s your obsession with my plant?”

She’s wondered that herself. When her brain isn’t finding angles and listening for tell-tale signs of weakness, she spends a lot of time considering Clint’s plant. Not that she’s worried about it’s life expectancy but she knows it’s tied into whatever Clint feels is a failing and she worries. Failings are weakness. Weakness will get them killed faster than anything else will in their jobs. Since he’s the strongest man she knows, it’s interesting to find something that he feels is wrong.

So she counters with a question of her own. “What’s your obsession with the plant?”

“It’s teaching me how to stick to a relationship.”

“Last I knew, relationships were about two people communicating. Have you been talking to the plant?” She smirks at him because she knows he has, just from how dull red his ears are turning. “Does it talk back to you?”

“Shut up.”

“I’m being completely serious. What sorts of things do you have in common? Does it know that you’re favorite color isn’t black like you always tell people. That it is, in fact, purple? And that Maggie might be black now but that’s only because you’ve never found the right shade of purple to paint her?” She let her forehead fall against the steering wheel again as it grew too hard to watch his face close up. If poking at him didn’t feel so right, she might feel bad about it.

Instead of digging in too deep, she lets him have some slack and begins poking at herself. “Maybe I should get a plant. I can tell it all about how much I miss my home. Not the people who,” but she can’t finish that sentence about her past. She can never finish that sentence. Instead, she let’s the silence talk for her and carries on with the second part as if there wasn’t a break, “but the actual hills I remember running across as a child. My nightmares aren’t filled with the people I’ve killed or will kill. My nightmares are filled with the landscape that was taken from me.”

His hand smooths over her skin at her hairline, tracing circles that are meant to be calming but only remind her that he doesn’t have any answers. For a moment, she thinks about pulling away but something keeps her still as she lets him give the only comfort she’s ever allowed.

“Does it help?” she asks as she turns just enough to be able to see him again. There’s no longer any sarcasm in her voice, only a heavy sort of desperation. “Does a plant help?”

“No.” His own voice is hollow as his talented fingers continue their pressure. “I don’t think Dr. Tren knows what he’s talking about. I was... well, I was hoping there was a quick fix but I doubt there’s any sort of fix.”

“You’ve never abandoned me. Not once.”

His eyes slide away from her steadfast gaze. “Sure I have. I abandon you all the time.”

“What?”

“Fury’s been trying to get me on your team since I brought you in. He thinks we’d make a good team.”

“We do. All the time, we-”

“Like an actual team, Tasha. Just you and me. Like Carter and Nevins. No one else. Not all the time. He doesn’t think you need a full team watching your back.”

The words sink in first. Then comes the meanings, with all their layers and emotions. It would be easier to fall in and out of a character without so many people staring at her, watching for the first sign that she’s grown unstable and needs to be extracted to a padded cell. She trusts herself around Clint, more than anyone else she’s ever met. It will take time for the partnership to become flawless but all good things take dedication.

She’s unsure where his hesitation is coming from, though. “Are you afraid I’m not enough?”

“No. I’m afraid that I’m not enough.”

There are dots that she should be connecting through all these conversations but she’s not sure where to start or where to go next. It’s a complex web that she thinks she understands. And what she understands makes her angry enough to throw his arm away from her.

“If you keep telling yourself you’re going to leave, you will. It’s a sure bet, Clint. If you tell yourself that I won’t want you around, I won’t, just for the fact that you’re overthinking everything. Nothing is cut and dry in our life. Nothing is black and white. If you want a relationship that is one or the other, you need to quit and find a job arranging flowers. I hear a job like that has a great benefits and very little chance at overtime.”

His laughter fills the car, full of such ease and humor that she wonders if she’d actually said the words out loud. “Where in the world did you come up with that job?”

Now it’s her turn to blush. “I might have visited a florist looking for a plant. It was hard not to overhear the conversation behind the counter.”

“Good benefits, huh?”

“I hate you.”

“You love me.” He dares her to say otherwise with eyes that have warmed up considerably more than they were when they first got in the car.

“Love... what a superficial and trite word. What does it mean, anyway? I’d rather be complex and deep, with layers of meaning for each person that I come across. Why should I attribute just one word to them? It lacks respect for you as my friend to say that I feel one thing for you at a time. It’s so childlike to think that we can’t have depth.”

The minute the words are out of her mouth, she wants to take them back. His expression becomes guarded once again but it’s not as cold as she expected. Instead, he’s looking at her like he’s trying to figure out the meaning behind her words.

Before he can ask, she struggles for an explanation. “Love gives up too easy. It’s what children feel for each other. They fall in and out of love depending on the day of the week or weather outside. I want something that stands the test of time.”

“So no plant for you?”

Natasha reaches out to stroke the back of her hand down his cheek. “What happens if you were to get sick or find yourself out of town for more than a few days? Your plant would die, no matter how hard you tried to keep it alive. Love is like that. They try to teach us that working at it is going to make it better. Instead, it just makes everyone tired.”

“Good to know.”

She starts the car and refuses to look at him for the rest of the trip back to the waiting quinjet.

***

On her next mission, there are only three other people on the team. It’s an easy job with a simple target and a mark that falls for a smile or two before handing over the intel. In fact, it’s so easy she feels dirty.

First thing she does when she gets back to base it to head for the shower. Under the pulsing water, she realizes that the mark on this mission reminded her of Clint. Not in physical appearance although there was something around the eyes that had given her pause. It was the way he’d expected something from her and ended up getting something completely different. After wasting an hour's worth of water, she goes looking for Clint.

It takes her awhile but she finally finds him in the gym, sparring with Coulson. She watches the two of them, marveling at how well they move together. It’s something she and Clint have never done. Their skillset always seems to be different but, watching these two now, she wonders if that is really true. Her arms ache to be the one to counter and punch in tandem with him.

Coulson notices her first and pulls back, signally that he is done. “I heard you had a clean mission.”

“If you could call it that. It was a little too easy, if you ask me.”

“It’s the easy ones that make or break agents around here.”

“I’ll take that as good advice. Thanks.”

He doesn’t try to keep the conversation going past these pleasantries, stepping away when it becomes more than obvious she isn’t there to talk to him. The man she does want to talk to seems intent on drinking water, as if he needs all his concentration to keep from dribbling it down his chin.

When the silence becomes painful, Natasha decides to give up on any hope of conversation coming easy. Instead, she grabs a water bottle of her own and begins to see if she can drink water for as long as it appears that Clint can.

Her bottle is nearly empty when she stops drinking and sends it, with an accuracy fostered by his tutelage, at his head. At the last minute, he ducks and it clatters uselessly against the wall. When his own empty bottle is directed at her, she lets it hit her shoulder (the intended target) and bounce off. “Feel better?”

“Much,” comes his rumbled reply. “Evans says you looked haunted by the end of this one.”

She shrugs, leaning back against the ropes in a nonchalant fashion. “It wasn’t what I thought it would be.”

"How did you think it would be?"

“Look, if you’re going to give me the third degree, could we at least get a workout at the same time?”

This earns her an appraising look. “You want to spar?”

“Wouldn’t have brought it up if I didn’t.”

“Look, Tasha, about-”

“Hit me first, Clint. Make it a good one. I’m not talking otherwise.”

It takes nearly fifty attempts before he finally connects. While his style of fighting isn’t as elegant as some she’d seen, he has an excellent grasp of many different forms of martial arts and has fused them into a fighting style that’s very singular. Very Clint.

“Show me that thing you do with-”

“No,” he interrupts, reaching for one of the full water bottles that had been restocked while they were otherwise engaged. “I get a question. Remember? I want to know why this one was hard for you.”

“Because I had to hurt him like I keep hurting you. When he was least expecting it, I went fast and deep.”

“Like you do with me? What does that mean?”

Her shirt is soaked through with sweat so it doesn’t matter when she pulls it off to wipe at the steady stream coming from her hairline. He only acknowledges her state of undress with a quick glance before returning his gaze to her eyes.

“I keep hurting you. I don’t mean to. It just happens. I seem to say all the wrong things.”

“And you think I’m... what? Angry with you? Upset? Crying every night into the dirt of my plant because you’ve hurt my feelings?”

That warrants her first smile of the evening. “Is it still alive?”

“Of course not. You knew I would kill it.”

“I could water it for you when you’re-”

This time the water bottle goes flying at the wall over her shoulder. “You can’t water my damn plant, Romanov. Will you just let it drop?”

“But I can help.”

She watches as he takes a few steps away from her before deciding against it and turning back around. He looks angry but it isn’t directed at her. If anything, he looks angry at himself. She likes that even less than if he’d been angry with her. At least she knows how to hurt his enemies when they are external.

“You can’t help. You’re the plant. Don’t you get it? After all this time, haven’t you figured out that I’m trying to keep the damn thing alive so that I might have a shot at a real relationship with you?”

“So it started talking to you, did it?”

“What?”

“The plant. It must be talking to you. That’s the only way to have a relationship. Two people in the same headspace, having a conversation. That’s how a relationship starts. It continues when the two people stay in the same headspace and refuse to leave. They don’t even have that option because the other will hunt them down if they leave. They’re so bound up in each other that they don’t know where their breath starts and the other person’s breath ends.”

He stalks toward her as she talks, looming over her as she glares up at him. Her shirt is ripped out of her hands before she can stop him, thrown to the side. His other hand is up and tangled in her hair so that she can’t pull away even if she’d wanted to.

“Like this?”

They aren’t kissing but it’s a near thing. She can’t take a breath without it having come from his mouth. Suddenly, she’s dizzy with expectation. They’ve been dancing around this sort of physical intimacy since they met, their fear of each other still too new to just fall into it easily. All they’ve had were casual kisses that ended almost as soon as they begin or light touches that barely graze the skin. Will he? Won’t he? She sees the same questions in his eyes from time to time as they continue to chart out their relationship. Should they stop at friendship or take it further? And what will become of their closeness if true physical intimacy doesn’t work for them? It would be more comforting if one of them had answers instead of just the infernal quest.

In this position, she can feel him on every inch of her body as he crowds her against the ropes of the ring. If there’d been a wall there, it would have been much easier to crowd him back but she’s at the mercy of her surroundings. Instead, she looks for other ways to give as good as she’s getting. She clutches at one of his hips, drawing him toward her for support as much as to position him closer to the heat between her legs. One of his legs slides between hers, a delightful friction that causes her to groan against his lips. Her other hand seeks the warm skin of his back underneath his shirt, a collection of textures for her to explore as she is pulled snug against him.

“I won’t let you leave.” As she whispers the words, she tilts her head to the side, instinctively putting herself in the best position if he decides to complete this game of theirs. As if testing her, he tries to back away but she’s too quick for him. Instead, she covers his lips with a kiss that has him pressing against her again.

He breaks away so that he can touch the skin of her cheek with his lips. When she lowers her eyelids, his movements become sound and shadow, his words merely breath against her skin as he ask, “What if you leave me?”

“Then you’ll run after me. You’ll remind me of my promise.”

“What if you’re tired of me?”

“Will you ever get tired of me?”

“Never.” The word makes the hair over her ear flutter so that her whole body spasms from the gentle movement. He does it again and she’s afraid this might be her breaking point. This might be where she comes so undone that she’ll have to search for an hour to find all the pieces of her quaking body.

Her leg wraps around his and she uses his suddenly indrawn breath to move one of her hands up to his shoulder where she can get a better grip to draw him closer to her. His head falls to her shoulder in a show of surrender. Instead of lording it over him, she holds him there. His heartbeat is under her hand and her heartbeat is in her ears. As if by some strange command, they slowly begin to beat to the same tempo; a bit too fast, but steady and sure all the same.

“This isn’t love,” she reminds him. “This is something timeless. There isn’t any room for doubt because there is no black and white for us to muddy. You save me and I save you.”

“This won’t be easy.”

“None of the great things are.”

There’s the sound of someone clearing their throat right behind them. Without moving, Clint declares, “I want in, sir. I’ll take the position.”

“Thought you would, Barton. Glad you finally came around to see what was in front of your face all this time.”

“I was too busy taking care of a plant, sir. On your orders, if I remember correctly.”

Natasha’s having a hard time keeping a straight face but it’s okay because she’s pressed into his shoulder now, cradled against him as he straightens.

“You have my permission to throw the damn thing out.”

“Hallelujah,” Natasha shouts, no sarcasm coloring her words.

***

“Are you going to get a pet now?”

“What?” Clint rolls over to his side so he can see her better, his head propped up on his hand. His hair is sticking up in clumps; she’s almost surprised he still has hair on his head as much as she grabbed at it. It’s a good look on him.

She traces a finger down his cheek, following the line of a scar so faint that she wonders if he remembered how he got it. “You said you had to move on to a pet once you kept the plant alive for a year.”

“But I didn’t keep it alive that long.”

She pushes at his shoulder until he gives in and rolls to his back. She follows, moving astride his hips. When he begins to protest that it’s too early in the morning for such antics a second time, she silences him with a finger against his lips. “Too bad. I think you’d look cute with a cat curled up in your arms.”

“Then there wouldn’t be any room for you.”

For his audacity, he earns a nip of her teeth against the skin of his jaw. “I do take up a lot of room. But if you pet me just right, I might just purr.”

“Promise?” She doesn’t bother answering, just gives him a smile so ripe with promise that his eyes blur at the realization of what she’s offering. “Good enough for me.”