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And Where It Lands

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The place Clint knows is an under the table affair, run out of the back room of a Russian restaurant that he and Natasha worked back in the early days. It’s mob connected and there’s a not insignificant chance that there’ll be at least one patron who wants to put a bullet into Clint’s brain. But he’s a got specific set of needs for what he wants that he’s not going to have met at a brightly lit shop in a strip mall.

He blindfolds Bruce before they leave the tower, kisses him hard and then slaps him with enough force to leave behind five radiating red marks on his cheek. Bruce rocks against the car and then he’s calmer. He spends the drive with his head cocked toward the passenger window and his hands upturned on his lap.

Bruce doesn’t know where they’re going or what they’re going toward. The depth of this thing they have has reached a kind of bottomless well of what they both want. Sometimes Clint wonders how blurry the line is getting between Bruce not wanting to say no and Bruce finding his peace in not being able to. Clint can’t pretend that’s not in the back of his head as he parks, but this isn’t a test.

It’s a little more flatly possessive than that.

“Once we get inside,” Clint says, while the engine ticks softly in the sudden quiet. “You won’t have an out. This is your chance.”

There isn’t hesitation. Bruce nods.

The thing about their thing -- and Clint has never yet come up with words that encapsulate it the way he wants -- is that he has to trust Bruce’s yeses and noes. His own hesitation is the only thing that’s ever come close to fucking them up before, and Clint will not go back to that place again.

He pulls Bruce out of the car like he would a target, snaps cuffs on his wrists, and pushes him across the parking lot. There’s a buzzing, flickering orange sodium light over the back door with a sign on it in Russian that Clint can only half make out. He’s lost the habit of the language, since Nat made a conscious shift to thinking of herself as a SHIELD agent rather than a defected Red Room operative.

Clint knocks. A gravel tinged voice yells, “Who is it?” in Russian.

The Black Widow’s hawk,” Clint answers. And the door unlocks.

The place’s legal owner -- who exists somewhere between informant and operative -- is leaning against the arched doorway to the kitchen. He’s tall and rawboned, heavy set, with a prominent bulge in his nose from at least three different breaks. He eyes Clint with one eyebrow raised, skimming his gaze over Bruce. His top lip curls into a thin, snarled smile.

She keeps weird company, the Widow,” he says. “Go on. You’re expected.

There’s another door to the left, thick and scarred, with more Russian carved into the face. Nat told him, frowning at the inadequacy of her own explanation, that it was a benediction of sorts. She shrugged, and held held her empty palms upward and said, “They have a thing about tattoos,” and that was what curled around the base of Clint’s skull when he got the idea for what he wanted out of Bruce. A thing. Clint gets things.

Cline opens the door and it squeaks on heavy brass hinges. Bruce cocks his head at the sound; over the top fold of the blindfold Clint can see his brow drawn down in confusion. He wonders if Bruce, who spent so many years in South America and India, can identify the smells coming out of the kitchen or if he’s as unanchored as Clint wants him to be.

“Do you understand?” Clint asks quietly.

Bruce hesitantly shakes his head. “I can’t. I don’t know the language.”

Clint cups Bruce’s cheek in his hand for a moment, stroking his thumb over the corner of Bruce’s mouth. Then he slaps him. “You don’t have to.”

He pushes Bruce over the threshold and closes the door firmly behind them.

The space is utterly innocuous; wood paneled walls, old and thick carpet. The furnishings are similarly heavy, like it would take a half a dozen strong grandsons to move anything heavier than a chair. There’s an unlit fireplace, with a scattering of mismatched, old tokens on top. A set of nesting dolls in a neat row, and a cup that looks like it’s made from china.

It’s clean, though, and in the center of the room there’s a metal table with the tools laid neatly out. A tall, flexible lamp hovers over it like a protective mother. Beside them both is an old man in dark trousers and a neat, faded shirt. His sleeves are pushed up to his elbows and old tattoos crawl down his skin, around his wrists and over the back of his hands in tendrils that wrap around his knuckles. They show above his collar, too.

The Widow has odd friends with odd requests,” he says. Bruce, startled at the voice, flinches.

Clint grins flatly. “I’ve heard that before. You heard the terms?”

Yes.” The man nods. “Sit him down.”

He knows what this looks like to the artist, with forty years of tattoos under his belt and a bone deep knowledge of what it means to have your past indelible on your skin. Clint knows that without the context of what he and Bruce are, and what they do, that it looks like something else. Unwanted and God only knows whether undeserved or not. An act of force, to forever put someone on their knees.

Which isn’t entirely wrong, Clint can admit to himself. Not entirely.

“Sit.” He shoves Bruce down into the chair.

The man appraises Bruce, his blindfold and bound hands, with the same mild disinterest and amusement with which the owner did. Clint supposes it’s of no particular note for them to have someone brought into the room like this. It is in no small part why he want to Nat and asked her to cash in one of the many debts and favors that bind them together.

Clint turns a second chair around backwards and slings himself over it. Bruce sits very still, his head bowed down a little and his shoulders rolled in. There are spots of color high on his cheeks that belay the fear into something else. Bruce has a thousand fine gradients of describing and experiencing pain, and so long as Clint is there, he always gets that flush in his face.

Turn the gun on,” Clint requests.

The man chuckles, and does.

At the low, buzzed hum of the needle, Bruce sucks in a hard breath.

“Got it yet?” Clint asks, pushing his fingers into Bruce’s hair and curling them into a fist. He pulls Bruce’s head back with a rough jerk, lengthening the line of his throat until it’s taut and stretched and Clint can see the half-frantic bob of his adam’s apple.

“It’s a tattoo gun,” Bruce says. “I think.”

Clint lets go of his hair with a rough shove, sending Bruce pitched forward so that he has to step his foot out against the floor to keep from falling over. His cuffed hands, caught between his spine and the back of the chair, flex and flail like the tentacles of an octopus. The cuffs are on tight, and they won’t give.

“Take your right shoe and sock off,” Clint says.

There’s the most fractional of pauses between Clint speaking and Bruce acting. It’s less than a heartbeat, where the expression on his face is so closely aligned with how he looks when he’s coming with needles in his skin that Clint is grateful for the back of the chair hiding his cock straining against his pants.

Bruce toes off his shoe with the other foot, then his sock. The man kicks them both away and grabs Bruce’s knee, hauling his foot up onto a stool set at the proper height for the man to do his work. He sets the gun down for a moment to put on a pair of glasses, plastic framed and thickly lensed, that perch on the end of his nose.

Tell your boy if he kicks me it’ll be his cock next,” he says, picking up a razor and shaving off the sparse hair on top of Bruce’s foot with a few quick, practiced strokes.

Clint smirks. He thinks it would be impolitic to say Bruce probably wouldn’t mind.

The man studies Bruce’s empty foot for a moment, smoothing his thumb over the rises of his bones. This is, actually, some small act of trust on Clint’s part as well. He told Natasha what to relay to the man in terms of what he wants. The man doesn’t do mock ups to be examined and adjusted and approved. He does his designs and you take them or leave them. Clint is taking it, because he’ll let Clint sit there and watch with savage voyeurism. He’ll tattoo someone blinded and handcuffed.

When the man picks the gun back up and turns it on, Bruce flinches again and turns his head toward Clint. The man presses his foot down onto the stool, dips the tip in ink and leans down.

“It’s going to hurt,” Clint says.

Then the man begins and something electric and stinging flushes through Bruce and he says, “I know.”

The room cycles down into the hum of the gun for Clint, and the sounds Bruce makes as the design slowly appears on his pale, pale skin. It’s all little gasps and short noises, and the way his face spasms in such pretty, pretty pain when the needles touches the skin where it it thinnest and the bones are closest to the air.

Clint folds his arms over the back of the chair and settles there, watching and not speaking. Bruce settles when he hears Clint’s voice, but Clint doesn’t particularly care if he’s settled or not for this. Bruce is marked as his in a thousand different tangible and intangible ways, but a tattoo has deliberation in it. A scar can be given a different story, whether it’s the thick line under his ribs from the afternoon when Clint needed to make a point about who could do what or the smaller, fainter lines high up on his inner thigh when they were finding their way back to each other.

But what emerges on Bruce’s skin has obvious, immediate, undeniable meaning. And it hurts Bruce to get it.

For his part, the man doesn’t acknowledge either of them once he’s begun. The only part he cares about is right in front of him. Finer sprays of lines appear at the corners of his eyes as he concentrates and his touch is heavy, certain, and unyielding. Clint imagines, for a split second, Bruce stretched out naked beneath that ungentle touch and has to swallow down something else impolitic in this room.

Besides, he reminds himself, they do have other lives.

An hour later the man sits back with a small, satisfied sigh and the turns the gun off. He wipes the last bits of excess ink off Bruce’s foot with a paper towel. His neoprene gloves snap when he removes them. “I am finished,” he says. “Do you like?”

It’s an arrow, lain along the path of the vein that goes to Bruce’s heart. It’s black and heavy, swollen and sore. Bruce is still gasping a little. “Yes,” he says, and finds the knot of the blindfold on the back of Bruce’s head. He shakes it lose and the fabric falls away and Bruce blinks at the sudden bright glare of the man’s working light.

He shakes his head and looks down at his foot. For a moment, it doesn’t click and then it does. Clint can read it in his posture and his breath and says, “Do you get it?”