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Fallout Patterns

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Chapter 1: Bomb in a Birdcage

            The thermonuclear blast wouldn’t kill you immediately, not unless you were in the epicenter of the weapon’s target. For most nuclear weapons, the 3km radius around the blast site would be nearly leveled and everything dead. Houses would be blown down, roads obliterated, bridges just rubble.  Within the 5km ring around the detonation, you have roughly a forty percent chance of surviving, but you will wish you didn’t. You will die, just not immediately. It’ll take a few hours, maybe a day or two at tops. You are likely blinded or badly injured or burned from the blast, collapsing buildings, and the brightness of the blast. None of your electronic equipment works, your water and food would be considered contaminated. You will die of your injuries or burns sooner than later, and if later, likely of acute radiation poisoning. There are likely widespread fires caused by the heat blast. Within the 8km ring, your chances of surviving the initial blast are much higher as long as you aren’t hurt by damaged buildings and the panicked crowds. You will also die of radiation poisoning most likely. Within the 11km ring, you are more likely to be injured than dead. But don’t worry, that’s coming soon.

            What will makes nuclear weapons so deadly is the fallout. Over the next seven days, the people in a 50km tract from the target site in whatever direction the wind is blowing will die of severe, acute radiation poisoning. They will begin to die as soon as exposure is reached as the cloud of fallout begins to move in their direction. The fallout will poison their land for up to fifteen years before it becomes livable again. The lethal stretch of fallout continues for 144 km from the explosion. Death will occur within a few days if you’re lucky. If you are unlucky, you will die, painfully, and slowly, over a period of two weeks. Up to 250kms from the detonation along the wind patterns, you will experience severe damage. Your immune system will never recover and your digestive system will be tortured. It won’t be the radiation that kills you directly, but you will die of bacterial infection or the common cold, things that shouldn’t kill you. Over 400 km away from the blast site, you will have mild nerve damage and your immune system will be damaged, though it’s likely to be temporary as long as you limit further exposure. At 400km, the environment is still unsafe for living for another two years.

            These are facts that Clint Barton carries with him. He has never seen a nuclear weapon explode and he’s glad for it. He’s worked against nuclear war and if he could abolish nuclear weapons, he would do so in a heartbeat. If you get him started, he will tell you how they’re imprecise weapons in a world that requires precision. He will tell you that they lack proportional response and they are no longer strategic weapons unless you want everyone to die, people who couldn’t possibly be involved in your conflict.

            But Clint Barton was a fan of a metaphor and he understood a metaphor when he saw it when he wakes up, alone, in Sofia, Bulgaria. He sat up in bed, rubbing his forehead and staring at the dented pillow and rumpled sheets next to him with a growing sense that things had gone unbelievably wrong.

            “Fuck,” he muttered under his breath. He slid out of bed without giving it a backwards glance. He didn’t need to call for her. He knew that she wasn’t there. He started the shower and stepped into it before the water heated up. Felt like punishment in the cold water but it helped to clear his head and who’s to say he didn’t deserve cold water right then?

            The mission had gone well on paper. He had covered her, sitting on top of the catherdral a few blocks away, sighting her down a rifle because it was too long of a distance for his bow and arrow and sometimes, he didn’t want people to know his signature. This was one of those ops. She had gone into the opera house precisely at 6:30. The curtains went up on the ballet at 7pm and she sat through the entire thing. He enjoyed the music through the mike disgusted as jewelry around her neck and Coulson enjoyed the ballet through the video that was sent back stateside. Afterwards, Natasha slipped into the afterparty and bought a drink for a soloist with the ballet, a beautiful girl with cheekbones that went on like her legs. She was the daughter of an Iranian nuclear physicist. The soloist knew that someone would be making contact with her regarding her father’s work and Natasha gave her the payment in exchange for a flashdrive with her father’s testimony recorded on it. If it was useful, then SHIELD’s second payment would be to extract him from Iran and put him into protective custody. That was not part of their job.

Natasha’s job was to sweeten the deal for the girl who was nervous as hell and was jabbering like a parakeet at the party. Clint listened to Natasha play the girl, soothing her and speaking ballet like she knew something about her. Back at the girl’s hotel room across from the opera house, still where Clint could watch them through the scope, the girl made the trade. Natasha tucked the flash drive into her bra and thanked the girl. She promised that she had not been tracked and the girl shyly asked if Natasha wanted to stay. It should have been surprising – their intel on Raina told them that she was straighter than one of Clint’s arrows—but it was Natasha and if someone was going switch sides for a night, he supposed she had the right idea: go big or go home. Natasha made her excuses, slipped onto the street, and Clint made sure she was well clear of the opera house before taking down his equipment, packing up, and meeting her back at their hotel room.

Clint Barton loved himself a clean mission. They’d be on a flight back to the US in the morning and not a single shot had been fired. People thought that he as a sniper was more violent, more prone to taking the shot because, they said, “it was easy, you’re really far away, you don’t have to watch them die.” It was a lie: he always watched them die if he had time. It was like a vigil and it kept his ledger balanced. And secondly, being a sniper was one hundred percent about being thrifty with his shots. He only took the shot when he knew he was going to make it and when it was absolutely necessary.  And Natasha was learning to like missions that didn’t involve her sleeping with anyone, undressing in any way shape or form, or killing anyone with any type of weapon including her thighs.

He barely got the words, “That went perfectly!” out of his mouth as he shut the door behind him before she had him pinned to the door. His instincts would have kicked in—eventually, right?—except before he could take the breath he needed to dump his stuff, reach his gun, elbow her, and whatever else he could do, her mouth closed against his and he stood there, dumbly, only vaguely aware that it was Natasha’s body pressed against him, that it was Natasha’s mouth that tasted like tangerine chapstick, lipstick, and it was Natasha, his Natasha. He didn’t ask questions at the time. He had rolled with it. She had pulled his shirt over his head and he had returned the favor. They had stumbled backwards, barely making it to the bed. She had wanted him and he would have to be a corpse not to want her and they fucked, less than gently, on a stiff mattress in the same city where he had made a different call.

He should have known, in retrospect, because the closest he had gotten to touching her in two years was slinging an arm around her shoulder and stitching up her forehead after she was cut once. Zero to sixty was hard to think about in the heat of the moment but he wishes, suddenly, that he had used his brain at all the night before.

Clint dressed quickly, armed himself lightly, and stood at the window to call Coulson. “Hi. We are going to take a few days here.”

“Anything I should know about?” asked Coulson without a note of worry.

“Nope, just need a few days,” Clint lied through his teeth, peeking through the curtains. His eyes scanned the busy streets. He did not see her. “We’ll make our way back. Our credit cards authorized for that purchase?”

“Touch base when you’re coming back in. You’re good to go. Don’t spend too much money.”

Clint had no intention in maxing out his company credit card, but depending on how far Natasha ran, he wondered if Coulson would be pissed if Clint spent the next few days globetrotting after his gunshy partner. He snorted slightly at his own mistake in calling Natasha gunshy. He went back to her side of the room, to the bed she did not sleep in last night, and rooted through her belongings. He told himself it was important for him to know what she took. He was not surprised, and not thrilled, to find that she took her passport, her gun, her wallet with her false papers in it, and her jacket.

He looked at himself in the mirror as he straightened. He told himself, “You’re an idiot, Barton. An idiot.”

He locked the motel room behind him. He informed the front desk that they would extend their stay. The receptionist was delighted and gave him a map of everything he could do in Sofia. He thanked her, smiled, and asked if she knows when his friend left. She gave him a sassy smile and a wink, but replied that she did not see Natasha leaving, she only started her shift thirty minutes ago. Clint allowed Natasha one moment of admiration that she had slipped out more than thirty minutes prior without waking him, and then he pushed open the door of the hotel. He went into the bright sunlight looking for her.

He was not the epicenter of this bomb. But he felt the fallout. 

Chapter Text

Two years of working with Natasha and Clint knows a few things about what happened when bombs went off in her mind. He loves a good metaphor, but Natasha, Natasha is addicted to nostalgia. The sparse terrain of her memories made her a desperate woman, clinging to the ones that she knew and could prove to be true, and reassuring herself with the existence of the ones that were foggy in her brain. She liked everything around to be sure and concrete, rooted somewhere in memory or fact, and things (for instance, friendship, or relationships) that could not be cemented into one of those two categories were discarded as unnecessary. When Natasha dismissed something, it was out of fear more than anything. But few people knew that about her and he only knew what he hypothesized on his own. He spent most of their missions observing her, after all.

            He meandered down the street, slipped into the opera house, and made his way down the hall. He strolled down the main aisle of the theatre, no one stopping him. There was one person who was sweeping and they gave him a curious look. But a long time ago, Barton learned that if he looked like he belonged somewhere, no one would stop you. So he climbed up on stage, looked around and peered around the corners to the side of the stage. Part of him was disappointed. He was surprised not to find her dancing in the shadows somewhere here.

            “Can I help you?” asked someone in Bulgarian

            Clint turned, his fingers falling on his belt, and then sliding into his back pockets casually. The girl had a bag slung over her shoulder and wore a leotard, skirt, and leg warmers. Her hair was still up in a tight bun. He replied with an easy smile in fluent Bulgarian, “I am looking for Raina Tulgori?”

            “She already left for the day. You are the second person to ask for her. If you are scouting her for a new company, she has a contract here,” sniffed the girl imperiously.

            “Does she?” Clint looked confused and tried for crestfallen. The girl’s slightly sympathetic smile and nod told him he nailed it. He shrugged and nodded. “Well then. I guess I’m not needed here. Thank you very much. Do you know who the other scout was?”

            He had no idea whether scout was the right word. Recruiter? Creepy old man trying to get more pretty young girls to dance with his company? He’s seen that movie. But the girl didn’t flinch so he couldn’t have been too off with the word he chose. She shrugged slightly, the bag sliding up and down her shoulder. She adjusted it and passed her pointe shoes to her other hand. “I don’t. She was Russian. Very pretty, knew a lot about ballet. I saw her talking to Raina last night but Raina said it didn’t go anywhere.”

            Clint hid a smile at that. So Raina had thought about taking Natasha to bed when they left the night before. It was a deliberate decision, insisting on going back to the hotel to make the trade. Smart girl. He sighed, a little dramatic. “I know her. We’re old friends. How long ago was that? Perhaps I can catch up with her and talk over lunch.”

            The girl gave him a doubtful look, like she had met Natasha and found the idea of her having friends unlikely. “An hour or two?”

            “Thank you,” he told her as he jumped off the stage and strode up the aisle. He gave her a small smile. “Have a wonderful afternoon.”

            “You too,” she called after him, puzzled.

            Second possibility was the second concrete memory that Natasha had in Sofia other than Raina. He flagged down a cab and handed him cash, giving him an address. The cabbie looked at him in disbelief, rolled his eyes, and shifted into gear. He pulled out into traffic and began to head north through the city towards the railroad and the river.

            The warehouse where he had finally tracked Natasha after one year and twelve cities was near the railroad. For all he could tell back then, it appeared to be a storage site for dead rails and how often did railroads need to replace dead rails? It had been largely unoccupied at that time, but it had been winter, and the middle of the night. Sofia in May and the middle of the day was a completely different city. Clint paid the guy to drop him off on the road and a significant amount extra to keep his mouth shut. He believed that there was no sum too large to convince someone that he didn’t exist. He pretended to take photos of the building with his cell until the cabbie pulled away. In a flash, he scaled the fence, landed on the other side and stayed in his crouch, waiting for alarms or a sign that anything had changed in two years. But nothing changed. Sofia wasn’t worried about people breaking into its dead rail storage site.

            This time, he did not care if she heard him coming. He walked up the stairs, five stories to the roof access, and pushed open the door. He knew she would be there, but that didn’t stop the relief from running through him when he saw her sitting in the sun, looking small and delicate and sad.

            “Looks different in the spring,” he said quietly, walking around towards her and giving her a wide berth. She did not look up at him or acknowledge him in any way. She stared blankly over the railroad.

            Clint sat down next to her and hooked his arms over his knees. He watched trains rolling slowly into the station, the lights changing on the signals, people coming and going. Next to him, the epicenter of the bomb was breathing shallowly. He glanced sideways at her and flinched at the obvious distress on her face. She looked pale and almost gaunt, like she had cried herself into some distraught dehydrated place, but she did not cry. He wanted to ask her what the bomb took from her this time, how far back their mistake the night before had set them back. He wanted to ask her, how big was this one? He stayed quiet for a long time, hoping she would speak, or move, or do anything other than stare into the distance like she was hoping to disappear.

            But she didn’t. She sat there, letting the silence swallow her up, and Clint desperately wanted to reach out and touch her. He remembered her mouth on his skin, being inside of her, the way she whispered his name when she came, her fingers digging into his shoulders, her skin against his. There was no way to bridge the distance. She was a contaminated zone now, fenced off and regulated.

            He could sit in silence for a long time. He could wait even longer. He was, after all, a sniper, an assassin, and an archer. He was used to spending a lot of time up high just watching and waiting. He had made a career from this particular set of talents. So the sun rose higher and higher in the sky and they sat in silence, feet between them and miles between their minds.

            His stomach growled. It was the trigger they both needed and he heard her shift for the first time in hours, her hands moving to her sides and she sat back on her hands. He watched this with caution. She was no less dangerous with her hands occupied with holding up her weight and he couldn’t tell how stable her mind was at that moment.

            “So I guess we missed our flight,” she said quietly, breaking the silence and never tearing her eyes from the horizon.

            “We have a few days,” he replied, keeping his voice easy and low. “We can take more.”

            She nodded slowly. Her eyes shifted to him and then her mouth tightened and she looked away quickly. Clint’s heart clenched. Was it that much of a mistake? But he couldn’t let his heart and mind go there at that moment. Natasha, his partner, needed him. They were nothing else, and even if they had been, she was his partner and that came before anything else. He hadn’t thought twice before asking Coulson for a few more days for them both. He wasn’t going to leave her like this. Especially not when it was his fault.

            “You want to tell me what happened?”

            “We fucked.” The chill in her tone sliced into him and sparked anger against his chest.

            He ignored it. “Why now?”

            “You were there,” she said simply. It should have hurt more than it did. He nodded, understanding that if another man had been around, she would have fucked them too. He still didn’t understand why exactly she had needed that last night but there were a thousand things he accepted that he would never understand about her so he pressed his lips together and watched a train pull away from the platform.

            He said softly, “But why? Why last night?”

            “I--,” she stumbled and then snapped, “Does it matter? It’s never happening again.”

            “That’s fine, but I’m your partner. I deserve to know—I need to know what triggered that if we’re going to prevent it from happening again. If you get lost in your own head and lose track of your decisions—“

            “I do not get lost in my head,” she snarled, scrambling to her feet.

            Clint matched her motions, scrambling to his feet. His hand rested on his gun. She had her back turned to him, her shoulders set in, hard and furious. He did not recognize her tone. She sounded like the Natasha he had found on this roof two years ago, cold and heartless and desperate to be rescued from the icy sea of her past.

            She spun, gun out, and pointing at him. He had seen it, the telltale way her second hand came up to brace her wrist, and his own gun out was out and pointing at her. He exhaled slowly, his vision tunneling down on her. He inhaled deeply as she did, exhaling slowly when she did. He put their breathing in rhythm together and they stood there for several seconds just staring each other down.

            “Come to finish what you should have done two years ago?” she whispered to him, her voice fissuring around the edges.

            “I am not going home without you,” he told her, his eyes watching her trigger finger. He had no idea if he could shoot her. He knew that he should always be prepared to shoot anyone at any time, especially someone pointing a gun at his own head, but this was Natasha and this was their rooftop and she was a crater in the earth where a bomb went off in her mind and the pressure waves from that explosion had taken them both down last night.

            “Kill me,” she whispered, her words a cold reflection of the same words she said two years prior.

            Clint lowered his gun, for the second time, and shook his head. “Natasha.”

            “Shoot me, you coward,” she snapped at him, gesturing with her gun.

            He shook his head. He didn’t put his gun in his jeans again but he backed up and shook his head. “Natasha, I don’t know what happened either. And it’s fine if it never happens again. I promise you. We’re still partners. You can still trust me.”

            “I’m not worried about you,” she said after a long moment. Her eyes were particularly bright. She shifted and lifted her gun, tapping her head with it and making Clint’s throat close for a moment. “It’s me.”

Chapter Text

Clint’s heart pounded in his chest. He said quietly, “Give me your gun, Natasha.”

            “You think this is the only one I have?” she asked him, her eyes wide and desperate. She stepped away from him and tapped her head with the muzzle of her gun. “Does this scare you, Clint?”

            “It should scare you,” he replied.

            She gave him a suspicious look and asked, her voice low and full of friction, “Should it? Should it? I don’t even know who I was last night.”

            He didn’t tell her that she was Natasha because it was possible she was not. He hadn’t asked. It hadn’t occurred to him that it was a problem, that she might not know who she was in bed with him, that she may occasionally lose track of Natasha even in a space as private as their own hotel room. Clint wondered how much he actually knew her. He swallowed his own doubts and his own fears about the role that he played in what went down the previous night. He needed to keep her from doing anything drastic at the moment. Everything was secondary to that objective. Once he established that in his head, he felt like it was a mission and everything crystallized for him.

            “You made a choice to live up here two years ago,” he told her quietly. “You’re my partner. I want you to make that again. Whatever comes from this, we can handle.”

            “We?” she echoed.

            He met her eyes with fierce determination. “Tasha, you are my partner. You’re the only partner I’ve ever liked, much less cared about.”

            “They would find you a partner who didn’t want to die. You wouldn’t have to do this every other mission,” she argued, her grip tight around her gun. “You don’t get it, Barton. It’s…I have nothing. I have nothing that keeps me here. I can’t even figure out who I am after missions sometimes and I snapped last night. I could have killed you instead of fucking you.”

            He flinched. “You’re right.”

            She looked relieved at his words. She nodded. “You should probably go then.”

            He shook his head. “No. You’re right. You could have killed me. But you didn’t. So all isn’t lost.”

            “It could happen again,” she told him after a moment.

            “Or we could work through it,” he replied.

            She looked over the trains, and her hand lowered from her head, her gun pointing at the ground. He took a step towards her and she stiffened. He stopped moving. They stood there in a new position, him watching her, her watching the trains. He thought that he could watch her forever. He spent a large part of their time together watching her from a distance, so most of what he knew about her had to do with the way she moved, spoke, the way she seduced people and the way she navigated a city. He knew her long lines, fluidity, her confidence, the sound of a hundred different languages coming off her tongue. But here, two feet from her, he could see the places where her façade was cracked and broken, the way she shifted on her feet, the way one of her fingers ran over the textured grip of her gun like she was feeling her own indecision. He studied the way her jaw was strong and taut and determined, the way her eyes focused and unfocused, changing where they were looking without ever moving. He studied the way her red hair was tousled by the wind, the way she hadn’t pulled it back that day.

            She moved so fast that he almost missed it. But he didn’t. He was Clint Barton and he didn’t miss. She drew her gun level with her head, wrist turned towards her own body, and he moved, charging into her, his wrist finding hers and forcing her hand upwards as her fingers curled around the trigger. A shot rang out as they hit the roof. He landed on top of her, tore the gun out of her hands, and threw it across the roof. He pinned her wrists to the roof and straddled her with his full weight, feeling himself rise and fall as she sucked oxygen into her stunned lungs.

            She stared up at him, unharmed. She began to shake. “You should have let me die.”

            He leaned down, resting his forehead on hers, his breath shaking out of his mouth. He closed his eyes. “Not today, Natasha. Not today.”

            It was minutes before she quietly agreed that he could take her back to the hotel. He gripped her hand tightly as they walked past her gun. He stopped, picked it up, and threw it over the roof and into the river. She said nothing as they walked to the main road and caught a cab back to their hotel. She sat with her eyes closed in the car and he did not let go of her hand. He pulled into the room and locked the door behind them. He dutifully collected all of the weapons in the room that he could find and put them in his suitcase with a lock. She sat on the bed and watched him.

            “I’m not going to try it again,” she insisted, her eyes dark and unreadable.

            “Pardon me if I don’t want to risk it,” he snapped in return. She was silent. He sat on his bed and put his face in his hands. “Let’s get something to eat and then we can talk.”

            “Okay,” she agreed, her voice flat. She changed with her back to him and he watched her not under the pretense of seeing her naked but because he wanted to be sure she didn’t have any more weapons, that she didn’t have a knife in her bra that happened to collide with her wrists while she was getting dressed. She moved slowly, like her body hadn’t been prepared to live through going to the warehouse and it was uncertain. She pulled a new sweater over her head, rolled it down her body and pulled her hair out from the collar.

            Clint changed then, never letting his eyes leave her, and he took her out to a small cafe around the corner. She refused to order food so he ordered them both soups and coffee. She scowled at him, her fingers dancing across her arm anxiously. She looked around them and he watched her eyes find the exits, the waiters, the streets, the cameras.

            When their soups arrived, he waited until the waiter was out of ear shot. “So you going to tell me what happened? I get that you didn’t know who you were.”

            “I just…” she began abruptly after a long moment and her voice trailed off. She looked down at her hands. She said in a voice almost too soft for Clint to hear, “They told me I was a dancer. I wasn’t though. I can dance but I wasn’t a dancer. And Raina looked so beautiful and happy and I remember thinking that’s what I felt when I was on stage, but that’s a lie.”

            He did not know how he went this long without being able to touch her. He wanted to reach across and hold her hand then, but he didn’t dare touch her. He said quietly, “So knowing you had a false memory made it harder to hold onto yourself.”

            “No,” she shook her head, red hair jostling around her lowered face. “I don’t know. It wasn’t that. It was…does this matter?”

            “Yes.” Clint gestured to her bowl. “Eat your soup.”

            “I don’t want to,” she snapped petulantly.

            “Do not doubt my willingness to forcefeed you,” he snapped back.

            She glared at him. “I don’t understand why we’re doing this. Just tell Coulson I tried to kill myself and they’ll take me out of the field indefinitely and you’ll get a new partner and I’ll be alive, so you’ll be happy and I’ll be happy.”

            He snorted. “Your definition of happiness could use some revising.”

            “Like you’re a ray of sunshine all the time,” she shot back.

            “At least it’s been a long time since I tried to kill myself,” he hissed angrily.

            She paled. “Clint.”

            “Eat your fucking soup.”

            The fallout goes for miles. Nowhere is safe. Everyone is contaminated. He knew what it looked like when a bomb like Natasha goes off. It looked like soup thrown on the ground in a childlike tantrum and screaming fits where they switched between Russian and English he was dizzy. It looked like coffee spilled on laps, curses in Bulgarian. It looked like her sliding a knife from the café up her sleeve and him angrily pulling it out and putting it back on the table. It looked like her fists pounding his chest while he held her in the street and repeated, angrily and determinedly over and over into her ear, that he didn’t care, it wasn’t her choice, he wasn’t going to let her killed in the fallout of her own mind. 

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: A Heart So Unpermitting

            He didn’t sleep that night. He stayed up all night, watching her sleep, reassuring himself that she was not going to wake up in the middle of the night and kill herself. He sat, legs crossed on his bed, his laptop open. He sent a secure email to Coulson’s private email, keeping out the part where she actually fired towards her own head and where she went on a screaming rant in public. He just said that Natasha was having trouble coping with the aftermath of the mission and was suffering from flashbacks and ‘passive suicidal ideation’ which was a term Clint knew well.

            He lived passive suicidal ideation for years. He lived it for years. He lived it until he met Natasha. And it wasn’t that he was stupid about what they were or what she was or what he was, for god’s sake, but it was the first time he had drawn an arrow, feet from someone, and seen himself in her. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t kill her because she wanted to die and there was something perverted about helping someone kill themselves, and wasn’t that what it would have been? Wouldn’t it have been assisted suicide? Didn’t he swear to Coulson that he’d never do anything stupid under Coulson’s watch? It was the excuse he gave to Coulson when they got back to base and Coulson asked him if he was confused about the definition of neutralize. He had looked at Coulson and said quietly, “Birds of a feather flock together. I made a different call. Look, you asked me awhile ago not to be stupid.” And that was all it took for Coulson to change his tune.

            He knew what it was like to move through life and see potentiality for death everywhere, to act just on this side of impulsive. He took missions he shouldn’t have taken and took risks he shouldn’t have taken. At train stations, he put a hand on the wall, pretending to lean on it, but he did that to keep himself from throwing himself in front of the train. He understood life as an abstract concept, something he was obligated to go through like a ritual, but he did not really care for it. There was no value in his life. It was better than it used to be, but getting better did not mean well. That changed when he brought Natasha in. Everything changed with her.

            Coulson emailed back. Clint—

            Two options. You bring her in and we put her in the medical ward. Or, you see if you can figure her out. I won’t say anything until you tell me whether she can stay in the field or if we need to pull her out. I had no idea about the dancing. Maybe ask her who she is if she ‘disappears’ into her head again. Might give us a clue for where these memories are leading her and what her behavior will be. Don’t blame yourself. She’s traumatized and you were not the trigger, just the person she reacted onto.

            Phil

            Coulson hadn’t even known what happened, that Clint slept with her, but somehow, it seemed like he had guessed it. Clint had been wary of the same thing happening when they had returned that evening, but it hadn’t.

            He had moved around her cautiously, simultaneously wary of letting his eyes leave her, and acutely aware that he had violated some sacrosanct space in their partnership by sleeping with her. He had not realized the extent at which she could be triggered and how fragile her identity was, even after two years with SHIELD and with him. He understood, too late, how very little he knew her. That was the hardest part for him to swallow, that a week ago, he was laughing and teasing her and they were goofing off on the deck of the helicarrier, and he never knew, he never knew that lurking under her surface was a terrible capacity for the violation of self.

            She had no idea who she was. And he had no idea who she was. It felt like the last two years had been a deception, a lie, a smokescreen. It felt like the last two years had been a waste. Clint had never felt as useless as he did sitting there all night, watching her sides rise and fall with her breathing.

            She woke before dawn, rolled over, sat up and stared at him. Her eyes were instantly bright and her body was instantly awake. She said quietly, “Did you sleep?”

            He studied her face. “How do you feel?”

            She smiled slightly. “Too soon to ask that question. You should have slept. I don’t need a babysitter.”

            “You tried to kill yourself yesterday,” he replied, his voice shaking. He had to look away from her.

            She was quiet for a long time. Then she got up and went into the bathroom, turning on the shower. She told him she was leaving the door open so he wouldn’t freak out and he did not even mind the jab at his overprotective behavior. He lay on his back and stared at the ceiling. He was exhausted, drained, and still confused and worried and frightened. Frightened. How long since he felt true fear like he felt in the last twenty four hours? A long time.

            She came out of the shower, casting him a careful look. “Clint, it was not your fault.”

            He gave her a small smile. “Part of it was.” He sighed and sat up. They had to have this talk. “Tasha, you’ve never let me touch you, and we’ve never talked about that. I should have known something was up. What are the chances you’d just do that out of the blue?”

            She nodded. “Low.”

            He ran a hand through his hair, absentmindedly realizing how long it was getting. “It never occurred to me that it may not be you who wanted it. I had no idea—don’t look at me like that, Tash—that your hold on Natasha was that weak.”

            She frowned at his words and sat on the bed, still holding a towel to her chest. She pressed her lips together and shrugged, a strange motion from her. “I didn’t lose track of who you were though. I knew you were not a job.”

            He smiled a bit. “Yeah. I know. I woke up. Your jobs don’t usually have that honor.”

            She laughed slightly, appreciating his quip and attempt at lightening the mood. “True. No one’s ever woken up after I sleep with them.”

            He froze, his eyes widening beyond his control. “Natasha.”

            She had frozen too. She replied, saying his name carefully, “Clint, it isn’t—“

            “Natasha, have you ever slept with someone who wasn’t a job?”

            She flinched. “Yes. At the Red Room. I was married. You know this.”

            His heart was pounding in fear. “But since then?”

            She said nothing.  Nothing. Her meaning slammed around in his head. The word rapist slipped into his consciousness and he forced it down, told himself to breathe, reminded himself that he knew the tools for this. He had been there before. How often had he self-destructed just to remind himself of his own edges? The darkness could obliterate him. He knew the blast radius of his own mind now. She did not know hers and it had caught up with them.

            He whispered hoarsely, “That makes this so much worse.”

            She studied the floor intently. “I think I need to take a leave of absence.”

            Magic words in their business. He couldn’t ask her to stay in the field, or with him, as soon as she said them. It was like a suspect asking for a lawyer. She was untouchable as soon as she uttered those words. Clint shut his brain down. He couldn’t handle it, walking around the edges of her trying to understand something he barely understood in his own mind. Her magic words turned off his responsibility for a little bit. He just needed to get her home safely now.

 He said stiffly, “Get dressed. Coulson has a plane for us at the airport.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Five: Goes My Fare Thee Well

            Coulson called Clint the morning after they returned. Clint rolled over and groaned, answering the call and stuffing his face back into his pillow. He mumbled into the phone, ‘Barton’.

            “Get up,” Coulson said in his dry clipped voice.

            Clint sat up on his elbows. He rubbed his face, exhausted down to his bones. He had been awake for more than forty eight hours when they landed ten hours before. Coulson had debriefed them on the car ride from the airport back to the base since they had taken a commercial flight, and Natasha had been taken, in handcuffs, like a criminal, to the medical ward. He had watched her leave with a growing sense that he had let her down in some way. Coulson had tried to talk to him but Clint had waved him off, stumbled back to his room, taken two Advil PMs and passed out in all of his mission clothes still.

            He asked, “Is she okay?”

            “This has nothing to do with her,” Coulson told him. Clint said nothing and Coulson sighed. “She’s fine. Get up. Come by my office.”

            Clint muttered, “Eight hours of sleep in the last thirty six. If I go clinically insane, I’m blaming you.”

            “Accepted. Shower. You smelled rank yesterday.” Coulson hung up.

            Clint dragged himself into the shower, the first one since waking up and discovering Natasha was gone. He scrubbed his skin with the soap until his skin was raw and as red as her hair. He scrubbed off every inch of her, every inch of his guilt, every inch of the doubt in his mind. He scrubbed until he was sure there was no layer of her left on him. He scrubbed until lines of blood appeared on his chest and arms, and he sank to the floor of the shower, holding his head in his hands. If he was still a child, he may have cried, but he couldn’t find the release for his tight throat and his chest that strangled his heart in silence. He threw his head backwards against the wall and reveled in the pain that shot through his tired skull.

            He traced and retraced every interaction he had with Natasha and, in retrospect, he saw the signs. He could think back to moments after missions or during missions when he had been somewhat aware that something was off with her, that she wasn’t quite as connected as she always was, but he had shaken it off, chalked it up to Natasha being a bit of an aloof cold person in general. In retrospect…well, hindsight was 20/20 for some people, but Clint’s vision was sharper and better than most people’s and maybe it worked on hindsight the same way.

            He sat on the floor of his shower stall for a long time, just letting the water run over him. He finally got up when his hands and feet were pruny and shut off the water. He toweled himself dry and found clean clothes in his drawer, probably courtesy of Coulson who realized that Clint’s ability to handle life outside of the field was remarkably limited. He pulled on a jacket to cover the raw and bloody patches on his arms, slipped his hearing aids back on, and headed to Coulson’s office. He avoided eye contact with people in the hallways, and he did not listen to what people were saying. He knew how it looked the night before when they touched down. He knew what the scuttlebutt would be saying.

            He didn’t bother knocking on Coulson’s door. He walked in and shut it behind him, tossing himself on the couch with a groan and staring at the ceiling. Coulson walked around the desk, locked the door and sat on the end of the couch, surveying him with an openly worried expression.

            “I was going to take you out of the field,” Coulson said quietly, his hazel eyes narrow and sharp.

            Clint frowned. “I wasn’t the one who pointed a gun at their own head.”

            Coulson didn’t flinch at the anger in Clint’s voice. He replied smoothly, “No, that was your partner, the only partner you’ve kept for more than a single mission. And you brought her in. So I think I would consider you a compromised agent right now.”

            Clint scowled at the crack in Coulson’s ceiling. He paused and said, slowly, “You said you were going to take me out of the field. What changed?”

            “I have a rogue agent,” Coulson said simply. “We’re taking out one of our own. And I wouldn’t ask someone I considered to be fragile right now but I need this to stay quiet and I need it done right, so you’re the only option I have.”

            Clint sat up, meeting Coulson’s sharp hazel eyes with his own sharp gray ones. “Who?”

            “Kief Adams. He was working on a project aimed at preventing the Chechen separatists from obtaining the raw fissile material necessary to create dirty bombs. He turned. He shot two of our own and a Russian military officer overseeing the transfer of nuclear waste from former Soviet labs into US hands.  A few weeks, his fingerprints were found at the scene when police in Arlington, Virginia responded to a home invasion and murder of a Soviet nuclear physicist who moved to the US under the Nunn Lugar pact in the early 90’s. We tried to make contact with him then and had no response. We made contact with the six other members of his team. Two of them are dead and were shot with SIG P226.”

            Clint nodded. It was a favorite gun amongst SHIELD operatives who liked a pistol that accepted a wide variety of ammunition. It was light and comfortable to carry too. “And the other four?”

            “One is missing. One said he saw Adams shoot the other two. And the other is still at his post and in deep cover. We have eyes on him and he hasn’t appeared to have gone rogue, so we’re not contacting him at this time.” Coulson reached over and took a manila folder off his desk.

            “We need you to take out Adams. It can’t look like it was us. And he must be a confirmed kill. Record it. This is top secret.”

            Clint’s mind switched into mission mode. He nodded. “Got it.”

            “The map and drop site are here. You’re on your own until ex fil.” Coulson handed him the folder. “You leave at 1800hrs.”

            “Yes, sir,” Clint said, opening the folder and beginning to flip through the sparse briefing material required.

What he was most interested in was—yes, here, Coulson had brought him the weather and wind patterns for the last month and the previous years’ data over the same time period, as well as topographical maps and excellent photos of the target. Coulson went back to work with his desk and people came in and out over the next few hours, but Clint remained a fixture, cross legged and intent, on the couch where he studied the maps and patterns until everything sank into his mind. He rose silently, closed the folder that Coulson took from him and slide into a locked safe under his desk, and he headed to the door.

“Phil,” Clint said, his hand on the doorknob and his back to Coulson. “Can I see her? Before I leave?”

“Do you think that’s wise?” Coulson replied after a momentary pause.

Clint did not know if his friend and handler was talking about wisdom for him or Natasha. He looked over his shoulder and shrugged. “I’d like her to know that I didn’t just walk away from her.”

Coulson’s face was unreadable. “Go ahead.”

Clint made his way down to the medical ward. He stopped by the desk, plastered a smile he knew worked on his face and said, “Hey, Clairy.”

The nurse at the front desk glanced up at Clint, her eyes widening and she bit her lower lip, smiling back. “Agent Barton. What can I do for you?”

“I’m here to see Agent Romanov.” He kept the smile on his face, leaning forward slightly while shifting onto his elbow.

Claire frowned, her eyes shadowing over slightly. “Agent Romanov isn’t approved to have any visitors.”

“Check the computer. I think I’m allowed,” Clint murmured, his voice low, his eyes intent on Claire’s. Come on, Coulson.

Claire typed something into the computer. She paused, tilted her head, looked up at him, then at the screen again before sighing, shrugging, and handing him a red visitor’s pass. Clint fingered the pass and thought, of course it’s red. Red is danger. Red is stop. Red stands out. Red is her.

“Room 235B. The door’s locked but your hand should open it. It locks from the inside. You’ll have to knock to get let out. Don’t--,” Claire warned him sharply, “let your guard down. She is a little…”

“I know,” Clint interrupted, straightening abruptly.

There was a window into the room and he peered through it first. He wouldn’t put it past Natasha to be waiting to the side to pounce on the first person to come through the door. He would do the same if he was locked in a room (a cell, he thought). She was sitting on her bed, cross legged and dressed in shorts and a tshirt, reading a book. Her hands idly turned her hair around a finger. She looked…well. He pressed his palm to the pad next to the room and the door clicked open. She jerked upright, the book falling out of her lap, and stared at him when he entered and shut the door behind him. He leaned on the door and crossed his arms.

“Enjoying what you’ve done?” Her voice snarled around him, and he breathed in her anger and her embarrassment.

“No, not particularly,” he said quietly. He did not argue that he had done this. There were a few options after she did what she had done, and this was the one he chose. He looked at his feet. “Coulson needs me in the field so I’m flying out tonight. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”

When he next looked up, she had drawn her knees up to her chin. She looked frighteningly young and childish. She studied him, her blue eyes dark and shadowy, and her arms tight around her own body. She looked like she was trying to occupy as little space in the world as possible.

She said, “You are leaving me.”

He said nothing, because she was not wrong.

She unfolded herself and walked across the room towards him. He kept his eyes trained on her face but he couldn’t help but know that her legs went on endlessly, that the bruises on her wrists were from him, and the bruise on her collarbone was also from him but a different time. She stepped closer to him, wary and moving like an unsure cat.

“Be safe?” she said, and it was more like a question.

He gave her a small smile. “I will. Be good.”

She smiled back at him, small, and sad, and fragmented along the edges of her mouth like the way her own boundaries were shattered. “I can’t promise that.”

He hesitated and reached out, slowly, cautiously and touched the bruises on her left wrist. She didn’t flinch away so he picked up her limp hand, turned it over in his hand, studying the patterns of his fingers where he had held her down to a roof, guns scattered around them. He ran his thumb lightly over the purpled skin. “Tasha, please try.”

She nodded slowly, her eyes watching him touch the bruises. “Okay.”

He dropped her wrist and gestured with his hand. “Go back to your bed so I can leave.”

She gave him a wry smile. “So much for trust.”

“So much for trust,” he echoed and didn’t move until she had sighed, returned to the bed and he knocked, never letting his eyes leave her. They opened the door and he shut it quickly behind him.

He strode past Claire without saying a single word. 

Chapter Text

Chapter Six: Wrapped in Dedication

            Clint spent two weeks in the mountains outside Groznyj where the weather fluctuated up to twenty degrees in a single day and he spent a solid half of his time taking on and off layers and keeping his fingers nimble. He told himself that even the time he spent putting on a fleece, then taking off the fleece and putting on his raincoat, was billable hours. He brought his bow and a long range rifle, but it was the bow he used in the end with an explosive tipped arrow on the gas tank of the car Kief Adams was riding back to the base. He shot a few more explosive tipped arrows at various targets he was sure were empty to cover the tracks of it being a targeted attack. By the time people had begun to put the fires out, Clint had packed up and moved out of his nest in a cliff overlooking the city. By the time any of the fires were out, he had made rendeveous and was on a helicopter out of the city.

            He landed back on base, jumped out with his gear slung over his shoulder, and Coulson was waiting for him on deck. Clint started shaking his head the moment he saw him, smiling slightly.

            “Don’t even start that shit, Coulson,” Clint yelled above the roar of the helicopter’s blades that he couldn’t hear. He always took off his hearing aids for flights in choppers. Too much potential for damaging the sensitive equipment. “I am going to shower, and then I’m going to sleep for a week. I am turning off my cell and locking my door.”

            Coulson smiled slightly and ushered Clint into the hallway that was suddenly softerand stiller. Clint pulled his aids out of his pocket and slipped them on, shaking his head slightly as his balance adjusted to having hearing again. Coulson said, “Good job.”

            Clint said, “You ask, I deliver. That’s our deal.”

            “You did well. You’re taking a mandatory two weeks off.” Coulson told him as they walked together down the hallway. Hearing Clint beginning to protest, Coulson held up his hand. “You can use the gym and practice, but you’re not going on any missions, not sitting in on any strategy meetings, not attending any workshops.”

            Clint hated meetings so this didn’t seem like a particularly bad deal. He shrugged. “Fair enough.” They got to the hallway where Coulson went left and Clint went right. Clint shifted his bow on his shoulder. “How is she?”

            “Out of medical,” Coulson replied, watching Clint carefully. “Doing as well as can be expected.”

            Part of Clint wanted to run straight through the hallways to her room, and part of Clint wanted to hole up in his room and sleep for weeks. He nodded and walked away from Coulson. He made it past Natasha’s rooms without stopping, dumped his stuff on the floor, and barely stayed awake through his shower. He tossed himself on his bed and passed out immediately. He slept dreamlessly.

            When he woke, he had slept for almost thirteen hours and it was the middle of the night. He groaned into his hand. He knew how to reset his internal clock when he jumped timezones, and at this stage in the game, he was pretty good at sleeping only exactly as long as he needed, but the exhaustion of the previous month had caught up with him. Now it was three am and he was wide awake. He shuffled around his room, finding clothes required for wandering aimlessly through SHIELD base hallways, and tucking his laptop under his arm, went to one of the common rooms on his floor. He heated up water in the microwave and, with a look of disgust and a feeling of failure, used instant coffee. He settled down on his laptop and opened his email. Most of the emails were spam, a few of them were important but he didn’t feel like responding them, one was an email from Coulson about seeing a baseball game in Chicago the following weekend, and one was from Maria Hill, a new Deputy Director who was introducing herself to the ‘staff’ of SHIELD. Clint deleted it without even reading it.

            “You’re home,” said a surprised, familiar voice.

            Clint looked up at a bleary-eyed Natasha standing in the doorway to the kitchen and common area. He stared at her, studying her pale face and shadows beneath her eyes, and then cleared his throat. “Hi. Yeah. I came back and went straight to sleep.”

            She gave him a half smile. “That’s why you’re drinking bad coffee at three am.”

            He wanted to tell her that he was sorry for how things played out. He wanted to tell her he was glad she was out of a locked ward because she didn’t belong anywhere with closed doors. But somehow, he didn’t think he could say any of those things. Part of his brain still looked at her and whispered to him, victim. He struggled with subduing that little voice. If there was anything she would hate to be called, it was that. Still, she endured over ten years of her body and brain being stripped and used for someone else’s purpose. He brought her here and to what end when he himself had only ended up using her. Sometimes people who were not victims were victims of circumstance. He did not have words for the sorrow that ripped through him just looking at his partner. He did not know how to balance that with the desire and affection that heated his body when he looked at her.

            He did not want her to read this on his face. He tugged out the chair next to him. “Come sit. We’ll watch stupid videos on youtube together.”

            She slipped silently into the chair next to his as he got up, filled another mug with water, and stuck it in the microwave. He looked over his shoulder and asked her, “Tea?”

            She rested her chin on her hand and nodded into it. They were quiet while the water heated up in the microwave. The machine finally beeped and he brought the mug and a tea bag over to her. She said, “Spbasba.”

            “Pazhalsta,” Clint replied. Please. Stay here. Help me find normalcy with you. I want to stay too.

            He went to type YouTube into the browser bar when her next words startled him. “You said that it had been awhile since you had tried to kill yourself.”

            He slowly withdrew his hands from the keyboard and glanced over at her. He said quietly, “This is not exactly a beneficial discussion.” She said nothing, just stared, blank-eyed, at his keyboard. He murmured softly, “Natasha.”

            She looked up, blinking at him. She shivered in her tshirt and Clint instantly tugged his sweatshirt over his head and dumped it unceremoniously on top of her head. She slid her arms into it and tugged over her abdomen. Her face looked even more pale with the hood of the sweatshirt over her. She pulled the sleeves over her hands and tucked her chin on top of her knees. “Are they ever going to clear me for field work again?”

            Clint didn’t know the answer to that. He answered carefully. “It depends if you are able to stay safe in the field. Do you think that’s going to happen?”

            She met his eyes. “That’s why I’m asking you. How did you do it?”

            “How’d I do what?”

            “Stop wanting to die.”

            He shook his head. “Yeah, you’re not ready for that answer yet. But you’re asking that if I knew what was in your head on that roof how I’m able to keep that at bay when my job is literally life and death.”

            She was frowning at the first half of his answer and then her face smoothed and her eyes lit up. “Yes.”

            “I found boundaries to myself. I made boundaries. I created routines that kept me safe.” He thought about coming home and scrubbing his skin raw in the shower. He added softly, “It isn’t foolproof. But it keeps me here.”

            She made herself into a tighter ball, if that was possible. “I don’t have boundaries. Ever. I feel like I’m bleeding out on all of my edges all the time.”

            Clint wanted to wrap his arms around her. He wanted to pull her into his lap. He wanted to touch her more than ever before, more than he had ever wanted to touch anyone before, but he couldn’t, especially not now. He couldn’t after what happened, after they slept together without him knowing how unstable she was, and he knew, from personal experience, that she needed to build the boundaries herself. If he was to ever touch her again or comfort her again, she had to invite him into her space. But it hurt, to sit there and watch someone he cared about and knew hurting as openly as Natasha was letting herself hurt.

            “I know,” he said finally. He looked straight up at the ceiling. “When Coulson found me, twelve years ago, when I joined SHIELD, I had lined up pills on the sink in the bathroom, one for every sin that I had committed in my life before. Trust me when I tell you that was a lot of sins. He told me there were other ways to live. I didn’t believe him, but I trusted him. You can get pretty far just trusting someone that it’ll get better before it gets better.”

            “I trusted you. Two years this—that—was always an option. Two years of trying to trust that I would figure it out.”

            He rolled his eyes to the side to look at her, his face still towards the ceiling. “Yeah, but you did two years without telling anyone that you had no idea how to live in this world. You basically have to start over.”

            She made a face at him, the least fucked up and damaged he had seen her in the last three weeks. “That’s asking a lot.”

            He gave her a small smile, the only one he could manage. “I know.”

            She slid her hands out of the sleeves. “And what do I get out of it?”

            “Me,” he replied simply. He shrugged and stared at her hands. “I’m not going to hang you out to dry, Nat.”

            Her hands stilled in their wringing. There was a long, comfortable silence between them before she said quietly, “You’re making it hard for me to clear my ledger.”

            His eyes flitted up to her eyes. “If you hang in there, there will be plenty of time to balance out that ledger.”

            He could have counted off heartbeats between his words and her slow, singular nod. He broke off the eye contact before she began to grow uncomfortable and he finished typing in the web address.

            “Have you seen Ninja Cat?” he asked her casually, deliberately lightening his voice.

            She leaned close, close enough that he could smell her shampoo—lavender—and said, “You’d think with the amount of viral videos I’ve watched in the last two weeks, I would have, but I haven’t.”

            He should have been worried about the amount of videos she had watched, but instead, he was inhaling a sudden breath of hope and her quiet admission that she had, in her own way, missed him while he was away. Stay, Natasha. Stay.

           

 

           

Chapter Text

Chapter 7: Build That Wall Up to the Sky

            Clint bounced on the balls of his feet, raising his fist to pound on Natasha’s door when it jerked open and Natasha stood there, glaring at him, tying up her hair into a ponytail. He grinned at her, bouncing from foot to foot. “Good morning, sunshine.”

            “Call me sunshine again and I will throw you off the side of this ship. I could hear you running through the hallways. You’re the least stealth spy on this ship.” she grumbled. She put her hands on her hips. “What do you want, Barton?”

            “I’m off for two weeks,” he explained. “You’re suspended. Come on a run with me.”

            She said dryly, “You hate running.”

            “I know, but I need to.” he agreed, almost smiling. She would catch on eventually.

            But for now, she just tilted her head at him quizzically, shrugged, and said. “Let me grab my sneakers.”

            He did hate running. Running was boring. Running was monotonous. Running bothered his knee that he twisted once in San Jose (and that never quite healed right because he refused to go to physical therapy for it. If it had been his shoulder or elbow or wrist or fingers, he would have shown up every single day, but he didn’t actually need his knee; and there was also, and few people could get him to admit this, the belief, back then, that he didn’t deserve medical care, didn’t deserve to have his knee fixed when it was his fault that he twisted it at all; didn’t everyone need a body part that ached in the rain, in the cold, in the night to remind them they were alive?). Running felt too much like a metaphor, and Clint understood metaphors. Running felt too pointless. He couldn’t outrun what was next to him.

            Natasha kept pace with him on his left side, never once struggling, and seemingly never tiring. Her red hair swung in its ponytail like it appreciated the fresh air even more than she did. For the first time in weeks, or maybe it had been months and Clint simply hadn’t noticed, there was color in her cheeks and her eyes seemed to focus on her surroundings.

            “You’re staring,” she commented on their third lap.

            Clint discovered it was hard to shrug and make it noticeable while running. He wanted to tell her she looked less dead but the wording on that particular phrase seemed off. He settled for, “Yep.”

            A ghost of a smile tickled the corner of her lips. “That’s all. You’re not even going to deny it.”

            “Nope,” he agreed, and was rewarded with a full out smile.

            Two laps around the deck was a mile and they did five before Clint said to her, “Alright, the old man has to stop.”

            She rolled her eyes as they slowed down to a walk and kept going. “You’re not old, Barton.”

            He didn’t say anything and they walked a lap before stretching beneath the shadow of a fighter jet. Clint’s muscles and ligaments screamed at him, the pain just a tick below what would make him actually wince and he sat back and stretched his legs out, absentmindedly rubbing the muscle just above his left knee that kept his kneecap from shattering or disconnecting or something equally traumatic that he tried not to think about on a daily basis. His eyes ran over the plane, studying the controls, the variable sweep wings.

            “Can you fly it?” she asked, and there was a hint of amusement in her voice.

            He glanced at her and nodded as he shrugged. “Yeah.”

            “How come I didn’t know you could fly a fighter jet?” she asked, only half amused.

            “It isn’t pretty,” he admitted. He gestured to the runway. “Chances of me landing it on this and catching a wire on the first try? Minimal.”

            “Finally,” she exhaled.

            He frowned. “Eh?”

            “There’s something that your perfect aim cannot do,” she explained.

            He picked up a pebble and chucked it at her but she caught it, giving him an affectionate look and she rolled the pebble around in her hand for a moment. She said, “I have to head out soon.”

            “Okay.”

            “I have to go to therapy,” she replied. When he glanced over at her, she was glaring at the plane’s landing gear like it had said something offensive. There was a stubborn set to her mouth.

            “Okay.”

            “Don’t even say anything about it.”

            “Okay.”

            She looked at him. “You don’t care.”

            He squinted at her. “I don’t think that’s what I meant. I mean, you’re right, I don’t care because it doesn’t bother me. I do care that you’re going and I’m glad you’re going.”

            She flopped back on the deck on her back, crossing her legs at her ankles and putting her hands behind her head. “You’re my partner. I want you to know.”

            He didn’t tell her that basically everyone would know at this point. “I appreciate it.”

            She scrambled to her feet, startling him with the motion so that he actually looked around, trying to assess the threat he was sure he saw. She was still looking around and glaring at inanimate objects but there was no threat near her. She said stiffly, “See you around, Barton.”

            He watched her leave, completely mystified and unsure where he went wrong.

            He swung by Coulson’s office and flopped on the couch. Coulson was on a conference call and he rolled his eyes at Clint, took the call off speakerphone, and held the phone to his ear. He scribbled something on a piece of paper and held it up.

            BARTON—GET OUT. I AM NOT A LOUNGE.

            “No, you aren’t,” agreed Clint. He pat the couch. “The couch is though.”

            Coulson rolled his eyes. The conference call only went on a few more minutes and Clint used the opportunity to catch a cat nap. He yawned tiredly and turned over, squishing his face into the side of the couch.

            The next thing he remembered was Coulson saying dryly, “You’re almost innocent looking and adorable all curled up like that. It’s too bad eventually you wake up and go back to normal.”

            Clint stretched and blinked lazily. “Yeah. I know, right?”

            “What can I do for you, Barton?” Coulson asked, stacking papers into piles on his desk.

            “I need something to do.”

            “You have a partner.”

            Clint froze, momentarily, until he managed to quip back, “Something, not someone, Coulson.”

            Coulson’s expression was frighteningly neutral. It hadn’t occurred to Clint before but it seemed likely that Natasha had told the psych team that they had slept together. How else could she adequately explain the timeline of her descent towards, Clint couldn’t even name it anymore, the rooftop? He did not consider that somewhere, in some SHIELD classified record, that someone had written down Clint’s own particular role in sending the red-haired girl with dubious stability into the deep end of her own mind. The voice whispered up again, you slept with her when she didn’t know who she was. He swallowed hard.

            “You could give a tour to the new Deputy Director.”

            “I’m not people friendly, Coulson, you know this. I should come with warning stickers.”

            “Your partner’s mental health is not your responsibility, Barton,” Coulson replied evenly, like they had been talking about Natasha that entire time, which, Clint thought miserably, maybe they had.

            “I am not taking responsibility for her mental health,” Clint argued, glaring at Coulson.

            “Just because you empathize with her,” Coulson said, pausing and emphasizing that line, “doesn’t mean that you need to involve yourself. She has a team. And I think it may be for the better that you work on making some alliances with other agents that you might want to work with in the future.”

            “You’re an asshole,” Clint said after a long moment.

            Coulson smiled sadly. “Sometimes.”

            “Okay, so I empathize with her. And honestly, I don’t know how much that psych team is doing for her. She practically stomped away to therapy today after our run.”

            Coulson froze, and if possible, the color drained from his face. “What?”

            Clint repeated slowly, “She stomped away to therapy today after our run. What?”

            “She doesn’t have therapy until tonight. The doctor’s off base. She was lying,” snapped Coulson.

            Clint was out the door before Coulson was out of his chair.  

            It takes years for the contaminated land to become useful again. There will be people who die days and weeks after the bomb goes off. The aftermath cannot be quantified. The aftershocks, the fires that will burn for weeks, the poison in the blood, the weakened immune system, these are the things that the survivors must try and conquer. In the wake of a nuclear blast, what does not kill you does not make you stronger. 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 8: The War Won

            Clint knew how to sweep a building, but most buildings weren’t built like helicarriers, and the helicarrier was built to withstand an invasion so the hallways are illogical, there was little to no signage, and newbies were known to be lost for hours when trying to get from their rooms to the training rooms. Clint knew the carrier inside and out. It’s been the closest thing to home for the last ten or so years and even he didn’t assume he knew all of the hidey holes tucked away. He went over the blueprints once and found, by his count, 103 discrepancies and structural impossibilities. His gut told him that Natasha probably didn’t need to see the blueprints to know by instinct where she could hide and not be found. He told himself that she was only hiding and that this could not be as bad as it…no, he couldn’t lie to himself. His hands were clammy with the possibility that she had slipped away over an hour ago and she could easily, easily be dead. She could have jumped off the side of the ship for all he knew.  For all he knew. What a stupid phrase. He didn’t know anything. How could he not have walked her to therapy? How could he have not known that she, in her state of mind, and him, clearly being a trigger for her, would have lied? And she was, outside of suicidality, the queen of lies and deception.

            He was an idiot and not for the first time in his life, it was going to cost someone their life.

            He was an idiot and it was going to cost Natasha her life.

            He needed to focus.

            If he were Natasha, if he were someone who had flashbacks and lost track of herself—hadn’t she said that she felt like she was bleeding out all of her edges?—where would he go?

            The answer came to him as clear as if she had whispered it to him. If it were him, he would go high. But it was Natasha, and she would want to go deep into the ship, somewhere with many layers, somewhere dark, and somewhere where her edges could quite literally be defined for her. Clint ran through the hallways, ignoring his knee, and wove his way closer, and deeper, to the heart of the ship. The heart of the ship was nothing more than endless pipes and machinery that purified water, cooled the air and other equipment, and everything Clint didn’t particularly care about.

            He found the heart of the ship, a long thin bridge of metal in the dark with pipes like a labyrinth as far as he could see in any direction. He strained with his ears but knew that if she didn’t want to be found—if she could still hear him—he wouldn’t be able to hear her. It was certainly not his strongest sense, to put it mildly.

            “Natasha.” He said quietly, listening to the way his voice reverberated off the pipes and in the hollow space. “Natasha.”

            Footsteps behind him and he spun, hopeful, but it was Coulson who had lost his suit jacket along the way. Coulson handed Clint a flashlight wordlessly and they both flicked their lights on and began to move through the maze, shining light into the darkest of corners. Clint’s heart was pounding and he flicked his flashlight wildly, running it in patterns, up over down over down over down over upupupup over down. He moved left to right, his eyes searching for clues. He knew she had to be down there somewhere. It only made sense that she would come there. Natasha was, if she believed in metaphor, going to the heart of the ship to find herself. But she did not believe in metaphor. She believed in nostalgia and of course she would return to the dark like it contained the only things she knew to be true. Of course.

            “That went well,” he said, plopping down on the bench next to her as she unwrapped her hands from her first fight at SHIELD against another operative. He was still down on the mats getting medical attention. It wasn’t that she couldn’t stop. She stopped and was the one who had sat him up, tilting his head forward so the blood didn’t go into his lungs. It was that she had played him, like a bored cat with a mouse, for minutes, making him think that he could actually possibly win the fight, before she had become too bored and simply squashed him.

            Natasha had given him a sidelong eye. In the days before she smiled even a little, the muscles on either side of her mouth would simply clench for a microsecond and disappear. “You should fight me.”

            Clint had grinned at her. “No, thank you. I have actually read your file.”

            She had frozen then and Clint had frown at it. He rolled his eyes. “You know, the one that anyone here has access too. I’m not stupid, Romanov. Coulson would kill me dead.”

            “Yes,” she replied primly, balling up the bloody tape from her hands. “He told me that you had orders not to die and that’s why you changed your mind when you made the call.”

            He snorted. “Is that what he said?”

            “You go out with him to bars and call him by his given name,” she told him. It was not as much of a statement of fact as it was a question disguised as a statement of fact. Like Clint didn’t know what he did every Thursday night that he didn’t have a mission.

            Clint raised his eyebrows. “Yes?”

            She looked confused. “Why?”

            “Because Coulson and I are friends first, before we’re handler and agent,” Clint replied. He shrugged. “I mean, it’s a little weird, but Phil’s a good guy and we like to catch up.”

            “You are friends,” she said flatly.

            “Is that hard to believe?” he teased lightly, opening his hand.

            She handed him the bloody tape without asking what he was asking for, though she was right. She replied calmly, “A little bit. I thought you and I were alike. I don’t do friends.”

            “What do you call this then?” he asked, closing his fingers around the tape. He reminded her, “You and I do lunch every day that I’m here and I tell you insane stories from my missions and teach you about baseball.”

            “I don’t know,” she admitted softly, her eyes running all over her face. “I hadn’t thought about what to call it before.”

            “It’s friendship, Romanov,” he told her and stood up. “Come on. Let’s go grab something to eat.”

            “I don’t know that I do friends.”

            “Friends are like brussel sprouts, woman. You don’t know you like them until you try them. For the most part.”

            “Barton,” called Coulson.

            Clint moved as gracefully and calmly as he could manage. Coulson hadn’t used that tone of voice that suggested Clint needed to stay away, or to go get medical personnel. When Clint followed his voice and turned the corner, Coulson was helping Natasha out from underneath the pathway and onto the bridge. She wore his sweatshirt and her red hair was matted and knotted around her face. She glared at them.

            Clint was shoving her backwards against the metal railings, his hands around her throat before he could realize what he was doing. She fought back, kicking his legs out from under him and he yanked her ankle. She flew to the ground and scissor kicked at him and he rolled away and onto his feet.

            “Enough,” said Coulson, stepping between them. He glared at Clint. “You know better.”

            “Fuck you, Natasha,” spat Clint, his hands in fists and his breathing coming harsh and hard out of his chest. He slammed his fist into his sternum, pounding it as he screamed at her. “Fuck you! I’m on your fucking side. I was on your fucking side, and you fucking lied to me.”

            “I didn’t do anything,” she told him and she looked at Coulson. “I just wanted to be alone for a little bit and no one was letting me be alone.”

            “Wow, Tash, I can’t imagine why that is!” laughed Clint bitterly, pushing past Coulson to get in her face again. “It couldn’t possibly be because you tried to kill yourself a few weeks ago. I thought you were getting better. I fucking vouched for you. I came back for you. And this is it? You think you can lie to me so you can disappear. You can’t fucking disappear! You aren’t the only one any more, Natasha, that’s the difference. That’s the difference when you’re on our side.”

            “Clint--,” she began, her eyes wide.

            “I’m your fucking partner,” he snarled at her, shoving her shoulders. “Go on. Kick me. Punch me. Kill me, Natasha. You might as well fucking get it down now. Just kill me. Because that’s what you’re going to do if you kill yourself and I can’t handle that right now, you fucking disappearing like no one fucking cares like no one fucking has your goddamn six. I have it. You’re such a selfish fucking bitch.”

            “Yes, because this is all about you, Barton,” she snapped back, slapping his hand away from her. He reveled in the contact. Her eyes had gone from wide, confused, and hurt to sharp, flinty, and cruel. “Right, I’m sorry, let me just make sure that your feelings aren’t hurt every time I do something.”

            “My feelings? You haven’t given a damn about my fucking feelings. Not all of us are cold and soulless creatures.”

            “You’ve changed your tune from all, “we’ll get through this together, Natasha,” haven’t you.”

            “Fuck you,” he snapped. His hands curled tighter. “This was deliberate. You lied to me. You chose me as your target. I refuse to be your fucking collateral damage. Not after I told you things that, fuck, Natasha.”

            “It’s not my fault you’re so trusting.”

            “You’re such a goddamn bitch,” he hissed. He started to walk away and then he spun on his heel and stormed back towards her. He said coldly, “You want to know why I stopped looking for death everywhere? Stopped throwing myself into fucking missions I shouldn’t have been taking? You want to know what I said you weren’t ready to hear? You, Natasha. You changed everything. I couldn’t kill you because I looked at you and I just couldn’t kill someone who wanted to die. You didn’t deserve it. You changed everything.”

            Her expression was unreadable. He shook his head and turned. To Coulson he said, “I want off.”

            Coulson said quietly, “Are you coming back?”

            Clint studied Coulson’s expression and understood what he was asking. His shoulders slouched slightly and his fists unfurled. He said, “I’ll be back in two weeks.”

            “You understand what this means,” Coulson stated.

            Clint knew. He nodded once and Coulson shrugged. “Go. Make sure I have a way to contact you.”

            “So you’re leaving me. After swearing you wouldn’t.” Her voice was cold, layers of ice over layers of ice.

            Clint saw the two paths in front of him. One of them postulated that she had been testing him and testing his willingness to stay with her. The other said that she was manipulative and cunning and cruel and if she was hellbent on destruction, he needed to get out of her way. He slipped down the second path, closed his mind, and kept his feet moving. He made his choice.

            Bombs are indiscriminate. When they are dropped on a target, everyone in the blast radius is a victim. They do not pick and choose. Bombs do not worry about trivial human concerns like guilt and innocence. They do not take into account ledgers and people and feelings and morals. Bombs do not concern themselves with that. Their job is destruction only and they do it well. He was no longer certain whether the bomb was in Natasha’s mind, or if she was the bomb and he was the target.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine: Through a Faithless Eye

            Clint didn’t do time off. He bounced between missions with minimal downtime and it was partially on purpose. He never let his mind slow down outside of a mission. He could focus to the point where his brain was singular and without any excess noise, but only on missions. At the base, if he was left to his own devices, everything in his head began to spin with increasingly velocity until he felt like he was going to skid off the tracks, explode out of his own skin, revert to old habits. Natasha seemed to be the same, always relieved when Coulson came to them the day after their last mission with a new one, and they had bolted straight through the last two years. When they were required to take time off for injury or because Coulson frowned at them enough, they had attended workshops on cyberwarfare, gone to language classes, and learned new weapons. Clint had felt like he could breathe around Natasha because she too seemed to fear the slowing down.

            He got a ride off base and landed off the coast of Georgia within a few hours. He took a cab to the airport, used an alias and a false id to buy a plane ticket to the middle of nowhere, checked his weapons with his government id, and was seated in 23C within a few hours of leaving Natasha and Coulson in the heart of the helicarrier. He had appreciated the metaphor briefly—they had gone to the heart of the matter, hadn’t they—only for a moment before putting his focus in getting to his destination. Everything else disappeared and this became the only objective in his life. Mission mode meant that he checked his tracks, doubled back, meandered, watched for familiar faces, avoided cameras while IDing them, wiped his prints off the sink in a fit of compulsion, and moved through the airport bookstore like a tornado, avoiding the self help and psychology section like it was contaminated with hazardous waste.

            Which it was. All of those books were bullshit.

            They called his flight and he boarded in slow motion, trying not to show his irritation at the speed at which his fellow passengers tucked away their carry-on luggage and arranged themselves in their seats. He slid into the window seat, slouched against the side, and stared out of the window. He glanced only once at the person sitting next to them, decided they were not a threat, but he couldn’t sleep, not on the flight.

            They landed, on time, for once, and docked at the gate. He shifted his weight impatiently side to side while standing in the aisle, waiting for someone to take down their luggage. The woman behind him chuckled at him and Clint’s head whipped around to stare at her.

            She gave him an apologetic smile. “It’s just that I’ve never seen anyone so excited to get to Iowa.”

            It was a small thing, but Clint felt something loosen in his chest and he shrugged, giving her a small smile back. “It’s been awhile since I was here.”

            “Where’re you from?” she asked congenially.

            “Waverly,” he said, turning to walk forward a few steps.

            “Me too!” she exclaimed. She said, “I teach. At the college.”

            “That’s great,” he told her.

            She said, “Do you have a ride there?”

            He blinked. “No, I was going to take the bus.”

            “Don’t be silly,” she said with a smile. She shifted her purse to the other hand and held out her right hand. “My name’s Jeannette, Jeannette Hunter.”

            He shook her hand. For the first time in a long time, he wished that he could tell her his real name. He used the one on the ID he used for his flight. Just in case. “Jay. Jay Bradshaw.”

            Jeanette’s smile was genuine. “Nice to meet you, Jay.”

            Jeannette, he found out, was born in Minnesota but always knew she wanted to teach in a college in a rural area. She talked to him about resources and equality of education, things he didn’t particularly care about, but he appreciated her enthusiasm and her willingness to make conversation with someone who didn’t feel like talking much. And she didn’t ask when he had to go to a special office, using an ID in a black badge case, to pick up certain bags that looked suspiciously like weapons. Midwesterners were good about that. They didn’t ask questions that they didn’t want answers to and so she didn’t ask. Her Honda Civic was in long term parking. She explained that she had been doing a special teaching course in Frankfurt, Germany. They tossed their bags in the back of the car and he slipped into the front seat.

            “Coming home to visit someone?” she asked, pulling out of the airport and getting onto the highway.

            He shrugged a bit. “Something like that.”

            “Know where you’re going?” she asked.

            He gave her a sideways smile. “You’re sharp.”

            She gave him a grin that showed too many teeth. “I’m a professor.”

            He gave her an address and she nodded like she knew who lived there. Maybe she did. It wasn’t a big town. Jeannette flicked on the radio, scanning past all of the Christian talk shows and Christian rock stations to settle on NPR and Clint’s mouth twitched slightly.

            “You must be real popular in town,” he told her.

            She laughed, a loud, crystalline sound. “I have a few friends. That’s enough for me. I like my work.”

            Clint said, “I know the feeling.”

            “So what do you do, Jay?”

            He looked out the window. People though Iowa was flat and parts of it were, but most of Iowa was rolling hills of corn and pigs. Iowa wasn’t flat. It was boring. He said, “Private security contractor. I used to be in the army.”

            “Just awful what’s happening in Bosnia,” she said conversationally in the way only civilians could.

            Clint glanced at her. The NPR station was talking about the death of a conductor with a major orchestra and the revolutionary style he brought to an aging art form, or some bullshit like that. He shrugged after a moment and said, “It’s a good gig if you can get it.”

            She said, “I’m a pacifist.”

            It was his turn to laugh. “So am I.”

            She laughed too.

            She parked in front of the address he had given her and stared straight ahead. Clint said, “Thanks for the ride, Jeannette.”

            “You’re welcome, Jay,” she said, her eyes flickering over to him. She sighed and said, “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

            He paused, his hand on the door handle. “Who says I’m looking?”

            “You got that look,” she replied, her eyes a little more cautious than they had been the entire time. She added, her voice a little softer, “People who join the army from Waverly, then go into private security, and don’t come back for years…well, they’re looking for something, aren’t they? You gotta be looking for something if you go all over the world and still want to come back here.”

            His fingers slipped from the door handle and he reached his hand over the center console, outstretched. She shook it with a faint smile on her face. He said, “I hope I find it too.”

            He got out of the car, grabbed his bags from the back seat, and slammed the car door shut. Instinctively, he slapped the car three times, signaling that it was alright for her to pull off and he waved over his shoulder at her. She pulled away, waving too. Clint shouldered his bags and walked up the long path to a plain brick ranch house. He made it to the front porch when the door opened. The petite white haired woman with a sharp, weathered face full of lines and her blue eyes narrowed and sharp stood in the doorway carrying a rifle.

            Clint stopped in his tracks. “Hi, Sara.”

            “Clinton Francis Barton, you got balls coming around this place.”

            “You used to call it stupidity.”

            “Same difference. Both stored between your legs.”

            Clint grinned a bit. “I never thought I’d say that I missed you, but I did.”

            She glared at him and then gestured with the gun. “Well, alright. Come on in.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten: Clear Your Conscience

            Sara moved around the kitchen, fussing over Clint, the length of his hair, the way he ‘filled out’ as she put it.

            “I think you’re calling me fat,” he told her, smiling a little bit. He sat in the same chair he sat in when he was a kid but these days, his feet reached the floor and his knees hit the leaf extension. He wrapped his hands around the cup of coffee she poured him.

            Sara gave him a look over her shoulder. “You look good. You were always too skinny as a kid.”

            He didn’t need to tell her why. Sara knew. Whenever things got bad at their house, they slipped out the back door, walked through the deer path behind their house in the woods, and ducked under the fence of Sara’s back pasture. They walked through the field, as silently as they could, dodging frozen mounds of manure and the mean Appaloosa that lived in the field (his name was Niko but Sara usually called him The Old Bastard), to knock on Sara’s back door.

If Clint closed his eyes, he could still remember the smell of cookies in her oven, the way he used to steal food from her fridge, desperately filling his stomach that went empty too many days in a row when his parents were on a drinking binge. Sara doted over them, but at the end of the day, his father would show up at her backdoor, demanding that the kids come home. When he was a teen in the circus, he had looked back on this time resentfully. Sara, he thought at the time, should have kept them. But he knew now the limits to even the kindest person’s involvement in another person’s personal failings. He and Barney were, of course, his father’s singular greatest accomplishment and greatest failing.

            “What are you doing back in town?” Sara asked to break the silence and the memories that were bearing down on the tiny kitchen.

            “Visiting you,” he said honestly, sipping the coffee. It was strong. “I’m on leave.”

            “In the army?”

            “Sort of. Private contractor.” It was as much as he was allowed to tell her, but Sara wasn’t typically a nosy person. True to form, she dropped the conversation. She made him a sandwich and put it in front of him, crossing her arms like she dared him not to eat it. He picked up. “Thanks.”

            “How long you staying?” she asked and added quickly, “It doesn’t bother me much, I’ll make you up a bed in the basement.”

            “A few days,” he said. “I just needed to get away for a bit.”

            “Well, as long as you’re here, I’m putting you to work,” she said firmly, sitting down and turning on the tv behind her. “The fence in the back field needs to be repaired and I want to build Happy a new shed.”

            “Who’s Happy?” he asked.

            It turned out that Happy was her new appaloosa and his name was not an accurate characterization of his personality. Happy the Appy seemed hellbent on making Clint’s tasks as difficult as possible. While Clint was bent over, fixing a fence, the horse tried to bite his ass. And when he was on a ladder, hammering, the horse spooked, bolting past him and knocking over the ladder, letting Clint drop with a yelp. The time after that, the horse deliberately nosed his box of tools off the stepladder. Clint sighed when he jumped down, collecting the tools.

            “I do not carry peppermints in my tools, Happy,” Clint told the horse seriously. The horse’s speckled ears flicked forward at the word peppermint. Clint paused, smiled a little bit, and reached into his back pocket. He unrolled the starlight mint and held it out on a flat palm. Happy’s lips caught it immediately and the horse crunched happily, his ears flopping side to side as he chewed. Clint rubbed the horse’s star.

            There was something steadying and reassuring about building things unrelated to destruction, death, war, international politics, and without taking orders from someone else (except Sara, but Clint didn’t mind listening to her advice and talking back to her). He didn’t mind nursing splintered hands, pulling the splinters out with tweezers, or the deep ache in his shoulders that came after nailing a thousand nails into a new run-in shed to provide Happy some comfort from the elements. Not once did he unpack his guns or his bow. He never felt like he needed them. He went out every morning with a cup of coffee, completely unarmed, and never thought twice about it until he saw his bags at night and mused over this small fact. He didn’t think about Natasha, much, or Coulson, much, and he tried not to think about what happened when he went back. He built things, and he drank coffee, and he ate homecooked food every night with Sara who brought him up to speed on all the gossip about people he didn’t remember.

            One night, Sara said to him, “Who was she?”

            Clint startled and sat up, staring at Sara. “Who was who?”

            “Whoever made you run back here,” Sara said, breaking a cookie in half and offering it to Clint. She said, watching Jeopardy, “It’s not like Waverly’s ever been home to you, Clinton.”

            She was right. Nothing good for Clint ever came from Waverly. He said with a shrug, “I spend most of my time with a gun in my hand, not a hammer. It’s nice to do something constructive instead of destructive for once.”

            She gave him a critical look.  “Destruction can also be construction.”

            It was the closest thing to philosophy he had ever heard out of Sara’s mouth and it made him a little uncomfortable. He said, “I’m not running.”

            She laughed and got up to get him more coffee. “You said it, kid, not me.”

            By the end of the fourth day, he had most of a frame to a new shed for the horse. Happy seemed to know what the frame was for as he continued to stand directly underneath it, making Clint increasingly paranoid about dropping nails. Sara was busy carding wool from her three sheep and yelling at Clint about his structural design choices.

            “That roof angle is too steep!” she called out. “Water’s going to roll off onto the poor horse, Clinton. I put in drainage stone twelve inches out from there. At least try to angle it correctly.”

            “You might not know this, Sara,” Clint called back. “But you live in Iowa and I’m more worried about the snow you get here.”

            “You got quite a mouth on you in the last twenty years.”

            “Yeah, they tried to beat it out of me but turns out I’m tougher than I look.”

            “Of course you are. You’re a Waverly boy,” Sara said with a distinct note of pride. She didn’t ask who tried to beat it out of him. Clint was grateful. He didn’t mean the army he was never in.

            But when he finished the shed at the end of the week, Sara walked around it, studied it, and gave him a smile and a nod of approval. “You did well. Happy will be happy.”

            Except that Happy wasn’t happy and was snorting and spooking from the shelter that now had three sides to it. Clint rolled his eyes and walked up to the horse, hands out and open like Sara had taught him twenty years ago so the horse wouldn’t be scared of him. Happy stood still though he rolled his eyes and his body was tense. Clint held his halter in one hand and pat his neck in the other.

            “Come on, boy,” he clucked to the horse and led the frightened horse into the dark of the shed, holding him still and rubbing his neck reassuringly. “See? Not so bad.”

            “You got a way with scared things,” said Sara approvingly.

            Clint frowned and shrugged. “He’s not scared. He just didn’t know it was still the same shed he’s been standing in. Just gotta show him that it’s not as bad as it seems and then –“

            He paused and looked up at Sara. He said quietly, “I have to go.”

            Sara didn’t seemed surprised in the least. She nodded. “Sure. Need a ride to the airport?”

            Clint said, “Please.”

 

           

 

             

Chapter Text

Chapter 11: Picking Through This Broken Glass

            SHIELD was trading out two of its planes so Clint felt like a kid in a candy shop even if he was just a passenger in one of the new planes. When they landed, he let out a whoop of joy and he wasn’t even ashamed. He got out, took off his helmet, and shook hands with the pilot, grinning. The pilot showed him the new retroreflection panels that gave the plane the same amount of stealth the helicarrier had. Clint examined every angle of the panels, trying to decide how he would possibly spot it in the air if, at any point, an enemy had a plane like that and he needed to take it out. The pilot was the one who pointed out that even if he couldn’t see because of the glare, lasers would bounce back off it. Clint grinned at that and thanked him for the tip.

             But his good mood faded the instant he was back inside the actual carrier. What had once felt safe and the closest thing to home made him feel edgy and anxious. He knew, in the back of his mind, he was looking for her around every corner. He knew that his eyes were scanning for scarlet hair. It frustrated him to no end that he wanted (or needed) to see her that much and he was angry, truly angry, that she could have destroyed and undercut the one place he could always go to sleep without a weapon under his pillow and another on the bedside stand.

            He did lunch with Coulson and even Coulson noticed the edge underneath Clint’s calm demeanor. Coulson calmly put down his sandwich and wiped off his hands on a napkin. “Your text said you had leveled out and you were ready to come back. So why do you feel like a ticking time bomb, Clint?”

            Clint flinched at the bomb metaphor. He said quietly, “I’m not going to explode.”

            “Are you sure?” asked Coulson but Clint was pretty sure it was a rhetorical question. Coulson popped open his can of seltzer water and took a sip of it. His eyes never left Clint’s face the whole time and though Clint didn’t return the gaze, he could feel his friend’s concern radiating over the table. “She’s not here.”

            Clint’s head snapped back and he stared at Coulson. “Where is she?”

            “We sent her to another base. One of the psychs there worked on someone else who had a lot of memory triggers and we thought it would help her.”

            “That’s a lot of caring you and Fury are doing.”

            “I might care,” Coulson replied carefully. “To Fury, she’s an asset and she’s useless to us unless we can help get her mind under her own control again.”

            Clint sensed a veiled threat towards his own usefulness which made him scowl at his untouched sandwich. “When is she back?”

            “I don’t know,” admitted Coulson quietly. “She’s not mine anymore. And she’s definitely not yours.”

            “Never thought she was,” said Clint and he left the table without another word. He felt stupid for expecting things to be different.

            Clint couldn’t sleep. He picked the lock to Coulson’s office after the first sleepless night and began to sleep on the couch there instead. Coulson was annoyed the first time he walked in in the morning to find a snoring Clint on the couch, but the second morning, Clint woke up with a blanket thrown over him and tucked around him, and he felt a little safer on the carrier. He slept there every night, setting an alarm so most mornings, he was out of the room by the time Coulson came down to start work. He began to train with weapons again, trying out a new bow that R&D gave him, and schooling the newbies on learning to be ambidexterous. He found himself finding more patience than he normally possessed with trainees. He challenged them but tried not to lose his temper with them. Coulson came to watch him a few times, and made no overtures about putting him back in the field.

            Weeks passed. Clint still could only sleep on the couch in Coulson’s office. Coulson and him started their weekly outings to a local bar off base again and Coulson even called in a favor so Clint got to fly the shiny new plane (true to his expectations, it took him three tries to catch the wire when he was landing. Also true to his expectations, the plane flew like a dream and he was truly, madly in love). Clint started to find the same peace that he had found at Sara’s and thought he lost the first few days back on base.

            “Who was she?” asked Coulson.

            Clint jerked, looking over at Coulson over his bottle. “What?”

            “You went to see someone in Waverly. I thought all your relatives were gone,” which was Coulson’s polite way of saying, I know all of your relatives are dead, Barton, why the sentimentality for a town that gave you nothing?

            “Sara. Sara Washington,” Clint said finally, picking at the label of his beer bottle and peeling it away slowly, his eyes focused on it. “She was my neighbor growing up. Our neighbor. When shit got bad, we hid at her house.”

            Coulson nodded. “Did you tell her who you were?”

            Clint looked up, amused. “She knew who I was, but if you are asking if I told her what I do, then no, I told her I did private security after I got out of the army, the same as I tell everyone out there.”           

            Coulson gave Clint the closest Phil ever came to a wide smile. “She glad to see you?”

            “Yeah,” Clint said after a moment. He stared at the label of the bottle in his hand. He smiled. “She was. Other than you, I don’t think anyone ever notices when I come and go, so that was kinda nice.”

            “Lots of people notice, not everyone cares,” Coulson said bluntly. “I’m glad you went.”

            Clint nodded. “Me too.”

            He slept in Coulson’s office that he started to keep spare clothes under the couch cushions, leading a few of Coulson’s other agents to complain that the couch felt lumpy. Clint laughed when he heard those complaints.

            He was asleep there one morning, sleeping in because Coulson wasn’t there, when the door burst open and Clint woke up, clicked the safety off the gun under his pillow, and sat up, turning with it pointing straight at the intruder.

            Natasha stared at him, wide eyed. “I was looking for Coulson.”

            Clint lowered the gun and put the safety back on, blatantly staring at her. If possible, she looked simultaneously better and worse. Her hair flowed wildly around her shoulders, endless curls, longer than he had ever seen it before. Her eyes were bright and free of the ghosts he had seen there before he left on his leave. But she was still pale, dark circles under her eyes, her cheeks a little gaunt, her jacket hanging off of her loosely. She gripped the doorknob tightly.

            He said, “The door was locked.” He had triple checked it.

            She hesitated and said, “I picked it. Sometimes Coulson’s just on the phone and he doesn’t mind…”

            She trailed off and Clint didn’t ask her to finish the thought. He said, “I sleep here now.”

            Natasha glanced between him and the empty desk. She said, “Where is he?”

            “Away,” he told her sharply.

            She winced, visibly, nodded, and shut the door. Clint got up to lock it again but he heard it click and she had locked it from the outside. Clint scrubbed his hand through his hair and released a breath that he hadn’t known he was holding. There was no point in going back to sleep now. He dressed quickly, fixed the couch, slipped out of the office and locked the door behind him. He went on his morning run before going back to his own rooms to shower quickly. He changed again and made his way down to training.

            His trainees got to work right away, warming up, while he watched, fixing their situps, pushups, and their forms as they started with martial arts. He shook his head at one of the girls. He straightened her wrist and turned it slightly. He put his hand on her hip and flex it outwards. The girl flushed slightly and Clint ignored it. If she was going to be a field agent, she needed to get used to physical contact. If he had to, then she had to.

            “Plant your foot,” he told her. She planted her foot and he shook his head. He swung his leg lightning fast around hers, hooking her ankle. She hit the floor with a yelp. He offered her a hand and pulled her to her feet. He pushed his own foot into the ground, hard, without changing his upper body position. He gestured for her to come at him. She tried the same move on him, and landed on the ground again. He reached down, pulling her to her feet again. He showed her how to straighten her upper body and plant from her hip down, not just her knee, so it was less obvious to her combatant that she was using that foot to brace her entire body.

            He moved through the class, correcting tiny and big mistakes. Some of the trainees would fail their basic field training and become desk jockeys for the rest of their lives, and others would pass basic field and become a SHIELD field agent. Only a few of them would be special agents, and Clint could already ID who those agents would be. They weren’t necessarily the ones who have perfect form when he walked around but they listened hard to what he was saying and never gave up on trying to improve their form.

            Clint felt someone watching him and glanced over his shoulder. Natasha was leaning against the wall, dressed in a tank top and black shorts, her hair up and her gym bag slung over her shoulder. Her face was impassive and her arms crossed over her chest. He called out, “Something I can help you with Agent Romanov?”

            She shrugged, dumping her back. His heart leapt slightly and he calmed it, watching her walk through his class, studying everyone’s forms. People parted for her, moving out of her way, and he could almost feel their fear of her. She tilted her head at him. “Didn’t know you taught, Agent Barton.”

            He shrugged. “I do what’s asked of me.”

            “Do you?” she asked and he pressed his lips together. She looked around and said, “Do they need sparring partners?”

            “I’m not sure they’re ready to spar with you,” and he almost called her princess the way he used to. He closed his mouth around the pet name and he saw her shoulders tighten slightly, like she knew what he was about to say.

But before he could say anything more, she said, “A demonstration then,” and she moved.

He had forgotten how fast she was, almost superhuman speed, and as lethal as the spider for which she was named. She spun, her fist nearly colliding with his face except he twisted, grabbing her arm and flipping her over his shoulder. She arched her back in mid air, springing off the ground with flat feet and jerking him by an ankle between her legs. He twisted and kicked as hard as he could, hitting her in the side. She didn’t even grunt, didn’t lose her breath. They were both on their feet, and he was blocking more than he was returning her hits. He kept his feet moving and she still moved on him, fast and furious, anger and something else fueling her attacks. He ducked and slammed a fist into the softness of her side. He felt the air leave her mouth only a fraction before she flipped over his head and took his legs out from underneath him, pinning him to the mat with his hands behind him as she straddled him. He brought his legs straight back, catching his ankles around her front and rolling them backwards, twisting out of her hold. She was on her feet faster than him though and one kick to the chest and she had him pinned to the mat, her thighs on either side of his head and her full weight on his chest. No amount of thrashing could buck her off. The look on her face was positively feral, her chest rising and falling rapidly, her pupils dilated and sweat beading along her collarbone. Before he could watch the beads of sweat run downwards on her skin, he slapped the mat three times. She rolled off of him and sat back on her ass, breathing hard. He rolled to his side, cough, looked up at her, and grinned.

“That wasn’t a fair fight,” he told her, sounding hoarse.

Her lips twitched in a suppressed smile. “No fight is ever fair. That’s what you should teach them.”

Clint got to his feet and offered his hand to her. She took it to his surprise and he pulled her to her feet. He looked at her and said quietly, “We good?”

“I think I get to kick your ass a few more times before we’re even,” she said.

Clint dropped her hand and turned to his stunned class. He said dryly, “That’s why I said that you weren’t ready to spar against Agent Romanov.”

The students looked suitably frightened. Natasha sauntered back through the class, her shorts having ridden up a bit and her tank top curling up on her abdomen, and Clint knew she was swaying her hips a little more than was necessary and he strongly suspected that it was working effectively as more than one of his students, both male and female, watched her walk away, blatantly turning their bodies and heads. She picked up her bag and walked out of the training room without a backwards glance.

Later, Clint caught up with her in the mess hall. He took two bowls of chocolate pudding and put one on her tray. She glared at him over her shoulder, and then, recognizing him, smiled a bit. She said, “How were the students?”

“Once everyone got their bloodflow going back to their extremities and not into their pants, things got better,” Clint told her. He gave her a look. “You can’t do that to them.”

“Do what?” she asked, wrinkling her nose at the entrée options. “Just as tidbit of information, you all get shafted here on the carrier. The New Mexico base has significantly better food.”

“Yeah, I know,” Clint said. He nodded. “The lasagna’s good. And you know, the thing you do with your hips when you want people to stop thinking with their brains.”

“I can’t be held responsible—“ she protested.

His hand closed around her wrist and she stilled. He said, “You’re welcome to join me in training, but they’re not ready to handle the Widow yet. If you come into that room, I need just Agent Romanov.”

She pursed her lips and shrugged. “Okay.”

They took their trays to a table in the farthest corner away from other people, entries and exists, and from which they had the best vantage point. They did not need to discuss this. They knew exactly where they would sit. Clint licked his spoon clean from pudding and watched her from under his lashes. She was investigating the lasagna with a clear look of distrust.

He said, “We should talk about it.”

She looked up, and nodded. “I know. I’m not here for long. They’re sending me back to New Mexico.”

He said without thinking, “I want to come.”

She put down her fork. “You have your trainees.”

“Only because Coulson won’t let me go back out in the field.”

“Why not?”

“He thinks I’m compromised.”

“Are you?”

Clint flinched. “I would have told you no a few weeks ago, but I can’t disagree with him right now.”

She avoided his eyes. “Because of me?”

“Yes and no.”

“You’re being very honest.”

“Yeah. There was a horse.”

She looked up, trying to read his face for any signs of bullshit. “A horse made you honest?”

“His name is Happy,” Clint explained, scraping the edges of his pudding bowl. “He is a pain in the ass. He kept knocking over my tools and knocking over my ladder and generally making it hard for me to do to my job which was to build him a shed. I finally got the shed built and then he was doing that horse thing where he was absolutely positively sure that the dark in the shed was full of monsters. So I had to walk in and show him that it was okay.”

Natasha picked up her fork and stabbed her lasagna with a considerable amount of force. “I know you, Clint. You like a good metaphor.”

He smiled and cut up his steak which was questionably cooked. “Yeah.”

“But I’m pretty sure you’re not enough of an idiot to compare me to a horse.” Natasha said firmly.

He paused, eyed the fork and knife on her tray. “Not when you have metal utensils in front of you.”

“I can also kill you with a plastic utensil.”

He snorted. “Princess, the only time I’d compare you to a horse is if I was in the middle of Iowa and you were hundreds of miles away from me.”

She gave him a crooked smile. “Good boy.” She ate a small bit of lasagna. “I’ve never seen a horse. In person.”

Clint stared at her. “You’re serious?”

Natasha looked up, surprised. “Yeah. When did I have a chance to see a horse, Clint?”

“I just…” he shook his head. “There are like, tourist things, horses pulling carriages around cities and you had really rich marks. I am only mildly surprised you never killed anyone in a stable before.”

She didn’t even flinch. She considered it in her mind. “I killed someone with a horse tranq before but he was a vet and we were in his office, so I never got to see the horse for whom it was intended.”

Clint shook his head. “You have to meet a horse, Natasha. It’s like a life requirement for all females in America. It’s part of the American dream to be a girl who wants a horse.”

“I am not living the American dream,” she replied dryly.

“Look, all I’m saying,” he said through a mouthful of steak, “is it’s a pretty good metaphor.”

            She helped him with his trainees for the next three days and then, with Coulson’s grudging permission, they both got on a flight back to New Mexico to SHIELD’s top secret base there. Natasha went back into sessions with the psych team who had dealt with memory triggers before, and Clint agreed to test the base’s security with a few other snipers and a team of ground personnel. They breach the base on the second try, not even setting off a single alarm until Clint’s sitting next to the reactor in the center of the base, dangling his legs and whistling a bawdy bar tune and a guard happened to notice him. SHIELD put the entire base on lockdown until Clint could write new security protocol for it. This took him most of a month and he stayed up late most nights in the rec room, pouring over blueprints, security personnel’s bios and training, devising new alarm systems, guarding patterns, and training programs. Most of those nights, Natasha joined him in the rec room. She was not cleared to work on the security program so she sat on the couch behind him, reading. She usually brought him coffee and if he happened to ask her a few hypothetical questions and she happened to give him a few excellent solutions to his hypothetical quandries, they couldn’t be blamed. It was only their way of fixing things.

            Six weeks into their time back at New Mexico, Clint was waiting for her when she got out of one of her sessions. She looked tired and sad, but gave him a wary confused look when he straightened from the wall, grinning at her.

            “Field trip,” he announced, opening his fist and showing her car keys. “We have permission to leave base for a few hours.”

            “Where are we going?” she asked suspiciously.

            “Nowhere special,” he said, but he couldn’t stop grinning. He glanced at her sandals. “You need long pants. And boots.”

            Her gaze grew increasingly wary but she shrugged, went back to her room, and changed into the appropriate footwear. He tried not to stare at her. It had been awhile since he had seen her in jeans and he forgot exactly how well they fit her. He walked a little ahead of her, telling her about his progress with the new security project as they made their way to the base’s garage. He opened the door on her side and she peered into the car first before sliding in. He rolled his eyes at her.

            “I had you change footwear. Why would I put the surprise in the car?” He paused and said cheekily. “It doesn’t fit in a car, actually.”

            Natasha rolled her eyes right back at him. “Just drive, Barton.”

            They sped out and away from base. New Mexico was gorgeous, even if Clint didn’t like how bloody flat it was. The heat and the flat light had forced him to adjust his bow a hundred times already and complain to R&D about the material of the new lightweight compact bow they gave him not reacting well to the heat. It radiated heat and his gloves weren’t designed to protect him from that. They drove with the windows down and Clint glanced sideways at Natasha who was gazing out the window, her hair lashing around her face. Her pale arm hung out of the window, relaxed. She had only checked the glove compartment once and her entire body had relaxed when she saw there was a gun there. She looked curious and excited.

            He slowed down, turning off the highway, and going down a smaller road that in places with trees and fencelines one would call a country road. Out here, it was just a state road. She glanced sideways at him, curious, but didn’t ask any questions. She sat up abruptly in her seat, pulling her arms inside of the car and clenching her hands together when he turned into Lucky Star Ranch.

            “A friend of a friend,” he said quietly, thanking Sara for her discretion. Natasha stared at him, wide eyed. He parked the car and unbuckled. “Don’t worry. Petting only unless you actually want to ride them.”

            She unbuckled slowly, opening the door and sliding out into the bright sunlight. Clint watched her hesitantly and then he too got out of the car. Please let this not be a mistake. He stood a half pace behind Natasha as she looked at him anxiously and she slipped her hands into her back pockets. A woman came out of the main barn, waving at them.

            “You must be Clint!” she called. She walked up to them, a big grin on her face. She shook his hand and raised her eyebrows. “Sara told me you were handsome. I’m Cara.”

            Clint flushed slightly and gestured to Natasha. “This is Natalie.”

            Natasha gave him an amused look when Cara made her comment about Clint and then a grateful one for the false name. She stepped a little closer to Clint and Cara shook her hand, giving her an appraising look, but a slightly disappointed one that she cast back at Clint.

            “Nat’s never met a horse,” Clint explained. “I think Sara told you?”

            “Sure. So I brought in one of our more laidback horses. I figured you could just show her how to brush him off and you guys can ride if you want, but I’d have to grab another horse for you, Clint.” Cara gave him an appraising look over her shoulder. “You ride well?”

            “Not in the least,” Clint replied dryly as they stepped into the cool dark breezeway of the barn. “I haven’t ridden since I was eight.”

            Natasha murmured curiously to him, “Circus?”

            “Nope,” he answered, but didn’t elaborate further. He didn’t want to talk about Waverly in front of Cara.

            Cara gestured to the horse in the crossties, a chubby bay mare with a cross expression on her face. “This is Beans. She always looks like that, don’t worry. She doesn’t actually bite.”

            Natasha actually shrank backwards and Clint caught her, a hand at the small of her back. He grinned at her. “You’re not scared of anything and you’re scared of a cranky old mare?”

            She glared back at him and walked forward, her shoulders set square. The mare shifted weight in the crossties, her ears coming forward. Clint slipped up behind Natasha and took her hand. She froze but he pretended not to notice. He unfurled her fist and pressed a peppermint into it. “Here.”

He pulled her hand forward towards the horse, keeping it flat. He felt her arm tense and try to pull back, her fingers curling defensively when the horse’s lips flapped for her hand. He shook his head, “Keep it flat so she doesn’t get a finger by accident.”

Natasha’s hand shot flat out. The horse lipped the peppermint off her palm, chewed it and then stretched out, licking her palm, looking for more. Natasha giggled. An honest to god giggle. Clint had to let go of her wrist and walk around the other side of the horse to press his face into the horse’s neck momentarily. You’re in trouble, Barton. When she turned to look for him, her eyes wide and shining, he would have done just about anything she asked him in that moment. He had never in his life known anything like the way his heart skipped and pounded in that moment.

“What now?” she asked him. Clint picked up a brush out of the grooming box sitting in the aisle. He stood behind her, holding his hand over hers, showing her how to curry the horse to dig all of the dust and mud to the surface. She bit her lip, concentrating in putting the muscle required into the motion. He showed her how to brush off the horse with a hard brush and then a soft brush, and pick out the horse’s feet with a hoof pick. She concentrated, learning how to move around the horse, her hands small and firm as she ran them over the horse’s rump, talking to the horse in careful steady words so the horse knew where she was the whole time.

By the end, Natasha was covered in dust and sweat. Clint wiped sweat off his own forehead and pat the horse on the neck. “She’s a good mare.”

Natasha impulsively planted a kiss on the horse’s nose. She backed up, glowing, and looked at Clint. She said softly, “Thank you.”

Clint looked away, rubbing the horse’s forehead. “You’re welcome.”

The drive back to the base was silent, but a comfortable easy silence. He parked the car and they walked up the stairs together, bumping shoulders. Clint had a thousand things he wanted to say to her, and do with her, but he couldn’t figure out the right time to say them. He opened his mouth at the top of the stairs but Natasha sighed and said she ought to go shower, and he agreed, and she walked away. He exhaled slowly. Things are better, he told himself. I fixed it, he told himself. Still. He took a very cold shower and he tried to keep the image of a dusty, sweaty, laughing, smiling Natasha kissing the horse on the nose out of his head.

           

           

            

Chapter Text

Chapter 12: Brave the Light

           

            “Scoot over,” Clint pat her legs in the rec room which was surprisingly crowded that night. He caught the looks that others threw him, like he was courting death, and maybe he was, both courting and courting death, but Natasha barely lifted her eyes from the page of her book when she pulled her legs up close to her body so he could curl up on the other side of the couch she domineered on a nightly basis.

            He glanced at the cover of her novel, and almost smirked that it was a horse book, but he tried not to. Still, her eyes flickered up to his, big, blue, and daring him to say something. She said smoothly, “Comments, Barton?”

            “Nothing,” he replied and opened his book. “Good reading?”

            “A horse died on the fourth page,” she said, her voice almost dull from distraction. “If the detective doesn’t figure out who and why someone killed the horse, I’m going to burn the book.”

            Clint decided it was best not to point out that there was no way during the course of the book that the detective didn’t solve the case. The point of fiction was for tidy endings. It was one of the reasons Clint despised fiction. He cracked open the spine of his new biography about Churchill and got to reading about his favorite alcoholic political leader. He felt Natasha’s toes curls against his feet as she read through the book, her body tensing and relaxing as the tension rose and fell in her own book. And he couldn’t be blamed for watching her occasionally, if only because she looked so enthralled, and it was horses, and he had been the one to introduce her to the horse only the previous week.

            People were playing pingpong and watching a football game on the big TV, shouting and cheering and booing in turn, pushing each other around and imitating touchdown dances. Clint absentmindedly took off his hearing aids and Natasha threw him a jealous look that made him grin back at her before going back to his book. At the end of the game, when apparently most people’s favorite team lost, judging by the amount of scowling, yelling at the coach, and whining about the refs, Natasha shook his foot slightly.

            He slipped his hearing aids back on when she gestured. She looked a little unsure. She said, “Will you come to my session tomorrow with me?”

            He blinked and glanced around but no one noticed their conversation. He tilted his head and responded slowly, “Sure.”

            She looked relieved. “Good. Thanks.”

            He smiled back at her and went back to his book, but his mind was somewhere else and he reread the same page another twenty times before he gave up. He touched her leg as he was getting up. “I’m heading to bed. Just text me tomorrow when you need me.”

            “Okay,” she replied softly, and he felt her eyes on him as he walked out of the rec room.

            He was just out of the shower when he got the text message. Thirty minutes, room 345a9. He dressed quickly, thanking his security project for teaching him the layout of a base more complicated than the helicarrier so he actually knew the way to 9th level of A Wing which was between 3rd C and 17th M because the labeling was more of a cipher than a coordinate in the building. He didn’t know who got paid to design these buildings but given the amount of thought that clearly went into it, he hoped it was a halfway decent amount. The most complicated part of revamping New Mexico’s security was training new kids about that stupid cipher. Most of the people in New Mexico were either scientists or field agents with very few operations and logistics specialists, the type of people who took well to learning complicated ciphers. 

            He arrived outside of the room, trying his best to look relaxed and not confused. Natasha was waiting, for him, or for the room. She straightened anxiously, chewing her lower lip, and gave him a weak smile. Her hair was pulled up tight into a ponytail and she wore a plain, loose fitting tshirt, and jeans again.

            “Hey,” he gave her the most confident smile he could manage. Like walking with a horse into the dark. If you’re confident, they’re confident, he thought to himself.

            “Hi. Thank you,” she added and she looked at the door warily. “They say that this is necessary or they can’t reinstate us as partners.”

            An icy cool ran over his skin. He swallowed and shrugged. “Then we’ll do it.”

            She looked up at him sharply as the door opened. She touched his chest with her palm, startling him, and whispered swiftly, “Please. I promise it’ll be okay.”

            He had no chance to open his mouth to respond because the doctor called Natasha’s name with a slightly chastising tone and he walked behind her into the room, a little puzzled.

            The room was small, painted in neutral calm colors with a pale blue couch with an assortment of throw pillows. Across from the couch was a comfortable armchair. There was a folding chair set up too, and Clint suspected that was for him, but Natasha moved like a tornado through the room, systemically removing all of the throw pillows from the couch and stacking them on the small window of the room and the coffee table on the side of the room. She studied them and then picked out a red star pillow. She sat down on the couch like she was claiming space and hugged the pillow to her chest. She pat the seat next to her and then glared at him, like he had the option to refuse but it would be a poor decision.

            He sat down on the couch next to her, leaning away from her, and giving her an amused look. “Really? A red star? You’re just a walking cliché aren’t you.”

            She tilted her head back at him and a smirk twitched in the corner of her mouth. “I like this pillow.”

            He grinned at her and turned his attention to the doctor who was sitting in the armchair, watching them intently. The man was as clichéd as his armchair and Natasha clutching a red star to her chest. He was balding with a gray beard and wire-rimmed glasses with a red sweater vest. Clint tried not  to raise his eyebrows at him, but he knew that something escaped onto his face because Natasha was suddenly very busy trying not to laugh and studying the stitching on her pillow.

            “Agent Barton,” the man leaned forward. “Dr. Sean Jameson. You can call me Sean inside this room. I’ve heard a lot about you from Natasha here.”

            Clint was not used to hearing other people refer to Natasha by her first, true name and he almost flinched. He managed a tight smile as he shook his name. “Clint.”

            “As you know, I’ve worked with a number of SHIELD’s agents of all levels who have experienced trauma associated with memory loss and memory triggers. Natasha was sent out here about a month ago to begin work with me in hopes that she could resume work in the field without experiencing the occasionally self destructive and violent triggers she previously experienced. I need to remind you that everything that happens in this room is confidential.”

            Clint’s mouth tightened. “Sir, with all due respect, we’re special agents and partners. Everything that happens between us is confidential.”

            “He means that even Coulson doesn’t have the right to know what happens in here,” Natasha explained, her voice soft and low. Clint turned and looked at her. She watched him from under her lashes warily. She added softly, “Dr. Jameson only gives me an up or down for return to field work. He doesn’t have to give specifics, only that my memory triggers remain or my memory triggers are managed. That means you can’t tell Coulson anything,” and she paused and murmured, “and no one can say anything about anything you say here.”

            Clint sat back on the couch, his body tightly coiled. “Understood.”

            Jameson studied Clint closely and nodded to Natasha. “What we’re doing today is progressing to talking about what happened in Sofia.”

            Clint’s entire body tensed. His hands curled into fists and he pressed his knuckles into his temple. He told himself that he knew how to handle an interrogation and he began to compartamentalize his mind, sorting things away so that no matter how hard they tried, they could not touch parts of him that he did not want them to touch. He could see the way that Natasha’s body had mirrored the tension in him.

            Jameson pretended not to notice that there were two highly trained and on edge assassins in his room. Clint knew he was pretending only because the man’s eyes flickered once, just once to the small side table next to him where Clint strongly suspected that there was a panic button. Jameson sipped his coffee cautiously, watching them, his body posture relaxed.

            “I’d like to hear your half of it, Clint,” the doctor said and Clint immediately regretted offering his first name.

            Clint shrugged a little. “The mission went well. We had a midmorning flight out of Sofia. When I woke pretty early, I was unexpectedly alone, she wasn’t in the hotel room. I showered—“

            “Why? Your partner was missing,” interrupted Jameson.

            Clint narrowed his eyes. “Because I felt dirty and at that point, I wasn’t sure that she was in danger. Natasha is more than capable of defending herself from outside attacks. Anyways, I called into Coulson, asked him for a few days—“

            “Why?” asked Jameson again.

            Clint gritted his teeth, “Because it wasn’t like her to disappear like that. We have been in the field for two years and she never once left like that. I figured she might need a few days off.”

            “Continue,” Jameson said, making a note on his notepad.

            Clint didn’t look at Natasha. “I figured there were two places she went so I checked the ballet first and a ballerina told me that she had been there, looking for our mark again, but had left about an hour before I got there. I went to the second place, which is the rooftop where I first recruited her two years ago. It’s by the train tracks and the river in Sofia. When I found her, she was pretty quiet and she pulled a gun on me, so I pulled mine too. I lowered mine first, and she began threatening her own life. I’m lucky,” he said quietly. “that she wasn’t successful. I tackled her and got her gun away from her.”

            “She remembers most of that,” Jameson said after a pause when Natasha was staring so intently at the stitching that Clint was fairly sure that she was trying to disappear into it. “I’d like to talk about the events that led to that morning and why Natasha felt triggered enough to leave.”

            Clint froze, a series of overlapping images striking his mind in a deluge of sensation and sound and scent. He reached with his fingers up to his hearing aids, almost pulling them off, like they would help him control his memories. He looked at Natasha and then shook his head. “I’m not talking about this. Tasha, we were fixing things. How does this help? This will break what…”

            “Pozhalyosta,” she murmured, her eyes wide and fearful when they met his.

            He snapped, anger and fear flooding over his mind when he looked at her, “What is there to say, Tasha? I raped you. What happened between us was rape.”

            In fiction, there would be a deafening silence. But this was not deafening silence and what filled Clint’s hearing was the ragged inhale and exhale of Natasha’s breath and her violent shaking. Clint wanted to touch her, comfort her, but this was his fault and everything came down to that, but he couldn’t stop shaking himself and he tore his hearing off his ears. She reached over, touching his cheek with shaking fingers. He pushed her hand away, staring at the floor.

            “You have to earn your way,” Trickshot said quietly, not meeting Clint’s eyes. He put out his cigarette on Clint’s arm. Clint growled in pain, his hands curling into fists and his arms pressing up against the restraints, but the drugs were heavy in his body and he couldn’t find a means to escape. Trickshot stood and said, “Until you can be an act yourself, you have to earn your way.”

            Trickshot left the trailer, leaving the door open behind him. Clint couldn’t see—and when in his life couldn’t he see?—the details but the light spilled, drunken like the roofies that had been in Clint’s beer, and it walked, lazily, towards him, on two legs, hands at the belt.

            “Trickshot!” he yelled, arching against the restraints.

            “Easy, little hawk,” said the light. “Easy.”

            Natasha was cradling his head in her hands, her forehead against his, and she kept signing one of the only signs she knew, her flat palm and upwards thumb pressing circles to her chest. He was gripping her wrists tightly and he relaxed them slightly, and she slid his hearing aids over his ears, retreating back to her side of the couch.

            She was crying. She whispered, “Is that what you’ve thought this whole time? For the last month and a half? That you raped me? Clint, you are not a rapist.”

            He was shaking too violently to even clasp his hands together. He shook his head. “You didn’t know who you were, Natasha. How can you consent if you didn’t know who you were?”

            “Because I knew who you were,” she replied simply. “I might not have been in the right frame of mind, no, and it was not how I would have wanted to sleep with you for the first time, but I knew who you were the whole time and I never once didn’t want it with you.”

            He shuddered and covered his ears. “Please, stop.”

            “Clint,” said Jameson calmly, his voice soothing and pitched low. “I think it’s important for your partnership that you listen to what Natasha is saying and take it in. Carrying the guilt of thinking you had nonconsensual sex with your partner is extremely heavy and painful and unhealthy.”

            Clint shot him a glare. “I don’t know that I had consent.”

            “You had consent, just not from me as you know me,” Natasha said quietly, curling into a small ball with her pillow. “It was a different version of me. At the worst, Clint, it was dubious. I need you,” she paused and swallowed, “to let that go. I can see it in the back of your eyes every time you touch me now and I can’t have you afraid to sleep in the same room as me or touch me or anything else.”

            “Why?” Clint rasped, rubbing his wrists where electric red marks stood out.

            “Because that’s what’s done,” Trickshot said, tossing him a tube of handcream. “That’ll help.”

            Clint took it with him into the bathroom where he locked the door and turned on the shower. He cranked up the hot water until it was scalding. He stepped under the punishing spray and scrubbed his skin, digging his nails into his own flesh. He pulled his fingers across his chest and stomach, leaving angry red trails in their wake. He attacked his own skin until he was bleeding, the water at his feet red.

            He scrubbed his skin with soap only after he was raw and wounded. He threw the handcream in the trash. He dressed behind the locked door, walked back out through the trailer, and picked up his bow on the way out. He went outside to practice. He did not come back in again until dawn.

            “Please, this is too much for him,” Natasha was begging Jameson.

            “It is important, Clint, that you stay here,” Jameson insisted, leaning forward, clasping his hands and watching Clint with intent eyes. “Where do you go?”

            “Fuck you,” snarled Clint. He reached for his hearing again to pull it off but Natasha took his hand instead, holding it tightly. He looked at her. “If I promise to try and work on not carrying that with me, can I go now?”

            Natasha looked at Jameson who shook his head. “Clint, I can’t let you leave like you are right now. Natasha, why don’t you explain a little bit of our work to him?”

            She didn’t let go of his hand. “Part of the technique is traditional cognitive behavioral therapy, but the other part is identifying triggers and understanding them so that I can rationally offer my brain alternatives.”

            Clint flinched and tried to draw his hand away. She tightened her grip on it. “Clint, you are afraid that you’re a trigger for me.”

            He froze and nodded, slightly, meeting her eyes. He couldn’t help the fear and apprehension he knew was playing out over his face. “Yes.”

            She gave him a thin, unsure smile. “You aren’t a trigger for me. Sex isn’t even the trigger for me. The ballet was the trigger for me. I think I told you that in Sofia. But it’s true. You weren’t the trigger for me. Sex wasn’t the trigger. If sex was the trigger, I would have been a pretty shitty weapon for them.”

            He had no doubt in his mind that she means the Red Room. He stared at his hands that she was holding between his. He said quietly, “You don’t lie to me, Natasha. That was part of the agreement.”

            She said softly, “I know. I remember. The first time we were on a rooftop in Sofia. Clint, I swear to you the only time I lied was about therapy on the carrier a few weeks ago. I want to be back in the field with you.”

            He said stiffly, “You’re trained to be the best liar in the world. How can I trust you on this?”

            “I’m going to pretend you didn’t just say that,” Natasha replied after a moment, her voice dry and reluctant. “What you mean is that you don’t trust yourself with me anymore. You think you lost control or something, that you should have been checking in with me, but how could you know that I was still being triggered unless I had told you? What happened was not the way it should have played out, but that still doesn’t make it your fault, Clint.”

            Clint pulled his hand out of hers and said, “Can I go now?”

            Jameson and Natasha had a silent conversation that Clint didn’t see as he intently stared at the floor. Jameson said quietly that he could leave and Clint was out the door like a shot, slamming the door behind him, running through the halls, running, running, running, trying to outrun everything she told him, everything he knew in his bones (it was his fault, it always was his fault, he should have known, that’s what happened, he was only trying to get by), everything that couldn’twouldn’tstoppoundinghismind. He ran to his room, shut his door, locked it, went to the bathroom, locked it, and turned on the shower scalding hot. He stripped swiftly and stepped under the scalding water, scrubbing his skin with the cheap soap until every inch of his skin screamed with pain the way his ribs clutched his heart, the way fists wrapped around his sternum, the way fingers bit into his skin.

            He slid to the floor, shaking again.

            Time passed and he wasn’t sure how much time. He climbed out of the shower on his hands and knees, straightening and turning off the water which had run cold at some time. He pulled on his clothes shakily, and stumbled out of the bathroom, fishing his hearing aids out of his pockets. He straightened. Natasha was sitting on his bed, crosslegged and calm. She looked pale and worried.

            He hooked the aids over his ears and said hoarsely, “You can’t just pick the locks whenever you want, Tash.”

            She didn’t even have the audacity to deny it. She gestured to the bathroom. “I would have come in there but I figured your hearing was off and you might be a little upset about that.”

            He said, “I need to be alone.”

            “That’s the last thing you need,” she said quietly. She watched him closely. “We’re partners, Clint. You came after me that morning. I’m coming after you now.”

            He stepped close to her, unsure and shaking. He whispered, “I’m sorry. They’re never going to make us partners again, not after that.”

            “I can be very persuasive,” she said quietly, and handed him a folded piece of paper.

            Clint unfolded it.

            It is the recommendation of Dr. Sean Jameson of SHIELD New Mexico that Natasha Romanov is ready to resume field agent training with the goal of returning to the field within the year at the discretion of her handler and barring any further incidents. It is the recommendation of this doctor that she continues to utilize the SHIELD psych teams without repercussions on her mission assignments or pay. Additionally, Dr. Jameson recommends that for Agent Romanov’s continued comfort in the field and for optimal success that she continue her partnership with Agent Clinton Barton who had been her partner at the time that Agent Romanov was reported in crisis. He has shown proficiency in handling Agent Romanov in times of crisis and their rapport is reliable and excellent.

            Dr. Sean Jameson, MD, PhD, CMRSC

            Clint sat down on the bed next to her. “How did you…”

            She took the letter out of his hands and folded it back up, placing it on the bedside stand. “I wouldn’t have asked you to come if this hadn’t been on the table.”

            Clint swallowed and said softly, “Natasha, I’m sorry.”

            She nodded, looking at him. “I know. Me too.”

            They sat there in silence for a long time until Natasha said, “You weren’t always there, were you.”

            Clint shook his head.

            She said, “Will you tell me where you went?”

            He paused, considered it, and shook his head, slower.

            She nodded. “Okay.”

            She ran her fingertips over his forearms, red and full of scratches, bright tracks across his skin. He shivered under her touch. She said, “Come on,” and tugged him backwards onto the bed. He froze, stiff and unsure. She pretended not to notice, curled up next to him on top of the blankets. She rested a hand on his chest over his heart, her head against his shoulder, and her knees barely grazing his hip. Her breathing was soft and steady, and eventually Clint closed his eyes, letting the steadiness of her next to him lull him into sleep. 

            He was his own blast radius. She walked into his fallout, knowing it could burn her and take her down too, and they stood in the contaminated land together. 

Chapter Text

Chapter 13: Kiss You Where It Hurts

            If it had been any other situation, Clint would have gone AWOL for a few days, but it was Natasha, and leaving her now, he sensed, would be worse than when he left her after screaming at her for disappearing inside of the carrier.  And some part of him understood her when they woke and he panicked and she whispered the word stay to him like a ticking clock. So he taught her the sign for stay and tried to learn the ways he could rebuild the understanding between him and another person, the bridge he had recognized between them on a rooftop in Sofia twice now.

 He was used to figuring out and establishing the boundaries for himself, but he never had to establish them before in relation to someone else. He had never before demarcated where he ended and someone else began, and simultaneously rolled the idea around in his head that she also belonged on his burnt terrain, and he on hers. They were each other’s no man’s land, and it was cautious the way they crept around each other, feeling for landmines, lobbing grenades, exploring the edges of each other’s craters.

Natasha was cleared to go back into training and they used it as an outlet, sparring each other almost every day for the next few weeks. Clint showered and examined the bruises on his body with amused interest instead of disconnected frustration. He proudly made Natasha show off the bruise on her side from where he had actually managed to make contact with enough force to bruise her, causing a few people to ask him if he had a death wish. The question made him and Natasha laugh. The rumors began that they were sleeping together. They ignored the rumors the best they could.

Coulson called Clint three months after he left the carrier for New Mexico and four months after he and Natasha returned home from Sofia. They were called back to the carrier within twenty four hours and given an assignment in Kuala Lumpar. Six foreign girls had disappeared in the last six months. Clint scowled at the mission when they took it, asking Coulson how that was possibly an easy way to transition back into missions for her, and Natasha had told him that she could defend herself. He had snapped back at her then, waiting until the privacy of his own room where they were refreshing their mastery of the local language. They had their first genuine fight since Sofia and found at the end that they looked at each other, smirked, smiled, called each other idiots, and went on the mission anyways.

The six foreign girls were mixed but all from Southeast Asia, most of them Muslim, and most had been sold into sexual trafficking. They not only found the girls but they took out a few of the key players, including the buyer and the transporter. It took them six months to unravel the entire case, with Natasha spending most of her time in deep cover as a wealthy widow with a taste for expensive jewelry and Clint guarding her from above like always. A few times a week, he slipped into her hotel suite and sat with her, playing chess or cards, anything that helped them reconnect with each other and allowed them to keep tabs on each other.

The mission went well, and there was no violent aftermath. The breath that Clint had been holding for months released. They fell back into the rhythm of being abroad almost all the time, of killing and saving and balancing ledgers and balancing each other. Sometimes they slept next to each other, barely touching but touching enough to stay connected. Most of the time they just sat together, braced, back to back, reading, in their downtime, and when they did missions separately, they always made a point to pick each other up books from wherever they were assigned.

Patterns allow for some level of comfort and Clint felt the comfort in the pattern. He understood why they both did not move any further, despite Natasha’s tight mouth whenever a woman flirted with him and his scowl whenever another agent commented on Natasha and her assumed prowess between the sheets. He knew what they had and somehow, while it was not enough, it could be enough to someone who never had enough in his life. At some point when she had passed out asleep next to him, her red tangled hair all over her face, streaking his pillow, her breathing even, her hand tangled in the silver bridge necklace he had given her the previous Christmas, he thought, if home is where the heart is, and your heart is where your mind goes when you wander, then she is home to me.

Budapest changed everything. Clint had never been pinned down in a basement before, and he had never run out of ammo in a basement before, and she had never once been injured in a firefight before. He had never had to tie off a tourniquet on her leg before, never had to remove a bullet from her body, never had her fading in and out. He had never once thought he was actually going to die.

“Stay with me, Nat,” he growled, twisting the cap off an antibiotic shot they carried in their emergency med kits. He pressed the needle down into her muscle. She didn’t even flinch. Her eyes stayed closed but her lips parted slightly.

“I’m not leaving you, Barton,” she murmured through her parched lips. She licked her lips. “You can’t get out of her without me.”

He snorted. “That’s true.” He checked her guns and took stock of her ammo. “Remember how I told you I really really hated basements?”

“They threw a grenade in the window,” she exhaled softly. “Where were we supposed to go?”

“Not into the basement,” he replied and then ran his hand over his forehead, pushing her hair off her feverish forehead. “Don’t argue, kitten. Don’t waste your strength.”

“Fuck you,” she had replied, but fallen silent, which was the most worrying part of her injuries. She never listened to him.

They had been saved by sheer luck. The house had begun to collapse under the amount of artillery and explosions it had sustained and the masked Mafia men who had them pinned down pulled back to avoid being crushed in the collapsing structure. Clint braced them by the cellar door with a few boxes, his body shielding Natasha’s as the house came down without them. The sound of a building coming down around him was deafening and he tore his hearing aids out of his ears in a panic, almost screaming from the pain. He waited until the vibrations around him had stilled and the dust began to settle. He could feel the very soft and shallow inhale and exhale of Natasha’s breath against his cheek. He ducked his head in gratitude, pressing his face momentarily into her bare neck and dusty skin, and then slipped his hearing back on and began to adjust the rubble, careful not to destabilizing it any further. It took him hours. The enemy falsely assumed they couldn’t have survived the collapse of the house because they left a scant guard of only two men standing. They didn’t see Clint come up behind them and slit their throats until they collapsed at his feet, bleeding out, their eyes wide and backs arched, fingers scratching at the dirt.  Clint slipped back into the house, tugging Natasha out and onto his back. He dragged her into the woods and set up their satellite phone, calling in the ex-fil.

She was in the hospital for over a week after surgery to repair her stomach and remove one of her kidneys. He watched over her. When she asked him why, he simply said, “We’re partners.”

But when she was out of the medical wing, Clint asked Coulson for a weekend off and he granted it. He slipped into Natasha’s room and bounced on the side of her bed. “Tasha, wake up.”

She woke up and had a gun to his temple before she exhaled, put it down, and said, “You’re dumb as shit, Clint.”

He grinned, bouncing a bit. “How do you feel?”

“Sore but tolerable. I was cleared to start light workouts,” she said with a groan, sliding her legs out of bed. She pressed her hands into the mattress and looked sideways at him. “It’s six am. What are you doing here?”

“I have a surprise for you,” he said, giving her a mischievous smile. “Trust me?”

Her eyes softened slightly. “Of course I trust you.”

 “Good. Pack a bag. Warmish clothing, gets chilly at night where we’re going. Boots. None of your ridiculous shoes. No weapons—trust me, there are weapons where we’ll be. We’re flying. Take your civilian IDs.”

She narrowed her eyes. “You aren’t going to tell me where we’re going?”

He shook his head. “Nope. Trust me.”

She sighed. “Alright. I’ll be out in ten.”

True to word, she was out in ten minutes, showered, her hair braided, a bag over her shoulder, and dressed in civilian clothes. Clint picked up his bag and they went out to the deck where they got a ride in a helicopter to the mainland. They took a taxi from the military base to the airport. Natasha asked no questions when she handed over her civilian ID (Holly Porter) to the airport desk attendant. They went through security and as they walked through the airport towards their gate, Natasha slid her hand into Clint’s, lacing her fingers through his, and squeezing his hand slightly. He glanced over at her, surprised, but she was looking around casually, too casually, and he just smiled and walked her to the gate. She stopped, reading their destination, and tilted her head slightly.

“Home?” she asked curiously.

“Waverly’s not home,” he replied. You are. He shrugged. “Just roll with it.”

“Fair enough,” she replied, giving him a ghost of a smile. They sat down to wait, the quietest that Clint ever remembered himself sitting in an airport, and she didn’t let go of his hand the entire way. They boarded the plane and drew unlucky middle seats. Clint switched with Natasha so she could sit on the aisle and not next to an unlucky stranger who was flying next to a weaponless twitchy Natasha. Not that she needed weapons but he figured it wasn’t worth the risk. They watched Men in Black on the flight, with Natasha eye rolling at the public’s idea of what the government actually looked like and the fluidity with which the government could respond to alien invasions.

Right,” she stage whispered to Clint. “If aliens came to Earth, do you know who would have to deal with that bullshit? Us.”

He smirked. “Yeah. Okay. The next time I see one of those things strolling down a highway, I’ll just give you a heads up.”

She fell asleep on his shoulder and stayed asleep during the descent, jerking awake only when the wheels touched down and the plane lurched. He squeezed her hand. “We’re here.”

They picked up a rental car (Clint couldn’t help but look for Jeannette, but didn’t see her anywhere on the plane) from the airport and left into the wide expanse that was Iowa. He watched Natasha out of the corner of his eye as he pulled onto the highway, set the car in cruise, and passed cornfield after pig farm after cornfield after pig farm. She looked pensive, her face a little closed off, her eyes taking in their surroundings. She played idly with her necklace, turning it over in her fingers. He tore his eyes off of her and back onto the road, telling himself that he hadn’t made a mistake.

“It’s hard for me to imagine you growing up here,” she said finally as he turned off the main highway and began to take the roads towards Waverly. She glanced over at him. “I mean, mentally, I know you’re from rural areas, but you just seem…out of place. Everything here is flat. You like heights. The only thing you have in common with the place of your birth is distance.”

“You think we’re like the places where we’re born?” He asked her curiously.

She shrugged. “I think that cities have souls and I like to think that some of that rubs off onto us. I am from Russia, and I was born in Volgograd. Does it not make sense that I was born in a city that the enemy could not take? They controlled ninety percent of the city but they could not quell that last ten percent. The resistance was too strong. The counterattack drove them out.”

Clint smiled at the roads, switching lanes and passing a tractor. “You know how I appreciate a metaphor.”

She laughed slightly. “I thought you’d like it.”

They were quiet all the way down into the country road that rose slightly up a hill. He parked out front of a little brick ranch house and looked over at Natasha. “Be open-minded?”

She studied his face, and then the house, and his face again. She tilted her head. “Okay.”

He got out and opened the door for her. She was stiff, still only a few weeks out of surgery, and had spent the entire day on a cramped airplane. He grabbed both of their bags and tossed them over one shoulder. He slipped his hand back into Natasha’s and they walked up the path. The door opened, again, without Clint knocking. Sara didn’t have a gun in hand this time, but she had a smile on her face.

“Hi, Clinton,” she greeted him, pushing open the screen door. Her blue eyes ran up and down Natasha. “You must be Natalie.”

Natasha reached forward with her free hand and shook Sara’s. “You can call me Natasha.”

Inside, Clint put down the bags and went to the bathroom to splash water on his face and wash his hands. When he came back into the kitchen, Sara was entertaining Natasha with stories of Clint and Barney’s antics and pouring her coffee. Natasha gave him an amused look when he came back in.

Clint said dryly, “Don’t listen to anything she says.”

Sara swatted at him. “Sit down and eat. And what are you feeding this girl? She’s paler than snow.”

Clint rolled his eyes as he checked the fridge. “We just flew all day and she had a rough couple of weeks. Give her a break, Sara.”

“You work in private security too?”

Natasha nodded. “Yes.”

Sara gave her an appraising look and a sharp nod. “Good for you. Someone’s got to fix the problems men have caused in this country.”

Natasha laughed and Clint smiled into the fridge. He took out a pot of soup and put it on the stove, turning it on to reheat. He leaned on the counter and grinned at Sara. “How’s Happy?”

“He misses you,” Sara told him, and Clint thought that she meant that she missed him.

“You know how I feel about ornery creatures,” he told her, smiling. “I’ll go out and say hi later.”

Sara snorted. “You came back to say hi to him, didn’t you. I’m just the cook.”

Clint laughed and kissed Sara’s cheek. “You have no idea how much I missed you.”

“For twenty years I thought you were dead,” Sara said, turning her back on him and busying herself stirring the soup he was reheating. “And now you’re back twice in six months. I’m a lucky old lady. If you don’t go sit down, Clinton Francis Barton, I’m going to beat you with this spoon.”

Clint obediently scooted to the other side of the counter and took a seat next to Natasha. She smiled at him and murmured, “She loves you.”

Clint flushed and shrugged, looking away. “She has a soft spot for lost causes.”

“I’ll fit right in then,” Natasha said, sipping her coffee. Clint’s arm went around her shoulder, and she didn’t shrug him off.

Sara got them both soup and sat down with them. She said, “How long this time?”

Clint sipped his soup and gave her an apologetic glance. “Only the weekend. We have work Monday morning. The soup’s good, Sara.”

“Of course it is,” she said, a proud smile coming up to her eyes. “I won the prize at the cookoff at the country fair a few weeks ago.”

He smiled wistfully into the soup. “Demolition Derby was my favorite.”

“You and every other boy in the county,” sniffed Sara derisively.

“You were there every year, don’t lie,” Clint laughed. “You had a car in one year, didn’t you.”

“Maybe,” Sara said with a twinkle in her eye.

Later, Clint took her out to meet Happy. He climbed over the fence and jumped down, turning around to offer Natasha a hand. She backed up, took two running steps, and leapt up onto the top rail of the fence and jumped down. She landed with a grin on her face and touched her side. Clint shook his head at her and they went wandering through the field, looking for the horse. Clint watched her meander in the ribbons of light from the sunset, the grass as high as her waist at points, and her hair flaming red waves down her back. He shook his head, trying to look away.

Natasha shaded her eyes and pointed. “Brown with white on his back and spots?”

“The one and only Happy Appy,” Clint replied and they walked in the direction that they pointed.

Happy was by the back fenceline and as they clipped the lead to his halter, Clint said casually, without looking over his shoulder at the woods, “This is how I used to run away from home. Through these woods to Sara’s house. Barney and I used to save our energy for running through this field. Sara’s last appy was named Niko and he was a bastard. He liked to chase and bite you.”

Natasha was quiet while they walked Happy back up to the run in shed. She walked on Happy’s other side, scratching his neck as they walked. When Clint tied him to the ring on the wall of the shed, Natasha appeared at his side, holding out her hand. Clint fished a peppermint out of his pocket and dropped it in her hand. She fed Happy a peppermint, grinning when he licked her hand, and she rubbed his star.

Without looking up at Clint, she said, “I am glad that Happy is nicer than Niko, then.”

Clint handed her a brush and she got to work brushing one side of Happy while Clint curried the other side of the horse. They worked in silence, brushing the mud and dust out of Happy’s coat. Clint picked out Happy’s feet and Natasha brushed out Happy’s tail. They worked in a comfortable silence, passing each other with small touches, occasionally smiles, and wordless glances. Clint picked a bridle off the wall and slid it over Happy’s head, using his fingers to open Happy’s mouth and get the bit in. He hooked it over Happy’s ear and tightened the throatlatch.

He said over his shoulder to Natasha. “Want to ride?”

She stared at him and wrapped her arms around herself. “Seriously?”

“Yep,” he said, though he sincerely hoped she didn’t fall off and get a head injury. There were no helmets and Coulson would kill him. He grinned at her. “Count it as training. One day you might need to ride a horse for a mission.”

She snorted. “We’ll die.”

“Come on. I’ll be right there,” he said, untying Happy from the wall.

Natasha looked at him doubtfully, her eyes dark in the setting sun. “Don’t I need a saddle?”

“Easier to learn without one,” he told her.

She chewed her bottom lip. “Aren’t horses spooky at night?”

“You’ve been reading too many equine mysteries,” he teased her. He pat Happy’s neck. “That’s what I’m here for. To catch you.”

She turned her face away, took a deep breath, and unwound her arms from around herself. “Alright.”

Clint gave her a leg up onto the horse and she straddled the horse, wincing slightly as she adjusted her seat. She let her legs dangle. She gripped Happy’s mane between her fingers tightly. Clint untangled her fingers carefully and showed her how to hold the reins with one hand, the other on her thigh. He straightened her shoulder with his hand and pressed her leg into Happy’s side, causing the horse to shift.

He said, “Shoulder, hip, and heel. All in alignment.”

Natasha was trained to understand her body in ways that Clint would never understand his own and she thought about that for only a moment before she shifted, her body falling into a smoother and more correct alignment.

Clint said, “Ready?” but didn’t wait for an answer.

 He tossed the leadrope over Happy’s neck, planted a hand on Happy’s withers right in front of Natasha and swung his right leg over Happy, catching the horse in the side and scooting himself into position on Happy behind Natasha. The horse moved sideways quickly under the weight of two riders and Natasha made an utterly undignified squeak, sliding to one side. Clint caught her with his arm and drew Happy to a halt while Natasha squirmed her way back onto the horse.

She twisted, her face a half inch from Clint’s. “You’re evil. You should have warned me.”

He grinned at her, reaching around her and picking up the leadrope so he could stop Happy if necessary. “I know. You can thank me later.”

They rode around the pasture in the fading sun, Clint teaching Natasha how to steer and stop, and they proceeded to a jog. Natasha tensed instantly, bouncing, and he folded an arm around her middle, pulling her back against him, his palm flat on her stomach.

“Relax here, this is your shock absorber,” he murmured to her, trying to keep his voice and body from being tight against hers.

She exhaled slowly, and her abdomen softened, and Happy jogged around the field with his two riders. Clint nudged Happy up into a lope and Natasha laughed, the sound of it lighting up inside of Clint. He kept his arm around her middle, even if she didn’t need it anymore. When it was dark and he couldn’t see the holes and divots in the land, he pulled Happy back to a walk and they ambled in the dark. Natasha sagged against Clint, making a small happy noise. He rested his chin on her shoulder.

Eventually, Clint reluctantly whispered, “Happy probably wants dinner.”

“Probably,” agreed Natasha, taking the reins and turning the horse back towards the barn. Happy started to jog and Natasha calmly pulled him back to a walk. Clint smiled proudly at the back of her head.

He dismounted first and helped her slide off the horse. His hands settled on her hips and when she turned, they both froze, standing in the dark next to the horse. Clint reached up, touching her cheek slightly. He asked her, his voice catching a bit, “Happy?”

She stepped close to him, her hands on his chest, and her face was closer, closer, against his, lips brushing his. She whispered, her mouth against his, “With you? Always.”

She kissed him then, in the dark, next to a horse named Happy, in a shed that he had built, and if he returned the kiss, pressed her against the warm body of the horse, slid his hands around her, held her against him, kissed every inch of her that she let him, well, he couldn’t be blamed and she didn’t seem to blame him.

He broke apart only when the back door opened with a bang and Sara yelled, “Did you feed Happy?”

Clint laughed softly, desperately, into the curve of Natasha’s neck. She was breathless, gripping his shirt, her chest rising and falling rapidly against his. He whispered, “I feel like a teenager just caught making out in the car.”

She whispered, “I was never a teenager who made out in a car.”

He said, “We’ll have to fix that.” He turned and yelled out the shed, “We’re feeding him now!”

“He needs two scoops and two flakes of hay!” yelled Sara back.

Clint grinned and stepped away from Natasha reluctantly. He snickered a bit when she rolled her shirt back down her body and ran her fingers through her hair. She rolled her eyes and threw a brush at him. He ducked it and picked up to throw it back when she shrieked, laughing, running away from him.

“Not fair, you have better aim,” she protested, sliding around the other side of Happy and draping her arms over the horse’s back. She smiled at him in the dim light. “Feed the horse, Clint.”

“You in a rush to get anywhere?”

“Maybe.”

He took off Happy’s bridle and hung it up. He dumped grain in the horse’s bucket and tossed the horse his hay. He slipped his hand into Natasha’s hand and they walked back up to the house.

She stopped him outside the back door. “Did you plan this?”

He shrugged. “I wanted you to meet Sara and Happy. If I hoped that would happen, then, you know, I’d be a lucky guy, but it wasn’t the sole reason I brought you out there this weekend.”

Natasha rolled onto her tiptoes and pressed a kiss to his lips. She whispered, “You’re trouble, Barton.”

“Yeah, I heard that was your middle name, Romanov,” he whispered back.

She grinned at him and walked into the house, leaving him smiling on the back porch. His heart sang, Home, Home, Home, all the way up the last three steps and into the house. 

Chapter Text

Chapter 14: Harvester of Light

The demi-god who had taken Clint’s mind, possessed it, manipulated it, and killed people with his hands, his bow, his arrows, his knowledge was only fifteen feet away and Clint knew exactly the precision at which he could fill the man’s body with knives and bullets and arrows, but Natasha quietly taken away his weapons a few days earlier after shawarma. She stood next to him, poised and ready, lethal as ever, and armed to her teeth (literally. Her chewing gum could be used to start an explosive.) She had asked him to trust her to keep him safe. It was not that he couldn’t trust her—he did—but he had no trust left to give. She hadn’t cared. She told him that she’d carry his trust for him until he was ready to have it back. Now she stood next to him, almost hovering, but not quite. She still trusted him to handle himself appropriately and he wasn’t sure if he had quite earned that trust.

She turned to him slightly and whispered, “This is all very dramatic. I thought he’d go for something a little more low-key.”

Clint paused, smirked and muttered back, “That’s a terrible joke, Nat.”

“I’ve never liked word play,” she agreed, her voice low, her eyes always scanning the crowd that had gathered.

Loki disappeared and the Avengers began to disperse, their smiles hesitant and unsure. They were leaving on uneven ground, broken, mentally and physically, and unsure of their employment or where they even belonged. Clint felt it more than most. He felt the way that the others stayed away from him, preferring to interact with him through Natasha. It was a reverse of everything they had constructed over the previous ten years where he was Natasha’s door to the world, where people came to him if they needed or wanted something from her. But he guessed that changed from the moment that Phil called her to tell him that he was compromised, and not in the way that was fun.

Clint got into the car that the papers would later call ‘a gift from Tony Stark’ which Natasha didn’t mind even though it had been her gift to him but Clint found utterly insulting. Like he would accept anything from Tony Stark short of having Natasha returned to him in one piece after the Babysitting Ironman Fiasco of a few years prior. Natasha curled up in the front seat as they pulled away, transforming from Natasha Romanov into his Tasha, less sharp around the edges than anyone would ever believe. She pulled out the iPod and scrolled through it, finding a playlist she liked, set it to play and leaned back, her head against the seat. They were quiet, listening to the song murmur softly to them as the city spilled away, leading into rolling countryside and flat stretches of highway.

He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, put them on a road heading west, and fell a little more in love with the woman in the seat next to him when she didn’t ask where they were going. Either she knew, or she didn’t care, or maybe both, but he didn’t need to know. They drove until he was too tired to stop and pulled over at a dingy motel somewhere in Indiana. He turned off the car, knowing that alone was enough to wake up Natasha who stirred, opened her eyes, and sat upright.

She looked at him, “Switch?”

He shook his head. “Sleep.”

She flopped on the bed, pulling her shirt over her head lazily, and he paused in the doorway to the shower, his eyes running up her body. She wasn’t paying attention though and was simply changing, like she knew he didn’t have it in him to touch her right now. He went into the bathroom and showered under scalding water. He did not scrub his skin raw but after they brushed their teeth and Natasha had clicked on the tv (and promptly clicked it off when every channel was showing New York and the aftermath), he washed his hands once, twice, three times, four times, five times, he couldn’t believe how dirty they had gotten and if they weren’t clean then everyone might know what he had done back there and ---

Natasha’s hands closed over his, and she reached around him to shut off the water. She pressed herself against him, wrapping one arm around him and clenching his hands in hers. “Come to bed.”

So he dried off his hands and let her lead him to bed. He fell asleep curled against her, her humming a song that ran over her skin and onto his skin and into his heart, steadying its beat, and into his mind, calming it. In the morning, he showered again but left the door open, not as an invitation but as a gesture of trust, and she pressed a quiet closed mouthed kiss to his mouth before they locked their door and checked out of the motel. He drove again. He needed to do something and if she wouldn’t let him clean his bow obsessively, then he wanted to drive. She said nothing, just turned back on the iPod and watched the world run by outside of her window.

They arrived outside of a little brick ranch house sometime in the early evening hours of the second day. They carried their bags up the path to the front porch. Sara was older these days, and she hadn’t heard them coming, but when they knocked on the door, she answered it with tears in her eyes. She opened the door and stepped out to them, wrapping her arms around Clint. She was crying, Clint realized, belatedly, and he dropped his bags, wrapping his arms back around Sara.

“I’m fine,” he reassured her, his voice sounding scratchy.

She released him and pat his cheek, her blue eyes a little foggier than they used to be. “Don’t you lie to me, boy. Come inside.”

She turned to Natasha now and kissed Natasha on the cheek, hugging her tightly. Natasha held the door for Clint and they sat down in Sara’s kitchen like they had once a year for the past ten years. This time felt different. Sara looked old for the first time. She moved slowly, her fingers shaking too much to press the start button on the coffee machine. Natasha helped her refill the sugar bowl and reheat a few frozen meals. She was not cooking much apparently. Natasha sat down between them, her hand sliding down Clint’s leg to his knee.

They ate in near silence, with Sara filling it only with the idle gossip of a small town like Waverly. Natasha helped fill the gaps when Clint remained silent. And Sara handed her the sheets and pillows to make up their bed downstairs. Clint went to the bathroom to shower and he heard Sara asking Natasha what was wrong with him.

Natasha replied, “You know how he is. He carries guilt in the marrow of his bones.”

Sara replied, “Always has.”

Natasha said, “I don’t know how long we’re staying, Sara.”

There was a clatter of dishes in the sink and the sound of the water turning on. “You stay as long as you like, dear.”

They stayed well over a month. They helped Sara with her basic chores, went shopping for her, and Clint taught Natasha how to cook which entertained Sara for several weeks. They all watched Jeopardy together and Clint fixed Sara’s gutters, fences, and helped build a second shelter in the pasture. She still had Happy but Happy had a new friend, a skittish, uppity bay filly named Joy.

“Joy?” Clint repeated when Sara walked him out to the field the morning after they arrived. “Sara.”

Sara smiled a bit. “I have no business owning something like Joy but you know, she needed a goo home and Happy needed a friend. Seemed like a good name for a girl like her.”

Clint spent a lot of time out in the field working with Joy. He got her used to being handled all over, walking next to someone, working at the end of a long line, and he broke her to ride a few weeks after they arrived. Natasha never asked to ride but she sat on the fence, keeping vigil while he loped easy patterns through the fields. Happy usually stood next to her while she sat there and she fed him endless peppermints, earning herself the closest thing to a best friend she had after Clint.

Clint went to find her one night and Natasha was on the front porch swing, a mug of tea in her hand and a book on her lap between her crossed legs. He sat on the swing next to her, pushing off with his feet so they were actually moving through the air.

She looked up and gave him a faint smile. “Hey.”

He smiled back. “Hey.”

They sat out there for awhile and Clint said abruptly, “I think I want my bow back.”

She nodded and said, “Okay.”

She dog eared four pages in her book, and then set it down next to him on the bench. She slipped back into the house and Clint sat there, waiting for a moment, before he realized that she wasn’t coming back with his bow. He picked up the book she was reading (Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times by Eyal Press) and flipped through it to the pages she bookmarked. It took him no time at all to connect the dots once he looked at the page numbers. He put the book back down, went back inside, ran down to their room and went to the safe in the basement. They had put it in there years ago, and Natasha had changed the combination when they arrived this time. He repeated the page numbers in his head and spun the combination lock until it clicked open.

His bow. He had his bow.

He took out everything of his in that safe. He laid the weapons out in front of him and field stripped both his long rifle and his pistol. He cleaned everything thoroughly over the next two hours and then reassembled everything. He took his bow and quiver outside in the night. He grabbed a can of spray paint from the barn and marked six trees, away from the horses. He made every shot on the first try, backing up fifty meters for each consecutive shot. On the sixth shot, taken from 725 meters, he heard the soft applause. Natasha was up on the roof of the house watching him. Her red hair glowed in the dim light of the motion sensor light they had put on the front of the house.

“You didn’t lose everything,” she called down to him.

“Why don’t you come down here and prove that to me?” he called back.

So she did, sliding down the roof and landing, catlike, on the balls of her feet and two fingers touching the ground, silent and graceful. She slipped through the thick grass to him. She said to him, “Good thing you didn’t pick the back of the barn. Those arrows would have gone through. Seems like a problem if you shot Happy and Joy in their butts.”

He grinned at her, barely able to see her face in the dark but not needing to. “You like wordplay, don’t you lie.”

“Naw, just metaphors,” she said, stepping closer to him. “I heard a rumor.”

“Did you?”

“Tony told Bruce who told Steve who told Darcy who told Jane who told Pepper who told me,” Natasha took a breath, her teeth flashing white briefly, “that there was a rumor that Hawkeye and the Black Widow, they were a thing.

“A thing?” Clint said, unable to stop smiling. “Really. I don’t know about that. I heard the Black Widow ate men for breakfast with her Lucky Charms.”

“The Black Widow doesn’t eat Lucky Charms. Besides, I heard that Hawkeye never liked to get close to people. Heard he liked things better from a distance.”

“Hmm,” he replied, kissing her throat. “Possible.”

“Then again, there was that rumor that the Black Widow thought love was for children.”

He laughed softly as her hands skimmed under his shirt. “I heard that rumor too.”

She kissed him and every doubt that he had roared, red and white and alive in his mind, but she didn’t let him go until he sighed, relaxed, and kissed her in return, a hand at the small of her back. She rubbed her hand against the scruff he was letting grow on his jawline.

“The rumors are wrong,” she whispered. “Besides, Hawkeye and the Widow. Mostly they piss each other off as often as they cover each other’s asses. Romanov and Barton, though, that’s something.”

            “You’ll have to tell me that story,” he managed to mumble back, preoccupied. “Later.”

            “You’ll like it. Lots of metaphors,” she said, equally distracted.

            The backdoor banged. Sara called. “Did you feed Happy and Joy?”

            “In a moment!” Clint yelled back as Natasha covered her mouth, laughing against him.

            Later, in the quiet of the house, Clint ran his fingers down Natasha’s bare spine, marveling at how quickly her bruises had faded. Her hair was getting long again, a cascade of red down her back. She rested her head on the pillow, watching him study her with a curious eye that he hadn’t passed over her in awhile. She would tell him, later, that she had loved that she became routine and ordinary to him after awhile. She had been programmed and remade and picked for her ability to look extraordinary and unusual and strikingly beautiful no matter what, and he had eventually, at some point in their partnership, stopped staring at her when she undressed, stopped looking at her agape when she wore clothing designed to seduce marks.

            He said quietly, “I don’t even think that I’ve found the triggers yet. I feel like my head’s a field of landmines.”

            She watched him quietly and whispered, “We’ve been here before.”

            He paused, running his fingers over a faint scar on her side. “What if my triggers trigger you?”

            Her smile was sad. “We’ve been there too.”

            He brushed her hair off her bare shoulders, planting a kiss at the exit wound for the arrow he once put through her shoulder on a rooftop in Sofia. “Do you want to go back?”

            “To where?” she asked him.

            He ran a finger over her cheek. He said, “Anywhere.”

            She shrugged a bit, her back muscles rolling slightly. “I would go to the Avengers more likely than SHIELD, at least for now. I expect people to lie to me, unlike Steve and Bruce and Tony who were surprised that Fury had lied.”

            He slid down to lay on his side next to her. “I don’t lie to you.”

            Natasha touched the bruise on his side that still hadn’t healed from New York. “No, you never have. It still throws me off after all these years.”

            “I think we should go back to New York. Start there,” he sighed, scooting closer to her and closing his eyes.

            “You don’t feel very level to me,” she said after a long moment.

            “I know.”

            “Alright. We’ll go back.”

            “Spies and assassins turning soldiers. They write stories about that, you know.”

            “Balancing out their ledgers. I can see that. Might make a good movie.”

            He laughed. They passed that back and forth until eventually, they fell asleep, quiet, and content for now.