Rating: R; non-explicit sex, violence, language, references to rape
Summary: Natasha is not afraid of dreams. (She dreams, but she does not remember.)
Author notes: Once again, many thanks to madjm for the beta. I did some tweaking and adding afterward, so any errors that got through are completely my fault. This is a companion piece to An Arrow, Discarded (AO3); I would read that first, but that's just me. This story is also on AO3.
She can feel his palm like a brand against the small of her back; his eyes are full of questions and what – if he was any other man – she would call ‘wounded pride’. She can feel his heartbeat, or hers, or both of theirs in syncopated rhythm, in the palms of her own hands.
“You were falling,” she says, her lips against his collarbone.
Natasha dreams, but she does not remember.
She has no recollection of waking sheathed in sweat, tearing at the blankets or shaking in a somnolent fugue. No lovers have ever roused her in the midst of a nightmare, or commented idly that she talks in her sleep (except for that one time, in Rome, but that was part of the assignment). She can’t say that it’s never happened – she’s lost too much to use words like never or always with aplomb – but she knows that she does not remember.
She does dream. There are vague impressions behind her eyes some mornings, as if images have been burned onto her retinas while she slept, but they are only color and motion and dimly-lit faces, blurred into featureless, flesh-toned ovals. (She does not remember these dreams; she does not try to remember; she does not want to remember.)
New York is not like other assignments.
It’s not just the monsters and the magic; it’s not just that she fought in broad daylight alongside some of the hardest-to-miss men on the planet; it’s not just losing Coulson and coming close to losing so much more.
It’s that she can’t walk away.
This is not a DNA sample in San Pedro, or encrypted files in Johannesburg, or a weapons depot in Tehran. She cannot shed an evening gown like a skin, burn a passport, crumple up another tissue-paper identity and call it a day’s work. She has no mask, no persona, no computer program to screen her calls. The despair and the horror and the beauty of it – because there is beauty in the devastation; there always is – belongs, not to a handler or a minder, a faceless voice or a rough-hewn, one-eyed visage, but to Natasha. (Whoever that is.)
She does not love America like Steve or capitalism like Tony. New York is not in her blood any more than a hundred other places where she has laid waste to buildings and secrets and lives. But something here has captured her, pulled her into some kind of orbit, and it will not let her go again.
She reads the paper in a narrow cone of sickly light; facts are easier to digest in written form. The cable news channels, with their slick graphics and plastic anchorwomen, perfectly coifed and breathless with self-importance, are more than Natasha is able to handle right now.
She reads about incalculable damage, about impossible physics, about frightened children and missing parents. She reads about Tony Stark at the middle of all things: has scheduled a press conference for Wednesday at one o’clock, remains to be seen which of the other so-called ‘Avengers’ will attend, has already been fielding questions from the press, government has promised an inquiry, signs of dissension within the administration, quoted as saying, subpoena, off the record…
The creaking, groaning pipes in the wall behind her head go quiet. Natasha lowers the paper and listens.
The motel walls are thin, but not so thin that she can hear all the things she imagines she hears: Clint moving through the adjacent room, dressing, shaving, sitting on the bed to lace up his boots. But she doesn’t need to hear him to know his motion, his patterns, his little rituals that have become her rituals by proxy. She pictures him with a cheap ceramic mug in one hand, grimacing at the bitter sludge that passes for coffee in places like this (and if she was there, if this was a mission, she would pass him her tea and he would drink from it without comment).
She puts the newspaper down and dresses quickly, pulling back her hair and stepping into a well-worn pair of shoes. It is only half-past-three in the morning, but she has not slept, cannot sleep, does not want to sleep.
She is not afraid of dreams. (Natasha dreams, but she does not remember.) She fears the things that live in the spaces between dreams, in the darkness behind her eyes when she is alone, the thoughts and the memories and the creatures that exist in the places where nothing existed before.
“You were falling,” she says, her lips against his collarbone as she closes her eyes. “Off the Tower.”
Natasha knows something is wrong when Clint does not look back.
He leaves through the dilapidated lobby instead of out through the second-story window, walks away unarmed, does not double back to expose a tail, does not even look over his shoulder as she follows him through the misty morning gray.
She watches his form as he walks, as he pauses by the door, as he passes money to the agent huddled in a cocoon of newsprint and rags. He looks different, even from behind; less substantial, smaller somehow, as though shrunken into himself.
Natasha remembers the first time she saw him walk away from her. “You know where to find me,” he had quipped. She had almost put a bullet in the back of his head.
Only Steve has accepted SHEILD’s ‘offer’ of room and board at the New York safehouse; his Manhattan apartment has been half-crushed during the attack and, Natasha thinks, as angry as he is about Fury’s plots, about Phase 2, about all of it, he’s still a soldier who finds comfort in the chain of command.
Thor is gone, having hauled his ‘brother’ back to Asgard to face justice and recrimination and punishments that are too good for him; Tony is happily ensconced in his tower dreaming up fresh new ways to give Fury an aneurism. Maybe Banner is with him, maybe not, but as long as Banner is being Banner and not the big guy, Natasha thinks it is best to simply let him be.
Clint had refused to stay at the safehouse, a squat converted warehouse just outside the perimeter. “Either you trust me or you don’t,” he had told Hill in a singularly prickly tone.
Hill’s lips had thinned, and after he had walked away she had turned to Natasha and said coolly, “If we didn’t, he’d still be trussed up like a turkey back on the Helicarrier.”
Natasha had smiled past the anger – the anger of this never would have happened if you people hadn’t sent him to New Mexico alone and the anger of New York would be gone if not for us and how dare you and the anger she always felt towards people who acted as though they owned people like them – and asked lightly, “Whatever happened to giving us some time off?”
Hill had rubbed idly at her bruised jaw. “We don’t anticipate needing any of you in the field immediately, Agent Romanoff. But SHIELD still has to be able to keep track of its assets. You know that better than anyone.”
Assets. She knows that for most of the world – and that includes the top echelons of SHIELD – ‘The Avengers’ include the god, the monster, the hero out of time and the man in the metal suit. She and Clint are just the mortal support staff: interchangeable, expendable. This doesn’t bother her, exactly; she welcomes the anonymity, such as it is. But she’s also tired of being just another one of Nick Fury’s assets.
“Does he have a place here in the city?” Hill had asked her, and Natasha had evaded the question, had told the woman simply, “I’ll keep an eye on him,” because that is what SHEILD expects from its assets.
She had half-expected him to run. He has hidey-holes across the globe, same as she does. La Paz, Quito, Shigatse, Texcoco; he seems to favor high-altitude cities. But he does not leave New York, maybe because Fury asked him not to, maybe because there’s no point, maybe because something in the city has pulled him into its orbit as well.
Instead he hunkers down in a second-story room in a shabby motel on the Lower East Side about a fifteen-minute walk from the safehouse. She takes the room next door and waits for the other shoe to drop.
She had first seen Clint Barton from a block away. He had already had her in his sights. But now he doesn’t even look back.
He is standing on the roof, outlined against a sky of gunmetal gray. She thinks he is looking for new targets, but there is no bow in his hand, no quiver slung across his back.
Her feet are silent but he senses her approach, turning towards her, his back against the open sky. She thinks this must be a dream, but his face is not a smooth pale oval, sightless, breathless, formless. He has eyes to see her, and they do not glow with otherworldly brilliance; he has lips to speak, and they speak her name.
She waits outside the gym for some time, listening to the short, gruff pleasantries that pass between Clint and Steve and then the unmistakable sounds of sparring: feet slapping against the mat, soft grunts as punches are thrown and dodged and blocked and, rarely, the singular sound of flesh against flesh, a sharp indrawn breath as contact is made.
Natasha, who has seen Steve’s strength close-up and first-hand, winces every time, but she keeps waiting and listening in the hopes that the damned men will start talking, that Clint will be able to confide in Steve (since he hasn’t dared confide in her), say something that will give her a clue about what to do, how to act, how to feel, but there are no words, just the muted sounds of hand-to-hand, so she finally steps inside the door. (If you want something done right…)
It’s a sparse, utilitarian room with a broken treadmill in one corner and free weights in another, but it is the men on the mat who draw her eye. They make for an interesting tableau. Clint: shorter and stockier than the rangy captain, hair disheveled and eyes shadowed with sleeplessness, face full of rapt intensity as he throws punch after punch. A few of them land as Steve – tall and blonde and formed like a walking advertisement for eating your vegetables – is clearly content to absorb some of the blows and block the rest. His own strikes are halfhearted and easy for Clint to turn away. Unlike Thor, who never seemed to quite know his own strength, Steve appears only too aware of the damage he could do to a regular person.
As though her silent evaluation has drawn his notice, Steve’s eyes find her in the shadowed doorway. He stops suddenly, as though caught out doing something he ought not have, murmuring “morning” in an abashed tone, and a moment later Clint turns towards her as well.
Their eyes meet only briefly, but it is an instant that disturbs her. She has seen Clint in the grip of insomnia, gray-faced with exhaustion, has seen him struggle with feelings of guilt and incompetence when an assignment doesn’t go the way he thinks it should. She has seen him in sunshine and darkness, in all weather, all seasons, but she has never seen that quiet confidence so thoroughly shredded, has never seen him flinch away from her regard like a scolded child.
“I’ll take it from here, Steve,” she says casually, trying to pretend that the sight of Clint turning his back on her doesn’t do something violent to her insides. “Hope you don’t mind us just dropping by like this.”
“The more the merrier,” is the captain’s wary response.
“And you’re settling in okay?” The awkwardness is obvious, tangible, but she welcomes it anyway, her eyes still on Clint’s tense shoulders.
“I suppose so… I mean… yeah. I should go. Breakfast…” mutters Steve, shrugging, grabbing for an empty water bottle like a lifeline and beating a hasty retreat towards the exit on the other side of the room.
She stands in front of Clint, uncertainty and concern erupting into something that sounds a lot like annoyance as she demands, “Sparring with Wonder Boy? Really? Are you trying to get your neck broken?” And when he doesn’t answer, doesn’t even look at her, she steps forward and engages him, not pulling her punches, not holding back, because the only way out is through.
“You were falling. Off the Tower. I thought… he could catch you.”
She looks up, nods minutely. It is dark; they have slept through most of the day; she can barely make out his face but she knows that he can see her well enough.
“You must have confused falling with flying,” he tells her, with more levity in his voice than she might have expected and, unerring in the dark, he brings his lips down against hers.
The roles are reversed; she is attacking and he is backing away, his movements jerky and uncertain. He turns away most of her blows but refuses to respond in kind, even after she kicks him in the abdomen and he staggers back, grunting, so she gets in close and elbows him in the sternum. She knows the move he should make, knows how he should use her momentum against her and grab her from behind, but he doesn’t, he just drops to the mat like a sack of potatoes. She lands atop him, hard, harder than she really needs to, because she’s actually afraid now, and demands, “What the hell, Barton?” as she straddles his hips.
She can feel it immediately, the unmistakable hardness against her thigh, and an answering flush of heat spreads up through her pelvis. Before she can ease off he knocks her left hand out from under her, brings up his right knee, dislodging her in a move that she taught him, dammit, and then he’s on top of her, pinning her legs, his eyes wide and very dark with adrenaline and lust and something like terror.
She’s old friends with adrenaline, and familiar enough with the lust. It’s happened before, once or twice. Proximity and hormones and the rush of combat do things to the body that can’t be controlled, things that are like breathing and blinking, and if she’s pictured his face above her as she takes her own frustrations in hand then it’s forgivable, because it’s her way of keeping it all in check. If he resolves his own problems in a similar way she wouldn’t be surprised or offended; it’s only biology. What matters is how you deal with it.
Natasha prefers to deal with this by ignoring it.
She throws him off and falls into position for her next move, but the look on his face stops her cold. He lies on the mat, pale and sweating and vibrating like an overstretched bowstring, hands pressed flat against the ground as though it is moving beneath him. “Are you hurt?” she asks skeptically, and when he doesn’t reply she has a flash of panic, of wondering didn’t the SHIELD medics check him out and what did I do and leans forward to touch his shoulder. “Clint?”
“I’m fine,” he says hoarsely, the lie evident in the way he won’t look at her, the way he jerks back from her hand as though it might burn him. He stumbles to his feet and moves towards the door like a sleepwalker. “Just – just stay away, alright?”
In the dark she slides one leg over his hips; at her urging he sits up against the rickety headboard and she sinks into his lap, onto him, so suddenly that his whole body spasms and he gasps, cursing under his breath. He was falling and it was only a dream but she never remembers her dreams, so it was something else, something real, so she is terrified.
She lets herself into his room, hears the shower running, and marches into the bathroom before she can think better of it. Behind the mildewed curtain, behind a cloud of billowing steam, he’s braced against the side of the stall and breathing heavily. The steaming water streams down his neck and back and over his ass, and his dilemma from the gym is still… present and accounted for.
He looks at her in horror, in desperation, and her mouth goes dry with a sudden reciprocal longing that she determinedly ignores. “This is the problem?” she asks, forcing herself to glance down at his cock with caustic disregard. “This is why you can’t even look at me straight?”
“Tasha…” His voice is weak and reedy, barely audible over the water and the steam, as he tries to close the curtain again. She doesn’t let him. She wants him to shake his head and say this is nothing and to laugh ruefully and say give me a minute, I’ll take care of it and push her and say get out of my bathroom, you psycho. She wants him to be angry, if that’s what it takes, but all he says is “You don’t under-“
“Fine.” She doesn’t want to hear that she doesn’t understand. She does, all too well. Maybe she should be thankful that it hasn’t become an issue before this, that they made it all the way through countless missions and field ops and saving the world from goddamn aliens before a switch flipped in his brain and he became obsessed with fucking her. She unzips her jacket, unclasps her bra. “If that’s all this is, let’s take care of it.” He stares at her. “Come on, Barton,” she says harshly, leaving him standing there, breathless, and her heart would be breaking if she had one, but the only way out is through.
She cups his jaw between her hands and opens her mouth to him, and his hands ghost over her hips and waist as she finds a rhythm that seems to work for them both. (He doesn’t have much leverage like this, but he doesn’t seem to mind, actually seems more comfortable with her in control.) Then his palms are against and between her shoulder blades, pulling her closer, her knees pressed into the pillows at his back.
She needs it to be rough.
She wants him to enjoy it, to get it out of his system, but she doesn’t want him to want it again. She doesn’t want to recall it with fondness herself. This can’t become a thing; no spy-assassins with benefits, no distractions, no complications.
So she pulls him down on top of her and goes to work, methodical, ruthless. God knows she’s put more finesse, more artistry, into assignments before, but only when she was Natalie, or Nadine, or Nell, or Sofia, or Samira. Natasha Romanoff is not a vixen, not a seductress, not when she’s off the clock, on her own time, and Clint Barton is not a target; he’s her partner and she wants him back. Leaving him alone hasn’t worked, and what other option does she have? Sometimes you have to sweat the fever out; sometimes you feed the fire until it burns itself to ashes.
Beneath the dampened towel he’s achingly hard, and she’s quietly pleased, thinks at least it shouldn’t take long; she kisses him, catches his lip between her teeth, feels his hand on her breast, his earlier hesitancy gone. Her own body is playing along because biology is a traitor and because he sparks something in her blood she can’t deny; she’s as ready as he is, and—
He goes abruptly rigid, all over, and damn if she can’t feel his temperature drop beneath her fingertips. Breath coming in labored gasps, he grabs the hand that was moving to tug down her underwear and pins it to the bed, his expression stricken, pulse thumping arhythmically in his neck. Natasha doesn’t move; she’s suddenly paralyzed by the realization that I was taking advantage of him and he doesn’t want this even though the hardness between his legs seems to say otherwise.
When he rolls off of her he’s shaking again, as he had on the floor of the gym, in small, discrete convulsions, his face and neck shining with sweat, his eyes open and fixed on some point she cannot see. She leans forward, suddenly wondering if she really does need to call for a medical team, knowing that he would hate her for it. “Clint?”
His eyes close, brow furrowed. Each word is a battle. “I think… he’s still… in my head.”
Her stomach lurches and she sits back. A chill passes over her that has nothing to do with her nakedness; it is a ghost from her own past, a demon that can never be fully exorcised, a weed that grows in the merest of cracks. After a moment she slips from the bed and reaches for Clint’s bag, absently pulls a shirt over her head and drops a pair of boxers over his erection.
Eventually he sits, sliding to the edge of the bed to cover himself up. She suddenly wants to touch him, not in frustrated lust but in comfort – a hand on the nape of his neck, on his shoulder – but she doesn’t want to see him flinch away again. "He's not still in your head, Clint,” she says quietly.
"You said yourself that our psych evals were a joke. The medical ones were worse.” He shakes his head despairingly, his voice hollow. “How many experts on alien mind control do you think they have? What do you think they actually know?"
Nothing, she thinks automatically. They don’t know anything. But it’s not the right answer, if a right answer exists, and she grasps at plausibilities as she eases down next to him. "Thor would have known. You know he wouldn't have left if it wasn’t over."
Clint smiles humorlessly. "Thor's a great guy, but I suspect that everything he knows about Loki's tactics would make for a fairly short book." He turns to her, really looks at her at last, and she wants to touch him again: his jaw, his hair, his lips, which still bear the marks of her earlier assault. She wants to remind herself that he is real and remind him in return. "It feels like a virus,” he says bleakly. “Like a worm, something he planted inside my brain, and it all comes back to you because that's the kind of asshole he is. He wants it to matter. He wants it to hurt."
She can’t argue with him. Loki isn’t like Clint or Fury, happier taking down his enemies from afar, with an arrow or a smart bomb or a whispered word. Loki isn’t a sniper, isn’t a spy; he’s a strangler, a stabber. He likes to see the light fade from his victim’s eyes, to feel the warm blood gush out over his hands. He mocks sentiment but is as much a creature of emotion as his big brother. For him, it isn’t satisfying, isn’t real, unless it’s close and personal and vivid.
(She’s known people like him before. She used to see one every time she looked in a mirror. Even now she shies away from her reflection, afraid of catching a glimpse of something she won’t know, won’t like, won’t recognize.)
“You know what I did,” he says quietly. “You know what he wanted me to do.”
She remembers standing before Loki, suffering through his vicious sneers and vulgar taunts. (She’s heard worse. Much worse.) She remembers feigning weakness and for a moment not knowing if it was feigned, showing him a mask of fear to hide the fear beneath (not until I make him kill you, slowly, intimately…) She didn’t hate him because of his threats towards her but because of the base arrogance, the reeking superiority, and she didn’t fear her own death as much as the thought of Clint standing over her body with his head in his hands and his hands covered in her blood.
“I got the general idea,” she says, and when her voice cracks on the last word she rushes on, hoping he doesn’t notice. "So that's it? This is just... over? You want me to call Fury and tell him you're still compromised? You know there are men who wouldn't ask twice. They'd be happy to agree you were a threat, to lock you up and study you, and they'd do the same to Selvig and the others. Is that what you want?" she demands.
He is silent, and she thinks maybe that is what he wants and after everything, it ends like this and no no no. “Is that what you want?” she repeats, hoping again for anger or offense, anything but the calm resignation that seems to have come over him.
He is standing on the roof, outlined against a sky of gunmetal gray, and he turns as she approaches. His expression is bleak, his mouth set in a straight line, his hands empty. “Tasha,” he says quietly, and then he gives up, lets go, falls.
“You’re not going to hurt me,” she tells him, because the bruises and abrasions might have been put there by his hands but not by his will, because she trusts him more completely than she ever thought she would trust another human being (even though it’s stupid and dangerous; even though it might be her undoing in the end) and because she trusts herself to do what must be done. “I won’t let you.”
“You did,” he says quietly, and when she frowns he fixes her with a glassy-eyed, distant stare more suited to prey than predator. “This dream I keep having. We’re in the Carrier. I’m headed for the detention area. I don’t really want to go but it’s my mission and I’m… consumed by it. And then you’re there, like before, and… something happens. You hesitate or I’m just faster this time. You get hit in the leg and you drop. You’re bleeding. Arterial blood. Everywhere. But there’s a voice in my head that says she might be faking so I stab your hands, pin you down, and I keep thinking the mission, the mission, but it doesn’t matter what I want; I’m not in control. So I rape you.” A muscle twitches in his neck, his jaw. “You’re bleeding out, you’re dying, but it doesn’t matter because he wants me to do it, and then I realize that I want it too. I just want to fuck you, and you don’t stop me… you could kill me but you don’t, I don’t know why but I don’t even care, and then there’s an arrow in my hand and I kill you and I come…”
He looks away, sweat beading along his hairline, and Natasha belatedly remembers to breathe.
She wasn’t wrong. A switch has been flipped, not by circumstance but by Loki’s mind-fuck, and it’s not even really about sex. It’s about power and dominance and control, which are all so tightly wrapped up in sex that sometimes it’s hard for her to see where one ends and the others begin. She has no doubt that he planted this seed in her partner’s brain, that Clint’s sleep-deprived, spell-addled mind has expanded it and enhanced it and made it into something more a memory than a dream.
She thinks of the way he has kept his distance from her, turning away, flinching at her touch, as though proximity or contact will set him off, turn him back into the thing he was, the thing Loki hoped to make of him: a monster, a rapist, a betrayer.
"I know what you're going to tell me,” he says, breathing shakily. “That they're his thoughts, not mine, and that it's not real, it's just a dream... but they're in my head and they feel pretty damn real to me.” The muscle twitches again. “I can't keep going on like nothing's happened, Tasha, not if I don't trust myself, if I can't stop thinking that this thing he left might take over again..."
Natasha imagines him out in the field, unable to rely on his own instincts, always waiting for the voice in the back of his mind. She thinks of that first mission with him, sitting in the Quinjet and expecting, at any moment, to wake up with a new name and a new set of memories. (She knows what it’s like to be unmade.) He had been her confidence that day, although she'll never admit it.
“No, you can’t,” she agrees, and then she touches him at last, turning his face towards her with the tips of her fingers and kissing him, softly, insistently, full on the mouth.
For a tense second he doesn’t move, and then he does, briefly deepening the kiss before pulling back and staring at her in bewilderment. “You don’t want—“
"Do me a favor and stop telling me what I want,” she suggests, kissing him again, sliding into his lap, stretching and arching against him so that he has to tilt his head back to recapture her lips, rocking against him, and the day they met she had told him I’m not going to fuck you, Barton, but this isn’t about fucking, it’s about power. It’s about control.
He pulls back, wide-eyed as a panicked horse, and she knows the fear has him in its grip again: the fear that he’s going to take her against her will, that he’s going to kill her, that he’s going to go back to what he was before. The fear that he can’t remake himself. "We're going to do a little experiment," she whispers into his ear, hands on his shoulders. "Very scientific. If he's in there, if I'm your trigger, we're going to root the bastard out."
He touches the hem of her borrowed shirt with shaking fingers. He looks into her eyes (his are full of want and need and please, Tasha) and says severely, "If you need to… if you need to, you take me down. You do whatever you have to do, but you don't let me hurt you."
She wants to remind him you can’t hurt me, you wouldn’t, that it was his hands but not his will, but that isn’t what he wants to hear right now. (He can’t accept her trust if he doesn’t trust himself.) She looks into his eyes and sees a man on a precipice, a man restrained, at war with himself but not with her. “Deal,” she tells him, because the only way out is through.
She is conscious of her own body; she is hyper-aware of his. She feels every flex of muscle, every roll of joints, every tentative scrape of callused skin. She feels his fear, knows it better than her own.
“If I told you to stop right now,” she asks, when he freezes up before entering her, “what would you do?”
He blinks as though trying to see through a dense fog; he looks at her and says, “I’d stop,” and he says it like he believes it, knows it, not like it’s the answer he thinks she wants to hear, so she smiles and guides him in. And then there is no more talk of stopping or science, no more knowing smiles, just Clint, moving against her as though in a dream. Except Natasha doesn’t remember her dreams, and she doesn’t use words like never and always, but this is Clint and this is her and always is the only word left in her mind.
When the panic comes again she is gentle, she is patient; she surprises herself. She takes his hand under her own and shows him what she wants (his lips, his muscles, his callused skin), she whispers encouragement into his ear, and it is his quiet acceptance of this help, the slow, steady, unlooked-for tenderness, the way he says her name right before she comes, that wrings a single unremarked-upon tear from the corner of her eye. (She turns her head and it’s absorbed into the pillow and it never existed.)
It is about power and about control (and about trust).
“You know where to find me.”
And she does. It’s a penthouse apartment with frosted glass walls and a wraparound balcony; it’s where her target was supposed to have been staying until he unexpectedly cleared out and Robin Hood moved in.
He spends most of his time out on the balcony, sitting with his legs dangling out over the edge and his arms folded on the wrought-iron railing, bow in his hand or in his lap. Sometimes he watches her watch him from her abandoned townhouse a block away, and sometimes he pretends he doesn’t even know she’s there.
After he walks away (and she could have put a bullet in the back of his head but doesn’t) she returns to the townhouse. She paces; she is on a precipice, at war with herself and the universe at large. If the boss had called it might have decided her one way or another, but he doesn’t. She goes to the window and takes up her binoculars.
His spot on the balcony is empty. He could still be out, could have gone around the side of the building, but she doesn’t think so. She can see the blood on the floor, the railing, against the frosted glass.
She is in the building five minutes later, letting herself into an empty apartment three floors down and scaling the balconies until she reaches the penthouse. Stepping through the open door, her eyes alight first on the dead man by the piano – arrow through his throat; that one’s pretty obvious – and then on the nearly dead one by the sofa.
Under his tan his face is a sickly greenish-gray, but he’s awake and smiles gamely at her as she approaches, weapon in hand. “I was wondering when you’d show up.”
He’s taken a bullet to the upper leg. It doesn’t look good. She could finish him off now, go back to tracking her target, able to explain to the boss that it isn’t a complete wash.
She thinks of the first time she saw the archer. He’d already had her in his sights. He could have killed her then. Should have. She wouldn’t have taken it personally.
She holsters the gun. “What happened to you?”
He winces, nodding to the man by the piano. “One of your friends, I assume.”
“I don’t have any friends.” She moves closer. There’s a lot of blood on the carpet but it seems to be oozing out of him, rather than gushing. She glances around, notices the embroidered tablecloth.
“Guess I should have tipped room service better, then.” He tries to sit, can’t, and grunts in pain as she kneels beside him, ripping the tablecloth into strips.
“Don’t move,” she snaps. “I don’t think it hit the artery—“
“If it had, I’d already be dead,” he says matter-of-factly, and then she begins to bind up the wound, and he goes so quiet and still she thinks he might have passed out. When he lifts his head and smiles feebly at her, she just shakes her head in disgust. “Are you going to interrogate me now?” he asks, as though the idea is not unappealing.
“I’m going to call an ambulance, and then I’m going to leave,” she tells him shortly, glancing around for a phone.
He looks down at his bandaged thigh with a grimace. “I’ve already called for extraction.”
She catches her breath, glancing out the window, alert for the sound of approaching choppers.
“Extraction for two,” he adds.
At first she doesn’t understand, thinks he means that the target is still in the city somewhere, but then understanding dawns and she scowls at his presumption. “You couldn’t have known…”
His weak chuckle becomes a groaning cough. “I figured… you would have just shot me… if you weren’t at least a little interested.”
She hesitates for a minute before tightening his bandage, ignoring his stifled yelp of pain. “Who are you?” she asks, just to keep him awake and talking. If he’s not conscious to vouch for her when his extraction team shows up, they might jump to their own conclusions about what’s happened here.
“Codename… is Hawkeye,” he tells her between gritted teeth.
She waits, watching him through narrowed eyes.
“Barton,” he says lifting his head to look at her. “My name’s Barton.”
She hears it then, or feels it: the singular thunk-thunk-thunk of rotors compressing air, and every instinct tells her that she shouldn’t stay. She could still run for it; it’s not like Barton’s going to chase her. There’s plenty of time to get out of the city and go to ground before the boss shows up and starts asking difficult-to-answer questions.
Instead she settles down in a lotus position at the archer’s side. Beneath the pallor and the blood, he’s not a bad-looking man. (She doesn’t quite get the bow and arrow thing, but she’s not one to scoff at unconventional weaponry.) She wonders what he’ll get for bringing in the infamous Widow. She wonders what he’ll expect. “I’m not going to fuck you, Barton,” she says flatly.
He lets his head fall back; unexpectedly, he laughs out loud. “Thank God,” he says, closing his eyes. “I thought I was really in trouble for a minute there.” And then he does pass out, at least for a little while.
Her feet are silent but he senses her approach, turning towards her, his back against the open sky. She thinks this must be a dream, but his face is not a smooth pale oval, sightless, breathless, formless. He has eyes to see her, and they do not glow with otherworldly brilliance, but they are haunted; he has lips to speak, and they speak her name in a sort of prayer.
He falls, vanishes over the side of the building. She screams Stark’s name and runs forward, but he is already gone.
She wakes in darkness, in his arms, with the taste of fear still on her tongue. She can feel his palm like a brand against the small of her back; his eyes are full of questions and what – if he was any other man – she would call ‘wounded pride’. She can feel his heartbeat, or hers, or both of theirs in syncopated rhythm, in the palms of her own hands. She knows she must have cried out in her sleep. She can’t remember ever doing that before.
“You were falling,” she says by way of explanation, her lips against his collarbone. “Off the Tower. I thought he could catch you.”
“Stark?” She looks up, nods minutely, and he says, “You must have confused falling with flying,” before kissing her, one languid arm tightening around her waist.
She doesn’t want to want this; no distractions, no complications, just her partner back the way he was before. No Avengers, no Tesseract, no dimensional portal, just quiet stakeouts and quieter infiltrations punctuated by blood. The good old days.
But this is good, too: the way his mouth feels under hers, the way his eyes shine in the dark, the way he looks at her like she’s something beautiful. Not like other men have looked at her (like she’s candy, like she’s a toy, and when they say ‘you’re beautiful’ they really mean ‘I want to own you’) but like he’s seeing her, really seeing her, even in the dark, even from a city block away.
She slides one leg over his hips; at her urging he sits up against the rickety headboard and she sinks into his lap, onto him, so suddenly that his whole body spasms and he gasps, cursing under his breath. He was falling and it was only a dream but she never remembers her dreams, so it was something else, something real, so she is terrified. She clings to him, and he clings back, not knowing her fear but sharing it, and in the sharing, fighting.
She cups his jaw between her hands and opens her mouth to him, and his hands ghost over her hips and waist as she finds a rhythm that seems to work for them both. Then his palms are against and between her shoulder blades, pulling her closer, her knees pressed into the pillows at his back. She can hardly move like this but she does anyway, and each infinitesimal rock of her hips is agonizing, is heaven, is torture, is always.
He runs his fingers through her sweat-dampened hair. It is morning again, and she is starving, but she has been starving before.
“You were dreaming again,” he says quietly.
Natasha dreams, and sometimes she remembers. She wishes she didn’t. She thinks of the way he looks at her before dropping off the edge of the roof, the despair and the pain and the this is for the best and she doesn’t want to want this but she can’t let him go. He is Clint and she is Natasha (and sometimes Nat, and sometimes Tasha; they aren’t aliases because they are part of who she is when she is with him) and she can’t walk away.
“You were falling again,” she says, her lips against his jaw, and his lips brush her temple when he tells her, “I fell a long time ago.”