Actions

Work Header

there's a world to gain

Work Text:

 

The first thing she does when they all get back to Avengers Compound is walk into the bedroom she at one time appropriated for her own, shed her bloody and dirty tac suit, and stand naked in front of the full-length mirror.

Natasha stares at herself, breathing deeply, taking the time to examine her pale skin. A large crimson bruise is swelling over her right shoulder blade, a thin line of red stretches down the side of her neck, and her sternum is peppered with small cuts. The suit had done a commendable job of protecting her for the most part, but her left leg tingles with the sensation of having pulled something and her thighs house even more discoloration that she only sees when she moves her body. Her face is otherwise unblemished save for a scratch along her eyebrow and her blonde hair looks milky white in the sun streaming through the skylight above her, as if she’s ascended to some sort of afterlife.

She pauses on a smile once she realizes the irony of her thoughts.

The good thing about being here -- home, for all intents and purposes, even though she hasn’t ever thought of it as home since she’s had the Barton house to go to -- is that no one will call her out for disappearing. No one will show up at her door and try to break it down while she hunts for the bottles of whiskey that she remembers storing in boxes underneath the bed.

No one who’s around, anyway.

Natasha drops to the ground and reaches for a bottle, twisting the cap off. She drinks directly from the neck, fighting the urge to gag as the liquor spills down her throat. Leaning back against the bed frame, she closes her eyes.

At some point, she should probably get up and put clothes back on -- it’s a little pathetic, all things considered, that she’s sitting here naked and drinking like some sort of washed up addict. But right now, it’s fuck it time. Right now, it’s the time she gets to have. Her isolation, her comedown; she’d had many and she’d never had to explain herself for the most part. If Clint was present (and he usually was, save for the past year of being off with Steve and Sam), they both knew how to read each other. He knew when to leave her the fuck alone, whether that was dicking off to a safehouse in the middle of Abidjan or barricading herself in one of the many Manhattan apartments she still owned under old aliases. She knew when to leave him the fuck alone, whether that was disappearing to the farm for a week without communicating or locking himself in the bedroom for 24 hours. She’d only been truly worried about him fucking off a handful of times, mostly after Loki and after SHIELD fell, otherwise, they trusted each other enough to deal with their own demons.

She lets herself sit on the floor for two hours, occasionally trading her thoughts for more sips of whiskey. It’s the longest amount of time she knows she can ignore the world, because if she hides any longer, there’s going to be suspicion. They would have to reconvene, anyway. They couldn’t wallow forever. The world had left them to clean up its mess, and she’s not sure how she feels about that.

Natasha gets up slowly, reaching for her phone. Three missed calls from Steve and one text message.

We’re waiting.

She searches the drawers of the room, finding that she still has some decent clothes tucked away, including a long sleeved shirt she’d bought at Target and a pair of old jeans. Natasha winces as she pulls them on over her underwear; she’s going to have bruises for days if not months given how much she’s hurting.

She grabs whatever else she can find that she might think she’ll need, shoving it into her bag. She puts her phone in her pocket, gives the room a once-over, and then opens the door.

By the time Steve calls her again, she’s already on her way to the hangar, looking for a quinjet.

 

***

 

The navigation to the farm already exists. Natasha blinks in confusion at the control panel of the cockpit as she hits a button, trying to wrap her brain around that fact, until she realizes Stark’s AI must have programmed all coordinates automatically to memory.

“Good failsafe, but bad for the end of the world,” she mutters as she turns on the engine, navigating the jet up into the sky. She checks her phone; there’s no further message from Steve and she figures he’s either given up or tried to leave her alone.

Natasha’s taken the quinjet to the farm dozens of times, mostly after missions and especially early on in her relationship with Clint. It’s never a fun journey to do on her own; she’s never particularly liked flying on her own as much as she likes being unbothered. With everything in the world having disappeared -- snapped away, turned to ash -- the persistent feeling of loneliness seems heavier than usual. There are a few cars on the road, but for the most part, everything looks abandoned and forlorn. The open pastures of the Midwest, the flight paths Natasha knows by heart even without the coordinates as the landscape switches from Ohio to Iowa, look even more barren than she’s used to. Natasha clenches her jaw until her entire mouth hurts from trying to hold her emotions in.

It’s right after she hits the controls to land the quinjet in the space she always lands it -- in the canopy of an oak tree a few yards from the farm and the barn -- that she hits another button by accident. As the quinjet shudders and dips beneath her, her own face suddenly appears on a hologram screen. Natasha turns and stares, startled by the sound of her own voice until she realizes why and what it’s playing.

Fuck!”

Her voice carries across the empty shell of the jet, filling each crevice and hidden nook. The screams settle, hanging in ghostly echoes, and she takes deep breaths while trying to control herself.

One. Two. Three.

Natasha’s done this for a long time. She’s worked through anger issues and lost missions and made bad decisions. She’s done it for herself, she’s done it for Clint, she’s done it for people like Wanda and Steve, and she refuses to let herself fall apart now. Seeing Bruce again had been a fucking culture shock, a knife to the heart that she hadn’t realized still carried an open wound, but it wasn’t like he was the first person who hurt her and walked back into her life with no warning. It’s not the first time she’d had to deal with the remnants of regrets.

Natasha walks into the evening twilight. The farm is dark, save for one singular light in the attic, but Natasha’s gut is already clenched in worry. She tries to fend it off; it was only seven, after all. Cooper usually had late night baseball games and Lila had dance practice. Sometimes, they all went to Laura’s parents for dinner. Sometimes, Clint took everyone on a drive to see the stars.

Natasha approaches the house, pushing past the wooden fence (recently fixed, she notices), and knocks quietly on the front door. When there’s no response, she reaches for the key hidden inside the hanging porch light, slipping it into the lock.

Like outside, the inside of the house is quiet. She moves slowly, on the off-chance no one has heard her come in, even though even she knows that’s stupid reasoning. They weren’t here. They weren’t going to be here -- she’d known that ever since she’d watched her friends become dust, since she had gotten back to New York and let herself truly think about the implications of Thanos’ actions. Natasha floats through the farm like a ghost, seeing things but not really seeing them -- an open book cracked at the spine, chocolate wrappers littering the couch, papers strewn along the coffee table, words trailing off at the end of a potential grocery list. She eventually gets up the stairs, stepping over an assortment of plastic toys and one of Nate’s teething rings, stopping in the bedroom.

The bed is made, because of course the bed is made. Clint would never anyone in his family leave the house with their bed in disarray, including his own. It was one of the most infuriating things about him, and also one of the most endearing. She sits down on the covers, jumping when the phone in her pocket starts buzzing. She glances at it and then picks up.

“Goddamn it Natasha --”

“Shut up.”

“We’re barely hanging on as it is, and you just up and leave! We need you!”

“You’re not the only one who does!”

Steve is silent on the other end of the line. When he speaks again, his voice is gentler, and there’s a quiet hint of understanding -- a voice that’s not Rogers, but Steve.

“Can you bring him back?”

“I don’t know,” she says honestly. “I need to find out where he is first.”

She hangs up, because she knows she can’t deal with this right now. She needs a plan. She needs to regroup. Natasha walks downstairs and into the kitchen, surveying the mess that still remains. They must have been eating dinner before the dusting, she surmises, because there are a mess of plates on the kitchen table and in the sink, a small cardigan crumpled on the floor and a baby’s spoon lying askew on a high chair tray, smelling of stale carrots and peas. Part of her feels like she should at least take the dishes and clean up, that it would be rude of her to just leave things like this without someone taking care of something in everyone’s untimely absence, but the emptiness of the house feels like a cold shoulder, made colder by the fact that there’s absolutely no evidence that lets her believe Clint wouldn’t have been turned to ash along with his entire family.

She makes her way into the living room and curls up on the couch, pulling an afghan over her worn, still sore body. She sleeps for maybe two hours before the phone in pocket vibrates loudly again, forcing her awake.

“It’s me. I found some stuff. I don’t know if it’s going to be any help --”

“It’ll help,” Natasha says automatically, knowing she needs something, anything that could give her a clue to where Clint might be, if he was even here at all and not floating around in some other void or wherever Thanos sent everyone when he made them disappear. Steve clears his throat.

“Banner’s been going over some data for everyone who’s missing, to see if they could have disappeared off the grid in another way,” he starts, and Natasha fights to keep herself from feeling anything when he mentions Banner. “We found some passport scans from international travel -- thought you might know something.”

No sooner has Natasha switched to speaker then does her tablet light up in the bag which she’s left by the door. She walks over and takes it out, swiping through the list of names, each one increasing her disappointment.

“Nothing I recognize,” she says finally, reaching for the phone again. “You got anything else?”

“Nothing much,” Steve replies, sounding frustrated. “Was kind of hoping one of those aliases would ring a bell. Only other thing I’ve got is a withdrawal from an account that’s been inactive for years. Too clean to probably be Clint, though. We picked up couple of plates on the road, but the only one that stood out said something like gone fishing --”

“Steve,” she interrupts sharply, her senses snapping into alertness. “What did you say the license plate said?”

“Gone fishing.”

Natasha’s breath catches in her throat.

“Shit.”

 

***

 

They had a code. They had lots of codes.

Getting coffee meant “dangerous, but under control.”

Meet you in Budapest meant “compromised, but safe.”

Gone fishing meant AWOL. Gone fishing meant don’t come find me, don’t come look for me, don’t even think of contacting me. Gone fishing meant there was only one place that Clint could be.

 

(They’d picked it years ago, deciding on the location because it was one of the only places in the world where they didn’t have a shared history.

“We should have a place,” she said.

Clint gave her a look. “A place? Like a summer home?”

“No,” Natasha said with a roll of her eyes. “A place. Like a failsafe. Somewhere off the grid, somewhere we can both go if there’s a big emergency and we need to disappear without the world knowing. Not something SHIELD might know, something that’s just between us.”

“Hmmm.” Clint squinted at the television screen; they had been holed up in his Brooklyn apartment for nearly the whole day thanks to a winter storm that had blanketed the world in ice and hail, causing even Fury to grunt they should stay home unless an emergency call came in. “World is big, Tash.”

He had been to Japan years ago by himself. She had been on one of her first Red Room missions. Japan meant different things to each of them, but it didn’t mean anything to them as a couple or as a team, which meant that it could act neutral ground -- no demons to haunt the alleyways, no ghosts to line the streets, no old relationships or lives to stain their thoughts or minds.)

 

Natasha grabs her bag from the floor and walks back upstairs, heading to Cooper’s bedroom. She scans the area that’s littered with messy clothes and some stray baseball mitts and dirty shoes until she finds the large world map folded into squares and tucked underneath a heavy rubik's cube. Her next stop is the guest bedroom she’s used over the years and she stops halfway across the room, kneeling down and turning her attention to the worn floorboards. She pushes against a slightly scuffed floorboard carefully until it gives, lifting the plank enough so that she can wiggle her hand inside. Natasha removes a passport, a wad of cash, and a sig saucer, before replacing the floorboard and double checking her surroundings.

She walks over to the dresser, rifling through shirts and socks until she finds a small velvet pouch nestled into the wooden drawers. Natasha forces it open, allowing a sterling silver arrow necklace to spill into her palm. She unfastens it with slightly shaking fingers, feeling its pressure as it settles against her sternum like a heavy weight.

 

***

 

Natasha isn’t worried about traveling -- half the world was gone anyway, air traffic controls be damned, and what was left was likely a world of looting, confusion, and general chaos. What she is worried about is trying to find Clint once she gets to Japan, given that there was never a specific city or landmark they had decided on as a meeting place.

While she flies, Natasha puts the quinjet on cruise control and opens the world map, quickly scanning the small green land mass on the other side of the world. She tries to pinpoint the places she knows have a higher crime rate; higher crime rates meant that there were less authorities, which meant that people could move in and out more easily, which meant that people watched themselves less. It also meant that people like Clint, who were likely trying to survive and lay low, could move around without looking too suspicious. Natasha quickly rules out populated tourist areas like Tokyo and Osaka, knowing Clint would never set foot somewhere that seemed obvious even if half the world had disappeared. Her quick research leaves her with one city circled -- Kitakyushu. There’s nothing that she can think of that makes her think Clint might be there, but there’s at least an airport on a small artificial island in the western Seto Inland Sea that’s close enough to the main body of the city, which would allow her to move in and out easily.

It’s a long shot, she knows. It’s a shot in the dark, and she’s never been as good with her shots as Clint.

But it’s somewhere she can start.

 

***

 

Getting the quinjet down on the airfield is so easy, she begins to wonder if Thanos’ snap has wiped out more than half the population because there’s hardly anyone around. She leaves the jet in stealth mode and finds an abandoned car, managing to figure out how to start it easily enough so that she can drive over the toll bridge that connects the island to the main city. Once she gets to an area that seems less rural, she ditches the car and makes her way on foot.

For as much as Natasha has been around the world and back again, there are blindspots in her knowledge that are just as big and blank as anyone else’s -- she used to laugh at Clint’s assumption that she knew so much just because of how she was raised and trained. The only piece of knowledge she has about Kitakyushu is that it has a reputation for being dirtier and more industrial, though its landmarks were supposedly beautiful and worth spending time getting to see.

She makes her way further into the city as the light in the sky dims and eventually fades, trying and failing not to think about what it must have been like for Clint to lose his entire family with probably no understanding as to why. A part of her feels guilty, because she was the one who had made the conscious choice not to call him and let him know what she was dealing with. But Steve had already done that a few years ago -- pulled Clint out of his retired life and forced him back into the fight because of Wanda. He had ended up in the Raft because of it, and even though he now had the opportunity to be with his family again, it wasn’t a decision he’d gotten to make by choice. Natasha wasn’t going to be responsible for taking him away from them -- not after Laura had given her an angry talk that made it clear that while she didn’t blame Natasha for what had happened, she did feel like she had a say in what her husband got to choose for his life.

Natasha shivers, unsure if the cold is from the memory or from the air, which has turned damp and clammy, unrest clawing its way into her skin and burrowing into her bones. She tries to ignore it, ducking into an alley when it starts to rain lightly, shaking off her discomfort and unearthing a thin black trench coat from her bag. She wraps it around her body tightly and as her gaze lands on a small restaurant across the street, her stomach rolls in a way that makes her realize she hasn’t eaten in at least a day, adrenaline acting as her only source of energy.

The sound of yelling snaps her out of her uncomfortable and hungry stupor, and she moves on instinct, tucking her body flat against a wall while dropping her bag and reaching into her boot for her gun. She breathes slowly, squinting against the rain to see if she can make out anything that might be happening. The yelling is coming from men who are dressed in all black, moving stealthily, backlit against the desolate sky and only visible by the twinkling lights of the otherwise cheerful street lanterns. Natasha can’t make out their words, but she knows enough Japanese to know that the shouts contain words of threat and fear.

It doesn’t surprise her, both the looting or the fact that it would be present here, in this city -- Japan’s yakuza syndicate stretched far and wide across the country; in addition to its supposedly gorgeous landmarks, Kitakyushu had a reputation for having a high presence of gang violence. The fact that it would suddenly escalate after Thanos’ actions makes about as much sense to her as Clint explaining why he always ordered Chinese food on New Year’s Eve.

Natasha lowers her gun and puts it away; she’s not looking to start a fight and she knows it wouldn’t be worth it to try to use bullets when these men were clearly trained in martial arts and hand-to-hand combat. She carefully steps away from the wall, wondering whether she should ignore the disruptions altogether or try to use them to her advantage -- maybe one of the men had some underground ties to something that would help her figure out where to find Clint -- when her eyes immediately become aware of another individual stepping into the fight. Tall and broad and wielding something that looks like a katana, the person steps in front of one of the gang members and raises his weapon. Natasha’s heart jolts in shock as the katana is brought down on the man’s shoulder, slicing into his skin before he’s neatly cut down. Whoever this person is -- a warrior, a samurai, someone on Japan’s streets who’s a superhero of another kind, maybe one trying to protect his own city -- he’s killing to kill, his movements ruthless and calculated.

Natasha steps into the street, opening the umbrella she’s taken out. It would be worth it, at least, to see if whoever was out on the streets could be useful for any information. As the mysterious fighter goes for the last target, she watches the clearly wounded man in front of him drop to his knees. Over the wind and the rain, Natasha can’t hear if he’s trying to make any kind of plea, but it doesn’t matter. The blade comes down on his head and he falls forward, his body thudding softly as it meets the ground. Almost just as quickly, the hooded figure raises his arm to wipe the blood off his katana and Natasha’s own blood, which was already running cold because of the weather, freezes completely.

She doesn’t need to know who she’s watching, because the move is so familiar, she’d know it even if she hadn’t spent years watching it or studying it or fighting beside it.

Natasha watches the movement of his shoulder blades, the way his body shifts with barely any hint of showing he’s sensed anything -- something no one would notice unless they knew how to read his specific body language.

If she didn’t know how to read his specific body language. 

Be wrong, she finds herself thinking as he reaches for his hood and pulls it down over his face, letting the rain soak his now exposed hair and neck. Be wrong, be wrong, be wrong.

When he finally turns around, the first thing she notices are his eyes. It was the first thing she noticed so long ago, when their roles had been reversed -- blood on her clothes, her mind angry and her hands stained with regret -- but the eyes that had found her then had been filled with understanding and honesty, and there had been a warmth inside of them that she thinks he’s never even realized he carries. A few years ago, Loki had snuffed out that warmth and left those eyes empty and crystal blue, void of feeling and depth, a memory that Natasha still hates thinking about.

His frigid stare catches her off-guard and the letters of his name die in her throat. She has no idea what to say and she realizes instantly that she doesn’t need to say it. Whatever she’s going to tell him about his family, he already knows, because he was there when it happened. Whatever she’s going to tell him about the world, he already knows -- or he doesn’t care.

“Clint.”

He stares at her with those same blank eyes and turns, sheathing his sword.

“You shouldn’t be here.”

Natasha grips her umbrella more tightly. “You shouldn’t leave codes if you don’t want to be found,” she replies, taking a step closer. He doubles back, grabbing his blade, but she’s faster and, she wants to remind him, she’s got years upon years of learned reflexes and experience. She drops her umbrella and lets it clatter to the street as she blocks his arm with one hand, her fingers closing down on his bicep. Natasha digs her nails into the leather of his suit, pushing back against him with full strength. She knows Clint’s brute force, she’s gone up against it when he’s been sick or injured or compromised. But there’s something different and more chilling about how he’s reacting in this moment, a kind of defense that she recognizes as stemming from sheer darkness rather than any other kind of motive. It’s a mindset of kill or be killed, the first thing they teach you in the Red Room. It’s a mindset of I don’t give a fuck who you are and what I’m doing.

When Loki had taken him, she never once believed Clint wasn’t somewhere inside, hidden and buried underneath monsters and magic. Before Hill had told her about how Clint had reacted in New Mexico -- he was shooting to miss, not to hit -- she carried around the hard faith that he was redeemable. She called Laura and told her, in plain conversation and not code, that he was better than this and stronger than what they were saying.

“You really wanna do this again?” she threatens. “Try and kill me like it’s seven years ago? You think I can’t fucking put your ass in the ground even with that stupid sword, Barton?”

The coldness sewn into his features doesn’t change but he does drop his defenses enough for her to feel like she can release his arm without the fear of him slashing her throat. Natasha lets the rain drip down her now soaked hair, looking down and watching it pool around the end strands of blonde.

“Why are you here?”

“To bring you home.” The words come out automatically, before she can stop them, and she regrets them almost instantly. Since the moment he turned around, she knew this wasn’t a situation where she could use gentle truth to bring him down, and it hurts her to realize that.

“How do I know you’re not here for some other reason?”

“What, are you paranoid now?” Natasha frowns. “Why the hell would I be here to hurt you? What purpose would I have to travel to Japan to track you down if it wasn’t because you’re my partner and I care about you?”

“How should I know?” he asks, his voice tight and low, washing away in the rain. “The world doesn’t give a shit about what we care about.”

Natasha hears the unshed tears in his words and wills herself to keep her emotions out of this conversation.

“The world may not, but I do.”

He looks up, his gaze still angry and defiant and lonely. Natasha’s seen Clint’s vulnerability before, dozens of times, both at SHIELD and at the farm. But this is something beyond brainwashing or regrets or fears about his children and his wife dying under his care. Clint had picked up and left everything that grounded him, throwing away a lifetime of memories and growth and covering himself with false identities, layering terrifying violence over the hurt.

He squares his shoulders and starts walking again. Natasha ducks back to grab the bag she’d dropped previously, hurrying to follow; he moves quickly, slicing through the streets with a precision so smooth that she’s sure she’d lose him if she wasn’t as fast as she was from years of training. She doesn’t bother to put her umbrella back up and lets the rain continue to soak her, leaving bodies and blood-stained puddles in her wake as she trails behind him. After roughly three minutes of tense silence and more than a few winding streets that take them away from the main drag, he turns around again. 

“You got a place to stay?”

She shakes her head. “No,” she admits. “But I’m sure I can find a hotel.”

He eyes her and then eyes the building to his left. “I’ve got a place I’ve been squatting at, if you want to spend the night.”

She doesn’t get to answer before he resumes walking, heading towards the small decrepit building on the corner.

Natasha follows in silence.

 

***

 

She doesn’t expect the place Clint is staying in to be nice by any means, given the state of the world and the city’s reputation for being a bit on the slummier side. Plus, the outside of the building certainly hadn’t done her judgement any favors. But the room that Clint lets her into, the fifth floor of a walk-up that smells like stale noodles and other mingling scents of asian food, is surprisingly decent looking. It’s far from cozy, but the walls and ceiling are intact and nothing looks considerably worn. There’s a queen-sized bed against the far wall, a futon adjacent to it, and a small kitchen on the opposite wall, facing the bed. A big orange rug divides the room in half and there’s what Natasha supposes must be a bathroom to the left of her with a closet to the right. She lets a tiny smile play onto her face when she notices the a miniature coffee maker next to the stove, though the smile drops away when she also notices a trashcan full of empty liquor bottles ranging from whiskey to vodka to imported beer. She turns around and finds Clint stripping down, removing layers of his gold and black outfit. As Natasha watches, she tries not to pay attention to the blood splattered across his neck.

“You got yourself a new uniform?”

Clint shrugs, ripping off his arm bands. “Not really. Got it from one of the yakuza. I did a job for them. Lets me let me hide better than that stupid old uniform.”

Natasha chooses to ignore the fact that he’s equating Hawkeye to someone he no longer cares for. Once upon a time, she didn’t want to be the Black Widow, because the Black Widow was a killer and a terrible person, someone who carried the connotation of death and horror. She’d tried every single method of forcing Clint and Fury and Hill into letting her choose a new code name until Clint finally snapped, telling her that if she couldn’t accept her name and work towards making it better, she should’ve just stayed in the Red Room.

“I like it on you,” she says finally. “The black, I mean. I always liked you in black. The gold is a nice touch.”

He snorts as he pulls off more clothing, dampening spots on the colorful rug with the water from his uniform. “I didn’t ask for your approval, but thanks.” He sits down, reaching for the buckles on his boots. “So how’d you find me?”

“Luck,” she says honestly, leaning against the small island that acts as a makeshift table. “Steve pulled up some intel and caught a car with the license plate that said gone fishing -- nice work getting that made up, by the way. I thought you only kept that collection in your garage because you couldn’t throw anything away.” She pauses, seeing if he’ll respond to anything in her words -- a mention of Steve, the fact that it meant not everyone was gone, the fact that he had, however much he’d wanted to or thought about it, given her some sort of clue. “I knew that meant Japan, but Kitakyushu was just a guess -- I could’ve started anywhere.”

“Well, good thing you got lucky,” Clint says in the same monotone voice as he stands up. Natasha notices he’s wearing a thick black bodysuit, probably something to add an extra layer of protection and warmth. “Wasn’t counting on you finding me.”

“Then why did you leave me a message?” Natasha challenges. “Or did you just not care, because you thought I got dusted, too?”

She can tell from the way his body reacts that she’s hit a nerve, and she pulls her fingers into hard fists as she waits to see if she’ll have to defend herself again.

“Pulling the Loki card was low.”

“Was it?” Natasha asks bitterly. “Because it seemed like you didn’t give a shit what you were going to do to me back there, and I couldn’t tell if that was you or some brainwashing crap.”

“Are you --” Clint stops, his face morphing into a picture of rage and frustration. “For Christ’s sake, I lost my family, Natasha! There’s no one fucking with my head!”

“Bullshit,” Natasha snaps. “You think that I’m supposed to believe that with the way you’re acting? I know this game, Clint, and I know that just because someone’s not physically in your head doesn’t mean that you can’t be influenced!”

“Right,” Clint scoffs. “Of course you don’t believe me.”

Natasha forces herself to pay attention to her posture, knowing any small movement will give away her feelings.

“I went to the farm,” she says haltingly. “Before I came here. I believe you.”

He’s wearing the same stiff look that she’d seen on his face when he cut down one of the gang members earlier -- a face devoid of any emotion, one that leaves her aching as she tries to find any trace of the person she cares about under the ice. Clint pushes past her and walks to the kitchen area, opening the cabinet and taking out a fresh bottle of sake. Natasha watches as he pours himself a glass.

“Care to tell me how long it’s been since you’ve started to live your life out of a bottle?”

Clint shrugs, clearly indifferent to her sarcasm. “Keeps the thoughts away.”

“Right. And how long has it been since you’ve been a mercenary under the yakuza?”

He downs the rest of his drink, pouring more. “Why does that matter?”

It matters because when you go, you go hard, Natasha thinks. It matters because you either commit to this or you’re only doing it halfway, and I need to know how far you’ve already gone. The uniform was a big enough deal, whether or not he’d been in this headspace for two days or two weeks was something she didn’t know. Natasha watches as he drinks, analyzing his movements carefully.

“You’re home,” she says slowly, not taking her eyes off of him. “Watching something, maybe doing laundry. Your family suddenly disappears -- no explanation, no warning. You don’t want to be there anymore so you decide to get off the grid. Lucky for you, Japan has a history with gangs and you can probably hide yourself in plain sight pretty well, but you need to get here first. You take a car and probably find a way to get to some port -- if I remember correctly, Tokyo is so busy that it doesn’t get checked for passenger transport or anything, so it would be easy enough to get over here with an alias.” She pauses, allowing her words to sink in, continuing when he doesn’t say anything. “Your food is liquid dinners, but every so often you’ll get yourself some crappy fast food. If you sleep, it’s only when you can take something or drink enough to pass out, because you have nightmares. You don’t trust that you’ll wake up and disappear, too. Should I keep going?”

Clint glares at her, putting down his glass and walking towards the other side of the room. “You don’t even sound surprised.”

“I actually am,” Natasha answers. “Because what you did to get here is a lot of fucking work, and you’re usually not that neat. Which means something else -- you don’t plan to come back.”

Clint stops in front of the small window next to the bed, pausing with two hands braced on either side of the frame. Natasha wonders if he’s taking in sight lines and vantage points, though she can’t imagine that wasn’t the first thing he did when he got here.

“You don’t plan to come back, do you?”

“It wasn’t worth it. Any of it.”

Of all the things that Clint’s said since she saw him murdering senselessly on a rain-lit street, this is what hits Natasha more than she expects, and her blood immediately boils with pent-up anger.

“So just because you lost everything, nothing matters,” she decides. “Which means we don’t matter. This -- our history -- everything we’ve been through together and experienced together, it means nothing to you. Sao Paolo, Lagos, Budapest --”

“You wanna know what matters?” Clint asks, still facing the window. “Laura holding my hand and disappearing. Lila crying when she realized something was happening -- that’s real, and those things matter! What doesn’t matter is some pretend glory where we pranced around thinking we were doing some good to the world!”

For a moment, Natasha’s not sure how to respond, except that she wants to verbally hit him back. She wants to tell him that he’s too angry, too upset, that he’s not seeing any of his thoughts rationally.

But as much as she doesn’t want to, she gets it. She knows the hurt that comes with being betrayed and abandoned and used. She knows what it means to come home in the middle of the night and find everything you’ve ever loved gone, and she knows what it’s like to want revenge, no matter how much blood you spilled along the way. She knows the reason behind why he’s killing the same way she used to and she knows there’s nothing she can do to talk him out of it, unless he comes out of it himself.

“Clint, I know you’re hurting. I know. But I’m telling you, you don’t want this red on your hands.”

Clint huffs out a laugh, and the harsh sound reverberates through the small apartment. “Really? You’re going to sit there and pretend to be high and mighty while telling me that I’m making bad choices? You, the Black Widow, the person who’s probably killed half of Europe because you were sad once?”

Natasha breathes through the pain of his words, trying to remind herself that this was her once -- mouthing off and pushing buttons that she knew would leave a mark. “It’s...Clint, it’s different.”

Why?”

“Because.”

Because, she wants to say, it just is. Because what she’d seen on the street wasn’t a one time kill or something done with a modicum of regret. It was a clear tactical strike, an action that he’d never considered could be wrong or terrible; it was a sign that his brain and his body had been conditioned to this type of killing.

Because the difference is, she knows that Clint doesn’t kill. He’s killed by accident and he’s killed in circumstances that have forced his hand and he’s killed out of self defense. But Clint has never killed for sport, for anger, for justice. It was why he preferred arrows to knives and bows to gun holsters, despite the fact that for all the jokes about being someone who used a pre-historic weapon, Clint was more than adept at firearms, hand-to-hand combat, and martial arts.

“Yeah,” he says shortly when she stays silent. “That’s what I thought.”

She stares at him silhouetted against the window in perfect formation -- arms wide, legs spread-eagled, head bowed. The rain has stopped, or at least tapered off into a few scattered showers, though the city and the building still bear the remnants of Mother Nature’s heavy sobs. Streetlights cast perfect golden circles on the puddles below them while streaks of water pepper the window pane, looking almost dazzling when caught by the multicolored lights of the lanterns below, and if Natasha imagines hard enough, she can almost see the scenes forming in front of her -- him standing in this same position in a high-rise hotel in Budapest, in the suite of a Ritz-Carlton in Puerto Rico, in a cottage in Floahreppur.

“I want food,” Natasha says suddenly. “Real food. Can I trust you to be here when I get back?”

Clint shrugs without turning around. “Maybe.”

She knows he hasn’t missed the threatening tone -- you better be here when I get back -- and she hopes that at least he has the sense to realize that if he did leave, her welcome when she found him again wouldn’t be as forgiving. She grabs her coat and her phone from where she’s dropped them on the floor, and is almost out the door when she realizes she doesn’t have a way back in that wouldn’t involve picking the lock. A quick scan of the kitchen reveals a tin of instant coffee that’s sitting near the sink and she picks it up, removing a set of rusty keys. She smiles to herself as she slips out the door; Clint was a creature of habit, even when he was trying to be someone else, and in the same way that she could trace his reasoning for being here and picking up a blade, she could figure out where the hell he would store important items.

Unsure of where to go, Natasha turns down the street they’d initially walked from, her boots slapping against open puddles and sending up small waves of water. The whole city seems desolate, sad and depressed despite the bright artificial lights that close in on her. When she’s far enough away to feel comfortable, she dials Steve’s number.

“Hi,” she says quietly when he picks up, pressing the phone to her ear as she slows her gait.

“Hey.” Steve sounds surprised but also relieved and the familiarness of his tone makes her feel a little better, given everything unfamiliar she’s finding in Clint. “Any luck?”

Natasha swallows and in the space of her silence, Steve swears under his breath.

“Where?”

“Japan. It’s --” She cuts herself off, not really knowing what to say. Far from it being anyone else’s business to know why Clint was on this bender and what it meant to him and to both of them, she knows nothing she says will sound good. “I can bring him back, but I need some time.”

“How much time?”

Natasha shakes her head at the ground. “I don’t know. A few days, at least. This is...this isn’t something I can just talk him out of. If you want him back and if you want him to fight with us for whatever we’re planning to do next, I need time.”

Steve sighs. “You’re gonna have to give me more than that, Natasha. Otherwise, everyone is going to assume that you’re on some joyride in Japan having a private fling while fifty percent of the world is dead or missing. We’re not exactly going to keep waiting around if you’re going to keep fucking off like this.”

“Then don’t wait around!” Natasha answers sharply. “But if you want me to bring Clint back, I need more than two hours of crappy therapy. Because otherwise, it’s going to be Ronin and not Hawkeye fighting next to you, and believe me, you don’t want Ronin unless you’re on a kill mission!”

“Natasha --”

“Steve, don’t.”

“Nat, if he’s a lost cause, we can’t risk it. Not when we’ve got the lives of millions of other people to save.”

Natasha opens her mouth and then closes it abruptly. “How can you even say that?” she asks furiously. “You would -- you did go to the ends of the earth for Barnes! Bucky killed more people than Clint has killed in his entire life...Steve, you don’t get to pull rank because someone is your best friend and then turn around say that about mine!”

On the other end of the line, Steve lapses into silence. “I’m sorry,” he says after a moment. “You’re right. I don’t get to say that. But Natasha...I don’t know what you expect to do. From what you told me, he’s that far gone.”

“I was that far gone once,” she replies, fighting to keep her voice steady. “And so was Barnes. He’s not a lost cause. We need him...I need him.” She pauses, swallowing down her emotions. “I need to bring him home.”

"Alright," Steve says, sounding both sad and resigned. “So bring him home, Nat. It seems like you think you’re pretty much the only one who can. And you’re right. We do need him.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Natasha asks, rubbing a hand over her eyes. “I’ll call you when I have more.”

She hangs up, all traces of hunger forgotten. Turning on her heel, she walks back the way she came, stomping up the stairs to his apartment and letting herself in. She finds Clint sitting cross-legged on the floor, sharpening his katana in long, smooth strokes. He looks up as she enters and she avoids his eyes as she picks up the bottle of sake he’d opened earlier. After taking a few sips, she marches over and plants herself in front of him with a hard glare.

“Get up,” she says forcefully.

Clint ignores her. “I’d rather not.”

“Don’t fuck with me, Clint. I’ll punch this out of you if I need to.”

He rolls his eyes. “I don’t need a comedown, Tasha.”

“Fine,” Natasha snaps. “But I do, so we’re going to sit here and unpack this. You lost Laura and the kids. You’re hurting. I get it. You want to make people pay. I get it. But you don’t get to do it this way. Hawkeye --”

“Ronin.”

“What?”

Clint studies his sword. “It’s not Hawkeye anymore. Hawkeye was an Avenger, and he died when my family disappeared. There’s only Ronin now.”

“I’m sorry,” Natasha says, knowing she doesn’t sound sorry at all. “Ronin.”

Clint focuses on his blade, twirling it deftly. “Hate it all you want, Natasha. Ronin is who I was always supposed to be.”

“No,” Natasha replies, fighting the urge to smack the katana out of his hand, knowing it’ll probably end badly for both of them. “Because Ronin would have shot me in the head when he found me on the streets, not carried me home and introduced me to his family. And Ronin would have killed me on that helicarrier, not come back to me when I knocked him out. And Ronin would have let that child in Sokovia die, not run back into the line of fire. Those are things that Hawkeye did.”

Clint doesn’t say anything, but Natasha can see that her words have shaken him even if he’s trying not to let it show.

“Look, it doesn’t matter anymore.”

“Yes,” Natasha argues. “It does matter. Clint, what the hell happened?”

“Shouldn’t I ask you that?”

She struggles with how to answer as he stares at her coldly; whatever she said about losing people, about Thanos, it was going to pale in comparison to what he’d gone through. She’d watched people she cared about disappear before her eyes and she only knew half of what was actually happening; for him to have watched it without having any idea had to have been maddening.

“What do you mean?”

“Oh come on, Nat.” He looks exasperated, and gets up from the floor. “You came after me.”

“Is that something you don’t believe I would do?” Natasha asks heatedly. “Of course I came after you! I needed to know if you were okay!”

“So you tracked me down to fucking Japan, and now you want to pull me back into some fight.”

Natasha crosses her arms. “And what’s wrong with that?”

“Really?” He gives her a pointed look as he lifts his katana, angling it at her dangerously. “We all know you don’t wade into wars, Natasha.”

Natasha steps forward, pushing herself closer to his outstretched blade. “I do if I need to.”

“Yeah, and what was Loki?”

Natasha’s body vibrates with anger. “We don’t get to talk about that until you’re Hawkeye again.”

She hates staring at him, she hates seeing the stiff and foreign and unwavering mask he’s forcing himself to wear, but despite the lifelessness he’s displaying, she manages to pick out at least four minuscule tells. She lets them comfort her; he may be on his way out but at least she knows there’s still something in there that’s Clint, which means she still has a chance of bringing him back.

“You really drive a hard bargain, Natasha.”

He puts the sword down and walks into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. Natasha stays where she is, her heart aching with a pain she hasn’t felt for a long time.

It’s late, and part of her wants nothing more than to get into bed with him and hold him, assure herself that he’s still in there even though she keeps telling herself he is. She wonders if he knew how lonely she was on the nights where he would leave her by herself, refusing to even check on her, because he was trying to give her space and not make her angry.

Natasha sits down on the futon and pulls a blanket over her legs, feeling like she’s distanced from everything in more ways than one.

 

***

 

Natasha sleeps better than she thinks she should, considering she’s fighting jet lag and lingering injuries. But when she opens her eyes, re-orienting herself to where she is and why she’s here, she can tell it’s definitely late in the morning. She gets up slowly and walks to the window; the storm has washed itself away in the night and now that the sun is up, she can finally take in the apartment and the view outside.

She watches a few people wander the streets, some hurrying faster than others, some with small children and others with large shopping bags. Natasha takes it all in; as the implications of Thanos’ actions become more and more real, she’s found herself wondering how people are dealing with it. Had they snapped like Clint and resorted to looting and chaos in the wake of losing people they’d loved? Had they just shrugged and moved on, figuring whatever happened was something that would cosmically realign itself?

The view reminds her of Budapest with its rain-covered streets and inherent stillness, and she smiles sadly before she moves away. She turns around and notices that Clint’s bed is empty; the covers are rumpled and the pillow is dented and his uniform -- the mask, the armguards, the boots -- are lying in a heap on the floor.

“You’re a good spy, but you’re still a fucking slob,” she mutters, trying to ease the worry in her mind. She hadn’t heard him leave, but that didn’t mean anything -- she’d been pretty out of it and doubts that she would’ve been that much on her guard. A sound to her left nudges her towards the direction of the bathroom, and as she gets closer, she picks up on the sound of running water. Natasha breathes a quiet sigh of relief as she pushes the door open.

Clint’s back is to her; she can see a fuzzy outline of his spine against the frayed blur of the thin shower door. She figures he must have heard her come in and is continuing to ignore her -- at least, that’s what she tells herself as she knocks quietly against the glass before sliding it open.

Clint jumps, bracing himself against the wall to keep himself from slipping, eyes wild. One hand flails wildly as his body reacts to the surprise of her presence.

“Hey!” Natasha reaches up and grabs his hand. She grips his fingers tightly, feeling the way his limbs are shaking. “Clint, hey, it’s me. It’s just me. You’re fine...it’s just me, okay?”

She waits until he’s calmed down, dropping his hand as he slumps against the shower wall. The water continues to pour over his half-shaved head, dripping in rivulets down his skin, and Clint's heavy breathing sounds like a loud echo in the small space.

“I’m sorry,” she says, her eyes working their way over his body. “I thought you’d heard me come in and you were --”

“Ignoring you?” Clint pushes away from the wall and rubs water out of his eyes. “Still thinking about it.” He pulls the shower door closed again, a silent declaration of we’re not going to talk about why I just freaked out, and Natasha sighs.

“I’m not fazed by seeing you naked,” she barks loudly over the roar of the water. “Unless you’ve decided that part of your life doesn’t exist anymore, either.”

She stays in the bathroom until the shower has been turned off, but does turn around to give him the decency of stepping out without her watching. When he pushes past her to open the door, she tries not to pay attention to the marks and scars on his back -- the ones that she knows so well and the ones she’s pretty sure hadn’t been there before.

It had been almost two years, but they were two long years. She hadn’t been absent for all of it, because she couldn’t do that to him and she wouldn’t do that to Laura and the kids. But she had been absent for most of it, because Steve and Sam had wanted her and needed her. And with Ross keeping watch on Clint’s house arrest, Natasha had been hesitant to get too close or stay too close for too long, mostly out of worry. They talked more than the touched, and she visited Lila and Cooper and Nathaniel and made sure they felt like nothing was wrong, but there was still so much she knows she’d missed by not being present.

“Did you ever eat yesterday?” he asks gruffly as he pulls a sweatshirt over his bare chest, reaching for loose jeans to put on over his boxers.

Natasha shakes her head. “No. I...I got distracted and then I wasn’t hungry.”

Clint motions to the fridge, and it looks like it’s physically paining him to be accommodating. “I have some leftovers. It’s not great breakfast food, but it’s something.”

Natasha nods and follows him to the kitchen area, watching him take out a carton that he shoves in the microwave. As the machine spins and hums, he shakes some grounds into the miniature coffee maker, pressing a button. Natasha examines the bowl of reheated rice when he puts it down in front of her, and is almost startled when Clint plunks down a hot cup of coffee a few moments later.

“For fuck’s sake, Natasha. I’m not going to drug you.”

“I didn’t say you were,” Natasha replies. “But you’re not Hawkeye, remember? I don’t know anything about you.”

“And here we go again.” He takes his own coffee and sips it slowly. “You know, you’ve got a lot of nerve coming here and expecting me to just go along with whatever you’re going to tell me. We need help, Hawkeye was good, the world is still good, I can change -- is that what you’re going to tell me, Natasha? That I can change? God knows you wouldn’t even know if I’m any different than the last time you saw me.”

“I wanted to come back more,” she says quietly, and the words feel like an empty lie, something that she’s saying just because she needs to. “But you knew the stakes, Clint. Ross was watching, and I was just as much at risk as you were. And when I was there, at least I was me. I wasn’t pretending to be someone else.”

“Is that what you think this is?” Clint asks, laughing hollowly. “Pretending?”

Natasha grits her teeth. “You need to stop.”

“Why?”

“Because this is not what you want to do!” She slams both hands down, and coffee spills out of the small cup, splattering onto the counter. “You don’t want to be this person, Clint! And I’m not going to let you take yourself down this road! I don’t fucking care if it kills me!”

Clint rubs his thumb over the handle of his own coffee cup, a meticulous, practiced motion that Natasha knows means he’s collecting his thoughts. “Did you know that when I was mind controlled, Loki was mind controlled, too?”

“I --” Natasha furrows her brow, dragging one leg up on the chair and adjusting her position so she can face him better. “What do you mean?”

Clint waves a hand around listlessly. “Tony told me a few years ago, after we took it in Sokovia. While he had the scepter, he was being influenced by it the same way that I was. So everything he was doing was still him, but just...more of him. Whatever was controlling him, however it was doing it, it fed off his jealousy and his anger. And that was me, too.”

Natasha shakes her head, trying to understand what he’s saying. “Clint, I don’t --”

“Are you really that dense, Natasha? When I was doing those things, I wasn’t pretending to be someone else. Everything I did and thought was still me. That person is inside of me, and it’s not someone I’m pretending to be!” He raises his head slowly, meeting her eyes. “You may not like Ronin and I’m not asking you to like him. But Ronin is me, and you can’t change that.”

Natasha’s fingers tighten around her coffee cup. “You’re supposed to let me believe that you’ve always been okay with killing people? Clint, I refuse to accept that. We all have darkness...that doesn’t make you a murderer or a bad person.”

He glares at her. “I thought you were going to eat, not lecture me.”

Natasha glares back and shoves cold rice into her mouth, chewing it viciously. “I thought you were going to listen to me, not spew shit about who you think you are.”

A sharp ping interrupts their icy tension, and he looks over at what Natasha notices is a high-tech smartphone. She raises an eyebrow as he reaches for it.

“Murders in high demand today?”

Clint grabs the phone and looks at it quickly before shoving it in his pocket. “I get busy sometimes. None of your business.”

“Didn’t realize Ronin was such a celebrity.”

Clint puts his coffee down and walks away, and Natasha hears him moving behind her. She closes her eyes, trying to remind herself of what he went through so many years ago. She knows she’d made it hard for him, she remembers how much she pushed back and the guilt she felt for being so selfish when she finally broke through her pain. She’d never considered that one day she’d be on the opposite end of that cycle, though. Not with Clint.

Natasha opens her eyes and catches him shrugging into his uniform. She moves quickly, positioning herself in front of him.

“You’re not going.”

Clint’s eyes harden, that almost undetectable darkness taking over his face, and Natasha is shocked at how unforgiving he looks, even with only half his suit on. “Like hell I’m not going.”

“Try it,” she counters. “But was serious, Clint -- I’m not going to let you go and continue to do this to yourself.”

She’s prepared for a fight, her senses ready to spur her into action if he snaps, but Clint takes a step forward and falters, stumbling uncharacteristically. A wave of relief washes over her; she’d barely had time to get the drug into his coffee and was worried it wasn’t enough. Natasha lowers her defenses as he looks up, clearly realizing what she’s done. The fire in his eyes burns through her like a deadly blaze, singing her soul.

“I’m sorry,” Natasha says quietly as she watches him fight to keep his eyes open. “I really am.”

 

***

 

While Clint sleeps off the effects of the drugs Natasha knows he’ll feel for longer than he wants to, the sun wanes outside and she cleans up as much as she can around the apartment. She empties the house of all remaining alcohol and tidies up the rest of the small room, before turning her attention to any and all hiding spaces. Part of her dreads what she’ll find aside from more liquor bottles, but the only thing that she comes across that makes her stop and frown is another set of sharp knives and a creased, dirtied family photo that he must have taken from home before he left. Nathaniel is still a newborn but Laura and Cooper and Lila are as she remembers them from recent visits, all soft smiles and missing teeth and overgrown hair.

She tucks the picture into her bag and decides to take a shower. This time, standing in front of the mirror, she doesn’t notice as many injuries even though her bruises are still colorful decorations and there are parts of her joints that are sore. What hurts more is the raw sadness that spreads across every inch of her body as she remembers Clint in the rain with his katana, vacant eyes and a face filled with contempt -- a look of resentment, of purpose, of conditioning.

I can’t believe you got so bad you ended up here.

When she steps out of the bathroom, toweling off her wet hair and fully dressed again, she’s surprised to find Clint sitting up in bed. He turns towards her, his eyes narrowing.

“You drugged me.”

Natasha studies him from a distance, trying to decide if it’s safe to come closer -- she hadn’t bothered to take him out of his suit, figuring that would be too much of a violation of his independence, but she had taken his katana and the rest of his weapons and locked them in one of the kitchen cabinets. She doesn’t trust his physical strength not to be a threat, though, even in a drugged state.

“Are you really surprised?”

He shrugs, and Natasha perches herself on the edge of the bed. While he’d been sleeping, she’d taken the time to examine him more closely, reflecting on the new mohawk that she knows he’d given himself based on how messy the sides were, the sallowness of his cheeks, and the dark bags underneath his eyes that represented a tiredness she can tell he’s been ignoring in favor of pushing everything away.

“After SHIELD fell, I didn’t know who I was,” Natasha says. “I didn’t owe the world anything -- not after what it did to me, not after it took away the one good thing I had built my life on. I thought about disappearing, because it would be easier.”

“You did disappear,” Clint answers. “I remember.”

“I thought about it,” Natasha repeats. “It would’ve been easy. I had a blank slate...my covers were gone. I could have started over and no one would even know or care.”

“So why didn’t you?”

“I don’t know,” she admits. “But I think part of it was that I knew you were still there. I had...I had something I didn’t have when I was just the Black Widow, and that made a difference.”

Clint gives her a sideways look, and Natasha thinks there might be a hint of emotion trying to break through the stoic mask he’s been keeping on. “You can’t sit there and tell me this is the same damn thing,” he says, sounding tired.

“It is the same thing,” Natasha insists. “I know you don’t have Laura or your family right now, but you have me, and --

“For god’s sake, Natasha!” Clint smashes his fists into the mattress, causing her to jump. “Not everything is about you!”

In an instant, Natasha sees Clint, telling her that she doesn't have to leave in order to fix herself, that they can lie low and re-build whatever's left of SHIELD. She sees Laura, fear from Sokovia still fresh in her face, telling her that she isn't the only one who gets to decide who lives and dies in their partnership. She sees Tony, standing in front of her with his arm in a sling and his ego as bruised as his bones -- must be hard to shake the whole double agent this, huh? Sticks in the DNA.

There’s so much she could say, she thinks, if she wanted to. How so many choices in her work and in her life were made because she wasn’t caring about herself but instead caring about other people, Wanda and Steve and Tony, Clint and Laura and Cooper and Lila and Nathaniel. How much she’s sacrificed to be here in this moment, letting the rest of the world go on with their losses while she pursued one personal one at the expense of millions.

“You’re right,” she acknowledges finally. “Not everything is about me. But you’re my partner and you’re my best friend, and I have a responsibility -- to you, to Laura, to everyone that still cares about you. I don’t need you to explain to me why you’re doing the things you’re doing, I just need to know you’re in there.”

Even though you say it, I need to know that there’s some part of you that wouldn’t just throw away our history and our past because life dealt you a shitty hand. I thought you were better than that.

His eyes sweep around the room, finding focus on one of the blank walls. “You know what I thought of when I got to Japan?” he asks sullenly. “The night that we decided on where we’d have this stupid neutral ground. The night you kissed me and told me that you loved me, even though I had Laura.”

“That was real,” Natasha acknowledges instantly. “Love doesn’t mean you have to be in a physical relationship with someone. Anytime I told you I loved you, it was real, no matter who else you loved.”

“Don’t you get it, Natasha?” His voice is rising in volume, sharp and frustrated. “It doesn’t matter! What does anything matter if things can just disappear in a matter of seconds like they never existed?”

“You can’t tell me that being a mercenary is worth fighting for over your family,” Natasha responds just as sharply. “I won’t let you think that way, Clint.”

He lets his gaze fall to the bed, one finger trailing over the thin covers. “You said we couldn’t talk about Loki until I was Hawkeye again.”

“Yes,” Natasha answers. “I did.”

“What if I want to talk now?”

Natasha considers the situation, the fact that she’s still not entirely sure she trusts his judgement and his mindset when it comes to going that deep into both of their emotions. “Change first,” she says. “I can’t have a conversation with you if you look like Ronin.”

She gets up and walks to the couch, wishing that his apartment had more than one room so that they could actually give each other the space they needed. Curling up on the couch, she faces the wall and closes her eyes, remembering a gentle face, a soft hand, a broken voice.

Do you know what it’s like to be unmade?

You know that I do.

When she hears him clearing his throat softly behind her, she turns and sits up, pushing the sights and sounds of the conversation from her mind. Clint still looks like he needs about a year’s worth of sleep, but he’s at least changed back into normal clothes. He looks around the room, as if suddenly realizing for the first time that things look more put together than they had before.

“Where’s my alcohol?”

“That’s not something you need to concern yourself with,” Natasha responds evenly.

“And my sword?”

“You don’t need that, either.”

He starts pacing the room, making small angry circles until he finally ends up back in front of her, fixing her with those same tired eyes she’s starting to become accustomed to.

“It’s like you think we have some sort of history with this or something.”

The words are like an arrow, released from a long-held bow and perfectly aimed to connect with her heart. They explode pain into every nerve ending and as if hit with her own drugs, she feels as tired as she knows he is, worn and sore.

“I’m not saying that Ronin can’t exist. And I’m not saying you don’t want this life because I think it’s a bad choice. Clint, when I saw you on that street...when I saw you killing…” She trails off, making sure her words can find a firm enough foothold before continuing. “I know that it hurts to feel, and I know why you don’t want to. But if you go down this path, if you don’t stop, it doesn’t become about revenge or anger. It’s about the next kill. And the next one. And the next one. You’ll forget you ever had a family. You’ll forget you ever had Laura or me or Wanda. You’ll become a shell of your feelings and the only thing that will matter is violence. And that’s a life I never, ever wanted for you.”

“Yeah, well.” Clint folds his arms over his chest. “Sometimes we can’t control what we want.”

Natasha leans over and opens her bag, pulling out her tablet, making quick work of unlocking the passcode and pulling up a few files.

Clint glances down at her. “What the hell are you doing?”

“You wanted to talk about Loki, so I want you to watch this,” she says, holding the tablet out once she’s pulled up the video that she’s been looking for. He eyes her suspiciously.

"Why?"

Natasha sighs. “Please just watch it, Clint.”

He looks like he wants to keep arguing but instead of opening his mouth, he walks towards the futon, carefully sitting down next to her. Natasha notices that even though they’re technically in close proximity, he’s keeping his distance and keeping himself guarded as he takes the tablet from her warily and presses a button.

She hasn’t watched the video in years but it doesn’t matter, because she knows it by heart. It’s seared into her memory the way the burns she received in the Red Room were seared into her skin, fused to her body, forever attached to her mind.

Sometimes memories become more than just a memory. They become a part of us, Laura had told her on a quiet winter’s night in front of the fireplace when they both couldn’t sleep. You can’t escape them any more than you can forget them.

Natasha closes her eyes; there’s a vivid recollection of every word, every inflection, every calculated movement of body language. She can smell the stale air of the helicarrier and she can feel her skin prickling in fear under her suit the same way she can hear his voice worming its way into her brain with long, icy hands that take hold of her memories, her most precious secrets, squeezing them from her mind.

Is this love, Agent Romanoff?

Loki hadn’t been wrong. But he hadn’t been right, either. What her and Clint had could never be a crash-and-burn selfless love that existed on a superficial plane. There was no word for it, but sometimes, Natasha thinks, there could be every word for it.

Love is for children. I owe him a debt.

Clint looks up as the video cuts off and she notices his face is a picture of abject misery, as if every single emotion he’s been trying to conceal is struggling to escape and burst from his skin.

“Why have I never seen this?”

Natasha hesitates. “Because there was never a good time to show it to you,” she admits. “And because I never wanted you to see it.”

Clint bites down on his lip, considering her words. “Has Laura ever seen it?”

“No,” Natasha answers. “No one has. I had SHIELD technicians pull it after the Battle of New York was over. Fury doesn’t even know it’s missing from the archives.” She raises her hand, letting her fingers settle on his neck. He flinches, but doesn’t try to push her away. “How long have you carried around the fact that you told him about us and didn’t want me to know?”

Clint rubs a hand over his face, his fingers pulling at short, sticky strands of a beard he hasn’t bothered to shave. “Does it even matter now?”

“Yes,” Natasha answers. “Because I know you’ve been using that when you think about being a bad person. You think about the fact that you gave me up -- gave us up -- and put me in danger.”

Clint plays with the tablet on his knees. “It’s true.”

“It is true, but it's unfair. I’ve done things to you, too.” Natasha keeps her hand on his skin, as simple of an anchor as she can offer him because she knows he won’t accept much else. “I’ve hurt you. I know I have. We’re spies and assassins and...and we live with things we’ve said and done in our line of work that have been personal, even when we didn’t want them to be. But we’ve lived with them. And you don’t get to use our history to make yourself believe you’re a terrible person.” She gets up from the couch and walks to the kitchen area, crouching down to the lowest cabinet, fiddling with the lock she’s put on the handle. After a series of complicated combinations and twists, she opens the drawer and takes out his katana. Clint looks visibly surprised when she walks back over and hands it to him.

“What are you doing?”

“Proving that you’re not a terrible person,” she says. “Even if you’re still Ronin. Even if you don’t want to be Hawkeye.” She nods towards the sword. “I want you to attack me.”

Clint’s brow creases heavily as he rises from the couch. “You’re serious.”

“Yes,” Natasha answers. “I am.”

He tenses, looking suddenly uncomfortable. “You know I could kill you.”

“And you know I could kill you,” she says evenly. “We could have been dead years ago by each other’s hand. How is now any different than all the lives we’ve already spared each other?”

He walks forward slowly, until he’s close enough to grab the blade from her. Wrapping his fingers around the handle, he moves his wrist in small, concentrated circles.

Natasha doesn’t move from where she’s standing, forcing herself to stay still as he continues to wield the blade, his movements confident and seasoned. As he backs up, building the space between them, his body weight shifts to allow him to slide into a combat position. His eyes are focused, his fingers are pointed, and she sees the change as he lets himself fold into Ronin, the vacancy in his features returning and the hardness of the lines around his mouth becoming accentuated.

Ultron wasn’t any different from us just because he was a robot, she had told him. We’re all just pieces of a skeleton, in the end. We become bones and dust. We don’t keep our skin. What dies with us are the memories we allow ourselves to absorb.

Clint had changed, and Natasha knows that even if she pulls him out of this, even if she gets his family back, there’s a good chance he’s never going to be the same again. But she also has to believe that underneath the bones and skin was a skeleton of someone who still loved her and had absorbed enough memories to remember that.

She doesn’t close her eyes when Clint throws the katana. She keeps from blinking, letting herself watch as the blade spirals towards her, curving at the last moment with a precision that she knows can only be achieved by someone who has years worth of detailed aim. The blade nicks a small line of red against her cheek as it flies past her, embedding itself in the wall.

Clint lets his body relax and Natasha watches as he takes a deep breath and lets it out, visibly shaken, Ronin bleeding out of him like a venom seeping out of a wound.

“Well,” she says after long moment, meeting his eyes, “I think we might be able to get somewhere after all.”

 

***

 

She volunteers to make sure they eat a real dinner, even if that dinner is just re-heated ramen, and they eat sitting on the floor with the katana lying between them like a peace offering. The gaping hole in the kitchen wall seems like a fitting metaphor for the way things were now, there was a gap between them, something that couldn’t be filled after the world had cracked in two and something not even Ronin could pull back together.

“That was a big risk, you know.”

“I know,” Natasha says, looking down at her food. “But I trusted you, the same way you trusted me all those years ago.”

“I never asked you to throw a sword at my face,” Clint says, cracking a ghost of a smile. After a moment, he sighs. “You were wrong about not wanting to feel. I do want to feel. I just don’t want to hurt.”

Natasha reaches out instinctively, settling her hand on top of his knee. “You can feel and you can even have those feelings cover you without feeling like you’re drowning,” she says. “But you don't need to kill to do it. I promise. There’s a different way.”

“There’s not,” Clint says, sounding resigned. “I’m already...this.”

Natasha pushes a strand of blonde away from her face, tucking it behind her ear. “You were right, too,” she allows. “I should’ve come back to the farm more. I was wrong to stay away. I wasn’t as present as I could have been, and I’m sorry I tried to be too protective.”

Clint shakes his head. “You were there enough. Besides, it wouldn’t have made a difference. You wouldn’t have been able to do any more than I did. I was there and I couldn’t even protect them.”

Natasha’s heart surges with a bruising pain. “Ronin wouldn’t have been able to, either.”

She sees a flicker of understanding in his eyes, a hint of life spreading into his face in a way she thinks she hasn’t seen since she arrived in Japan.

“Maybe not.”

Natasha doesn’t expect Clint’s defenses to break down easily -- she knows him, and she knows how much of Ronin he’s put into himself. So she’s surprised when she prepares to make herself comfortable on the futon for another night and Clint clears his throat quietly, motioning a little awkwardly to the open space next to him in bed.

“Are you sure?” she asks carefully, wondering if she should push back and be more firm about their distance until she knows he’s truly back to himself.

“Yeah,” he says quietly. “If you want.”

Natasha nods, getting up and moving to the bed. She makes sure to keep herself from touching him, in case closeness isn’t what he wants right now. She knows what it feels like to still need the walls that have started to crumble.

“This is real, right?” Clint asks tentatively as he pulls the covers over his legs “This -- all of it -- it’s always been real?”

She knows being unmade is something that doesn’t just go away.

Natasha puts a hand against his face. “This is real,” she says softly. “We are real. We’ve always been real.”

“How do you know?”

Natasha reaches under her shirt, pulling out the arrow necklace she’s been wearing, and sees Clint’s eyes widen in surprise.

“Because even if I disappeared tomorrow and even if you were someone I didn’t recognize, I’d still make sure I came back for you.”

Clint leans his head against her shoulder, and Natasha feels the warm pulse of his skin against her own, a heavy and anxious drum beat.

“I can’t go back.”

“Why not?”

“Because,” he says, his voice so low she can barely hear him. “I killed all those people. Because I ran away.”

“You made mistakes,” Natasha acknowledges. “We all make mistakes. And sometimes, those mistakes are terrible things. But Clint -- Clint, look at me. You need to accept that you did those things and that you can move on from them.”

Clint looks unconvinced, uncertainty clouding his eyes. “I don’t know if I can.”

Natasha squeezes his hand gently. “I do.”

She doesn’t remember falling asleep, but when she wakes up again, the room is dark save for slivers of luminance pouring in from the outside lights. She turns over and feels an empty space beside her but before she can let herself worry, she becomes aware of him standing by the window. His face is a mask of tender vulnerability sheathed in jagged spires of moonlight and she gets out of bed, walking over in the darkness, aligning herself with his body.

“Clint?”

He turns to her and blinks, a single thread of water running down his face in the form of a silent, silver tear.

“I’ve got red in my ledger. I want to wipe it out.”

 

***

 

When she wakes up again, the room is brighter, and she’s warm underneath the covers. This time, she doesn’t need to move in order to feel Clint’s weight next to her, so she’s careful when she does get up, padding across the bright orange rug to make coffee. Clint stirs as the drip begins to percolate, and judging from how slowly he seems to be waking, she thinks it’s possibly the first time he’s gotten a decent amount of sleep in awhile.

“Is it late?”

Natasha shrugs, glancing outside. “Late enough.” She pours a cup of coffee and walks back to the bed, handing it to him. Clint arches his brow tiredly as he takes it from her.

“I didn’t drug it this time,” she promises. “But I can, if you want me to.”

Clint’s lips shift upwards in the barest hint of a smile. “Thanks,” he says quietly, taking a long sip. He cups the mug with both hands and Natasha takes a few deep breaths.

“I know you’re not okay and not ready, but Steve is waiting for an update. There are others back in New York -- Thor, Banner --”

Banner?” Clint’s coffee cup tilts as he sits up straighter. “Jesus, Nat...why didn’t you say something?”

“When was I supposed to say something?” she asks wearily. “In the middle of trying to make sure you didn’t kill half of Japan in a murderous stupor? Or while I was trying to make sure you didn’t kill me on a bender?”

Clint looks like he’s fighting off guilt as he drinks more coffee, the muscles in his mouth contracting and releasing quickly. “Did you -- I mean, are you --”

“I don’t know,” she says, as honest an answer as she feels she can give. “I wish I knew what I felt. Having someone come back into your life after just disappearing...being alone to deal with it -- I’m still figuring it out.”

“But what if I can’t figure it out?” His hands start to shake, his cup moving of its own accord, and Natasha reaches over and takes it from him. “What if I decide to do this, get back into the fight, and I get them back and nothing is the same?”

Natasha places the coffee on the floor and scoots closer to him. “Is that what you’re worried about? Why you don’t want to be Hawkeye anymore? Clint, when have you ever been afraid of fighting for what you love?” She puts her steady hand over his shaking ones, pressing her fingers into his skin. “You pulled me back because you gave me enough to know I had something to hold onto. You have a life and a history with Laura the same way you do with me, and no matter what happens, Laura will still be Laura. Your family will still be your family. And I’ll still be there with you.” She opens his palm gently and traces a number into it, watching his face shift in surprise as he realizes what she’s writing.

“How?”

Natasha smiles. “You forget that I know every place we’ve ever appropriated as a hideout, especially the obvious ones. Besides, did you really think I’d ever believe that you’d throw away your bow for good?”

Clint stares down at his hand where Natasha has drawn the invisible number of the safety deposit box into his skin. “You really want to go all the way back to Budapest?”

“Well.” Natasha pushes a hand through her hair. “You said you wanted to make sure things were real, right? So maybe we should start at the beginning, and make sure it’s real. Whether or not you want to be Hawkeye again -- as long as you’re you -- we can fight. We can bring them home.”

Clint looks around the room, his eyes settling on his uniform and the katana lying across his clothes.

“What are we supposed to do after?”

We fight. We help. We change things so that your family comes back. Natasha thinks of what she could say, the things she knows are true: summer and Clint curling up on the big swing with her while Lila chased fireflies on the porch and Cooper read his book and Laura held a sleeping Nathaniel and everything seemed like it could live in a perfect bubble of contentment. Nights where she lay alone in bed in a big room at the farm, surrounded by people who loved her and cared about her, each in their own specific way. A hotel room in Budapest, sightlines and security cameras double and triple checked and mostly disabled, sitting on the floor with bottles from the minibar and tears of broken memories and Clint’s stories and his real, warm laugh.

Steve had told her in no uncertain terms that she didn’t have any fuck around time, and she knows he’s right. She isn’t the only one who’s lost something in this fight, she isn’t the only one who’s trying to get someone back -- and she isn’t the only one who knows she can’t do it alone.

“We heal.”