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bursting through the barricades and reaching for the sun

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We need him.

Natasha had been firing another round of bullets when she heard the voice behind her. She hadn’t stopped to respond because while it was the truth, it wasn’t feasible. She had already exhausted all her channels. She had already covered all her bases. She had already searched enough to understand that Clint -- Clint and his whole family -- had been turned to dust. She hadn’t told anyone, mostly because she needed to grieve the loss on her own without answering to anyone else.

We need him.

Steve had persisted -- tracked her down after hours when she wanted to sleep, cornered her in the hallway after she was coming out of a shower, surprised her in the kitchen when she was making her breakfast. She ignored him at first, until the frustrations piled up -- until she couldn’t push the reality from her mind any longer, until she couldn’t forget the fact that he was gone, that he didn’t exist, that he might not come back because it had been almost three years and she couldn’t see a way out of this like she usually could.

We need him.

And so she had finally snapped. She had turned on him after a session at the firing range, french-braided blonde hair slapping him in the cheek because he was standing too close, and told him what she knew -- that he had been dusted, that he was gone, that she knew they needed him but that they couldn’t have him because he didn’t exist right now. She had bolted immediately after and found herself in the bedroom, angry to find that underneath the anger that had been piling up, actual tears existed. She cried by herself and thought that maybe because she had gotten it out, things would be easier.

And then Carol had showed up. Carol, Captain Marvel, whatever her name was -- she had appeared out of thin air, dropped Fury’s name like that meant everyone was just supposed to trust her, and simply suggested they use the stones to undo everything that had been done. And Natasha would have been fine with that, could have been fine with that, if Steve hadn’t pulled her aside and taken a deep breath.

We need him.

“I told you.” Natasha’s eyes felt like they were made of the steel she knew they were displaying. “He’s gone, Steve. We can’t get him back. Not until we get the stones again and use them to somehow undo this.”

“You did tell me,” Steve said quietly. “And I understand. I know you’re upset, Nat -- Natasha.” He had paused on her name, quickly backtracking when she knew her gaze had shifted from angry to territorial, because in any other case it might have been okay. Not now, though. Not with Clint gone. “But I think I have a way.”

“A way.” Natasha’s eyes moved, settling on Carol’s back across the room. She was tired, and she was hurting, and she just wanted a solution that didn’t involve jumping through ten million hoops. “What way, Steve?”

Steve hesitated. “When Thanos snapped his fingers...when everyone turned to dust...it didn’t just affect our universe.”

Natasha gave him a wary look. “I don’t follow.”

“There are other universes,” Steve continued. “Multiverses. I don’t know the specifics, but Banner does. I do know that whatever Thanos did to us had some sort of ripple effect. Something where it’s possible that people from other universes could’ve ended up in ours.”

She knew what he was getting at and also knew why he didn’t want to outright say it, because it seemed like both a long shot and a crazy statement. Clint was alive somewhere. But wherever he was, wherever she found him, he wouldn’t technically be her Clint -- the one who she had fought for, protected, trusted, saved the world with, and very nearly died for.

“We don’t know anything about these other people,” she said, lowering her voice. “We don’t know if we can trust them.”

“We have to.”

“Do we?” It took all her strength not to shove him against the wall the same way he had in a SHIELD hospital after Fury had been shot. “We don’t have to find him in order to do this, Steve.”

“Yes,” Steve responded firmly. “We do. There is no other way, Natasha. We do this together, the way we started all those years ago, or we don’t do it at all. The fact that we’re the ones who survived this thing...doesn’t that mean anything to you? It needs to be all of us.”

In that singular moment, surrounded by people she’d come to love and care about as family, Natasha felt herself break. Every lesson and every skill she’d acquired disappeared, every stoic facial expression and concealed emotion fell away as if she hadn’t spent years making herself the perfect spy, the perfect assassin, the perfect neutral player.

“Do we know where he is?”

Steve nodded. “We put out a trace for someone who fit Clint’s description, to see what we could pick up. We got a hit. In Japan.”

So she had trekked to Japan. She had wandered the streets, asking questions in broken Japanese, ducking in and out of restaurants and alleys and stores. She tracked him the same way she would track Clint if he wasn’t dusted; she looked for his patterns and his tells and the small details that anyone else might miss. And among rain soaked streets in the middle of the night in downtown Tokyo, amidst a colorful rainbow of lanterns and blinking lights, shivering from cold and a bit of trepidation, she had found him. She had found him and found herself staring into the eyes of someone she loved, someone who she recognized but didn’t recognize at the same time.

And Natasha felt the world open up and swallow her whole.

 

***

 

“How?”

It’s the first question out of his mouth once he takes off his hood and puts down his sword -- his sword, she notes, not a bow or an arrow or even a throwing star -- and she doesn’t know how to answer, because she’s not sure what he’s asking. How is she here? How did she find him? How did his family die?

“I --”

“You left me.”

She blinks, rainwater dripping down her forehead and into her eyes, all carefully constructed thoughts flying out the window. “You left me.”

His eyes narrow and he inclines his head, allowing her to notice the shorn sides of his head. “Who are you?”

Natasha swallows, not knowing if the chill that’s causing her to shake is from the rain or from her own nerves. “You know who I am.”

Clint picks up his sword and sheathes it with the help of the holster strapped to his back, a move so familiar that it sends a wave of pain through her heart. He glares again as he pulls his hood back over his eyes and in the space of a second, everything familiar about him is gone.

“You look like her. But I haven’t seen you in years.”

I could say the same thing about you. She suddenly has so many questions, except they’re all questions she hadn’t thought about asking. Maybe it had been dumb to think that she could just come here, feign some confused feelings, and connect with him like he was hers -- her own Clint, the person she loved and had lost. Maybe it had been dumb to think she wouldn’t have to deal with the consequences of forgetting that where there was another Clint, there was also another Natasha -- a Natasha who maybe she wasn’t quite as similar as she assumed she’d be.

“I’m here now.”

It’s the only words she feels she can offer, and the only words she feels might do more than just convince him that he should at least talk to her. She shifts her hold on her umbrella, reaching forward, and he hesitates. She watches his body language -- the very clear tell of him trying to figure out if he should let his own walls down -- and after a long moment, he snakes a glove-soaked hand through her fingers.

As cold as she is and as uncomfortable as she is, Natasha is glad it’s raining. She’s glad that he probably can’t tell where the water on her face is coming from, because the last thing she needs right now is for him to realize how vulnerable she is.

“Little too late,” he says gruffly, though he doesn’t let go of her hand. “I’ve already dealt with most of these assholes.”

She almost asks what he’s talking about before she realizes he’s referring to the bodies strewn across the street, dark blood mingling with even darker rain. Clint fighting the Yakuza was the last thing she would expect but, she reminds herself, this wasn’t her Clint. Maybe this Clint had some debt of his own. Maybe he was just different -- different enough that he apparently killed for sport. She swallows down a lump in her throat when she remembers how she’d seen first seen him: cutting down his targets with surprisingly brute and careless force.

“We need to talk.”

“Like I said.” He drops her hand and gestures towards the street. “Little too late.”

“It’s not about that,” she answers, trying to keep her voice steady. “It’s about something else. It’s important.”

When he meets her eyes again, she notices that in addition to a hardness that’s so unlike the Clint she knows, there are also subtle hints of anger and pain. This Clint had been hurt, but she has no idea if he’s hurt because of what might have happened in her own world or because of something else. She doesn’t know if he’s lost friends, she doesn’t know if he’s lost his family, if he even has a family. But he’d been hurt enough to turn to senseless violence, and in a way, it made sense. Her Clint had an anger streak that hardly anyone knew about because he’d had enough years of controlling his temper to work without it being an issue. She has no idea what kind of history this Clint has, but she wouldn’t be surprised if that same anger existed, possibly uncontrolled.

“I know you’re not my Natasha,” he says finally. “Why should I trust you?”

Natasha steps forward, letting the umbrella fall to the ground. “Because in my world, I’m one of the only people who you have ever trusted. And I think that’s still true, regardless of which version we are.”

That gets Clint to stare at her with a little more interest and he nods slowly, dragging a hand across his face and smearing blood across his upper lip.

“Now you sound like the Natasha I know.”

 

***

 

He brings her to where he’s currently making camp, a small apartment above a Japanese restaurant run by an old woman and her small family. When he quickly introduces her, Natasha finds herself wanting to ask if she’s been affected by the snap, too. Did she lose someone in her family? Did she lose any friends? After spending so much time in her own head, focused only on the people around her, it feels surreal that she has to consider other people may have been hurt by the problem she failed to help prevent.

“S’not much, but it’s home,” he offers gruffly as he opens the door, leading her into a dimly lit space. She quickly glances around and it makes her smile, causing Clint to look at her warily.

“See something you like?”

Natasha ducks her head, feeling a little sheepish for being so obviously caught. “My Clint sets things up the same way in safe houses,” she says quietly. “Coffee maker in the bedroom, couch moved to line up with sight lines.”

“Yeah, well. What can I say? I’ve got a type. Or I’m predictable.” He tips his head to the side and grins, a look she’s so used to, it makes her insides ache. “Make yourself comfortable if you want. There’s beer in the fridge. I’m going to change.”

Natasha nods, figuring that as long as he’s changing she might as well join him, especially since her clothes are soaked from the rain. She waits until she’s sure he’s locked himself in the bathroom and quickly goes through the small overnight bag she’s brought, pulling out an old SHIELD t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants. She puts her hair in a loose ponytail, using the kitchen sink to clean her face and wipe running makeup from her eyes. By the time Clint comes back into the room, having changed into a ripped t-shirt and a pair of jeans, she’s sitting on the couch with her legs up.

Out of the dark and rain and fully visible under the light of the small apartment, she can see him more clearly now -- his face is exactly the same, though the hardened look she had noticed on the street is still present. His hair is the same color that she’s always known it to be, but it’s also shorn clean on the sides and sculpted into a massive mohawk that extends neatly down the back of his neck. Perhaps most jarringly, his entire right arm is decorated with an intense-looking tattoo sleeve. She tries not to stare at the things that set him apart so starkly from the Clint she knows, but she figures she’s not doing the best job because he’s staring at her with a frown.

“You okay?”

“Sorry.” She shakes her head and takes a deep breath. “You sound just like him. You look just like him -- well, mostly. My Clint only had one tattoo, and he never let anyone see it.”

“Oh.” Clint looks down at his arm and then back up at her. “I’m guessing you don’t find them attractive, then?”

The words catch her off guard, because she actually does. She’d always been into tattoos, ever since she had taken a mission with the Red Room that involved her posing undercover as a goth club owner. When she’d discovered Clint had his own tattoo -- an outline of the cowl he wore in his circus days, surrounded by a smattering of tiny stars -- she’d felt secretly thrilled (if nothing else because she knew aside from her and Laura, no one else knew that Clint had his rebellious secrets.) There were instances when he was in the hospital or when they were in bed together that she’d find herself tracing the mark on his left ankle, her fingers brushing over years’ worth of stories and scars because she’d just need to feel like he was hers in a way that he wasn’t anyone else’s. She loved that Clint had imperfections on his body the same way she did and she loved that he had a tattoo, but she’d never laid awake at night wishing Clint would cover his body with them.

“No, that’s not it,” she says finally, looking down at her hands. “It’s just different.”

Clint cracks a small smile. “You talk like her, too. All vague even though you know I’m the only person you can actually spill shit to.” He strides forward and opens the fridge, taking out a beer and opening it with a bottle opener in the shape of a shark’s head. “So what’s this important thing you have to talk to me about?”

The moment he asks, Natasha finds herself feeling a little embarrassed. She’d had it all rehearsed in her head -- an explanation of the situation, the reason why they needed him and why she needed to be the one to get him -- but now, for some reason, it all just seems silly. What if this Clint didn’t have any idea who Thanos was? What if this Clint didn’t even know who the Avengers were? Natasha wasn’t Bruce, she wasn’t Thor, she wasn’t even Carol; she had never considered or looked into other universes or planets and thought about what the people who lived there might be like. While this Clint looks like someone she knows and loves, she has no real idea who he actually is.

“What do you do?” she asks. “I mean, what’s your job?”

Clint looks a little confused but after a moment, his face evens out. “Uh. A bunch of things.” He takes a sip of beer and waves a hand around. “Worked some odd jobs for awhile, but in the past few years I’ve been kind of a marksman for hire. Well, I guess the correct term is assassin for hire, but I’m not really picky. Pays the bills pretty well.”

“Always in Japan?”

“No.” He points to the wall, where a large world map is tacked to the plaster, a few thumbnails strategically placed on certain areas of land. “Been all over -- the good thing about not having an allegiance to anyone. But Japan’s been good to me. The Yakuza have no shortage of people to bust, so I always get good money.”

Natasha nods, filing away the information he doesn’t say but that she can glean from listening to him talk. This Clint, like her own, was a loner. This Clint, unlike her own, had nothing to tether him and because of that, probably didn’t care about who he killed or who he alienated.

This Clint and her had a relationship.

She hadn’t asked and he hadn’t said it, but she knew from the moment he turned around in the rain that it was the truth. Family or not, whatever this Clint had with his Natasha was something different than what she had with her own Clint. It was something beyond close friends; they were together romantically and they most likely had been for years.

“Friends? Family?”

He raises an eyebrow. “Family left me when I was a kid,” he says coldly. “Have some friends, but I tend to work alone. At least, I used to.”

The spite in his voice sends a fresh spasm of pain through her body, because she knows that voice so well. It’s classic Clint, the “I’ve-been-hurt-but-I’m-not-gonna-tell-you-so-I’ll-just-answer-self-deprecatingly” response she’s practically come to anticipate when it comes to certain questions. Natasha gets up slowly, walking over to him.

“When we were out there in the rain before...you said I left.” She reaches for his beer and takes a drink, a small test of the waters to see if he’ll treat her with the same comfort he’d treat his own Natasha. He doesn’t look at her strangely or snatch the beer away, so she figures that’s a small win. “What did you mean by that?”

Clint runs a hand down his face, giving Natasha a better view of the Japanese symbolism inked into his bicep. “I meant what I said. You left. You...we were doing a mission together and I got hurt pretty badly, because you missed your rendez-vous point. You kinda took it hard that you fucked up like that on my behalf, because after I recovered, you told me that we needed time apart to figure yourself out. I was stupid enough not to stop you, because nobody stops Natasha Romanoff...not even the guy she's sleeping with. But then you just disappeared.” He pauses to repair the cracks starting to appear in his words. “Before tonight, I hadn’t seen you in at least three years.”

Three years. The words send a jolt through her body because she doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that the time frame he’s talking about is exactly the same amount of time that’s passed since Thanos snapped his fingers. So a different her, this her that belongs to this Clint, had suffered some kind of similar loss, and that loss had led to guilt she obviously couldn’t handle. And for whatever reason, despite the fact that they had clearly been something more than what they were in her life, she had made the decision to bolt instead of holding onto the one thing -- the one person -- who had always been her anchor. Natasha suddenly understands why this Clint might have made a life out of killing and solitude, and she wants nothing more than to apologize for what she’s done and how she’s treated him. She also knows that it's not her place to do so; even though she looks and acts like the person who has hurt him, she’d ultimately be apologizing for someone else.

She reaches out wordlessly, catching his fingers as they move to pick up the beer again, gripping them with the same intensity she’d used in the rain. On instinct, he pulls her in and dips his head at the same time she lifts her own, allowing their lips to meet softly.

Every alarm bell in Natasha’s head goes off, because she knows this is wrong and she knows this isn’t smart, but she can’t seem to pull away because everything about the way he’s kissing her feels right. It feels familiar and normal and comforting, and as much as she knows she should stop, she also knows she doesn’t want to.

Clint lets one hand ghost over her long hair, tangling in what she knows are the hombre strands of a carelessly neglected dye job. His palm settles against the curve of her neck, fingers soft against her skin, and she tries to forget that they’re attached to a fully tattooed arm of someone who isn’t truly hers.

She breaks the kiss, running her teeth over her bottom lip. In the aftermath of the moment, she completely forgets where she is and what she’s doing, and she steps back to give him space. Her arm knocks into the beer bottle that’s sitting precariously on the counter and it careens to the floor, smashing into pieces and spilling carbonated liquid onto the dirty tiles.

Natasha stares down at the spilled beer, the sound snapping her out of her trance as if she’s awoken from a dream. In an instant, everything comes flooding back, as if a bottle of memories and realizations have also been knocked over and spilled into existence -- the fact that she’s here because the world is in trouble and she can’t save it alone, the fact that her Clint is gone, the fact that even if she did say fuck it to Steve and decided to play hooky, this isn’t and possibly could never be real. Not when they had different versions of themselves that they were sworn to, romantically or not.

“I’m sorry,” Natasha says quickly, and she’s not sure whether she’s referring to the beer or the kiss. She stumbles slightly as she tries to orient herself in the small space and grabs her rain jacket off the floor, throwing it over her body and stepping into her shoes.

“Nat --”

She closes the door on the rest of her name as hot tears start to spill down her cheeks. She hates that she doesn’t know if she’s angry for giving in so easily because she’s trying to make up for how much she misses him, or if she’s angry because ever since she’d gotten to Japan, her emotions have been an embarrassing mess. Hurrying down the stairs, she makes it outside before she realizes she doesn’t know where she’s going.

The rain is still coming down, but it’s much lighter and not as soaking. Natasha starts to walk slowly, her eye catching what looks like a small enclosed area a few yards from where Clint’s apartment is. She finds an empty bench and sits down, the movement causing her hood to fall back, but she doesn’t bother to put it back up.

The tears have stopped at this point, the warm water now dry and cold against her face. Natasha leans forward, playing with her fingers; she knows she’d be lying to herself if she didn’t admit that part of her hurt came from the fact that she was still grieving and mourning what Thanos had done. But she also knows that even if Clint had been alive and she was here, seeking out this alternative version of her best friend, she still would have kissed him. She still would have felt something for him.

Because she knows that even if she’s told herself over the years that she was okay with never being with Clint in that way, she wasn’t. She did want it. She wanted what she couldn’t have, what now seemed like an actual possibility. And she has no idea whether that makes her feel guilty or just downright scared.

“Hey.”

Natasha’s not surprised that he’s found her so quickly. In the same way that she knew exactly how to track him, he probably knew all of her patterns and how to track her. Maybe the only difference between her and the Natasha he’d lost was that in one universe, they were actually able to be together. Clint sits down next to her on the bench, putting a hand on her shoulder and squeezing it tightly. He’s wearing his own coat, his hood also down, his thick mop of hair glistening in the light of the moon.

“Hey, look. If I overstepped back there, I’m sorry. I didn’t -- I just --” He pauses, trying to collect himself. “I shouldn’t have done that. I know you’re not my Natasha.”

“I know you’re not my Clint,” she replies quietly. “But it doesn’t mean you don’t feel like you are.”

He laughs. “Speak for yourself.”

Natasha shifts and puts her head on his shoulder. “Do you miss her? Your Natasha?”

She feels him stiffen in response, his body tensing. “All the time,” he admits hoarsely. “It sounds, uh...it sounds silly, but she kept me sane, you know? I was always a little angry. But when she left, I just kind of...broke.”

No, it doesn’t sound silly. Natasha swallows hard. “My Clint left too. And I didn’t really get to say goodbye to him. I don’t know if he’s going to come back, but I miss him.” She closes her eyes against the rain. “I miss him so much, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do if I can’t get him back.”

“I know that feeling.” Clint leans over, pressing a soft kiss to the top of her head, and Natasha lets herself stay cuddled against him, a fierce need to hold onto the only thing that she knows can anchor her. “Why don’t you come back inside? There’s no point in sitting out here in the rain when I’ve got a whole apartment. Unless this Natasha likes sitting in the rain feeling sorry for herself.”

Natasha lifts her head, managing to smile as his familiar bantering settles into her bones. “Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, Clint Barton. But I’m afraid this Natasha might not be so different after all.”

 

***

 

After coming back to the apartment and changing out of her wet clothes for the second time in a row, Natasha thinks she might be starting to feel better. Clint’s turned up the heat to accommodate for being out in the cold rain, and she’s taken up his offer of wrapping herself in a flannel blanket as an added layer of warmth. As she gathers her toiletries and prepares to head into the bathroom, he clears his throat, causing her to turn around.

“You can sleep with me, if it’s not weird.”

Natasha wants to ask what part of it would be weird -- the part where she sleeps in the same bed as the person who she knows but who is also a stranger, or the part where she sleeps in the same bed as someone who, in another life, has a wife and kids that he’s eternally devoted to. She considers the question before she realizes that she doesn’t really want to be alone more than she already feels she is.

“I don’t know,” she says, raising an eyebrow. “My Clint snores like a rhino. It’s a little annoying.”

Clint laughs, putting his hands on his hips. “Well, my Natasha tosses and turns like a damn fish,” he replies. “So we’re even.”

Natasha grins, disappearing into the bathroom to brush her teeth. When she comes out, Clint has turned off all the lights, his face only visible from the light of the moon and the cell phone he’s staring at, the one he puts down immediately when she gets into bed with him.

Natasha carefully orients herself, making sure that she’s comfortable but not too comfortable, making sure that she’s not touching him in any way that might give off the wrong impression. His breathing is slow and steady, a regular rhythm that lulls her already tired body into exhaustion, and she closes her eyes, trying to pretend she’s lying next to her own Clint, on a mission or in the guest bedroom of the farmhouse.

When Natasha opens her eyes, there’s green all around her. It’s lush and beautiful and bright, a stark contrast from the dreary and depressing surroundings she’s been keeping company with. She blinks herself awake, turning in surprise when she sees Clint lying next to her.

He’s stretched out in the middle of the field they’re sitting in, lying on his back with his arms clasped behind his head, a contented smile covering his face. His blue shirt is riding halfway up his stomach and a tattoo sleeve decorates his right arm, but other than that, there are no other scars she can see on his body -- no gunshot wound from Budapest, no burn marks from the explosion they’d escaped in Abidjan, no scar from the stitches he’d undergone after little Lila had thrown herself headfirst into the glass coffee table and he’d had to cause interference to make sure she didn’t get hurt.

“Clint?”

He opens his eyes and squints lazily. “Jesus, you’re still up? We saved the world, Nat. We deserve a nap.”

“I --” She sits up and looks around; she can see the farmhouse in the distance because she’d recognize that sloping roof anywhere but the field they’re lying in doesn’t seem familiar or look like anything she’s ever seen in Iowa. “We saved the world?”

“Yeah,” Clint says, closing his eyes again. “We won. Come on, Nat, stop being so hardcore about this. You said after we got home, we could relax.” He grabs her hand, tugging her back down, and against her better judgement she lets him. He exhales in a happy sigh as she curls up next to him, putting a hand on his stomach -- her fingers meeting air. Natasha recoils as Clint’s body starts to crumble into fine dust, drifting away in the wind.

“Clint?”

She grabs for his shoulders as they turn to dust, watching in horror as his face starts to disintegrate, his eyes and forehead falling away as if he’s ceasing to exist. “Clint! Clint!”

Natasha!”

She screams when he touches her, not recognizing her own voice as it rips from her throat, shrill and loud. Wrenching away, she feels herself falling, pitching downward before being pulled up sharply.

“Natasha!”

She opens her eyes, which she hasn’t realized have still been closed. The bright greenery of her mindscape is gone, it’s achingly warm instead of the breeziness of the meadow she’d been lying in, and Clint’s arm is gripping her body, his hold firm and real.

“Natasha.” He turns her towards him and takes her hand, putting it against his chest, directly above his heart. Clint takes a measured breath, letting her feel the steady pace of his heartbeat. “Breathe with me,” he instructs softly. “I’m right here.”

She tries her best to match her breathing to his own, calming herself with every strong throb until she feels her body level out, fatigue flooding her bones in the wake of the adrenaline leaking out. “Clint?”

“Hey.” His voice is gentle, a kind of soothing balm that she hasn’t realized she’s needed. “Whatever it was, it was just a dream. You’re okay.”

Just a dream. Natasha closes her eyes again, unable to forget the terror she’d previously thought was all too real -- watching Clint more or less die at her fingertips, and at what cost? Because they had reversed time? Because every time she tried to help people she cared about it always ended up costing her something she loved, whether that was a family or a world or a best friend?

“I thought -- I --” She stops, swallowing fire. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” Clint looks at her with a hint of amusement that seems out of place, considering the situation. “You think my Natasha’s never had a nightmare before?”

Natasha tucks a strand of loose hair behind her ear, looking down at the covers. “Is that how you knew how to calm me down?”

Clint looks a little wistful. “My Natasha had -- has bad dreams sometimes. This is how we’ve always calmed each other down. It helps to know --”

“That someone is real and is there,” Natasha finishes hoarsely. “Yeah. It does.” She takes another ragged breath and lets it out slowly. “I don’t think I can go back to sleep.”

Clint presses his lips together. “What would you say to some hot tea, then?”

Natasha nods and Clint leans over to kiss her before he gets up, disappearing into the kitchen. She barely registers how they’re acting -- like they’re a couple defying the laws of reality and the problems of the world -- because it honestly doesn’t feel like she’s doing anything wrong. As much as there’s the thought in the back of her mind that this isn’t and can’t be real, for so many reasons, she can’t fully dismiss it because it feels right. This Clint is different, but he’s similar enough that she can’t help but feel like maybe this is what could have been if their lives had been different. If she had met him before the Red Room, if he hadn’t met that pretty-looking girl in a diner at sixteen and started a relationship with her that led him to a big house, multiple children, flannel shirts, and tractor trailers.

He comes back with two cups, offering one to her with a smile as he gets back into bed. She takes the dark green ceramic mug from his hands and swirls her tea gently before starting to drink.

“Can I ask you a question?”

Clint takes a sip from his own mug. “Of course.”

Natasha lowers her face into the steam, as if the heat will help clear her thoughts the same way it's clearing her sinuses. “How long have we been together? I mean, you and me, in your world.”

Clint leans his head against the wall. “Eight years,” he says with a small smile. “Well, really ten, but two of those years were you basically flirting with other guys to prove that you were definitely not interested in sleeping with me.”

“That sounds like me,” she decides, curbing her own smile. “Was there -- I mean --”

“Yeah,” he interrupts, and suddenly she knows what he’s going to say next. “Budapest. We never really came back from that one, and I don’t think we cared.”

“Budapest,” Natasha echoes, a curl of warmth snaking through her stomach that she knows is unrelated to the tea she’s ingesting. “Yeah, that seems right.”

Clint puts a hand on her leg. “My turn?”

Natasha nods, letting herself relax against his body. “Yeah.”

“You keep asking me about us -- me and my Natasha. Are we different?”

“Kind of.” Natasha pauses. “We’re close, but we’re not together like that. My Clint, he...he has a family.”

“Huh.” Clint makes a face, his eyebrows creasing in clear surprise. “Really?”

“Yes,” she replies with a short laugh. “Really. I’ve made fun of you for it, actually. I never thought you’d be a domestic dad, but...you are. And you’re a really, really good dad, and a good husband. You have three kids -- two boys, one girl. You love them and you love the life that you have.”

“But we’re not together,” Clint observes with a frown. “In your world, this version of us isn’t together.”

“No,” Natasha says softly, shaking her head. “We’re not. But…we’re used to it. We know the circumstances and we make it work between us. Laura is my best friend, and she understands that I love her husband...she just knows I can’t love him the way I want to.”

She doesn’t know if she’s ever said it like that, at least, not to anyone except herself. But she knows it’s true. She loves Clint, and she’s loved him for a long time. There was only one instance in their partnership in which she considered that they could be together romantically -- the small space between getting to know him and realizing there was someone else in the picture -- and it seems so long ago that she’s forgotten how much it had hurt to accept that their relationship had to be platonic.

“Do you love me?”

Natasha looks up sharply, almost spilling her tea, meeting eyes that are curious, soft and warm. In bed with drops of rain making handprints against the apartment walls, solitary and away from the violence and the katana and the leather uniform that filled him with so much anger, she can almost believe that this is really them -- that this is how it should have always been. Her and Clint, together in the way that she always wished for.

Her and Clint, not dusted, not out for blood against the world, not married or torn apart by hurtful pasts, just together.

“Yes.” Natasha blinks back rogue tears. “I do -- I always have. It didn’t matter what your romantic life was and whether or not I was involved. I’ve always loved you, Clint. And I don’t think that’s ever going to change, no matter what universe we end up in.”

This time, when he leans over to kiss her, she doesn’t pull away.

 

***

 

When Natasha wakes up, she feels good.

She’s warm, but not too warm -- cozy enough to feel peaceful under the covers, her legs wrapped around a pillow. She’s tired, but not too tired -- she could technically sleep for a million more years, but her mind is awake enough that she doesn’t feel like she’s forcing herself out of bed. She opens her eyes to sunlight, the rain having cleared out sometime in the middle of the night. Clint’s opened the blinds, allowing everything to bathe in sun-drenched warmth.

A new day.

She sits up, taking a moment to pull her hair into a messy bun before wandering into the kitchen. Clint sitting at the small table drinking a cup of coffee, the crux of his mohawk sticking straight up in every which direction -- the very definition of bedhead, and a look that makes her feel almost stupid for attempting to make herself presentable. If this Clint was anything like her own, they’d probably seen each other with worse things than messy hair.

“Morning.” He greets her with a smile, waving to a cup of coffee that’s sitting next to him. She smiles back as she sits down, nodding at his arm which is stretched out in front of him. Thanks to the tank top he’s wearing, she can see most of the tattoos fully, and takes note of the fact that aside from the top of his shoulder, there’s barely any visible skin showing.

“I might never get used to that.”

“The sleeve?” He glances down and moves his arm around, displaying unending shapes of colorful ink. “Yeah, it’s pretty radical I guess. I’ve had it for awhile, though. When my Natasha and I met, I had about a quarter of one. I’ve been getting tattoos all my life. Usually it was just for something specific -- a memory or a person. Then I started getting them after every mission that we went on. I tried to get Natasha to get one, but she was always a hard no.” He grins wickedly. “Didn’t mean that she didn’t like watching me get them, if you know what I mean.”

Natasha rolls her eyes. “I’m glad to hear I have the same kinks in every universe,” she mutters while Clint laughs into his coffee. “I never told you why I was here.”

“No, you didn’t,” Clint answers. “I don’t think it has anything to do with my looks, though.”

“Not exactly.” She takes a sip of coffee, letting the caffeine revive her. “In our universe -- this universe -- there was a threat. His name was Thanos. I don’t know if you have something like him where you come from.”

“We’ve got threats,” Clint says darkly. “Lots of ‘em. It’s why my Natasha and I exist.”

“Yeah, well.” Natasha blows out a breath. “I think we have more of those threats than you do. Thanos, he...he used some magical stones to make half of the universe disappear. We tried to stop him when we realized what he was doing, but we failed. We failed, and half the universe ceased to exist.” She pauses to let everything sink in. “I know this seems strange and sounds insane, but --”

“That’s why I left you?” Clint interrupts. “Because of what Thanos did?”

Natasha nods. “Yeah,” she says quietly. “Except you didn’t just leave me the way your Natasha did. My Clint disappeared. And we want to fix that. We want to reverse what happened and maybe see if we can get him back, but in order to do that, we need all of us -- all of the people who’ve been there since the beginning. You.” She gives him a sad smile. “But you don’t exist anymore. At least, not my version of Clint. This you does exist, though. So we need your help, if you want to help.”

Clint chews on his tongue, giving her a sideways glance. “If I help you...do we get to do it together?”

Natasha takes his hand, locking their fingers together. “Always.”

“Okay,” Clint says with a loose shrug. “I guess I can give it a try. I can’t promise I’ll get along with everyone else, though.”

Natasha lets her thumb brush against his skin. “My Clint used to say the same thing. We were on our own before we joined SHIELD. SHIELD, it’s -- well, it was kind of like the CIA. Our code names were Hawkeye and Black Widow, and we were known as Strike Team Delta. We eventually joined the Avengers.”

“The Avengers,” Clint repeats. “Man, we’ve got some sort of life, don’t we?”

“I guess we do.” She rubs her eyes, trying to pull the tiredness out of them. “It keeps things interesting, at least.” She gestures to her rapidly draining cup, and Clint nods towards the carafe in agreement. “So what’s life like with you and your Natasha? No Avengers, right?”

“No,” Clint says, shaking his head as Natasha gets up, taking both of their mugs and pouring two new cups of hot coffee. “Uh, we’ve got these people called the Defenders? They’re kinda the same thing, but Natasha and I don’t -- didn’t -- work with them all the time. We took a lot of missions that people didn’t really want...not the big world ending things, but things where we thought we could make a difference on the ground. And we weren’t Hawkeye and Black Widow. Well, she was Black Widow, but I was Ronin.”

“Ronin?” Natasha can’t help the surprise in her voice, because out of all the random differences that exist between the person she knows and the person she’s starting to get to know, this might be the most unexpected. She’d never imagined that he wouldn’t be Hawkeye, especially if he had the same kind of partnership with his Natasha.

“Ronin,” he repeats, pointing to a skull on his tattoo sleeve that’s surrounded by various samurai gear. “It means wandering man, or lone warrior, in Japanese.”

“Oh.” Natasha sits back down at the table, unsure why, out of everything, this random piece of information is the one thing that’s throwing her. She tries to think of something to say that will diffuse the awkwardness. “I bet you still know all the good safe houses, though.”

Clint winks, and from the way he’s looking at her, Natasha knows he understands what she means.

“Oh, yeah. Madripoor was particularly good to us, if you get my drift.”

When he leans over to kiss her, he tastes like coffee and morning breath and peppermint toothpaste. His hand comes to rest gently on her leg, calloused fingers pressing themselves into her thin sweatpants, and everything feels so natural that she’s almost startled when guilty images start flashing through her mind, like static shock.

Clint and Laura sharing a kiss after dinner. Clint sitting at her hospital bedside, promising he’ll never take another mission again if it means she’ll return to his family and stay in his life. Natasha holding baby Lila, laughing as she dances on a wide lawn with Laura looking on fondly. Clint feeding Cooper, telling Natasha toddler stories while Laura cooks dinner. Natasha snuggling on the couch in a hand-knitted quilt while a blizzard rages outside, warm and cozy with hot chocolate and Disney movies on repeat.

Ronin, a killing samurai who cut down targets without a second thought and murdered mercilessly because he didn’t know how to deal with his pain. 

“Stop,” Natasha says, pulling away hastily. “We can’t keep doing this.”

His face is creased in confusion and as much as it hurts, she doesn’t blame him for feeling confused. It’s not like they’d been avoiding each other's feelings.

“Because you don’t want to?”

“No.” Natasha shakes her head. “I want to -- god, I want to so badly -- but I don’t think we can.”

“Why?” Clint challenges, sounding frustrated. “Give me one good reason why we can’t do this, Natasha.”

“Because this isn’t me and you!” Natasha waves her hands around, as if she can make a better answer appear by some form of magic. “I know it’s you and me where you come from, but this isn’t us where I come from! And I can’t just change what I’ve always known because I have some sort of do-over! That’s not how this works!”

“Okay,” Clint says, crossing his arms. “So because your relationship with your Clint is different, we can’t be anything.”

“I can’t -- that’s not --” Natasha stops. “It’s complicated.”

Clint frowns. “Complicated because you feel like you shouldn’t be with me, or complicated because you feel like you don’t know me?”

“I -- I don’t know,” Natasha admits. “But what I do know is that you’re going to leave. If we finish this the right way, if we set out to accomplish what we want to do, you’ll have to go back. You’ll go back to your Natasha and I’ll go back to my Clint, and...and if we start something, that’s not fair to either of us.”

Clint sighs, looking around the room before his eyes settle back on her. “I get it,” he says slowly. “I do. And I know the last thing either of us want to do is hurt the people we love. But what you said last night? About us? You were right.” He gets up again and walks towards her, bending down so that he's at eye level. “I love you, Natasha. No matter what version of us we are...that doesn’t change. That’s never going to change. And maybe we need to heal, both of us. Your Clint can’t be with you and my Natasha left me, and...and I dunno, maybe there’s a way to heal by living in the now. With each other.”

Natasha isn’t sure what to say, because his words aren’t wrong. She did need someone. She’d spent so many months with no one, and it had undone her. And if they really were going up against Thanos and potentially reliving every horrible moment of the past few months, potentially inviting death or failure into their choices, she didn’t want to go through it alone.

Steve had never had Bucky, and Tony didn’t fight with Pepper, and Bruce didn’t get a do-over with Betty, and Thor hadn’t talked to Jane in years. But Natasha had always had Clint -- even if he wasn’t physically fighting next to her, she’d always had him. It had made a difference, and she hadn’t realized how much it had made a difference until she didn’t have him anymore.

“It seems like a strange way to heal, by being with someone who you know but who is different.”

“I don’t think we’re so different,” Clint says. “Your Clint has a different life and a different background, but we’re still the same. You said it yourself -- we set things up the same way, we have the same tells, we talk the same way and we have the same mannerisms...we even have the same coping tactics. Am I really a stranger if you feel like you’ve known me your whole life, minus the hair and the sleeve?”

“I guess not,” Natasha answers, because she knows it’s true. She knows she wouldn’t have fallen back into old and repressed feelings so quickly and so heavily if she didn’t feel like she already knew him. “Do you ever think about what could’ve been? With your Natasha?”

“Sometimes,” Clint answers with a soft smile. “We’ve got it pretty good, but I always wonder what would’ve happened if I started things earlier. Maybe we would’ve had more time before she left...maybe it would’ve made a difference in the end. You?”

“Yes and no.” She wraps her hands more tightly around her mug. “I never knew him without his family, even if he didn’t tell me about them for awhile. But I always wish I would’ve found him sooner than he found me. Maybe it would’ve made a difference in the end.”

“Maybe.”

He straightens up and they sit in silence, the sound of their shared breathing the only soundtrack for her thoughts, until she speaks again. “You really think we can do this? Be with each other and still...not be with each other?”

“Why not?” Clint asks in a way that’s so logical and so carefree and so very much Clint. “From what you’re telling me, that’s what it seems like you’ve been doing with your Clint for the past few years.”

He’s right, she realizes, even if it was a different situation. She couldn’t be with Clint the way she really wanted to, not while he was with Laura -- she could only be with him as his best friend and his other half. But the circumstances were the same, a strange dance of unrequited passion and barely-there-but-not-really-there intimacy, and nights spent trying to tell herself that it was wrong to wish divorce or death on a person you loved beyond measure.

Natasha suddenly feels like she can’t look at him, otherwise she’ll be the one to start another make-out session, so she looks around the apartment instead. Her eyes focus on the katana hanging neatly above the door before moving to the half-open closet door, which she can see houses weapons like knives and daggers and throwing stars.

“You do know how to use a bow and arrow, right?”

Clint bristles, looking a little affronted.

Really?”

“Well, I’ve only seen this Clint use a sword, so how should I know?”

Clint makes a face, walking to the closet and opening the door fully. Aside from his uniform, Natasha can see boxing gloves, discarded arm guards, various masks and hoods -- and a huge double recurve bow.

“I’m a little rusty, but I think I can make it work.”

He takes out the bow and tugs on the string, pulling back with an ease and flourish that might as well be her Clint. In fact, Natasha thinks that if she walked in right now and saw him standing here like this, there wouldn’t be any question as to whether or not this was the person she’d lost.

“I think you’re gonna be just fine,” she manages, trying to keep her emotions in check as he pulls on the bow again.

“Well, I’d assume so. I mean, am Hawkeye. That’s what you call me in your universe, right? Hawkeye?”

Natasha nods. “Yes,” she confirms. “Hawkeye. You’re pretty much the same, except you use a bow instead of a sword. And you’re not a killer.”

She hadn’t meant to say the last words out loud, but they’d slipped out before she could think about it. He arches an eyebrow.

“That’s what you think of me as? A killer?”

“No,” Natasha says quickly, getting up from the table to meet him halfway across the room. She puts her hands on his chest as he drops his bow. “No, I don’t...Clint, I could never think of you as a killer, because that’s not the Clint I know. The Clint I know sometimes gets angry and sometimes gets a little carried away, but he’d never just kill someone in a fight for no reason, unless he absolutely had to. My Clint would never murder someone without thinking of a consequence.”

Clint looks down at her hands and Natasha listens to the loud exhale that sounds like a resigned sigh, her palms rising and falling with every long breath.

“My Natasha and I were pretty brutal when we fought together, but I don’t kill for the hell of it,” he says in a low voice. “I get angry when I fight, but I don’t think I’m a murderer. It’s just that...sometimes, you get hurt. And that hurt...it really, really hurts. And when you hurt, you make mistakes. You lose your way, and it’s hard to see another path. So you end up on the brink of something and you eventually get pushed over, and...and then you don’t know if you can find your way back.”

Natasha sees the sadness in his eyes, the regret and the pain and the hurt that she thinks might have been building up since she walked into his life in the middle of a rainy night out of the blue.

“I’m no saint either,” she replies. “I don’t know how your Natasha is, but I wasn’t exactly an angel. I killed -- I killed a lot. I did bad things and I treated people badly, and I didn’t really reform myself until I met Clint. He found me and he brought me back from the path I had put myself on. He made a different call -- I’ll forever owe him that debt.”

“Well, maybe that’s what I need,” Clint suggests. “Someone who can make a different call for me. Someone who I can owe a debt to -- someone who understands me and why I work the way I do. A partner. A temporary partner, even.”

“I wouldn’t wish owing a debt on anyone,” Natasha says softly. “Not at the expense of what it feels like to constantly need to wipe out red from your ledger. But I would like a partner.” She smiles. “A temporary partner, even.”

Clint wraps his arms around her and Natasha folds against him, closing her eyes. She knows his body is different, not just because of the tattoos but because of the build; she’s seen it in the way he moves and in the muscles that are and aren’t there. But she still fits in the same exact places she always has, a perfect piece of a puzzle that she knows would never fit with anyone else.

“Will they like me? The Avengers?”

“I think so,” Natasha answers, her voice muffled against his shirt. “You’re pretty good at what you do. And I went through what feels like hell and back to find you, so they have to like you.” She lifts her head at the same time that he lowers his own and this time, Natasha notices that there are no alarm bells. There are no hazy images of past lives and married couples, there are no guilty waves rolling through her stomach and reminding her of what she’s lost.

But there is comfort. There is realness, and there is calmness, and there is relief and reassurance. There is her, holding onto someone who isn’t exactly who she knows but who is exactly who she needs, and there is him, holding onto someone who isn’t exactly who he knows but who is exactly who he needs. There is them in every universe, fitting together because in every universe they existed. They existed in marriages and relationship issues and children and bad pasts and fights, and they fit together because they were them.

Clint stops kissing her, brushing a thumb underneath her eye, where she realizes a tear has fallen. “I should’ve asked,” he says quietly, his voice barely above a whisper. “Is that okay?”

Is that okay? Are we okay? Can this be okay?

“Yes,” Natasha says, kissing him again, letting the world as she knows it fall away. Yes.

Yes, it is. Yes, we are.

Yes, it will be.