Author's Note: Thank you to my betas, AlphaFlyer and inkvoices. I couldn't have done this without you.
5 Reasons Natasha Knew Something Was Very Wrong with Clint
Their work rhythm was comfortable and familiar. Morning drizzle in their third country inside of a week, waking up early in separate beds, stretching and prepping for a mission…
Clint poured Natasha a cup of coffee, then drank the rest straight from the pot while she muttered about his barbaric ways. He groused about everything, making a joke or a complaint as they hooked up their comms and geared up because when she first arrived at SHIELD, that helped her relax into a mission and because it reminded their handler that they knew he was there. He always included a few prods in Coulson's general direction. While Clint could do silent and serious, heading out to a stakeout wasn't generally where he did it.
It was on the ride down the elevator that something started bothering her. Everything seemed normal. Their equipment was in order. Coulson was sighing over the comm, and her partner was complaining about the cold. Mediocre elevator music glided like white noise around her ears with regular interjections from the chimes of passing each floor. Clint shut up abruptly as they reached the floor they needed, as if he came with a simple switch from easygoing partner to dangerous assassin mode, and in a way, maybe he did. Everything was as it should be.
Natasha moved into position and chewed over what was wrong as she assessed the environment. She didn't feel discomfort with getting the mark exactly, so…
Wait. The elevator music.
She sorted through the steady stream of Clint's familiar commentary and realized he hadn't said a single word about the elevator music. It had been a little lower than usual, so perhaps it didn't bother him this time, but she didn't think it ever bothered him. It was elevator music. It was something for him to complain about so that Natasha would know she didn't have to take everything as seriously as she did in the Red Room, that she could trust her own side to watch her back. She had long since learned that lesson, but by now, Clint's griping was habit, familiar; she wouldn't want to do without it.
Except he hadn't said a thing.
Her mouth tightened. Something was wrong with Clint.
When Natasha went down to the range, Clint wasn't there. She double-checked the gym, but he wasn't there either. If he wasn't on a mission, there were few places Clint would be at this hour, especially the day after returning from their last one, so she decided to check in with Coulson.
"He's down in medical getting a check-up," Coulson replied mildly. "He should be done within the hour, if he cooperates."
Since Clint's cooperation with medical largely depended on the degree of injury he had suffered, she felt it was not overstepping her bounds to go check on him herself. She wanted her sparring partner and the sooner he cooperated, the sooner she could have him back.
But Clint was cooperating. He was sitting in an uncomfortable, tiny, hard-backed waiting room chair filling out interminable reams of paperwork as dutifully as if he were Phil Coulson or Maria Hill rather than Clint Barton, former carnie and general hater of all things medical or paperwork.
She wanted to say a lot of things. What are you doing? Why so well-behaved? What is wrong with you? Instead she said his name and let the rest fall silently between them as he looked back up at her.
He knew her well, better than almost anyone else. He knew her well enough to know all the questions she wasn't asking.
"Sorry I wasn't in the gym." He bent his head and finished filling out a sheet, then tucked it under the bottom of the stack as he stood up. "Gotta turn these in."
It struck her with an unexpected pang. He didn't want her to see them. She sat down in the chair next to his, her mood suddenly dark. Clint never actively hid things from her, especially not major injuries, especially not when something was wrong. She wondered uneasily if the problem wasn't him but her.
He returned from the front desk and settled in the chair beside her. After a moment, he bumped her shoulder with his. "Nat. It's nothing."
She frowned at him. Nothing. He called Agent Clint Barton cooperating with a doctor nothing?
"I'll be done in a few minutes."
She nodded blankly. Clearly he wasn't mortally injured. The sooner he got out of medical, the sooner she could wipe the floor with him. In her current frame of mind, he'd be complaining about bruises until their next op.
Three days later, the alarm clock was blaring and Natasha fumbled out of the covers of their bed after finally realizing her partner wasn't going to get it. She had to almost crawl over him to turn it off. Clint was still asleep.
She stared at him for a long moment, feeling bothered that he would trust her enough to not wake up himself to a noise as obvious as that. He should stay wary, on guard. Both of them were assassins, for crying out loud. Natasha set her foot against his rib cage and shoved.
"Whoa! J—, Tasha!" Clint shot out of the tangle of covers on the floor and glared at her. "What was that for?"
"Your alarm clock has been going off for eleven minutes," she informed him flatly, "even louder than usual." She crossed her arms, wondering how he was going to wrangle himself out of this one. She was off-duty for the next two days. Clint wasn't and it was his apartment. That alarm had been set for him.
Clint merely picked up the clock and groaned when he saw the time. "I'm going to take a shower. Then coffee."
Natasha sighed as he disappeared into the bathroom and went to make sure there was coffee to be had. It would take an outright emergency for him to leave without a cup or two. She held the pot hostage when he came to get it.
He gave her a look. He should have known she wouldn't just drop the matter, and maybe he had known but had hoped he'd manage to get out of giving her a straight answer anyway.
"It's nothing, Nat." But he skipped the coffee, grabbed a bagel, and headed out the door to SHIELD.
He'd said that before... in medical. She stared after him in absolute disbelief.
4. Medical Redux
She was waiting for him when he got back from his second voluntary medical check-up in three weeks. The only medical encounter her partner ever volunteered for was directly post-mission.
He paused just inside the door to his apartment. She watched him assess her position on the couch, her body language, her lack of a facial expression—and scowl. Somehow he knew exactly why she was there on his couch, waiting for him.
"Clint," she said again. "I'm your partner." She didn't say lover or friend (though she was both), but partner. She chose the word carefully to remind him of why being worried about him was not an acceptable option. They couldn't afford to worry out in the field. "If something is wrong, I need to know about it."
"Nothing's wrong, Nat." He dropped his gear bag on the coffee table and met her skeptical gaze for one long moment. "You're supposed to trust me."
She flinched as though he'd slapped her. She stood, walked out the front door, and kept walking.
Clint sat down on the stool beside her in the bar. Natasha almost gave him the cold shoulder, but then his hand slid warm up her back and he leaned in close to murmur, "Tell me something."
She looked at him, frown already starting to form.
"What were mornings in Russia like?" he asked, almost casually.
They were spies and assassins and they could do casual, even when there was nothing casual about it. There was nothing casual about this. Clint had never asked to take before he gave. When she was new and uncertain, he'd offered her pieces of memory and history, stories about his past at and before SHIELD, then asked her for even smaller pieces of her own. They had always been made up of fragments. That was the recipe: he shared, then she did.
Natasha signaled the bartender. "Vodka."
Clint didn't even glance up. "Usual."
They had been coming to this bar since the first time SHIELD let Natasha out of headquarters for a drink—supervised, of course. As if anyone could call Clint's idea of a night out on the town 'supervised.'
They had been partners for what felt like forever, though that could be just her unstable memory of the years before SHIELD. Natasha dredged up that trust Clint had dared to imply she didn't have and went first.
"Cold," she said at last, words filtering between swallows of alcohol. "We washed in cold water and trained for four hours in the gym before they would feed us." They had worked until their muscles burned, until some of the girls fell over with hunger and exhaustion. "If you fell, you did not get up." Her words were spare when she described her memories. He never pushed her for more.
She looked at him and asked softly, "What is wrong, Clint?"
Clint shook his head, not looking at her. He was staring straight ahead. "I served in the army," he finally said. "You remember that." He looked at her then with that intense gaze he was known for.
She nodded. He needed her to listen, so that's what she did.
He turned his beer in his hand as he frowned at it. "IED. I lost seventy percent of my hearing in one ear and a little more than fifty percent in the other." He let out a long sigh. "Honorably discharged. Got specialized hearing aids from R&D, and SHIELD doesn't care. I had to go get them adjusted."
"Internal, wear them all the time..." He trailed off and shrugged. "Practically normal."
Clearly done, Clint leaned forward and downed what remained of his drink. He looked over at her, smiled that rueful grin that was all his, but said nothing and expected her to say nothing in return. He was normal, this was normal, even if she'd never seen it coming. She had never even known him before his hearing loss, and he wouldn't want her to change the way she treated him now.
They didn't need words between them to tell each other what they needed. Natasha waved over the bartender for a refill.
And 1 Reason Natasha Knew that Nothing Was Wrong at All
Coulson met them in the hallway. "Croatia's back on," he said in that quiet way of his, but something about his manner telegraphed that something was definitely wrong with the situation.
Natasha glanced at her partner, who shrugged and took another gulp from his coffee mug. He claimed nonfunctionality until he'd reached the bottom of his first cup. She needed no words to understand he was reserving judgment.
"Wasn't that supposed to happen a week ago?" Natasha asked. "You took us off the mission." And gave it to another strike team, which still kind of stung.
This time, Coulson was the one to look at Clint. "The other team's results were less than satisfactory."
Clint shrugged again and ducked into the conference room.
Natasha paused at the door, realizing abruptly why Coulson had pulled them off.
Coulson replied mildly, "I knew that a certain medical equipment request was delayed in R&D while Agent Barton tested his latest arrowheads."
So specialized hearing aids from R&D or a new timed-release arrowhead design, was it? Natasha shot a deadly, almost blank look at Clint when she entered the conference room behind Coulson. Her partner unrepentantly refilled his coffee at the side of the room and grinned at her. Typical. Absolutely typical. They'd almost lost Croatia so he could go play on the range.
She sat next to him. He bumped her shoulder with his. After a moment, she gave him another look that he gave her cause to use all too often: you're forgiven—this time.