A/N: Remix of "I Know My Place (But It Don't Know Me)" by OracleGlass for the Be-Compromised 2014 Clint/Natasha Remix Exchange. Thank you to shenshen77 for the awesome beta. The last scene's dialogue is all by OracleGlass as it didn't feel right to change any of it.
Learning Natasha (Again)
Natasha has made herself over and over and over again. When she looks into Clint's eyes as he struggles to breathe in the night, head back against the wall, hands gripping her hard enough to bruise, it is strange to realize that everything she has made of herself in her time at SHIELD is not enough—not for Clint, not for the Avengers, and not for herself.
She holds on tight and whispers, "Breathe," in between his name until he sees her, until his hands loosen and his head drops against her.
She holds him gently, murmuring nothings until the tremors stop and he allows her to pull him back to the bed. He breathes out, "Natasha," once before he drifts back to sleep. Natasha stays awake and stands watch against his nightmares.
Clint calls himself an old soldier, and in a way perhaps he is. Clint calls Natasha a spy with comfortable acceptance that he understands her. She is layers upon layers and masks upon masks. She can make herself into anybody because she has very few trappings of self to be attached to.
She has made herself a wall around him, but it is not enough. Clint doesn't need her protection, but he does need her.
He comes around by the window each night to enter her suite unnoticed and sleeps while she keeps watch, then keeps watch for her so they both catch a few hours. He doesn't trust himself enough to have both of their guards down at once. It is one more scar Natasha scratches in red against Loki's ledger.
She watches Clint watching her with the team, noting her cues of trust and mistrust with an unfailing eye. She has perfected the art of holding at a distance, but slowly, she has come to realize she cannot afford to do that any longer. Her unceasing paranoia is becoming Clint's, and his breathing is already too tense and ragged in sleep and private corners. He shuts down around the people who want nothing more than to be there for him.
Natasha sighs at last and resigns herself. She must learn a new facet of Natasha, the one who can take her guard down even a little more than fellow SHIELD agents expected of her. She's made friends there, but they accept her personal reserve more readily than these Avengers. Here, she is dangerous and deadly and withdrawn. They need more from her, something sincere.
She takes the time while Clint is asleep to mentally inventory her own traits and mannerisms, the things she has built around those core pieces of self she calls Natasha, and she ruthlessly crosses off all those that will not help her. It's not back to the drawing board, but it is a deep gutting and renovation. By the time Clint stirs then wakes, she knows the parts of herself where she is willing to bend to make this work. By the time he sits up and curls his arm around her as she lays her head on his chest, she remembers the parts of herself that were never made or unmade, the things she will not change. By the time she falls asleep, she has decided what to do.
There are certain things about Natasha that are true:
Her hair is still red when all the dye has grown out.
She is a widow.
She never stops standing watch unless Clint is doing it for her.
She prefers herbal tea to coffee.
She will only give away pieces of herself to those who will keep them safe.
She loves to watch the ballet, not dance it.
Memory is quicksand and she does not trust it. She does not trust her body that folds into a perfect plié or kills a man without thinking. She does not trust anything that beeps or anything red except her own hair.
Clint's tac suit used to be red and black. He watched her study it like a specimen of poisonous snake before he changed the red to purple. Never let it be said he did not know her untruths from her truths. She has wondered to herself since the battle how he managed to lie to the god of lies who held him in thrall.
Steve Rogers may be the man outside of time, but Natasha does not think he is. He seems to be the only one of the team with sufficient distance to be aware of their time and to live in it fully. He mourns for those he left behind but not for a world in dust and ashes that can never come back again. He lives right now instead of two weeks ago when a god crushed through a human mind or years ago when a man became a raging giant. He walks through the city and lends his hands and back to the cleanup effort.
Natasha walks beside him.
This is something she can do—work, support, get things done. It fills a need and fills a space between them as they share the moments of making right what was made wrong. It is easier than righting the wrongs in her partner's mind. It is easier than healing the losses neither Steve nor Natasha can ever get back.
He tells her she does good work and she smiles at him easily because he needs to see her thoughts on her face to understand them.
"You're easy to work with," she says.
He doesn't know how to take it, but like the gentleman he is, he does not walk her words anywhere she does not direct them. He can handle her mysteries because he knows he has her support and comraderie.
They break for pizza when they get hungry and exchange more words picking a place to eat than in the hours spent walking and working. She laughs at his light humor and watches the tension run out of his arms.
When the cleanup is done and the aftermath of battle beginning to fade from New York's consciousness, they still take walks, winding down the paths of Steve's unspoken memories or their needs for groceries, space, exercise. It is something more than habit, and it softens the line of Steve's jaw when something makes him realize anew how much he's lost.
"You smile more," Clint tells her quietly one night perched out on the roof. He likes the varied environment of the top of the Stark Tower, claims it's designed for climbing.
Natasha sits close enough that their shared body heat warms the air between their arms and legs. She does not need to throw her mind into her eyes to talk to him. "I like the piece he gives me." She has been finding pieces of herself since Clint brought her in—in Maria, in Clint, in Coulson, in Fury.
Clint is silent a moment, then uncurls himself slightly to close the miniscule space between them. His shoulder brushes hers and their arms touch. She breathes and she hears him breathe.
When she goes downstairs the next morning, she finds Clint and Steve laughing over coffee.
This is true: Natasha smiles.
Thor reminds her of an overgrown golden retriever. His enthusiasm is infectious, but he is also constantly apologizing and moderating that enthusiasm when it scares the poor reporter he embraced in true warrior fashion or when it irritates the taxi cab driver who does not understand appropriate toll fees for transport in Asgard. He tries harder than anyone else to respect the ways of this alien people he has chosen to guard and befriend.
Natasha finds a kindred spirit in him, for she too was once displaced from her own cultural understandings about work and normal life. Maria spent many patient hours teaching her that not every gift and friendly face held danger and manipulation behind it—Exhibit A being Clint Barton, followed slowly but certainly by Phil, and eventually others.
She remembers sitting on a park bench, serene expression and book open in her hands as she studied the open and free interactions of the people around her. She had done enough studying for years to act like any of them and to exploit their weaknesses, but then she was learning from them what she could about how to create a person from what was left after SHIELD deprogrammed her. Clint would occasionally wander through, make her laugh (which startled her enough to avoid him for two weeks afterward), then haul her back to her apartment to introduce her to the cheap entertainment of television.
So when she catches Thor's puzzled frown as he listens to Darcy, Jane, and Pepper conversing in a decidedly 'Midgardian' girl-talk fashion about boys and books, movies and shoes on sale, she hauls him into the communal living room and introduces him to her favorite shows where all this stuff makes sense in the environment of outlandish, exaggerated stories—like the ones shared at a feast in Asgard.
Sometimes people forget that Natasha is female and that she actually enjoys turning off the killing instinct from time to time. They don't think trashy mystery and romance paperbacks. They don't think daytime television. Natasha and Thor watch soap operas.
Tony and Bruce are coming in to watch the science channel when shock makes Stark blink from his earlier "That's nice" to "I do not approve of this activity."
Natasha and Thor are discussing their opinion of the latest scandal. Natasha raises an eyebrow. She was actually enjoying this conversation before someone interrupted.
But Thor lights up like he just tasted his first cup of coffee, apparently interpreting interjection as interest, then proceeds to explain in poetic and excruciating detail the exploits of his favorite characters to a most unwilling Tony, who is unable to extricate himself without being rude. Not even Tony will be that rude to Thor.
The various Avengers filter in slowly with mildly surprised expressions. They finally found someone who can talk Tony Stark down.
Thor thanks her profusely for the time spent together. Expected. He wraps his arms around her in a giant bear hug and lifts her feet off the ground. Unexpected.
It takes every conscious thought she has screaming not to kill him to keep her itching fingers from garroting him on the spot.
"When does it come on again?" he asks, beaming with completely unmoderated enthusiasm.
He trusts her. It stops Natasha cold. Those she trusts are few and far between. Those who trust her are further and fewer. He is not moderating himself and striving so hard to fit into a world so different from his own.
"Tomorrow," she tells him, lips curving slightly upward. She pats his shoulder affectionately and watches his own mouth tug upward at the corners.
That night, Natasha steps into the bathroom where Clint is washing his face before bed. She has often curled herself around him for comfort; she has never been certain who was being comforted most. Tonight, she pulls his arm to one side so she can hug him full-bodied the way that Thor hugs.
Clint gives a small, surprised hum.
She holds on until she feels the tension and uncertainty leave him. He knows she actually means this.
This is also truth: Natasha hugs.
When Natasha first followed Clint back to SHIELD like a stray alley cat, spitting at anyone who dared to stroke her except her chosen adoptee, everyone expected her to be a little at sea. Sometimes, she still wonders how anyone could think that a world-class spy wouldn't know how to fit herself into an unfamiliar environment. Just because it was genuine didn't lessen her skill for adapting.
She found an anchor in Clint, and he let her, signalling to her by the simple, uncomplicated way he related to others who he trusted and didn't. She watched the way he interacted and found herself reaching out to those he had established relationships with and remaining aloof towards those he clearly did not wish to be close to. She chose her own ways of relating, but she let his behavior guide hers until she grew beyond the need and was assigned as Clint's partner around the same time.
When she started treating him as an equal rather than her sponsor, he didn't bat an eye, sliding into their new role as if he'd always expected it. Maybe he had.
Natasha watches Clint at times now as they make themselves a comfortable space in this new team. Right now, they are inseparable. She knows it is only a matter of time before Clint has his own space and she has hers.
Clint and Thor are discussing various battle techniques—distance and close work featuring prominently in said discussion—while Natasha stretches before tumbles. Pepper steps inside the gym and Thor pauses to nod at her respectfully.
Natasha stretches one more time before determining Pepper didn't come in the Avengers gym for one of the guys. She came for Natasha.
"Pepper." Natasha gives her own small nod. "Care to join me?"
"Actually,"—Pepper flashes a smile—"I would."
That makes Natasha pause, digest that properly. She spent enough time working with Pepper and enough time on the phone with her for girl-talk of their own to realize what Pepper is really asking.
"If I'm going to live at a bullseye," Pepper adds, waving her hand to take in the Tower and presumably the Avengers who live there, "I'd like to be able to defend myself."
As Natasha knows, Pepper is consistently sensible, and so she agrees to teach her. They start right away and schedule an hour each workday before lunch.
"I do not approve of this activity," Tony informs them when he walks in after apparently hunting the entire Tower (Natasha thinks he's exaggerating) to take Pepper out for a spontaneous lunch.
Pepper grunts under the impact of Natasha's body. "I'll make a note of that. Jarvis, make a note please."
She tackles Natasha, who deflects her easily.
"Firmer on the upper arm." Natasha grips her arm lightly to show her. "Apply the pressure here, not here."
"Got it." Pepper tries again.
She improves enough to make Natasha compensate. "Nice."
"No, seriously," Tony interjects again. "This is not okay."
Pepper holds up her hands in surrender to Natasha, walks over to Tony, and kisses him. "Let's go get lunch."
She returns the next day.
Tony's objections become more vocal when Natasha and Pepper time starts bleeding over into the lunch hour. Natasha has had previous female friends to hang out with—Maria Hill, Melinda May—but this is the first time she's had one in a civilian. Jane is nice and Darcy inspires fondness, but Pepper understands how to put up with a reckless, competent significant other, even if Natasha's is a partner and Pepper's is a boyfriend. They talk about everything.
"You told her about Canberra?" Tony demands, pitch rising to a slightly whining note.
Pepper rolls her eyes and smiles.
Natasha tastes the cookie dough and nods, satisfied. "You should hear about what Clint did in Canberra," she says.
Tony may be an absent-minded genius, but he is not oblivious, and his interest sharpens when Natasha uses the name 'Clint' instead of 'Barton.'
She shoots him a small smile as she launches into an understated rendition of the infamous 'Clint finally jumped off a roof one too many times' story that makes the rounds at SHIELD every year around his birthday. By the end of it, Tony is clearly enjoying his preparations to tease the guy mercilessly, and Pepper is readying a crazy Tony story she thinks will top it.
It's only three months before Clint's birthday. She decides not to warn him.
Tony sighs the next time Pepper disappears into the gym, but his grumbling trails off as he disappears into his lab.
Clint shakes his head and suggests Pepper not stretch quite so far. "You'll get better results with a little less." He looks at Natasha. "How did you do it?"
Natasha is not above teasing. She pulls a Natalie and giggles, and he groans, knowing perfectly well that he's in for it.
"What did you tell him?" he demands.
She launches at Pepper, startling her friend. "Kinda busy."
Pepper might have been startled, but she's come a long way and she is still Extremis-enhanced. It doesn't take long before they find a rhythm.
This is truth: Natasha is not afraid to exchange secrets with friends.
This is also true: Natasha bakes desserts.
"Can I have a cooler full of these?" Clint asks as he taste-tests the latest batch of chocolate chip cookies Natasha has made for Pepper.
She shoots him a questioning look.
He shrugs. "Thought I might clear out before Tony gets more insufferable. Somebody has been telling tales."
"It's not my fault you are hopeless," Natasha informs him curtly and slaps his fingers before he snags another cookie. "I'll send you two dozen, but no more."
"Thanks." He hesitates for a moment, then tugs her gently into a hug.
She lets him and holds onto his warmth for a moment. She is starting to get the hang of this cuddling thing.
"You're doing good," Clint comments.
It makes her freeze. She knows what he's talking about. It has been months since she was curled up on the floor with him after a nightmare, soothing him and telling him to breathe. It has been months since she had only five or six close friends and only one she never held at a distance. It hasn't been unpleasant breaking out of the comfortable and exchanging it for the dubious reward of a properly bonded team, but it has been nerve-wracking and tedious and something she doesn't actually care to look at when she doesn't have to.
She pulls back enough to stare back at him. He's smiling a little, a subtler version of his lopsided grin, and his hand is warm at her waist.
Natasha cocks her head and answers, "You're doing better."
He nods and lets her go right before she gets antsy. There is still a time limit on this hugging business. He seems to notice the signs even before she does. "Make friends with Bruce," he says as he heads for the fridge to collect beverages for his cooler.
She shoots him an annoyed glance. She had decided to take his transition back to stable, equal partner status with as much equanimity as he had taken hers, but she's failing miserably because Clint decided to announce said return by poking at the one spot she's made headway but no significant progress.
Bruce reminds her of Clint, ever unsure or at least displeased with a side of himself he has little to no control over. That reminder directed her approach to Bruce, small platonic touches and friendly smiles. These proofs of trust were the only thing that kept her and Clint going in the immediate aftermath of Loki and New York. I trust you, I'll keep touching you, keep getting close. While she is certain Bruce appreciates the gestures, she has also noticed no signs of that trust returned.
Clint packs up the two dozen cookies he was permitted and flashes her that crooked grin again, this time the full expression. "You know, he's just as awkward as you are around people."
It earns Clint a harsh sniff and a glare. "I am not awkward around people," Natasha informs him. "I am a spy."
"You just keep telling yourself that."
Clint doesn't actually make it out the door before they get a mission. It starts bad, descends to worse, and leaves the Avengers reeling in the aftermath. Each departs for their own comforts, their own coping mechanisms.
Those in a relationship steal away their lovers. Those who are not hesitate before drifting off in various directions. Natasha looks around for Clint.
She finds his handwritten note on her empty baking sheets that Pepper won't be needing the cookies at a stockholders conference. The cooler is gone. She isn't even irritated when she finds he left her enough to enjoy a good movie. Even apart, they know each other like they know themselves.
"Have you seen Clint?" Bruce's mild-mannered voice breaks through the quiet kitchen. "Steve's gone too…" His voice trails off.
She keeps the puzzled surprise off her face. She puts Bruce's query together with Clint's suggestion and realizes that the two have been getting along, maybe even getting closer. That is a good thing, she decides, even if she wonders how in the world she missed something like that.
"Road trip, probably," she says. "Sometimes Barton just needs to go driving for a while." She changes her mind and moves from casual conversation with a fellow agent to casual conversation with Clint's friend. "Sometimes he likes company. They'll stay in a few horrible motels, go look at the World's Biggest Ball of Twine and Carhenge, eat hot dogs. Might not be a bad way for Steve to get a look at the country again. Last time I went driving with him, we ended up at the House on the Rock and Clint really liked it, but I doubt they'll be gone that long."
She picks up her cookies, smiles a little, and tells him, "I'm going to watch something brainless and girly."
The way she says it seems to draw his attention. Bruce has always noticed her. After New York, she will catch him sometimes watching for her reaction to him, but mostly she has noticed that he will say or do something by times that lets her know he's been paying attention. Now, she thinks he is considering what someone like the Black Widow would consider 'girly.'
And that is where they go wrong. To Bruce, she is Natasha wrapped around a core of the Black Widow, and to her, he is Bruce wrapped around a core of the Hulk. The idea bothers her, but she has no opportunity to address it as he has already retreated to the lab.
She takes her cookies into the media room and tries to select a movie. She can't seem to settle down to it and, with a sigh, moves on to the library. Within an hour, the cookies are gone, she's replaced them with wine, and the problem of Bruce has disappeared behind the comfort of Anne of Green Gables. Within another twenty minutes, the problem of Bruce reappears in the doorway, hesitating when he sees her.
This is a truth: Natasha smiles. She smiles now because he needs to see her thoughts on her face to understand them. His hair is standing on end from his own frustrations, and it makes the gesture amused in addition to welcoming. "You look like a caricature of a mad scientist."
He steps inside, frustration evident in the line of his body.
She tells herself he is not frustrated with her. She tells herself he is the Hulk wrapped around a core of Bruce because she is the Widow wrapped around a core of Natasha. She has spent too long finding that core to not claim it as herself.
Bruce nods at her glass of wine. "Better idea than my plans for the afternoon. The laws of the universe seem to have temporarily suspended themselves and I can't get anything working right."
"There's plenty for two." Natasha sets down the book and goes to pour him a glass.
He accepts it, but she can see the tension in the motion. "I don't want to interrupt your reading. I can take this elsewhere."
"No, it's all right," she settles back on the sofa and exchanges a secret with a possible friend. "It's a comfort read, I've read it a hundred times."
Bruce gets that scientifically interested gleam in his eye. It never scares her on him like it does on those with a medical background. "Cheering on a fellow redhead? I'd have thought you'd be more of a Pippi Longstocking girl." Of course, Bruce never analyzes her as if she's a monster instead of a woman.
She laughs, pleased he thought of her hair first, but he's not wrong. "I think that's why I first picked the book up. I found a copy in a used English bookstore in Singapore. And Pippi is great, although I read those too late for her to be a big heroine for me. Anne... Let's just say, the themes resonate."
He looks thoughtful as if he is dredging through old memory. "Themes... Oh, of course. Orphan girl finds a safe home, friends, family. Unless you meant the dyeing your hair green part."
Said so easily. It makes her smile with less humor. Natasha's aloneness went deeper than merely being orphaned, and Anne's history included far more emotional abuse and hard physical labor than many remember to look at. Natasha works her way through a simplified explanation. "Sometimes the clichés are true. Being a spy..." She hesitates, then presses on. "The path to becoming what I am...it usually doesn't begin in a happy home. So, comfort reading. Also, Anne's quote about people without red hair not knowing what trouble is."
He seems to realize what she is doing, handing him a small piece of herself for safekeeping. He hesitates for only a moment longer before breathing and returning with, "I used to read Boy's Thrilling Adventure kinds of things. It may shock you to know this, but I was a very shy, awkward kid. So I read about pirates and boys with brave, loyal hounds. Knights and racecar drivers, too. I wanted to have adventures, but it was pretty clear that I'd never ride in on a white steed to rescue anybody. So I decided to be the sidekick, the brilliant scientist who gave the hero the tools to do the job. Eventually I'd cultivate a long, crazy white beard and wear little eyeglasses. If I could build like Tony, I'd have dreamed of becoming James Bond's Q."
"I can read themes too, you know," she says, acknowledging him in the way that he is comfortable with, the way he acknowledged her. "The brilliant scientist found a way to be a hero."
"Oh, yes," Bruce answers with a hint of bitterness that makes Natasha want to wince. "That was clearly a smart move on my part."
He sits down on the far end of the sofa. "If Tony works out time travel, I'm going back to my youth with an armload of...shit, I can't think of a genre that doesn't encourage inappropriate heroism. Sherlock Holmes, maybe? More brain, less reliance on brawn. I've got all the brawn I need." He looks down at his hands. "Sometimes it's not smart to trust that you've worked out all the possibilities ahead of time."
As he talks, she is thrown a sharp reminder again of Clint. She did not expect this confidence. He trusts her more than she expected him to, looks like Clint struggling to breathe after a nightmare. She is on her feet almost before she realizes she has decided what to do.
Bruce has shown her trust, and Natasha shows him trust back. She moves slowly enough for him to register what she's doing as she sits down directly next to him, shoulder to shoulder, and threads her arm through his as she has done for Clint so many times.
He starts to jerk away, and she glares at him. "Stop it." No playing nice or pulling punches. She wants him to know she actually means this. "I'm learning things from this team business, you know. This is something I've learned from Thor."
"Cuddling? Thor taught you to cuddle?" He sounds like he's trying to not react, trying to be comfortable with this, then does a bad imitation of Thor, which sounds better. "Tell me about this human pressing of bodies, tiny mortal."
She grins, pleased with Bruce's reaction. "Asgard is apparently a lot more emotionally expressive a culture than you'd think. More than just manly backslapping. Haven't you been on the receiving end of a Thor hug? Just wait, he'll get around to you. It's like being embraced by a giant...I don't know, golden retriever, maybe. Jane practically disappears when he hugs her. Tony laps it up, Steve is starting to thaw—excuse the pun—and even an old campaigner like Clint likes it more than he lets on. The other night he said Thor was like having an enormous kid brother, and Thor got tears in his eyes, he was so pleased at the thought.
"And like I said, I'm learning things too. I've never really been part of a big, sprawling, awkward family like this before. I've worked solo, sometimes with Clint, very rarely with other agents. Led teams, that kind of thing. But the Avengers? Close quarters with all of you? Totally new in my world. The first time he picked me up off the ground and hugged me I nearly garroted him out of sheer reflex."
As she talks, Bruce listens, and for the first time, she feels like he is actually hearing her, Natasha, instead of looking out for signs of manipulation and the Black Widow. Since they met, they have both seen what each other can be instead of what they are.
Bruce slides his arm tentatively around her waist. She responds by snuggling under his arm and leaning her head on his shoulder. It is comforting and familiar. This is less hugging and more the way she used to wrap herself around Clint when he simply needed touch to feel safe. She has never known which of them needs it most.
"Maybe," she murmurs, "the next road trip should be to Prince Edward Island." She feels Bruce's quiet, even breathing. She thinks Clint would like to go somewhere with both of them. "Want to come?" she asks, as if it is settled. They're going.
A heartbeat later, Bruce answers, "I'd be delighted."
They sit quietly together. This is something she shares with very few people, but even among the Avengers, few are quite like them.
Steve is Captain America, someone who inspires others to be the best version of themselves possible. Tony is Iron Man, greatness he built and earned to save his own life and that of others. Thor is worthy of wielding an instrument of power that will only lend its strength to those who are truly good.
It is Clint and Bruce and Natasha who understand what it means to try to overcome the parts of themselves that make them strong. They harness their pain and rage and the stripping away of their very identities to bring some good into this world.
So it is with Clint and now Bruce that Natasha sits quietly and breathes, needing nothing more to find peace, for this is true: Natasha is only who she chooses to be.