Disclaimer: I don't own The Avengers, Stumbling Through the Dark by The Jayhawks, and Long Shadowsby Josh Ritter.
Stumbling Through the Dark
I'm not afraid of the dark
When the sun goes down
And the dreams grow teeth
And the beasts come out
If there was a stereotypical New York City, rundown, creepy apartment building, she was standing in it. The halls were dark and dirty and smelled of piss, stale pot and other things she'd just rather not identify. If it wasn't for her years of training and the assortment of weapons she had stored under her civilian clothes, she might have felt a twinge of fear. As it was, she was wishing her job took her someplace halfway decent for a change, like a nice spa in the Caribbean or a chateau in the South of France – someplace far removed from reality.
Speaking of reality, Natasha had been staring at the scarred, battered door for a few minutes, unsure of what brought her there – her gut instinct or her nagging curiosity?
Something was wrong … something felt wrong.
She raised her fist prepared to knock, when the door pulled open a crack. "What do you want?" the husky voice on the other side asked.
She kept her voice steady. "You can put down the gun, Barton. It's me, Natasha."
"I knew that before I opened the door." His voice was flat, weary, and he didn't make a move to lower the pistol. She kept her hand firmly wrapped around the one in her jacket pocket, her finger on the trigger … just in case.
"Let me in." She tried to keep her tone light, like it was every day she showed up on his doorstep in the middle of the night, like she was there to ask for a cup a sugar, not to make sure he was still playing with a full deck and hadn't morphed into a Loki-fueled time bomb.
"Tell Fury I'm fine. Mission accomplished." He started to close the door but she quickly jammed her foot in the doorway.
"Fury didn't send me."
He snorted a laugh. "Bullshit."
"I'm here on my own." She inched her foot in further, wedging the door open. She could see inside – the TV was on, all the lights were off, but she could make out some things in the shadows - the hazy blue light from the television illuminating the liquor bottles littering the coffee table and dark lumps of junk scattered all over the floor and couch, making it look like her sometimes-partner had thrown a month long frat party. What a shithole, she thought with a grimace.
"If this is more clean your ledger crap, I'd rather just go back to bed," he said with a sigh as he took a step back. He waved his arm, gesturing for her to come in. The gun was still in his hand and he caught the glance she gave it. "Oh, right. Sorry," he said as he tucked into the back of his jeans.
Her hand brushed the light switch as she walked past it, flicking it on – she immediately wished she hadn't. She was right about the frat party – the place was a pigsty. Clothes, newspapers, magazines, books, beer bottles, liquor bottles, and roughly one takeout container for every Chinese restaurant in a ten mile radius of the place. She wrinkled her nose in disgust.
"Home sweet home," he said dryly, pushing past her. He slumped onto the couch and picked up a beer bottle that was on the end table next to him and, glancing into it, he shrugged and took a sip of whatever was left at the bottom of it.
"Is S.H.I.E.L.D. not paying you enough?" she asked.
"What? Don't dig the digs?"
She raised an eyebrow.
"You know me, Tasha, like to keep it simple." She knew – she was the same way. But there was fine line between simple and decrepit. "Plus," he added between sips of old beer, "there's a great view from the roof."
"Of course," she said with small smile – at least some things hadn't changed.
Through with assessing the mess of an apartment, she finally gave herself a chance to assess the mess of a man. And he was mess – unshaven, bleary-eyed, he looked like he could sleep for a month.
Her heart twisted as she thought of the demons that must be plaguing him. She knew Loki had affected him, had hurt him far deeper than the shrinks at S.H.I.E.L.D. diagnosed. She knew, yet she let him ride off on his own after their mission was through, after the bad guy was captured and ordered restored. Forget about getting the red off her ledger, she wasn't even doing a good job at being a friend.
Suddenly, he hopped up from the couch, swaying slightly and she wondered just how much he'd had to drink that night – and the night before and the night before that. She wouldn't be surprised to find out the last few weeks had been one long binge.
"The roof," he announced. "Let me show you the roof."
"I don't think that's such a good idea."
"It'll clear my head. I think better up there. There's less …" he waved his hand around, "this."
The apartment building was high enough that the light from the city below was diffused to a faint glow and you could actually see the stars in the sky. The moon was close to being full, maybe another couple of days, so it wasn't hard to make out her partner in the darkness. He'd perched himself on the ledge, looking out, looking down, his gaze never calm, never unaware of his surroundings.
Anyone else, she'd be nervous to see them so close to falling over the edge, but with Hawkeye, the edge was the one place he seemed to be most at ease. Of course, after who knows how much booze and how little sleep, even he could make a wrong move. Or maybe it wouldn't be a wrong move … she hated that the thought even crossed her mind.
He pulled out his gun, holding it in his hand like he was weighing it. Thinking. With a click, he ejected the clip and ran his thumb over the top bullet and slid the clip back into the hilt in one fluid motion. He returned it to the spot at the small of his back where he carried it, tucking it into the waistband of his jeans.
"What's with the gun?" She asked. He carried one as a sidearm, but it was still odd to see him with one on his downtime.
He shrugged, but didn't answer.
"Harder to shoot yourself with an arrow?" she asked.
"Don't know about that." He glanced at her and grinned. "Know plenty of guys with scars who would say otherwise."
"You know that's not what I meant."
"I'm not going to shoot myself." He sighed and ran his hands through his hair. "So, what are you doing here, Tasha?"
She hopped up on the ledge next to him, trying to remain casual about the whole thing. "Just checking on my partner. You don't call, you don't write. I got worried."
"You keep saying that, but for some reason I don't believe you." She watched him out of the corner of her eye – he looked lost and alone. In their line of work, alone came with the territory, but this seemed to be more than just the "if only I was home more, I could get a cat or dog to keep me company" kind of alone. This kind of alone seemed to radiate from his soul. She fought the urge to reach out and touch his shoulder, give him a hug, something to tether him to the rest of the world. He wouldn't like that and she would just be awkward as hell at it anyway, so she settled for scooting a millimeter closer to him.
"Are you sleeping?" Natasha asked and Clint just wished she'd let the whole thing drop, but a tiny part of him was glad she was pushing him, glad she cared enough to pester the hell out of him in the middle of the night.
"Only when I pass out," he admitted with a small smile.
Because when I close my eyes, you die, he wanted to say, but he didn't. The images flashed in his head – the red. Her hair, her lips, her blood. Closing his eyes didn't help, just made it worse. A week of those dreams convinced him to never sleep again.
He shrugged. "Bad dreams," was all he offered as he picked up a rock and fidgeted it with it, twirling it in his fingers.
"Loki?" Persistent as hell. He had to give her credit, no one else in his life would have ever cared enough to keep at it.
"Probably. I guess." He pitched the rock into the darkness, watching as it arched out toward the building on the other side of the street, hung for a second, and then plummet, giving into the inevitable.
"That wasn't you. You didn't do those things."
Second verse, same as the first, he tried not to laugh. "You know, I've told myself that so many times that it's like breathing, but doesn't make it true."
"Clint -" she started but he cut her off with a single, sharp word.
She drew in a breath and when she spoke, her words were slow and deliberate, as if she had to pry them from her chest. "Loki killed him. You were nowhere near that room."
"Then why do I keep seeing it happen when I close my eyes?" And why do you keep dying in my dreams?
"Because you have a heart," she said sharply. Only Natasha would make an attempt at comfort sound like an argument. "Things matter to you. You're not some soulless robot who doesn't feel pain and guilt." She was looking at him, he could feel her eyes on him, but he kept his gaze on the skyline.
"Heart. I have heart." There was no humor in his laugh. "That's what Loki said, you know? Just before he touched my chest with that staff of his and stole my life."
"That's just an organ that pumps blood. Your heart is here," she touched his brow and then she placed her palm over center of his chest, her fingers warm in the chilled night air through the thin fabric of his t-shirt, "not here."
He looked over at her, their eyes met. Her hand didn't move and she just stared. He could hear her breathing. Hell, he was pretty sure he could hear her heart beating.
"I -" she started, blinking suddenly, looking to the right over her shoulder, breaking her gaze from his. She pulled her hand away like it had been scorched and he fought the urge to shake his head to clear it. What the fuck had just happened?
"Um …" he cleared his throat.
"Coffee," she said suddenly.
He waited a second, but she didn't elaborate.
She noticed his confusion. "We need coffee."
"It's 1 a.m."
"2 a.m. and it's not like you were going to sleep anytime soon."
He shrugged. "Fair enough." He hopped down from the ledge. "I'll go brew up a pot."
"No," she practically shouted as she followed him.
He turned and squinted at her. "Oddly enough, brewing a pot of coffee aids in the drinking of said coffee."
She gave him her best get the fuck out of here look that he knew so well. "There is no way in hell I'm drinking anything made in your kitchen. Have you looked around in there lately? It looks like you're breeding our next opponent – Mold Man or something."
Rolling his eyes, he said, "Fine, I admit it's a little messy."
"Stop being such a girl."
She stopped in her tracks, crossing her arms over her chest. "I've shot men for less."
He threw up his hands in surrender. "Whatever. There's a diner around the corner. Open 24/7. Will that do?"
The only other person in the diner at that time of night was a very tired waitress that Clint named Flo in his head even though her name tag said Amy. She seemed legitimately annoyed that Clint wanted a piece of pie with his coffee.
He took a bite and leaned back in the booth, propping his foot up on the seat next to Natasha. The coffee was chasing away the buzz from the beer and he was finally starting to feel a little clearheaded. He picked up his cup and downed the last of it. He glanced over at the waitress. She was leaning on the counter, reading a book. "Should I ask for another cup?" he asked Natasha.
"Um … sure," she said. "Why not?"
"I don't know, my gut tells me it could be a bad decision. Did you see how hard she dropped the plate onto the table?" He glanced back over at the counter and then leaned closer to his partner, whispering. "I think Flo over there could give Bruce a run for the money in the whole Hulk Smash department."
Natasha sat back and laughed. "Now that's the smartass I know and lo- " She thought she'd caught herself in time, but apparently she hadn't.
Clint cupped his hand around his ear, "What was that, Nat, didn't catch that last part."
"Loathe," she said steadily, shifting in her seat. "Know and loathe."
"Right. Thought that's what you said." He gave a lopsided grin and tapped her hip with his boot. "For the record, I loathe you too."
He held up his cup and said, "waitress."
Maybe sleep deprivation was playing tricks on him, but he was pretty sure Flo actually growled at him. He carefully lowered his cup. "Uh … check please."
Natasha stood and grabbed her jacket off the hook next to their booth. As she was pulling it on, Clint quietly said, "thanks."
"I didn't offer to get the check." She tousled her red hair with her hands and shook her head.
He looked up at her, his gaze holding hers. "I didn't mean thanks for the coffee."
She didn't look away this time. "I know."