As always, it is not mine.

Right Where I Used To Be

They've been partners for just over a year and six months when S.H.I.E.L.D records declare Natasha to be twenty-one.

Birthdays have never been something she's taken real note of, so Natasha is honestly surprised when Clint turns to her in the hallway after their debriefing from the La Paz mission and congratulates her.

"I haven't done anything."

Clint frowns at her. "It's your birthday. You're supposed to be congratulated on your birthday."

"Oh." Of course Natasha knows about birthday celebrations, she's attended enough parties. Turning a year older seems to make people talkative. But it took her a moment to make the connection to her own birthday, and this annoys her. "I don't really celebrate birthdays," she says, realising too late that it sounds petulant.

Clint shrugs. "Okay. But the way I see it, staying alive for another year is something worthy of praise. And hey, it's legal for you to drink in America now."

Natasha fixes him with her best I can't believe I put up with this crap glare, which only serves to make him laugh. "Your point?"

Clint spreads his hands wide in invitation. "C'mon, Romanoff. One drink with me, to celebrate being able to do legally what you've been enjoying for years. I know this bar we can go to that serves the vodka you like. We need to unwind a bit after La Paz."

That Natasha does agree with. "Fine. One drink. But I refuse to drink that horse piss you call beer."

Clint mimes talking into his earpiece. "Mission accomplished."

The bar turns out to be a bit of a walk from S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters but it's nice enough and typical Clint, all the way down to the ancient jukebox playing Bruce Springsteen in the corner. It's close enough to Clint's apartment that if Natasha didn't know better she would say this was Clint's regular bar, but people like them don't have regular anything. Regularity is habit forming, habits make you predictable. Being predictable will get you killed. But sometimes it's nice to pretend to be normal, even if they both scan the room for enemies and exit routes when they enter.

Natasha slides into a booth while Clint orders them drinks. He's wearing faded blue jeans and a dark checked shirt left unbuttoned at the collar, and Natasha called him a cowboy back at HQ but he blends in well now in the dimly lit room. She hadn't had time to change when Clint practically dragged her out of the building and being in public without choosing an ensemble to perfect whatever persona required makes Natasha feel strangely exposed, even if her post-mission jeans and t-shirt are hardly eye-catching. She admits as much to Clint when he sits down opposite her and he snorts as he places the drinks on the table.

"What?" Natasha asks, delicately placing her Coke with the accompanying shot of ice-cold vodka on the flaking coasters.

"Nothing." Clint picks up his glass of what is undoubtedly revolting beer. "It's just that I don't think you could ever not be eye-catching." He gives her an exaggerated wink and Natasha kicks him under the table even while she starts to laugh, making him grimace.

"Well, that's kind of my job description."

Clint makes some sort of affirmative noise before waving his hand in the direction of the shot glass. "Drink up, Tasha, that stuff won't stay cold forever."

Natasha raises the glass in his direction. "Твоё здоровье!" Your health. Clint cocks his head in a question and Natasha shrugs. "Only alcoholics don't toast their drinks."

Clint raises his own shot glass to clink against hers. "За встречу." To our meeting.

They down the vodka and Clint reaches for his beer again almost immediately. Natasha pulls a face. "How can you drink that stuff?"

"Decades of practice."

Natasha steals the glass from his hand and takes a sip. "That," she pronounces, handing the glass back, "is vile."

"Forgive me. I'm clearly drinking with the only twenty-one year old with no appreciation for low-brow alcohol."

"It's not my fault you can't handle the hard stuff, old man. You've gone soft from all the times I kicked your ass."

Clint laughs. At thirty-four and nearing his ninth year at S.H.I.E.L.D, he's technically the senior agent in their partnership but Natasha's never felt like anything other his equal. That, however, doesn't mean she can't tease him about it.

Clint drinks the beer almost in one gulp and Natasha cannot help but be impressed. Then Clint slams his hands on the table and stands up in once decisive action.

"Natasha, it's your twenty-first birthday. You," he announces, pointing at her, "need tequila."

Clint wanders over to the bar before Natasha can say anything and returns with a tray set with a half dozen shots, a bowl of lime wedges and two saltshakers. "Well, there's no such thing as one tequila shot," he responds to her unasked question, handing over a shaker.

Natasha takes her share of shot glasses and arranges them in a row. Tequila is not her preferred liquor but if she's going to do this she's going to do it right, with style.

"You know how to do this?"

Natasha fixes him with her best Withering Glare. "Watch and learn, Barton," she hisses, pouring salt on her hand, licking it, downing the tequila in one gulp and finishing off with a lime wedge between her teeth.

Clint nods approvingly. "Nice to watch a professional at work. Know any drinking games, Nat?"

Natasha throws the depleted lime peel at him which he, naturally, catches in mid-flight. "None that your Russian is good enough for."

"Okay, how about this," Clint suggests. "Truth. We each get to ask questions. If you don't want to answer, you have to drink instead. If you do answer, the other person drinks."

Natasha narrows her eyes. "That's a stupid game. Like I'd tell you anything in a public space."

Clint pushes the shot glasses towards her. "They don't have to be secrets." He leans forward, voice dropping to the almost whisper she knows is a challenge. "What's the deal, Tasha? You game?"

She folds her arms. "Fine."

Clint slumps back against the wall of the booth in triumphant arrogance and Natasha resists the urge to hit him. "So," he drawls. "What's your favourite ice cream flavour?"


Clint nods in approval. "See? Not that hard after all." He goes through the steps of the tequila shot with a dexterity that belies how much he's already drunk. "Your turn."

"Favourite colour."

"Green." Clint grins. "But I like purple too."

"Purple, really?"

"I grew up in a circus, I'm not a stranger to purple spandex."

The horror at that image must have shown on her face, because Clint laughs out loud and takes his time before asking the next question. "Showers or baths?"

Natasha wrinkles her nose. "Showers. I never saw the appeal of lying submerged in your own filth."

Clint snorts, shakes his head. "You are one of a kind, Natasha Romanoff."

"So I've been told. Your least favourite environment to be sent to?"

For a moment Clint looks like he's about to have a drink instead of answering, but then he places the glass back on the table. "Anywhere in a desert. I hate deserts."

She reminds herself that this is not an interrogation, but she can't help wanting to know. "Why?"

Clint's face goes hard for a split second before his training makes him relax. "It's not your turn," he says deliberately.

Natasha folds her arms in a clear signal that she's not playing, and Clint sighs. "I served in Iraq and Afghanistan before joining S.H.I.E.L.D. I'd rather go to Antarctica than back to that. Of course, that means I dream about it a lot."

Natasha knows truth like that deserves truth in return. "When I was five all I wanted was to dance the lead role in Swan Lake," she says slowly, and Clint's expression silently encourages her to continue. "I went to ballet classes. I think someone had the music on a record, maybe my mother had it, or…" She falters, images in her head blurring into a confused mass. "I- I don't remember. It was before everything else. But I remember wanting to dance Swan Lake."

The bar suddenly seems ten degrees cooler, making her shiver, and she cannot look at Clint.

"Hey," he murmurs. "It's okay."

Natasha breathes deep, unclenches her knuckles. "If you could see one band live, which band would it be?"

Clint must recognize the desperate attempt at a save, but he doesn't comment on it, just answers, "The Rolling Stones." He slides around the curved seat of the booth towards her, tequila shot in hand. His knee presses up against hers and it's like when they spar, always pushing, getting in that extra hit; trying to up the ante.

Well, damn if Natasha is going to be one-upped by Clint fucking Barton. Pressing her leg back, she bends over and licks the salt from his hand. He twitches in surprise and when she sits back up his pupils are ever so slightly dilated, gazing at her with something that looks like awe.

Natasha sips the bitter alcohol and considers. Clint is certainly attractive, in an all-American, working-class-hero way, and she already knows he's the kind of man who takes a girl home rather than fucking her in an alleyway. He would be a good lover; she has no doubt of that. His eyes hold hers and heat spreads across her body in a slow burn.

It would be so, so easy. She's felt his eyes on her more than once, as much as he tries to hide it. It was to be expected, after all the blue satin evening gown in Lisbon and the shimmering silver scrap of cloth that passed for a dress in Bangkok were intended to catch attention and Clint's only human. There were times she considered dragging him into a supply closet, giving him a blowjob and being done with it. But sometimes she catches him looking when she's cleaning her gun, or during yet another dressing down from Coulson, or when he hands her a mug of what S.H.I.E.L.D considers coffee, and that's another mindfuck entirely.

A song comes on the jukebox that she recognizes and she curls her fingers around his, nudging him with her shoulder. "Let's dance."

Even in the dim light she can see him swallow. "Tasha, you know I don't dance."

"C'mon, Barton," she teases, echoing his words from earlier that day. "Research indicates a girl should dance on her birthday."

Clint still protests but he lets Natasha pull him up out of the booth and into a clear space in the room that hardly qualifies a dance floor yet she doesn't care, just focuses on twisting her hips to the music and drawing him to her.

She wraps her arms around on his shoulders while she sways, pulling herself flush against his chest and tipping her head back as if lost to the music. Clint's fingers come to rest on her waist like he's trying to keep her at a distance, but he doesn't step back when Natasha lays one hand just below his collarbone, feeling hard pectoral muscle and, lower, his heartbeat beneath the soft cotton of his shirt. She slides her other hand gently against his neck, playing with the short hair at the base of his skull, and his hands finally slide across her back to pull her impossibly closer and her head is spinning, spinning…

Clint's fingers come up to gently move her face to meet his and she's seen that glint in his eyes before when he pinned her wrists to a gym mat. He leans in to her, lips brushing her temple while one hand forms a fist in her hair and the other splays low across her hip, forefinger and thumb burning hot against the bare skin between her jeans and the hem of her shirt.

They turn in a slow circle to the music, and it's holding rather than dancing but whatever it is, Natasha's not stopping it now. Or maybe she will. The bathroom isn't far and she's had sex in worse places.

Clint stiffens suddenly, looking off to the side, and Natasha follows his eyes to a younger man at the sitting at the bar, opening leering at her. She presses her face into the crook of Clint's neck, pretending not to have noticed and trying not to laugh, but Clint's still glaring. His breathing is heavier and she's crushed against his chest as the fingers twisted in her hair slowly pull back so that all she can see is him, and it hurts but in a way that makes her moan and cut her nails into his shoulder, and all she wants is to feel his lips against her skin.

His eyes are like storm clouds, completely fixed on her. The glare is gone but his brows are still furrowed, and there's heat there, and want, and something else entirely, and Natasha's seized by an urge to kiss him so strong it makes her dizzy.

She stumbles and his arms tighten to keep her from falling, and she can feel how hard he is under his pants.

Forget the bathroom, that table over there will do fine. She'll threaten any witnesses into secrecy after.

Natasha aligns her hips against his and hears his sharp intake of breath despite his obvious attempt to hide it. His fingers slip from under her shirt to roughly grab the loops on her jeans as he grinds against her pelvis, his belt buckle digging into her skin, bringing her on familiar ground again and it's a relief because at last her training recognizes what should be done here. He's only human.

She should giggle a bit now, and tilt her head, maybe indicate towards the other man still staring at her. It's only you, she should say, and he will groan and push his hips closer, leaving bruises, wanting to mark her flesh. It's always been you. Touch me, take me. I'm yours.

"What's wrong, carnie?" she breathes, coquettish smile in place, but it comes out too rehearsed and Clint winces like he's been stung. "Can't keep up?"

He's as tense as a wire and while his arousal is still present, his expression is one of cool assessment. "Oh, I can keep up just fine, darlin,'" he murmurs into her ear. When Natasha pulls back she expects to see the cocky, almost predator-like grin he gives her when they leave for a particularly dangerous mission, but there's no humour to be seen in him now. "But now I think I should walk you home and call it a night."

She reaches up to rub her knuckles against his cheek, something that she knows men can't resist. "But I'm y-"

"Don't." He practically growls it, catching her wrist and putting distance between them. His face is still soft though in his eyes the storm clouds have turned to ice. "Don't do that."

He hands her jacket to her, puts on his own and they leave. The autumn air outside is cold and tastes like rain.

"I'm sorry," she says after a while, and Clint's eyes immediately start to look her over like he's checking for deception. It hurts, more than Natasha could expect.

"It's okay," he replies, shoving his hands that a few moments ago had been touching her body into his pockets. "It's just… When you're with me, Tasha, I-" he pauses, staring up at the streetlamps and New York skyline, anywhere but at her. "You don't have to pull the same act you do on the job." He steps in front of so that she has to come to a halt to avoid walking into him and he finally looks her in the eye. "You don't owe me anything."

She's never heard his voice so hoarse.

"Okay," she replies, rather than trying to agree. She could still do it. Her moves at the bar may have been sloppy, amateur almost, but she can find the right combination to have him at her feet, to tie him to a bed and fuck him til she screams, and he will love it and throw his head back when he comes and he would hate her forever.

If there's one thing Natasha is sure of, it's that she does not want Clint to hate her.

It takes nearly half an hour from the bar to her apartment block, and they walk in silence, side by side but not too close. By the time they reach her door Clint appears to have relaxed.

Natasha puts her key in the lock, brushing against the splintery imitation wood. When S.H.I.E.L.D considered her trustworthy enough to live off base, she had searched New York for appropriate boltholes and all but forced one of the helicarrier technicians to rig up a bulletproof metal door that looked identical to the other flimsy doors on her floor but would be impossible to break down. It's acceptable, even if it doesn't feel like home.

Clint is leaning against the corridor wall just behind her, keeping a lookout in case some expert opponent succeeded in tracking them. If she wants to invite him in, this is the time.

She turns her back to the door and steps towards him, watching the contours of his face in the bluish light cast by the fluorescent bulbs overhead. "Clint…" she whispers.

I don't know how to do this. I'm sorry.


Clint pushes off the wall, his boots squeaking against the tiled floor, breaking the moment. "I got you something," he says, reaching into the pocket of his leather jacket and drawing out a small, folded white plastic bag. "Happy birthday."

Natasha stares at it until Clint huffs in frustration. "It's a birthday present, Tasha. Take it."

Slowly, Natasha takes the bag from him. She feels him watch for her reaction as she reaches in, her fingers closing on something soft. Pulling it out, the contents reveals itself as a white 'I Love NY' t-shirt.

"To welcome you to this fine city," Clint says, wolf grin firmly back in place, and Natasha can't help smirking back. "Oh, and there's something else." He reaches into his pocket again and hands her a plain CD case.

"It's a mix tape," he explains when Natasha looks at him blankly. "Well, mix CD really. To continue your introduction to contemporary Western music, because your knowledge is lacking and this concerns me."

Natasha turns the case over, skimming the list of song titles written on the cover in Clint's near illegible scrawl. "Thanks," she manages, and for a second Clint actually beams.

She should hug him. Don't friends hug?

They stand wordlessly in her corridor and it's about to turn awkward when Clint shuffles, rubbing the back of his head. "So, um, yeah. I should get going. I'll see you at work, okay?"

"Oh." Natasha doesn't know what to do with her arms and settles for leaving them at her side. "Right. See you then."

Clint turns to leave and Natasha lashes out to hold on to his elbow. "Clint, wait." His face flickers with something she's seen before but cannot put a name to, and she has to let go of his arm and take a breath before continuing. "Thanks for tonight. It was nice." It sounds pathetic and given a cover and a target she can do so much better, but for once her training is not much use.

Clint's hand comes up to rest against her cheek and Natasha loses track of how long they stand like this, inches apart, not speaking because there is no need.

At last Clint moves away and time resets. "Some truth for free," he offers. "I used to have a brother."

Natasha shoves her key into the lock, looking back at him over her shoulder. "I've never seen Swan Lake."

She's about to push open the door when she hears Clint's voice, so low that only she would hear it. "One of the songs on there reminds me of you."

She whips her head around only to see him already halfway down the corridor, and she watches until he turns the corner, out of sight.

It's only when she's inside her living room, leaning back against the door, that Natasha starts to laugh.