Spoilers: err, Nat's backstory? Set pre-movie.

Author's Notes: Written for my hc_bingo prompt "Phobias".

Well crap, I have a new fandom. And ship. And FEELINGS. Just what I needed... Anyway, first fic for these two I've actually posted, still working my way around their damanged little brains *g*

Title etc from Vesuvius by Sufjan Stevens

The building is on fire.

Natasha knows she needs to move. To find a way out. But the oppressive heat keeps her down, and the walls are on fire and she's frozen, coughing in the smoke, trying not to panic but all she can see is flames and red and screaming-

"NATASHA." Clint. Clint in her ear. "Nat, talk to me. What the hell's going on?"

"F-fire," she manages to stutter. "Trapped." She hears him swear something unintelligible as she hisses in breath. It's so hot, so stuffy, her eyes are hazy and she can't stop wheezing and fuck.

"Natasha." He says her name insistently. "I'm coming, okay? You're gonna be fine, but I need you to breathe."

"C-Clint." That sounded suspiciously like a sob, and his sharp intake betrays his worry. She never calls him Clint on comms. Ever. "Get me out please get me out." She thinks that's her voice, but what the hell is she saying? Why can't she just move? The Black Widow doesn't freeze. Doesn't need help. But jeezus fuck it's burning.

His breathing is labored, and she knows he's running. Fast. "Tasha, listen to me," he pants. "I'll be there in thirty seconds, tops. Just hang on."

He explodes through the wall a minute later and her first thought is I could've done that but she still can't move, can't do anything but shake on the floor. She hears him yell her name and then he's kneeling in front of her, skin already damp with sweat. We need to go, she thinks she hears him say, but her body won't obey, her brain won't stop spiraling down down down.

His arms lift her, hold her tight to his chest as they burst through the flames. She closes her eyes against the red and yellow and burning, feels the air searing her lungs and then suddenly cold. Clean air, no smoke, no flames.

She starts to sob.

Clint takes a few more steps and collapses, coughing, still cradling her against him. "I've got you," he rasps. "It's okay, Tasha, you're okay. You're okay." She clings to him, face buried into his chest, and for the moments before backup arrives she's not Black Widow, she's not even Agent Romanoff. She's just Natasha. Just a girl whose family burned, a girl named Natalia who died a long time ago.

She pulls away when the sirens start, fading in. Clint cups her face in one hand, brushing a charred strand of hair from her eyes. "I'm sorry," she chokes. "I… I just…"

"Natasha," he murmurs, cutting her off. "I get it. Relax." She nods, because he does. He knows her, better than anyone. He's the only one she'd ever let see her like this. Broken.

It's hours before they get back to their hotel room, and she's still shaking. He never leaves her side, a steady presence she's come to rely on. Far too much.

"I need to shower," she states. He nods, just staring at her with worried eyes she's come to hate.

"Okay, but if you're not out in 20 minutes I'll have to break down the door to make sure you're not drowning." The words are meant to be light, but there's a darkness in his gaze that's anything but.

She turns to water to icy cold, unable to stand any more heat. Her skin is dry and covered in ash, but at least she's not burned and-

She thunks her head into the wall to silence her brain, focuses on the water, the soap, the mini bottles of provided shampoo. Eventually she can even pretend that her shivering is from cold, and not something else.

A knock on the door startles her from a blank reverie. "Nat?" It's Clint, in that tone that tells her he's worried as hell but doesn't want to push. "Twenty-one minutes, spidergirl." That brings a smile to her face, cracked lips aching.

"Sorry, I've had to shampoo three times to get this all out. Be done in a moment."

There's a long pause, but eventually he states, "Okay." She sighs, shuts the water off and wraps a towel tightly around her. It occurs to her belatedly that her clothes are burned, but as she exits the bathroom Clint throws some sweats at her. She catches them in one hand, almost dropping the towel, and makes a face.

"Nice try, birdbrain."

He grins, shrugs. "Gotta keep you on your toes." Like the fire hadn't done that already. God, how had she let that happen? How could she have just frozen?

"Natasha." Clint's gentle voice breaks through her thoughts again. "Go change, I made you some hot chocolate. It'll get cold."

The sweats are his, far too big on her but warm and soft and somehow safe. She pulls them close around her, settles on the bed while he watches from the kitchenette. He still has that look, the one that turns her back into the scared kid he'd saved all those years ago, the one that makes her remember that he knows her. That trying this I'm fine bullshit isn't going to cut it with him, so she might as well not bother.

She drops her head to her knees, shivering violently. The cold shower had seemed like a good idea at the time, but…

"Jeezus, Nat, you're freezing." She didn't hear him approach, but then she hadn't really been listening. It's almost habit now, trusting him. Trusting each other. When one had a shit time on a case, the other assumed on-guard responsibility. Not that they could turn off all of their ingrained habits, or even most – she knows she'll still wake up, reaching for a gun, at least twice that night, but at least she'll sleep at all.

"Better than burning," she mumbles into his sweats. He flinches and she feels it from a foot away, almost apologizes but doesn't.

The hot chocolate burns her tongue. She considers smashing it to the floor, but Clint returns with a blanket to tuck around her and she doesn't. When she leans against him he hesitantly keeps his arm around her shoulders, kissing the top of her head. "You'll be okay," he murmurs. She chokes.

She means to say "Of course I will" or "I'm fine" but "Stay with me?" comes out instead. His arm tightens almost painfully.

"Of course." His voice, so soft, is one she's only ever heard him use with her. It makes her inexplicably warmer.

She finds herself reading every small twitch in his muscles as they just sit there on the bed, waiting for the inevitable. Waiting for him to pull away. Because they don't do this, they're Hawk and Widow, they don't have emotions and they sure as hell don't get scared and freeze.

Except she had.

But he hadn't blinked, and she doesn't understand it. So she's still waiting, waiting for the dress down, for him to tell her to pull it together. She needs him to tell her, because right now the only thing she wants is to sit there with his arm around her and drink fucking hot chocolate and it's not her.

She stands, drops the blanket to the floor and throws the cup in the trash. It's one of those little styrofoam ones and doesn't slam with near enough force, so she kicks the bin savagely.

"Okay, I may not be a good cook, but I'm pretty sure even I can't screw up hot chocolate." His rough drawl sends her to the edge of tears and she almost claws her eyes out. She wants to retort, to say something, anything, but her voice won't work without breaking. "Nat," he murmurs, placing his hands on her shoulders. She flinches before she can help it, can feel the hurt tremor through him. "Natasha, look at me."

"I froze," she chokes. "I fucking froze, Clint. I…"

He turns her carefully, keeping his hands on her arms. "We all have something. Something that gets us."

"No." She steps back, tries to pull away, but he won't let her go. "Let me go," she states, low and deadly and if the man had any sense at all he'd listen.

He doesn't.


"Natasha." Her name always falls from his lips like a prayer, like it's his last desperate attempt at… whatever it is he's doing. He stares at her, eyes boring into hers with horrible intensity, holding nothing back. And she just can't bring herself to turn away, not with such naked care and concern slashed across his face.

She slumps, all muscles relaxing, too worn to keep this up. He slips an arm around her waist, whispers, "Come on." Every ounce of adrenaline has drained now, and she trusts him, and she's so tired. So she lets him take her back to the bed, collapses into the pillows and buries her face. She feels like a child again, that girl named Natalia who had lived so long ago, had died so horribly. Who had watched her parents burn, watched everything she'd known and loved go up in flames. Who had found a sort of family with her savior, only to have all of that ripped away, stripped from her mind like blowing away ashes. The girl had died that day, when the Black Widow was born. Natalia was long dead.

Still, Natasha sometimes dreams of her. Of things she's not sure are memories or made up (she's never sure of that, for anything). Even after all the training and brainwashing, even when she cannot picture her life before the Red Room, the fear of fire runs deep, so deep she can forget it's there until it comes screaming out. Leaving her a child, small and vulnerable and broken.

Some days she wants to just let it consume her.

The bed shifts as Clint settles beside her, pulling a blanket over them. She realizes she's still shaking, tries not to flinch as he rubs her arm slowly. "Tasha, it's okay," he murmurs.

It's all she can do not to pull away. "It's not," she chokes. Because she's crying, because she's weak, because she can't push this away like everything else.

Clint shifts closer.

"It is," he tells her firmly. There's a whine in her throat she can't suppress. He slides his hand across her stomach, pulls her back against him gently. She should fight this, she knows she should, but he's so warm and safe and… Clint.

"I'll take the burning buildings, and you take the circuses, okay?" His lips are right by her ear, breath warm on her cold skin, and she gives a strangled laugh.

"It's not that simple," she whispers. God, if only it were.

"It is." He kisses her hair, tickling against her scalp. "We're partners, Tash. We take care of each other. It's that simple."

"No you don't…" She almost growls, fingers clenched into fists. "You don't understand."

He's starts rubbing her arm, so gently. "So tell me," he murmurs. She shouldn't. She can't. She's already so far beyond compromised, beyond the lines her mentors and captors and bosses had set for her. The lines she's kept for herself, out of habit, out of necessity for her sanity.

"Natasha," he whispers, and her sanity frays anyway.

"I froze because you were there." She mumbles the words into her pillow, so quietly she hopes he can't hear. "I knew you'd come and you're the only one I'd…" A sob bubbles in her throat, and he presses closer against her as she finishes "…I'd let see me like that."

"I know." His voice is soft and understanding and it makes her irrationally angry, because he doesn't know. She starts to sit up but he stops her, tightens his arm. "Stop, Tasha. Listen to me." She doesn't want to listen. She doesn't want to think or feel anything else, just wants to curl up in a dark hole somewhere and sleep.

He's talking to her anyway.

"You trust me," he murmurs. It's not a question, and she doesn't bother responding. Of course she trusts him, with her life, with her secrets, with her soul. If she even has one left. "And you think that's a weakness."

That makes her blink, roll onto her back. "What?"

Gray eyes study her. "You just said you only froze because you trust me." Not exactly her words, but… "You know why we work so well together?" he asks. "Because we trust each other. Because I've got your back and you've got mine. You're strong, maybe the strongest person I've met, but you're human. You can't shut your emotions of, not completely. We both know that."

She closes her eyes. Knowing he's right doesn't make it any better. "It's a liability," she mumbles. "What if it happens again?"

"Then I get you out again." There's no hesitation, no judgment. Just his hand on her cheek, gently stroking her skin. "And it's not like it was random," he murmurs. "I know why you hate fire. I'd say it's a pretty damn good reason, and if even the Red Room couldn't erase that how can you expect yourself to be over it?"

Flames flash in her mind, heavy air and her mother's screams. She'd been young, so young, but the memory still burns as though it'd happened yesterday.

"I should be stronger," she whispers.

Clint shakes his head. "Being strong, that's talking to me," he tells her firmly. "We both know it'd be easier for you to just push this down, say you're fine and run away, let it eat you up inside. This? Trusting me? That's stronger, Nat. That's more than you ever would've done a few years ago."

He's right. She knows he's right, as much as it scares her to admit. She'd never thought she'd trust anyone the way she does with Clint. Never thought she'd tell anyone about her past, or let him soothe her back to sleep after one of her nightmares.

She never thought she'd let him see her broken. But here they were.

She hesitantly shifts her head onto his shoulder, lets him wrap an arm firmly around her and pull her flush against him. "You would've gotten out," he murmurs. "You would've picked yourself up eventually, your survival instincts are too strong to let you die there." She flinches, a little whimper escaping. "But that doesn't mean you should have to. I'd much rather pull you from a burning building than watch you disappear in your head, okay?"

She doesn't deserve him. She doesn't deserve someone so kind and understanding and annoyingly persistent. But hell, if he's willing to put up with her… "Let's not make it a habit, alright?" she mumbles into his chest. Feels him smile into her hair as he tugs the blanket higher over them, rubbing her still-cold skin.

"Only if you promise to refuse all circus jobs," he states, half-light.

She blinks sleepily, every ounce of adrenaline and anger and fear gone. "Never liked clowns anyway. Too many places in those baggy suits to hide weapons."

Clint laughs, fingers combing her hair. "You have no idea." The words are meant to be light, but there's a darkness to them that snaps her momentary ease and she shudders. "Just rest," he soothes. "I've got you tonight, okay?" I'll keep you safe. I'll keep watch.

She should protest. She should pull away.

Instead she shifts closer. She's just too damned exhausted to do anything else, and a small piece of her admits she doesn't want to wake out of her inevitable nightmares alone.

"Wake me up if any bad guys show up," she mumbles, eyes already closed. He snorts softly, fingers still playing with her long hair.

"What, and let you have all the fun?" She tries to retort but her voice just won't work, and her last thought before she crashes into sleep is how much she hates letting him get the last word.

She supposes she can let it slip, just this once.

the panic inside
the murdering ghost
that you cannot ignore

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