AUTHOR'S NOTE: The other day, I told a fellow FF writer that I don't really do pure "relationship" stories. Well, guess what? I lied. Okay, it was mostly true when I said it, but the moment I say I don't (or can't) write something, my muse drags me off in precisely that direction.

This was written for the be_compromised "Secret Santa." I tragically missed the actual exchange having joined the community two days too late, but was encouraged to leave a prezzie "under the tree." So that's what this is - seasonally appropriate, if not exactly holiday-themed.

The story fits within my personal headcanon/timeline for these characters, although you have to jam the pieces in a bit to make the puzzle fit. Or else look at each story like a colourful dot on a Seurat-like canvas - if you step back, a picture will (hopefully) emerge. And talk about canvas - the new icon is by the ever-generous Inkvoices.

Dedicated to one of the first people to make me feel welcome when I stumbled into this fandom. For Shenshen 1977 - Frohe Weihnachten, meine Freundin.


Warmth

By Alpha Flyer


Clint

Astana means "capital" in Kazakh. That kinda says it all, as far as Clint Barton is concerned.

The place has about as much charm as the construction site for a suburban shopping mall in a North American prairie town, but with less infrastructure and higher unemployment. And then there's that whole post-Soviet charm thing, that je ne sais quoi that clings to totalitarian governance: grandiose monuments in the so-called city centre; marble hotels that no one ever stays in (because really, why would you, unless you were into oil and gas and needed to bribe somebody?). Add a hinterland made up of featureless steppe, and a tourist magnet it ain't.

Oh, and the other thing? Together with Ulaan Baatar and Ottawa, Astana is in the top three of the world's coldest capitals, a fact that has been brought home to Hawkeye and the Black Widow with inexorable brutality in the last twenty-four hours. The big difference between Ottawa and Astana - well, one of them - is that Canadians believe in central heating.

Clint finds that the cold has really gotten to him for some reason, his body as well as his mind. With arctic winds whistling unobstructed across the aforementioned steppe and through the Albert-Speer-inspired wide boulevards, his fingerless gloves just weren't up to the job. For the first time since his apprenticeship as an archer he'd almost missed. Luckily, the corrupt former Soviet apparatchik-turned-mobster, whom Natasha had laid out for him with a finely-honed seduction act, had moved a fraction at just the right time, and the arrow had embedded itself in his jugular anyway. But that had been a close thing, more luck than skill, and Clint knows it; it's not a good feeling.

He doesn't have much that he can claim as his own, not much in which he can take pride, and professional competence is Number One on his list. So he's in a pretty shitty mood to begin with, and the howling winds and two feet of snow (so far) outside aren't helping. Came as a surprise, that front coming down from Siberia; obviously, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s logistics officers and CNN are equally incompetent at predicting the weather.

To add insult to injury, he and Natasha had to leave their luggage behind at the hotel. There's an honest-to-goodness policy against staying in a Five-Star hotel if you've just killed its owner (Natasha had discovered that bit during her soirée with the mark, three cheers for meaningful intel), so now they're stuck in the ass end of "Capital" - what's Kazakh for From Frozen Fucking Hell? - waiting in a so-called safe house for exfil.

Of course the chopper is going to be twelve hours late on account of a blizzard in Ekaterinburg; no one can fly through this white shit and expect it to get there. Oh, and the best part?The non-descript one-bedroom – no, the one-single-fucking-bed - place they're stuck in has no heat; probably someone forgot to pay the landlord whatever bribe would get him to turn it on. The whole mission has basically been one epic S.H.I.E.L.D. clusterfuck, one of those times when Clint wishes he were still self-employed and didn't have to depend on anyone else for his well-being.

But the single worst thing? Something about the place, something about that goddamn cold, has thrown his partner completely out of whack. The assignment itself, getting close to the mark and disposing of him, had been a relative cakewalk and not the kind of dubious thing that requires major internal realignment, but she's been oddly subdued.

Clint stops pacing the apartment and ventures a look at her through eyelashes that feel like they're about to be encrusted in ice. Natasha, of course, is busy pretending that she isn't freezing to death – doing that "I'm Russian and of course I'm okay with the cold" thing of hers that hasn't fooled him once in the almost two years they've been partnered. Why she bothers he's not sure; he can see her shivering from across the room, trying to read a book, still wearing that flimsy Seductress Dress she wore to draw Comrade Apparatchik into her web.

It looks gorgeous, that dress, exposing her straight, strong shoulders and the swell of her … Uh, never mind, Barton. For fuck's sake, don't even go there. Don't ever go there. How do you spell p-a-r-t-n-e-r?

White clouds puff up every time she takes a breath, despite the extra jacket he had practically forced on her. She probably only let him do it because her nerves were so frozen, she couldn't feel him draping it over her shoulders. And she looks wretched. Finally, he can't stand it anymore.

"Go get inside that bed, Romanoff," he says. "I can hear your teeth rattling from over here. It doesn't have much in the way of covers, but maybe it'll keep you alive till we hear from Coulson."

She glares at him with a baleful eye, drawing his jacket tighter around herself. Okay, at least she knows that's there, doesn't pretend it isn't. Progress.

"And you? Planning on doing your White Knight shtick and freezing to death in that chair, Barton?"

It's a bit of a game between them, this I'm-tougher-than-you thing they've had going ever since Fury paired them up. It includes everything from sparring sessions to number of kills per op, who can out-smartmouth the other in front of Coulson, and now - obviously – the ability to withstand freezing temperatures. So she has some fight in her left. Good.

But still. He shrugs, glares at her.

"I have more body mass than you. I have my gloves. I'll be fine. Take the goddamn bed."

…..

Natasha

If you ask Natasha Romanoff why she describes herself as "I'm Russian – or was" whenever people ask about her accent, you'll get a variety of answers, depending on who you are and how much she trusts you. They're all true, but there's one that she's only ever admitted to Phil Coulson.

Natasha hates winter. Just … hates it. Viscerally, with every fibre of her being.

When Coulson had asked, she'd told him that in her line of work, where the working uniform is a low-cut dress or a skin-tight cat suit and you have a body fat of less than fifteen percent, an ambient temperature of minus anything just isn't something you can work with. But because in her line of work it also doesn't pay to admit weaknesses, she sits there now, pretending she's not shivering.

Hell, who is she kidding? Clint never misses a thing and can probably hear her chair rattling on the wooden floor as she tries to draw whatever warmth she can from the paper of that useless paperback in her hand, wondering how long it might burn.

"Go get inside that bed, Romanoff," he says.

Two years into their partnership, and Clint Barton still hasn't figured out that the Black Widow doesn't need coddling, comforting, or compassion. Or that she doesn't need a bloody Protector. The bullet he took that was meant for her in Lusaka, the time he got three ribs and his jaw broken for disrupting an interrogation that she was perfectly in control of … And now this? First, he'd given her his jacket – okay, fine, her shoulders were bare and he still has his flannel shirt, so that made some sense, in a proto-communist-equitable-distribution-of-wealth kind of way - but now he wants her to take the only bed and blanket?

Who the hell does Hawkeye think he is? Or she, for that matter?

"I have more body mass than you. I'll be fine. Take the goddamn bed."

Body mass. She glares at him. What matters to keeping warm is body fat. Which neither of them possesses in spades. She's seen him with his shirt off many times during training, and there just isn't any extra fat there. All there is, are well-developed pecs, straight shoulders, extremely firm abs and those arms …

о дерьмо … Not a constructive line of thought, Romanoff.

Still. There's no harm in looking, is there? Besides, she's caught Hill staring. Maria Bloody Hill. Staring. At her partner. Several times ...

Damn, the cold is getting to her brain, scrambling things. She can't think clearly. Maybe he's right. Better she get in the bed than having it just sit there empty; he sure as hell won't use it while she's sitting in the chair, that she knows. Use all available resources to the benefit of the operation. Right.

"F-f-fine. I'll take the g-g-goddamn bed. For now. But we t-t-take turns." Shit. Did she just stammer?

She throws him her book – his own are in the lost suitcase, something he's going to complain about for weeks – and crawls under what passes for a cover. At least the bed isn't hard. (Natasha hates hard beds. Beds like … floors.) What it is, though, is … bloody cold. Problem with the states of the former Soviet Union, they've collectively never discovered electric blankets.

"This isn't h-h-helping, Barton."

Damn. That sounded … pitiful. But by now her shoulders are shaking so badly, there's no way he isn't noticing.

"Give it a minute, Romanoff. Okay, five minutes. Body heat; textile traps air; feeds it back to body. Repeat. Warmth will happen. Laws of physics. Trust me."

The laws of physics, it appears, do not apply to Natasha Romanoff. Or else that whole body heat-feedback thing doesn't apply to sheets Made In Uzbekistan. Fifteen minutes on she's still shivering, trying to pull the flimsy sheet over her legs, which presently seem to be terminating in icicles.

Meanwhile, Clint has taken over the chair she has vacated, being very careful to arrange himself precisely in the centre of her warm – warmish – spot, and makes a show of flipping through her abandoned book. The sight of Hawkeye reading The Shopaholic's Revenge momentarily cuts through her funk; she probably should take a picture to send to Coulson for future blackmail purposes. Unfortunately, her smartphone is in her purse; it might as well be on the other side of a glacier. So instead she watches him as he leans back in the chair, trying valiantly to generate some of his vaunted textile body heat feedback from the garish, 1970s-green-plaid upholstery.

She can practically hear the pages in the book chafing against each other, his hands are shaking so badly - despite his beloved gloves. How he managed to land that arrow in Comrade Antonin Murmeyedev's neck she will never know.

Finally, he's had enough.

"This book sucks, Romanoff. I wonder how long it'll burn?"

Natasha has no idea whether it's cold enough in this freezing shithole of an apartment to actually cause fatal hypothermia, but the sight of her tough-as-nails partner's shoulders shaking almost as much as her own is unnerving, his (and her) pride be damned.

It's bloody obvious what they should be doing; every survival guide on the planet agrees on this.

"B-b-body heat."

"Ummm … what?"

"Your textile heat feedback theory is t-t-total crap, Barton, unless there's actually a warm body involved to begin with. S-s-so don't you just sit in that bloody chair until you turn into an ice cube. Get in here, under the cover with me. We n-n-need to share body heat."

His eyes fly up to her face and for a moment she thinks she can see something like panic in them. His mouth opens, but no sound comes out. Even though she is marginally interested in what kind of an inventive excuse he might come up with to say 'no', having made up her mind she is far more interested in whatever warmth his compact body might provide.

"Get in the goddamn bed, Barton."

…..

Clint

The bed is one of those things they call twin sized, but if there are any twins alive that could comfortably sleep in one of these suckers, Clint has yet to meet them. Maybe if they're under the age of five?

It takes them a while to get comfortable since the only way they can both fit into this thing at the same time is either by spooning, which leaves one of them with their back exposed, or him lying on his back with his arm around her shoulders and her kind of snuggled into him.

Snuggled. The Black Widow is snuggled into him.

So yeah, he's worried about her, but the more Clint repeats that word (snuggled. snuggled. snuggled) in his mind, the more incongruous and funny it gets, and his shoulders start to shake with something other than the cold. Maybe he's getting just a tad edgy himself? Borderline hysterical?

Eventually she gets annoyed with the vibrations.

"Are you laughing at something, Barton? What's so goddamn funny? Care to share the joke?"

Oh, hell.

"Emmm … just thinking … if this was Evans and Miyazaki…"

Two of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s most notorious testosterone-laden stallions - Clint congratulates himself for the smart recovery, even as Natasha valiantly picks up the game.

"Or Fury and Hill?"

"If it was Fury and Hill, you could bet the next time someone has to use a safe house in one of the fucking 'Stans, it'll have two beds."

"And central heating."

"And a hot, pulsating shower."

"Huh?"

"Our dear Maria likes her … water pressure a certain way. Just … so."

Natasha turns in his arms and stares at him, mouth open, her slightly horrified fascination with this distracting piece of intelligence a visible "o" cloud between them.

"You're kidding me."

"Wish I was."

"How the hell would you know something like that? About Hill of all people?"

It's his turn to look at her in mock disbelief. Her face is inches away from his now – if he inhales, it will be the same puff of white that just left her mouth - and he forces himself not to let his eyes drift down to her lips.

"We work for a fucking spy agency, Romanoff. There are no secrets."

She lets her head sink back down and mulls that over for a while - or maybe she is thinking about her own shower habits, and who might have taken note of them in the gym. Who knows. The thing he does know, is that his shoulder, the one on which her head is now resting. is warming up a bit.

Thank you, Maria Hill.

Natasha moves, rubbing her feet together, trying to create some friction that would allow her to feel them again (she did take off that pair of highly impractical Jimmy Choos before crawling into the bed).

"Cold toes?" Clint asks softly, hoping she won't spit at him.

Natasha must be beyond caring about admitting weakness at this point, though; she simply nods.

"Stick them between my legs," he offers.

Her body stiffens a little in hesitation, before she lets out a small "Okay…," the speed of which Clint chalks up as a victory of epic proportions. Natasha wiggles herself into a position where she can insert her feet in between the legs he is opening up for her, and he experiences a fleeting moment of regret at his own - what do you call it? chivalry? - when two hunks of ice that he can feel biting through the fabric of his jeans touch his calves.

"Holy shit," he mutters and involuntarily tightens his arms around Natasha's shoulders, splaying his gloved fingers over her arms for maximum coverage. "You sure you still have any blood circulating in there, Romanoff? Anywhere?"

His answer is a bed-shaking shiver. He's beginning to seriously worry about her; he's never seen her quite so passive, so unwilling to bite back when he needles her. The cold seems to be getting to more than just her circulation.

"That's it, Natasha. I'll tell Fury next time he sends us to Central fucking Asia in November, he better sic you on a mark with a fur fetish."

"Hear, hear," she muffles into his shoulder. The fact that she agrees with him doesn't make him feel any better; in fact, if anything, he's more concerned than before.

They stay silent for a while; Clint closes his eyes and tries to sleep, but nothing is happening. Will happen. He's the kind of guy who can fall asleep practically on command, catnap for ten minutes and be loaded for bear, but right now, every one of his senses is on full alert, unwilling to shut down. And it's not an adrenaline hangover from the mission or even being pissed off at his own near-miss.

So what is it then? Time for strategic evaluation. Could it be about having the most beautiful woman he's ever seen in bed beside him?

No. Absolutely not. Clint Barton is a professional, this is his partner, and that's the end of that. Thought dismissed.

Must be the cold. Yeah, that's it. Just the fucking cold.

But there is something … definitely disconcerting about feeling his … partner'ssoft and fragrant hair under his chin and her curled fingers on his chest, trying to draw some warmth from his shirt. His caveman instincts are definitely on high alert – both the He-Man-Protector version (the one Natasha regularly yells at him for) and the one that just wants to …

No. Repeat. Professional, Barton. P-r-o-f-e-s-s-i-o-n-a-l.

Not working, exactly, is it. Clint silently bets that Evans and Miyazaki never had that particular problem. Fuck.

"Clint?"

"Mmh?" He's not being very articulate, but it's the best he can manage right now, clenching his jaw the way he is, trying to keep his heartbeat steady.

"You still awake?"

"Umm … yes. What gave it away? The fact that I answered the first time?"

She whacks him in the arm. Finally, a Widow-worthy response. That he can live with.

"I can't sleep."

No shit. Clint stares at the ceiling, trying not to focus on his partner's breath even as it warms his neck.

"Me neither." May as well stick with the truth.

She gives a monumental shiver, and with a determined move he decides to use both hands – gloves and all – to rub her arms through the jacket she is wearing. Friction is good, right?

"Have you ever been th-this cold before?"

Truth be told, he isn't actually that cold anymore, but that's not something he feels like admitting right now. The best he can do is give her an honest answer.

"Been colder than this, at least once."

"Really? When? That time in Bishkek?"

"No, before I met you. Way before."

She is meant to tell by the tone of his voice that he's not keen on sharing details. Because there are two kinds of cold, he knows. And the time he's thinking of, sure it was winter and minus-fucking-double-digits, but he'd probably have been cold even if someone had held his feet to a fire. (Which, figuratively speaking, someone did.) And he's not sure that she really wants to hear that kind of thing. Not from him, anyway. She's feeling lousy enough as it is.

"Tell me." Her voice is a whisper. She suspects.

"I haven't …"

No, it's not a story he's ever told anyone. Not something he ever talks about, even in the abstract. But he sure as hell needs to think about something other than the woman in his arms right now, and she's his partner. He trusts her. She needs to know where his weak spots are.

Plus, maybe - just maybe - whatever has gotten her into that mental deep-freeze she seems to be in, could be gotten out of her if he gives her something of his own.

So, for her.

Bit by bit, in snatches and in flatly spoken words and long silences, he lets her have a glimpse of … before.

The day – about a week after Christmas – when his father, drunk as usual, wrapped the family pick-up around a tree during an argument with his mother. Two lives for the price of one, gone like that on a patch of Iowa ice.

He lets her see the decrepit house, kept clean against the odds by his mother. His and his brother's breath hanging in the bone-chilling cold, bourbon being more important to his father than paying the heating bills. (And yes, that's the reason Clint won't go near that stuff, or will ever get actually drunk).

And there are the two boys, brothers shivering in too-thin clothes, waiting for their mother to come home and cook them dinner. But she doesn't come, will never come, and they spend a cold night alone until the morning when a police officer arrives, together with a social worker who's wearing a concerned expression on a face that has seen too much already.

"That was the coldest bloody day of my life, bar none," Clint says, briefly burying his face in the flame of red hair that spills over his chest.

"Start of a right glorious fucking ice age, that was."

…..

Natasha

Her right hand is partly wedged underneath his back, hoping for a thaw that won't come, but her left lies curled on his chest and now it's her turn to open it, to cover a bit more of him with herself. What he has just given her – his memories, his pain and his trust – has left her without words.

For a while, they lie there in silence; she's still shivering but feels a little more … contained somehow, a little less splintered, and she wonders whether he does too. She allows herself to drift a bit, hoping that sleep might find her despite the ongoing chill.

His voice does instead.

"How about you?"

He sounds hoarse, a little ragged after the memories he just shaped for her.

"What about me?"

"Coldest you've ever been."

She stills, and her breathing speeds up. She doesn't … No.

No, she can't ...

But then the images flicker to life, unlocked and sharpened by the merciless cold, and she remembers that this is Clint, her partner, and what he has just given her. She owes him this much – maybe more – and eventually the words find her.

The first winter in the Red Room. A dozen girls, naked, shivering on the stone floor. Some of them bleeding. Not her, at least not much. She had learned too much already and some of the wounds of the others were there because of her; the knowledge adds to the chill.

Memories of a summer's day, retreating in the face of that ever-present cold. Voices like shards of ice, taking those last golden sparks from her mind without mercy.

Her fingers, turning blue as she is being unmade. Again.

And again.

For a moment she is lost, but then there's a slow change in the hand that has been holding her arm; his thumb traces small circles on her arm, a reminder that they are here, that this is now. In his breath she hears an unspoken sound of comfort (shhh, Tasha …) and a different silence finds her in the rhythm of that caress, less broken by her shivers than it was.

Feeling Clint's jacket and his arms around her shoulders, watching the soft clouds of their mingled exhalations dissipate in the air, it dawns on Natasha just how close she has allowed her partner to come, just how much of him she has allowed to surround her.

And how little that disturbs her. And how much more she wants of him.

For a moment, his scent – a bit of leather from his jacket, a remnant of aftershave, something else that she has learned to recognize as pure Clint – overwhelms her senses. And before she knows it, she finds herself grazing his neck with her lips, running a warm trail up and down those few centimetres of his skin that are exposed. She tells herself that it's a thank you.

He stills under her touch, his thumb ceasing its movement as he takes a sudden ragged breath. But it isn't until she succumbs to the urge to taste his skin with the tip of her tongue that he truly responds – suddenly flipping himself on his side, facing her as he grips her shoulder.

"Tasha …" he grates, his eyes searching hers, holding them with an intensity that burns straight through her. She is surprised at the different colours in his irises from this close, the unexpected flecks of gold among the green, grey and blue; things she never noticed before.

"Don't start anything you're not prepared to see through."

For a moment his voice threatens to cut through whatever seems to have taken over her rational mind, but then she finds that all she can do is open her mouth to his in invitation.

He takes it.

His kiss is raw, deep and honest and leaves nothing to the imagination. He uses his mouth like he does his bow, all focus and strength, sure of his aim; she can't help but respond in kind, rising to his challenge.

Her body fills with liquid fire as soon as their tongues touch; she utters an involuntary moan when his still-gloved left hand slips under her jacket and the bare tips of his fingers start gliding across her back. She can feel him smile into her mouth in response before his lips begin to trail down her neck to her collarbone; her skin flushes with sudden warmth.

Has someone finally turned on the heat?

Emboldened by the vanishing chill her fingers – still shaking a little, but perhaps for different reasons – start to work on the buttons of his shirt. Natasha can feel his heartbeat speed up under her hands, even as her own breath is starting to come more rapidly now.

Maybe that is why she doesn't realize until after the third time that the ringing in her ears comes from Clint's smartphone.

Coulson.

Clint mutters a curse under his breath but he's a professional and so he unfolds himself from around her body and gets up, careful to replace the blanket. Instinctively Natasha slides over into the warm spot he has left, and follows him with her eyes as he grabs his phone from the chair.

The S.H.I.E.L.D. chopper had managed to get out of Ekaterinburg three hours ahead of the original estimate, and is now about forty-five minutes out. There's another storm cell brewing though, so if they want to leave this fucking burg, Agents Barton and Romanoff better get into that cheap-shit rented Lada of theirs and haul ass out to the airport.

Well, Coulson being Coulson, he probably didn't exactly put it that way, but Clint being Clint, that's what he heard and passes on to Natasha. There are several layers of regret in his voice that she can't possibly fathom; his eyes linger on her face for quite a while after he's finished, their expression unreadable.

But then he turns and silently closes the buttons on his shirt, before stepping into his shoes and carrying out a routine scan of the apartment to make sure nothing gets left behind. Natasha slips the covers off her shoulder and goes to retrieve her Glocks from the nightstand. Someone else will look after fingerprints, and make the bed.

…..

It will take one year, six months and seventeen days before they will finish what they began this night - one year, six months, seventeen days and the ice-cold touch of a Northern god.

But in the meantime, they have shed all sense of personal space when it comes to one another. Natasha shows up unannounced in Clint's apartment on Christmas Eve, with two bottles of wine and a bunch of movies (luckily the takeout downstairs is open 365 days a year), although she spends the night on his couch. Neither will ever hesitate again to find the other's touch, or to give it – whether it's to provide comfort, dress a wound or share a joke. It becomes a thing they do, and people take notice.

Not surprisingly, Coulson is the first to see it, right there on the chopper, when Natasha leans into her partner and Clint puts his arm around her. Her head falls on his shoulder as sleep finally finds them.

Phil doesn't say anything of course, but his report does make a point of mentioning the change in the weather.