This one veers toward Bucky/Natasha at the beginning, but it is most assuredly a Clint/Natasha fic.

Thanks, as ever, to the gorgeous EuphoricSound and the amazing eiluned for the beta, as well as elvestinkle for the male perspective. Also, more thanks to all the lovely people who've been reviewing and favoriting and following my other stuff - love you guys!

A fill for the cottoncandy-bingo prompt "Contrast/Opposites"

If she is fire, then he is the wick, caught up by her, enflamed by her, scorched and burned and branded. He has been indelibly changed by her, made anew, into something better, braver, and he would not change that for anything.

So even though it has been rough between them, the interactions rife with unevenness and uncertainty where none existed before, he does not regret the fact of their relationship, whatever label one might affix to it. Perhaps he simply did not understand the bounds before, perhaps he did not understand what he meant to her because he was so entranced by her brightness.

For someone who purports to see better from a distance, Clint has always had an awful lot of trouble putting space between him and Natasha. Maybe, he's thought on occasion, he doesn't want the distance, maybe he doesn't want to see her more clearly because he's afraid of what he would find. Maybe, he thinks, he already knows what he would find.

He observed her from far off once, long ago, before SHIELD, before the Avengers Initiative, before the whole mess with the ex-Soviet spy with the metal arm, and he knew her then, understood her trials and her triumphs, appreciated who she was and what she wanted from life.

Now, watching her as she works out on the other side of the gym, watching her as she lands blows on the body of her old friend (lover? He doesn't know and she hasn't told him), he sees unsettled things creeping in around her edges. She feints to the left, ducks a vicious punch aimed at her head, and he wonders if this is what the other agents saw when they watched the two of them fight, if it looked as much like a mating ritual when he fought with her in the SHIELD facility on those idyllic days long past when they were nothing more than spies.

He picks up his pace on the treadmill as they grapple, and he hopes to hell he can outrun the nearly overwhelming feeling that's growing in his gut, a feeling that he dares not name because she is not his, has never been his, and more and more it looks like she never will be.

Even if he has been hers from the moment he laid eyes on her.

She throws Barnes, toppling his larger body over with the strength of her legs, and he knows what's going on in the Winter Soldier's mind because he's been there a thousand times himself.

He runs faster still.

Barnes flips Natasha, getting the better of her where Clint has never been able to, but then he doesn't quite have the length of experience Barnes has, so maybe he's bothered more by the way Barnes chuckles down at her, the way he teases her, than he is by the idea that he's being replaced and it's happening right in front of his eyes.

When Barnes leans in, moves his face closer to hers, Clint has had enough. He leaves, trying not to feel like a petulant child or a kicked puppy (except that he's not an idiot and can recognize that what he's feeling is betrayal).

She doesn't come after him, doesn't chase him down like they're players in some inane romantic comedy because that isn't them, never was them, never will be them. She doesn't follow him back to his room and slip behind him into the shower. She doesn't tail him to the bar two blocks down where he goes to drink until he can forget the way his name sounds on her lips. Nor does she wait in his room for him to come home, a surprise when he opens the door.

Instead, she's in his kitchen holding out a mug of coffee when he stumbles out of bed the next morning. He frowns at her, unable to figure out her motivations when he's got a raging headache and a broken heart to boot, so he just takes the coffee and tries not to overanalyze.

"Good morning," she says when he's moved on to the toast she made him, and he can't help but notice what she's wearing. Rather, what she isn't wearing - she's barefoot in her yoga pants and tank top, her hair looking for all the world like she was recently asleep (did she sleep here?), and good lord, she definitely isn't wearing a bra.

He focuses on the piercing pain in his skull to keep himself from noticing that too closely.

"Hey," he attempts to say by way of greeting, but it comes out like a grunt. She knows him well enough to interpret.

She stares at him while he chews, and her gaze should feel heavy and uncomfortable except that he isn't really up for that kind of shit right now. He waits her out. They were partners first, real friends before all the messy emotional shit got in the way, so he knows that she will speak eventually, that she will lose her patience and spill the secret of her presence in his kitchen at 10am on a Sunday.

She does.

"You feeling okay?" she asks, obviously concerned. At least that much hasn't changed.

He shrugs and hunkers over his coffee. "Hungover, but you knew that."

She snickers. "I can smell that much," she teases, and for a moment it's almost like it always is between them, easy and painless and reassuring. Her presence is actually kind of soothing for a long moment, or it would be, except for the nagging feeling in the back of his mind, the little voice telling him that things have changed even though she apparently hasn't noticed. She's too smart for that, though, far too observant, and she must see something of his thoughts in his expression because she sobers almost immediately and says, "But no, that's not what I meant." She doesn't add, "and you know it," for which he is grateful. She's going to allow him to retain some modicum of his dignity, at least.

He sighs and looks up at her. "I've had kind of a rough week." He has to ignore the twinge of longing that threads through his traitorous heart when she smiles comfortingly at him, because he knows better and he's not a teenager.

"I was worried when you disappeared on me," she says. Then she puts her hand on his and he fights the dueling urges to fling her aside and to pull her into his arms. Neither will accomplish anything.

"Needed a drink," he says.

Even now, when he's nauseated and the piece of toast is starting to feel like his single greatest mistake, even as he's fighting the urge to curl up in bed with a trashcan, he can't stop looking at her, can't stop the gravity that she exudes, pulling him closer. He should get up, walk away, tell her he's just stressed from work and let it stand at that because she'll let him get away with that; she always has.

Except this time she doesn't.

"Barnes is just a friend, Clint," she says, and his world stops.

He looks at her, can see the truth of it in her eyes, but he still doesn't believe her because she confuses him, makes him idiotic and sloppy. He doesn't have distance from this situation, something he definitely had yesterday at the gym.

Because he can taste the dregs of last night's rum in his exhale, he says, "Didn't look that way."

She pauses, blinks like she's debating something, and then she breaks the silence with, "The only reason I'm not smacking you right now is because I think it might make you throw up on me."

His body chooses that moment to fully betray him, and he races for the sink.

"Jesus, Clint, how much did you drink?" she asks when he's wiped his mouth off and rinsed his hands.


For what, he doesn't say, but then, he doesn't have to.

She takes him by the hand, pulls him after her (not without snatching up a garbage can on the way, he notes), and he finds himself seated on his couch in the living room. She sits beside him, not touching, but close enough that he can feel the heat of her body radiating into him. She definitely spent the night here, the telltale signs writ large all over the room. Her shoes are on the floor next to the couch, her socks tucked neatly inside. The cushions are askew, and the spare blanket he keeps in the closet is rumpled underneath them.

"You slept here?" he asks because he doesn't know what else to say. He wonders if she was here last night when he returned, fumbling with the lock and tripping over his boots as he toed them off inside the door. He wonders if she heard him curse as he careened into his lone bookshelf, the one piled with a few dozen paperbacks he'd always intended to read.

"Told you I was worried," she replies. "You're a fucking idiot, you know."

He leans back instead of replying, rests his head on the cushions behind him, and his world spins.

Natasha sighs, slips her hand into his and he's too weak to resist her, too weak to save himself from the inevitable.

"I am going to tell you a story, and you are going to listen," she starts, and he rolls his head to face her. "I'm only going to tell you this once, mind you, so listen well."

He isn't sure what's going on anymore, but his stomach is starting to settle and he couldn't talk even if he wanted to, so he lets her words wash over him.

"A long time ago, there was a little girl who'd lost her parents in a fire and found herself alone in the world," she begins, and he knows this story. Not because he's read it or because she's told him before (he has and she did), but because it's his story, too.

"She ended up with a bunch of scientists and soldiers, people working together to resurrect a memory that never existed in the first place, and they turned her into something horrible."

She looks so sad at that, so very bereft, that it takes him a moment to realize that she's letting him see this, that she's not just telling him this story, she's showing it to him. He grips her hand in his then, squeezes her fingers gently. She squeezes back.

"She trained with other girls, other orphans, like her, and she beat them all, one by one, until she was the last one standing. Then, she was alone again, but this time she was glad for it. It made her feel strong and unconquerable.

"One day, her handlers gave her a partner, except he wasn't really a partner, but more like a . . ." She shakes her head, as if she's trying to dislodge a thought. "More like a bright light, a shining star in the night, someone who taught her how to be a better soldier, a better spy."

She levels her gaze at Clint. "But there was never a choice in the matter. She was given orders to follow him and she did. And when he got tired of working for their bosses, he left her alone again. Didn't tell her anything, just left."

He can feel the force of her sadness, the pain that eats at her even now, can see it in the way she closes her eyes briefly to regain her voice. He knows that pain, too, knows what it's like to put all your faith in someone else only to have them abandon you, knows it because it's happened to him with every person he's ever cared about. It's all he expects, now.

"Eventually, she decided to leave, too," she continues. "She saw her chance to cut and run, so she did. She left the closest thing she had to a home and started working for herself, on her own terms.

"But then she got sloppy. Maybe because she was hurt or maybe because she was just young and stupid and in charge of her own life for the first time, but she didn't notice she was being followed until she had an arrow at her throat."

She's never admitted that before, has always implied the opposite, so he knows that what she's about to say is important.

"This guy, the one who'd tracked her down, the one who had her pinned down, well, he could have killed her, right? But he didn't. Instead, he put down his weapon and asked her to join his little club. He looked her in the eye and held out his hand and asked her if she wanted to make the world a better place."

Natasha shifts, draws closer to him, pulls her hand out of his grasp and touches it to his cheek, turns his face until she's got his full attention.

"This guy, this idiot, this scarred, old man with more heart than brains faced me down and offered me a choice," she says, and it doesn't escape his notice that she's changed subjects, that she's dropped all pretense. "Me, Natalia Romanova, the Black Widow, a girl who'd killed hundreds without remorse. This crazy American, he knew all of that, but he still offered me a choice without any strings attached, and he meantit."

"Nat . . ." he tries, but she presses her finger to his lips.

"I will always choose you," she says quietly, and the words hang between them, sucking all the air out of the room. He thinks he might throw up again, but for very different reasons than before.

She leans in, close enough that he can feel her breath on his face, close enough that he can see her pores.

She stops.

"But if you want me to kiss you, you're going to have to brush your teeth first."