It was like watching her through his scope, he thought, as he watched her now. That's a wise observation on his part, as he knows that she's no less dangerous now, watching him from his own level, less than a metre away from him as she perched beside him on the roof. Even though he could only see her from the corner of his eye, a flash of red in his vision, that burning flame of hair that had so often been his only sight in the darkness of his scope, it was all he needed to see to judge her mood. A slightly elevated heartbeat, racing pulse, but her breathing was even and he could tell she was focusing hard on keeping that rate steady. She was trying too hard to appear calm when inside a storm raged inside her.
He loved that storm, he wouldn't deny that. She had a way about her when it came to her anger and pain that drew him in. From the day he'd lowered his arrow from the curve of her throat - "I see better from a distance," he'd told Coulson, "she was too close" - he'd been drawn to the hurricane of emotions that she hid to everyone but him. He'd seen the subtleties of her anger that would have a lesser person screaming their frustrations to the sky, and instead she'd settle for smaller display of emotion - smaller to her, screaming to him. He knew her screams were hidden in the bite of her lip until it bled, or digging her fingernails into her palms until they were gathered in a small bathroom with her palms beneath the stream of water.
She had a storm in her eyes now. He could sense the clouds behind her green eyes building with the thunder of her wit, but the lighting didn't strike in it's usual ways. Her fists weren't clenched, her lip didn't suffer the grip of her teeth, there was no frustrated tug on her hair. Instead she was still, and her eyes looked out to the sky that was equally as raging as her gaze.
"Is it true?"
He lowered his head a little, directing his stare from the lower buildings opposite Stark Tower to where his feet hung off the side of the building, his forehead resting on the bar that he rested his weight on. He wondered briefly whether he'd have tumbled forwards from sheer pressure on his mind if the bar wasn't there, but he didn't allow himself to linger on that thought - the bar was there, and he didn't fall.
When he didn't answer, she leaned her arms on the same bar. "Were you going to say goodbye?"
"Does this count?" he asked her, a little bitterly.
She shot her head to the side, facing him with that internal storm. He'd never liked thunderstorms, not as a child when the lightning strikes would send him hiding under his blankets, and not now as a grown man when the bright flashes came instead from the eyes of his partner. "You're an asshole when you want to be, you know that?"
He'd heard that from her before - but this was the first time it had cut him to the core. "You think you can change my mind by calling me an asshole?" he shot back at her.
She replied with a shrug, turning back to the scenery of a shattered town. "I thought a reality check might be better than hitting you round the head this time."
"I'm not compromised this time," he told her.
"Aren't you?" she challenged him.
"I'm not staying, Tasha," he said firmly. "I don't belong here."
"We don't belong anywhere," she replied quickly. "We go where the job takes us."
"The job doesn't take us here," he said, gesturing to the monolithic structure of Stark Tower that loomed below them. "I don't belong here," he repeated, carefully pronouncing each word slower this time, as though she couldn't understand it in the multiple languages she spoke - he'd never asked her exactly how many, did that make him a bad partner?
"We're a team, Barton, this isn't just about you," she shot out, her words biting and full of frustration.
"Why the hell not?" he cried out, his voice rising in tone until he was shouting over her words. "I go where the job takes me. The job did not send me here. SHIELD didn't send us to Stark's weekend tribute to himself and tell us to set up a base camp."
"Then why did you come here in the first place?" she challenged him.
She had a good question there, and he'd been up here thinking about that himself. Why had he come? When he was feeling the traces of Loki's control leaving him, and Captain damn America was in the room asking who could fly a jet, it was all so easy to bring himself into a fight that before he would have let another agent fight. There were SHIELD agents more suited to battlefields, and though he'd seen his share of war zones he preferred to be further back. He may work with a bow but his choice of bullets had always fired from a sniper rifle - away from the close-up devastation of bruised bodies where his mark was left by an grapefruit-sized hole in the back of a target's head. Once the shot was taken he would leave a hit-zone and take his own evidence, but he'd never kept his eye on the scope longer until he had a partner to watch. The first time he'd lingered with his eye on the sight line was when he'd taken out a target Natasha had been distracting.
"You know why," he muttered, his voice unmistakably lower.
"Love is for children," she replied, her words cutting over his in her age-old instinct, the Russian training seeping in to replace the more American ways he'd introduced her to the second that emotion crept up on her.
"I didn't say love," he brushed off.
"But you meant it."
He couldn't deny it. He'd woken up in a SHIELD infirmary, with Loki's control gone and nothing else in his mind but the traces of red - blood red to wash over that unique shade of Tesseract blue that Loki had left clinging to the dark corners in his mind. She'd been there, with her talk of magic and monsters and ledgers and as always he'd taken a leap of faith - faith in her - and followed her into the shit storm that locals were calling that Battle of New York. The spy game was over for them both now that their faces had been plastered on news stories and children were wearing a quiver to knock on the neighbours doors for Halloween.
They'd followed the rest of the team to Stark Tower - the Avengers, the news had called them - and somehow had stayed. Stark gave them each their own floor, but Natasha rarely spent any time in her own, at least not at night. When his nightmares turned blue and his control was relinquished to the nightmares Loki had left him with, she was there, curling into his bed and sneaking under his arm while he was still calming his breathing, as if she'd already known his mind was in turmoil again. So maybe he did mean love, or whatever twisted form of love could exist between two assassins. Hell, maybe he didn't even know what love was, but he knew that there was a pull in his chest when she trusted him enough to wake slowly beside him on a weekend morning, and when he could make her close her eyes when a tease almost tipped him over the edge and his lips were about to brush hers, but those feelings were nothing compared to the sharp stab in his chest when he heard the four words that she leapt to as her instant defence.
Love is for children.
"I don't belong here, Nat," he mumbled, running a hand over his too-tired face. "I'm not a hero."
"You saved the world," she shrugged. "We all did."
"It doesn't make up for the past," he said. "I know you believe that too."
He knew it because she still woke sharply in the dead of night, her hands clenched around the weapon that hid beneath the pillow whether she was in her own bed or his. She was always dressed, poised for an attack that they both still suspected. Sharing a bed was never sexual for them, though if either made the move the other would most certainly be a willing partner. It was about home, decompression. No matter where they were in the world, they ended a mission in each other's arms, even in the stifling heat of Nairobi in '02.
"We can't go back to what we were before," she warned him. "The spy game's over now."
"I'm a sniper, Nat. It doesn't matter how many posters my face is on, they're not gonna see it when I put a bullet in their skull."
"You never cared about belonging before," she stated. "Why now?"
"Why now?" he repeated incredulously. "Nat, there are kids going out dressed as us for Halloween. They don't know half the shit we do for a living. Do you think those kids parents want them knowing that their kids are dressing up as people who have a headcount of over two thousand kills each."
She gave a half-shrug. "Total's probably closer to three-thousand now, if we're counting non-human life forms."
He sighed. "Natasha."
She turned to him. "You really think there's nothing for you here? Then go." She nodded to the door that would take him back to the residential levels where the single bag he'd bought in here was packed with his bow supplies beside it. "If you think that there's no one here that wants you around, then you may as well go before that turns out to be true."
His eyes fell on hers only seconds before she turned back to the railing they leaned on. In the nine years he'd known here he'd never once felt this far away, not even when he'd been working six-months in Argentina while she was buried to her neck in mother Russia. "Don't turn this into a guilt trip," he said, only half a plead.
She shrugged again. "It's not a guilt trip. You wanna go, you know where the door is. If you get back to base before the Helicarrier leaves dry land you can be balls-deep in an undercover operation before you can say Robin Hood."
At that he can't resist the soft smile, a small release of breath that could be mistaken for a laugh. "I told you in London, Romanoff. You call me Robin Hood I'll show you what I can do at ten paces instead of a hundred." But the old memories fall flat at her feet, as if she's letting go already, and apart from a tiny quirk at the corner of her lips she doesn't react to it at all. "I don't have a choice, Nat."
"Choosing to leave is still making a choice," she pointed out.
"I have to," he insisted. "I don't-"
"-belong here," she nodded. "Yeah, I heard you the first time."
"I'm not a hero. I'm not going to put on a face and smile for cameras after we pull a kitten out of a tree."
She doesn't mention the fact that she's witnessed him rescuing no less than eighteen cats from various crime scenes they've created, and early in their partnership even partially adopted a Russian blue that had strayed into his apartment whenever he came home from missions.
"Look, I'm sorry," he sighed, shaking his head. "You want me to stay, put on a face and take this shit, I can't do that."
"Then don't," she said softly. "Go."
He didn't move, and he didn't even allow his legs to swing in the wind.
"I mean it, Clint," she told him. "You want to go. If you're not happy, then go."
His hand slid along the railing, barely touching hers but it was enough to be a gesture. "This isn't about us," he whispered.
"There is no 'us'," she bit back. "We're not a couple, there's no relationship. We're partners."
Except they weren't. They weren't partners the second he stepped out of the door. The second he returned to the most comfortable life he'd created and she stayed behind to play the hero-game to put some black back into her ledger.
Before he could finish her name she was on her feet, pushing away from the edge and the railing he clung to and marching back to the roof entrance. If it were anyone else, he'd let them go, but he was on his feet moments after, calling her name until she turned around in the centre of the roof space. "What do you want from me, Clint?"
He frowned, closing the gap between them as she stayed stationary before him, the storm in her eyes intensifying until he felt he could drown in the ocean inside them. "What?"
"You wait until I leave this goddamn city for more than an hour to pack your shit, because you wouldn't do it in front of me. You waited for me to be gone, so you could leave a message with Rogers to pass on to me that you'd gone. You saw them all. You saw each person on your way out and you were going to leave without saying a single word to the person who saved your ass fifty-six times in the past nine years."
"Fifty-five," he mumbled in an instant response. "Budapest doesn't count."
She's biting down on her lip when he speaks those words and he knew that she'd be building the frustration. "Budapest counts," she told him firmly. "It counts, and so does London, and Los Angeles, and Moscow, and even that hell-hole on the border of Libya. It all counts." She sighed, and this time it was her turn to look away before she settled her gaze on the ground. "I can't pretend I've not seen how unhappy you are. We stayed here because it was a chance to do good and we stayed to keep ourselves together, but if leaving is what's best, then you should just go."
"I want to," he mumbled.
"Then go," she repeated, and she's told him so many times now that even he wasn't sure why he was still there. "You're my partner, and if you're asking me to get down on my knees and beg you to stay when you're not happy then I'm sorry to disappoint you. If the last thing I can do for my partner is make sure he does what makes him happy, then I'm telling you to get the hell away from this place and do what makes you happy."
The silence is deafening in the gap that follows, and he can still pick up on the struggle to keep her breathing even because it's a battle she's losing now. He's watching his partner letting him go right in front of his eyes and it's hurting him more than the words "love is for children" ever could do. At least when she spoke those words he knew she was using it to fight off the first real emotion she'd ever shown, but this was something different. Whatever they were - a friendship, a partnership, more - she was letting it go easily.
Like he'd been preparing to do.
He reached out for her arm, his fingertips barely grazing her elbow when he realised what had bought her here. She'd come here to fight for her partner, to keep him where they could still be partners, and instead she was letting him go. "Natasha," he whispered, taking another step closer to her until he could almost feel each of her uneven breaths against his own chest. "I'm sorry."
She shook her head firmly. "Don't be. You've spent your whole life taking the hit for whoever employed you. If you've got a chance to get out and do what you want to do, you should take it."
"I should," he agreed.
"Regular SHIELD partnerships never last longer than eighteen months on the average," she told him. "We beat the odds, I guess."
"We make a good team," he agreed numbly. "You'll be good for this team," he said, nodding to the building where the rest of the Avengers were no doubt hiding out. "Someone's gotta keep them from killing each other."
She smirked sadly. "And who stops me from killing them?"
He can't answer that. He knows he has more control over her actions than even Coulson did, because he's the only one that took a chance on her as a human being rather than a soldier, and her appreciation was shown in cups of coffee made to perfection, and the way she lifted his arm to lay closer to him when she crept to him in the dead of night. She showed her trust by closing her eyes beside him even though she knew he could still feel Loki's influence in his mind. She wouldn't do that for just anyone. Whether she remained as part of the Avengers team or not, she wouldn't replace him as a partner out of her own choice. Her loyalty was so firmly set that SHIELD had never attempted to put her in the field with another agent as her back up since her first mission with Clint. His eyes on her through a scope at fifty-feet was a stronger reassurance than any gadget or immortal strength the rest of the team could provide her.
"I'm sorry," he repeated.
"You have to do what's best for you," she nodded quietly, her gaze firm on where his hand lay on her arm. "It's your call, Clint. Do what you want."
"What I want?" he questioned of himself.
"For once," she nodded. "Think of yourself."
"I can't have what I want," he mumbled, causing her to look up.
"I thought leaving was what you wanted."
He raised his eyes to meet hers and whispered above the gathering winds. "I want you, Natasha," he said, in half a frustrated whine. Hell, if this was going to be goodbye, why not? "I want to be the kind of man that can give you a normal life. I want to be the kind of man who gets warm emotions by wrestling over television remotes, and arguing over the Neftlix queue. I want to cook you dinner, even that crap you insist you don't like but I know you've never tried. I want you to bitch and moan at me for leaving laundry on the floor. I want...us. But normal. I want us to have a chance to have something normal alongside whatever shit we do for a living, even if it's here, even if all I can do is hold you a little closer in the middle of the night and find out what the skin on your neck really feels like under my lips, because when I wake up and you're crawling under my arm...it's the closest I've felt to human in a long time."
She kept her eyes trained on his, never a glimmer of emotion passing over her face as he spoke, not until he finished speaking. "I can see you've thought about this a lot," she noted.
He took a step back, finding a small wall near a rooftop generator and collapsing onto it, his hands hanging between his legs. "To be honest, Nat, I haven't been able to stop thinking about it," he admitted. "I just can't get you out of my head, and I know that it's not right to be bringing this into a partnership, so I think it's better that I just left before I cause all kinds of hell."
"Clint, what you're saying-"
"You told me to do what makes me happy," he reminded her. "What would make me happiest is that, but I can't have that, so I have to settle for second best."
She was silent for a moment, and then her feet fell into his line of sight, her fingers lifting his chin and bringing his eyes to her. "I'm confused as to how second best involves getting as far away from me as possible."
As if she had lifted him the rest of the way, he found his way back to his feet, standing far closer to her than he had before. When their eyes locked again, there was a different kind of storm in her eyes and it wasn't one that he was familiar with, though it was drawing him in like a siren's call. There were words she was screaming at him with those eyes that she'd never say out loud, but he could read her, he could see those words.
It was painfully slow as they leaned towards each other; first breathing the same air and then closing their eyes as their lips brushed together. Content sighs escaped them both as the sensitive skin of their lips gently touched for the first time. He'd imagined it differently, imagined them pressed against various objects of furniture in burning passion, furiously attacking each other, but this was far different than he'd pictured. He'd have stayed in that moment as long as he could, close enough to feel her breath against his mouth and knowing that she was that close willingly - all that stopped him was knowing that this could still be a goodbye for them and he had to have more if that were the case.
It was Natasha that moved first, bringing her hands to the back of his neck and entwining her fingers into the soft strands of his hairline. His own hands travelled up, running his fingers through the short expanse of her firey hair, something he had wanted to do almost obsessively for so long now. As his fingers left her curls they returned up again, one hand settling on her cheek but the other returning to her hair, embedding it and crushing her against him. He wanted to savour the feeling of her hair beneath his hands, her skin against his, to remember what each sense felt like at the moment he finally got a taste of the forbidden fruit he'd denied himself for so long, but he wasn't able to focus on anything other than the fact that his lips were against Natasha's.
A fluttering in their stomachs hit them both as the full intensity of the moment struck them faster than a bullet, opening their eyes to gaze at each other. The matched look of "I want this" shimmered off their eyes, matched for the first time off the battlefield. At this, the tension snapped like a released bowstring and he leaned in fast, claiming her lips fully with his own. It took a staggering few moments for her to react to the intensity of the moment, moving into the kiss as he realised with an odd amusement that he'd never have imagined her to allow him to take control. He couldn't deny he'd had dreams of domination, of relinquishing every control to her tiny wrists and every desire, but this, to know that she trusted him enough to surrender her control to him...this was breathtaking.
In the absense of professionalism there was only a mutual need for each other and it was a need they were in no hurry to let go of. The kiss was slow and oddly sweet for a pair of assassins, clinging to each fraction of movement and as soft lips brushed against each others. Still not satisfied with the closeness, Clint's arms linked around her, moving them back to the wall he'd found before and falling down onto it, forcing her to move with him so that she ended up in his lap facing him. Her hands, which where already holding herself to his neck, began to stroke the skin below his hair in the sensitive area where his hairline faded into scarred skin.
The sensation of her fingers against his neck caused a shudder to pass through his spin and he deepened the kiss, opening his lips and tracing the edge of hers with a suddenly hungry tongue, begging for entrance. When it was granted with a contented gasp, all other thoughts were thrown aside, especially when he felt her tongue colliding with his own and the delicious warmth that came with it. The touch wasn't just intense for him though, as Natasha's delighted moan revealed and caused him to crush her body against his own. That beautiful sound, the one he'd only heard in the dead of night in his imagination, belonged to him now. The kiss heated up, and their already ragged breaths caught in their chests when he heard another moan escape her lips and he wondered how powerful it would feel to bury himself inside her and never resurface.
Eventually the need to breathe became too great and they had to part, though only their lips. Tense arms pressed their bodies together in the most intimate of ways and he found himself eye level with the base of her throat, watching with a fascination as a blush escaped beyond the neckline of her shirt. He raised his eyes to meet hers and her forehead lowered to rest against his, eyes open and matching his.
"Well," he choked out after catching his breath. "That definitely made me happy."
Her nose rubbed against his in response, and he sighed heavier this time. "I'm sorry, Tasha."
"Are you still leaving?" she asked.
"Did you kiss me to get me to stay?" he asked her in return.
"It's the same question, really," she sighed.
He moved in to brush his face against hers, aching for more of the precious contact again, one of his hands boldly slipping the edge of his fingers beneath her shirt to rest on the base of her spine. "I'm not cut out for this hero life," he insisted still. "Then again, there's only one part of my life that's seemed to fit, even if it is in a twisted way." Their foreheads remained pressed together, his arms never releasing his hold on her and he felt all the stress in his body vanish as he felt her arms link surely behind his head.
"Tasha," he mumbled against her lips. "I..."
"You're the only one who's ever called me that," she told him.
"Good," he whispered as he returned his lips to hers for just a moment.
He'd done it. He'd admitted it. And in the process, from the look on her face, he'd actually managed to stun her. The cool and collected under any situation Black Widow had gone, and in her place was just Natasha. "Clint, it's-"
"Don't," he cut her off. "I said it, we can forget about it. You don't have to tell me that it's complicated and everything."
"It is, Clint, you know that," she replied quietly.
"I know," he murmured.
"We're partners," she reminded him. "As soon as we forget about that we compromise ourselves and our team." He said nothing, but his sigh told her everything - he was backtracking after laying his heart on the line for the very first time. It was bad enough that every room in the base had heavy surveillance, and Stark had probably already taken bets and projected this on the big screen, but this was Clint, and she owed him the truth beyond anything else. "We couldn't guarantee that things would work," she told him.
"I'd make it work," he insisted quickly.
"But if it didn't, it would affect how we work together," she told him.
Once again, he sighed. He'd done so much of that tonight that it was starting to become a sound she hated. "I spent my entire life putting the job first. My job is the biggest part of my life." He found the urge to touch her becoming overwhelming. Maybe he shouldn't have kissed her, because it seemed to be all he wanted to do now and he couldn't resist dragging his lips over her throat for a moment. "I thought you wanted me to consider thinking about myself and what I want?"
"And what is it, exactly, that you want?" she asked him.
His lips parted from her throat reluctantly, and after whispering a single word against the curve of her ear their foreheads fell together again. He wasn't sure if his heart was pounding overtime or whether it was about to stop beating altogether, all he knew was that he didn't have the necessary motor skills to let go of her. His arms were cemented around her sides, his hands fused to her back. Even though she wasn't the kind of woman to want or need the affection, he wanted to believe that he could keep her from the darkness of their world in his arms.
"Clint, you can't go," she mumbled, this time her voice unmistakably thickened with tears.
"Please," she added.
"I can't stay here," he whispered.
"Whatever choice you've already made, I don't think I've got it in me to watch my partner walk away from me so willingly," she admitted, her fingers pressing firmer to the back of his neck as if to keep him there.
"Nat, please, this is hard enough already. This staying here, playing happy families with a bunch of superheroes, it's not for me." he shook his head, the action bringing their cheeks together.
"I don't...I can't watch you leave, Clint. You're my best friend, I can't do that."
"You have to," he whispered.
She captured his lips almost furiously for a moment, a hand resting on his chest. "Stay," she requested - it wasn't begging.
He buried his face into her neck, inhaling that scent that was so purely Natasha. "Don't say that," he said in a half-broken voice.
"If I ask again, will you stay?" she asked.
He said nothing more, just held her face against his, their lips brushing together even though they weren't kissing, just sharing the same air. It was a bad play, kissing her - his biggest mistake. No one would come looking for them, no one would come to break them apart - if he really wanted to leave, he would have to take them apart, separate them from one another and force himself away from her. Could he really do that, now that he knew how the skin at the base of her spin felt? Now that he knew what it felt like to have her moan against his lips?
"Come with me," he said softly.
She opened her eyes to gaze back at him.
"We go, together, as partners, as...whatever this makes us," he suggested, his hands gripping her hips and bringing her closer to him in all ways. "SHIELD needs us that bad, they come looking for us, Avengers need us, they come looking for us. If they want us that bad they'll track us down. But we go. You and me, we stick together."
She's nodding against him, and then they're kissing again to settle their decision. He didn't have the heart to break away from her now, because he knew that nod is her agreeing to leave with him, to start fresh with him, and he knew that those soft lips were going to return to his a thousand more times. It just made him hungrier for more.
The bedsheets were pulled up to just below their shoulders, which was rare for this time of year. They'd settled south of the border in South America - for now, a starter to get them used to staying off the grid again. She took another breath and her upper body pressed against his for a small second, reminding him of the night before again - he couldn't count the time they had last spent pressed skin to skin like this. They'd been travelling for three days after leaving Stark Tower and first priority on their arrival had been sleep, but it had given way to a more aching need.
Unconsciously, he tightened his arms around her and she moved with him, turning into his shoulder a little more. If she were trying to get closer to him it had worked, and the corner of his mouth lifted every so slightly within the mass of her hair that was now covering his face. He could feel this moment starting to end, this blissful moment of no movement and touching skin. He could feel that, like himself, she was starting to wake up. He could feel it on his fingertips, which had started to move against his arm with a bit more feeling and the rhythm of her breathing was starting to change. Then, he felt the fluttering of eyelashes against his skin and her muscles began to stretch out, pulling parts of her away from him.
He let out a moan of protest and tightening his arms around her. "Mmm, comfy," he mumbled, his voice gruff and filled with sleep.
"Sleep," she mumbled in reply.
"Comfy," he repeated, his face settling down into her hair again now that he was satisfied she wasn't going to move and that their bodies were matched together again. They were silent for a while, but neither of them slept again. There were deep, sleepy breaths that overtook them as they enjoyed the afterglow of a few hours rest in each others arms, but before long she was moving and pulling her arms away from him. "No," he protested again, pulling her back.
"Gotta get up," she told him.
"Later," he said simply, his eyes closed and his arms even tighter around her.
"Clint," she laughed, a tired laugh that rippled down her back to where his hand rested dangerously low. He put pressure on her back, just enough to show her that he had no intention of letting her get out of bed yet. "We can't stay in bed all day."
"Oh, we can," he grumbled into her ear, shifting his hold on her. "We absolutely, definitely can."
"Okay, we can," she agreed. "But we shouldn't."
"We should," he told her. "All is quite and still and neither of us are working…no reason to get out of bed at all."
To seal this decision, he pulled his head back a little and directed his lips to hers. He enjoyed their early morning kisses, slow and sensual with a casual laziness. Slowly at first, they brushed their lips against one anothers before he claimed them completely, and after a few gentle kisses he sought entry into her mouth and she parted her lips eagerly, despite her earlier insistence that she needed to get out of bed, and allowed his tongue to knot around her own. Her hand moved from his arm, travelling to the back of his neck and tangling with the soft hair that grew there, while his own arm trailed up from the small of her back to caress her cheek.
She sighed against his lips and clung to him, and whether it lasted one minute or fifteen, neither of them knew or cared. All they knew was that each second of contact left them dizzy after so long of being separated. Parting, but not moving an inch away from him, she opened her eyes to see him already smiling down at her. "Good morning."