TITLE: Mission Bells

AUTHOR: enigma731

FANDOM: Avengers/MCU

PAIRING: Clint Barton/Natasha Romanoff


WORD COUNT: ~ 7,000

SUMMARY: She is offering him sanctuary, he realizes, from the monsters he's found inside of himself. But this is about what she needs too, her scars not so different from his own. A post-movie fic about learning to live when everything is different.

NOTES: This is a story about coping with trauma. I don't really think there's anything in it more disturbing than what's in the movies and/or comics, but your mileage may vary.

Mission Bells

After New York, what Clint wants (wants, because it's safer than needs) is to be held accountable.

For a moment it had seemed like it might be enough, to win the fight, to save the world. As though knowing that Loki will pay for his crimes might somehow bring Clint's own absolution.

When the dust has cleared, the news is abuzz with questions, with the world demanding answers from the superheroes it never believed in before. Clint finds himself hoping for that kind of scrutiny, for an interrogation, for a stint in S.H.I.E.L.D. lockdown, even.

What he gets is a physical, a brain scan, and a day-long psychological evaluation.

The room is bright and sterile, with a table, two chairs, and a facsimile of a water color on the far wall. Clint doesn't miss the fact that the table is bolted to the floor, the thin wire snaking down one of its legs belying the near-invisible presence of a panic button beneath the far corner. The kid who walks through the door is wearing a badge and holding a clipboard, but he looks scarcely old enough to be out of high school, let alone have letters after his name.

"This is pointless," says Clint, halfway through the third test, because this exercise in futility is doing nothing to convince him that his mind is his own again, nothing to drown out the names and faces of the agents who have died at his hand, the images he sees every time he closes his eyes.

"Agent Barton, we're just trying to help you," says the kid, though the way he's blinking—too rapidly—says he's seen the footage from the Helicarrier and lacks the professional experience to hide his own anxiety from a trained eye. "Please keep working and make the design."

He gestures to the book on the table with a picture vaguely resembling a pinwheel, the scattered red and white blocks with which Clint is supposed to replicate it. There's a timer in the kid's hand, and he punctuates the instructions by punching the start button.

Clint builds a tower out of the blocks, slowly, meticulously, taking every last second of the alotted time. When the timer goes off, he picks up the kid's discarded pencil and draws an X on the table.

"You're standing here, on the ground. I'm on the rooftop, here." He uses the pencil to point as he speaks. "I shoot from this angle, I get your femoral artery, you bleed out. This one, arrow between your eyes. You never even see me."

The kid sighs, though it sounds decidedly shaky. "Agent Barton, are you trying to fail this evaluation?"

"I killed my colleagues," says Clint, evenly. "What exactly should constitute a pass?"

"Agent Barton, I hear you've been wasting my medical team's time." Fury looks utterly incongruous silhouetted against the generic tranquility of the water color in the psych testing room.

Clint thinks he might have laughed at the image, once: Easter Lilies with Eye Patch, like something off a placard in a museum of absurd art. Now he feels as though he might be observing his own thoughts from very far away, as though he is not truly inhabiting his own body. It isn't the same as the helpless panic of Loki's control, like hurtling boundlessly through space, an endless falling nightmare without the reprieve of coming back awake. This is different: a surreal numbness like watching his former life from behind the flattened safety of a glass barrier. Like nothing is quite real enough to break through the wall of stillness protecting him from all that he's done.

"Agent Barton, are you listening to me?" asks Fury, and it isn't until he raises his voice that Clint realizes he's been speaking all along.

"No," says Clint, honestly. "Are you here to fire me, sir?"

"Is that what you want?" asks Fury. "Because I'll be honest, Agent Barton, that's the message you've been sending all afternoon. Loud and clear."

"No," Clint repeats, after a moment. Because he's always been a coward, and while the idea of accountability, of retribution seems like it would be a welcome relief, he's far too exhausted to even consider life without this job.

"Good," says Fury. "Then I'll say it again. You're on standard probation until further notice. No travel, no field missions for at least a month. And I'm having your security clearance pulled until further notice, effective immediately. At the first sign of any kind of trouble, you're on full medical suspension, with mandatory therapy. And not the kind where you screw with my psychologists and give them all nightmares. Are we clear?"

"Yes, sir."

Fury gives him a single, silent nod, and is gone.

Natasha's waiting to intercept him right outside Medical, like Clint probably should've expected she would be. Yet somehow he's been anticipating a clean escape straight home and into bed.

"Seriously?" she asks, blocking his path with a single step when he tries to walk by without acknowledging her.

"Not now," he answers, because he knows she'll see straight through everything, and he isn't even ready to do that himself.

"Avoidance is only going to make it worse," says Natasha, exactly like she's read his mind, exactly like he's known she would. "Although, if you're looking for a distraction…"

"I'm looking for you to leave me alone," says Clint, roughly. "Stop hovering."

She doesn't protest again as he pushes past her, and Clint knows her well enough to be certain that it is genuine hurt he sees in her eyes the instant before she lets him go.

This is how it starts.

Clint sits in the familiar darkness, surrounded by the muted sounds of the Helicarrier in motion, watching Natasha breathe in the slow regularity of sleep. Time seems suspended, the irrevocable progression of fate momentarily halted by the stillness of this moment, by the knowledge that there is no other person in the world who could get this close without waking her. That it has nothing to do with stealth and everything to do with the fact that she trusts him.

But it isn't him, not really. He sees and hears and feels everything through his own body's senses, yet he is not the one in control. He is not the one who slips his hand into a carefully concealed pocket, draws out the tiny, deadly syringe.

Natasha doesn't wake at the sensation of his hand on her arm, doesn't even stir until the needle has already slipped beneath her skin, until the poison is already spreading through her veins. The thing in his head is ready for her when she throws herself upright, ready to strike, moving to straddle her legs in a rush, holding her down with a heavy palm to her sternum.

"Clint, what the hell?" she snarls, though the betrayal in her eyes belies the question. She already knows beyond a doubt.

He can't answer, can't tell her he is sorry, that she needs to save herself. The thing in his head could, but it doesn't matter; the poison is too fast for that. He feels it first in the way that her legs go still under him, the way her body ceases to struggle, seizing twice in huge rolling shudders before giving way to the artificial rigidity of paralysis. Every muscle of hers is taut beneath his touch, and he knows that if she could speak, she would be struggling not to cry out in pain.

Her face is pulled into a grotesque sneering mask, like a corpse, but her eyes are wild with panic. Never has he seen her so utterly gripped by unbridled terror, and Clint feels the dagger sharpness of it mirrored in his own mind, even this falling short of bringing him back to his body, back to control.

The paralytic would be enough to kill her on its own; her breath has already grown unnaturally shallow, the color draining from her lips even as her muscles continue their struggle. But it isn't fast enough, isn't cruel enough for the thing running the show inside of Clint's body, and he watches his own hands come up and close mercilessly over her face. Feels the weight of his body pressing down until the last of her breath has faded, until her eyes stare up at him cold and dead and penetrating.

Clint wakes with his own breath trapped in his throat, thick and rough so that he gags on it. He sits up reflexively and for one terrible instant, it feels as though his body might have left his control once more, as though his limbs might be moving of their own accord. He struggles upright, head swimming with exhaustion and the suddenness of the movement, and little black pinwheels of oxygen deprivation dance around the periphery of his vision. The sheets are tangled around his ankles and he kicks at them savagely.

The images seem seared into his mind as vividly as when the cube first put them there, and it feels as though the air has been sucked out of his apartment, as though there are deep-seated cracks at the core of his being. As though the pieces of himself might fly apart into a dozen directions if he stays too still.

Scrambling into pants and a shirt, he swings himself out onto the fire escape and climbs the rickety ladder two stories to the roof of his building. His back and arms are a swath of fire by the time he pulls himself up onto the ledge of the roof, rolls over the low wall and onto the the flat surface, a reminder that he's been injured recently, that his body can't regenerate in a matter of hours. Still, it's a relief to feel something aside from abject panic, to know that he's gotten himself up here of his own volition.

Getting to his feet more slowly this time, Clint walks to the far edge of the rooftop, taking in huge, hungry breaths of the crisp night air, as if it might somehow be able to quell the memories. He's been up here innumerable nights before, but the cityscape below is different now, yet another reminder of the carnage he's helped unfold. Large portions of the city are unnaturally dark now, the stars above unusually prominent, mirrored by the flashes of red and blue from below as emergency response vehicles speed off into the distance.

"Please tell me you're not actually thinking of jumping." Natasha's voice cuts through the shadows, and he turns to find her seated on the wall less than twenty feet away, legs stretched out in front of her like it isn't a six story drop to the ground.

"Tasha," he breathes, taking a step back from the edge of the roof as her proximity suddenly makes his position feel all the more precipitous. "The hell are you doing?"

"Watching you, obviously." She cocks her head toward the abandoned scope set up on the roof of the adjacent building.

Clint feels a surge of anger struggling against the fading terror in the pit of his stomach; he should have known it wouldn't be so easy to avoid her. And yet it feels, to the irrational part of his mind, like her own sort of betrayal, like doubt, like she might be sitting here now, on the edge, taunting the thing to seize control of him once more.

"Why? To make sure I don't go on a murderous rampage through the streets of Manhattan?"

Natasha rolls her eyes. "To make sure you don't do something really stupid. Like throw yourself off a building, for example."

"You don't actually think I'd-" He realizes belatedly that he's closed half the distance between them entirely without conscious thought, and that fact stops him cold, alarm clamping down on his stomach once more. "You need to leave."

She gets to her feet at last, unfolding her legs and coming to stand a mere few inches away from him. Everything about her posture is a challenge, one he's seen countless times directed at a target. I'm not afraid of you.

"I mean it," he repeats, louder. His own voice sounds very far off and wrong in his ears, and he wonders if this is what it would be like (will be like), losing control all over again. "You can't be here."

"And you can't run away from this," Natasha insists. "Let me help you." She lays a hand on his forearm without hesitation, a light touch that would have grounded him once.

Tonight it's a reminder of the atrocities left behind in his mind, imprinted onto his memory like a brand. Black marks over his view of the world, signifying that he is no longer the sole owner of himself, that he will forever live in fear of losing control once more, of carrying the rest of the plan to fruition. Something breaks inside of him then, the last dam of rationality he's been clinging to, and he wrenches his arm away.

"How?" he snarls, letting the anger boil over, a shield of vitriol to protect the world. "What do you know about helping, Natasha? You planning to torture a confession out of me and call it therapy?"

Her face shifts, just slightly, and he knows he's hit a nerve, has always known exactly how to strike at her, because she has allowed him to learn. He feels a sick sense of satisfaction.

"Fine," she says stonily, then swings out a kick that neatly takes his legs out from under him, leaving him in a tangle of sore limbs as she vanishes back into the night.

There's a spider web in the corner of the ceiling, an elaborate production starting at the joint where the chipped trim meets and spreading outward, gossamer threads reaching down to the lampshade, the bedpost, the corner of the dresser. Desiccated exoskeletons of beetles hang along the length like carcasses strewn about a battlefield.

Clint lies on his back, staring upward at the insect carnage as muted sunlight streams in through the dusty windowpane. It's been six months since he's spent any significant amount of time here, and everything feels just a little bit off, just a little bit foreign. Just wrong enough to stop the apartment from feeling like the sanctuary he craves.

It's been three days since he left Medical, and he knows that he ought to be at work, ought to be on the training range, ought to be out there trying to prove to Fury and the rest of the world that he is still capable of doing good. Or, failing that, he should at least get out of bed and make sure the neglected refrigerator hasn't actually begun to spawn a new form of life. If this were the aftermath of any other disastrous mission, Natasha would be over here already, mercilessly goading him back into the world. Instead it's been radio silence since that night on the roof, and he can't decide whether that's a relief or one more layer of regret.

His S.H.I.E.L.D.-issue cell phone buzzes on the bedside table and Clint jumps, feeling his heart rate speed up unnaturally. He has always been steady, difficult to startle, but now every noise seems a warning, a cause for alarm. Sitting up, he watches the call buzz through to termination, waits until the voicemail icon appears before picking up the phone and dialing through to the message.

"I shouldn't have to tell you this, Agent Barton." Hill's voice, more stiffly formal than usual, and he can practically see the tension in her face, the way her lips would press together into a thin line of ire. "But 'probation' does not mean 'truancy.' It means exactly the opposite, in fact."

It's the fourth call of this type that he's received over the past few days; the callers are moving up in rank and in irritation with him.

"Probation means you come to work and you do everything by the book," Hill's voice continues. "I expect to see you in my office before 1200 hours today. And I expect you to have paperwork detailing your whereabouts the past three days. And that paperwork had better say that the reason you haven't been on base is that you've been out assisting the cleanup crews. Otherwise we're talking suspension, Barton. You've already been given special treatment. Don't think you'll get a free pass just because the director's enthralled with the Avengers Initiative right now."

Clint looks at the phone for a moment longer before pressing the button to erase the message. He slips the phone into his pocket and stands up. A glance at the clock tells him he has less than an hour to comply, yet the threat still feels very far off. He searches and finds absolutely no concern toward the possibility of suspension, nothing but the hollowness that's seemed to pervade everything since the adrenaline of battle faded.

In the kitchen, a six pack of soda sits abandoned on the countertop, one can missing from months before. Clint snags the bunch by the empty plastic ring, then grabs bow and quiver as well before climbing out onto the fire escape again.

On the roof, he lines the cans up against the wall, and then moves as far away as he safely can. It's still much too close to provide any sort of a true challenge for him, but this is more an exercise in channeling frustration than it is real practice. (If he's honest with himself, he does not want to know what actual practice would be like right now, on the S.H.I.E.L.D. range, with an audience of other agents seeing nothing but the list of friendly kills now forever stacked up against his name.)

That thought burns at the back of his throat like bile as Clint swings the familiar weight of the bow upward, grabs an arrow from the quiver and takes aim. He lets it fly without hesitation, feeling a shallow sense of satisfaction as the tip connects solidly with the first can, sending frothy carbonated liquid rocketing across the rooftop. It's ridiculous and wasteful and exactly the sort of gesture he needs right now. He follows the first shot with two more in rapid succession, feeling his mood improve with each additional hit.

He has the fourth shot nocked and aimed when the phone buzzes again at his hip, shattering the moment and making his reflexes send the arrow careening straight into the surface of the roof, cracking the tip on impact and fraying his nerves a little further.

"Barton," says Fury, when he replays the message. "Last chance. Mission briefing at 1400. Get here and show me that you can still do your job, or you're fired. And in official custody."

In hindsight, he should have known it would be a disaster.

Natasha's always been able to sense trouble somehow, like the proverbial crow, the inky black harbinger of doom. She's been uncharacteristically quiet since the mission briefing; something about her equilibrium is off (even given that she's still furious with him) and it's been eating away at the periphery of his awareness for the past twenty four hours, like a splinter.

The mission is simple, something he might have called boring, even, back when he'd felt at liberty to have a sense of humor about S.H.I.E.L.D. ops. It's the sort of task he and Natasha graduated years ago, the type Fury would normally assign junior agents fresh out of the field exam now.

In truth it's a test, Clint thinks, and he'd feel insulted by that if he wasn't feeling so disoriented right now, crouched on a rooftop in Chicago, watching Natasha through a scope. She's currently inside of the latest warehouse suspected of manufacturing knock off Stark tech, planting bugs, and his job is strictly to provide support for her. From a distance.

He's always been comfortable with silence and darkness, far more familiar than the rapid staccato of combat. But tonight he finds himself itching for action, for a distraction, for anything at all to ground him. His mind feels too large in the stillness, like there is still danger lurking at the edges of his consciousness.

He puts the scope down as Natasha emerges from the back door of the building and prepares to pack up his gear, relieved to be finished with the sensitive part of this operation, even as he dreads the idea of spending the night in a room with her before their flight home.

"I'll see you in ten," she whispers over the comm, and it ought to be his signal to leave, to start heading toward the car parked unobtrusively a few blocks away waiting for him to drive them back to the hotel where their covers are staying.

He sees the guard emerge from the shadows a few yards back as Natasha is re-securing the computerized lock she's hacked on the way in. The man is short and thickly muscled, dressed all in black complete with a ski mask. The kind of security only differentiated from thug by the source of his current paycheck.

Natasha doesn't react yet though the goon isn't exactly being stealthy, either assuming that Clint still has her covered, or waiting for the man to be closer before taking him out.

He has his bow drawn, arrow aligned between his fingers and the string thrumming with tension on reflex. The man is less than ten feet away from Natasha when Clint feels the breath catch in his throat again, blood pounding in his temples in a way that it never has before the cube, before Loki. Staring down the shaft of the arrow, he sees the broken interior of the Helicarrier again, feels himself watching in helpless horror as his own body took aim at life after life.

He tries to take stock, to account for all of the remote crevices inside of his own mind, to convince himself that he still possesses ownership of them all. But the past twelve hours since the mission briefing feel like a blur, blank spaces where memories and intentions ought to be, and suddenly he can't slip the bow and arrow from his hands fast enough.

On the ground, the man has a gun drawn, Natasha facing down the barrel now, and though she looks collected as ever, Clint is terribly certain that she must actually be counting on the shot he's unable to make.

The rooftop isn't very high up compared to his typical vantage points, and he tells himself this over and over as he propels himself off the edge toward the ground. He rolls with the impact, but pain still explodes along the column of his spine, his shoulder where the muscles are still healing. It's enough to make his vision go black for the space of a few agonizing breaths, and when he's able to look up again, Natasha has the other man on the ground, a tranquilizer dart stuck into his jugular.

The look she turns on him is fathomless with questions.

"You're lucky you're not paralyzed," says Natasha, leaning over him as he perches on the edge of the hotel tub to let her assess his injuries.

Nothing feels broken or otherwise seriously damaged, he thinks, though the asphalt he's rolled onto has scraped most of the skin from his upper arm. In all, it's hardly the worst shape he's come through a mission in, only this time it's entirely due to his own stupidity.

"I'm fine," says Clint, completely aware that excuses are only making things worse. "I knew what I was doing."

"Jumping off a building?" Natasha growls as she pours concentrated disinfectant down the contusion on his arm, looking vaguely satisfied when he hisses at the burn. "I swear to god, Barton, if you want to be dead, I'd be delighted to kill you myself."

In a way it's almost a relief, to have someone yelling at him, finally. "If you want to punish me, why don't you give Hill a call? Tell her what I did. I'm sure she'd be happy to tell the Council I'm out of control. Have me fired."

Natasha freezes, regarding him with that look that makes him feel worse than entirely naked. "Is that what you want? To get fired? Throw everything away? You think that's going to make you feel better?"

"No," Clint answers, dumbly, though a part of him wonders whether she's read his subconscious correctly, put a name to the strange inertia he's been feeling toward everything in his life.

"Then get it together," she snaps, and the disappointment in her voice is worse than any amount of anger. "If you don't want my help, fine. But you have to do something, or you're going to get us both killed." She plucks the packet of gauze and surgical tape from the first aid kit, tossing it in his direction, in what ought to be an easy catch as she exits the bathroom.

Clint watches as it bounces off his chest and lands on the tiled floor with a dull airy sound.

This is how it starts.

He wakes in bed beside Natasha, captivated for a moment by the way the city lights spilling in from the window paint a silvery sheen across the curve of her bare shoulders. He reaches out, runs his fingers along the line of her spine, reveling in the rare sense of tranquility that comes only from touching her like this. From the implicit trust that seems to radiate from her body as she remains still.

"Hey," she whispers, after a moment, turning to look drowsily at him over her shoulder.

"Hey yourself," says Clint, a lazy grin stretching across his lips.

Natasha leans up to kiss him, and he thinks he could allow himself to be lost in it, even to be saved.

It is in this instant that his mind becomes a traitor again. He feels it lurching forth from underneath, like a faultline inside of his consciousness. The syringe appears in his fingers out of nowhere, and he feels her sharp intake of breath against his lips as his fingers slip the needle beneath the skin of her shoulderblade. He tries to cry out, to warn her, but he is as paralyzed within his own mind as she within her body, as if the poison is somehow coursing through shared veins between them, as if the thing in his mind has known that they have always shared one fate.

Clint wakes — really wakes — with a harsh cry on his lips and the sheets a hopeless sweaty tangle around his knees. Natasha is watching him, calm, alive, and fully clothed, from her bed against the far wall. The lamp closest to her is switched on, and he realizes belatedly that it's the reason he's woken now, that he has not watched her dying breaths yet again.

"Bad dream?" asks Natasha, though it's obvious she doesn't need to.

The dim light, the sound of her voice husky with traces of sleep are eerily familiar, and he throws back the sheets in an instinctive rush, searching for the cold plastic of the damned syringe, for any sign that his body has truly betrayed them both in the vulnerability of sleep.

"Clint, stop," says Natasha, and suddenly she's standing right over him, close enough that he could kill her in an instant, close enough that she'd scarcely even have time to realize. He sees himself on the Helicarrier again, a knife to her throat, the fire in her eyes he'd recognized as the determination to either win the fight or die.

He rolls away forcefully, stumbling out on the other side of the bed. Natasha doesn't follow this time, is simply watching him, and he is overwhelmed with the urge to run, as if physical distance could do anything to separate him from these demons. For a moment he actually considers putting himself through the big picture window, but they're twelve stories up and all rash impulses aside, he's still far too much a coward to die.

Instead he corners himself in the little bathroom still laced with the chemical smell of disinfectant, closes the door and rests his forehead against the wall. It feels like the air in the room is too thin; his lungs are burning as his vision tunnels inward and all he can think is that this is the moment he's been fearing all along.

Tearing himself away from the wall, Clint turns the shower on cold. He steps into it without a thought for his clothes, the water a shock as it immediately plasters his shorts and shirt to his skin. He stands under the water for a moment with his back to the wall before sinking down to the floor of the tub, pulling his knees to his chest as though he might be able to hold himself together through sheer physical force.

He doesn't know how long he's sat there, drawing slow, shuddering breaths under the frigid spray, when Natasha comes in. Clint doesn't look up this time, listening to her footfalls as she pads across the small room. This time he's too spent to do anything when she sits beside him, wincing almost imperceptibly as the water beads at the ends of her hair, as it makes her tank top cling to her like a second skin. She says nothing, does not try to touch him, just sits, waiting. He's reminded suddenly of another day, another room all in white, just after they'd first met.

"He wanted me to kill you," says Clint, at last.

"I know," says Natasha, like she's been expecting this for days.

"I can't stop thinking about it," he pushes ahead, because there's no way out now but straight off the precipice. "It's like a mine he left there in my head, just waiting to get set off again and again."

"I know that, too."

"I could have killed you," says Clint, more forcefully now, the fading remnants of panic leaving the bitter taste of hopelessness in their wake. He will never be able to trust himself, he thinks. Will never be able to let her, either. "I actually could have killed you."

Natasha leans her head back against the wall of the shower and smiles sadly. "Of course you could have, Clint. That's the price of having a partner."

He feels suddenly, foolishly naïve as the full weight of her words lands, and he realizes that never, in seven years together, has he thought of it that way before.

"Then why?" he asks. "Why do it at all?"

"Because you weren't wrong," says Natasha, and he realizes that she is remembering too. "I couldn't do it on my own anymore. And then, later, I didn't want to."

"Fuck," whispers Clint, when he meets her eyes at last, when he sees in them that she was never unaware of the danger in him, that she has known all along and chosen to accept it anyway.

"Yes," says Natasha, and then she does touch him, winding an arm around his shoulders as she reads the need in the lines of his body.

Clint leans into the solidness of her side, drops his head onto her shoulder, warm even under the unrelenting cold spray of the shower.

"Hey," she says then, as if it is simple, the fingers of her left hand threading through his hair, anchoring him. "I love you."

He allows himself to let go, then, allows the too-thick hollowness at the back of his throat to become a rough sob, the ache behind his eyes to run into hot tears against his chilled skin. He allows the battered shards of himself to come apart at last, believing that she will know how to fit them back together again.

"This isn't a good idea," says Clint, but he doesn't stop following Natasha as she leads him through the familiar winding corridors of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s main base. It's a labyrinthine structure that had once seemed certain to swallow him whole. Before it had become the closest thing he'd known to a home.

"Stop that," says Natasha, without pausing, without so much as a glance back over her shoulder.

Clint is aware of the looks he's getting as he passes the occasional agent in the hallway, the lingering glances, questioning either the current status of his sanity, or the injustice of the fact that he isn't behind bars, or worse. No one says anything, though, probably because they don't dare with Natasha around.

"It's raining," he says, when they step onto the outdoor training range maintained so that he can practice gauging arrow trajectories in the elements, where he gets assigned to work so often. Today the neatly manicured grass is saturated with the constant light drizzle. The sky overhead is a murky greenish gray, beginning to clear, at last, of the giant dust clouds being raised by the city's efforts to dig itself out of the rubble.

"We can do this another time," he tries again, swallowing a fresh wave of unease at their surroundings, at what she is asking him to do. "It's raining right now. This isn't a good idea."

Natasha rolls her eyes. "Would you stop whining? Besides, I like the rain."

"You do not," says Clint, but he follows her until the first target in the series is in sight.

"Go ahead," she says, gesturing as she steps back.

He's scarcely been aware of his bow in its case until now, the weight familiar and comforting in his hand. But now it is an obstacle, one more tripline in the spiral his life's taken. He struggles to open the case, his fingers feeling uncharacteristically clumsy, not entirely his own.

Natasha looks unsurprised as she closes the distance between them again, laying her fingers warm and certain over his filled with doubt. "Tell me."

"It's nothing," says Clint, and he pulls away, snapping the bow open stubbornly. He takes an arrow from the quiver but can't bring himself to draw, every instinct reminding him of that night on the rooftop, reminding him that she is too close, that his aim is false and will spell disaster.

"You're anxious again," says Natasha, and it isn't even close to a question.

"Yeah," Clint answers, frustration flaring.

"He's not still in there, Clint," she tells him firmly, reaching up to rest her fingers against his temple. "Everything that's happening to you now is coming from in here. From you."

"I know that." And he does, when the fear isn't winning. "I just—Does it ever go away?"

"Not if you try to run from it," says Natasha. "Running only makes it stronger."

"Then what am I supposed to do?" He hates the edge of desperation in his voice, knows that she can hear it too.

"You have to learn to live with it. You have to stop running. This time. And then the next, and the next. And someday, when you're not expecting it anymore, you'll realize that it's gotten easier."

Clint takes a breath, feeling exhausted, held on the edge of his breaking point by the string of his own anxiety. "Help me."

She nods, once, then takes the bow and arrow out of his hands, surprising him.

"Hey!" he protests, out of habit, when he realizes what she's doing.

Natasha grins, evidently pleased with his reaction. "Not my fault you missed your chance."

She takes aim for only a moment before loosing the arrow and watching it fly. It lands just a hair off dead center, impressive for someone who doesn't have much practice. Then again, Natasha hasn't met a lot of weapons she couldn't master, and he's taught her this one himself, years ago.

"Come on, Barton," she says, turning back to him. "You're not going to let me win that easily."

"Hell no," says Clint, though the fear is still there, just beneath the surface. He takes his bow back from her, plucks up a fresh arrow and nocks, giving himself less than a second to think before he forces his muscles to relax, letting it go. The shot lands true, so close beside hers that the fletchings touch. He allows himself a careful smile as the adrenaline thrums through him, almost pleasant, like before.

"Good," says Natasha, brushing her hair back as it curls in the rain. "Now do it again."

Natasha's skin is still slick with rainwater when she kisses him against the wall of his bedroom, hand splayed across the small of his back. At first all he can feel is surprise, his breath already hard and fast as she breaks away, studying his face.

In her eyes he sees fledgling hope, exquisite vulnerability that he knows she shutters from the world as though her life depends on it. All at once, he feels the emptiness of the past six months in an underground bunker, of the last two weeks trapped inside the isolation of his own mind. Feels the weight of seven years loving her cautiously from afar, in stolen moments and in shadows, afraid of losing the best friend he's ever had.

Winding his fingers into the hair at the nape of her neck, Clint leans forward and rests his forehead against hers, drawing deep, steadying breaths. Natasha shifts to wrap her arm around his waist more fully, bringing her other hand up between them to lie over the place where his heart is fluttering in his chest. He thinks, not for the first time, that he is grateful to be the only one allowed to know she is capable of being this gentle, this full of warmth.

When he straightens at last, feeling grounded again, she takes half a step backward, pulling the heavy, damp fabric of her jacket from her shoulders.

"Tasha," he breathes, because he loves her, because he'd rather come apart a thousand times over than risk hurting her now. "Are you sure?"

She nods once, then whispers "trust me," against his lips. She is offering him sanctuary, he realizes, from the monsters he's found inside of himself. But this is about what she needs too, her scars not so different from his own.

He can see now the shadowy remains of bruises on her arms, her back. Some of them, he knows, his hands have given her. He runs his fingers lightly over the outlines, as if touching them might somehow be able to erase the damage. When he follows the motion with his lips, she makes a soft sound in the back of her throat, reaching for him again, tugging at the hem of his shirt until he raises his arms to let her pull it over his head, allows her to strip away his clothes like the layers of fear that have kept him dulled to the rest of the world.

And then she is naked too, the afternoon sunlight catching her hair like feathers of flame. She guides him back and onto the bed, drawing a line with her lips from his clavicle to his thigh, and in this moment, he feels safe.

This is how it starts.

He wakes in his own bed next to Natasha, the light from outside telling him that it is early evening. For a moment he's disoriented, aware of the now-familiar phantoms present at the outskirts of his mind, the cold hardness of the syringe in his hand, the struggle of her body spasming beneath him in death.

But her eyes are open this time, full of the understanding that only she possesses.

"Are you okay?" she asks quietly, reaching out to run her hand along his arm under the covers.

He takes stock, mentally, finds the pieces of his life in better condition than he's expecting. "I think maybe soon."

Natasha nods once, then shifts to hook her leg across his hip as she kisses him, the length of her body flush against his.

The window is open, he realizes, as they're interrupted by a peal of thunder, the storm outside not quite ended yet.

It smells like clean earth and new beginnings.

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