NOTES: This is an expansion of the hotel scene in Mission Bells. If you haven't read that fic yet, this isn't going to make any sense to you. Think of it like a bonus scene.
When Clint breaks, it feels as though her world comes back into focus.
Natasha is good at action, good at planning and execution. People who don't know her very well think she's cold, unacquainted with emotion. But she knows how to deal with panic, is thoroughly familiar with the regret that echoes through the rough sobs he tries to bury against her shoulder. What she's unprepared for is the void that's seemed to grow between them, as though he's been slipping through her fingers, a part of them still missing in the wake of Loki's destruction.
She sits under the spray of the shower with him until she stops feeling the cold, until the tips of her fingers go numb and the past few weeks burn like a gaping wound through the wall of calm she's built, like she's been impaled by the knowledge of how very close she came to losing everything. By the time she's ready to move Clint's breathing has slowed, though his hand remains fisted in her shirt, belying the sense of calm. It's lucky, she thinks, that his spiral into fear and regret seems to have bottomed out here, that his physical injuries, at least, will heal.
"We need to get out," Natasha says finally, because she isn't about to let him sit here all night, isn't going to lose him again, not to demons created by his own mind.
Clint nods once and lets her help him to his feet, his quiet noise of pain reminding her that his body has been through as much of an ordeal as his mind. He follows her without any further hesitation, like he always has. She tosses a towel in his direction, then focuses on herself, drying off her hair and finding clean clothes. She senses his presence behind her when she's finished changing, his gaze heavy on her shoulders. When Natasha turns, his expression is more open than she's seen in weeks.
She takes two steps to close the distance between them and slips her arms around his waist, runs her hands up under his shirt, reminding herself that he's here—that he's real—as his skin warms beneath her fingertips. Clint exhales against her hair, his own arms coming up to wrap around her back, ensnaring her in a way that she's never allowed anyone else.
"Six months," she says quietly, and lets him hear the relief in her tone. It's the longest either of them has been assigned a solo mission in the seven years since they met, but she hasn't allowed herself to feel the significance of it, to acknowledge the bitter ache of missing him, until now. There was a time when she prided herself on working alone, relying on no one else. Now she can't even delude herself into thinking that's still true.
"Fuck, I hate being underground," says Clint, and the way his voice breaks on it fills her with sick anger at everything he's been through.
The bed he's started the night in is still in disarray, sweat-soaked sheets in a tangle on the floor. Natasha leads him to her bed instead, and it isn't even close to the first time they've ended up like this after a particularly bad mission, but everything is different now. She's crossed a line and has no intention of going back.
Clint hesitates when she crawls in beside him, tensing as she slips an arm around him again. "Wait."
Natasha refuses to let go. "What?" She already knows the answer.
"My dream," says Clint, running the fingers of his left hand over a cut on his right forearm and wincing silently. "I'm in bed with you. I wake up and it's not me—it's him in my head again. I have some kind of poison in a syringe and I kill you. Because you aren't afraid of me. Because you trust me."
"You were never afraid of me," says Natasha, because it's the best she can offer. Because she knows that nothing but time and perseverance can win his confidence back. She can't conquer his nightmares, can't fight off his doubts, but she can stand with him through it all. What she doesn't say is that learning to trust him is the riskiest thing she's ever done, that nothing has ever frightened her like realizing how much she cares.
Clint fingers the hem of her t-shirt absently and she wonders whether he knows that he's doing it. He always needs to be doing something with his hands, especially when he's anxious.
"You love me," he says finally, refusing to meet her gaze like he's afraid it will have turned out to be an illusion.
"Yes," Natasha says firmly. She'd be angry at his doubt if she hadn't seen it countless times before, a constant spanning the full length of their relationship. Clint is always prepared to write himself off, to be the one who doesn't matter. If she has one regret, it's that she couldn't prove him wrong sooner. But he has taught her not to apologize for her own needs, and she isn't going to start again now.
He makes a noise in the back of his throat, halfway between a laugh and a strangled sob. "God. Do you have any idea how long I've been in love with you?"
"Yes," she says, because it's true, because she is anything but oblivious and she knows it has been years. She hasn't said anything because he has never pushed, and she's been waiting to prove to herself that love is an emotion she's capable of returning, that love is a gamble she can take.
This time he does laugh, dropping his head against her chest so that the sound of it rumbles through her. Natasha cards her fingers into his hair, keeping him cradled against her as his shoulders shake.
"So then what are we?" he asks breathlessly, when he can speak again. "Are we—dating?"
Natasha wrinkles her nose at the word choice, and he looks slightly alarmed.
She shakes her head. "It just sounds too—"
"Mundane." Dating lacks depth, she thinks, fails to capture the weight of everything they've already shared.
Clint shifts closer again, like he's afraid this might all still slip away. "Then what are we?"
"Partners," she says after a moment. She means fighting back to back, shared secrets and nightmares and occasionally laughter, means being hopelessly lost and finding roots together, means you saved me and please don't ever leave me again.
Clint meets her eyes at last and she sees in their storm-cloud depths that he understands. Natasha kisses him then, just once, like sealing a promise. She won't push him any further tonight, knows that he still needs time and hope and space to heal, that he needs to figure out the puzzle of his own mind before they can explore this any further.
"You need a distraction," she says when she pulls away, knowing already that he won't sleep again tonight. He'll have to relearn how to trust his dreams along with everything else, but now is not the time; it's all still too raw. Natasha takes the television remote from nightstand, smiling as she hands it to him. "Find us something good to watch."
Clint laughs softly and presses a kiss to her temple before switching on the television.