Pairing: Clinton Barton/Natasha Romanoff
Summary: What really happened in Budapest?
Requested by: steverogerrss
They ate in silence. Rogers stared at his plate with an exasperated blankness, hand on his head as if nursing a hangover and picking at his food. Thor’s eyes searched the faces of his comrades as he ate, something he seemed to be focusing whole-heartedly on, perhaps trying to push away unwanted thoughts of his wayward brother. Banner seemed to be doing the same, unsure if he felt at place among the group. Living in relative isolation for years had that effect on people. Even Stark, with his always-something-to-say nature, remained quiet, casting glances around the table as if he wished someone would say something, anything. Despite his charisma, Stark never did well in social groups, especially painfully silent ones. Natasha knew their silence came from thoughts too complicated to process, each different than the next. Shell-shocked, betrayed, exhausted, discouraged. Yet they’d won, that meant something, right? Then why didn’t any of them feel like celebrating?
None of them made eye contact with one another save for the passing glances exchanged between she and Barton. The silence was only intensifying the magnitude of feelings she never thought she’d have to deal with. They kept cycling over and over in her head, a broken record of self-analytical doubt. Barton’s leg, stretched out and resting on her seat, felt as if it could burn her with its body heat. While part of her wished he’d move, another part of her hoped he didn’t. And therein lay the problem.
“Your ledger is dripping. It’s gushing red. And you think saving one man no less virtuous than yourself will change anything?”
Natasha almost wished she’d never approached Loki to manipulate information from him, wished her thoughts were a result of some sick, magical mind fuck. But no. She’d underestimated her enemy, hadn’t expected her plan to backfire, hadn’t expected Loki to know about her past. Her “red ledger”. His threats shouldn’t have had an effect on her – she’d been trained to be impervious to such intimidation – but his words haunted her. They were what urged her into the fight earlier today and they were what forced her into processing her emotions now. Her life had always been one spent in denial. Ignore the blood of the past, focus on the present (even if the present meant more blood). She’d always suspected that she’d meet a violent end simply because she led a violent life; live by the sword, die by the sword. So when she attracted S.H.I.E.L.D.’s negative attention, she embraced the inevitable end while she fought to preserve her life, knowing she was being tracked by the agency’s assassins. But she wasn’t killed. She was spared.
Natasha cast another glance in Clint’s direction, thankful that he was fiddling with one of his arrows – concentration lining his face – as he always did when his mind was preoccupied.
She was S.H.I.E.L.D’s ever since that day. She didn’t really have another option. It was either that or refuse Barton’s generosity, and Natasha wasn’t about to pass on a life-saving favor; self-preservation won that argument. Nick Fury found the two to be a formidable force, teaming her and Barton together for missions. Neither of them did well with discussing their feelings. There was always the next mission, the next operative; emotional burdens weren’t that high of a priority. But during one particular mission, Natasha remembered plucking up enough emotional courage to ask him why he’d spared her life.
“Because you have talent,” he said. “And with talent there’s potential. It would have been a waste to kill you.”
“That’s all?” Natasha asked, keeping her tone as void as possible, eyes glued to the drab wallpaper plastered around them.
Barton didn’t say anything for a moment, gazing out of their hotel window. “That’s all,” he finally said, turning to look back at her over his shoulder. “Should I say something more?”
“Is there something more to say?” she countered.
“No,” he chuckled. “I suppose there isn’t.”
But that wasn’t entirely true. They were trained to lie and deceive so it was nothing to for them to lie and deceive each other…or themselves. The catch-22 with doing so was that both of them knew when the other was lying. That’s where denial came in handy. Being emotionally involved with another person, especially when that person was your partner, was dangerous. Emotions were flawed things and flaws lead to mistakes. Mistakes, in their business, lead to death, and since death wasn’t something they could afford, emotions were left behind. It was denial that kept their heads clear on missions, and Natasha believed that if she kept denying the obvious it would go away. In some sense, that was true, but nothing – not even self-fabricated lies – lasted forever.
They’d been in Budapest when the veil of denial starting slipping away. Holed up in the Hotel Anna, plotting their next move against a Hungarian group who had taken one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s agents hostage. The group supposedly had ties to the Russian mob, the main reason Fury had insisted that Natasha involve herself in the mission. She, of course, accepted, as did Barton, but being so close to ‘home’ was unnerving. As much as she’d tried to hide it, it must have shown because her partner expressed his concern for her during the mission, asking her to remain in the hotel room while he went out to gather information.
“No,” she snapped, incredulous.
“Look, our odds of getting this done quick and efficiently without any problems are better if they don’t know they’re being hunted down,” he said, keeping his tone as even as he could. “They’ll recognize you, Natasha. They’ll…it’ll fuck things up. They won’t recognize me.”
“No, I won’t just sit here. I can almost guarantee that they already know we’re here, or at least that they already know your identity by now. And if they do know we’re here, leaving me locked up in here won’t keep me safe.”
She’d stated the unspoken truth and she knew it. The silence said it all. He wasn’t insisting she remain in the hotel because they’d recognize her and botch the mission, he was suggesting she remain in the hotel because he feared they’d recognize her and [b]kill[/b] her. Clint didn’t look at her as he said, “Fine. Get your weapons so we can get out of here.”
While successful, the mission had gone unnaturally difficult for them, especially for Natasha. Her injuries were so extensive that Clint had to drag her back to the Hotel Anna, where she blacked out. He should have taken her to a hospital, or perhaps contacted Fury or Coulson with a notification that they needed medical aid, but he remained by her side until she recovered. One of the handy assets of being an assassin was gaining an array of medical knowledge; you never knew when something could go awry on a mission and hospitals could be about as safe as ushering a cow into a slaughterhouse in order to avoid a pack of hounds.
Natasha had woke later to the sound of the rickety ceiling fan spinning above the bed. She thought she’d been imagining things in her brief waking periods; Barton couldn’t have possibly stayed around. She wouldn’t have. She would have sought to taking care of business and had S.H.I.E.L.D. take over the situation. She’d once thought Clint would have done the same. They’d always agreed that if the situation ever turned sour for one and the other could escape it alive, they’d save themselves and leave the other behind. Barton had directly disobeyed that pact. Natasha had almost wished she was naïve enough to ask why, but she knew better. He’d care for her, even when he shouldn’t have. So it shouldn’t have come to such a great surprise to her when she’d turned her head – a distant dizziness buzzing in her skull – to see Barton sitting beside her, at the edge of her bed, head in his hands and eyes glued to the floor.
“Clint?” she asked, voice raspy from its brief disuse.
His head shot up at the sound of her voice, green-brown eyes snapping open. At his startled expression, Natasha realized he had either been asleep or merely resting. He relaxed as soon as he realized it was her that had spoken, his tension replaced by a relief that made his shoulders sag.
“Tasha…how are you feeling?” he asked. His eyes left her face for a split second to glance at the floor, as if he were unsure what to say.
“Like I’ve been lying around in bed for far too long,” she said dryly, earning a laugh from her partner as she eased herself into a sitting position. Natasha sighed, leaning back against the headboard. She was irritated with herself that her body felt so lazy. “How long was I out?” Barton made a face, a face that Natasha knew meant that her partner didn’t really want to answer her question.
“[b]Clinton[/b],” she hissed warningly, sitting forward. “How long?”
“About…32 hours,” he grimaced.
“See? That’s the positive spirit I’ve missed; makes it sound like less time,” he said brightly, patting her on the shoulder.
“This isn’t a joke, Clint,” she snarled, swatting away his arm. “What about the operative? What—?”
“It’s done,” he said, with a wave of his hand. “Taken care of. We’re done here.”
“Done?” she asked slowly, brows furrowing in confusion. It was hard to remember what had happened several nights before. She remembered gunfire and flames…the boom of explosions…a sharp pain in her skull and shoulder…her own cry of pain…Barton grabbing her round her waist and hauling her out of harm’s way. Natasha met his gaze. “Why…?”
He didn’t need clarification. “Would you rather me have left you there?” he asked with a small scoff.
“We had a deal,” she said, ignoring his question. “You could have been killed.”
“I could have…yeah,” he nodded. “But I figured if I could get us both out alive—”
“You could have prevented both of us getting out alive,” she interrupted. She had little to no clue where she was headed with her questioning, but was incensed that he would jeopardize a mission the way he did. “How could you—?”
“Dammit, Natasha,” he growled, exasperated. “Because I couldn’t leave you behind?” He gave a short, bitter laugh, crazed with suppressed emotions. “Couldn’t. Couldn’t do it.” He gestured with his hands, as if the reasons as to why he couldn’t leave her to her death were placed around the room in flashing neon lights. All Natasha saw were rolled up packages of gauze, a once wet washcloth with red-brown smears of her blood on it, and the drably decorated wallpaper surrounding them. “I care about you, okay? Happy?” he asked, a steely glint in his eyes.
But she wasn’t happy, if only because he was upset. She knew how difficult it was for him to openly admit his feelings, his feelings for her. “Clint…we can’t do this,” she sighed.
“Shouldn’t,” he corrected her. “Not can’t. We shouldn’t do this.”
There was a moment of heavy silence between them, just a fraction of time, in which they looked into one another’s eyes and silently asked questions they refused to answer aloud…then their lips met with a frenzy that neither were prepared for.
They were hands and lips and desire, all caution thrown to the wind. Natasha winced at the pain in her bandaged shoulder, but the sensation only spurred her on, fingers running through his shortly cut hair, nails scraping ever-so-slightly against the skin of his scalp. His fingers slid underneath the hem of the charcoal gray tank she wore, sliding the fabric against her skin, over her head, and leaving it forgotten on the floor as he pushed her down onto the mattress. She rolled her hips against his, teasingly, tauntingly, earning a groan from her partner.
The rest of their clothes were removed and flung aside without delay. There was no need to build the tension. Being around each other for so long with such fettered emotions was enough build-up for them.
His hand clasped hers, pressing it into the bed with an almost bruising force as his lips traced a path from her jawline to her collarbone, teeth nipping at the tender flesh. Their bodies moved together as if they’d known how to how to dance this dance with each other for years, in sync in a way Natasha did not expect, bound by blood and debts yet unpaid. Every touch, every move, and every labored moan and sigh leaving her with feelings she hadn’t known she’d been missing. Comfort. Security. Understanding.
The heights they sent each other to were dizzying, each instinctively knowing just how to touch the other, driving one another insane. Breath hot against her ear, he whispered her name over and over, as if making sure she was actually there and this wasn’t some sort of dream.
Neither wanted it to end, but when the pressure became too much they both let go. Natasha was surprised more explosions hadn’t gone off from the sensation of her release. It was earth shattering. They lay there afterwards, neither saying a word, thoughts as heavy as their breathing as they bid their hearts’ beatings to return to steady rhythm.
They’d caught a flight back to America the next day. They avoided discussion on the moment they’d shared. Only once had Barton tried to bring it up, weeks after, and Natasha had silenced him with a simple, “Don’t.” She thought if they didn’t talk about it, the dangerously thin line they were treading needn’t be fully crossed.
“You and I remember Budapest very differently.”
Natasha allowed a small smile to turn to corners of her lips. She supposed that was true. He probably viewed it with fond memories of a good romp between the sheets – or worse, she thought – with heartache as a confession wasted. Natasha had forced herself to view it as an operative gone horribly messy and an emotional breach. A mistake.
But maybe it didn’t have to be a mistake. He’d always been the light that cracked through her darkness, her partner and – dare she think it – friend.
“You think saving one man no less virtuous than yourself with change anything?”
What would Thor’s monstrosity of a sibling know about virtue? If anything could eradicate hate, bloodshed, a red ledger, it was love, wasn’t it?
“Okay,” Stark finally sighed, throwing his crumpled food wrapper onto the table, causing everyone gathered to snap their heads up to look at him, pulled from their thoughts. “I’m glad we could share this, uh…lunch date…it was a nice chat, good laughs, but I have to get back to my wonderfully remodeled building to, ah…call someone to patch things up.”
“Loki destroyed your phone operating system,” Banner said. Despite his exasperated tone, his eyes showed the humor he was hiding out of respect for Stark’s predicament.
“Oh,” Tony said, looking for a split second to be baffled as to what to do next. “Right. Then Thor,” he continued, glancing at the wild-haired blond, tone back to its good-natured state, “when you get back to Narnia or wherever you come from, tell your bastard brother that I’m suing him for all expenses. And the phone.”
Thor laughed his hearty laugh as Tony went on. “I’m not joking, tough guy. I’m serious. You have currency in Neverland, right? What do you pay in up there? Cash? Credit? Sheep?”
Natasha tuned Stark out as he went on trying to liven up the group’s crestfallen mood as they paid (Rogers kindly paying for Thor) and left the building. Barton walked by her side. He cast her a questioning look, silently asking her if she was okay. Natasha nodded. She wouldn’t ask, but knew that if she chose to accompany him to wherever he was staying that he wouldn’t oppose.
“Love is for children.”
She glanced at him before returning her gaze to the road ahead. Did she love Barton? She wasn’t sure. Did she care for him? Without a shadow of a doubt. Could she grow to love him…?
Natasha meant what she’d said to her partner earlier. She wanted to clear her ledger. After today, she felt that she had cleansed only a portion of the blood on her hands. She now knew – or at least felt – that compassion could redeem her, if not in the minds of others, at least in her own.
She looked at him again to find her gaze met with his own, deciding that she could quite possibly repeat the same ‘mistake’ again.