Exhalation
an Avengers MCU story
Clint/Natasha
4000 words
by dirty diana
dirtydiana78 [at] hotmail

written in the summer of 2012 for the Kink Bingo "emotion play" square". beta'd by moosesal, thanks a million.

"I thought I'd find you here."

Natasha turns her head in the direction of that low, familiar voice. She finds Clint standing in front of her, in jeans and aged leather jacket, greeting her with the cocky smile she loves some days and has had enough of on others. The grin spreads to his eyes at the sight of her, as if they're simply playing a fun game of hide and seek. Natasha turns her back to him, and picks up her martini glass. When she speaks, he doesn't keep the fatigue and frustration out of her voice. "Clint. What do you want?"

"Same thing I always want, beautiful." He sits down next to her, with no invitation. "Wanted to see you."

Clint and Natasha broke up a long time ago, by mutual agreement and with no tears. But Clint still calls her by an endless list of endearments that aren't her name. He still turnd up like this in their off-duty hours, calm, just as if she should have been expecting him.

This nondescript downtown bar used to be their place, back when they had a place. Perhaps it wasn't the best hiding spot, but Natasha hadn't thought she needed to be hiding. She's wearing an outfit similarly casual to his, jeans and low heels and a soft blue sweater, with her hair pinned neatly back.

She sips her cocktail without saying a word. He reaches out, and traces the fresh bruise he can see on the side of her neck, before making a light line up her jaw and around the shell of her ear. Natasha keeps herself still, not responding to the touch. "Tell the truth." His tone is quiet, conversational. "Are you supposed to be drinking right now?"

"SHIELD doctors stitched me all back together again. Gave me a clean bill of health." A gulp of the bittersweet martini to punctuate her sentence.

Clint considers her for a moment, then signals the bartender. "One more," he indicates Natasha with a lose turn of the wrist, "and water over here."

She glances at him, frowning just a little. "You're on the emergency roster?"

"Couldn't get out of it." He shrugs. "Hope Hydra isn't throwing any parties tonight."

"So why are you here, then? Just checking to make sure that I'm not dead?"

Despite the sharpness of her words, he hasn't stopped touching her. Graceful fingers roam her face, her neck, the incline of her shoulders, and the hollow of her throat. Then finally come to rest just between her eyebrows, skin wrinkling as she's frowning. "I'm glad you're not dead," he says simply, before adding, "It wasn't your fault, 'Tasha."

Natasha rejects that without pausing, simply shaking her head. "Clint, I was team leader. It was my fault."

"That sounds like something that Hill would say."

"She did."

A harder expression crosses Clint's face. The touch now circling her palm becomes almost painfully firm, just for a moment, and then his face softens with something like a smile. "General consensus is that Maria Hill is a bitch, Natasha. Don't listen to her."

"Oh, yeah?" Now she's smiling back, an almost automatic reaction to the sight of Clint's gentle gaze. "What does consensus say about me?"

"That you're a bitch and a half, and not to get on your bad side ever." He's still making those lazy circles on her skin, the motion and the warmth much more calming than it should be. He shrugs then, a movement that belies his next self-deprecating words. "Could be worse, you could be a misplaced circus act with authority issues, right? Hill doesn't know what she's talking about. Listen to me. It wasn't your fault."

Natasha just manages not to roll her eyes. "You weren't even there."

"Doesn't really matter. I've seen you in action." He leans forward, brushing a kiss across her cheek, and then slips her smaller hand into his and curves his knuckles over hers. "Finish your drink. We're going to dance."

Natasha holds her breath and swallows all the liquid down. The stem of the glass is smooth and cool against her fingertips as she replaces it on the bar.

They're not really orders. Clint and Natasha are friends, and have been for a long time. There is nothing he could make her do if she didn't want to do it, and no reason that he would try. But on days like this when she's sore and exhausted all through, there is nothing easier and more comforting than closing her eyes and lettng Clint lead her someplace safe.

It's a Tuesday night, and there is no one on the tiny parquet dance floor besides the two of them. In this regular New York bar, they're just a regular New York couple, stealing a quiet moment for themselves. If they're the only ones even listening to the lovelorn Top 40 pop music playing over the steady hum of conversation, Clint doesn't seem to mind, or even notice. He's staring at her with bright eyes, as if attempting to bring all of her bruises into focus.

Maybe he is. Clint's better than 20/20 eyesight is legendary at SHIELD headquarters, and Natasha is past being surprised at the details he can make out.

"You're sure you're up to this?"

In answer Natasha moves towards him, letting her hips move slightly against him. Clint laughs and pulls her in even closer, resting one large hand in the small of her back. "Got it. Don't let me hurt you, sweetheart."

"As if you could," she whispers back. Some emotion seems to shudder tangibly through his body then, passing unnamed.

It's easy to forget how graceful Clint is most of the time. Not when he has his preferred weapon in his hand, and every movement is precise and leads straight to his target. But the rest of the time, when he's off-duty and blending matter-of-factly in with the shapes and the lines of the rest of the world. Now he follows the music, and that effortless grace is back without any evidence that he knows the difference.

How long has it been, a raspy soprano sings over distorted guitars.

In time the record changes to a slow lover's song, and Clint pulls her into his arms without ceremony. The other thing that's too easy to forget, Natasha thinks, is how much she wants him when he's this close to her.

She hates missions that don't go as planned. They all do, but Natasha can never help but remember a time when a missed objective or unacceptable losses meant more than just stern words from Hill, or a displeased glance from Fury. Natasha just can't seem to bring herself down from this op as quickly as she'd like. Every too-fast movement she catches out of the corner of her eye makes her fight the reflex to spin around and pin the offender to the ground. She is almost vibrating with adrenaline, with no relief from the gin.

Clint's fingers are heavy and warm in the small of her back. His hand curls gently into a fist, the shape brushing her spine, and he's murmuring words against her ear that can't be heard over the music. That probably aren't important, that probably don't mean anything.

At the moment that the song changes, his voice is suddenly clear. "Want to go?"

Natasha finds that she does. She follows him to the door.

*

In the back of the yellow taxi she leans against him, and lets him put his arm around her shoulders.

They're still friends. Clint might say that they don't have much choice, since missions still throw them into working together just as often as not. They have a new supervising agent now, and she's not Coulson. Maybe nobody would be, but she's doing her best.

The new agent is business-like and efficient, with a mild crush on Clint that she's not hiding as well as she probably thinks that she is. Phil was the kind of desk agent who understood that people are more than just mission objectives. He would've found a way around any outcome of their relationship, but the truth is that they still like each other, that they simply get along. Clint likes her hopelessly mediocre cooking and deadpan delivery of long-running private jokes. Natasha likes his embarrassing taste in movies and the way he can lighten any moment with a word. Quiet, tense moments on assignments can be just like this moment now, full of the wordless understanding that she hasn't had with anyone in a long, long time.

Natasha has been caught in the trance of countless minutes just this, the sensation of Clint running his fingers through her hair during a late-night taxi ride. She's close enough to feel him breathing, and inhale the familiar, woodsy scent of his cologne.

It's starting to rain just a little. Wheels roll underneath them as Natasha is lulled into a state of stillness by the pattern of tiny raindrops against the window glass, and the steady beating of Clint's heart.

*

When they reach her downtown apartment, the light drizzle is threatening to turn into a storm. Natasha stands on the curb staring at nothing, letting the damp stick to her skin as Clint settles the fare. At some point the rush of adrenaline became a wall she has no hope of climbing over. She doesn't quite lean against him again, or struggle to get her keys into their locks, but he notices just the same.

Clint looks at her sympathetically, and nods. "Bed. No," he adds, as she opens her mouth to argue, "I mean for sleeping. You're fading as I watch, sweetheart. Bedtime for all good little girls."

She thinks of telling him that she's not sweet or good and doesn't remember being little, that she hasn't been a girl since before he was born, that she was surfing the surge of hormones just fine before he arrived.

But Clint puts his hand on her waist, seeping warmth through the weave of her shirt, and Natasha doesn't say anything.

*

He follows her into her bedroom like he has a million times before. He points, and she sits silently, watching as he moves across the room and opening a top drawer. He pulls free a lacy nightgown and closes it again. His hands are businesslike as he helps her undress, but she doesn't miss the way his eyes take in every stretch of newly exposed skin. As methodical fingers unbutton her blouse, he's trying not to stare.

Clint can control his breathing and heart rate anywhere, in a battle zone or in a lonely sniper's nest, and so hiding the first flush of aroused interest is almost a reflex. She knows him, though, knows exactly what he looks like when he's thinking about making love to her. Natasha follows her own instincts, leaning forward and kissing him thoroughly.

He kisses her back, pressing closer, and maybe that's mindless instinct as well. When he pulls back his next words are rushed and almost desperate. "'Tasha," he whispers, helplessy. "Honest-to-God, I didn't come here for this. You know that, right?"

"I know." She's not one of those other agents, those clichés who sign up because they like the thought of violence and always need a hard and fast fuck after every op just to prove they're not dead. "I'm alive," Natasha says out loud. Because the intel was bad and not everyone came back, but she made it through like she always does.

"Yeah, you are," Clint agrees. The affirmation forms as a puff of warm air against her lips. He hasn't quite let go. "As long as we come home after, you know?"

She nods and pulls away. Natasha lifts her hips off the bed slightly so that he can unzip and pull down her jeans. He frowns when he sees the dressing over the stitches on her upper thigh. Clint runs his thumb carefully over the bruises that surround the cut, and the worry on his face is as clear as a neon sign.

"I landed wrong," she says, as if it's not important, and it isn't at all. "But I walked away, Clint." She reminds him of it because she can see what he's thinking.

He glances up at her and smiles, and the skin crinkles around the edges of his eyes. "Yeah. Let's get you to bed."

He throws her discarded clothing to the side, and she leans towards him with raised hands so that he can slip the sleeping gown over them. Natasha grabs the hem, and pulls it over her head and down around her torso, then yanks down the blanket and top sheet and lets him guide her underneath. She unpins her hair, and lets it spread against the pillow.

Clint undresses with careless speed as she watches. He shucks his jacket, t-shirt, jeans, and shoes with casual confidence, and leaves them in a pile on the floor beside her own.

"Hawkeye," she says, sternly. He just grins, unconcerned. They fall into call signs just as easily as real names or often-used cover names, whenever there is no one else to hear. That's how she knew him for a long time. From the day that she met him in Russia that's who he was to her. Comforting, predictable self-assuredness over the radio and the echo of the voice that was always watching her weak side.

"I'll pick them up in the morning, I promise."

"Believe it when I see it," she answers, but she's not paying attention. She's staring through her eyelashes at the patch of skin above his briefs, below his belly button, skin stretched taut over the solid, well-earned muscle, framing a line of dark hair. Blame it on the exhaustion, she thinks. A knowing smile crosses his face, then he's crawling into bedrooms and wrapping his arms around her. He stays perfectly still, breathing in and out, matching her own rhythm. Natasha can feel all of her limbs beginning to relax, as her body finally begins to believe that she can stand down.

She knows how this feels, the other way around. They comforted each other after Loki's destruction, her hands cupping his face so that her fingers rested in the place where she'd hit him, where there was a bruise forming. Clint didn't complain, didn't mention it at all. She's held on countless times while he came down from the postmission buzz that would otherwise see him loosing arrows from the rooftops of abandoned warehouses until his fingers were stiff and his arms would no longer follow instructions. Until he was finally ready to close his eyes.

Other nights, both of them needed it just as badly. She would be barely out of mission gear before he pressed his hand over hers and leans to whisper in her ear, his eyes bright like those of a misbehaving boy.

"Forget the showers and come home with me."

"Does that line work on all the girls?" Natasha would ask, but she would never turn him down. She's not that cliché, not any of those other agents, but sometimes it's exactly what she wants. They weren't always subtle, it couldn't have been a secret, but those were the nights that Natasha didn't give a damn.

Lying in her bed, Clint wraps his arms around her waist as if he's reading her mind. Then he rolls them both over, easing Natasha onto her back, and kisses her mouth. He grins, familiarly, and she presses her lips firmly together to hide her own smile.

"I thought this wasn't what you came here for," is what she says out loud.

Clint's gaze meets hers. He is looking at her carefully, but his tone is matter-of-fact. "Sweetheart, if you want me to leave then all you have to do is say so."

"I..." Natasha begins, and then stalls. He's called her bluff and now both of them know it. "Do we still do this?"

"I want to go down on you," he explains, as if it's just that simple. "You want me to?"

She's silent for a moment, not denying it.

"Nat, baby." His eyes are amused, and his voice caresses her skin the way it did when the two of them together was something brand new. "I can't hear you. And you know the rules. Now you have to say it."

She swears at him, but knows that the trap is perfectly formed, the way that Clint's traps always are. "‹You want to eat me out?›" she asks him in snarled Russian. She doesn't know why she's blushing. Sex doesn't embarrass her. But this does, this intense way that Clint is looking just at her and nowhere else.

"I'm sorry?" Clint asks, and now his smile has a definite touch of smugness. "Speak English. I can't understand you."

They're both perfectly aware that he can.

"Please," Natasha tells him. Abruptly something she wasn't even thinking about five minutes ago has become an absolute desire, consuming her whole body. She arches up into him, spreading her legs and dragging a pointed foot against the back of his thigh. "You still like these games, Hawkeye? Don't tease me. Lick it. Use your fingers. I want you to."

"Natasha." Her name, exhaled in reverence, and then he dips his head and kisses the smooth skin of her belly, pushing up her nightclothes so they pool over her breasts. "Hold on for me."

Natasha reaches up automatically, her strong grip forming around the top bar of the bed frame. It's something he first asked her to do a long time ago, to stop her from directing him, trying to take back control as he knelt between her thighs and brought her to pleasure. Later she imagined that she could see the marks of her fingers in the metal, like a calendar marking all the days and nights that they made love.

Clint strokes her with blunt fingers, then presses his mouth to her opening, and his tongue is soft and wet. She gasps, thrusting back against him as much as she's able to. She hears the sound of a short laugh in response, and one hand snakes around her hip to pin her against the bedsheets.

"‹Behave›," Clint murmurs, switching into his Midwest-accented Russian whether he means to or not. She never does, though, wriggling insistently against his touch. He knows her well, and remembers all the rhythms she responds to. He licks into her opening for an unending moment, pressure building before his mouth settles in just the right place, and his fingers push into her. Without any warning, hard and too fast and so good. The sound that escapes her is something like his name, too breathless to be understood.

"You can do better that, can't you? Make it wet. I could be on top, I could ride your pretty face until I came, would you like that?" Maybe she's babbling. She twists under his grasp, recites shameless obscenities to him untill she has no words left and no air with which to utter them. The only sounds falling from her lips are wordless moans. Then he's fucking her roughly with fingers slippery from her own juice, and she's lost to the unyielding cadence.

Then she's screaming his name, helplessly, trembling and fighting it as she crests over the ruthless wave of her orgasm. Clint is breathing hard against the flushed skin of her inner thighs, but she's only dimly aware of anything outside her own body for several moments.

"That's my good girl," he whispers. "You always taste so good, you know that? You can let go."

Natasha releases the bed frame, and Clint crawls up the mattress to collapse beside her, where she can see that his blue eyes are slightly unfocused. Her fingers twist tightly into his hair. She feels sated, pleasantly weighed down by the new chemicals flooding her system. Natasha kisses him then, and tastes the salty copper tang of herself on his mouth.

"Just give me a moment."

Clint shakes his head. "Unnecessary."

She smiles a little, disbelieving. "Are you turning me down?"

"First time for everything." He shrugs, then nudges her hand a little, where it's resting against his scalp. "Besides, it's not going to be very sexy when you fall asleep on my dick."

"I'm not going to fall asleep," she says, but she realizes that it's a lie halfway through. She turns her face away from him, so that she breathes her yawn into the blanket. "Sorry."

"Don't apologize to me, princess. Go to sleep. I'll be here."

Natasha has spent a full lifetime learning to depend only on herself, and his words shouldn't be as comforting as they are. He pulls her into his arms, and she curves herself into the shape of his body. She rests her head against Clint's chest, and has barely counted a dozen breaths before she's drifting off, into oblivion.

*

In the morning she wakes up to the sharp, rich smell of fresh coffee. She feels surprisingly rested, better all over except for the dull ache that remains around the stitches in her left thigh. She pulls herself into a sitting position and winces slightly at the movement, just as Clint enters the room.

He's already dressed in yesterday's rumpled clothes. "Went to the bakery. You want a pastry with your coffee?"

Natasha nods.

He climbs back into bed and pulls close against her. It should be far too domestic to be real, the kind of thing that they joke about during long waits on missions when lazy mornings and breakfast in bed seem like things for other people. But Clint simply hands her a mug, part of a set painted bright primary colours. It's one of the first things she'd bought in America. He's made the coffee made just the way that she likes it. Clint breaks a croissant into halves, and watches her dip a piece into the milky drink.

In retrospect, she realizes, she should have recognized the look on his face.

"I've missed you," he says, softly.

"I've been here," Natasha answers. She realizes that it's the wrong play in the instant she says it, realizes what conversation they're really having just a second too late to get out of it.

Clint tilts his head, and his expression doesn't change, but there is frustration in the movement. "'Tasha."

"Clint." She's running through her options, the things that she can say. She doesn't want to fight with him.

"You remember why we broke up?" he asks her.

She nods. "I remember."

"Yeah? I don't."

"We agreed..." she begins, but that's the wrong play too.

"Did we?" he asks her, and that's Clint's low, sure voice when he has a target in sight. It's been a long time since she felt like his prey. "Because I fucking miss you, Nat. I love you and I miss you and I feel like maybe you miss me. And this makes you nervous, I get that. You're not scared of anything, but you're scared of me for some reason, so I'll wait." He stops, suddenly, taking a breath. She watches as he swallows down the loss of control of a moment ago and becomes still.

The kiss he gives her then is a chaste, careless kiss, as if they've been laughing together, talking about nothing important. A fractured silence settles in, and then he speaks again. "I met with Director Fury a couple of days ago."

It's a complete change of subject, except for how she suspects that it isn't. Natasha looks at him. "Avengers Initiative?" she guesses.

"Yes," he says, nodding. "Different, right? A long way from covert ops. We might be saving the world together on a regular basis."

"Is that what you want?" she asks him softly, trying to feel her way towards what he's looking for.

Clint raises his eyebrows. "Do I want to be on a team with a billionaire asshole, a walking green nuclear missile, an actual storybook character, and the war relic who doesn't know anything about fighting in the current century? That your question? Natasha, I would rather put an arrow through my skull, and you fucking know it." His voice, grown louder at the end of his question, abruptly softens. "I do want to hang out with you, though. That part might be fun. And you guys are going to need someone long-range. I'll go where I'm sent."

Natasha swallows a small hiccup of laughter at the last sentence. "Yeah?"

Clint puts down his empty coffee cup, and curls his hand around hers. His bow hand, calloused and nimble, as he responds to her laugh by brushing a kiss across her fingertips. He speaks gently to the inside of her wrist. "I can be obedient, Nat. I'll be anything that you want. But I don't know that I can work beside you and pretend any more." He stops and corrects himself with a shrug. "Or maybe I don't want to. Pretend. Do you want me to turn it down?"

She doesn't wonder if he'd really do that if she asked him to, or if he can. Clint has written his own rules for almost as long as he's been with SHIELD. She's living, breathing proof of that. For years Natasha didn't know why. Now she thinks of a rainy day in Moscow, and thinks of Loki, and the damage wrought by the Chitauri.

The two of them have been friends. Or something else, Clint says now. She pictures herself fighting these otherworldly creatures, nothing that ever existed in the Red Room. Nothing that she's been trained for. She pictures doing it without him.

"I want you there," she says, finally.

Clint nods. She knows that he's too smart to take this as more than it means. She also knows that Clint doesn't make promises he isn't serious about. He'll wait forever, or until she tells him not to.

"I'll be there, then," he agrees, and Natasha smiles.

*fin.

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