Clint gets a court-martial and six weeks suspension without pay, but in the end it's worth it because she's still there when he comes waltzing back into SHIELD HQ halfway through his suspension. She doesn't talk to him, really, but that's okay. Clint can talk enough for the both of them.
So he does. He fills in the time till his suspension's up by telling her about growing up, bouncing from foster home to foster home until he and Barney had ended up with the circus. He tells her about learning to walk the tightrope, learning to shoot, learning to steal. He talks about the events that lead to him being where he is, right now, an agent of SHIELD, instead of dead or in prison. He tells her about Bobbi, their whole story, how much he loves her, how much he doesn't love the way he feels like she's trying to push him to be something he's not or become somebody he doesn't recognize or isn't ready to be.
He tells her... way too much, actually. Some not even Bobbi and Barney and definitely Nick Fury doesn't know. She's a good listener, for all that she's actively trying to give him the Look of Death most of the time. It's a nonjudgmental Look of Death. Mostly.
She takes in what he says and accepts it without trying to change who he is. It's different.
They stick her with May first, like he thought, and it ends in disaster, also like he thought. She goes through Carter and Coulson and finally Nick Fury pulls him into a meeting, and aggressively slides her file across his desk towards him. "You brought her in," Fury points out, good eye burning holes into Clint's skull with the force of his glare. "She's your problem now. You deal with her, or I will."
Clint's smart enough to know that doesn't mean Fury wants to take the Black Widow under his wing.
"So look," he says, a few days later, once he's figured out how to proceed. They're sitting at one of the little tables in the cafe on the ground floor of SHIELD HQ, across from each other, because coffee makes everything better. "You can't escape anymore."
"Can't, маленькая птица?" Natasha - she goes by Natasha now - arches a perfectly manicured brow at him.
"Not 'can't' as in can't." Clint concedes. They both knew she was more than capable. "'Can't' as in they won't let you come back. And they won't send me to get you this time." Because they know he's compromised. He likes her. She's angry and sharp and ruthless and terrifying and it's great.
She looks at him for a long moment, and Clint makes himself hold her gaze. This is important. Eventually, she nods. "Duly noted," she says, and takes a sip of her coffee.
He takes her on her first mission way before SHIELD officially declares her ready, but whatever. He's her handler. He makes the decisions.
They work well together, it turns out, complementing each other's strengths and weaknesses in combat and subterfuge.
It doesn't take him long to fall for her, because of course it doesn't. She is dark and dangerous and deeply fascinating, and Clint has always been irresistibly attracted to sharp things. Knives, arrows, people. He has a type.
He knows people are talking, jumping to conclusions about what this is and what this means for him and Bobbi. And he knows, part of him knows, that Natasha intends to use this, to manipulate him. But Clint has a self-destructive streak a mile wide, and when he loves he loves hard and dives in head first, so he doesn't care.
He's never given two shits about what anyone thought, anyway. He doesn't keep secrets from Bobbi, they have an understanding and she's away most of the time anyway, doing her own thing. And either Tasha's going to hurt him or admit to herself what he already knows - that she likes him more than she lets on.
In the end it's a bit of both.
Budapest is a blur of gunfire and silk sheets. It's at some point between then and his marriage ending that Clint realizes Natasha needs a friend - real and steadfast - more than she needs a besotted lover.
It hurts a little, but he course corrects and directs his focus into nurturing that instead of into trying to turn this into something it was never going to be. After a while, he realizes they're both better for it.
Romances end. He is all too aware of it - his checkered past has been illustrative enough. This, though... This is something they can maintain.
And they do. Through personal turmoil, through alien attacks, through other relationships. They become constants in each other's lives. Sometimes Nat feels like the only constant Clint has.
She learns ESL when he loses a significant portion of his hearing, and helps him through it after Loki scrambles his brain. He takes her out of situations when he knows she's in over her head, and holds onto her in the messy aftermath of Banner's departure and the red witch.
SHIELD falls, then rebuilds. The world changes and evolves around them - aliens, monsters, superheroes. It leaves them on uncertain footing, but Clint doesn't mind.