It all started with an innocent question.
In the middle of a perfectly normal dinner, Natasha delicately wiped her mouth with a napkin and left the table. She didn’t say anything to anyone or indicate why she was leaving when all the rest of them were eating and talking and generally enjoying themselves. It wasn’t the first time that it had happened but it was the first time that anyone decided to comment on it.
“What’s her deal?” Tony asked, clearly upset that Natasha got to leave but he was made to sit through the whole dinner because it was, as Pepper always pointed out, the polite thing to do. “Why does she always leave?”
No one said anything at first but it was clear that they were all wondering the same thing. With a sigh, Clint put down his fork. “Look, it’s hard enough for her to sit down and eat with you people like it’s a civilized dinner. If she had her way, she’d eat at the kitchen counter from plastic containers. This is... this is a lot like undercover.”
“It’s playing a game. It’s saying the right words at the right times and smiling.” He rubbed a hand over his face, through his hair, before leaning back in his chair. “It reminds her of times when she’s not herself. After you’ve done that for a long time, it’s hard to switch back and forth. In her mind, she should be doing her thing and interrogating you for the latest intel every evening.”
Bruce was the first to move. He took the last bite of food off his plate, held it high in the air, and brought it crashing down on the floor. Paralysis set in as everyone tried to figure out the reasoning behind his action. “I say we don’t eat on china anymore.” He looked around at the rest of the people at the table. “If it makes her uncomfortable, why are we doing it?”
It shouldn’t have surprised anyone (but it did) that Pepper was the second to pick up her plate. Unfortunately, she’d only picked at her dinner so it made a much better crash when it landed on the ground, pasta flying everywhere. By the end of the night, not a single china plate existed in the entire place.
The next morning, Steve came looking for Clint. Natasha had a SHIELD meeting that was supposed to last all morning long so Clint had decided to go for a run along the beach. “Care if I join you?” Steve asked as he found Clint in the gym, tying on his shoes.
“Free country,” Clint muttered, even though he hated talking while running. Steve, unfortunately, always wanted to hold a conversation, as if he was proud of the fact that he never ran out of breath.
They took off at a fair pace, Steve allowing Clint to set it without pushing him to go faster. That could never be good. Even though the suspense was killing him, Clint let the silence hang between them and concentrated on his breathing and tempo, because he wasn’t a super soldier and had to conserve energy where he could.
“So, you’ve known Natasha for a long time?”
At first, Clint couldn’t tell if it was a question or a statement. He just nodded, hoping that was the right response.
“The widow’s bite thing. Could it kill a man, do you think?”
Clint stopped running. It took Steve a few strides to figure out that he was suddenly alone so he had to jog back to find out if his question was going to get answered. “Do you know what a black widow is, Captain?”
“A spider that is known to kill and eat her mate. Most of that is pure bunk but it sounds good and it makes for a cool costume. The spider’s bite can cause muscle spasms and weakness, though.”
“So... could she kill a man with it?”
“Could you kill a man with your shield?”
“There’s your answer.” Clint started running before a thought occurred to him. He stopped, disgusted that he hadn’t figured it out sooner. “Are you asking because you want her to try it out on you?”
Steve’s cheeks actually pinked and his eyes dropped to the ground, as if Clint had asked him a personal question. Seeing as they were talking about Natasha, he certainly hoped it wasn’t a personal question or he was going to have to kill the man for having thoughts about mating with Tasha.
“I thought it might be something to try out in the gym sometime. I’ve gone up against everyone else, just for the sake of knowing what they can and can’t do.”
“So why aren’t you asking Natasha this yourself?”
The pink in the man’s cheeks deepened. “Because maybe she intimidates me. Not all the time,” he rushed to point out. “Just when we talk about things that have to do with... killing.”
“Talk to her about it. I’m sure she can give you a better run down about what it is she can do with her bite. I prefer her other bite, myself, but I suppose that’s not for everyone.” Clint included the last part as a warning (because Captain America did not deserve playing cards, good looks and the sexy master assassin, thank you very much) but also because it ensured that Steve wouldn’t be following him down the beach. If he’d remembered the sexual innuendos earlier, he could have saved himself this conversation.
He got back without incident (three miles in fifteen minutes twenty seconds - a personal best when no one was running after him, intent on killing him) and was just ready to get in the shower in the gym when Bruce found him.
“Let me guess,” he said with a sigh, considering for a second or two if he wanted to be lowering the towel or not in front of a man who routinely lost his pants when he went into action. “You have a question about Nat.”
“Ask away.” Clint kept the towel around his hips but did take a seat on the bench to hide the fact that his legs were shaking with fatigue, a good reminder that he needed to go out running more often. “But I reserve the right to refuse to answer. Also, I will not give you any details about our sex life.”
It had worked once today but Bruce didn’t blush. He did narrow his eyes in irritation, a reminder not to bait the ‘other guy’ more than absolutely necessary.. “The last thing I want to ask about is you and Natasha having sex. I’ve walked in on it enough to be perfectly capable of figuring things out for myself. But I did want to know about her background.”
“She’s Russian. She’s got red hair so that means, what, a recessive gene somewhere in a family member? That’s what I know.”
“Does she know who her parents are?”
“Do you?” Clint retorted, most of his post-running calm gone. “Seriously, who asks people that? She was a fucking orphan working for the KGB, Bruce. That’s common knowledge. Why would she know about her family? And why would you bring it up when-”
“Sorry.” Bruce held up his hands to ward off both the verbal and physical attack because Clint was on his feet again and he was moving forward, not caring that he wasn’t really dressed for fighting and that he was weaponless against a man who could turn into a rage monster in the blink of an eye. “Look, I-”
“-it bothers her.”
“It bothers her?”
Clint blinked as he realized who it was that he was backing up into a corner. His retreat was slow and steady, so as not to further anger Bruce, even though he looked more worried than angry at the moment. “Why wouldn’t it?”
When Bruce shrugged, Clint caught the first indication that maybe people didn’t realize when things bothered Natasha. Like that thing at dinner the other night. Or when she flat out refused to watch war movies. Of course, she and Steve both walked away from those. No one thought anything about it, except Clint had to deal with the fallout from the DVD selection for the next several hours whereas they went about their lives without ever knowing how it bothered Natasha.
“Look, here’s the thing about Nat. She likes you guys a whole lot. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be here. Ever. That’s how she is. I don’t think any of you get just how big of a deal it is that she decided to move in here. She’s different. Don’t get me wrong. I love her like no one else - past, present, or future. She’s the one for me. But that doesn’t mean she’s everyone’s cup of tea.”
Bruce nodded slowly, his eyes cloudy with something that might have been guilt. As he turned to go, Clint asked, “What made you ask? About her family?”
“I’ve been running some tests. Genetic stuff. It’s nothing. I don’t need to know. Just figured it would make it easier to come up with her profile if I could find her ancestry.”
“Like what sort of genetic stuff?”
“Like anti-toxins and better antibiotics. Pain killers. That sort of thing. It was something I started with Steve and thought we could all benefit from it.”
His questions now made sense but they still touched on something that Natasha wasn’t comfortable talking about. Maybe, if it was phrased right, he could find out something that would help Bruce out. “How about I talk this over with her and get back to you. I can’t promise anything.”
Bruce smiled. “I’d appreciate it. Thanks for telling me about her. She’s quite the mystery.”
Natasha wasn’t exactly an open book with him but he was suddenly aware how much the other people in the house might not fully understand her. Since it might prove to be a problem further down the road (they were all being exceedingly polite... with the exception of Tony, who probably didn’t have an exceedingly polite setting), he decided it was up to him help smooth the way.
He decided to broach the topic with Natasha later that night. She’d come home a bit frazzled from having to play SHIELD AGENT all day long so he took her out for some Chinese food and a long walk on the beach. As they sat on the sand, their feet barely touching the warm surf, he leaned into her shoulder.
“You’ve made quite the impression on your fellow housemates.” She looked at him like he might be crazy, but he only grinned at her. “They’ve become curious about you.”
As if a switch had been turned on, her whole body stiffened. “What kind of questions are they asking?”
“The kinds of questions that friends ask.”
He nodded. “Weird, huh? Here I was, thinking you and I would never be able to make friends and we have a whole house to choose from.”
“And this is good?”
She let him wrap his arm around her, pulling her into his side without offering any resistance. “Really good. It means there are other people that are on our side. More people to cover our backs.”
“More people we have to protect.”
“Especially Tony,” they said at the same time, their laughter bubbling up from the same place of peace.
“Are you okay with me telling them stuff? About you? Nothing that isn’t in a dossier somewhere in one of Fury’s files.”
When she didn’t answer right away, he began to count stars. They were still too close to civilization to get to a high number but he got all the way to 65 by the time he felt her completely soften into his side.
“Like what?” she finally asked. “What are they asking? What do they want to know?”
“Different things. Nothing too strange. Nothing dangerous. They’re just afraid to ask you.”
Even without seeing her face, he could tell that it would be blank of all expression. He could feel the energy coming off of her in waves, though. As afraid as they all were of asking her questions, she was more afraid to answer them. There was no way she could handle all of them converging on her at once.
“How about this,” he offered. “How about they ask me, like they’ve been doing, and I filter the requests. Some, I’ll send to you straight out and you can answer yourself. Some, I’ll answer right away. And some, well, those we’ll talk about.”
“And this is a good thing? We want this?”
This took some thought because he didn’t want to answer for her. It was her life, after all. But this was a good life. These were good people. None of them would knowingly hurt her. He wouldn’t let them.
“For right now, this is a good thing. If, at any time, you decide you don’t want this, we walk away. You and I. Together.”
“Together,” she whispered, nuzzling her cheek against his shoulder. “Like Budapest.”
This time he chuckled at the reference. “Yes. Just like in Budapest. You just aren’t going to let that one drop, are you?”
“If they asked, would you tell them about Budapest?”
Without even thinking about it, he answered, “Not a chance. Some things are meant to stay just between us. That is a story that is never going to leak out.” But he could feel her smile against his chest as if his hands were tracing over it. “Pepper?”
The breath he tried to take in got all twisted around until he was choking for air and coughing and just generally in agony for a few seconds. When he could talk again, his voice was a squeak. “About Budapest? What kind of clearance does that woman have?”
“No, she asked about you. About,” her hand waved in the air, “us. She wanted to know... why. I think it surprised her when you didn’t want your own room.”
He’d made a pretty big deal about the fact that he was good sharing even though Pepper and Tony were very insistent that everyone get their own space both here in Malibu and in New York. They kept trying to force him to pick a room, as if he was an orphan that had gone so long without any toys that he didn’t know how to deal with Christmas when it finally came around. “I already have what I want,” he had finally told them, pointing to Natasha who was standing across the rooms, her arms folded as she watched the proceedings play out. “And it’s her. I don’t need my own space. I’m good.”
“I guess we still don’t look like a couple to people.” She linked her hand with his, smoothing her thumb over the tiny symbols that circled his left ring finger. “Which is odd. I think we look exactly like a couple.”
“What do they know anyway?”
“Not a lot.”
They left the conversation there, moving on to better topics to be discussed as the tide pulled at their clothing and hair.
The next question that came his way absolutely floored Clint. He wasn’t ready for it, seeing as the coffee was still dripping into the carafe and the sun had only just come over the horizon.
“Why?” Tony asked, barging into the kitchen with a day’s worth of beard and a scowl to show for his night’s activities.
Since Clint had a day’s worth of beard but a smile, even with all the sand that had found ways into places that sand should not be, he decided to humor the guy instead of knocking him across the room for daring to ask stupid questions so early in the day. “Why what?”
“Why... why you?”
Clint blinked, wishing he had some clue what this was about. He scratched at his chest as he yawned. “Because?”
“No.” Tony got out his finger and began poking it in Clint’s direction. “Why are you,” he flailed his other hand around in the general direction of the door, “with her? You seem so... normal.”
“Pepper kick you out of the penthouse again?” The only answer he received was a growl. “Look, I’m not about to argue normal with you, a man who flies around in a suit of armor painted to look like a race car. Just like I’m not going to argue it with the green guy or the guy wearing the god damned American flag.”
He turned back just as the coffee stopped dripping, pausing to pour himself a cup and inhale the steam. “But I will tell you that I’m with her because she makes me feel good about myself. Even when I do stupid things, she looks at me like I can be fixed. I never have to be worried that she’s going to throw me over for some pretty face or a pocket full of cash. And if you want to know why she picked me, you’ll have to ask her because I have no idea.”
Clint couldn’t stop the dull blush that covered most of his face and upper body. “Pepper’s got a big mouth.”
“If she hadn’t made me sleep in the lab last night, I’d punch you for disparaging her like that. As it is, I’m going to let it slide this one time.” Tony grabbed his own cup of coffee, drinking half of it in one gulp before tossing the rest of the contents in the sink “That’s disgusting. Did you make that?”
“‘S double strength,” Clint muttered into his cup, savoring the scent as much as the acid bite on his tongue. “Look, if you’re trying to make yourself feel better after a shitty evening, that’s fine. Pick at me all you like. But Budapest is classified. If that information got into the wrong hands-”
“Exactly. I’d like to keep it out of Twitter if at all possible.”
“Were you really naked the whole time?” When Clint set his coffee cup on the counter and took a step forward, Tony put his hands up in truce. “Fine, fine. Keep your secrets. But, uh, do me a favor, would you?”
Since he was feeling magnanimous, Clint shrugged. “Sure.”
“Quit doing the nasty in the sauna. It’s making Bruce skittish. I don’t like it when Bruce gets skittish. Bad things happen in the lab.”
When Tony left, Clint grabbed another coffee cup and poured in a good measure of cream before adding enough coffee to discolor the mixture. He added some cream and a teaspoon of sugar to his own cup. They were both going to need plenty of energy if they were going to have to explore Stark Tower for new places to “do the nasty”, as Tony put it. The thought was enough to make him whistle as he sauntered down the hallway toward the elevator.