It’s first said in Budapest, stuffed twenty feet underground and holed up in the office of an abandoned mine.
“I love you” Clint announced, and Natasha was taking too much enjoyment in the situation; too busy listening out for the sounds of the patrols searching the mines for them to worry too hard about what it could mean for ‘them’.
“I know” She responded, with an honesty born of years of partnership and close friendship.
“I was kind of hoping you would say you love me too.” He complained, with an honesty born of a large injection of truth serum and a mild concussion. Natasha, from her place at the doorway, smiled softly back at Clint. The agent was sat against the wall, an image of abject misery, sorting through his arrows, having lost his bow to his captors some hours ago.
“I didn’t think it needed to be said.” She told him, walking over to duck down next to him. “How are you?”
“I need to pee.” Clint announced, before slapping a hand to his mouth.
“Really?” Natasha grinned, the question all dry sarcasm in the face of Clint’s embarrassment.
“I once drank elephant piss, for a dare.”
Natasha had to stifle her laughter as a patrol passed by near where they were hiding. Clint looked like he was hoping the floor would swallow him up and put an end to his embarrassment, but he still held a knife and an arrow, ready to fight.
They blew their way out the morning after, taking down a mercenary army with two pistols, a taser each, three throwing daggers and a bunch of loose arrows. Half way through, hiding behind an overturned jeep, they caught their breath.
“I’m not even scared.” Clint told her, the grip on his last three arrows sure and steady. Natasha spared him a glance, taking in his somewhat blown pupils and the way he was favouring his left side.
“I should think not.” She responded, the adrenaline in her veins plastering a bright grin on her face. “We’ll be fine.”
“Not about that!” he threw a knife at a mercenary behind Natasha as she took out another behind him. “About us. I’m not scared this is going to change us!”
They didn’t get another chance to talk until the end of the fight, three minutes later, and Clint is leaning against Natasha now, the evac on its way.
“I was a little scared about that. The fight. Just by the way.” he said.
“Well, we made it.”
“We always do.”
He promptly passed out, and didn’t remember the majority of the weekend, but that didn’t matter to Natasha. She didn’t need for the first time they said those three words to each other to be remembered.
They would be said again.
The second time they said it, there aren’t any smiles to exchange. They lay together in Clint’s bunk, and in their heads they watched the battles they had fought that day, the blow-by-blows running through their minds in painful slow motion.
Natasha knew there are agents who saw her sneaking to Clint’s bunk, but she didn’t care. These men had been lifted in after the fight, they had been briefed. They understood.
They understood that Clint and Natasha had arrived with a team of 15 agents, and Clint’s barrack was empty except for them. Somewhere, an agent was sorting through a pile of stained dog tags.
“Next time…” It was a naïve statement, muttered in Clint’s dusty baritone. They knew that next time wouldn’t be any different. They had been given everything they could have been given and fought as well as they could have fought. Sometimes, though, the good guys died.
Clint sighed, and Natasha felt the brush of his stubble on her forehead.
“I’m glad you’re still with me.” He decided on, knowing she would understand what he meant. Black Widow cringed at the words, knowing she shouldn’t care about the people around her. Her training shut her heart off from this kind of pain. But still she rested her hand lightly on Clint’s splinted arm. Natasha, the new woman she had been discovering since Clint had brought her to shield, took solace in that reminder that he, too, was still with her.
“I love you.” Natasha said.
Clint didn’t reply, but turned his head, and Natasha felt the brush of his eyelashes as he closed his eyes, relaxing against her warmth, and understood.
The third time they said it, they’re dancing. It was a quickstep, and Clint couldn’t help but see the way her eyes sparkled as they flew across the floor. She was wearing a long, ivory gown, the back open. She clashed with his scarf, but they hadn’t arrived at the party knowing each other.
“Oh, Madame Duvonne,” Clint said, smirking, “I’m most entirely in love with you.”
“Mr Williams,” She responded, the lilt of a French accent on her words “Have you said that to each of your dance partners? I can’t imagine it means much, with you making it your mission to dance with every woman here.” The song came to a stop and the two of them settled back onto their heels, Clint holding out his arm for Natasha, who only smirked, turning and walking away. Clint made a show of enjoying the view before stepping to catch up.
“Only until I find one worthy enough to dance with the entire rest of the night.” Natasha came to a stop next to a tall man, who Clint ignored completely. “And on that note, I believe it’s a waltz next?” With a small bow he indicated the dance floor. A protective arm snaked around Natasha’s waist, and Clint finally cast a cursory glance to her side, where Monsieur George DeJardin was glaring daggers his way. Clint straightened in exactly the way Mr Williams would and threw a grin at their mark.
“Oh, hello sir,” He said, “I think I’m in love with this woman here. May I have her?”
“You can leave, before I have you removed.” DeJardin growled. Natasha sighed and turned into his hold, clasping her hands.
“Oh George, he’s harmless. Let him be.”
“Yeah, George,” Clint grinned, “Let her dance.”
“I never said I wanted to dance.” Natasha responded. Her accent grew heavier as she glared. Madame DuVonne evidently had little love for Mr Williams.
“Oh, fine. I guess you’ll have to dance with George.” Clint grinned and looked George up and down “You can waltz, can’t you George?”
DuJardin took a step towards Clint. He looked down his nose at him and placed a hand on his front. Clint let him get right in his face.
“Leave.” DuJardin growled, “Now.”
“Come on, George.” Clint smiled, his own voice barely a murmur. “I know you don’t want her. I know who you really want.” He looked up and let his breath play against DuJardin’s lips. Clint took in the blown pupils of their mark with a smugness that Mr Williams didn’t bother to hide. “It’s your hotel,” He let his playful smirk curl around the words, “I’m sure you can find me.”
With that, he was gone.
The morning after, on the plane, Natasha smirked at Clint as he stretched out on his seat. The sunrise they were chasing played across his features and glinted off the tablet in his hands, where all the secrets they had been sent to collect were saved.
“You seem happy.” She remarked. Clint cracked an eye open to check for her smile – once he knew she was playing with him, he relaxed again.
“You always set me up on the best of dates.”
“It’s because you love me.” She threw across the plane offhandedly.
“Is it?” He asked “I guess I’ll have to return the favour sometime then.” He was asking something.
“You do that.” She confirmed, taking a slow slip from her glass.
The fourth time they said it, it was from hours apart. Hawkeye was up a tree, and Black Widow was 30 miles away. She had passed through the day before, scouting the trail before the strike team, much harder to conceal, made their way towards Mercutio’s base. It was 5 in the morning and the sniper was sat in the fork of his tree, 30 metres up, as the sunrise crept over the treeline.
After a while, Clint’s attention is caught by a small spider, lowering itself slowly down towards the branches Clint had bent around himself, and the the farseeing sniper took a moment to refocus his eyes and watch the bug. Stirring his limbs for the first time in hours, Clint gripped the air above the spider, moving it by its thread back onto its web a foot above him.
Clint stopped suddenly, a small green shape hanging from the web catching his eye. He pinched it, pulling it down and free from the web, holding it up to the light.
The shape of a black widow spider, cut out skilfully with a small knife, blew in the wind.
“Knew I’d use this tree, huh?” He asked the sunrise.
Shield chose agents who were happy alone for extended periods of time, able to go into deep cover without thinking about their friends and losing sight of the mission at hand. But that didn’t mean, when they were reminded of those people, they couldn’t enjoy the smile they got out of it. They couldn’t feel a little warmer; a little safer.
“Love you too, Nat.” He smirked, tucking the leaf into his tac-vest and unfurling his rope, ready to drop into the camp and get the team moving.
The fifth time it’s said, they were in Switzerland. Agents didn’t really get holidays. They didn’t get Christmas at home or to spend a week in summer resting, because their enemies didn’t take breaks like that; but it’s generally accepted that spies can’t live without down time. A high-strung agent makes mistakes.
So when Coulson got nothing but a written report and a message that they would be back in a few days, he didn’t mind.
Clint and Natasha were sat on the top of the world. They were 1000 feet above the hut they were using for the night. Clint was strapping his board to his feet as Natasha put away the supplies they had shared the summit. She slung her pack on her back and pushed Clint’s towards him, before strapping her snow shoes to her back and snapping into her skis. They had set off before sunrise and spent the morning hiking up the north face, their gear on their backs. Clint looked straight out at the clouds, thick and stark white against the blue sky. Natasha skied forward to stand next to him, following his gaze across the stunning panorama.
“Told you the north face would be the best.” She said
“I love you.” He said, as a flurry of snow rose beneath them, and floated down towards the distant treeline.
“I’ll race you to the hut.” She replied.
The sixth time they said it, Natasha was sat in the kitchen. She was eating pancakes, Clint’s signature recipe sending delicious smells through the Stark tower. They were talking about the latest mission, but they found that they were more interested in the gossip of how the team interacted than the tactics. They were smiling; warm and happy with each other, and for now all the mattered was the face that hulk had pulled and how Steve had looked after Tony had pulled the stunt with the tree and the telephone wire. Tony wandered in, wearing loose pyjama trousers and a white vest and gripping a mug of coffee like it was his life source. Clint tipped his latest pancake onto his plate and walked over to sit by Natasha.
“Hey,” Tony complained, “What about mine?”
“There’s still loadsa batter for you guys.” Clint said, his mouth already full and an amused look on his face. “I’m not making them for you.”
Natasha smirked at Tony over her strawberry strewn pancake.
“You made some for her.”
“Yeah, but I don’t love you” Clint couldn’t keep the amusement out of his voice, as if Tony assuming Clint would cook for him is an entirely laughable idea. Tony froze and looked between them, but Natasha didn’t care, because Tony would take it in all the ways they don’t mean it, Tony will assume dates and sex and flowers, but Clint and Natasha didn’t need any of those things.
Clint and Natasha just loved each other.
The seventh time was that night, and they were watching the stars from the place where the tesseract had stood the day they had found this home. They held hands and looked out at the city they were sworn to protect; no longer two baseless assets, but two people who were part of a team and happy to be.
The seventh time they said it, they didn’t say anything at all.