“You never know anyone until you marry them.” –Eleanor Roosevelt, Book of Common Sense Etiquette
The first time Clint meets Natasha, it’s after a week of recon; of following and staking out and planning.
Planning her murder.
And then, in a dark, Persian alleyway, the planning finally comes to fruition as she stands before him, defenceless, his arrow aimed right at her heart.
And he can’t do it.
Maybe it’s the look in her eyes-the one that says that she wants him to do it, because it’s better than living her life anymore-or maybe it’s something else, but for whatever reason Clint can’t make himself complete the mission.
And so, he releases the arrow, taking out the goon trying to sneak up on her instead, and he uses her shock to gain the upper hand so that he can knock her unconscious and make sure she doesn’t escape.
And then he calls Coulson, to see how they feel about trying to convert the Black Widow.
So it’s safe to say that marriage is the furthest thing from his mind.
It still happens anyways.
And then it happens again, and again, and again.
But he’s getting ahead of himself.
Mexico City, Mexico
Clint doesn’t actually see Natasha for months after he takes her into SHIELD custody. The process of removing the Red Room’s machinations from her mind isn’t exactly easy, or brief.
Deprogramming is such a harsh term, but unfortunately accurate.
So, it’s not until months later, when Clint is called back into headquarters for a new mission that he sees her, sitting at the table, head down, eyes only darting to his own for a second before returning demurely downwards. She looks small, and uncertain-not the fearless spy that had evaded SHIELD for a decade-but otherwise she looks healthy, and Clint figures that all an all, it could be much worse.
And then they get the mission, and it gets worse.
Because, by itself is not that extraordinary a op; SHIELD has credible intel that a Mexican cartel is running drugs through a small church on the outskirts of Mexico City, but they need recon on the inside of the church before they can mount an invasion to shut down the cartel. This of course is where they’ve run into problems, because drug runners are a bit touchy about letting strangers inspect their operations, and so SHIELD needs to send in a few agents undercover to get the intel.
And this is where Clint and Natasha come in, because apparently SHIELD has decided that the best way to get it is to have them pose as a couple, get married in the church and get the intel then.
All in all it’s not a bad plan; they pose as tourists, who fall in love with the picturesque little church and insist to be married there-and slip the minister a little money to convince him if anyone puts up a fuss-and take in as much intel as they can.
The problem is that in every op, trust between partners is the most important thing, and the last time Clint and Natasha met he was there to kill her, and then he knocked her unconscious and had her imprisoned against her will.
Not exactly a hot bed for growing trust.
But it seems to go alright-Clint and Natasha pull off being a couple well-they’re both attractive people, and as spies they know how to fake it, though they do complement each other, at least physically-and it only takes a little acting and half of the bribe money to get the minister to marry them. Someone in the church finds Natasha a ring of flowers for her hair and a few witnesses are brought up-south entrance, Clint notes; rough and tough men, obviously cartel thugs-and then, after Natasha finishes cooing convincingly over the flowers-all the while her keen eyes taking in details-Clint pulls out the rings SHIELD gave them and they get down to it.
Neither one of them are really paying attention to the vows-they’re both too busy taking in intel-but it’s easy autopilot-repeat what the minister says and say “I do” at the right moment, which they both manage to do, all the while looking entirely absorbed in each other.
And then the minister proclaims that he can kiss the bride and so Clint leans in and, after a quick look of permission from Natasha, does so, and he’s not going to lie, he enjoys it quite a lot.
Being a spy might not be as exciting as James Bond makes it out to be, but it has its perks.
Still, he’s not looking to get shanked in the side by one of the many blades she has concealed on her, so he pulls back, just a little bit, and it’s at that moment that Natasha asks, eyes fragile, voice too low for the minister or anyone else to hear, “Why didn’t you kill me?” And it’s the first thing not related to the mission she’s said since he saw her in the SHIELD conference room.
“I don’t know,” he whispers back to her after a second, honestly, because truthfully he’s not sure what made her different from all his other successful missions, and his breath feathers across her lips, “But when I figure it out, you’ll be the first to know.”
And that, at her tiny nod, is that, and so he kisses her once more, to make sure no one is suspicious, and he ignores the tingle in the pit of his stomach it prompts-not the time and not the right woman to contemplate those thoughts-and when they draw back they are smiling newlyweds, and no one in the church is any the wiser.
Using their intel SHIELD hits the church the next day, Clint and Natasha leading the raid, and to Clint and to SHIELD the marriage-not legal anyways because it wasn’t under their real names-isn’t considered important compared to the way that Natasha and he work together, covering each other’s backs like old partners, and so Clint doesn’t give it any more thought.
She’s a good agent, and she’d make a great partner, but that’s it.
But then it happens again.
The mission in Mumbai occurs right around the two year mark of Clint and Natasha being partners, and even if they didn’t work so well together, it should have been pretty routine.
It absolutely isn’t of course, and it occurs to Clint that, even as he opens his mouth, Natasha is going to kill him.
But he should start at the beginning.
The mission in Mumbai starts like this; there’s a man, an investment banker that SHIELD needs info from. They don’t need any info on him, rather they need info on his clients, many of whom are suspected to be international arms dealers that have been on SHIELD’s wanted list for a while now. The man himself is actually a decent enough guy who truly doesn’t seem to know about his clients possible criminal activities-and Clint figures that since their shell companies have shell companies that’s allowed-and so SHIELD’s a bit wary about sending anyone in, because they really don’t want to tip him off or burn him out as a source of information in the future.
So, despite Clint and Natasha being assigned to the guy-Sunil Sanjay-it’s actually a back-up plan in case their other source, which Sharon is investigating, doesn’t plan out. And any ways, normally a mission like this would be a vacation; Natasha would lure him into his room, tranq him, steal the info, leave him a note saying how lovely the night was and he’d assume that he’d had too much to drink and couldn’t remember the night of his life. And then Clint and Natasha would send in the intel and take in a few sights, charge a nice hotel to SHIELD’s bill and then return state-side.
Except for one problem.
Mr. Sanjay happens to be a real traditional guy-no alcohol and no sex before marriage-which means that unless Natasha is wearing a wedding ring on her finger, they don’t have access.
Clint thinks Natasha takes it as a challenge, because she’s crazy like that.
And so, instead of the nice, easy mission they should have had, Clint and Natasha fly off to India where Natasha poses as a jet-set heiress and Clint as her loyal body guard, where she ‘accidentally’ runs into Sanjay at the hotel they just happen to be both staying at and, using her not inconsequential-what, Clint has eyes-charms, whirlwinds him into a relationship and gets him to propose in less than four days.
An agency record, Clint should mention.
The wedding itself is simple, which expected given how short notice it is-a few of Sanjay’s friends and family and none of Natasha’s; her cover has that they all tragically died in a car accident-and it’s about 20 minutes before show time that Coulson’s voice-their new permanent handler after the last three quit citing stress; Clint maintains that they were just pussies-comes in over the coms calmly, saying, “Agent 13 has the package, repeat Agent 13 has the package. Widow and Hawkeye abort mission, and try not to burn any bridges. He could be important in the future.”
Natasha gives a discreet nod to him, acknowledging that she copies, and then, after a signal to Clint, she charms Sanjay into a room to ‘talk’ and Clint follows, the loyal body guard.
It’s not a talk that goes well.
Because Sanjay might be an affable guy, but there isn’t a Miss Manners way to dump a fiancé-even one you’ve only had for a few days-and have him be happy about it. It just doesn’t happen, especially a when it’s a woman as fine as Natasha-he’s still got eyes, after all-and so Sanjay is pretty adamant that there will be a wedding, if his impassioned speech about cold feet and true love is any clue.
Natasha might have sold this one a little too well.
And then, as Clint is contemplating just tranqing the guy with an arrow and being done with this whole thing, Sanjay says impassionedly, “True love is the only reason to stop a union like this!” And Clint gets an idea.
An idea that if it works, Natasha will kill him for.
But a mission is a mission, and Clint will take one for the team.
So he steps up and says, “I’m her true love.”
And then, he launches into a heart-rendering story of love and social class and fathers forbidding it, while all the while Natasha is giving him her signature ‘I’m going to kill you slowly, you absolute moron’ look.
Clint’s thinking about trademarking it for her.
But it seems that Sanjay drinks it up-and if he adds a few tears and some chin wobbling, well he took drama classes and killed them-and then, just to seal the deal he goes over to Natasha and says, eyes soulful and entreating, “Isn’t that right darling?”
“Right, sweetheart,” she says, and although butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, her eyes promise murder.
Sanjay clearly buys it though-perhaps to well-as he says, almost near tears, voice joyful, “There will be a wedding after all! I give my wedding to you, as a gift!
So a day for overselling it all around then.
“You’re too kind,” Natasha says, her grip on his hand approaching painful, but neither of them try to fight him on it-they’ve; ok Clint has, but still-made their bed and now they get to lie in it.
Metaphorically speaking of course, because Clint plans to sleep with one eye open for a while.
But for a wedding planned in a day and then hijacked and given to two people not actually in love, it’s actually a pretty nice affair. Hindi weddings are really a lot of fun-music, and dancing, and dancing girls-what, he’s not actually married ok?-and the sight of Natasha in her bright red bridal sari makes the whole thing worth it just on its own merit.
Natasha, clearly is not having as much fun, if her whispered hiss of, “I hate you,” into his ear as they dance together is any clue.
“No you don’t, you love me,” he says, into her own ear, besotted smile firmly in place, “Keep that in mind darling.”
Natasha’s smile promises terrible retribution.
It’s probably a sign of mental illness that Clint is looking forward to it.
But that ends up being the worst of it; after the party-and for whatever he thinks of the guy, he can throw an awesome party-Clint and Natasha book a nice hotel; two rooms because he actually doesn’t want to die, take in a few sights, and then make their way back stateside as they planned.
They don’t discuss the wedding.
Fury hands Sharon Carter a fifty dollar bill when they get back to headquarters, and a few people snicker good naturedly-out of Natasha’s hearing range because they’re not suicidal-but that’s it, and if it means that Natasha is alright and the guy is still good as a source of info, he can weather all of the Mr. Romanoff jokes that come his way, no harm, no foul.
She’s his partner; it’s his job to care for her and have her back, and that’s that.
And then it happens again.
But Clint doesn’t remember this one.
Natasha hates Iran.
And it’s not because of the culture, or the people, or the food-those are all fine, she can take them or leave them-well, alright she has some strong feelings about their attitude towards women but if she had to kill every stupid person who thought women were the weaker sex even her lifetime wouldn’t be enough.
But she digresses.
No, she hates Iran because Clint is bleeding out and if Natasha can’t get into his room, he’ll die.
And so she hates Iran.
It should have been a routine mission; Clint has been her partner for almost seven years now, and they could have done this in their sleep-quick in and out snatch and grab of a guy, but a rookie slipped up, and Clint got shot, and now he’s lying in a hospital in Tehran, dying because the hospital doesn’t have the resources to save him. And normally it wouldn’t be the end of the world, because SHIELD has the resources to heal him up, but SHIELD can’t send in a team to get him without blowing his cover and the original mission with it, and so Natasha is on her own.
Which still wouldn’t be the end of the world, except for the hospital staff and the onsite Imam, that won’t let her in, being that she’s an unmarried female that isn’t related to him.
“Only wives,” the Imam says in broken English, eyes kind but unyielding, and for all that Natasha respects his religious beliefs, she doesn’t have time for this.
“I’m his fiancé,” she says, pulling out the ring she’s had on her since Mexico, and to her mortification she doesn’t even have to fake the tears that come to her eyes; they’re real, but Natasha can’t let herself get caught up in that now, “I need to see him!”
“Only wives,” the Imam insists, unwilling to give and so Natasha, her desperation a terrifyingly real thing, says the only thing that she can think of to save him, “So marry us! Marry us now!”
“Ok,” the Imam says, finally letting her into the room, “Ok.”
But Natasha only has eyes for Clint, so small-too small-in the uncomfortable hospital bed.
Someone will pay for this, mark her words.
“Tash,” Clint says, voice hazy and sluggish with pain and drugs, and her name seems to be the only thing he can say, “Tash.”
“Clint,” She says into his ear, too low for anyone else to here, because their records don’t mention anything about Clint Barton, and that’s how it will stay, “Clint I’m going to get you out, but I need you to do what I say. I need you to marry me,” she says, voice modulated into something calm instead of quivering as it wants to, and then, with special emphasis so that even his drugged mind will understand why she’s doing this, “you want to marry me, right?”
“Yes,” he says, eyes drugged out, pupils massive, but there’s only truth in his voice and Natasha’s stomach flutters traitorously as he reaches for her face, missing twice before his hand settles on her cheek, gentle even through the drugs, and he says again, “Yes.”
Natasha can barely force herself to turn to the minster and say her own lines, mouth suddenly too dry, tongue too big for her mouth.
But she pulls through, slides the ring onto Clint’s finger-the Mexico ring again, he kept it as well-because if she doesn’t it means Clint’s death, and Natasha refuses to contemplate loosing Clint. He’s her partner, he’s seen her at her worst, and he’d do the same for her.
And anyways, she owes him a debt, and so he’ll be fine.
Anything else is just unacceptable.
And so she kisses him, his lips soft and pliant under her own, and she ignores the traitorous fluttering of her stomach as she does. It’s nothing but adrenaline and worry for a friend.
Natasha refuses to let it be anything else.
The nurses smile softly when she draws back, offer congratulations, and then they leave to give the newlyweds a moment together, promising to return in a few minutes. Natasha smiles gratefully at them until she’s sure that they’re gone, and when she is the smile disappears from her face, as if it was never there. Instead it’s replaced by a look of cold determination, as Natasha maneuvers Clint’s unresisting body into a wheelchair and then palms one of her stiletto’s in her hand, and looks, only for a second into the mirror above Clint’s head.
The Black Widow looks back.
And she isn’t happy.
When the nurses come in five minutes later, it’s to the sight of an empty hospital room and a wiped patient manifesto, no paper trail of their presence in the hospital remaining, like they were never there. Two guards are found unconscious and an ambulance is later discovered several miles away, but no one seems to be able to give any kind of witness description, and no leads are followed.
The original mission goes off flawlessly, and Fury commends her for her quick thinking and adaptively in the field.
But Natasha couldn’t care less, because Clint is in SHIELD medical, recovering, and that’s all the rewards that she needs.
She refuses to give the wedding anymore thought, because when Clint wakes up he doesn’t remember anything after getting shot, and as he smiles at her fondly, Natasha’s words die in her mouth.
She doesn’t tell him.
She isn’t sure why.
She repaid her debt; she saved his life.
So why is that warm, strange, fluttery feeling in the pit of her stomach still there when she looks at him?
He doesn’t remember.
She can’t forget.
Something has changed here, something profound and earthshattering, and she’s terrified of it.
Seoul, South Korea
The mission in Korea-going undercover at a mass wedding officiated by a man claiming to be the Messiah to do recon on a possible human trafficking ring-would normally be pretty hilarious to Clint, but it comes at a terrible time. Not because of physical injury, or mental trauma, but because after Iran, Natasha has been acting...weird.
He catches her looking at him out of the corner of her eyes, gaze darting away when his own meets her gaze, and she’s timid around him, like she used to be all those years ago, in that first mission meeting.
And this is a problem for Clint, not just because they’re partners and it makes it hard for them to work together when she’s acting this way, but for…other reasons.
Because well, Clint’s in love with her.
Not because she’s beautiful-though of course she is-or perfect-because she’s not-but because of her imperfections. He loves the way she has to double check every room for exits no matter how many times that she’s been in it. Loves how she loves Chinese food but hates pizza, and how she couldn’t care less about how she looks after 46 hours of missions, but how she has a weakness for painting her toes all colours of the rainbow.
He loves her for her.
And she’s avoiding him.
He finally chalks it up as worry associated with him almost dying-it doesn’t fit, not really, because he’s almost died before and she’s never been like this-but maybe something was different about Iran; something he doesn’t remember, and so he lets it go, at least for now.
And then they get the South Korea mission, and ignoring it becomes a lot harder.
Because they’re split up-they don’t go in as a couple-they go in as individuals, to gather info on the possible human trafficking ring, and then they’ll be matched up with someone-a stranger handpicked by the Messiah-and then they’ll be married.
And then they’ll abandon their new spouses when they’re done and never speak of it again.
Like pretty much all SHIELD marriages.
And so Clint goes in, invisible against the other 1000 men in wedding tux’s and gathers as much intel as he can, and then finally it’s time to meet his new spouse.
Natasha is standing in the room.
And Clint is man enough to admit that the sight of her, in a wedding dress-because this is the third time he’s married her but the first one with a white wedding dress-is enough to stop him in his tracks, his mouth suddenly dry, but that’s nothing compared to the look that appears on Natasha’s, too many emotions to even describe.
“Is this someone’s idea of a joke,” Natasha hisses into her com, recovering quicker than Clint does, and Coulson’s voice filters through, clear despite the poor connection, “No, we gave only your profiles-as undistorted as possible-to the Reverend-he picked all the matches himself.”
And then, after a second for timing, “I guess you two are just fated,” Coulson quips, all dry humor, and if looks could kill, Clint and Coulson would be long dead.
Sharon, over the coms, is dying of laughter.
“Come on Tash,” he says, finally composed, a nickname only he’s allowed to call her, designed to lighten the mood up, “we’ve done worse.”
She doesn’t smile-she rarely does-but her eyes soften, finally, just a fraction, and Clint offers her his hand, knowing that she’ll take it.
And then there’s a wedding-nice, though not very personal giving they’re sharing it with 2000 people-and then it’s over, and it’s business as usual.
It’s not real anyways-it never is.
He can deal with this.
And then, it happens again, and this time it is.
It turns out he can deal with that as well.
New York, U.S.A
“It’s Barton,” Coulson says one night, nearly ten years after she meets Clint in an alley, “he’s been compromised,” and Natasha’s world just halts.
And it shouldn’t-it shouldn’t make her heart nearly stop, shouldn’t make her breath catch.
Shouldn’t matter so much.
He isn’t her husband.
Except for the part where he is.
Four times over.
It matters much, much more.
And Natasha will make it right-anything else is just unacceptable.
Like she tells Loki-love is for children-Clint is different.
Clint is more.
Besides, she’s not going to tell that little punk with daddy issues anything of meaning.
He squandered the love given to him-Natasha doesn’t intend to be so stupid.
But first, she has to rescue Clint.
That said, she’s not going to lie, she enjoys hitting him over the head more than she probably should.
Long time coming anyways.
But Clint is back, and then there’s the Chitauri and they’re a little busy, and so it isn’t until a few days after-after Stark has fallen from the sky, and after Shawarma; Stark insists, and he did carry a nuclear bomb, so they humor him, after endless debriefings and Coulson’s apparent miraculous return from the dead-that she finally gets a moment to talk to him.
“So,” she says, the first thing when she finds him on the roof of Stark Tower, with the bluntness she’s known for, “I think we should get married.”
“We’ve been married three times,” Clint says, his raised eyebrow the only sign that he finds something odd about what she’s said, “You want to try and challenge the office record?”
“Four actually,” she says, and as his eyebrow almost disappears into his hair line, she gestures impatiently with her hand, “Later. But those were for missions.” And then she gathers her nerve and says plainly, meaning every word, “I think we should get married for us.”
“Well alright then,” Clint says simply, jumping down from his perch to stand beside her, and even Natasha, a spy longer than most people have been alive can’t keep in the surprised, “Really?” that escapes from her mouth.
“For a spy, you’re a strangely unobservant woman,” he says gently, teasingly, before he sobers, entirely serious, and his hand is gentle on her cheek, “I’ve been in love with you since before Iran.”
“Oh,” she says, dumbly, letting it set in and the flutter in her stomach finds it absolutely acceptable as she says, turning in to press a kiss to the palm of his hand, “Well, good then.”
“Come on, we’re going to need witnesses,” Clint says, and his devious smile is the answer to the question she hasn’t even asked yet.
“Fury owes me more money,” is the only thing that Peggy-news that really wasn’t that big of a surprise, because Natasha and Clint are both spies, and so they both had their suspicions-Carter says when they ask her.
Clint sticks out his tongue at her.
“Finally,” is the only thing that Coulson says.
Clint gives him the finger.
But they’re all smiling.
And so, before the four of them can even head to City Hall, Fury shows up in the Tower lobby with a bible and a hundred dollar bill that Peggy takes with a good natured smirk, and they head to the roof instead.
Fury officiates, because this is apparently something he is licensed to do.
No one asks why.
And it’s just the three of them-Pepper and Tony are in China on a business trip, Steve is still in Brooklyn; though not for long if the look in Peggy’s eyes is any indication, Bruce is in Nepal and Thor is in Asgard-but these people, these three of them are the ones that have been there for them, for the ten years of the life that is Clint’n’Natasha, and they’re more than enough.
And this wedding-in her SHIELD jumpsuit, knives strapped to her thighs and Clint in one of his bloody sleeveless tunics, bow resting causally on his back-no matter how many have come before it or will come after it, is the one that she’ll remember.
The one that’s just for them.
This one is real.
“Do you have the rings?” Fury prompts, and Natasha reaches into her pocket and pulls out the rings-the Mexico rings that became the Iran rings-and Clint’s smile is brilliant.
It wouldn’t be a wedding without them.
It occurs to Natasha that, as she puts the ring on Clint’s finger, they might have all been real.
It turns out she doesn’t mind that thought at all.
“So in case you were wondering, this is why I couldn’t kill you,” Clint says into her ear after he’s said “I do,” and she can feel the smile on his face even though she can’t see it.
Maybe this is love after all.
“You may now kiss the bride,” Fury says, and then glares at them mock-threateningly with his one good eye until Clint smiles and says, cheekily, “Well I never disobey an order sir.”
Peggy, Coulson and Fury all smirk at that, but Natasha is too caught up in Clint kissing her to care.
It’s definitely love.
Natasha isn’t going to waste a second of it.