Chapter 1: Prologue
They had done this job dozens of times: Natasha sneaks in and gains intel while Clint watches her back from afar, keeping her path clear. He had already taken out the guards inside the communications room by the time she entered, having dropped the two outside herself. Training the scope on her, he smiled when she looked up at the two tiny bullet holes in the window and winked in his general direction.
She wasted no time after that, moving off to the computer to do her work and leaving him to watch and wait. He kept his gun aimed at the door though his eyes were everywhere; the windows below, the building’s entrance, Natasha herself. The one place he hadn’t been looking was the ceiling.
“Got it,” Natasha informed him over their com-link, pulling the zip drive from the computer just as a dark shape dropped out of the ceiling practically on top of her.
“Nat!” Clint called in alarm, but he could do little more than watch helplessly as the man knocked the gun from her hand and engaged her in combat. The foe was smart, always keeping her between himself and the window; between himself and a clear shot.
The two grappled and Clint felt panic begin to rise. He had never seen Natasha fight so hard against a single opponent before in the field, and it was more than a little worrisome. The guy was strong, clearly well trained, but there was something else. When she struck his left arm, a move that should have rendered the limb temporarily useless, it didn’t phase him at all; in fact, it seemed to hurt her more than him.
“No...” Clint heard her gasp and he started sighting frantically but her own moves had become erratic, even as the man seemed to hesitate. Instead of taking the opportunity to get the upper hand, she reached forward suddenly to tear the sleeve from her opponent’s suit. The arm beneath was not flesh and bone but shiny and metallic.
“It’s you,” she whispered and the fighting stopped.
“Natalia?” he replied, sounding just as shocked. He took a step back and it was the opening Clint needed. A pinpoint of red light appeared on the man’s chest but before the sniper could pull the trigger Natasha stepped in front of the shot.
“Dammit, Nat, move!” Clint instructed.
“Clint, no,” she replied, her voice sounding strange, haunted. It gave him the chills. For a moment there was no movement in the room then suddenly the man was convulsing before he collapsed to the floor, victim to the high powered taser, her ‘Widow’s Bite’, she kept strapped to her arms. “We’re taking him in.”
The de-conditioning was not a quick process, wading through seventy years of brain washing and mind control took time, but the self proclaimed Winter Soldier was not alone.
Natasha mostly stayed out of the way, letting the doctors do their work, or that’s what she would have them believe, but Clint knew better. He knew she was reliving her own experience again through the Winter Soldier’s eyes. She had gone through this very same thing, though to a much lesser extent. She had been a child when she had been taken and had been allowed to grow, but she had gotten out before they had done anything permanent to her body. Unfortunately the same could never be said about her mind nor her soul.
“He recognized you,” Clint said to her one afternoon, three days after they had brought the mystery man in. She was standing in her usual spot, watching the subject through one way glass as the doctors once more tried to get to the root of who he was. He was still restrained, sometimes he still got violent, but the spells were becoming less frequent.
“Yes,” she confirmed, but said no more. He noted how she stood, her arms crossed in a defensive stance.
“You know him,” he continued, another statement rather than a question.
“Yes,” she replied again, keeping her eyes trained on the man, never even sparing her partner a glance.
“Tasha,” Clint said softy and he saw her tense just the slightest bit. He only called her that in intimate conversation, whether it be those rare times they talked about something deep and important, or pillow talk; nobody else had the privilege of using that nickname on her. “You know you can talk to me about anything, right?”
She sighed and finally turned her head and met his eyes. “I know.”
Although she didn’t say it, he thought he read a clear ‘not yet’ in her eyes, but maybe it was just wishful thinking. Maybe she would never be ready, but history told him that someday she would. He knew pretty much everything about her, and not all of it had been gleamed from a file. She wasn’t one to share personal information with most people, but Clint Barton wasn’t most people. They had developed a deep trust over the years and had learned to confide in each other so they could work more efficiently. They made such a good team because they worked so fluidly together, practically sharing a mind when it came to battle. Truth be told they shared almost everything, and theirs had become the most fulfilling relationship Clint had ever had. The only thing they didn’t talk about was their relationship itself. They never put a label on it, never displayed it, never discussed if it was exclusive; it just was what it was.
“Well, if you need me you know where to find me,” Clint offered, bumping his shoulder against hers before turning to walk away. He didn’t get very far before Natasha stopped him by grabbing his arm.
“I don’t want to talk,” she said, the suggestion clear in her voice, her eyes, the curve of her lips. Letting go of his arm, she lowered her voice just in case anyone happened to be listening before she continued. “I want you naked in your bed in ten minutes, Agent Barton.”
“Yes, sir,” he replied, unable to hold back his own grin. Striding from the hall, he didn’t see how her smile fell, replaced by the same blank expression from earlier as she turned her attention back to the observation window and the man seated beyond.
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He lay in the bed, arms folded behind his head and his ever observant eyes watching her as she dressed.
Some nights, after a really harrowing mission, or one that just hit far too close to home in some way, they would spend the night together in one or the other’s bed. Often times they didn’t even touch, the soft breathing and the knowledge they weren’t alone enough to give them comfort; other times they needed a little more, the barest touch of their feet, or their hands clasped but nothing else. Then there were the rare occasions when Natasha would wrap her arms around Clint from behind, pressing her chest against his back. Tony liked to joke that if they did sleep together, as he was convinced they did, that she would be the ‘big spoon’ and Clint the ‘little spoon’. They never acknowledged the truth to this, didn’t acknowledge it at all, actually. It infuriated the billionaire when they didn’t rise to the bait and only seemed to fuel his determination to prove himself right.
Times like these, though, when they had an overabundance of adrenaline that needed a release, or when one of them just needed to use the other as a distraction, whomever’s room it wasn’t rarely stuck around afterwards.
“You know, if you talked to him it might help him,” Clint ventured as Natasha pulled her shirt down over her head.
“I said I don’t want to talk.”
She didn’t even look at him, just picked up her shoes and walked out, closing the door firmly behind her. Pressing the heals of his hands to his eyes, the archer breathed out a heavy sigh. Every time it became harder to leave, but harder yet was letting her go.
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Six days after they brought him in, the Winter Soldier gave a name that sent Natasha running. When she returned with Steve Rogers he didn’t waste any time outside, instead barging headlong into the room. There were definite physical changes but there was no mistaking the man’s identity: James ‘Bucky’ Buchanan Barnes, the best friend the Captain had watched fall to his death seventy years ago, was alive, well and had barely aged a day.
From that moment on Steve never left his side and by the thirteenth day Natasha finally joined them, coming face to face with her past for the first time since the mission. Despite the huge gap of time between when the two of them had been important in his life, combined they were able to help him on the road to recovery. It would be a slow process, they all knew it, but he had already begun to piece his life back together.
When Steve had found him strapped to that medical table behind enemy lines, the Captain had assumed he was in time to keep him from whatever had been planned for him. Bucky had never corrected him. He had been too disoriented at the time, and then... there had just never been time, and it had seemed so unimportant. He didn’t know what they had done to him, so what was the point trying to explain it to anyone else? For all he knew it was nothing.
Turns out it was more important than anything else in his life. Or, more accurately, to his life.
The fall from the train should have killed him, would have killed any normal man. When the soviets found him he had been broken but alive... barely. They replaced what was missing with superior bionic parts, but they also took something important that remained: his memories. They trained him as their creation, their bringer of death, a soulless creature who did as he was told and killed without question. The Winter Soldier.
The years - the decades - all melded together. He completed his missions, and when not on assignment he acted as a trainer in the Red Room program, training young girls to become masters of deceit, seduction, and murder. One such girl was Natalia Romanova, the most astute and talented of all her peers. Quite often when the Winter Soldier’s job took him away, when he returned he was always struck by how much she had changed, how beautiful she was becoming as she grew from a child into a woman.
On her sixteenth birthday she seduced him and they began a torrid love affair that spanned the next three months of their lives. It did not go unnoticed by their superiors. Love made them weak, it made them human, and humans weren’t so easily controlled. The Winter Soldier was sent on an extended mission while Natalia was arranged to marry Alexei Shostakov. The pair’s final night together was filled with words of love and promise.
They never saw each other again.
Natalia was married for nearly two years before her husband’s untimely death. It was thought she would return to the Red Room and undergo the final stages of her conditioning, the ones that would extend her life and enhance her natural abilities; instead she went rogue. She made a real name for herself over the months that followed, killing indiscriminately, the deadly Black Widow. The Winter Soldier tried to find her, but SHIELD found her first.
The Winter Soldier continued as he always had, reverting back to the cold monster they had created. His humanity was not entirely dead, though, and between Steve and Natasha they were slowly able to coax it out of him.
Two weeks later, although daily appointments were still scheduled, Bucky Barnes was released into Steve Rogers’ custody.
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On his first meeting with all the Avengers as a whole, Bucky was welcomed with open arms. He was mostly quiet but Steve stepped up and regaled them all with stories of the pair’s time together as if it was only yesterday. For Steve it nearly was; for Bucky it had been a lifetime ago.
Of course Tony was fascinated by the bionic arm and wanted to study it, but was quickly shut down by Pepper who forbade him from bringing any more of his science experiments home and keeping them. She said it teasingly, and Bruce only smiled to himself after catching her playful look. Thor likened Bucky to a God among men, able to live long with little affects of aging, and to cheat death as he had. Clint was mostly interested in stories of the war, and any blackmail material he could gain on their squeaky clean Captain.
And so it went for several days until Hawkeye started to notice little things that began to change his perspective.
He and Steve had become pretty close since their first outing as Avengers, the Captain and the Marksman. Sometimes they just sat alone in the kitchen sharing stories; Steve spoke of his time traveling around doing the Captain America shows and Clint talked about his years in the circus. Once in a while Natasha would join them but she never told stories of her own; among all of them, she had the smallest number of happy memories of her life, but she seemed to enjoy hearing about theirs. The stories rarely went very deep, but once Steve had told the archer that he reminded him of someone he had once known and lost, another sniper and the bravest and best of men. He had never elaborated and Clint had never asked, but seeing him and Bucky together and hearing the stories of their past, Agent Barton was pretty sure this was the guy.
That he could handle. Sure, he couldn’t help but feel a little jealous but he understood. He knew loss, and while the circumstances couldn’t be any more different, if Barney were to suddenly return to his life... but no, it was no good to even think of that, and he didn’t blame Steve one bit for suddenly shifting all his focus onto his long lost friend. It was Natasha that made Clint truly feel like he was being replaced.
They hadn’t hooked up for a few weeks now, which wasn’t entirely unusual for them; it was easier to convince themselves it was only casual if it didn’t happen very often, but it wasn’t just about the sex. It had been about the same length of time since they had spent any time alone together. Besides the SHIELD required training and any time spent with the Avengers as a group, he had hardly seen her at all. He knew she and Bucky had a past but he hated how she had shut him out since the man’s return.
The three of them were always together, Steve, Bucky and Natasha, like their own secret little club, but as the days wore on Steve began to come back around while the other two became more withdrawn. It wasn’t unusual for them to show up to dinner late or to skip movie night completely, claiming to get caught up in a sparring session or some other test with SHIELD’s doctors. The excuses were usually accepted with little flack whether anyone truly believed them or not. Even Clint accepted them, not because he believed them, but because he wanted to. He could see what was going on, the little looks and touches that passed between the couple; the signs were clear as day, but he chose to ignore them, not willing to accept the obvious truth just yet. Not until one day when he went against all his better judgement and sought them out.
Tony had tried to stop him, “They’ll show up eventually, they always do. We’ll just save them some,” the billionaire had said, but there was an odd note in his voice, a chink in the casual facade he was trying to put forth.
“Natasha hates cold pizza, and it’s even worse reheated. Just don’t let Thor eat all the barbeque chicken while I’m gone,” Clint had called over his shoulder, ignoring the obvious warning.
Maybe it was denial, or maybe his own mind was working against him, forcing him to face what he already knew was true. Either way, when he walked into the training room and found them together he wasn’t surprised.
That didn’t make it hurt any less.
For a brief second he had caught them unawares, Natasha’s leg wrapped around Bucky’s hip, her back arched, her red hair spread out around her head on the training mat like a halo of fire, her fingernails digging into his back...
“The, uh...” Clint tried to speak but his tongue felt thick and there was a sudden lump in his throat that made it difficult. He saw their heads turn abruptly toward him in unison but he couldn’t bear to look at their faces, couldn’t stand to see whatever guilt or pity their expressions held. Worse, he was scared he’d see no guilt, only annoyance or anger at being interrupted. “The pizza’s here. I didn’t think you’d want to let it get cold.”
He was already walking back out, moving quickly down the hallway, trying to shake the images from his head.
So this was what an arrow through the heart felt like.
Headcanon note: In MCU verse, I don't see Natasha as the practically ageless spy she is in the comics, so here she's the 28ish years of age that she appears. I just love the idea that her and Hawkeye are highly skilled and completely badass, but otherwise normal humans.
Chapter 3: Part 2
Clint hadn’t been in the kitchen when Natasha and Bucky had arrived shortly after his interruption, and while her first instinct had been to search him out immediately, she had stayed and forced herself to eat a slice of pizza to save face.
“Did Clint find you two?” Tony had asked after a moment, his eyes fixed intently on her face.
“No,” she lied easily, ignoring the look Bucky shot in her direction. She looked entirely unconcerned nor interested in the subject, just focused on the food. Of all the times for Thor to be quiet, why this one?
“Huh. He went looking for you. Didn’t want you to have to eat this cold or reheated,” Stark continued, waving a slice of pizza under her nose. She wanted to shove it up his. “He knows how much you hate that.”
The words caused a stab of guilt to run through her, no doubt exactly as intended, and for a brief second she met Tony’s eyes. She was surprised to see the hint of what looked almost like anger in their brown depths. Anger and disappointment.
“He must have gotten distracted. I’ll look for him when I’m finished,” she replied as nonchalantly as she could, dropping her eyes back to her plate. It felt like the longest meal she had ever had to sit through.
Afterwards she found Barton in one of the many training rooms, bow in hand and arrow nocked, his face set in grim determination.
“You missed dinner,” she pointed out unnecessarily, awkwardly resting her hands on her hips before settling on wrapping them around her stomach instead. One of the targets on the other side of the room had been littered with arrows, all centered within the bullseye, and an empty quiver sat at his feet. A fresh one was strapped to his back and he was just drawing from it the first arrow, a new target in his sites.
“I lost my appetite,” he replied dully, nocking the arrow and never sparing her a glance.
“Clint,” she said after a long pause and a deep breath, just as he loosed the first arrow. It struck the target at the far top left, well outside the outer most ring. Natasha frowned; the agent known at Hawkeye never missed.
“What?” he grunted, his second arrow already drawn back. It hit the far right of the target, perfectly aligned horizontally with the first, but still outside the rings.
“We should talk,” she ventured slowly, watching him nock and loose the third arrow. Bottom left, making a perfect ninety degree angle with the other two. It was then that the former Russian realised that he hadn’t missed at all.
“So talk.” The fourth arrow completed the square.
How was she supposed to explain this to him when she barely understood it herself? She had never wanted to hurt him, it was why she had hid her and Bucky’s relationship in the first place. She should have known Clint would see them, he saw everything.
The next four arrows had landed in the outer ring. She could see that it was starting to form an ‘X’.
“Bucky and I...” she began, but didn’t get any further. The next arrow was just the slightest bit out of line with the rest but it was enough to indicate that the master marksman was more than a little off his game.
“Look, Natasha, you don’t have to explain,” Clint cut in before she could continue, his voice sounding strained. He didn’t glance at her, just kept his eyes on the target, concentrating extra hard on the next shot. “We have an itch we need scratched we know where to go, it’s never been any more than that. You can fuck whoever you want.”
Natasha’s body stiffened and her lips formed a hard line. The words hung in the air between them and he hesitated before letting the next arrow go. It struck true, but that short moment was telling... though it was not enough.
She had never been one to trust easily, but Clint Barton had broken through all her barriers and earned not only her trust but her affection.
In her early career with SHIELD, after they had done what they could to deprogram her and reduce the affects of the Red Room, Natasha had been assigned to Clint, partners until she was off probation. He had liked to joke that it was his punishment for throwing his mission and saving her, and she had never fully decided whether there was truth to that or not.
Their first mission together had been nothing short of disaster, something he had attributed to the fact that while they had been working together for several months by then that they didn’t really know each other nor trust each other. All he knew about her was what her file had revealed and she knew nothing of him, so he had offered a solution: after every training session, before they parted ways, they had to each reveal a truth about themselves. Natasha, of course, had started out with simple things like foods she enjoyed while Clint had always dug a little deeper, hoping to encourage her to do the same. By the time their second mission rolled around he knew she liked Greek food, strawberries, classical music, cool nights and the blue of his eyes. In contrast she knew he was an orphan, he loved heights, he had literally run away with the circus when he was a child, he could make a mean cheesecake, and on his first mission he had frozen and his partner had had to take out the mark for him.
The second mission had been an incredible success.
That night they had a few drinks in Natasha’s room and by the time Clint had retired to his own they knew more about each other than anyone else in the world knew about them.
This tradition continued for almost three years until one particular mission when the wind down routine of drinks and talk hadn’t been enough and the exploration into each other took a more physical turn. They didn’t talk about it afterwards, nor when it happened again two months later. Eventually they started training other agents, and while they still went on many missions together, often their different areas of expertise required they take separate assignments as well. They would go months not seeing each other, but when they finally met up again there were many stories to tell, but only after their bodies had been satiated.
His plan had worked better than he ever could have dreamed. They knew nearly everything about each other, every secret and every scar, and neither of them trusted anyone more, so hearing him blow off everything they had as nothing hurt, even if she knew deep down he didn’t mean it; it was easier to pretend that he did, it was easier to justify everything she was doing if she could pretend that he didn’t care.
“Good. I’m glad we had this talk.” Her voice was cold, deadly, and Clint could feel her eyes boring into him but he didn’t look at her; he just kept firing. A moment later she turned on her heel and strode out, the door closing loudly behind her. He took a breath and fired the last arrow. It hit the bulls eye, but it was about half an inch left of centre, throwing the whole pattern off to his highly trained eye. Lowering the bow he let his shoulders sag and hung his head.
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The next day Agent Barton volunteered for a mission that would take him to Korea and left within an hour of waking. It was a simple intel job, he was meant to only stake out the mark and gather what information he could. It was only supposed to take a week.
It would be five weeks before he returned.
The same day he left, Natasha and Bucky stopped hiding their relationship from the other Avengers. Steve, of course, was ecstatic, though Natasha knew it had little to do with her and everything to do with his best friend. He would probably have been just as happy had Bucky started dating Agent Hill.
Tony, on the other hand, was uncharacteristically quiet about the whole thing, though she often caught him looking at them, studying them with a look of skepticism and suspicion. It wasn’t a completely foreign look, she’d often caught him looking at her and Clint the same way when they bantered or told stories of their missions together, or when they were doing the thing where they silently communicated in a way that only they understood, but there was something different about it this time. Back then it was like there was some big joke that Tony was dying to be part of, while now it felt more like he was trying to catch her in a lie. She didn’t like it and did her best to avoid being alone with him any time, not prepared to face whatever he had to say. This task was fairly simple since almost all her time now was spent with Bucky.
She was surprised at how easy it had been to just pick right up where they had left off back in Russia all those years ago. All the old feelings had come rushing back, so desperate and consuming; rekindling their relationship, it was intense and powerful, and they rushed into it headlong as if they had to make up for lost time. They spent days in no one else’s company but each other’s, nights reconnecting and exploring new scars and the stories that accompanied them. It seemed perfect at first, but eventually Bucky had begun to settle into his new life and they into a more stable relationship, while Natasha had started to retreat further and further into herself.
She hadn’t been prepared for what dredging up the past would do to her.
He wanted to talk about their past together, to relive the love they had shared and the time they had spent, but with the good memories came the bad. All the things she didn’t want to remember, all the things she could never forget; it all came bubbling back, refusing to be ignored. She went to sleep at night, her dreams awash with red, and each morning she awoke she felt less like herself. The more time they spent together the more Natalia Romanova resurfaced. All the things she had put behind her, all the things she had been working to atone for, the person she told herself she wasn’t anymore; it all came rushing back. Of course she put on a good show, kept her mask firmly in place, but if anyone looked close enough, if they knew what they were looking for, they would see her slowly unravelling. Unfortunately the only person who knew her well enough to see it was gone.
Five weeks after he left Clint returned. There was a certain anxiousness about Natasha that was hard to ignore from the moment she learned he was back. The debriefing took longer than usual considering he had several missions under his belt to go over, then he took his time unpacking and getting cleaned up. By the time he walked in where all the other Avengers were gathered Natasha actually smiled, genuinely glad to see him. In turn he cast one quick glance at her where she sat with Bucky’s arm slung across the back of her chair before greeting them all as a group and entertaining them with stories of his missions, one after the other that he had accepted, his eyes never moving in her direction again. Her smile remained but the light went out of her eyes.
Tony wasn’t the only one to notice.
Chapter 4: Part 3
Bucky saw it too, the way her eyes dulled and her smile seemed to freeze on her lips, and it caused his heart to sink. Alone he might have missed it, on its own it wouldn’t have amounted to much, he could have easily brushed it off, but combined with all the other little things he had been noticing over the past few weeks it was like the final piece of a puzzle. Worse, as much as he didn’t want to admit it or accept it, it was the proverbial nail in the coffin.
For the rest of the evening he observed them, the way Clint would barely look at he and Natasha but seemed to have smiles and japes for everyone else to an almost over the top level. Most of the others didn’t seem to notice, or maybe they just chose to ignore it. It was feasible to believe that after five weeks of almost constant missions, taking one after the other to keep himself busy and absent Bucky presumed, that the archer was just excited to be back among his friends, but it only took one look at Natasha to realise this wasn’t entirely true. She was usually quiet, often subdued and had been becoming increasingly more so over the past few weeks, but never so much as that day, not since...
Not since the night before Clint had taken that first mission.
At the time, Bucky had still been caught up in both the newness and familiarity of it all. He had still been adjusting to this new life, remembering and re-evaluating who he was and who he had been, reconnecting with Steve, filling in the blanks, and fanning the flames of the romance that had reignited between he and Natalia – no, Natasha. When she had come to him that night all lips and hands and whispered desires he hadn’t even thought to question it, nor did he wonder when the next day she claimed that everything had been worked out, that all was fine and they could stop hiding. He hadn’t questioned any of it, just so glad to have her back, to have a second chance.
They had eventually settled into a more regular routine, as normal a relationship as they had ever had, perhaps more than ever. He was beginning to remember who he was now and she didn’t resent her life anymore.
He didn’t realise how important that last detail was.
They talked about the past a lot, people they had both known, missions they had accomplished, but mostly they talked about the times they had spent together, Natasha preferred it that way; a lot of the time they didn’t talk at all, which she preferred even more. She had never been much for words, she’d rather let her body do the talking, and boy was she good at talking in that manner. It took him three weeks once they were out in the open to finally realise everything wasn’t going as well as he thought.
He knew things would be different, a lot of time had passed, but he hadn’t expected them to be quite this different. Natasha had been so young and she had grown a lot, but it wasn’t just age that had changed her; this new life, trying to atone for her sins... maybe ‘expected’ wasn’t the right word; maybe he hadn’t expected her to be the same as she had been then, but he couldn’t deny that he had hoped she would. He had hoped they could pick up where they had left off, and for those first few weeks he thought they had, but they were only deceiving themselves and each other.
“Nat,” he began after dinner that same night, once they were alone. “Are you okay?”
“I am fine,” she stated in that business like tone of hers that people often mistook for emotionless. So many people only saw what she wanted them to see, this no nonsense machine who never let her heart rule her head, but Bucky knew better and he was sure he wasn’t the only one, no matter how strong she thought her mask was.
“Nat,” he said again, his tone making it clear he didn’t believe her, causing her to narrow her eyes slightly.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” It’s not defensive, not curious, just the logical response to such an inquiry. Sitting on the edge of the bed she looked directly at him, not averting her gaze as most would during such a conversation.
“It’s been five weeks, and Clint barely-“ he started to say, but was cut off abruptly when she scoffed and rolled her eyes.
“Clint is acting like a child. He will get over it,” she responded with a sort of finality that said that this conversation was over as far as she was concerned. Reaching out, she took his hand and pulled him closer. “Now come here.”
Her expression had changed, but she had just exchanged one mask for another, shedding indifference in favour of seduction. Wrenching his hand free, he backed away. “Natalia, no.”
The name made her freeze, and he knew then just how wrong he had been about everything. The girl he loved, Natalia Romanova, was no more and the woman she had become he barely even knew. It was a harsh truth, one he hadn’t wanted to accept, but it was hard to deny when it was staring him in the face.
To her credit, Natasha recovered quickly, but the damage was already done. “I don’t know what has gotten into you,” she said, sounding appropriately irritated and indignant. It was all an act.
“Do you love me?” The question left his lips before he could even think about it.
“Of course I do,” she answered quickly. Too quickly. Bucky had seen this act before: tell people what they want to hear, and do it without hesitation so they will believe you. The lack of hesitation should have been the selling point, but in this case it was the deal breaker.
“No, you don’t.”
The silence that followed was heavy and Natasha only pursed her lips in reply, her entire expression growing cold and hard.
“You loved me once,” he said, just needing to hear it, needing confirmation that it hadn’t been all in his head, in his heart; needing to know that she had felt it too.
“Love is for children.”
So that was it, then. Everything that had been done to her, everything she had done since to overcome it... was this who he would eventually become? Someone who viewed love as a weakness or a whimsy that no adult should feel? The sadness he felt was almost overwhelming, but it was for Natasha, not for himself.
Still, he knew it wasn’t completely without hope. He had seen the change in her today; the anticipation, the excitement even, as she had awaited Clint’s return.
“I was stupid to think we could go back, like nothing had changed,” Bucky said, more to himself than to her. He met her eyes again and she just stared back at him blankly. “You were barely more than a child then, and at the time we needed each other.”
He was making her uncomfortable. She didn’t show it, he couldn’t see it, but somehow he knew. This was not a conversation she wanted to have. They both knew that whatever they had been doing the past few weeks was about to come to an end and they would both be alone again.
No, not alone; he just had to make her see that.
“You don’t need me anymore. Someone else has taken my place.”
A reaction. It was barely perceptive, but he had seen it; a brief flicker in her eyes, a tightening in her jaw.
“It’s okay to need people, Nat. It’s okay to trust people. It’s even okay to care about them. It doesn’t make you weak; love doesn’t make you weak. In fact, it can be our greatest strength,” he spoke evenly, but there was a note of passion in his voice. It was the kind of speech Steve would give, and Bucky felt oddly comforted and proud of that fact. If he was to look up to someone, if he was to model himself after anyone, he could do a lot worse than Steve Rogers.
“I think you should leave,” was Natasha’s reply. Her voice held no inflection, but he could see that the words had affected her.
“I’m sorry, Nat,” he said softly, turning for the door. “You deserve to be happy. I just hope that some day you’ll accept that.”
He took one last look at her. She had lowered her head, but he could see that telltale crease between her brows that showed she was lost in thought. Leaving her to her contemplation, Bucky walked out the door.
Chapter 5: Part 4
“You just got back. One day off isn’t going to kill you,” Bucky stated as he walked into the training room. Clint’s hand slipped as he faltered but he managed to pull himself back up on the upper bar without falling. The fact that he had been taken by surprise at all, though, was a testament of how distracted he was.
“Yeah, well,” the archer replied. Spinning around the bar once then twice, he let go, performing a graceful flip before he landed on his feet. “The majority of my mission had me sitting on my ass all day watching some boring prick go about his daily life. It only got interesting at the end when I got to shoot someone.” Wiping his hands on the front of his workout pants, he dropped to the floor and started a set of push-ups.
“Was that the original assignment or one of the others?” Bucky asked. The slightest inconsistency in the other man’s reps indicated that the words had the desired effect.
“The last one.” Clint refused to rise to the bait. Clearly a more direct approach was going to be necessary.
“Natasha was excited to hear you were back,” the older man tried another method and received a snort of derision in return.
“Natasha doesn’t get excited about things like that,” Clint said, continuing his reps; he had lost count after six, though he would never acknowledge it. Oh, Natasha used to get excited to see him after a long absence, but not in the innocent way that her new boyfriend was suggesting.
“Alright, so maybe ‘excited’ isn’t the right word. Anxious might be better, but then you pretty much ignored her for the whole-” Bucky didn’t get to finish as Clint was suddenly on his feet and in his face. The SHIELD agent was shorter and had to look up at his accuser but that didn’t make him any less intimidating.
“If you’re here to fight me for upsetting your girl then fine, let’s just drop all the chatter and get to it, though I’m pretty sure Natasha can kick my ass all on her own if she really wants to. She’s done it before.”
While Clint stood there and seethed, ready to fight, Bucky couldn’t help but smile a bit fondly. It was true, of course; Natasha was the last woman in the world to need anyone to protect her or fight her battles for her... at least physically. It was emotionally that she needed help, and his smile fell again as he remembered quickly why he was here.
“I’m not here to fight you,” he said.
“Then why are you here?” was the reply he received. For a long moment the two men just stared each other down in silence; measuring, calculating, determining each other’s goal as well as their worth. Finally the silence was broken.
“You love her, don’t you.” It was said as more of a statement, an observed truth, than a question, and it was obvious that Clint was completely thrown by it. After a moment he recovered with a scoff and a shake of his head.
“Love is for children. Natasha will be the first person to point that out,” he said. His tone was even, matter-of-fact, but there was a hint of bitterness in it that might have gone unnoticed had Bucky not been listening for it. He knew the feeling all too well and the words that incited it. He hadn’t been a child for so long he no longer remembered what it was like though he was working on it, but he knew what love was and he knew that was what he had felt for Natalia. He was also pretty damn sure she had felt the same, but then she had been so young at the time. Now she saw love as a juvenile fantasy and had cut herself off from it, not allowing herself to see what was so obvious in front of her.
“But you don’t believe that,” Bucky said, another statement of fact. The words burrowed deep under Barton’s skin, causing him to turn away with a frustrated groan.
“What do you want from me?” he finally exploded, rounding back on the taller man in anger. “You scared I’m gonna try to come between you and Nat? Well don’t worry about it, alright? She doesn’t want me, she wants you.” He faltered a bit at the end, his anger diminishing. Walking over to where he had dropped his things earlier, he crouched down and haphazardly started throwing towel and water bottle into the bag.
“And what do you want?” James Barnes asked quietly. Finally a question, one he didn’t know the answer to and desperately needed to hear.
Clint was silent, his movements stilled. Taking a deep breath he threw his sweatshirt into the gym bag and got to his feet, head still bowed as he zipped up the pack. “It doesn’t matter what I want,” he said and he believed it, they both did. “She’s gone through a lot of shit in her life and she deserves to be happy.” He met Bucky’s eyes then, his own filled with fierce determination. “If you can give her that, if you can make her happy, then I’m not gonna stand in your way.” He took a few steps toward the door before he stopped again. “But if you break her heart you’re gonna need another one of them fancy arms, and maybe a leg or two.”
It was exactly what Bucky needed to hear... well, maybe not the threat about being torn limb from limb, but the part where Clint was willing to do anything, including giving Natasha up, if it meant her happiness.
“It’s not me,” the soldier stated loudly in the silent room causing the archer to stop in his tracks and slowly turn back around. “You can never go back. That’s what they say, isn’t it? We tried, but we’re not the same people anymore.” He had Barton’s full attention now, so all he could do was keep talking. He had to keep going before he changed his mind, he had to keep going for her. “She was excited to see you, more animated than I had seen her in weeks. I don’t think she even realised it herself, I don’t think she let herself miss you, or at least she didn’t let herself acknowledge it.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Clint asked slowly. He was clearly suspicious, clearly trying to figure out the angle, but somewhere buried deep there was something else: hope.
“She’s a different person now, her own person, and that’s all thanks to you. You gave her a new life, one she can be proud of, but you’re a big part of that life too,” Bucky held Clint’s gaze, trying to keep the raw pain out of his own eyes. Clint loved her enough to give her up, and now he had to do the same. He had been preparing himself for it for the past hour, but it still hurt like hell. “It’s you she wants, and more than that you’re the one she needs, she’s just too scared and stubborn to admit it. You’re going to have to help her with that.”
They lapsed into silence. Clint shifted his his weight from one foot to the other, his brow furrowed and his lips set in a contemplative frown. It was clear he had his doubts, and who wouldn’t in his position? There was every possibility that he was just setting himself up for another heartbreak, so there was really only one question left.
“She is worth the risk,” Bucky answered for him, because there really was no question about it. Besides that he had to believe that Natasha was ready for this, that she had learned enough in the past few months to realise that part of moving forward was to continue to do so; to continue to take risks and continue to change. She couldn’t go back any more than she could stay stagnant.
“Yeah, she is,” Clint agreed, meeting the other man’s eyes. Understanding passed between them along with apology and gratitude. No matter what happened from here on out, there was that.
“But if you break her heart...” Bucky repeated Clint’s words from earlier, trailing off with just the barest hint of a smirk.
“I know, I know. Prosthetic appendage,” the archer replied with a good natured roll of his eyes and a chuckle that sounded more relieved than anything. “I’m useless without my arms, though, so any chance you could make it a leg or something? Maybe a foot?” he took a few steps backwards toward the door even as he continued talking. “You know, I hear that just losing a toe can throw a man’s balance completely off.”
“Just don’t make me have to follow through,” Bucky finally cut him off, his grin a bit more obvious now. It was amazing the change that had come over Clint in a matter of minutes. This was the man Bucky had first met upon his release from near isolation into Steve’s care, and this was also the man he could understand Natasha falling for.
“Right, got it. You don’t have to worry about that.” Clint stopped only one last time, right at the doorway. He gave the other man a meaningful look, one he hoped would express everything much better than his words. “Hey... thanks.” And with that he walked out.
Bucky watched him leave, his face a mixture of so many emotions he would have been hard pressed to name them all. There would be no more time wasted, he was sure of that; all would be resolved tonight and Natasha would be back on the right path, the path forward. So where did that leave him?
There was a dull ache in his chest but it wasn’t wholly terrible. He could see this for what it was, for what it could be: a fresh start. This wasn’t the end, it was the beginning; over ninety years alive and a new beginning.
Chapter 6: Part 5
“It’s okay to need people, Nat. It’s okay to trust people. It’s even okay to care about them. It doesn’t make you weak; love doesn’t make you weak. In fact, it can be our greatest strength.”
The words echoed in her head, loud and insistent, refusing to be ignored. Of all people he was supposed to understand. He knew what she had been through as a child, he had seen it, participated in it. He knew how hard it was to keep any shred of humanity in such an environment, to hold any hope.
She wanted to blame Bucky, she wanted to deny his words, but he couldn’t know what had finally broken her; he had had a part in that as well.
She had loved him so desperately, so violently. To her he was love, he was humanity; he embodied all the things she was not supposed to feel or have and when they had been separated she had felt like she would never love again. She was wrong.
Her marriage to Alexei had been arranged, orchestrated, and at first she had resented him, but he had been sweet and kind and doting, and she had been young and desperate for affection. Eventually she had loved him too.
Eventually she had lost him too.
Alexei’s death had broken something within her. Her husband, her Winter Soldier, her parents... everyone she loved - everyone she allowed herself to love - got taken from her. She vowed it would never happen again. She cut herself off from her emotions, she offered her skills to the highest bidder, and with each body that fell at her hands a piece of her humanity fell with it.
Then Clint Barton had walked into her life and had seen something in her worth saving, something she couldn’t even see in herself. To this day she couldn’t exactly pinpoint what had made her accept his bargain. She had not been afraid of death, she may have even welcomed it, but she took the second chance he offered instead. If he who was sent to kill her could see more than a monster then maybe there was some part of her soul worth salvaging.
“You don’t need me anymore. Someone else has taken my place.”
She had sworn she would never love again, too afraid of the consequences, but the heart is its own beast and hard to control. She had denied it for as long as she could, had ignored it for longer, but Clint had found a piece of her heart still unbroken and had claimed it for his own.
Then Loki took him from her.
She dedicated every minute to tracking Clint, to fighting for him, and when there was nothing to be done but sit and wait he had filled her thoughts unyieldingly. She had allowed herself to love him, and she had lost him.
But I got him back.
He had been withdrawn, wracked with guilt, and he had needed a friend more than anything so that was what she had been to him. She would have given anything to take the hurt away, anything she had and everything she was, and that thought alone terrified her. He would never forget but eventually he healed and they fell right back into their usual routine, though Natasha was more hesitant, less open than before.
Then her first love had returned to her life and it had been so damn easy to get caught up in it all over again. She had lied to herself, told herself it was him she had always loved, but while a piece of her heart would always belong to him, the majority of it was no longer hers to give; someone else had taken his place. Falling back into the old relationship had been safe because she was terrified of facing the truth: the love she felt now for her saviour, partner and best friend was stronger than anything she had ever felt before. So she had run from it, thrown it away, unconsciously done her best to destroy it. This time she hadn’t just lost him, but herself as well. Funny how those two points were connected.
The truth of the matter was that she didn’t know who she was anymore without him. She lost everyone she loved, including him, but he had come back to her. That had to mean something, that had to account for something. She had fought so hard to get him back. Much of what she had said to Loki had been true; what better way to trick a trickster than with honesty? If the choice had been hers to make, she would have sacrificed the world for Clint, not because she owed him, but because she loved him. That was her lie, though it was as much a truth as any as she had convinced herself of it as well.
“You deserve to be happy. I just hope that some day you’ll accept that.”
Could it be true? Was it possible that someone like her, someone who had done all the terrible things that she had done, could deserve happiness?
Maybe it was finally time to find out. Maybe it was finally time to stop running. Clint had taken a chance on her all those years ago; maybe it was finally time she did the same for him.
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The first place she would have looked for him was the last place he expected to find her. They hadn’t spoken in weeks, not since their argument the day before he left, but the idea that she had come to the roof now of all times only fueled the hope that Bucky’s talk had instilled in him.
Natasha sat on the edge of the roof, her legs dangling over the side, and her hands gripping the surface on either side of her. It would have been nice and poetic to say that the moonlight illuminated her against the black backdrop of night, but the massive illuminated sign that proclaimed ‘STARK’ larger than life for the whole city to see made it much brighter up here than any rooftop should have been.
Slowly approaching her, his hands behind his back, Clint scuffed his boots slightly so as not to startle her, though he suspected she had known he was there the second he had set foot out on the roof.
“If I didn’t know any better I’d think you were waiting for me,” he said, a touch of nervousness evident in his voice. She didn’t turn, didn’t flinch; she just stayed where she sat, feet swaying slightly in the open air.
“Good thing you know better,” the redhead replied. Her voice was the usual flat tone she used in normal conversation, particularly when she didn’t want to betray any particular emotion, but he took comfort in the fact that she had spoken at all. He also took it as an encouragement to continue.
“Or maybe you were waiting for me... to throw me over the edge.” It was a poor attempt at a joke, but he was still trying to feel her out, trying to decide where to start.
He liked to think there was a hint of a smile in her voice, but knew it was just wishful thinking. Finally steeling his nerves, Clint stepped forward and lowered himself down to sit beside her. She didn’t move, didn’t acknowledge him; she just kept her gaze facing forward.
“Lucky for you I like to live on the edge.” That one earned him a quick look as if to ask if he had really just said something that cheesy, but it didn’t last. Silence fell between them and her eyes turned away again as he lowered his own. It was time to bite the bullet, but the archer had no idea how to begin. How was he supposed to fix the mess they had made, especially when he didn’t want things to go back to how they had been before? How was he supposed to tell her that it wasn’t enough anymore? That he didn’t just want her friendship, her trust and her body, but that he wanted all of her? How could he possibly tell her that just as she needed him to keep her balanced, he needed her to keep him human?
There was so much Clint wanted to say but he had no idea how to say it so instead he brought his hands from behind his back to reveal what he had been hiding. There was an arrow clutched in his left hand, a simple arrow with a simple pointed tip that he proceeded to turn over in his hands until he caught the barely perceptible movement of Natasha’s head out of the corner of his eye that indicated he had her attention.
“You should have this,” he said, holding the arrow out to her. After a long moment of hesitation in which he started to think she was going to refuse, she finally took it.
“An arrow?” The hint of confusion in her voice may not have been much, but it was better than the nothing she had given him so far.
“It was meant for you. It had your name on it,” Clint said quickly. He risked a glance at her, watching as she turned the arrow over in her hands, pursing her lips as she inspected it.
“You held a gun to my head, not an arrow,” the assassin pointed out after a moment. She sounded suddenly vulnerable, unsure if her memory was the wrong one and of where he was going with this.
“The first time we met, yeah,” he assured her, licking his lips. “But the first time I saw you I had that very arrow,” he pointed at it, “trained on your heart.”
It had been eight years since Agent Clint Barton, one of SHIELD’s best and brightest, had gone against direct orders and spared the life of the Black Widow, choosing to offer her a second chance instead. She had been a handful in the beginning, and Director Fury had made his life miserable for weeks, but it had been worth it in the end.
“I have a lot of regrets, but the choice I made then was never one of them... you were never one of them.” She finally turned her head to meet his eyes, searching, reading him like no one else could. “What I said last time we...” he started to explain, but cut off when Natasha turned away. Swallowing, he reached out with one hand and cupped the side of her face, urging her to look at him. Reluctantly she did so, and only when he held her gaze again did he continue. “What I said,” he repeated, speaking more forcefully now, needing her to listen because if he was going to get through this he was only going to say it once. “It was a lie. It has always been more than that with you. It wasn’t supposed to be, not for us, but...”
He faltered. Dropping his eyes, Clint moved to take his hand away from her face by she caught it, held it tight in her own and silently urged him to continue. It was too late to stop now; time to go for broke. Running his free hand through his hair, he took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Love...” Her whole body tensed as the word passed his lips and he felt her grip on his hand tighten so he pressed on quickly, not giving either of them chance to think. “The word doesn’t mean anything anymore. People use it for everything. They love the city, they love certain movies and music... hell, they even love their god damn shoes.”
Clint let out a bit of a strangled chuckle. His heart was pounding, he was damn near sweating, but he forced himself to look at her again. He had faced down an entire army of high tech aliens and had been less terrified than he was right now. He really hoped this turned out less painful than that had.
“It’s not enough,” he said quietly. She held his hand between both of hers now, one thumb brushing over the back of it, and he felt a sudden calm wash over him. Whatever happened, however she reacted, he knew what he was saying was the truth. He had denied it for so long that it was a relief to not only finally accept it himself but to admit it aloud. “What I feel for you... it’s so much more than the word ‘love’ could ever describe.”
She held his eyes while he held his breath, but while his gaze was completely naked for once, hers remained unreadable until she finally lowered her eyes to their entwined hands. Raising them to her lips, she gently kissed each of his knuckles in turn while he could only watch her, completely enthralled. “Tasha...”
She raised her eyes then and the mask was gone, the walls were dropped. She was giving him a rare glimpse into her soul, and what he saw made his heart skip. “More than one kiss could ever say,” Natasha whispered and that was all it took. They crashed together, waves upon a stony shore, violent and tumultuous but somehow beautiful and natural. Beautiful and deadly, that was what they were apart, but together they were a force to be reckoned with. Together they could bring the world to its knees or raise it to its greatest heights.
When they finally pulled away, cheeks flushed and lips swollen, gasping for air, the depth of the look they shared spoke of all the more that words and kisses could not explain, not that they were done trying; not by a long shot.
“Good,” Clint said after a minute, still sounding winded. A smile slowly spread across his lips. “I’m glad we had this talk.”
Hearing her words parroted back at her from the fight they’d had five weeks ago, Natasha laughed suddenly in surprise before giving him a not so gentle shove. Snatching up her arrow, she stood and started back across the roof.
“I knew you were just waiting up here to push me off!” Clint exclaimed, teetering on the edge dramatically though he was never in any danger of falling. Getting to his feet, he followed after her and was taken by surprised when she turned to him suddenly, grabbed the front of his shirt, hooked her leg behind his and pulled his feet out from under him, landing him on his back with her on top of him, all in one fluid movement.
“I can take you down any time I want, Barton, don’t you ever forget that,” she said, her wicked grin a hair’s breadth from his lips.
“Duly noted. I should have killed you when I had the chance,” he replied, eyes practically dancing with mischief, his hand tangling in her hair.
“You would be lost without me.” He felt the words against his lips more than he heard them, her voice barely a whisper. He wondered if she knew how true those words were. He hadn’t realised how lost he had been until she had come into his life, and the past few months he’d barely felt like himself. He wasn’t sure who he was anymore without her, and he really hoped he’d never have to find out.
“Completely.” He drew her head down and pressed his lips to hers, this kiss slower, softer than the last. He put everything he was, everything he felt, into that one word, that one kiss, and after that nothing more needed to be said. Whatever it was that they felt for each other, this wordless feeling that was so much more than love, they had no difficulties expressing it in other ways.
Chapter 7: Epilogue
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
It was almost another week before all the Avengers and their few extras were together again. Bucky had been dreading it; seeing Natasha again, seeing her and Clint together... he wasn’t sure how he was going to handle it.
He was surprised when the overall feeling turned out to be acceptance and relief.
They were sitting side by side when he walked in, not touching and not even any closer than any of the others sat, save for Tony and Pepper. For a brief moment he wondered if anything had changed between them at all until they looked up at him and he could see it written clearly on both their faces. Happiness.
He got it now. For the past few days he had been doing a lot of thinking, and finally he got it. What he and Natalia had shared together would always hold a special place in his heart, and he liked to think in hers as well, but he understood her need to move on. She wasn’t Natalia anymore, no longer the girl he loved. She had become a strong, independent woman, one in control of her own life instead of being constantly controlled by others. Their relationship had only been a reminder of the past she was trying so hard to put behind her. Sometimes the bad simply too far outweighed the good and the only way to truly move on was to never look back.
Bucky had been thinking a lot about that lately, about moving forward, but there was one big difference between he and Natasha. She had been taken at such a young age, moulded and twisted into whatever They had wanted her to be. Clint had helped free her, helped her become someone she could accept and maybe even want to be. Why would she ever want to go back?
On the other hand, Bucky had good memories of his life before he had become the Winter Soldier. They were fuzzy and slow in returning, but with Steve’s help he was getting there. That was the past he wanted back, and the man he wanted to be again. For him, looking to the future meant rediscovering his past.
That night he told them all how he planned to go back home, to retrace his steps and rediscover James Buchanan Barnes again, and Steve, being Steve, offered to go with him. It wasn’t so much an offer as a statement of fact, and Bucky appreciated it either way. How better to get back to who he had been than with the one person who had known him by his side, the person who meant the most to him in the world? He knew his best friend was wracked with guilt over what had happened to him, so maybe they both needed this.
Some people say you can never go back, but Bucky didn’t believe that anymore. In his mind you just had to be selective about where you were going back to, and who you were going back with. Maybe he and Steve’s friendship could never be exactly how it had been before, but maybe they could rediscover something better. Together, anything felt possible.
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Lost creatures, that is what Loki had called them and he had been right. Orphans, killers, fallen gods... what had any of them had in their lives only a year ago? They had all lost so much; family, friends, themselves... they were broken, but somehow they had come together and made a team. No, more than that: they had become a family, and nobody felt it more strongly than Tony Stark.
So often people underestimated the heart of the billionaire. They saw him as shallow, arrogant, selfish, but they didn’t know how deeply he felt. More than anyone else, Tony needed this team. It wasn’t some sort of validation, or another feather for in his cap; these people got it, got him and they were his family, and he felt any rift deeper than most normal people would.
The past two months wreaked havoc on him though nobody but Pepper had noticed; well, maybe Bruce, but he always kept things to himself so he had never mentioned anything if he had noticed how much harder their host had been working, how much less sleep he was getting. So when Tony’s two favourite assassins had arrived at the little pow wow together, he hadn’t even tried to hold back his smile. Of course he had jumped right back into his goading of old with particular glee, and had been met with the usual indifference and non-answers. It wasn’t until later in the evening that he managed to catch Natasha’s eye and for once she held his gaze. Thor was telling a lively tale that had something to do with dwarves and possibly gold, but if it wasn’t about the One Ring then Tony didn’t so much care, he had more important matters to attend to. Raising an eyebrow at the redhead, he was surprised when she gave him a meaningful smile in return. Looking away, she bumped her shoulder against Clint’s who cast her an affectionate look in return. Shifting their legs so their knees rested against each other’s under the table, they turned their attention back to the God of Thunder, their silent conversation over.
Still smiling to himself, Tony tightened his arm around Pepper who cast him a knowing and somewhat relieved look as she settled further into his side. He knew things would change, team members would come and go, but this original roster, this family they had built, would always be connected, and he hoped that no matter how far they went they would always return.
After all, if Thor could always find his way back from a whole other realm then anyone else’s excuse was invalid.
And that's the end! I just wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who read and reviewed this puppy! It's the first multi-chapter fic I've finished so I'm pretty proud of that, and being a feedback whore it means a lot that others seemed to enjoy my ramblings too. Thank you, lovelies!