Tash finds him after the ceremony, her crimson robe and mortarboard clashing with her hair in the most magnificent of fashions, and throws her arms around his neck.
"Look at you!" she laughs, pressing a kiss to a spot below his left ear. "Clint Barton, high school graduate!"
He laughs and bends to kiss her when he catches movement out of the corner of his eye and turns to find two people watching them – the woman is the spitting image of Tash's aunt, and he knows, in a solid way, that this is them, her parents, the people who will never approve of their daughter's thoroughly American boyfriend. He swallows hard.
"Tash, your parents," he mutters, gesturing with his chin, and she turns, the sunny smile on her lips folding into the usual mask she wears – these are the people, he thinks, who taught her to wear it.
"Mama," she says, grabbing Clint's hand and pulling him towards them, "Papa."
She rattles off an impressive string of syllables that he knows is Russian, and he swallows hard as she does; they actually rehearsed this, how she would say I want you to meet my boyfriend and then he would step forward and offer his hand to her father.
The words are thick and heavy on his tongue, he pictures the card she gave him, the Cyrillic letters in her careful hand, and beneath them the English approximation. He means to say Hello, my name is Clint, which is the only Russian phrase he has ever known, but all he can think is how that first letter looks like a backwards three, and then he's tripping over himself, and he lands halfway in French and half in Russian, like the clod he is.
Her father looks confused, and Tash laughs. "Zdravst-vooit-yeh," she says, and he parrots it, which triggers the rest of the phrase.
"Zdravst-vooit-yeh, men-ya zo-voot Clint," he says, and this time there are no m'appelles or quelquefoises tripping across his soft palate, just the words she taught him.
Her mother smiles slightly, but Clint has seen the same look on Tash's face, the look like she's just slightly amused, and knows that, if she's like her daughter, what it really means is she's touched.
Tash's father takes his hand firmly, and Clint is aware of the moistness of his own palm – this shouldn't be so scary, he knows that, these are just his girlfriend's parents and despite the lies she tells him when she gets in her moods, they're not ex-Soviet enforcers nor comic book villains, and he has nothing to fear from them.
He considers pissing himself as Tash's father looks into his face, but decides that might be a terrible idea, and instead he focuses on the small constellation of freckles at the corner of Mr. Romanoff's right eye. They remind Clint of something, somehow, and he finds them soothing.
Their handshake ends, and Clint is sure that Mr. Romanoff wants to say something, but his English is unsteady, so they both turn to Tash and her mother, who are speaking words Clint doesn't understand. He hears his name, like a sour note in the music of the Russian, and he knows that her mother is asking questions; probably questions Tash doesn't want to answer, like where is this boy going to college and where are his parents and Clint feels embarrassed for her by proxy- it's clear to him, by who Tash is, that the Romanoffs value education and family, and for their daughter to be dating an orphan with an incarcerated brother, a boy whose only future plan is the army, a boy with no ties to the world past a rag-tag group of kids and a strange abiding love for calling cues, well, it can't be easy for them.
"Mama wants to know," Tash says, smiling, "About your medal."
Clint fingers the heavy token around his neck – Tash has NHS cords and an award for being outstanding in French, but Clint's is just a bronze lozenge with the comedy and tragedy masks on it.
"It's called the George," he says to Mrs. Romanoff, and Tash echoes him in Russian, reaching out to take his hand as they speak. "The outstanding senior in theatre gets it. One for tech and one for acting. C thought – I mean, it's kinda traditional to give it to the stage manager, but last year Pepper got it, so--" he trails off because he's babbling, but Mrs. Romanoff smiles thinly, the same way Tash does when she doesn't want him to know how cute she thinks he is, and Clint blushes to match his robe and Tash's hair.
There's an excited whoop from over Clint's shoulder, and he turns to see a familiar blonde buzz cut streaking towards him before he's caught up in a bone-crushing hug, his hand wrenched from Tash's grip.
Steve lifts his feet off the ground, knocks the air from his lungs, and grins so widely that Clint is a little overwhelmed by the joy on his face. The affection he feels for Steve is so potent that he wonders, not for the first time, if maybe they're not secretly related after all, if Steve and Barney were switched at some point, magically.
And then Clint is on his feet and Tash is the one being lifted. Clint gets his bearings back well enough to laugh.
"When did you get home?" he asks, clapping Steve on the shoulder as he puts Tash down.
"This morning, I finished my finals on Monday," Steve says, turning to Tash's parents and offering his hand.
"You going to dinner with them?" Clint whispers into Tash's ear as her bewildered parents are caught up, gently, into Steve's exuberance.
"Yeah," she says. "But I'll see you at Darcy's tonight?"
Clint nods. "Clara and James are around here somewhere, and I think Steve wants to take me for Schwarma."
"Even though that's Tony's thing?"
Clint shrugs. They don't say the T-word around Steve, it makes him mopey or mad, depending on his intoxication level.
She grins and kisses him on the cheek. "I should rescue them," she laughs, jerking her head toward her bewildered parents, and Clint nods.
"Love you," he tells her, and he squeezes her hand briefly.
"You too," she agrees.
He goes into the army like he planned, like Steve will do someday, and Clint has no intention of examining how much influence his best friend has on that decision, because it's a lot, and she goes east to study languages and linguistics at Georgetown, and they write letters every week.
His training takes a year, between basic and specialization – he has a flare for shooting that his trainers pick up on, and he knows there's a note in his file that, if he keeps working hard, could lead him to sniper training in the not-so-distant future.
Three years down the road, when she finishes her degree, which is more than impressive, she gets a job doing something with translation and the federal Government, which he doesn't ask about. It's Nat, his Tash, she'll tell him when he needs to know.
They've been together for six years when he finishes his first tour and gets put through sniper training, and he comes to stay with her for the rest of his leave.
(They say six years but it's probably closer to five. They don't count the months in senior year when he had his freak out about things being too permanent, or the six months when he was first deployed that he told her to go and be with someone else, or the fight where she accused him of being afraid of intimacy and didn't talk to him for a month or the hours they've spent being mad for one reason or another; they don't chronicle the bad times, they count the good and call it even in the end.)
She's living in a little house in Virginia, outside of DC. Her parents had the money to send her to college, but she didn't need it, and so they bought her a house instead, a place for her to have as her own.
He likes it there; it's quiet and private and there are trees - Nat says that the summers are hotter than all hell and the winters are too cold, but the spring and the fall are a little like home, and Clint likes the way the mist settles on the road at night.
He's unused to days of leisure, so he takes long walks in the woods, picks out areas where he could sit and hide for hours, imagines a new ghillie suit, and reads some of the fiction she's accumulated. He loves Jurassic Park, he hates The Great Gatsby, and he is somewhat indifferent to Nora Roberts.
His days end the same; he makes her dinner before she gets home, and they sit and talk about whatever's on their minds - politics, the war, movies and books and trees. He knows it's a test, to see if they can live together, to see if this is something that they, as adults, are going to be able to get through and have a future.
It looks good from his vantage point, but he sometimes wonders if this is long enough, if they'll ever get to be in the same place. Her superiors are discussing a graduate degree with her, which will lead to travel someday, and they've never talked about kids, Clint and Nat, but he wonders what their lives would be like, settled down and parental, how he would take them to school in the morning when he wasn't deployed, but he doesn't think they can do it, not unless one of them can always be in the country.
He resolves to talk to her about it.
They've done well when she changes things; it's about four months in, and the conversation is waning, but he's taken up Russian now, listens to tapes while perched in the ancient oaks around her property, and she helps him form the words some nights, and some nights they watch Mythbusters on Netflix and argue with the TV.
She climbs into bed with him and snuggles into his shoulder. He's reading a book he found in the study, a book of Poe stories. He's not sure if he likes them or hates them, becuase some of them have a way of making him feel like he's back in the desert.
"I got you something," she says, the firm muscles of her jaw working against his chest.
"If it's another pair of panties," he says, not looking up from the book, "just put them in my luggage when I leave. The guys love that."
She breathes a laugh into his skin, and he folds the page over and shuts the book, laying it on the night stand.
"I got you this," she says, and she pulls a small box from behind her and places it on his chest.
The box is made of cardboard, and it looks like it's the kind of thing that you would put jewelry in - he wonders if she got him a tie clip or something, which would be weird, or cufflinks, but when he opens the box it's neither, it's a slim silver band, a ring, that looks on the outside like it's been beaten with a rock - dents and scratches, but polished and beautiful.
"It's a ring," he says, and she nods.
He lifts it from the box, and there's a flash from the inside of the band - there's an engraving there, a tiny cartoonish spider, and a bird next to it.
"What is this?" he asks.
"That's a spider and a hawk," she tells him, reaching out to take the ring and holding it above them. "But the ring is cause I think I wanna marry you."
"Oh," he says, and he takes the ring back from her, to slide onto his left hand. "That sounds pretty good."
"Pretty good?" she asks, and he chuckles.
"Do you remember the first time we talked about this?"
She shakes her head, and he presses a kiss to her hair. "We were in the booth, junior year, and you took my hand and drew on it, a heart, with CR inside. And I asked what it meant, and you said Natasha Barton sounded stupid."
"It does sound stupid."
"And I said Clint Romanoff was just as bad."
"It kinda is."
"And I think that was when I knew."
She takes his hand, the one with the ring on it, and kisses his palm. "You knew when you were seventeen?"
He nods. "I've always known."
"You could have told me."
"You never asked."
She laughs, an honest laugh, and rolls herself so she's straddling his hips, "So yes, then?"
"Yes, then," he agrees, his hands finding her waist. She bends down to kiss his mouth, and he kisses her back, the metal of his ring cool and foreign on his finger, and her skin hot and soft to contrast it.
Nat doesn't pick Clint up at Dulles, when he climbs achingly off the plane and stumbles into the embrace of the long gray and white corridors. He loves this airport and he hates it, because he feels like a rat in a maze and because that feels entirely too comfortable to him.
He's just out of Kuwait and he can still feel the brush of hot sand against his skin, replaced by the foreign idea of the AC, the frigid blasts making the hair on the back of his neck stand straight up.
She isn't here because he didn't tell her he was coming back, which is how they work sometimes, so he makes his long and winding way to the taxi stand and gets a cab to take him down the toll road to the quiet dark place where they live in a house, half brick, half siding, and half again too big for them.
He slips his dogtags off as they drive, takes the ring she gave him from the chain and slides it onto his finger, because he is hers, has always been hers, and it makes the fact that he is home somehow more palpable. He slips out of his fatigue jacket and rolls up the sleeve of his t-shirt, runs a finger across the bandage - fresh, but not bleeding anymore, sore but not unbearable - and he smiles because the first thing she always wants to do is count his scars, and she'll see it then, she'll love it.
(She's always loved his scars, even the ones he hates, the ones he got when he was too young to fight back or too small to stop it no more or less than the ones he gets from blisters and bullets and the one time he tried to make her dinner, she wants to count all of them, catalogue his imperfections because she says it makes him real.)
The cabbie doesn't want to talk, and Clint is fine with that, because he never knows what to say to cabbies who want to talk. They pull up outside the house and the man helps Clint with his bags, smiles, thanks him for his service and accepts the money that Clint gives him - Nat says he overtips chronically, and he doesn't say that he knows what it's like to need to beg for scraps, so he gives what he can.
The house is mostly dark but he can see a light on in the study, which he guesses in anyone else's home would be a nursery or a guest room, but in his and Nat's home, there is a study with her books in all the languages she speaks now, and he likes to smell them, the heady scent of ink and paper and knowledge that seems to creep out from between the pages when she reads. (He plays minesweeper on his laptop, or writes emails and pretends he isn't watching her, but he has never been a reader like she is, swallowing whole languages and keeping them in her heart.)
She hears the door when he opens it, and there is a moment where she sits in the light and he is silhouetted by the outside and their eyes meet and the next thing he knows he's halfway into the study and she's in his arms, their reunions as sweet as the first time she kissed him, strawberries and cream in a vinyl diner booth, 3000 miles and eight years away.
She grabs at his biceps, tries to get a close to him as she can because she wants, Nat has always wanted, she wants with this hunger that he could never understand or satisfy, but she always comes back for him, always hungry for him, and he gives her what she needs as best he can.
"Ow," he laughs, reaching over to loosen the hand she's clenched over his bandages, and her face falls.
"You're hurt," she says, and she shoves his sleeve up to show her the snowy bandages against the sun-darkened skin of his arm. "And you didn't tell me you were coming home."
"Unwrap it," he says, and she does, even though she looks at him like he's lost his mind.
The lines of the tattoo are jagged, a heart carved by an adolescent hand, those eight years ago, inscribed with their initials. The heart she carved on a day that wasn't special except they were together.
"What's this for?" she asks, and if an observer would mistake her for unmoved, Clint can see the way she worries her bottom lip just slightly, and knows that she is.
"You said when I came home next, you were gonna marry me," he tells her, holding up the hand with the ring on it. "And I've already got this, so I thought - something more permanent."
Nat laughs and kisses his mouth.
"I adore it," she tells him.
"I love you too," he says into her hair as she pulls back, and then presses a small kiss to the center of his new tattoo.
They head to the Justice before he ships out again - he's only home for a few weeks this time, just long enough to get her taste back on his tongue so he'll miss it when he goes back.
One of her coworkers stands as witness, a man called Sitwell that Clint has only met once, and they send a mass text to their join friends after, letting them know that Clint Barton and Natasha Romanoff might still have their own names, but they went ahead and got a piece of paper that says they belong to each other.
Everyone sends congratulations, except Tony, of course, who sends two thousand one dollar bills in a briefcase with a note that says "FOR CLINT - LAP DANCES". (It isn't until they empty out the briefcase to deposit the cash that they find, underneath it, a small photo album with pictures of the old high school gang, and vouchers for a trip to Russia - hotel and airfare, all of it - at a date they can choose. Tony officially wins at presents.)
Steve calls them because he wants Clint to stand up for him at his wedding, and before they know it, it's September and they're back in Oregon, watching Steve and Tony get married at the same church where Steve used to spend his childhood Sundays.
Clint feels a little silly, escorting Pepper down the aisle, but Natasha looks at him like he hung the stars as he passes by her pew, and he feels himself more than a little proud at all the things an orphan with no family and no future accomplished in his life.
He dances with his wife at the reception, her golden dress setting off his dress blues, holding her tight and swaying to the music that he doesn't really hear.
"This was an okay place to grow up," she tells him, and he hums an affirmative - he didn't exactly grow up there, he just finished up his childhood. He grew up a little of everywhere, but she knows that, and it doesn't bear repeating.
"You think we should have kids?" he asks, and she smiles thinly, the same smile she's given him since day one, back when he didn't know the joy it belied.
"Not until you retire," she says. "I won't be a widow with children."
"You were a widow when I met you, remember?"
She laughs, and he thinks of the spider engraving pressed against his skin.
"How about," he says, dipping her gently, though this might be a fast song, he doesn't even know anymore, "how about I leave the service and go to college. And then maybe?"
She nods. "Then maybe," she agrees. "But you're staying home with them."
He laughs. "I was always going to be Mr. Romanoff," he tells her.
"We could adopt," she says. "You know, an older kid, one with less of a chance."
He pulls back to look into her face, which is the same face it's always been, but more somehow, in that moment. He waits for the shoe to drop but it doesn't.
"You want an angry kid in the system?" he asks.
"I have an angry kid who survived the system," she says. "I say we get one who doesn't have to."
He doesn't say anything, he just pulls her close, but he thinks, by the way her fingers brush the back of his neck, by the way breathing is slow and steady, by the way she presses her cheek to his shoulder, he thinks she knows what he's trying to say.