There was a moment when everything was at peace. A breeze blew across Natasha’s face, making the ends of her hair dance along her cheekbones and neck. She could smell fresh cut grass and water, as if they were sitting on the porch, enjoying a lovely Saturday afternoon. A snatch of song played in her mind, reminding her of the music Clint had played on his guitar last night as she was struggling to find sleep.
Then the moment was gone. The breeze was from the quinjet engine that was struggling to take off with only one working engine. The men who’d started this, who thought they’d had the upper hand or were stark-raving mad to attempt something so stupid in the first place, would try to take off now that they knew their targets wouldn’t be so easily killed. Half of the bad guys were still on the ground instead of safe in the plane, still shooting wildly around, hitting anything and everything in an attempt to find Natasha’s hiding spot.
One down. One to go.
The smell of water was probably coming from the lakefront nearly a mile away. She wasn’t sure why she smelled fresh-cut grass, although the ruined landscape might account for it. A tree had been uprooted and thrown back toward the earth. Environmental carnage was not normally her concern but she took a moment to look around at what had once been a beautiful park.
It had been different fighting out in the open, leaving the cityscape behind. She knew they hadn’t picked the location for it’s beauty. This was a place that, normally, would be full of families out enjoying the fresh air and green grass. It seemed a shame to destroy it like they had.
One down. One to go.
Early on in the fight, she’d hit her head. It had been a far harder hit than she’d been expecting, knocking her senseless for several minutes and rendering her useless for far longer. She hadn’t been able to concentrate and some of her shots had gone wild. Everything sounded muted until she was nearly crazy with her inability to hear things correctly. The inevitable conclusion of a concussion wouldn’t help her now and dwelling on the injury wouldn’t help her get out of this alive.
Instead of letting her deal with it, Clint had come down to help. He’d put himself out in the open when they’d already assessed that his arrows would do little good at this range. Some mayhem here and there, yes, but she needed him up high to call out their movements. She needed him up high to stay out of the range of the bullets that were flying fast and thick.
They hadn’t been prepared for this. Back-up was still half an hour away, if they were coming at all. She and Clint had only really meant to be the recon, checking to see if their intel was right. This wasn’t supposed to be their fight. They’d only come prepared for a minor shoot-out, per the information gathered. Someone had fucked up the intel and the quinjet, their only form of transportation, had fallen into enemy hands. She’d been forced to disable it. Now it was no one’s exit.
One down. One to go.
“Clint?” Her voice came out a croak. The back of her throat hurt. She didn’t know why that was important until she tried talking and realized she’d been screaming insults since she’d heard the radio’d results of the fight. If she was still upright, that meant he was the one down. He was the one they’d gone after when they thought she was taken care of with the tiny bump to the head and the bullet graze to the thigh. If they had any indication of who they were dealing with, they would know she couldn’t be taken out so easily. Red Room had given her all the resources she needed to survive and Clint had refined them, smoothing out the edges and making her, if it were possible, more lethal.
Love is for children. I can’t allow myself that kind of weakness.
Oh, what a lie that had been. She’d said it with a straight face, allowing him to believe that his kiss meant nothing to her. As he’d pulled away, his own declaration still clouding the air between them, she’d stood ramrod straight. The words were not new on her tongue but this was the first time that they felt false. He used the word love like anyone else but she could tell it had meant something different to him. Something deeper. Something stronger.
Her feelings mirrored his but she couldn't admit that without having to discuss what love meant... or didn’t mean. Nothing as strong as what she felt could be contained in a four-letter word. There were other words she preferred using, having once looked up the meaning of love in a thesaurus. Attachment. Adoration. Fidelity. Worship. Ardor. Allegiance. Yearning. Esteem.
Weakness. All of it was weakness. Broken down into one word or one definition begged for joints where the emotions could be infiltrated and destroyed. Better to be bound with many words and many definitions. A quiver of memories.
“Clint,” she yelled again, straining for any sound that would indicate that he was alive. There was nothing but the wind and the whimpering of wounded fools who thought they could make a few dollars where children would normally be playing.
This time she whispered his name as a benediction, consecrating the plan that was forming in her mind. Natasha struggled to her feet, conscious of how little her limbs wanted to obey her. Blood still flowed from her leg wound but it was sluggish. It wasn’t even worth her time to bind it. She slipped her guns, empty and useless, back into place and looked around for something she could use as a cudgel. Even though she was unsure of how lethal her hands and feet might be in hand-to-hand combat, she knew with a certainty that she could still hit something hard enough to destroy. For Clint, she would rip apart the world with her bare hands, if it came to that.
It was slow going at first, as she discovered what worked and what didn’t. The melody running through her mind gave her focus and she began to dance to it, swinging the twisted piece of metal she’d found as if it was part of her body and not something foreign that would have preferred to stay stagnant. She began swinging the metal in time with the rhythm, as an extension of her body.
Over the din of the music in her head and the scream of the dying, she heard something else.The part of her brain that was still reeling from the injury wanted to stop and investigate. It felt it was important but it wasn’t strong enough to sway the rest of the body. Not as long as bodies were falling down around her in this dance of death.
Strong arms reached around her, drawing her into a hug that bordered on pain. She lashed out with her feet, the only weapons she had at her disposal. A roar of pain that hurt her head was the only indication that she was actually landing any of the kicks.
She was turned around so she faced her captor. Billows of rage still issued forth from the green face but she didn’t feel any fear. Instead, all the fight in her died away and she collapsed within the cocoon of Hulk’s hands.
“I can’t find Clint,” she whispered, hoping he understood what she was trying to say.
All he did was roar back at her in response and she wasn’t sure that she wasn’t still someone he was trying to harm instead of just restrain. A part of her was still scared of Bruce when he was in this form but that was the part of her that was hurt and incapacitated. In the grip of the battle, she only knew him as a strength she could use if she could find the right commands.
“Get her on the jet. We’ve got this taken care of. Not that she left us much to do.”
“Clint.” She tried again but it was getting harder to make her lips and tongue obey her. Everything felt fuzzy and gray around the edges.
A warm hand smoothed over her forehead as Hulk settled her into the crook of his arm, holding her like a baby. She tried to open her eyes but they kept rolling back in her head instead of focusing properly.
“Take care of her for me, buddy. I’ll get there as quickly as I can.”
That was Clint’s voice and, she imagined, Clint’s hand smoothing over the skin of her face as if to assure himself that she was going to pull through. She thought she might be dreaming it but there was no way she could discount the heat of his lips against her bruised temple, brushing a kiss across her dirty skin.
“I don’t care what you call it but I call it love.”
Before she could answer, he was gone... and so was she.
“Six days. You had us scared.”
Natasha tried not to smile as Darcy combed through her matted hair. Parts of it had been shaved off to allow for the electrodes that had hooked her up to machines and it was a royal mess now. Not that she’d seen it but Darcy had been more than willing to tell her just how she looked, as if it was good therapy to know she looked like she’s nearly died.
“I have to admit, Natasha, that I was picking out something nice and asture to wear to your wake. I was working out all the nice things I was going to say about you.”
“Like what?” Natasha’s throat still hurt but the doctor had assured her that would fade before most of the other bruises were completely gone. The feeding tube had only just been removed that morning, at her insistence. Now that she was conscious, nothing was going to intrude into her body, no matter how life-giving it was.
Darcy’s hands stilled and Natasha thought it might be because she was thinking of something silly to go along with the rest of this conversation that might have seemed morbid to an outsider but gave Natasha something to smile about. It wasn’t until she heard a gravelly throat being cleared that she realized they had visitors.
Steve and Bruce flanked Clint, their presence catalogued and quickly forgotten as she drank in the sight of her bruised warrior. He’d been consigned to a bed of his own after his numerous broken bones were bound up and left to heal. Nothing life threatening; some of the bones had been in his left arm and special surgeons had been called in to confirm that they would heal properly. All in all, he’d come out of the fight pretty well for a guy who ended up with an overturned car pinning him to the ground.
Without being asked, Darcy helped Natasha settle back against the pillows. She touched Steve on the arm and the two of them left as Bruce helped Clint to the bed. He sat on the edge with a grunt that belied how much pain he was still in after nearly a week of recuperation. Bruce moved limbs around until the two of them both fit on the bed, wires and casts be damned. He wiped a tear from the side of Natasha’s face that could have been from the pain but was really from the well of emotion that threatened to explode out of her in this weakened state.
“An hour,” he cautioned Clint with a narrowing of his eyes that might have been misconstrued as irritation if not for the emotion in them. “Anything more and her doctors are going to come after me with pitchforks.”
They were silent as Bruce walked out of the room because they knew he would glance over his shoulder as he got to the door, giving them both a sad smile that said so much now that they were coming to know him better. It was the final push they needed to sink into the simple pleasure of being with each other again. No one was going to hurt them. Not with Bruce around.
Clint’s thumb traced a path down her sensitive skin, soothing her almost to sleep. He didn’t try to talk but she could hear his thoughts just as if he’d opened his mouth. I almost lost you. Why did you do it? Why did you put yourself into the path of so much harm? You almost died. What would I have done without you?
She turned her head until her cheek rested against the warmth of his chest. The beat of his heart was a soothing melody in her ear. I would have torn off their limbs before I let them hurt you further. If they weren’t already dead, I would find them again and make them pay for hurting you.
“Okay?” he finally asked.
“Okay,” she answered, not believing it for a second.
He tightened his hold on her and she drifted to sleep, secure that they understood each other once again.
This park wasn’t like that park. There was shelter and high trees and place to hide until help arrived. The bruises had healed and the bones had knit together but Natasha couldn’t stop the constant surveillance of her surroundings. Being here, a picnic basket swinging from Clint’s arm and a folded blanket acting as her shield, wasn’t a date, per se, but it was a romantic gesture. Clint was offering her a way of exorcising her demons with finger food.
“I smell cut grass,” Natasha complained, her brow knit together as she tried not to shy away from the physical response of remembered pain.
Clint pointed out the man on the riding lawnmower over on the other side of the vast lawn. “That’s because he’s probably been at work since dawn, trying to make the surface as even as possible for today’s festivities.”
Here and there, she noticed other people who’d arrived early, not just to spend time in the park. Today was the annual Highland Games festival but it was early yet for anything more than the most dedicated. Clint normally shied away from such things, preferring not to showcase his skills, but he’d decided to give this one a go to see if his retraining after therapy had been as much a success as he liked to hope it was. He’d seen the list of entrants, watched several hours of footage on each of them, and knew that the old Clint could have taken them all handily. The new Clint, who favored his right knee a bit more than he had in the past and sometimes felt the change of the weather in the knuckles of his left hand, wasn’t so sure.
His wounds had healed well enough that they were unnoticeable to anyone else. Still, Natasha watched for any sign of distress in Clint but he seemed to genuinely enjoy the summer sunshine even if he was apprehensive about his showing in the archery tournament. She, on the other hand, was a bundle of nerves. The setting was too much like the park in her nightmares. No one else was with them today, per her request. She’d been fine with that just an hour ago but now she yearned to pull out her cell phone and demand a squad of agents circle the open lawn.
He would be concentrating so much on the target that he wouldn’t be able to watch his six. That would all be up to her. She would have to keep him safe all on her own. That hadn’t worked out so well for them last time.
“You’re shaking.” She hadn’t realized he’d moved until she felt him behind her, his hands rubbing up and down her tanned arms. Most of their recovery time had been in Malibu, on one of Tony’s private beaches. She’d ended up just shaving all of her hair off and starting over fresh so that now she had a wealth of tiny curls all over instead of a shaggy mess that couldn’t be straightened out, no matter how many times Darcy went at it with a pair of scissors.
They only talked of things they could see with their eyes and nothing that was in their hearts. If she hadn’t wanted to before, she doubly felt uncomfortable now that she’d admitted so many things to herself. Things that needed to stay unsaid or they would take on realities of their own and cause just as much havoc as any villain out for revenge. She couldn’t - and wouldn’t - do that to either she or Clint. Not today. Maybe not ever.
But the part of her that wanted to hold back the words was cracking. It was fast becoming a problem that she knew she would have to deal with before a flood of emotions knocked the dam down for good.
Instead of telling him what she was dealing with, she leaned back in his arms and let him give comfort blindly. The warmth of his body felt good against her back, warming the places in her soul that were cold and frightened. Clint kissed the spot just behind her ear that never failed to send a jolt of awareness through the rest of her body.
“What’s our cover today?” she finally asked when her body had completely melted against his, all questions of resistance queried and reshuffled to use later. “Who are we?”
“We are Clint Barton and Natasha Romanoff. They’ve been friends for more years than anyone thought possible and, lately, things have been heating up but they’re taking it slow because they both have things in their lives that makes a relationship hard to deal with. I suspect, given the proper timing and the right circumstances, they’ll eventually work it out.”
Natasha snorted but she didn’t pull away, even though his arms tightened around her as if he was convinced she would try. “They will, will they? What gives you such knowledge of their hearts?”
“Because I did my homework on our cover story.”
“And what do we need to do to keep our story consistent?”
He sat down and pulled her down to the blanket so that she was sitting between his legs, ensnared in his arms. She leaned into him, secure in the knowledge that there was a large tree at his back that kept them safe from anyone coming at them from behind.
“We do this.” One of his hands found hers, lacing their fingers together. “And we talk as if we have interesting things to tell the other. They call it conversation. And maybe, when the right people are looking, we kiss a time or two.”
“Are you worried about today?”
“Are you?” His voice was bland but she heard the way he wanted her to answer the question. She would have to give as good as she expected today. If she wanted truths, she was going to have to give some of her own.
“There are a lot of children here today.” Her eyes moved over the changing landscape, looking for any reason to find danger and call this whole thing off. On a whim, she asked, “Do you like children?”
He paused, weighing his words. “In certain circumstances. I’ve never felt the need to procreate but I don’t mind being around them. This is a good place for that. There’s plenty for them to do so I don’t feel like I have to perform for them.”
“Like you did in the circus?”
“No, like other people did in the circus. I was never much of an act that appealed to children, even when I was one. They got bored of my schtick. What I did appealed to adults much more than to their offspring.”
He nudged her without demanding her answer verbally but the request was there, all the same. “I find it hard enough to keep you safe without worrying about anything small getting away from me,” she answered in a rush without thinking about her words. The truth made her want to pull away but he refused to let her.
“And yet you ripped apart the world for me.”
She pulled forward, looking at him from over her shoulder. “How did you know that was in my head when I did it?”
“Because, silly girl,” he pulled her back against him, “you screamed it as you were running toward the men who had us pinned down. You never stopped screaming the entire time. It’s how I knew there was something wrong. I’ve never been so scared for you before. I normally can’t hear you at all.”
“Not even with your hearing aids?”
That earned her a huff of breath into her curls. “Most assuredly not with my hearing aids. You move like shadows.”
“And your arrows rain down like shafts of light heralding the blazing sun.”
“Two halves of a whole.”
She brought their clasped hands up, kissing each of his knuckles, as she contemplated his words. And the words before those. “What else did I proclaim to the world?”
“That you love Yanni and want to learn how to knit.”
“Lies. All of it.” But she smiled at his willingness to keep her grief hidden, even though she had a good idea of what it was that he heard. No wonder her defenses were cracking because they’d been utterly exposed already. Whatever she constructed now was fragile and temporary and nothing like her old walls. “I refuse to knit and the truth is that you love Yanni.”
His chuckle was completely out of place in the sunny park and much more in keeping with a candlelit bedroom. That might have just been her response, though, because she loved it when he laughed, no matter what form it took. It meant he was happy.
“I meant it. I would rip apart the world for you.”
He stilled, only his heartbeat giving away that he wasn’t a statue, until he finally spoke. “Don’t you believe that I would do the same for you?”
“I don’t want you to try. It’s not worth your life.”
“You are very much worth my life.”
They lapsed into silence again, breaking it only to fall into a normal conversation that Clint and Natasha might have had if they truly were just two people, out enjoying the day. They spread out some of the food and watched as the event started to take shape around them. The crowds began to converge until they couldn’t see the individual events but the loudspeaker kept them abreast of the results.
Finally, the archery tournament was announced. Clint stood up slowly, letting each of his muscle groups unfold slowly so that he didn’t strain anything in his rush to get up. Each breath came out slowly, deliberately. Then, just as deliberately, he reached a hand down for her.
“Clint wants Natasha to watch him compete?” she asked with a grin, bringing back their aliases in an obvious attempt to find her center again.
“I want you to be there to watch me compete. Clint and Natasha can do what they want.”
She took his hand but wouldn’t let him pull her up. “I won’t mess up your concentration?”
“Have you ever before?”
He pulled her up and buried his face in her hair. “Are you ever going to forgive me for Budapest?”
Budapest was the moment, she realized, when she decided that she would stay by his side as his partner. The city had been a revelation for her. Just as New York had been. Just as this day was.
“I don’t love you,” she admitted to his collarbone. His arms tightened but she didn’t want to keep him from missing his event. “But I feel something for you that I don’t feel for anyone else. I don’t know what to do without you in my life.”
“That’s every bit as wonderful... and scary, mind you, as your declaration in the last park we were in.” Clint let Natasha step away but he clasped their hands together after bending to pick up his case. If someone wanted to steal the basket and blanket, they were free to have them. They had all they needed in the space between their clasped hands and in the declarations, both those uttered and those still secret, that lay between them.