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Rising or Falling

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All three of them are bundled up against the weather – all four of them, if you count PeeBee and his glossy brown coat – but Natasha still feels exposed, as raw as an open wound, every thought in her mind nakedly apparent on her face for anyone who cares to look. But when Clint glances up from helping Julie with her zipper and scarf, when their eyes meet and she forces a smile, he smiles back at her easily and without concern. So maybe she’s not completely transparent after all.

The neighborhood park is a winter wonderland, the slopes of sere grass softened by a blanket of new snow, the shoveled footpath as bright as silver against the white drifts. Other families are out, men and women and children and dogs, happily applying themselves to the formation of snowmen and snow angels and snow forts and snowballs, yelling and shrieking and barking, noses red and breath steaming into the chill air. The eleven-year-old Julie, of course, is far too mature for most of this foolishness, but she lengthens her stride as though with eagerness, pulling ahead of Clint and Natasha as they step onto the icy footpath. They let her go. PeeBee is as much guard dog as family pet, alert and devotedly vigilant. Besides, she’s never out of their sight, and they’re both packing.

Eventually they find a quiet stretch and Julie pulls a well-chewed tennis ball from her jacket pocket; she throws it and PeeBee chases, retrieves, chases, retrieves, but she never throws it very far and he always keeps one eye on his mistress. This is vigilance, not paranoia, and not as suffocating as it used to be.

A pair of benches, swept free of snow, flanks this part of the path. One is occupied by a slightly daffy older woman who calls herself Lady Margery. Margery is too well-dressed and coifed to be homeless, but Natasha has never seen her anywhere but this bench in this park, where she sits with a paper bag of breadcrumbs for the pigeons, regardless of season. There are no pigeons in the middle of winter, of course, but Margery throws the crumbs anyway, like she’s a descendent of Johnny Appleseed sowing the next generation of breadcrumb trees, smiling vacantly and humming a little beneath her breath. (She is really Margaret Webster, a wealthy but childless widow who lives two blocks over. They’d had JARVIS do a thorough background check on anyone they spotted in the community, following up personally if it seemed further scrutiny was warranted. They weren’t about to leave anything to chance.)

The thought strikes Natasha as perversely funny, and she laughs despite herself. Clint turns from Julia, looking at Natasha with a half-smile already on his lips, but this time he sees something that flattens the smile into a grimace of confusion. “What’s the matter?” So she’s transparent after all.

She tells herself that she’s been putting this moment off, but the truth is that the secret is killing her, that if she’d really wanted to keep it she would have found excuses not to be alone with Clint. She’d wanted him to ask that question, wanted to unburden her soul by answering it, although now that the time has come she realizes that she doesn’t know how to reply. She thrusts her gloved hands into the pockets of her wool coat and blurts out, a little desperately, “They were wrong.”

He frowns, eyes darting across daughter and dog before returning to Natasha’s face. “Who’s they and what were they wrong about?”

Natasha bows her head, burying chin and lips and nose into the knit scarf knotted around her throat, gathering her courage. Then she looks up and quickly, before she can think better of it, says, “The doctors were wrong when they said I couldn’t get pregnant.”

The word – that word – hangs in the air between them like their pluming breath, and she realizes that it’s just her breath, that he’s not breathing at all, just staring at her like she’s slipped into an incomprehensible language. But she knows he heard. She knows he understands. Eventually he exhales, eventually his lips move, and after a few moments they even form intelligible words. “You’re… pregnant?”

Her gloved and pocketed fists instinctively spread across her belly, where the smallest bulge has only just begun to show. He would have noticed it if they hadn’t been spending so much time working, and if he hadn’t still been recovering from his ill-advised foray into Vanaheim. “About three months,” she says, not meeting his eyes. Despite the cold air and snow-covered ground she feels strangely flushed, broiling with the onset of sudden and acute shame. “I’m sorry, I know I told you it wasn’t possible and we never took precautions, but when I became an agent they did a full workup and they told me it wasn’t possible, I even saw someone else a few years ago and they said the same…” She’s babbling now, which isn’t like her; she’s the one who makes other people spill their guts, and now she can’t keep herself from talking, “…that the things that were done… that it screwed things up, that I was infertile.”

She hadn’t been surprised by the diagnosis. Maybe infertility had just been an unplanned side effect of one of the Red Room’s treatments, or maybe it had been done on purpose. After all, some of what had been done to her had been genetic; more than not wanting an operative sidelined by pregnancy, her handlers had likely been wary of a foreign power snatching her and using her to breed a new generation of genetically-enhanced soldier-assassins.

She plows ahead, disconcerted by Clint’s silence. “I didn’t even really notice when I missed my period because they’re not always regular, in the past sometimes I’ve gone months…” Except back then she’d always been on the pill, or gotten the shots, because that was the only responsible thing for a field agent to do, even one who was almost certainly sterile. But then the past few years the pills and shots had left her prone to migraines, and she was in the field less, and she wasn’t with anyone besides Clint, so she’d stopped altogether, and years had gone by and nothing had happened…

Until now.

Somehow she stops talking, certain that he now knows more about her biology than he ever wished to know, and she’s afraid to look up but she does it anyway. He’s still staring at her, blankly and without any indication of having absorbed half of what she’s told him, and she thinks that maybe he’s just trying to find a gentle way to tell her a terrible truth, but then he’s speaking again and it takes her a moment before she realizes he’s not saying this isn’t what I wanted. Instead, he’s saying, “Marry me.”

Now it’s her turn to gape, to catch her breath, to be seized by a full-body shiver that has nothing to do with the cold. It’s more like the delicious, trembling feeling she gets sometimes when she hears a particularly beautiful piece of music. Natasha forces herself to shake her head, certain that he’s saying this only because he feels he should; after all, they’ve been living together for more than three years without rings, without licenses, without vows except the ones they made to each other, which are the only ones that should matter. His words shouldn’t send this fluttering sensation through every part of her body, shouldn’t tug at the corners of her lips. “Clint, you don’t have to…”

He plunges one hand into his coat pocket, withdraws it, opens it. On his gloved palm is a little velvet box, unmistakable in size or shape or meaning, and inside the box something sparkles red and silver, and she realizes this isn’t the rash decision of an instant, born of obligation and misplaced chivalry, that this is something he’s already thought about. She glances around the park, at child and dog and batty old Lady Margery with her breadcrumb bag and the distant figures of children tumbling down a snow-covered slope – so open, so public – and she asks, “You’re doing this here?” because neither of them are prone to public displays of affection and because it’s easier to question his sanity than to actually think about what he’s just asked her.

“I wasn’t planning on it,” he says, strangely breathless, a half-certain, self-conscious smile wavering on his lips. “I got the ring in London. I’ve just… kept it on me. The whole time. Waiting for the right moment. Marry me.”

He’d made the trip to London with Jules last summer, which means he’s had the little velvet box in his pocket, in his bag – in his vest? – for more than six months, though Uganda and Kyrgyzstan and Vanaheim. She feels tears spring to her eyes and wills the winter air to freeze them there, unshed. “I thought maybe you felt like Julie was enough, that she was all you wanted…”

Clint grins briefly, nervously; it hasn’t escaped his notice that she’s avoided his proposal – his proposal – twice. “Jules is more than enough,” he says, “but this…” Her hands are still pocketed, so with his free hand he grips her right arm just below the elbow, drawing her closer. “This is a good thing. This is a very good thing.” The smile falters. “It’s good… isn’t it?”

Natasha knows that he isn’t asking if she wants to keep the baby – the baby; it’s the first time she’s used that word, even in her own mind – maybe because he figures she would have said so right off the bat. Maybe he even assumes, wrongly, that if she hadn’t wanted it she would have never told him that she was pregnant in the first place. “It’s good,” she assures him, really believing it in a way she hasn’t before. “With everything… I didn’t know, I wanted to be sure, so when I went last week and the doctor told me, I had him do every test he could think of…” Because things had been done to her, because her genes had been altered, and sometimes when those alterations expressed themselves in another body… “And everything says that she’s healthy, completely healthy.”

Clint’s hand tightens on her arm. “She?”

Natasha didn’t consciously used the pronoun; the thing growing inside her has been a thing, an it, until this moment, even after the doctor asked if she wanted to know the sex and she had numbly said yes, still in a state of elation-terror-shock. And a few days later the doctor had called and said everything on the CVS came back negative, you’re going to have a perfectly healthy little baby girl. Now she nods at Clint and his eyes go a little glassy, like maybe he’s also been thinking of the baby as an it, as an abstract concept of pregnancy rather than a concrete person-to-be.

The half-frozen tears spill over her lashes and she says, “Clint? Yes.”

He understands; he doesn’t have to ask again. She pulls her hands from their pockets and he peels off her left glove; the air is cold but the ring is somehow warm, as though with the stored-up heat of the past summer. He kisses her and even though she has been kissed by him a thousand times, even though the weight and texture of his mouth are as familiar to Natasha as her own, this kiss is somehow different because now he is the man who is going to be her husband.

Something soft and feather-light lands around them, on her coat and in his hair; they pull back, surprised, and Natasha looks up, expecting fresh snowfall, but it is only breadcrumbs. Lady Margery beams at them from her park-bench throne, and by her side Jules smiles slyly and lets fly with her own handful of celebratory bird food, and PeeBee grins his doggy grin, tongue logging, and rests his chin on his mistress’s knee.