(they don’t love you like I love you)
This is monsters and magic and nothing we were ever trained for, she had said, and as Natasha walks through the streets of Bed-Stuy to Clint’s apartment she thinks; maybe this time he will believe her.
Natalia Alianovna Romanova was, according to SHIELD records, born sometime in the late seventies or early eighties, though they cannot confirm it as there is no birth certificate. But Natalia Alianovna Romanova is not the only person Natasha has been.
She tries this every now and again. He is never the easiest person to convince, as he relies so much on his own perception and knowledge and rarely goes just on belief. However, Natasha has to admit that this is not the easiest thing to believe. Hell, even she didn’t believe it for the longest time.
But… monsters and magic. Perhaps this is the right time.
Clint has not been allowed back onto the Helicarrier for a couple of months now. He’s been in and out of hospitals and therapy and psych evals and, unusually for him, he’s taking it all with reasonably good grace. If she’s honest though, she figures that after something like this, all misgivings about telling others your problems would be shoved to the side in favour of getting the nightmares to go away. After all, personal experience has taught her as much, and Clint is very fond of sleep.
She finds Clint on the roof of his building, after getting directions from Aimee-with-the-bike. He’s leaning over the parapet and flicking dried peas at the crack in the window of the abandoned building opposite, but he turns at the sound of her footsteps. Once again, she marvels at the feeling of him being there, like an extension of her arm or a familiar weapon. Even before Coulson had called her in Russia, she’d known something was wrong. He’d felt different; as if someone had given her the wrong gun to hold. Not her Clint, but someone else’s. And Clint is no one else’s – Natasha has more of a claim on him than anyone has ever had on another person, if one could lay claims on others.
Monsters and magic.
Clint shades his eyes against the sun and says, “Hey.”
“Hey yourself,” she replies. “How are you feeling?”
Clint shrugs. “Not too bad, all things considered. How come you’re here? I thought you were in Montevideo. Not that I’m complaining, you understand.” He grins, all crooked.
“I was. Now I’m back.” And she barrels over his ‘well, duh’ with, “Hey, can you come inside for a minute? I have something I want to tell you.”
Clint gives her an odd look but drops his pea shooter with a muttered “Well, that doesn’t sound ominous at all,” and follows her down the stairs to his apartment.
As usual, as soon as Clint gets in his apartment he dumps his coat behind the door, despite having a perfectly serviceable coat hook right there. He meanders around the room kicking off his shoes before slumping onto the couch and putting his feet on the table. He grins as Natasha follows him into the apartment and, with her customary sound of disapproval, picks up his coat and hangs it beside her own – he does that to annoy her, she knows – before knocking his feet off the table.
Clint grins at her again as she sits beside him.
“Shoot,” he says, and she realises that she has no idea how to say this. She has never tried to tell him this, or at least, never when she was so sure he’d actually believe her. She opens her mouth to say something – anything – but nothing comes out. She sighs and drops her head into her hands.
“I don’t even know how to say this.”
She can hear the edge in Clint voice when he says “Natasha… are you OK? Are you – is this –? Are you…” he pauses for a minute before saying very softly, “pregnant?”
Natasha has to laugh at that because it’s so far from what this is. But there is no frame of reference for this, not really, so it’s not all that surprising that that would be the first thing he’d think of.
“What?!” Clint cries indignantly. “What the hell am I supposed to think? You look fine, but you’re all worried. You’re freaking me out a little, OK? Stop it, it’s not funny.”
Natasha smiles up at him. “No Clint, I’m not pregnant. But this… this is weird OK? It’s going to take a little to explain.” And she shifts closer to him so she can lean against his side, and his arm comes up and curls around her shoulders.
He’s silent for a moment then says, “Well, after the past couple of months, weird I think I can cope with,” and she can hear the small smile in his voice again.
What would she have done if he’d gone? If Loki had killed him? Or he’d not survived New York? What would she have done? The same as she always had, she supposes. She’s very good at waiting, even better than he is in some ways. But Clint is closer to the boy she remembers than perhaps any other. It would have hurt more, had he not survived. More than in a long time.
Monsters and magic, she thinks.
She’s been quiet for a while, and then she says, “Do you know my birthday?”
“Is this actually relevant, Nat? Because if it’s not, I’d really like you to get to the point.”
“This is relevant, I promise.”
Clint huffs out a breath. “OK, fine, yes. Or no, not really. You don’t really have one. No birth certificate. But you picked January 6th. Something to do with paganism and your name and the Russian Orthodox Church. I can’t really remember. We were drunk at the time.”
“OK, remember that.”
“The ‘you don’t really have a birthday’ part.”
“Well, that’s not so weird right? You were brought up by a shady ex-government agency.”
“The story goes that I was born into a shady ex-government agency that experimented on me and was meticulous at keeping records.”
Clint thinks about this for a second before saying, “Yes, OK that is quite weird. Also, what do you mean ‘the story goes’?”
Natasha scoots to the other side of the couch so she can see him, but she misses his warmth almost immediately and scoots back to sit facing him, cross legged. He pulls his legs onto the seat and turns to face her.
“I’m going to tell you a story,” she says. “And it’s not going to make much sense to you right now, but I promise – on anything you need me to; my life, your bow, Fury’s eye patch, whatever – that this is true. Just… trust me. Monsters and magic, OK?”
“Natasha, what –?”
“Clint, please,” she says, and Clint falls silent.
Natasha takes a deep breath and then starts.
“I grew up in a small village close to what is now Volgograd,” and Clint opens his mouth to argue, she is sure, ‘shady ex-government agency,’ but she holds up her hand and says, “please, Clint,” and his mouth snaps shut. He suddenly looks terrified though, and her entire chest seems to clench. She pushes her knees harder against his, and pulls his hands into her lap.
“It was wooded, and lovely and… my parents were newly converted Christians. But Christianity was new there so… I liked the old babushkas; I believed the old tales more. One day there arrived some families from far away. They were converted Christians too. One family had a son. I was… about fourteen I guess. He was… he didn’t believe in his parents’ religion either. They were from what is Denmark now, or thereabouts. He had other gods, other beliefs. His own babushkas. But they had been left behind, so I shared mine with him, in secret.”
Natasha laces her fingers with his and looks up at him.
“Clint, he was the most beautiful person I had ever met. He –” and she has to say this because it is true even though it’ll hurt Clint because he doesn’t understand yet. “He is the love of my life.”
Suddenly Clint is trying to wrench his hands away, to get up off the couch and leave. Because of course this to him sounds like someone else. As if that boy isn’t also him.
“Please Clint,” she begs. “Please, please just…”
“Clint, please. My life. I promise on my life. Please just listen.”
For a moment the silence is only broken by Clint’s harsh breaths and quiet struggles to break Natasha’s grasp, but then he stills and leans away from her, avoiding her eyes. When she lets go of his hands he tucks them under his arms, but she needs to touch him, so she places her hands on his knees. He stiffens again, but can’t move away.
“He was… he made me laugh. And he could be a little cruel, just as I could be. He was bright and… magnetic. It went on, us meeting in secret. Sharing… everything – secrets, beliefs, our bodies – for, for about two or three years. But we were discovered eventually, and he was a boy so it was never going to be his fault. His family moved away, and I was thrown out of my home and village.”
She can feel the tension coming off his body in waves, but she has no better way to explain this, so she continues.
“I ended up living with an old babushka in the forest. She found me almost as soon as I was thrown out and just took me in. The villagers were scared of her because they believed she was a witch.”
“I missed him, though – so, so much. Almost more than I could bear. I would continually try to leave to find him, but she would always stop me. ‘You cannot find him now’ she would say, ‘Not as you are.’”
Natasha runs her thumbnail along the seam of Clint’s jeans.
“It’s funny,” she continues. “For the longest time I thought she was talking about how I was dressed.”
Clint shifts at that, and Natasha can still sense his need to leave, so she continues.
“One day I tried to leave again, and she said to me ‘There is no point leaving. He has passed on,’ and when I didn’t understand, she said ‘He is dead, child’. It’s…”
Natasha shakes her head, aware of how overdramatic she had been then. “I nearly did something… very stupid. It’s all very overdramatic, very Romeo and Juliet. I could have been Orpheus.”
She laughs slightly. “No, I am Orpheus.”
She looks up at Clint. He keeps looking at her and then away. His hands are now back in his lap, but she knows that if she were to reach for them, they’d get tucked under his arms again. She wants to ask, do you get it yet? but she knows that he won’t. Not yet.
“She asked me – and isn’t it funny that I can’t remember her name? – she asked if I really loved him. If I’d follow him anywhere, love him no matter what. And when I said yes, she said; ‘Go then. You will see him again. You will not grow old, you will not die. But he will, over and over, and you will grieve every time. You will love him no matter who he is. You will find him no matter where he is. You will suffer for your love.’”
Natasha looks up at Clint then, and he’s looking at her again. And this time he doesn’t look away, even though his gaze is full of scepticism. But there’s also something else there, something small, something that looks a lot like understanding.
“And then she looked at me” says Natasha, “and she said, ‘This is my gift and my curse. It will break when you can tell him, and he believes that you are as I have made you’.”
Natasha stares at him, willing him to understand. He’s left her before when she’s tried to explain. But… monsters and magic. This time it could work. And he looks so similar.
“In some folk tales,” she whispers, “the hero is challenged to hold onto someone and never release them, regardless of the shape the other person takes.”
The silence between them stretches further and further, and she needs him to believe her so badly she’s almost shaking with it. He looks as if his whole world is collapsing, and she wants to hold him, hold him together, but she knows that she can’t, not right now.
“What was his name?” he asks finally.
She regards him quietly before answering, “Clint.”
“No it wasn’t, Natasha. What was his name?”
“Clint,” she repeats. “It doesn’t matter. You’re – he was – it doesn’t matter. His name was Clint.”
“No, Natasha. What. Was. His. Name?” And he looks angry and terrified and part of her is so, so sorry to have made him so.
“I can’t remember,” she finally admits quietly. “It was so long ago.”
Clint vaults off the couch, and she doesn’t follow. She only turns so she can face him again.
“Oh yeah?” he chokes out as he fumbles for his coat behind the door. “How long ago was it, then?”
“There was a monastery once,” – she doesn’t say you were a monk there, because that wouldn’t help – “it was Buddhist. But... I worked out the earliest date from that.”
Clint has stopped by the door, waiting for her answer.
“About a hundred years before 1050AD,” she says, and Clint wrenches the door open. Just before he slams it shut though, she calls after him, “Ask JARVIS, Clint!”
The apartment is utterly silent once Clint leaves, the echo of the door slamming still ringing in Natasha’s ears. She wants to cry, but she stops herself. Instead she straightens the couch cushions. Then she tidies the kitchen, nervous energy prompting her to do things she never normally would. However, after depositing all the recycling in the collection bins in the basement, she finds herself at a loss.
She doesn’t expect Clint to come back any time soon. She knows him too well for that; both this man – Clint Barton – and all the people he had ever been since she’d fallen in love in the woods of the Volga valley. So she isn’t surprised that the shadows grow long and darkness falls, she isn’t even surprised that he isn’t back by midnight. She simply hopes that he’s made his way to Stark Tower, and proceeds to curl under the blankets on his bed which smell so strongly of him that she almost succumbs to tears.
JARVIS is her secret weapon, so to speak. Slowly but surely, over the years, Natasha has collected proof of her story, and her sudden (in relative terms) access to technology such as JARVIS has made it so much easier to collate and document. For the first month after New York – while Rogers was travelling across America, Banner was tying up business in Kolkata, Clint was in therapy and Stark and Potts were… doing whatever it was that they needed to do to get over this – Natasha had enlisted JARVIS’ help, without Tony’s knowledge, to find and put together as much information as she could.
Because soon it would be time to try again, and maybe this time it would work.
This time it had to work, because she is too tired for it not to.
She wants to grow old with this man. She has always wanted to grow old with this man, this person. She had known it when they had first met, had known it when he was a miller’s five-year-old son in Spain and a celibate monk in Tibet and a fisherman in Malaysia. She had known it when he was a fifteen year old prostitute in Odessa and a concubine to a Chinese emperor, an old man in London and a young woman in New Orleans. She even knew it those few occasions she had left – once in the Congo Free State, once in Batavia and once, a very long time ago, in what is now Islamabad – when the person she loved was buried under terrible life experiences, bad decisions and alcohol.
She’s never had to sleep with any of them to know it either; they never had to be close in age or the same race, and gender had no impact. Natasha feels very strongly that love has jack shit to do with any of that.
Sometimes Natasha feels she deserves a reward for her loyalty, though it doesn’t work that way.
She hopes Clint will ask JARVIS.
Natasha can’t bring herself to leave Clint’s apartment, not when she knows that her own flat is equally empty. So she sleeps in his bed and eats his food and uses his shower and gets to know his neighbours. It’s a bizarre form of torture, but she knows him well enough to know that eventually he will come back. She just has to give him time.
Time is something Natasha has an inordinate amount of.
“In some folk tales,” she whispers to herself, “the hero is challenged to hold onto someone and never release them, regardless of the shape the other person takes.”
Natasha is not a hero, but she is not letting go either.
It takes two weeks for Clint to come back. And when he does, Natasha is in his shower. They both step into his room at the same moment, Natasha from the bathroom dressed in a towel and Clint from the hall and dressed in exactly the same clothes he’d left in.
“Oh,” they both say in unison. Neither is expecting the other to be there, and Natasha skin is pebbling from both the chill of the room and the knowledge that Clint is so close.
“I’ll –” Clint gestures to the door again and Natasha says “No!” before Clint can even finish with “step outside for a moment.”
“Oh,” they both say again, before Clint smiles crookedly and Natasha says, “Sorry, yes please, I’ll be down in a second.”
But when Natasha goes to open the door to go downstairs again, Clint is there with a bag, looking sheepish, as if he’s not sure he’s welcome to use his own bedroom anymore and Natasha simply stands aside to let him in.
There’s an awkward moment where Natasha can tell Clint is taking in every single little thing of hers that she has moved into his room while he was gone, but he simply dumps his bag by the wall and shuffles awkwardly before sitting on the corner of his bed. Natasha hesitates a moment before sitting down next to him, close but not touching.
“I did what you suggested,” says Clint. “Eventually.”
Natasha raises an eyebrow in question.
“I asked JARVIS.”
Natasha lets out a slow breath to hide how relieved she is to hear that. The constant hope in her chest is starting to become painful.
She asks, “How did that go?” but Clint ignores her.
“I… I got him to show me some of the stuff. He said you’d said that was OK. I took some of it to NYU, got it tested and stuff. Threw Tony’s money at it to speed things up. Went to a hypnotist.”
He looks stunned.
“A hypnotist, Natasha. You know I don’t hold with that crap. But I went to one of those guys that can tell you your past lives and shit.”
Clint falls silent, and Natasha lets it stretch. She knows this is important, can feel she’s so close to being able to keep this. She also knows that she cannot push; that whatever this is, Clint needs to work it out for himself. You can’t force people to believe things, no matter what ideas you’re putting forward. People have to come to believe for themselves.
“I remembered… mountains. Really high. Himalayan high. And… a small mill on a fast flowing river.”
Natasha draws in a quick breath and Clint looks over at her immediately, but she simply waves at him to continue.
“There was… a blonde woman in, like, Victorian dress or something. And… those East African cows. Some old Roman coins and a funeral pyre and… you were standing over me, shooting. I was hurt, and there was rubble and Nazi uniforms and we were in…”
“Budapest,” Natasha finishes for him.
Natasha reaches out to put her hand on his leg, but stops short at the last second.
“The Siege of Budapest in the winter of ’44-’45. You were a Russian soldier. I was not going to let you die.”
“You said it was like Budapest all over again.”
There’s a moment of silence as Clint takes this in and then he asks, “Did I die?”
“Yes,” she replies, “but later.”
There was silence again, but then Natasha decides to explain a little.
“You were a Tibetan monk once, hence the Himalayas,” she says. “I must have been the first red-headed woman those people had ever seen. And getting into Tibet on foot is difficult, just so you know.”
Clint smiles at that.
“The mill… Sometimes our ages don’t match up. You lived in that mill once. It was in southern Spain. You died aged seven. Drowned in the mill-pond. I lived in the village. I found you quickly that time.”
Natasha’s hand creeps into Clint’s almost without her consent. He grips back, hard.
“The blonde woman’s name was Barbara Morse. She was a fantastic woman. She ran away from her arranged marriage to some British military official to marry an Indian man from Bangalore.”
“So why did I see her?” Clint asks, and Natasha smiles because he can be so dumb sometimes.
“Clint, you were the Indian man.”
He looks confused, and he scrunches up his nose. “So who were you in this?”
“I was her best friend and your lover. She knew. As I said, fantastic woman. Very accommodating, you might say.” Clint looks thunderstruck again, and Natasha grins. “She’s buried in the Christian graveyard in Bangalore. I go and visit her when I can. You should come.”
“OK,” says Clint, more by way of reassurance than agreement. “OK, alright. I was an Indian polygamist? Um…”
“You were Roman a few times, and a slave to one too.” Natasha shudders at the memory. “A cow herd in what is now Ethiopia – again, I must have been one of the first white women they’d ever seen. The funeral pyre… I don’t know, depends what type. There were quite a few.”
Clint slumps backwards onto the bed.
“Fuck,” he mumbles. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
Natasha scoots backwards until she can lie down with her head on the pillows, and Clint eventually moves up the bed to join her, though for the moment he keeps his arm thrown over his eyes. Natasha curls on her side to face him.
“Have I ever been anyone interesting?” he asks.
“You’re always interesting.”
Clint lifts his arm from his eyes to glare at her. “You know what I mean.”
Natasha thinks. Clint has been hundreds of interesting people. He’s an interesting person now, and she hates that he can’t see that. But she does know what he means.
“You were… you were a prostitute –”
Clint barks out a laugh, but Natasha silences him with an admonishing “Clint” and he quietens again.
“You were a prostitute in Algiers. You were… you were born a boy, but you were a girl. You were about thirteen and you were terrified of your own body. You were the sweetest girl, I loved you so much. You were beaten to death by a john. I killed him for that.”
Clint is staring at her again now, and he reaches over to brush his thumb under her eye.
“That explains a lot about you, that does,” says Clint softly. Then a moment later; “Anyone else? JARVIS had a painting, said it was by me. Or… Carlos Jiménez.”
“Yeah, that was in São Paulo. You were also once a concubine to a Chinese emperor.”
“I didn’t know there were male concubines.”
“Well, there were, but you weren’t one of them.”
“Oh,” Clint looks pole-axed again.
“But mostly you were just regular people, Clint. Regular people living regular lives all across the world. I was just a woman who didn’t age and did odd jobs until I found you again.”
An expression of dawning realisation crosses Clint’s face.
“You brought down the Red Room, didn’t you? In the early 60s. The first time.”
“Where was I?”
“Growing up in Australia.”
“You died about six months after the Siege of Budapest, and I didn’t meet you again until 1966 in Australia. You were the daughter of a rancher out near Alice Springs. Kathy Turner, your name was. You absolutely loved hiking the Outback. One day you left and never came back. It was the spring of 1975 – we’d been together almost 10 years. There was a manhunt and everything, but they never found your body. It’s probably the most high profile you’ve ever been.”
Natasha grins then. “Well, before now.”
“And then I was born in Iowa in 1976.”
They fall quiet then, and eventually Clint turns on the bed to face her, one arm tucked under the pillow, the other laying on the covers between them.
“I seem to die prematurely a lot round you,” Clint says, mock accusingly.
“Not true! Often I had to leave because it became apparent I wasn’t aging at all, though in the very early days, the fact that I didn’t age didn’t seem to bother anyone. Sometimes I found you when you were already old. Sometimes I met you as a child, and then would have to leave and come back when you were at an age where it wouldn’t be horribly creepy and inappropriate.”
Clint grins and moves closer. “What stays the same?” he asks.
Natasha thinks for a moment.
“Your aim,” she says. “Your sarcasm. Your sense of duty and right and wrong, even if it’s buried or warped at times. Your defensiveness. Your anger and your control.”
She touches his wrist lightly with her fingertips, before spreading his hand out on the covers.
“Your feeling of not being good enough,” she says softly and Clint closes his eyes, as if in agreement.
After a moment he opens them again.
“So, who am I?” he asks softly.
“You’re Clint Barton.”
“Funny, Natasha. Who am I to you?”
She pauses for a while, her gaze suddenly focussing on the slightly cracked skin around Clint’s fingernails.
Natasha doesn’t say anything else, and neither does he, but she can feel him looking at her; that steady gaze trained on her, pinning her in place. She can almost feel the emotion pouring off him – latent confusion and want and lovelovelove – and she definitely feels him finally believe her.
It’s like a switch being flicked, and she feels it in that part of her chest that always knew where he was no matter what, the place that knew which person out of thousands was the one she’d walked across countries for. Tears sprang suddenly to her eyes, and the hand that lay between them on the bed came up to cover her mouth in an attempt to muffle the sob forcing itself out.
Clint looks alarmed. “What? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Natasha chokes out. “Nothing at all.” She takes a shuddering breath and then says, “You believe me.”
“I – Well, yeah. I guess so.” Clint looks bemused, like he hadn’t really thought about it.
“Why?” Natasha has to ask. Because after all this time, he believes her. And of course she was hoping for this, and of course she was banking on Loki and Thor and the Chitauri to have had some influence, because how could they not? Monsters and magic she’d said. Monsters and magic.
But he believes her and she didn’t realise how incredibly unprepared she was for the reality of that until it actually happened.
Clint looks lost. “I – you.” He scrubs his hand over his face and there’s silence while he seemingly collects his thoughts.
“OK, I’m not going to pretend that this makes sense ‘cos it doesn’t, not really. But.” He waves his hand vaguely in the air. “You… you don’t lie to me Natasha.”
She chokes out a laugh at that, because she lies to him all the time.
Clint gives her a crooked smile. “OK, I shall amend that statement,” he says. “You don’t lie to me about important things,” and she has to concede that.
“You know,” he says. “I asked JARVIS what he thought – which is ridiculous by the way, who asks robots for their opinions? – and you know what he said?”
Natasha shakes her head.
“He said ‘Well, Agent Barton,’” and Clint’s attempted impression of JARVIS’ clipped British accent is terrible, “‘the idea of soul mates has to start somewhere.’”
Natasha can do nothing else but stare at him, because in all her time on earth, that idea had never really crossed her mind.
They’re silent again, but this time Clint is gently stroking his thumb over her hand where it’s resting on the bed. There’s a tension between them, like if they were to touch properly they’d never let each other go, even though not letting go is all Natasha has ever done, an all-consuming need that has made her just as extraordinary as Banner or Rogers.
“Why did you do it?” Clint asks eventually, quiet as anything.
Natasha doesn’t bother to say I didn’t do it, not really because she knows that that’s not what Clint’s asking, knows what he’s really asking is are you sure I’m worth everything you went through?
So instead Natasha leans right up so her nose is pressed into his temple, and she breathes in the scent of the shitty shampoo he uses and says, “Because I fell in love with a stupid Dane that came to my village when I was young. He was sarcastic and funny and a little cruel sometimes and he made me feel alive. And he became my everything.”
She wraps her arm around his neck and rolls over on top of him, and as Clint’s hands make their way under her top she pushes herself up so she can look into his eyes and says, “He still is.”
What she really means is; of course you are.