It’s an unremarkable Monday afternoon when the landline in the kitchen starts ringing. Unremarkable in the sense that this is just what Clint’s life looks like now, with Cooper and Lila screaming at each other over whose turn it is to pick what they watch, because God forbid one of them just go upstairs and use the second TV in their parents’ bedroom. That’d make Clint’s life too easy. Of course both of them are unnaturally attached to a very particular couch cushion and sitting on it elevates the Paw Patrol viewing experience from just regular to transcendent. Of course.
He’s trying to change Nate’s diaper, except there’s no fresh ones downstairs to put him in, which means he has to break into the new pack of swim-diapers Laura picked up on a giant Target shop yesterday – they were running low, and they’re meant to be saved for the family’s trip up to the lake on Sunday. The new supply needs to last the whole week. Clint really should have put the stuff away for her, gotten one thing off her plate. She’s been running endless errands to get ready for their vacation, packing for the kids and writing to-do lists and making swim-diaper supply runs. Laura always seems to know what they’re low on before Clint even knows they were supposed to have the thing in the first place.
But the bags are still sitting next to the counter where she’d dropped them and pivoted straight into making dinner last night, one fluid move that she made look effortless.
A silent, organized pile of tote bags should not be capable of eliciting this much guilt in a single human.
He’s ripping the plastic packing on the diapers open with one hand, the other splayed out on his wiggly kid’s stomach to pin him in place on the counter. Lila’s voice is reaching a decibel level only previously achieved by fighter jets breaking the sound barrier, the cat’s scratching at the door to be let out and when the phone starts ringing, it feels, for a brief flashing instant, like all of this is more than he can take. More than anybody could reasonably be expected to take.
He grabs the receiver and barks a sharp “What,” into it, one hand still on Nate’s belly and one eye on the situation by the TV, where Cooper’s face is rapidly reddening in a way that means Clint needs to intervene pronto, except he still hasn’t let the cat out and he can’t get Nate to stop wiggling long enough to tug even one of his legs into the clean diaper –
The air leaves his lungs. His stomach hunches up on itself like someone sunk a fist right through him.
“Hey,” he says – surprised, made stupid with it. “Hey, Nat.”
The last time he heard Natasha’s voice, it was an entire month ago and it had been a brief, perfunctory voicemail on his cell. He’d listened once, pressed ‘delete’ in a fit of pique, then immediately regretted it and spent the next hour trying to figure out how to retrieve it from wherever his phone sent deleted messages. He hadn’t been successful.
“Do you have a minute?”
“PAW PATROL, PAW PATROL, WE’LL BE THERE ON THE DOUBLE,” the television screams, and Clint tries to muffle the receiver against his shirt, which is smeared with tomato pulp and blueberry GoGurt.
“Yeah, hold on - Lila - Lila!” She turns to look at him, surprised, and he swallows, takes a breath – that verged too close to yelling, and he doesn’t do that. He’s never gonna do that. His kids can fray his patience and tap-dance on his last nerve but he’s left forty behind and still remembers his own father, sharp, strident, terrifying. He’s never going to yell at his kids. “Go upstairs. You can watch in Mom and Dad’s room, okay?”
“But it’s not fair, the couch - ”
“Upstairs or you’re losing screen privileges for the rest of the week.” It’s the big threat Laura always makes, so he figures it’ll get results. “I mean it, kid.”
Lila makes a horrible yowling noise, like no one in the history of the planet has ever been so put out, and stomps up the stairs. As soon as she’s out of sight, Cooper turns the TV off.
“Are you kidding me?” Clint demands. “You’re not gonna watch your thing now, really?”
“Nah. I think I’ll do Legos,” Cooper says.
“Kee blag kee blaffle,” Nate contributes.
Clint lifts the phone back to his ear. “Hey, sorry,” he says. “Crazy day over here.”
“Do you have a minute?” Natasha repeats, this time uncertainly.
“A minute, yeah,” he says, and tucks the receiver between his ear and his shoulder so he can challenge the swim diaper to a rematch. “What’s up?”
“Work’s taking a bad turn. Lagos isn’t going to blow over – we all expected it would, but it’s not happening, and we got approached today about the team’s lack of oversight and accountability. The UN’s put together a pretty aggressive plan, and it’s not entirely unwarranted – it’s not even without merit, really, but the way it was presented… I’m worried this has potential to go south, quickly,” Nat tells him. There’s some note in her voice – deep concern and that uncertainty that’s not quite gone, both of which he’d be weighing more heavily if there weren’t five thousand other things in front of him.
And if he weren’t still smarting about how many days it’s been since the last time she called him.
That’s the petty truth of it in the moment. He’s smarting, which is already a barrier in the way, and he’s trying to let the cat out the door, and settle Nate into his excer-saucer, and acrid black smoke’s started to pour out of the stove because he completely forgot that Laura had asked him to set a timer and take out the banana bread she’d popped in before she ducked out on more lake-trip errands, this time in search of new bathing suits for the kids. Natasha’s explaining the Sokovia Accords, the political ramifications, every team member’s individual reaction and the arguments that spiraled out when they discussed it as a group - and he’s maybe not following as closely as the subject needs to be followed.
“I don’t see a way around signing, not when things are this hot. I’m just – I’m not sure. And I need to be sure. What do you think?” she asks.
Clint’s waving oven mitts in front of the stove to make the smoke disperse so it won’t set off the smoke alarm. “I think I’m retired, so do I really need to have an opinion on this?” he says.
There’s silence on the other end of the line.
Bad silence. Very bad silence, and the realization of how badly he just fucked up is a sudden shock to Clint’s whole system – ice water in the face, a prod with a taser.
She needed him.
That’s why she’s calling at all, because it’s something big, it’s something that’s got her rattled, and it outweighed this strange, horrible distance that’s crept in between them. She’s worried – deeply worried, and she called because she wanted him to help her puzzle through her feelings. Not Steve. Not anyone else in the building.
There’s been a thick glass wall between them for almost a year, and she’s the one who chose to erect it, but she’s also the one who just smashed open a place for them to speak through.
And when it came down to something that mattered, Clint’s the one she’s come to for help. Clint’s the one she’s trusted with her underbelly, the only one with whom she doesn’t have to project total certainty. Clint is the only person whose opinion she wanted to weigh into her decision.
This is how Natasha says I need my best friend back and now he’s gone and told her cool, sure, I don’t care what you need.
“Nat, wait, give me a second to think,” he says, trying to backpedal, but he already knows there’s not an apology big enough. Not one he can make in this moment, anyway, not over the phone with thousands of miles standing between them. Whatever he says next, he’s already too late.
“No - you’re right,” she says, her voice at least five degrees cooler. Agent Romanoff, collected and professional, pulled down over Tasha like no other version of her made this call in the first place. “You’re right, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be bothering you with things like this.”
“I didn’t mean - ”
“They need me back in the conference room anyway, Sam’s making horrible faces at me. I’m sorry – I am, Clint, really. Give my love to the family,” she says.
“Natasha, hey, please don’t - ”
“Is that Auntie Nat?” Lila says, reappearing at the top of the stairs. “I wanna talk to Aunt Nat!”
“She hung up,” Clint tells her, and is entirely unprepared for this statement to make Lila explode into ferociously loud sobs. Which sets Nate off howling along with her. Which makes Cooper start yelling that they’re messing up his concentration.
Which is, of course, the moment Laura chooses to walk through the front door.
Two kids crying, one screaming, smoke flooding the kitchen, banana bread ruined, contents of her tote bags now spilled and scattered all the way across the kitchen floor. And Clint standing frozen in the middle of it, uselessly holding the phone and making no attempt to fix even one of these things. Too spoiled for choice to pick a single problem to focus on.
She walks into some version of this every time she leaves Clint on his own with the kids for more than two hours. Every time, and it’s been almost a year of him – being here. Really here, a familiar presence in his kids’ lives instead of Fun Dad, the guy who made it home for a long weekend once a month and called as often as he could in between.
Which means they both know he should not still need to be graded on the curve.
He’s sort of glad that she looks angry instead of exhaustedly resigned to this – exhausted resignation was a look he saw on his mother’s face too often – but even for that, it’s not exactly pleasant, seeing how palpably angry she is.
“Did you put her down for a nap, Clint?” Laura says, exasperation thick in her voice as she crosses over to the stairs to pick Lila up.
Hand to God, Clint had no idea she hadn’t outgrown the need for those.
Much later, after the kids are deeply asleep. They’re standing in the kitchen together, she’s putting away dinner leftovers while he does the dishes. They have all the windows open to catch the smell of early summer and he can hear crickets singing in the yard.
It’s like Laura’s pulling the words up from some water-well deep inside her, hand over hand to lift a heavy bucket. Straining for every inch with ropeburn scraping into her palms, but her voice is soft and there is absolutely nothing unkind in it.
“I’m serious, Clint. I need you to do better.”
“I know,” is all he says. Because he does know, and because she’s not being unfair.
Neither of them knew that his retirement was going to make the cracks here bigger instead of better.
How could they have possibly known? It’s not like they sat down and made a plan for things to get worse: Once Clint’s around on a daily basis it’ll make everything go to shit, that sounds like the outcome we’re both hoping for! She’s put up with so much, for so fucking long, and contrary to popular belief, Clint’s not an idiot: Laura loves him, and Laura is incredibly supportive, but Clint has never held the kind of job that someone could be supportive about indefinitely. He knows that. They both went into this marriage on the expectation that his tenure at SHIELD – and then his sudden pivot from SHIELD onto the Avengers – would come to an endpoint.
She put up with it well past every reasonable point that the “someday, sometime” option should have been triggered. She put up with it on the expectation that once he retired, they could be together properly, functionally.
Laura was ready for him to hang it up well before they got surprised by Nate’s conception, but Laura is also a really great person. Like, a really great person, and she was never going to let herself ask Clint to stop. Not even when she would have been well within her rights to tell him I understand that your work is important, but it was one thing when it was just you and me, or even when it was just you, me, and Cooper. Now we have THREE children and I’ve been the one doing all the heavy lifting in the parenting department. All of it. Every day. By myself. You are hardly ever home with us. I am essentially raising these kids alone, and now that SHIELD is so much smoking rubble, you cannot ask me for infinite patience. You cannot ask me to be eternally alone inside our marriage.
He’s only just coming around to realizing that the reason she had never said any of that stuff was because she already knew the truth. She’d figured out by then that he didn’t want to stop. That he might never want to, not really.
What he wanted was for his life to look exactly the way that it had looked. He loved the farm the way things are loved when they aren’t the day in, day out stuff of reality. He had loved this place as a happy interlude from his real responsibilities.
After Sokovia, he just – he finally felt like he should. He should want to let it go and come home.
He should want to do the thing Laura had never let herself ask for. He owed her and his children that much, more than a two-week vacation to recover and then back into the fray with his team, back with the long weekends once a month – God, especially now that everyone knew they existed, now there was no reason to stay away, no reason to keep it infrequent to avoid suspicion. So he’d pulled the trigger. Broke it to the team. Broke it to Nat. Came home. Said he was done. Promised he was staying.
Initially, Laura had been thrilled.
She’d been so happy, and he’d felt virtuous, and they’d both briefly been convinced this really was about want and not about should.
And since they stopped being able to sustain that conviction, their life hasn’t been anything like either of them imagined.
Laura looks at him for a minute to see if anything else is forthcoming. When she realizes he’s got nothing, she sighs and kisses him on the cheek, chastely. “I’m going to get ready for bed.”
“Yeah, I’ll be up in a minute,” he says, and she nods, turning off the lights behind her as she goes.
He waits until he hears the heavy tell-tale thunk of their bedroom door closing before he picks up the phone and punches in the number for the complex in upstate New York. There’s no way Nat’s going to answer a text, and he knows she won’t pick up his call right now, but he’s found that a semi-reliable way of getting in touch with her is dialing the compound’s secured line directly and asking whoever answers to go grab her.
Semi-reliable, because Steve cottoned onto Clint’s extreme lack of subtlety and refuses to ever bug her (it makes Clint angry, sometimes, thinking about how staunchly Steve sides with Team Nat when there shouldn’t even be teams in the first place), and Tony tries to woo him back with promises of cool new arrow tech, which always distracts Clint from the original purpose of the call, and if Vision answers, Clint hangs up, because that dude really creeps him out.
Taking those three out of the pool narrows the odds of successfully connecting.
This time, Wanda picks up on the third ring. He thinks he’s gotten lucky until she tells him Natasha left the country about an hour ago.
“She did not say as much, but I think she plans to follow Steve to London,” she adds. “Before the Accords are ratified in Vienna. She would not have needed to go right away for that, ratification is not until Thursday.”
His mouth tightens, just a little. “London, huh? Catching that Harry Potter play together or something?”
“He was asked to be a pallbearer at a funeral,” she says, a tiny hint of chastisement in her voice. “It was a death that he took very hard. Natasha was worried for him.”
Great. Now Clint feels bad.
It’s not Steve’s fault that Clint retired. It’s not Steve’s fault that there was a vacancy in Nat’s life. It’s not like he doesn’t want her to have someone she’s tight with.
It just also sucks. He gets that Steve’s her partner, logistically, but he still thinks if he had ever actually heard Nat phrase it that way, if he’d ever heard her call Steve my partner – he likes Cap, a lot, he really does, but he might have had to break his perfect nose a little bit.
“Got it,” is all he says, because it’s not like he owes Wanda an apology. “So – they’re getting ratified? Group came to a consensus?”
“Consensus. That is cute.”
Clint winces. “Shit.”
“Yes,” Wanda agrees. “That is the summary.”
“You figure out where you’re standing?”
She sighs, a quiet, vulnerable noise, and it strikes him all over again - how young Wanda really is. Not that much older than Natasha had been when they’d first met, but even by then, she’d logged the miles of somebody twice her age with the scars and calluses to show for it. Wanda’s been through a fair amount of shit and he’d never downplay that or dishonor it, but she’s still oddly young for all that. In a way Clint’s not sure either of them had a shot to be.
“I did,” she says. “Then an hour passed and I stood somewhere else. One more and I moved back to my original position. I can’t wait to see what happens in another sixty minutes. I’m sure either way I’m in for a very restful night’s sleep. I’m sure I won’t end up staring blankly at the ceiling until my eyes dry out.”
“You’re getting funny, Maximoff.”
“Tony’s taught me all his best jokes.” She pauses. “What would you do?”
“Oh, hey, look. I haven’t even read the thing, so - ”
She says it with so much sincerity that it makes something tighten in his chest.
“I’d do the thing that would let me get to sleep at night,” he tells her. “And I’d hope like hell it’d be the same as the thing that would keep the team together.”
After they hang up, he goes around the room to close and bolt all the windows. Laura likes to sleep with them open – she’s right, it makes the house stuffy in the morning otherwise, and the nearest neighbor is seven miles away. She says there’s no actual risk.
Clint’s still somebody who’s always known better than to sleep with an unsecured entry point. That’s not something he can shake off.
Clint is highly aware that there’s a lot riding on this lake vacation. They rented a cabin. It comes with its own dock and a speedboat, with a shed full of water skis and lifejackets and rafts for tubing. There’s a fire pit and they’re bringing an excessive amount of s’mores supplies. They might do some fishing. Laura’s bought a giant stack of books because she has three children and knows better than to bring an iPad anywhere near the water.
It’s the kind of family summer getaway that he knows she’s wanted to take for a very long time, and he promised this was their year. He wants to give her this.
He also promised he would finally get the upstairs guest bedroom painted today after shredding off all the wallpaper last month, and that he’d finish sanding down the new posts for the porch fence that have needed replacing for ages. But he’s got some time before they’ll be back. The mechanic always takes forever, and a quiet house, an uninterrupted stretch of free time and a gnawing unsettled something chewing under his skin - there’s nothing in him that’ll allow the time to pass any other way, not right now.
He could have tricked the farm out, probably. Built some approximation of the high-tech targets he’d used when SHIELD had an HQ, or the better ones Tony had outfitted the tower in New York with when that had been a thing. (He’s never asked if there’s an archery room waiting and ready for him at the upstate complex. He’s not sure he wants to know the answer either way.)
Could’ve done that, but he never got around to it – when he was here, he was here to see his wife, to spend time with his kids, and he had resources in other places, so it was never urgent. Once he retired, it hardly seemed like a vote of confidence in their future to have his first order of business be ‘setting up a private range so I don’t go insane’.
Besides, he can make do just fine picking targets from the top of the barn. Keeps his versatility sharp, makes sure his sighting’s still up to scratch, and once he gives up the pretense that he wants to do anything but pull til his arms go numb, there’s an ancient, massive oak tree on the property he likes to fire into, on and on, one shot after the other.
Won’t have time to let his arms go numb today – he’s not new, okay, it takes awhile for that to happen - but he picks the tree anyway. Lets his mind roll out to wherever place it wants to go when he’s shooting by rote.
Where his mind always goes, when his bow is in his hands. Like his weapon is some sentient creature reminding him who’s missing from this picture.
The thing was: it had never occurred to him, not even for a second, that dropping the team would mean losing Nat.
He’d been operating on the sincere belief that nothing would change with them. They’d talk every day. She’d be over all the time and okay, yeah, Iowa and New York aren’t neighbors but what’s the point of being bankrolled by a billionaire if he can’t get you a plane for personal use whenever you want it? She knows how to fly and it’s not like Clint doesn’t have the field space for her to touch down practically right in the backyard. She wouldn’t even have to bother checking a bag, going commercial, renting a car.
They have a spare room, for fuck’s sake, which he knows he’s supposed to be repainting even as he nocks another arrow. It’s always been Nat’s room to him. She’s only slept in it a handful of times, she’s never left so much as a hairbrush in a drawer and he knows she hated the flowered pattern of the wallpaper even if she’d never been so rude as to say as much. Nat wouldn’t have cared if Laura put her in that room or tossed her onto the couch or asked her to get comfortable outside under an apple tree. She had no more attachment to the room than she would any given hotel suite in any given city.
It’s there in his head anyway. He walks down the hallway and he thinks Nat’s room.
He’s taken this house apart and put it back together in the last ten months, gutted walls and ripped out pipes, built a craft room for Laura and blown out the back wall of the kitchen because he’s needed the projects, needed some work for his hands.
But he stripped that wallpaper down over days like some kind of silent offering.
A small pocket of silence between them made sense, at first. Nate was born and the new-baby madness swept in and consumed everything in Clint’s world for awhile – so yeah, a little distance was normal. He’d missed Natasha in an exhausted back-of-the-mind way, how he would’ve worried at a sore tooth or a hangnail. Something there, something to be aware of, but it wouldn’t ache unless it was prodded and it didn’t need to be dealt with right away.
She’d sent a gift. Dozens of tulips for Laura, a cashmere baby blanket the color of butterscotch, with a tasteful card congratulating them on their new ‘little traitor’ and trinkets for Cooper and Lila, so they wouldn’t feel stiffed by all the loot the new kid was raking in. Thoughtful and elegant, every choice made with perfect attention to detail. Effortlessly Natasha.
But when he’d called to thank her, she didn’t pick up. Laura got a text, hours later – “sry i missed ur call. YW & congrats again!” and an emoji smileyface.
Laura obviously hadn’t thought anything was amiss in that when she showed him the message and Clint had felt as though he’d swallowed an ice cube. He knew. He knew right then, all it took was one text and it smacked him upside the head - something’s not okay here.
But Natasha always had such reasonable answers for not visiting, for why they talked so rarely. “You guys have one infant. Steve and I just adopted four,” was her most frequent rejoinder.
It always made Laura laugh and Clint wince, because there was too much truth in it. She and Steve were building an entirely new team from scratch when the old team had worked great. Had worked beautifully, the six of them had been an efficient, unstoppable machine, and even if it wasn’t like all their new Avengers were wet behind the ears – Wilson and Rhodes had decades of combat experience between the two of them – it didn’t translate immediately into a team functioning as a cohesive unit.
What the six of them had been together – that had been something special. It wasn’t like Clint was the only one missing, Banner had fucked off who knew where, Thor had his own shit to attend to, Tony kept insisting he was now an “active noncombatant”, but still. Still. He’d left, his absence contributed, and now Nat and Steve were salvaging what they could.
So Clint let it slide until the Fourth of July rolled around, and then he’d put his foot down. Called late enough at night that he knew she’d be in bed and kept calling insistently until she’d finally picked it up.
“Come out for the long weekend. Seriously, you gotta finally meet your namesake,” he said, in his take-no-shit voice, the one that even sometimes worked on her. “They can spare you for one weekend, Nat.”
There was a long pause. He was already grinning in anticipation, a rush of joy at the promise that after two really, really long months apart, she’d be here in a few days. He’d pull her into a hug and wouldn’t let go until he damn well felt like it, they could watch fireworks with the kids, stay up late in the kitchen after everyone went to bed and he’d get the real details on everything going on back in New York -
“I wish I could,” she said.
She was still talking. “There’s something we need to pull the trigger on in the next couple days. I don’t want to promise and then not show up because I’m stuck in the belly of a cargo plane to Caracas or somewhere.”
He wondered, briefly, if this was how Laura had felt for the last few years. Why do I have to CONVINCE you to come home, Tasha? Why aren’t you just HERE, don’t you want to see me as badly as I want to see you?, there were too many similarities and the realization put an unpleasant taste in his mouth. He shoved the thought aside as quickly as it came.
“You hate Venezuela,” he sulked.
“No, I hated the sunburn I got in Venezuela, which I’ve accepted was not Venezuela’s fault.”
“What’s the job?”
“Classified,” she said. “Honestly, Barton. We’re not even on burners right now.”
She had sounded exhausted, and not late-hour exhausted. Natasha-exhausted, when it went bone-deep, tics and tones he could read even over the phone. Every subtle signal she gave off that ten-plus years of partnership meant he knew inside out, he knew she needed a break, she wasn’t sleeping enough. She was driving herself too hard, had dropped into one of those awful mental feedback loops about what she should be accomplishing that she sometimes couldn’t pull herself out of cleanly.
Clearly nobody was there who knew how to do it when she couldn’t do it herself.
Nobody knew that they should take her to a dumb movie and shove a box of Sour Patch Kids in her hands. Or rub the spot beneath her left shoulder where tension bunched itself up into a golf-ball sized knot that required someone else’s thumbs to smooth out. Or buy her a memoir written by a former reality dating show contestant that she’d read all in one sitting, or promise her that they would stay awake next to her while she slept and mean it, as long as it took, sometimes all she needed to come back was the utter certainty she was safe, twelve solid hours of sleep, and a hot shower.
She needed a fucking break and she would never give herself one. That had always been his job.
He’d been sick with guilt after they’d hung up. Which had ultimately calcified itself into anger and he’d called Steve on impulse – very poorly thought out impulse, since he wasn’t sure if he was calling to yell at the guy or to demand that he force Nat to take a vacation. Either way, Natasha was not going to thank him for going over her head, but Clint was too caught up in riding the wave to care. Not if it got her out to the farm.
Except that Steve wasn’t in his office, and he wasn’t running simulations, and he wasn’t gearing up to ship out to Caracas or someplace like it.
He answered the phone from a convenience store in Sloatsburg, where he was paying for snacks. Natasha, he informed Clint, was outside gassing up the car.
“We’re playing hooky for the long weekend,” he’d said, sounding cheerful. “I wanted to skip… pretty much everything Tony suggested doing for my birthday, and between you and me, Nat needed a breather. So I leaned on her a little bit and we decided to head up to - ”
Steve had kept talking – something about outdoor art installations and a storm and a king and some pleasant questions about the family that Clint answered on autopilot. The rest of him was too caught up in the realization that Natasha had lied to him.
Which was a thing no one should ever really take personally, from Natasha.
Unless you happened to be Clint, in which case, he knew for goddamn sure he fucking well ought to take it personally.
The next time they talked, she didn’t bring up the trip, he didn’t mention that he’d spoken to Steve, and since then, they’re both extremely committed to maintaining the fiction that their friendship was never anything more than something conducted on a surface level. He won’t pick the fight that needs picking; she maintains a level of deep reasonability. Small talk with one of the people he loves most in the world – the one who knows him the best – he’s been physically tortured in ways that lingered less.
He misses everything he walked away from, but miss is not an adequate word for what he feels about Natasha’s absence.
There’s a room in his house that he’s repainting and he has thought, more than once, that if she knew she was going to react like this, then she could have just retired when he did. They could have hung it up together. She could have come back with him. It could have been her room. She could have lived here with the rest of his family.
Mistaking a thought like that for “an actual reasonable plan”, Clint knows, is possibly another reason why his marriage is not in fantastic shape.
He fires his last arrow into the top of the tree, completing the neat line he’s been studding up its trunk, then starts to climb down from the roof. He needs to have at least two walls painted by the time everyone comes home.
“I think the lake’s going to be great,” he tells her. “I can’t wait to get up there.”
“Yeah.” He kisses the crown of her head. She smells like baby powder and lavender deodorant, and when she looks up at him, he squeezes her tighter.
“I was thinking,” she says, and pauses. Her forehead crinkles with it. “Maybe after the lake… maybe we could think about trying marriage counseling? Just for a little while.”
Clint absorbs that. Are things really that bad? is what he wants to say, but it’s a stupid question to ask when he knows the answer. She’s right; the lake’s not going to fix every fraying edge here, and things are – clearly – not getting better on their own.
“Okay,” he says. “Okay, yeah. Let’s look into it.”
Laura looks surprised. “Kind of thought I was going to have to push you for that one.”
“Well, I’m growing as a person every day, it’s probably because of my changing body,” he says, and he’s pleased when she laughs.
“Thank you,” she says. “Really, Clint – thank you.”
“I don’t want it to be like this either, you know,” he tells her.
Laura catches his mouth with hers, nothing perfunctory in it – it’s sweet, she lingers on it. He realizes they haven’t kissed this way in awhile.
“I know,” she says. “I know you don’t.”
The building is a blown-out mess, flames still licking out the windows, debris and dust and smoke in the air, and Natasha was inside it.
Natasha was there because the fractured team sent her as their representative, that’s what Wanda said. Wanda said she would be there today.
Seventy people are dead and Natasha was there.
Natasha was there and she is the most capable and ruthlessly clever person Clint has ever met, but a bomb is not a thing that can be out-argued, outmaneuvered, out-played. A bomb’s victory depends entirely on a person’s proximity to its detonation point.
Seventy people are dead and Clint has sunk to the ground in his living room with his children swarming all over him. He can’t hear anything but a low buzz filling his ears, which he assumes is the kids panicking and Laura talking at him but the only thing he can understand is the brightness of the explosion in the clip that the news keeps playing, over and over.
They have had a thousand close calls together, maybe more, all the greatest hits of Barton & Romanoff, he’s seen her up close to death so many times and he’s never batted an eye. He doesn’t get why this has leveled him - for all he knows, she wrote the dates down wrong in her calendar or didn’t sign the agreement at the last minute, she might have been running late or in the bathroom, maybe someone else went instead.
There are endless ways that she’s probably fine. There are endless reasons this is a dramatic overreaction.
He is a goddamn Avenger, he’s not someone who falls apart before he has any facts at all. He doesn’t panic at the first indication of potential bad news. He kept his head cooler than this in fucking Odessa, and that was after she’d tried to crawl through a trail of her own blood, holding her guts in with one hand, after sixteen straight hours of surgery. He’d paced up and down the hall and shouted at a couple doctors, maybe, but that bullet had been two minutes away from being her last and he had still been cooler than this.
But seventy people are dead and the last he was told, Natasha was there.
The inferno on the TV rages on. The king of Wakanda is dead. A diplomat from the UK. Sixty-eight more names to go.
When he stands up, when his legs feel like they might work, he can see that Laura’s crying and her hands are trembling as she reaches to comfort him, but he walks past her open arms as though she’s a piece of furniture so he can – his fucking phone isn’t ringing, really, really, was nobody going to loop him in on this, because what if the TV hadn’t been on right then, it’s not like he’s somebody who goes on fucking Facebook , nobody thought he might have a vested interest in knowing that somebody might have blown up his partner when he wasn’t there with her, he should have been with her –
He’s said that last part out loud and he can hear how furious he sounds, I should have been with her, goddamn it, I should have been there, growling it out as he’s punching in a phone number, he’s not sure which one but somebody better pick up and give him some fucking answers and when he looks up, Laura’s face has gone completely white beneath the tears streaking her cheeks.
He has never felt this helpless.
The clock on the wall says three hours, but it is a thousand years until he hears Natasha’s voice.
“I don’t have much time – Steve’s, well – he’s going to do something stupid before any of this gets better, but I figured I should let you know I didn’t blow up today,” she says, so matter-of-factly, and Clint closes his eyes.
“Hey, good job with that,” he says, and it is a fight to make his voice come out like he’s not a ragged, chewed-up mess. The words themselves are nonsensical, but he’s really only up to one battle at a time right now. He’s been in retirement too long. “Where are you?”
“I am directly behind the fan that a very large amount of shit was just hurled into,” she tells him blithely, and he knows she’s not trying to be cruel but it bites into him. He is not supposed to be someone who earns one of her non-answers. “Clint, I really have to - ”
“Tasha, please,” he blurts out. Still nonsensical.
Then again, it’s not like they ever used to have any trouble understanding each other’s nonsense. He can’t follow entirely what’s been happening, with the Accords and the team, but a building has blown up, Steve’s buddy is the suspect, there’s group infighting, and he and Natasha have never once not been standing shoulder to shoulder for something this huge. If she’s this deep into something, he should be in it, too. He shouldn’t be scrambling to put the pieces together from scattered phone calls.
The voice in his head that sometimes whispers that retiring might have been a mistake is no longer whispering; it’s a deafening crescendo. The truth of his life has become screamingly clear to him in the hours between the image of the International Centre exploding and silence of nobody on the fucking team looping him in on any of this.
It’s physical, this is a thousand fire ants crawling along his skin. His body is humming at a low, discontented frequency as though it’s trying to propel him out of here, urging him to stop fighting and just fucking admit that Iowa is not the place he’s most needed today.
Iowa is not where he wants to be today.
“Clint…” she says.
She sounds like Tasha right then, in that one single syllable, and he didn’t realize until now how long it’s been since he’s heard her say his name like this. It’s like he’s taken a hit of some top-shelf oxygen, like this is the first time his lungs have properly inflated in months.
He squashes his instinctive impulse to beg her to say it again as soon as it flares up.
“Let me deal with this and I’ll call you,” she promises. “It might – it might take a few days, but - ”
He grips the receiver, tighter. “No, I get it – I know this is big, Nat, I know it’s not all gonna settle at once and some of this is out of your hands, but you gotta - ”
“I will. “
“You’ve gotta talk to me, when you call,” he says. “None of this - ”
“I know. I know, I do,” she says, and he wants her to stay on the phone forever, because this finally sounds like them, this feels like the first actual conversation they’ve had in almost a year, even through these half-starts and fumbled words. For once, they’re talking to each other and something askew in his world just clicked itself back into place. “Tony’s waiting for me, Barton, I’m sorry.”
“I get it. Go,” he says. Stay. “I just….”
“Me too,” she says. “Soon. I promise.”
“I guess if I’m being fair, Nat did warn me you’d probably do something stupid,” Clint tells him.
“Yeah, well. Nobody knows me like she does,” Steve says. He sounds deeply fond and deeply sad at the same time. “You sure you want in on this? It could get ugly. I can’t make any promises about what the day after’s going to look like. ”
Later, Clint will say that he thought about Wanda and what he owed to her. He’ll say that he agreed with Cap’s assessment, that these Accords are ultimately a bullshit way of passing the buck. He’ll say if Steve was calling him off the bench, it meant that his particular presence was entirely necessary. He’ll say that it was not an easy decision, but it was the one he had to make.
He will say he gave it thought. Some thought. Any thought at all.
Those will be lies that Steve will never correct, that he’ll allow Clint to have, because the truth they will both know is that there isn’t even a pause. There is Steve’s question and Clint’s instantaneous reply:
“Already gearing up, Cap.”
“It’s just for a few days,” is his first feeble attempt. “I’ll meet you and the kids at the lake before you even break into the s’mores stuff.”
“You think this is about the lake trip?” she says, a little bit aghast. “Really. That’s what you think my problem is, Clint? That I’m mad we might not get to go waterskiing? You think that’s - ”
“No, I mean, I know it’s not entirely - ”
“You know what? I don’t think you do.” Her mouth is pressed into a thin hard line, arms folded over her chest and radiating don’t touch me right now. “I don’t think you’ve ever understood the problem.”
“So tell me, then!” Clint snaps as he zips the bag closed with more force than is strictly necessary. “Tell me what the fucking problem is, Laura!”
“The problem is that I’m your wife but you won’t let me be your partner,” she yells back, her cheeks flushing with anger. “You don’t want me to be.”
The silence between them at that is absolute.
He stares at her, speechless under the weight of this unsayable thing that’s now been spoken, but she’s looking him straight in the eye and she’s not backing down.
“That’s such a shitty thing to say,” he finally says.
“I don’t care,” she snaps. “I am done pretending there’s not a ghost in this marriage, Clint, I’m not doing it anymore. And it’s not just about - you want this family to work? At some point, you have to choose us and mean it. This has to be the place you want to be.”
The shame and self-loathing flooding through him right now is so palpable that he kind of can’t understand why it’s not turning the tide of this fight in Laura’s favor. She’s cut the legs out from under him, there’s nothing to stand on. There is exactly one thing he can do right now to save his marriage, his family, his life in this place that the twelve-year-old version of himself swore he’d build someday.
Clint knows perfectly well what that thing is even without Laura spelling it out for him.
He grasps wildly for straws, some Hail Mary he can throw, but the best he’s got is Natasha’s not even going to be there, Steve was very clear about that and even that, he knows, is another example of him missing the real problem.
It’s not about Natasha. Not entirely, anyway – it never has been.
This is about why he’s loading his tac bag, and if other factors come into play, Clint knows at least seventy percent of this is down to I am going insane inside this life that I am supposed to want.
This is about him. It always has been.
“I have to go,” is what he says, and understands what he’s really saying. “I’m sorry.”
Laura doesn’t look surprised. “No,” she says. “You aren’t. Not enough, anyway.”
He jerks his head in acknowledgement, because – yeah.
And then he picks up the bag.
Steve finally asks the question over dinner.
Natasha knew it'd be coming at some point; Steve's patient and not very pushy, but he's also not the subtlest man in the world. And she does have to give him credit for carefully choosing his moment. The sun's finally setting in spectacular streaks of tangerine and gold, washing over the endless green of the mountains, and their table is tucked up against the window where they can soak in every color. They’ve spent the day touring every inch of Storm King and it’s left them both pleasantly tired and loose-limbed. Steve's halfway into a steak the size of a baseball mitt, she's enjoying her grilled salmon, they're splitting their second bottle of really excellent, rich Bordeaux.
They agreed to put a kibosh on work-talk for at least one dinner, so they've chatted about their favorite pieces in the exhibit and how Steve's reading Ruth Reichl for the first time, the various pay-per-view options to watch tonight at the hotel and their mutual glee at Tony's ire when he found out they’d disappeared ahead of the ill-conceived party he'd been determined to throw. Steve claims he doesn't want to do anything for his birthday tomorrow but find a place to watch some fireworks, possibly with some cheap beer, and Natasha's happy to indulge him.
All in all, it's been the nicest day she can remember since Sokovia, since everything went to shit and they leaned into the long and sometimes thankless job of being the ones who decided to put it back together. They've fallen into compatible silence as they're enjoying their entrees. Natasha's thoughts have just started turning to dessert options when she catches Steve's eyes over his wineglass, the careful way he's watching her.
Her interest in weighing raspberry crème brûlée against chocolate hazelnut torte vanishes. She sets down her fork and waits.
"You ever gonna tell me what's going on with you and Hawkeye?" Steve says, impossibly gentle.
The thing is: it's not that she doesn't want to talk about it. Not exactly.
When SHIELD fell, Natasha took the chance to consider - for the first time in a long time - what she wanted her life to look like. Who she wanted to be on the other side of it, because she was going to have to be someone different. Every secret she'd ever preserved was now a matter of public knowledge, easy to pick through and pluck out and hold to the light, but the other issue factoring into the need for a shift in her life, well.
Nick didn't trust her. She had believed he did.
It had made an impression.
It had been the thing that helped her decide. Going forward, she didn't need the entire world's confidence, but she did want to be trusted, truly trusted by more people than only Clint. She didn't want to hold herself so entirely separate from everyone else around her, not anymore. She wanted - connection.
But it wasn't a change she could accomplish with a single act, like making a New Year's resolution to eat more vegetables or drink more water. It wasn't a matter of did-it-and-now-it's-done. Trust, Natasha knows, is a thing that has to run in two directions, and if she wanted someone to offer it to her, then it had to be something she offered back.
With Clint, that had always been as easy as breathing. They had built that together over decades, forged in sweat and blood and fire. The metaphorical and literal kinds.
With anyone else, she's still so conscious, every time, that she is making a choice.
She has to choose to share things, to offer intimacies, over and over again. She's had years of practice at it now, with Steve especially. In moments like this, though, her first instinct is still to curl herself tightly around it, rope it off, mark it no, no, that's MINE, that's for me.
If she told Steve that it was none of his business, he would take it at face value. She knows that. He wouldn't even give her wounded-bunny eyes like he does when she tells him his proposed training schedule is shit and he needs to redo it. He'd just nod and offer her a bite of his steak and turn the conversation back to his favorite Reichl memoir. Because it is, of course, none of his business, but that's what a friendship is, when it's a real one – drawing a map directly to the soft places on the belief that the person seeing the map won't use it to their advantage.
She reaches for the wine bottle and refills her glass.
"I can't," she says, and stalls out.
"Oh - Nat, no, I'm sorry," Steve begins, looking like he wants to kick his own ass, but she shakes her head once - no, that's not the problem, that's not it.
"Not you, that's not - I mean that I’m…" she tries again, and blows out a breath, takes a restorative sip of her wine and tries to separate the flavors on her tongue to focus - blackberry and coffee beans, licorice and smoke.
When their waiter starts approaching to check in, Steve puts him off with significant eye contact and a tiny shake of his head. He's not rushing her, which she appreciates, and after a minute, she's more certain of how she wants to say this.
"I'm not sad," she says. "If I was sad, I'd be over it by now. What's going on with us is that I'm angry, and I can't put it down. I can't not be furious with him. And since I'm not an entirely unreasonable person, I know it's not actually fair that I'm angry at him. But I am where I am."
"Because he retired even though he knew you wouldn’t," Steve says slowly, the realization dawning on him, and she's pathetically relieved that there's no judgment in it. That Steve, of all people, understands perfectly.
"He was always going to walk away one day," Natasha says. "I knew that. I know that. But I can't - I can't go out there to visit and pretend that I feel anything other than..."
"Abandoned," Steve supplies. "I guess... I don't think I could, either, in your position."
Natasha almost smiles. They got lucky, with each other. He's not Clint Barton, but then, she's not James Barnes, and if her life had to have a new chapter, she could have done so much worse. She can't quite bring herself to think of Steve as her partner, but - if there was some synonym for it, something that felt like it meant something just a little different.
"I'm very good at pretending, you might have noticed," she says. "Not with him, though. Never with him."
Clint did what was right. He made the objectively correct decision. She's aware - more than Clint is, she suspects - how much his absence, particularly in the last year, has been weighing on Laura. These are all things she knows logically, but when she pictures visiting that familiar house and then leaving after a few days without taking him with her - she's never done that before. She's never walked out the front door without Clint next to her, and it's the place where the frame freezes.
He's gone. He's not coming back, and the only way that Natasha is ever going to get used to his absence is if she forces it onto herself. She doesn’t know another way to do it. She doesn’t know how else she’s supposed to make herself stop missing him so badly, because settling for a fraction of him – it’d be worse than none at all.
Clint’s not hers. Not really. He never was.
She was always going to have to acknowledge that at some point.
Steve reaches over the table and takes her hand. There’s nothing romantic in it, she knows, but it’s nice to be touched that easily, with that much self-assurance that he’s not trespassing. She squeezes his fingers. It’s easier than saying a verbal thank you, for understanding (without asking follow-up questions), for not telling her she’d feel better if she just talked to Clint (she wouldn’t), for suggesting this trip in the first place (she never would have done it herself.)
“Excuse me,” an elderly lady at the table next to them interrupts, ending the moment. She leans closer, over the aisle. “I just wanted to say – the two of you are such a beautiful couple. Absolutely beautiful.”
Natasha looks at Steve and, without warning, they burst into simultaneous gales of laughter.
The woman seems mildly affronted.
When Natasha feels her anger slowly receding from the shoreline, gathering into a tidal wave that will destroy absolutely everything in its path if it crests, she forcibly pushes her thoughts onto that night. She handcuffs her thoughts to that table with its linen cloths and unbeatable view, and remembers Steve across from her, quiet and kind and understanding.
It’s helped a little, over the last miserable week.
It doesn’t help right now, in the eleventh of the fourteen hours she’ll be spending driving today. Longer, really, if she counts the times she’s had to double back, change cars, and lose the tail.
“I understand that they’re being held on the Raft,” she repeats, for the third time in the same phone call. “I’m not happy about it, either. I’m asking you to think about our other options.”
“There’s not another option,” Steve says. “This is an insane overreach - ”
“We destroyed an airfield in a foreign country,” she says, her voice level and even, as though she’s measuring it out by the tablespoon. “We caused hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage. Everyone who ended up on the Raft never signed the Accords, which means their share of that damage was unsanctioned. So I’m not sure what you were expecting the consequence to be, but – “
“That’s getting to be an old tune, Romanoff, somebody oughta update the lyrics,” Steve interrupts.
Natasha is not, generally speaking, a person who yells, because she’s not someone who has a difficult time holding onto her temper. Throughout the course of her life, her livelihood has depended on her ability to understand where all involved parties are coming from when conflict arises.
She does not have to agree with all positions presented. She does not have to think anyone holds a particularly good position, but her ability to get inside another person’s head and understand the way the world looks to them and what informs their viewpoint – it’s unparalleled, and she knows that saying so is not bragging. It’s the same as describing herself as a redhead: it’s an indisputable fact.
Natasha can disagree with a person and understand their perspective perfectly at the same time. Besides that, anger is not, most of the time, a thing that she finds useful. Her fuse is long and it burns glacially.
She knows all these things about herself, so it’s a little startling to realize that if Steve was sitting in the car with her right now, she might have slapped him across the face for that snarky, dismissive aside.
There are so many things she wants to say to him that she can’t even begin to choose where to start. Most of them involve a dissection of his unparalleled ability to view any compromise at all as a failure, but several are about his trust issues, which are deeply insulting and possibly bigger than her own. There’s a couple about how this doesn’t mean she’s not angry with Tony, too, this is not about taking sides, because oh, she has more than enough irritation to split between the two of them and still have enough left over for Sam and Wanda.
But unloading on Steve isn’t going to help; it’s ultimately not going to move the needle. She pushes her mirrored sunglasses up from the bridge of her nose and into her hair, squints against the little heat lines swimming up off the blacktopped highway stretching out in front of her. Almost two hundred miles left to go.
Natasha is impossibly fucking tired of feeling like the only adult in any given room.
“Can you give me a day?” she says.
“We both know that means you’re not coming,” Steve says. She forces, forces herself to swallow the words, don’t talk to me like you understand me, Rogers, because right now, you don’t have Clue fucking One.
“No, Steve, it means that I have some personal business I need to take care of before I can do anything else,” she tells him. “And that my decision-making skills are generally a little sharper when I’m running on something more than ten shots of espresso and spite.”
“I don’t want to drag this timeline out longer than it’s already been dragged, Natasha. I asked them for a lot and they deserve to have me come through for them now,” he says.
The fact that he says it as Captain America instead of Steve is what loosens her tongue. Her thoughts have wrenched free of the handcuffs, the table by the window flips itself over.
“You owe me.”
She didn’t make her decision in the hangar so she could have a bargaining chip for the future. This is not something she wants to have said. But she is exhausted. And she is so hurt. And she is so much sadder than she thought it was possible for her to be.
And if Steve is not going to cut her a fucking break, then she’ll carve it out for herself.
“You owe me, and this is how I’m cashing in,” she repeats. It’s something of a consolation to know that there are worse ways to call in a debt; lessened because doing it at all means she’s crossed some invisible line in their friendship. “I want you to take a deep breath, realize that this is a big ask on your part, and give me a goddamned minute to think through the logistics while I’m handling something personal – which, by the way, would still need to be handled before I could do anything else. Is this in any way unreasonable?”
There’s a brief pause on the other end of the line before he finally says, “No, m’am.”
“Good,” she says. “I’ll have your answer tomorrow.”
When they hang up, she turns the phone off entirely.
By the time Natasha pulls into the front yard, the sun’s dipping almost entirely behind the treeline. She leaves the keys on the dashboard, turns the headlights off, and when she slides out of the driver’s seat, her lower back cracks with an audible pop from being wedged into the same position for so long.
Laura is standing on the front porch with the baby on her hip. Her face is unreadable.
“Hi,” Natasha says.
“Hey, Nat,” Laura responds.
They’re saved by Lila, careening wildly out the door and down the steps, braids flying behind her as she rushes across the lawn to fling herself into Natasha’s arms.
“Auntie Nat!” she cries, exuberant with joy, and Natasha scoops her up – noting how much heavier she is, which shouldn’t be a surprise, because the last time she visited… well. It’s been a long time. “Auntie Nat, I missed you! I didn’t know you were coming!”
“Surprise,” Natasha says, a little weakly, but Lila can’t seem to tell the difference, not as long as Natasha hugs her back. Which she does. Fiercely.
It’s probably shitty to pick favorites with your friends’ children, but Natasha doesn’t actually know any other parents to quiz on the rules and even if she did, Lila is the sort of kid that demands favoritism.
“Are you sleeping over?” Lila asks, turning her shining face up to Natasha. She kisses Lila’s cheek, because she can’t not, but she looks to Laura to take her cue on this one.
As expected, Laura’s gone soft at the edges. Natasha would never call her a pushover, exactly, but she doesn’t have an unkind bone in her body. “Of course she is,” Laura tells them, and shifts the baby to her other hip. “We’re just finishing dinner – can I fix you a plate?”
“Mommy made mac and cheese,” Lila says, snuggling into Natasha’s shoulder. “Not from a box or anything, it’s really good.”
“Mommy also made broccoli, and if you want Auntie Nat to put you to bed and read to you tonight, you’re going to have to do something with that other than hide it under your napkin,” Laura tells her.
Lila makes a horrible face. Natasha knows the feeling.
“Dinner sounds great, actually. Thanks, Laura,” she says, and carries Clint’s daughter up the stairs, into his home.
Lila insists that Natasha lay down with her “just for a little bit” after they’ve read three books and turned out the lights. She almost falls asleep next to her; it’s a near thing. The room is dark and warm and completely silent. It’s peaceful, listening to Lila’s breathing even out, feeling her own eyelids growing heavy. No city lights, nothing but the moonlight flooding the wooden floor.
Giving in to sleep’s soothing pull would be much easier, and it’s why Natasha forces herself up from the bed. Lila makes a soft noise and turns on her side, both arms looped around her stuffed walrus, and Natasha closes the door quietly behind her before heading down the stairs.
Laura’s in the kitchen, fussing with the coffee pot.
She’s also put two mismatched blue plates on the table and set forks on top of folded paper napkins. There’s half a cherry slab pie laid out, plastic wrap rolled back and a knife resting in the dish. A sweating carton of half-and-half and a bowl of sugar with a little spoon, and when she turns around, Natasha can see that one of the mugs she’s carrying is emblazoned with Steve’s shield. She’s put two sons to bed by herself, bathed one of them, rocked him, sang to him, argued with the other one about how many pages he was allowed to read before the lights had to go out, and has still come downstairs to do this.
“There’s cream on the table,” Laura says, handing the Captain America mug to her. “I thought you’d want this.”
“I do,” Natasha tells her. “Thank you.”
Laura drops into the seat next to her and starts to cut them both abnormally large pieces of pie. “I don’t even know why we buy them toys,” she says. “Cooper found the pitter when I was weeding the garden and I came in to find he’d happily pitted his way through two pounds of cherries and was rounding the corner on a third. I’ve got a weird kid.”
“Or a smart one,” Natasha points out. “Maybe he just wanted to make it impossible for you to say no to pie. What else were you going to do to use up three pounds of cherries?”
“See, that’s why you’re the superspy,” Laura says. “I’m not very good at knowing when I’ve been played.”
Natasha sips her coffee and doesn’t respond.
Laura sighs, quietly. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry, Nat, I didn’t mean it like that. Really.”
“It’s all right,” Natasha assures her, but she’s not sure that it is.
The last time she and Laura had any kind of lengthy conversation was three or four months ago. She’d called on the pretense of just wanting to catch up with Natasha, update her on the kids, see how she liked living in upstate New York, find out if she was dating anyone new since the Bruce thing imploded – and all of it had been fairly flimsy pretense, because subterfuge is another skill that Laura lacks entirely.
But Natasha likes Laura, she always has, and so she’d let her believe she was getting away with it until the real reason for the call rolled around.
“Nat… please come visit us,” she’d said, and for all she’d been trying to sound casual, something quietly pleading made its way to the surface in her voice. “We all miss you. It doesn’t even have to be a long trip. Couldn’t you just come for dinner some night? You could bring Steve and Sam – even Tony, if he’s not busy? Couldn’t you come for that?”
“It’s a bad time,” Natasha said, her go-to excuse.
“Your life is not one long string of bad times, Natasha,” she said firmly. “I’m asking you – please.”
“I can check in with the team and see what the next few weeks are looking like,” she offered. “I don’t want to promise – you know how this job goes, Laura, things don’t pop up on a schedule.” Clint had missed multiple Thanksgivings and birthdays and Christmases for that exact reason, once or twice without actually realizing he’d done it. And Natasha coasted on Laura having that knowledge, partly because she’d never considered Laura to be someone who drives an especially hard bargain.
So her next sentence pulled Natasha up short. “He needs you.”
Something tight had gripped Natasha’s throat. She cleared it.
“You heard me,” Laura said. She had sounded like she needed to clear her throat, too. “He’s not – he is not doing well here, Natasha. He’s not settling in, and you keep staying away, and it’s not helping. It’s making it worse.”
Natasha had no idea what to say.
Laura had started crying by then, quietly. “If he had to choose between us and his job, he could have left and it might have been okay,” she says. “I don’t know for sure, I guess. I think it might have. But I do know that if he’d thought the actual choice was between coming home and you - ”
Her hand had shot out of its own accord to activate the alarm button on the wall of her office. Sirens began blaring through the entire complex, the call to assemble unmissable even through the phone.
“I have to – that means it’s an emergency, I’m sorry,” Natasha stammered, and disconnected. Later, she told Steve she’d tripped and fallen into the alarm. Somehow. Behind its glass case. And thumbprint identification. And all the other measures taken specifically to ensure that “I tripped and fell and whoops, it’s activated” would be a basic, idiot-proofed impossibility.
She had tried to at least call the farm more, since then. That was the most she could offer.
Being here at all – it might be a case of too little, too late, but Clint is being held indefinitely in an underwater Azkaban and even if she’s in hot water herself, even if she’s kept her distance for months, her first responsibility is taking care of the people he loves.
“How bad is it?” Laura asks.
“Bad.” There’s not much point in sugarcoating it; if Laura’s followed the news, she has the generalities, but it takes Natasha another half-hour to walk her through all the specifics.
Laura drags the tines of her fork through the filling of her pie like she’s putting swirls in a zen garden. “He didn’t have to get involved in this,” she says, when Natasha finally finishes. “That’s – more or less the big takeaway here, right? This had nothing to do with him.”
Natasha thinks of the fierce joy in Clint’s eyes on the airfield – before it all went so fucking wrong, the exuberance in him echoed so clearly in the way his daughter flew down the steps tonight. The way he’d grinned at her when he’d pinned her beneath him.
His so-loved face, lit up and close to hers again. Depends on how hard you hit me.
“None of us should have gotten involved in this,” Natasha sidesteps. “Everyone played this for shit. The next time I join an elite superhero task force, it’s going to be all women. Any interest in signing on as our handler?”
Laura smiles faintly. “Ask me once all the kids are in school.”
“Deal.” She sets her coffee mug down; it’s almost empty. “I wanted you to know what had happened – in case Ross’s people come sniffing around, for one thing. I don’t know that they will, but if they do, I want you to call Stark the second they show up. Let him handle it – with his litigators, if it comes to that. I’ll give you his direct number.” Tony and Laura have never spoken beyond their initial meeting, they’ve got no relationship to speak of, and he’s deeply unthrilled with Natasha right now, but he won’t leave them in the lurch.
Natasha’s sure of that, bone deep.
“What’s the other thing?”
“You said ‘for one thing’. So there’s another thing,” Laura says. “What is it?”
“I wanted you to know what happened to him,” Natasha says. “That’s all. Why he hasn’t come home to you guys yet.”
“Yeah?” Laura says. Her voice sharpens. “What’s the timeline on that going to look like, Nat? You think it’ll be before Nate starts kindergarten? Before Lila gets a drivers’ license? Because I have to tell you, none of this sounds promising.”
Natasha drums her fingers against the tabletop. The problem here is that she’s sometimes never sure how much of the truth to give Laura. Where and when she’s overstepping, because Clint, she knows, embraced selective truth-telling years ago.
He’s never told her the extent of what happened in New York, for example. Never talked to her about Loki and the agents he took out and the days he spent pushed out of his own control. Whenever he’s told Laura that story, he’s told her about what happened on the ground in Manhattan when the team first came together and nothing past it.
“It would just upset her, so what’s the point?” he told Natasha, and she left it alone, because it’s not her marriage. Never pointed out that the fact that she came home to the farm with him and stayed for three weeks to make sure he really was going to be okay was probably Laura’s first clue that this hadn’t been business as usual, but Laura hadn’t pressed either of them on the point.
And Natasha did her best to silence the quiet part of her that preferred it this way. That liked knowing she was the one Clint had relied on, after Loki. That she was the one he needed.
That didn’t do anyone any good. It was ugly and unfair.
Right now, though, there’s nobody to set the tone and she’s stayed away from this place for almost a year, so there aren’t a lot of context clues. Right now, there are three kids involved, and Laura has to be able to tell them something. There’s not a way to make it sound prettier.
“I don’t know what the timeline looks like,” she says, quietly. “Steve’s going to break them out.”
Laura makes a pained noise and slumps forward, hiding her face in her hands. It’s a long moment before she lifts them. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that going to make everything a thousand times worse?” she says.
“You’re not wrong,” Natasha says. “I could kick his ass in chess every time, but the last week has been a textbook study in why I’d never play him in checkers.” Steve knows how to react to the move in front of him; he’s fuzzier with a whole table, and he has no patience for political machinations.
“And there’s nothing you can do about it?” Laura says. “You can’t convince him - ”
“I’ve tried,” Natasha tells her. “Believe me.”
Morally, of course she agrees entirely that the Raft is the wrong place for their friends. But legally. Legally, this had finally given them a leg to stand on. This was their potential do-over, a last and desperate hope for the team to stay together - a wild card she could have played to perfection. This is the only aspect of this whole situation that has nothing to do with Barnes; the only thing that’s just about them.
Steve was right, it was an enormous governmental overreach. Scott Lang isn’t even an Avenger; he should have been exempt from collective sentencing. No arraignment. No bail. Just chucked in a supermax with no trial set or contact with lawyers.
Which meant it was exactly what could have ultimately modified the Accords in their favor. It was the place where they could nail down some specificity, to be able to make their own demands, to turn the tide of public opinion just enough to give them some leverage and land themselves an even-sided compromise.
It also would have meant leaving them all trapped on the Raft a little longer, while she drummed up support (and, if she was being fair, while she talked Tony around). If that hadn't been a thought Natasha had relished, it has also been the very best option for a long-term solution. The whole chessboard; she knew exactly where she’d put the queen.
But Steve had decided “jailbreak”, and she knows that means it’ll be happening with or without her.
Laura stands up, pushing her chair back from the table with an angry scraping noise. “Maybe it doesn’t matter,” she says, starting to gather the plates together. “Honestly. It’s the same outcome either way.”
“Listen, I know it’s not like we’ll get them out and then he can get on a plane and come back by the end of the week,” Natasha says, trying to pacify. “It’ll take a little time. I don’t even know where Steve thinks everyone can go. But it doesn’t mean - ”
“Even if you could get him here in time for breakfast tomorrow, it wouldn’t matter,” Laura repeats. “He didn’t know this would happen, but he didn’t think nothing would happen. And he went anyway, Natasha. He knew and he went and he absolutely didn’t have to. You know it, I know it, and Clint knows it, too.”
Natasha stands. She feels like she shouldn’t be sitting, for this.
“I can’t do this anymore,” Laura says flatly. “I can’t live like this. He would rather be in that – that hellhole than here with his wife and his children. How am I supposed to feel about that? What am I supposed to do with it?”
It’s the second time in their lives that Laura has rendered Natasha incapable of knowing what to say. What is there to say? She had begged Natasha to intervene in this situation months ago; Natasha had blown it off in favor of self-preservation, and even now, even in the face of Laura’s up-close devastation, even after she’s fixed pie and coffee and put fresh sheets in the guest room and let Natasha tuck her small daughter into bed, Natasha knows she would make the same choice all over again. Her own pain had eclipsed Laura’s.
She’s standing here with empty hands.
Laura grips the sink with both hands and turns away from Natasha, her shoulders hunched. When she finally looks back, her eyes are clear, but every line in her face telegraphs that she’s about as exhausted as Natasha feels.
“Are you going?” she asks. “With Steve. Whenever this happens.”
“Yes,” Natasha says. She was always going to come to that conclusion, she knows. If it’s happening with or without her, it’ll be easier with her.
If it’s happening with or without her, then she’ll choose the option that means she gets to be with Clint on the other side of the fallout. It was never really a choice; this was an inevitability.
Laura nods, like that’s about what she expected. “Don’t leave without saying goodbye to the kids,” she requests. “Stay the whole night, at least. You look dead on your feet.”
“Thank you,” Natasha says, quietly. And then, because she means it: “I’m sorry.”
About so many things that it doesn’t even come close to encapsulating them all, but it’s the only thing she can really offer.
“Me too,” Laura sighs. She doesn’t move to hug Natasha, but she does reach out to squeeze her arm, which is more generous than Natasha thinks she could be about – all of this, all the years leading up to this moment, where Clint’s not here and his partner’s trying to excuse the inexcusable on his behalf.
The sheets in the guest room smell like spring-fresh Tide. Natasha barely manages to toe off her shoes before she collapses down into them.
She’s trying not to think about how the last time she was in this room, she told things to Bruce that he hadn’t earned from her, that she shouldn’t have brought up. When she thinks about it, she cringes at the memory of her own desperation, how urgent it felt to make him understand, how unlike her it was to share those things without due consideration.
She was shaken, she knows. Off her game in a bad way. Wanda had rattled her mind around thoroughly, brushed out all the cobwebby corners and loosened defenses that she normally kept triple-padlocked, but still. Still.
The undertone threaded through that entire conversation had been love me, please, I am begging you to love me, and it is such a deep, wretched humiliation, the obvious need in her. How badly she’d wanted it from someone. How she’d spent months trying to force it with the most obvious candidate, like she could hit fast-forward and pick up a relationship from a place where it had already solidified into something real, with weight behind it.
Bruce wasn’t the person she had most wanted to comfort her right then, but it would have seemed a little déclassé to pull that person away from his pregnant wife when she knew perfectly well it had been a full month since he’d last seen her. So.
Instead, she’d embarrassed herself. Badly.
At least tonight, she’s too tired to dwell on it for long. Her cheeks briefly heat up and she muffles it by burying her face in one of the pillows, letting it pass.
Before she drifts off entirely, she sets the alarm on her phone for ten hours from now; Laura has the kids trained to never, never wake up Nat when she’s shown up for a “surprise visit”, because Day One usually involves sleeping off a shitty mission.
After another moment of thought, she decides not to make Steve wait until she wakes up. Or, more likely, until he gets impatient and pulls the trigger without her.
She can’t handle another conversation right now, she’s too far gone, so she sends a text, eyes bleary as she blinks at the brightness on the screen.
i’m in. send coordinates in the am. sleeping now.
He sends back three smiling yellow emojis with heart-eyes.
“I should’ve let T’Challa kill you both,” she mutters, and then she’s deeply, gratefully asleep.
Whoops, looks like this one's going to be slightly longer than I planned. It turns out I have a lot of thoughts and feelings? ANYWAY. One more chapter coming soon!
Once the rush of joyful, triumphant adrenaline wears off, it dawns on Clint that this is one of the most ass-awkward post-prison break plane rides of his life. Maybe not top three, but it's at least squarely in the top five.
Scott's staring moodily out the window, down at the miles of gunmetal grey water beneath them. Doesn't take a psychic to read his mind; he's got a daughter and his ex, Clint knows, was a little tetchy about visitation before they became government fugitives. This isn't exactly going to smooth out the bumpy spots. But thinking too much about that forces Clint to throw his own actions under a lens he's not ready to view them through, so - onwards, upwards.
Wilson's been glaring at the cockpit for a solid ten minutes, since Steve went up to rejoin Nat after he and Sam finished their bro-backslapping. Clint can't make out specific words, but it’s clear that Natasha and Steve are fighting. They’re fighting very quietly, in low voices that the hum of the plane’s engine is covering just enough, it's all extremely Mom-and-Dad-don't-want-the-kids-to-know-they're-incredibly-pissed-at-each-other, but Clint's had, oh, roughly a thousand fights in that exact tone himself over the last few months. He's fluent. Whatever’s going on up there is deeply unpleasant.
Apparently Sam’s picked up on it, too, and if Clint were a betting man, he’d lay decent odds – given the grinning and the bro-backslapping - that Steve isn’t the place he’s aiming the glare. Which is uncomfortable for a couple reasons, but Clint knows full well that Nat can handle herself and besides, until actual accusations get thrown around, it’s too early to rush to her defense. It’d only throw more heat on a situation that hasn’t exactly cooled down as it is.
And then there’s Wanda.
She’s still frozen against his side, unyielding as a block of wood. The deadened, hopeless look in her eyes hasn’t dissipated.
She’s gone someplace Clint’s had to go a few times, remote and deep down inside, and there’s not a lot of point in trying to pull her out before she’s ready to surface. The Raft was rough on all of them. For Wanda, it was something beyond, rough treatment and a series of incredible indignities, pain with a promise of more to come and ugly reminders of the last time she’d been a lab rat, the last time her whole life had been reduced to one cell with a glass wall.
She’s just a fucking kid, Clint had snarled at Ross, helpless to do anything but bang his fist against his own glass wall as they locked the shock collar around her neck, as she convulsed with the jolt the first time she’d tried to speak and the stunned terror that had swept over her face. She’s not a goddamned animal!
Ross hadn’t smiled, at least. He hadn’t looked like he was much enjoying it, but his calm, measured rationality, all those bureaucratic words like reasonable precaution and humane containment had sent surge after surge of rage burning through Clint’s whole body. He’d swallowed every impotent threat trying to crawl its way off his tongue.
He doesn’t make threats he can’t deliver and they’d have both known that right then, it’d be nothing but bravado. So he’d settled for a lot of fantasies about removing Ross’s teeth without anesthesia, individually, making each one last a couple hours. It helped a little.
But it didn’t help Wanda. She’s leaning against his shoulder like years have dropped away from her, the way one of his kids would do after a nightmare, and there’s nothing to be done for it, not yet. He failed her on the Raft. Completely. And now all he’s got is a shoulder for her to lean on – physically, not even emotionally – before she can even begin to unpack what she just went through. He brought her into this mess and he failed her.
He’s getting good at that. Prison was a great time to count up all the other failures he’s been compiling; he’s got enough to make a ceiling-high pile by now.
So taken together, yeah: it’s a grim plane ride. No smug middle fingers aimed behind them, no victorious group laughter like it’s the end of The Goonies and they’re thrilled with what a ragtag band of misfits they are. It’s just shitty tense silence.
It’s not broken for a few more minutes, not until Steve barks out a sharp, angry “Natasha!” from the cockpit. It’s the first word that’s come through loud and clear, and when Clint looks up, startled, Nat is striding towards him at a brisk clip. Her face is such a complete study in flat neutrality that Clint knows she’s hit her limit and boiled over. It sort of surprises him, even all these years later, that these are things no one else seems to read on Natasha.
Her hair is braided back and just like Steve, she’s not in her uniform – she’s in jeans and boots and a motorcycle jacket in such a vivid shade of blue that he’s almost tempted to say something about how stealth was clearly not high on this evening’s priority list. He remembers - just in time - that they aren’t there right now. He and Nat aren’t in a place where he’s allowed to temper her anger with a little teasing, and even if things between them were great, well, he can read the room. Besides, that jacket has at least three zippers, which means she probably has no fewer than seven tiny knives in easy reach.
Sam makes a sort of scoffing noise, like he’s looking for an opening to get a few things off his chest, and Scott looks mildly terrified. Natasha ignores both of them.
She comes to a dead stop in front of Clint, but her gaze slides right past him and onto Wanda. That’s where she fixes it.
And immediately, Clint understands what she and Steve have been arguing about for the last ten minutes. Why she’s come back here when almost everyone on this plane is someone he knows she’d rather ignore for a little while longer.
“Hey,” he warns, but it does about as much good as Steve’s attempt, which is to say: none.
“Snap out of it,” Natasha tells Wanda. “This ends right now.”
Wanda’s chin wobbles. She looks very small and very young.
“Nat, knock it off,” Clint says tightly. “Don’t do this. She’s been through - ”
“She is sitting right here, Barton, and she’s the one I’m addressing,” Natasha says, her eyes never leaving Wanda’s face. “Maximoff. Look at me. We’ve got work to do.”
Sam gets to his feet. “Romanoff, you have no idea what the hell - ”
Natasha keeps talking over him as though everything else is utterly beneath her notice. Like this is a private conversation between herself and Wanda, alone in a room with a locked door. “You wanted in. You wanted to be an Avenger and this is part of what that means. When there’s something in front of you that needs to be done, you don’t get to wallow in the pain. Not until the job’s finished.”
Wanda’s eyes finally focus on Natasha. She hasn’t spoken yet, but Nat’s got her attention, and even in the middle of how furious Clint is that she would do this, that she would run roughshod all over places that are sensitive for a reason –
There’s another part of him that never gets tired of this. He never gets tired of watching Natasha go to work.
“They had her in a fucking shock collar!” Sam says, his voice rising. “She was strapped into a straitjacket - ”
“And now she’s not,” Nat says, flat, calm. “Now she’s got no restraints on her and the facility we’re running from isn’t going to shrug off what we just did. They’re not completely lacking a failsafe for breakouts and if you wanted an educated guess, I’d say they’re dispatching a recovery unit very shortly. We have a long way to go, and we have a woman on board that can keep us off their radar for the duration of the trip, if she can stop feeling sorry for herself.”
That’s when Clint sees it. That’s when it happens, a light switch flicked on and a spark flashes through Wanda’s eyes.
“Feeling sorry for myself,” she says in disbelief. “Is that what you think of me? That’s what you think that – that place amounts to, you think that?”
“What they put you through is unforgivable, but it’s not the first time and it won’t be the last,” Natasha tells her. “If you hold onto every unforgivable thing that happens to you, you will never accomplish anything else, and you joined this team because you have things you owe. Same as me.”
Wanda stands. She pushes her hair back from her face with trembling hands, but her knees don’t buckle and she is locked onto Natasha like she’s the only real thing in the world.
When she lowers her hands to her sides, smoky red wisps have started to weave themselves around her fingers.
“Let’s get up to the cockpit,” Natasha says, after a moment. Her mouth does that thing it does when she isn’t smiling, but she isn’t exactly not either. “Steve’s got the controls, we may be about three minutes from certain death.”
They walk off together, not a glance back or a word for anyone else, and he’s a little ashamed of himself for doubting her. Natasha always knows what she’s doing.
Scott clears his throat. “Does anybody know if she’s single? I’m asking for a friend.”
It’s mildly gratifying that Sam turns around to glare murder at the same time Clint does. Scott puts up his hands in surrender, and they lapse back into silence.
It’s now solidly moved from top five to top three most awkward post-prison break plane rides of his life.
Stark, it turns out, owns an off-the-books remote private island. The property includes white sand beaches, a landing strip, and an extremely ostentatious house that sleeps at least ten and has both an infinity pool and a screening room.
Several of their number have some assorted nasty comments to make about this being the final destination, but there’s also no denying that they don’t have an aggressive amount of other options. Anywhere in the US is out, for obvious reasons. Apparently Wakanda was briefly on the table, which surprised Clint to learn, but the new king ultimately decided he couldn’t kick off his reign by offering political asylum to the same group of people his father had very publicly declared an unchecked danger to the world at large. Natasha’s got a few bolt-holes around the world, but none of them could accommodate more than two people, and also, she doesn’t like giving those up.
So. Tony Stark’s private island it is. No one seems entirely clear on how Natasha knew about this place, or how much Tony has been looped in on its current use, but: Tony Stark’s private island is now home base.
Good to know that all it took to mend the swirling shitstorm of a completely demolished airport and shattered friendships and Rhodes’s spine is a delightful tropical getaway.
“Anybody else thinking this is a less than brilliant hideout? Stark would sell you guys out if Ross offered him a bag of salsa verde Doritos,” Scott says darkly. “Or us, I guess. Sell us out. I keep forgetting I’m part of this. It’s less cool than I thought it was going to be.”
Clint wants to tell Scott that brilliance in safehouse selection doesn’t matter as much as he thinks. For the foreseeable future, until this shit calms itself down, whatever comes next is so completely out of their hands no matter where they park themselves. Tony could sell them out, sure. Or it could be the guy who delivers the groceries from the mainland on a speedboat, or Ross’s team could learn how to do situational math and kick down the front door tomorrow.
They have no control over what happens next, and they won’t for a while. There’s nothing to do but sit tight and wait it out; it’s not the first time Clint’s been in a spot like this. It’s just that the sitting tight and being patient never included a sauna, a pool table, and a well-stocked wetbar.
Ultimately the best thing to hope for is that giant kaiju rise out of the sea like in Pacific Rim and start attacking some coastline city. Give the world a sharp reminder of what they loved so much about people like the Avengers in the first place and how it mostly amounts to we’re willing to throw ourselves directly into the shit nobody else is equipped to handle, and we aren’t funded with your tax dollars.
But he doesn’t have to say any of it.
“Tony wouldn’t do that,” Steve tells Scott, his voice ringing with that authoritative Captain America thing, and it shuts down any other possible arguments.
Even though Tony absolutely would do that, if he was feeling petty enough, and they all know it, but whatever: Tony and Cap were the ones locking horns and the rest of them just sort of – fell where they fell, and even if his own rage at Stark hasn’t entirely abated, fine, whatever, Clint can let Steve call this one.
It feels wrong. On some deeply fundamental level, the sheer Tonyness of this place slammed up hard against the handful of weeks spent in the Raft. Getting acclimated to prison, Clint knows intimately, is easy. Uncomfortably easy. Four closed-in walls and a hard cot, life in a fishbowl with no privacy – it starts to feel as though life’s always looked like that.
But this place is all vast open space. Hardwood floors and clean white subway tile, sunshine melting through big bay windows like butter and tranquil quiet except for the breeze ruffling the palm fronds outside.
The rest of them are the thing that muddies the picture. They’re all grim and unwashed and resentments built up over weeks are simmering close to the surface.
Clint really wants to fucking break something.
“I am taking a shower,” Wanda announces abruptly. She turns to walk up the staircase bisecting the room, because of course that’s the layout. Tony loves a dramatic entrance.
“Me too,” Sam says. “There’s gotta be more than one bathroom in this place.”
Clint turns to Natasha, who has been noticeably quiet ever since they landed. He’s not entirely sure of what he wants to say, how he wants to start, but – there has to be someplace for them to begin. There’s so much to unpack, he knows, and he’s not sure what he’s supposed to prioritize, what comes next, but something comes next. Right? Something has to. So he’ll take her aside, and they’ll go somewhere and – there’s that, at least.
There’s a clean opening in that.
Before he can do it, though, Steve steps in front of him. “Make you some coffee?” he asks Nat, in a soft, apologetic tone that’s obviously meant to convey no one else is included in this private invitation to Steve’s Caffeine Corner.
Natasha nods. “Sure,” she says. “You guys figure out where you’re sleeping, okay?”
When they disappear towards the kitchen, Scott looks at Clint. Last two left without a plan. “I call top bunk,” Scott says sardonically.
“Fight you for it,” Clint says. “Come on. Let’s go see what we’re working with.”
Later that night, Natasha comes to the room Clint’s claimed – there were no bunk beds to be found – a couple hours after Steve’s explained the post-Leipzig fallout for those among the group who were a little busy being imprisoned. Everybody acted like an asshole, some people are still acting that way, more of them than you would expect given the fallout was Clint’s only real takeaway.
He’s sprawled on the enormous bed with his hands folded under his neck, watching the filigreed wooden fan spin slow, lazy circles. Which is not the most interesting thing he could be looking at, particularly when there’s a very nice plasma-screen embedded in the wall across from him, but for the life of him, he can’t think of anything on TV that’d be capable of holding his attention, so.
Fan. Circling. Watching it endlessly, like some incredibly stupid form of self-flagellation until the knock comes at the door.
“Clint?” Nat asks from the other side of it. “Is it okay if I come in?”
She doesn’t even rattle the knob. A year ago, she would have just plowed on through without worry, certain of her reception. Same as she did with Wanda on the plane. It’s like they’re speaking in an entirely new language, devoid of all the casual intimacies he’s familiar with, while she’s already fluent and getting impatient for him to stop stumbling over verb tenses.
“Yeah,” he says, sitting up on the mountain of pillows. He swings his legs down, feet hitting the floor. “Yeah, come on in.”
Natasha at least closes the door behind her for privacy as she steps inside, which is a little bit of a relief. Her hair is out of its braid and a little damp from her shower, starting to curl up on itself the way it does when she doesn’t have an arsenal of products to tame it. She’s not wearing any makeup and for a minute, she just stands there.
It’s the first chance Clint’s had to look at her – to really look in almost a year, twenty seconds of play-fighting in Germany doesn’t count. When he realizes that, it’s like there’s a fist lodged in his chest, locked around something vital and squeezing it into wet pulp. She looks like Tasha right now, frizzing curls about to explode into a halo and clean face and in spite of everything else, all of this, the massive pile of shit they’re all buried beneath, he has missed her missed her missed her, this version of her, this post-job Tasha that almost nobody else gets to see, scrubbed and soft and the most familiar thing in his world.
He knots his fingers in the white cotton duvet to force himself not to jump to his feet and hug the life out of her. To force all of this other shit to just be okay.
She comes to sit next to him on the bed. “Bad week,” she sighs.
“Not one of our best,” he agrees. “You doing okay?”
Natasha smiles, a little. “Asks the man who was sitting in an underwater supermax all of eighteen hours ago.”
“Started from the bottom and now we here, that’s how it goes,” he says. She laughs and the fist in his chest eases its grip. “Plus we both know I’ve been in tighter spots. Most of the time they were tighter spots in shitholes worse than the Raft.”
“Still nothing. I wasn’t sweating it, Nat. Maybe for Wanda, a little, and I’m fucked off at Tony on principle, but I knew you’d come get me.”
He’s not sure how that was the wrong thing to say – it’s just stating a fact, it’s like pointing out that they both have fingers and toes, but her mouth gets slightly smaller and he doesn’t understand why, but it was the wrong thing.
“I checked on your family,” she says, an inelegant segue, especially for Natasha, and his mouth dries up, his stomach goes into freefall. He can’t push out a syllable; she notices, so she keeps talking. “We told the kids you’re on an extended work trip – you may have to take them to Disney World or something when this is all over, but they’re not worried about you. I told Laura what to do in the event that anyone shows up asking questions, and - ”
“Stark brought the kids up,” Clint forces himself to say. “On the Raft. Not by name, just – if Ross’s people didn’t know before. They know now.”
Natasha goes quiet. “He shouldn’t have done that,” she finally says, after a long minute. “But it doesn’t mean it’ll come to anything. He didn’t draw them a map.”
“Right, so I shouldn’t stress about it,” Clint says, laying the sarcasm on more thickly than is strictly necessary. “I’d hate to ruin this island paradise, I had big plans to drink rum out of a coconut shell on the beach tomorrow.”
“Well, first off, at least mix it with something, because straight rum is a garbage drink. And second of all, Tony isn’t just going to leave them to swing if Ross’s people come sniffing. At the most, they’ll poke around the house and ask a couple uncomfortable questions - ”
“And they’ll scare the shit out of my kids!” Clint snaps. “Or keep them under surveillance, or use them to draw me out - I don’t want them growing up like that! I don’t want them always looking over their shoulders, and I don’t want ruthless fucking assholes like Ross thinking they’ve got an ace in the hole any time they want something from me.”
“Don’t make this my fault, Clint,” Natasha says, so frustratingly calm that it makes him want to shake a reaction out of her. “I did the best I could do with the circumstances.”
On some level, he knows that’s true. And it’s not like he doesn’t know exactly where to trace this problem back to, it’s not like he doesn’t know the roots. Because it wasn’t about how much he trusted his team when he decided to let them in on his biggest secret in the world, it wasn’t about how much faith he had in Stark and Banner and the rest of them. It wasn’t about how Laura had been quietly dropping hints that she understood the need for secrecy, but with a third child on the way and the first one well into elementary school, this was becoming untenably oppressive for her.
No, the root of Clint letting them into that life happened the minute he cradled Natasha’s face in his hands after Wanda blasted her way into their lives. When Natasha’s eyes were somewhere off in the distance, empty and unseeing and so far gone that she couldn’t even register his presence. When all the shit parts of her life that she’d worked so fucking hard to leave in the past were dredged up and pulled to the forefront, when she was rattled in a way he had never seen her rattled in ten-plus years of partnership and nothing else mattered. Shaken at her fucking foundation, and he knew where to go to bring her out of it.
Same way he’d brought her there to recovery from surgery after Barnes shot her in the gut and left her to die (which, even if he fought next to the guy and was happy to do it, is a thing he is still not entirely over and at some point, will want to discuss with him. Probably with some emphatic adjectives.) She had been a mess after that, too, in ways that went beyond the physical. He still doesn’t like thinking about it.
But after Wanda’s hit, she couldn’t speak. She couldn’t process. She needed a shower and sleep in an actual bed and a hot meal, she needed to take a time out, but mostly, she needed the way Lila had rushed into her arms the second she’d crossed the threshold.
His daughter worships Nat, and the thing about kids – even when his kids drive him crazy, he knows what that means, to Nat, because it means the same thing to him. When this tiny person rushes into his arms after he’s been gone for so long, this reminder that not everything he’s ever put his hands to has turned out for shit, that this is allowed, that these tiny people love him so fiercely and for no reason other than because they just do. They just love.
That’s the great thing about having children. Which is sometimes easy to forget when they’re screaming in your ear about Paw Patrol, and if he’s not…
If he’s not quite the father he wants to be able to be, the way he keeps coming up short: he loves that part of parenting, it’s the kind of trust he is desperate not to break, and it was what Nat needed.
He gave that secret up and here he is, a little under a year later and he’s finally been handed the bill for it, because what Natasha had needed had outweighed everything else. There was exactly one way to ensure his family’s security, even if Laura had begun to chafe under it – there was one way. He can dress it up and dance around it all he likes, about how it was time to let the guys in and how much he trusted them and how it was time for his family to meet them, but stripped down beneath all of it, he knows why he did it.
He wanted Nat to be somewhere safe and it was the safest place he had to offer.
“This is your second plan this week that rests entirely on the back of Stark growing a conscience,” he grumbles. “I swear to God, I’m out of the game for a little while and your ability to think tactically goes to complete shit.”
“I didn’t come in here to fight with you,” Natasha says. “We’re not doing that.”
Clint didn’t think that comment was enough to start something – they’ve said worse things to each other in situations more tense than this one – but he actually wouldn’t mind fighting with her. Not at all.
They have a lot to fight about. At this point, it’d probably be the healthy option; they could get all the air cleared in one burst and then they’d be on the other side. But she sounds like she means it, so he just gives a jerky little nod.
“What’d Laura say when you went by?” he asks.
Natasha’s lied to him over the phone a few times this year; it’s somewhat gratifying to know that she’s maybe the most accomplished liar on the planet, but at least she’s still not comfortable looking him in the eyes and feeding him some highly believable bullshit.
Instead, she hesitates, which is how he knows whatever it was, it was really bad.
“Forget it,” he says. “I mean, it’s not like I could shoot the messenger, I don’t even have my bow, but – forget it.”
“It’s a stressful situation for her, too,” Natasha demurs. “And I’m sure it’s mostly worry. It’ll be fine once we get you out of here – I have some ideas, some strings we can pull on - ”
“Nat, stop,” he says, and scrubs a hand over his face. “Just stop, okay? I already know she’s pissed. The origin story of Laura being pissed is basically a Batman movie, I’ve seen six reboots and I know all the plot twists. You’re not doing me any favors here.”
They sit in silence and it’s awful. It never used to feel awful to sit in silence with Natasha before.
And they still haven’t touched.
Which – maybe that’s overstating it, it’s not as though he’s expecting her to cradle him in his arms while he weeps over his broken marriage, they aren’t really those kind of people, but distance is not a thing that exists between them. Or at least it never has before – personal space was just never…a thing they did, not really. They weave around each other in the field like it’s a dance, they’ve fallen asleep on top of each other, he’s never hesitated to fling an arm around her shoulders or her waist. Friendly pokes and prods and hauling each other out of situations that have gone south, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and hands almost inside bloody, ripped open places to keep pressure on and slow the bloodflow. He throws his leg up onto her chairs, she slumps against his side on couches. Her body is as familiar to him as his own.
Since she sat on this bed, their shoulders haven’t so much as brushed. He’s so highly aware of this carefully maintained distance that it’s almost tangible enough to count as a touch all on its own. It aches. It’s so present.
Finally, she stands up, moves out of his orbit entirely. “We can talk about it later. You should get some sleep,” she says. “And I wouldn’t mind crashing for awhile, either.”
“Yeah,” he says, stung and wishing he was better equipped to articulate why. “Don’t want to be too worn out for the drinking-from-the-coconut thing tomorrow.”
“Remember the mixer. Maybe something with pineapple,” she tells him. “Goodnight, Barton.”
She pauses at the door and looks back at him, like she wants to say something. He feels stupidly hopeful for a second, but then she shakes it off and just repeats, “Night.”
She disappears into the dark of the hallway, and it’s like she was never here in the first place.
If you want to make a handful of stressed out people feel worse, throw them in a location that never stops screaming chill the fuck out already, that’s an order in their faces. They’re trapped in an incredibly unsettling liminal space, vacationers in paradise and fugitives in a shitload of trouble who know this could all crash in on them whenever.
It’s not conductive to getting anything done. It’s not possible to actually enjoy themselves. It’s just waiting. Wanda spends a lot of time in her room. Scott basically moves into the pool. Steve is taking long walks on the beach and looking out at the ocean like a very stoic hero coping bravely with his manly pain.
Clint really has to stop being such a dick about Steve. He likes Steve.
He ran out on Laura, on the kids because of a relentless, nagging need to be back in the thick of the thing he does best. Which he got to do for all of one fight, and not even for a good cause, not a reason that made the world any kind of better place, and now that they’re on the other side of it, it’s like he’s just traded one holding pattern for a slightly more luxurious one. He knows it wasn’t impulsive, not really; it had been brewing over months, but it’s not easy to see the forest for the trees right now. It’s guilt. It’s miserable, crushing guilt, there’s nothing else to call it.
And maybe it would feel more worth it if things weren’t still like this with Natasha.
It isn’t like she’s ignoring him, not outright, it’s just – this is the in-person equivalent of a year of phone conversations, it’s all “do you want to go for a run” and “pass the salad dressing” and “clean towels in the third floor closet if you need some”. They’re orbiting each other without touching the ground, they’re not saying anything real, anything that matters.
He’s tried to give her a little space, a little time – sometimes, he knows, she doesn’t like to throw herself headlong into things. Sometimes she needs a breath to think about how to say what she wants to say, exactly the way she means to say it.
He wants to get this right, too. He can be patient.
And maybe it’d be fine if he’d missed her argument with Sam, but unfortunately for everyone currently inside the house, it’s deeply unmissable. The two of them went to the second floor ostensibly to shoot some pool and Clint’s not sure how it took a turn, but they’ve ended up full-on screaming at each other. And it’s not even just that they’re shouting like they don’t give a shit if anyone’s listening – they’re getting in intensely personal digs and most of them are straight-up vicious. Neither one of them is fighting clean, it’s nasty. There’s a lot of stuff in there about loyalty and friendship, idiocy and willful blindness, one cutting accusation hurled after another.
When Sam finally notices that Steve and Clint are hovering outside the room nervously, watching to see if they might have to forcibly intervene, he comes over and slams the door in their faces.
“Should we be at all concerned that they might kill each other?” Clint asks. “Because I don’t know if you know this, but Nat’s not usually this… shouty, even when she’s mad. And practically speaking, a beach is just not a great place for corpse disposal.”
“They get another thirty minutes, then I’m kicking down the door and we make them go to their rooms to think about what they’ve done,” Steve agrees.
It actually takes about two hours to wrap up, plus the door-kickdown that made Sam and Nat simultaneously yell “Butt out, Rogers!” in tones that got Steve to not only back down, but also exit the entire floor.
The next day, though, Clint comes downstairs to find the two of them sitting on the couch together, side-by-side, eating omelets and playing Scrabble. “Oh hey, man,” Sam says, without looking up from the board, where he’s laying out a long string of tiles. “There’s coffee but I only made enough eggs for the two of us, sorry.”
“Challenge,” Natasha says. “How are you this bad at cheating?”
“It’s a word in Swedish,” Sam tells her.
“It’s really not,” she says. She’s smiling.
Clint goes back upstairs and punches a hole through the slanted paneling of a closet door in his bedroom. It doesn’t make him feel better.
At the end of their second week in hiding, Natasha surprises all of them when she announces that she’s going to take the jet and head back to upstate New York tomorrow.
“Somebody has to figure out where we stand and try to start smoothing some of this out,” she says, very reasonably. “We can’t avoid contact with the outside world forever and I’m the only one who’s not a fugitive. I’ve got the best shot.”
It makes sense, technically – it’s not like their escape from the Raft is the kind of thing that would have been broadcast all over the news, but none of them can exactly stroll into any given Starbucks without the world falling in right now. And he knows that while Nat’s a big believer in cool-down periods, she’s also not somebody who’s going to abandon work still on the table. Especially not right now; this team means something to her, he knows that. Most of the time, it seems like she’s the only one who isn’t willing to give up and let it die.
It still feels like a shitty idea. There’s a lot that could go wrong.
Not like she hasn’t thought of that herself.
Not like she isn’t a grown woman who’s been capably solving enormous problems for the entire time Clint’s known her.
Not like he could beg her not to just go when things are like this, not if there’s a chance she won’t be able to come back.
The view on the roof of Stark’s summer cottage is arguably better than the view from the top of his barn. Can’t beat the moon rising over the ocean, or whatever – mostly, it’s that Clint does better thinking in high places. He always has.
People have patterns. Even people like himself and Natasha – people whose trade is spywork, where predictable patterns are something to watch out for and alter – everybody has something. This is his something.
There’s also the fact that he likes bourbon and when he has a choice, will generally choose that. Which is why he’s decided to bring a bottle up here tonight. Stark’s bar is stocked with the good shit, and given everything that’s happened, Clint feels at liberty to help himself. Not enough to get drunk – Clint hates being drunk – but everything inside him is coiled so tightly and it’s not going to loosen of its own accord.
He doesn’t swerve from type. Patterns. The same way Nat would choose vodka, her stupid joke that he’s heard her make a million times: “I get two clichés, I like vodka and cold weather.”
She likes other things, too. Pointy shoes and leather jackets and Pop-Tarts with the brown sugar frosting, which she burns in the toaster on purpose because she claims it tastes better. She says pets are pointless, but she likes cats, and being right about things, and silver jewelry, and bogglingly expensive red wine, and she used to like him. He used to be on that list.
It’s a ridiculous thing for an adult father of three to think, but he takes another swig from the bottle of anyway before he caps it back up and starts the climb back into the house. It’s getting late, he’s tired, he can’t fix even this one fucking thing.
It’s dark in the hallway and a good fifteen degrees cooler than it was outside; even at night, the air conditioning runs full blast. Partly because summer heat is creeping up, and partly because, Clint is pretty sure, they all have an equal commitment to running up Tony’s electricity bill as long as they’re here, even if it’s not like he’ll actually notice. This isn’t going to be so much as a decimal point to him. Everybody’s in it to be petty.
He leaves the bottle on a tasteful end-table in the hall so he doesn’t have to go all the way back downstairs, and when he turns around, Natasha’s bedroom door is open. It was definitely closed a minute ago.
She’s standing in the frame, watching him without comment.
“What,” he says, an edge creeping into his voice.
Natasha puts her hands up, all surrender. “I didn’t say anything.”
“Yeah, well, don’t think so loud.”
“Noted.” All her lights are out, but behind her, the room is washed in a muted blue glow; clearly at least one of them figured out how to work the TV. “I can’t sleep either. Do you maybe – ”
“Yes,” he blurts, too eagerly, but she opens the door to her room a little more widely and even if she’s only throwing him a crumb, he’ll take it, he’ll dine out on it as long as he has to.
There’s a mountain of decorative pillows on her bed, same as his. They get comfortable top of the covers as she reaches for the remote and starts flicking through options. “Truly terrible streaming selection,” she says. “What do you think, overstuffed ensemble romantic comedy or aging action star physically fighting various woodland predators?”
They saw both of those together. Decompression from hard jobs, really late showtimes in really crappy theaters, and Clint kicks off his shoes and relaxes next to her. His arm brushes hers and she doesn’t move away. Crumbs. “I don’t think watching a wolf get punched in the face is going to hold up without some Sour Patch Kids.”
“Overstuffed ensemble rom-com it is,” she agrees.
The movie is bad. Amazingly bad, which is usually a prerequisite for their movie nights. Clint’s warm and mildly buzzed, they’re comfortably leaning against each other. Nat doesn’t want to talk and she’s leaving in the morning, but he’ll take it, he’ll take this, it’s not a great leap forward but it’s at least an inch forward and an inch is enough. Two very pretty actors are trapped in an elevator together, which they appear to be sad about, and Clint can’t say he remembers the plot of this one, but there’s eighty-nine minutes to go, he’s sure they’ll work it out.
He’s not sure at what point he falls asleep, or at what point Natasha does.
What he does know is that when he wakes up, the TV’s turned itself off, it’s still pitch-dark outside, and Nat’s burrowed into him. His arm is draped across her waist and her cheek is nestled against his shoulder; his face is lost somewhere in her hair. The pillows have shifted, they’re cocooning all around them in a cozy pillow cave.
Natasha stirs and makes a sleep-noise at the back of her throat, then rolls her head on her neck until she’s looking up at him. Her eyes are soft and a little bleary.
“Time’sit?” she mumbles.
“Dunno. Late.” The words spill out of him, softly and entirely without warning. “Tasha, how come you won’t fight with me?”
Her voice is quiet, but she’s awake now, he can tell. “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.”
She moves like she’s going to pull back, sit up, turn this into something less intimate, but his fingers flex against her back – a request, not an insistence. He’s not holding her there; she can move away if she wants to, but she stills. Weighs her words.
And he waits, because this time, he knows they’re actually coming.
“Sam sometimes needs to yell,” she says. “Wanda sometimes needs to be told what to do, and Steve and I sometimes just… disagree.”
“But I’m not asking for that,” he says. He understands why she does that, he doesn’t even think there’s anything wrong with it, but fuck if his spine doesn’t still stiffen when she does this around the people who care about her, their friends. That she still feels like sometimes she has to calibrate her own reactions into something they can swallow. “I don’t need you to give me some version of yourself who fixes problems in a way that works for my personal needs. I just - I can’t be this far away from you when you’re right in front of me. We’re not us right now, and if we’re going to be us, I need you to be you.”
“I’m here right now.”
“Only counts if you actually want to stay.”
Natasha closes her eyes. When she opens them again, she looks so achingly sad that he feels it in his own body, like he feels his own heartbeat.
“Why won’t you fight with me, Tasha?” he asks again, except this time, he knows the answer.
He knows there have always been a couple things they’ve never been able say to each other. It’s like that in any friendship. There’s always a few things that have to be swallowed back.
He didn’t realize until this moment that there were this many.
“I’m so tired of missing you,” she whispers. “Clint.”
Both his arms are around her now, she’s cradled against his chest and her face has filled his whole field of vision. They’re laying on a bed, nestled in a cloud of pillows. All the lights are out. None of this all on its own puts them in the wrong, strictly speaking. They’ve been here before. There are layers to intimacy.
Even so, there’s a line. There has always been a line and while they’ve blurred it over the years, pushed it around some and redrawn it on occasion, because how could they not, with what their lives looked like - but they have never once crossed it.
This right now, though. This is not even something they can wave off as vague, nebulous boundary. This has become a blindingly clear one and they are on the other side of it.
Clint’s not certain he cares enough to steer it back, but he knows that’s where they’ve ended up.
If he didn’t, the sound of Steve clearing his throat in the still-open doorway would have been a great reminder all on its own.
He and Natasha spring apart like they’ve been caught in the middle of something decidedly more explicit. She hits the bedside lamp with the flat of her palm; it’s not a very big lamp, but it fills the room like a floodlight.
“Said you wanted to leave when it was still dark,” Steve says. He’s staring at Natasha as though he’s never seen her before. If he’s aiming for neutral with the tone of his voice, he’s missing the mark by a long shot. “I thought I’d see if you wanted company on the walk to the airstrip.”
“Thank you,” Natasha says coolly, sliding off the bed. “Give me a minute to splash some water on my face. Maybe make some coffee for the road.”
“Yeah, see you in the kitchen,” Steve says, still looking at her in a way that’s probably going to bore a hole through her skull in another minute. Clint’s a little jealous that she disappears into the bathroom, because sure enough, that look is immediately turned in his direction.
“We fell asleep watching a movie,” he says. He sounds entirely too defensive even in his own ears. “It’s not what you think.”
“It’s none of my business,” Steve says, though his tone is saying something else entirely.
“Steve, come on. It’s not like that - ”
“It’s none of my business,” Steve repeats, then presses his mouth into a thin, granite line for the remainder of the time it takes for Natasha to come out of the bathroom.
Clint was really hoping he’d somehow find a way to make the rest of this enforced vacation even worse. Really, he’s done a brilliant job with this.
First fucking prize.
AND ANOTHER CHAPTER COMING AFTER THIS. I can't help myself. It's like a sickness.
Very tiny minor spoiler for Spider-Man: Homecoming in here! I myself have not seen the movie, so I don't think it qualifies as much of a spoiler, but your mileage may vary. And as is becoming a habit with me - there will, again, be another part after this! God, self, did you mean "slow burn" or did you mean "glacier"?
Natasha never went to elementary school – or at least, she never went to anything the US Department of Education would consider a comparable approximation – but sitting on the other side of Tony’s enormous chrome desk, in a chair that’s slightly lower than his, it’s hard to shake the feeling that she’s a kid in the principal’s office. Very much on the wrong side of her preferred power balance.
“So that’s it,” she says.
“That’s it,” Tony says, stone-faced.
“The Avengers are now entirely a Stark production,” she presses him. “Going forward, nobody else’s vote factors in. You get to speak for the whole team, make all final decisions on additions to the roster, what we do with the facilities – ”
“Well, I did pay for them,” he shoots back. “Some would say that entitles me to a certain degree of sovereignty.”
“And this is something you feel good about?”
She scores a hit on that one; she knew she would. “Goddamnit, Natasha,” he snaps, cool veneer splintering like she’s fired a bullet into an ice sculpture. “What the fuck did you expect? Exactly which Kübler-Ross stage did you want me to pull a monologue from? Really, tell me – what would have been palatable to you?”
Anything but whatever this bullshit is, she thinks, slightly regretting that she knows better than to say it.
With the exception of Clint, she and Tony have known each other longer than anyone else on the team. In some ways, they understand each other better than the rest; they’ve seen each other at their most ugly, most competent, and most vulnerable – sometimes simultaneously. The place they started from left the two of them with a longer walk to arrive somewhere they could trust each other.
She’s always been strangely proud of it. Tony had less reason than anyone to take that walk; he never forgets who she is and what she is capable of becoming. He has no reason to believe whatever version of herself she’s presenting at the moment is the truth, and still. Still, they landed somewhere good. It’s a trust that has left room for fuckups and half-truths, failures and good intentions gone sour.
The flip side of it is that they both know exactly how to cut each other, right to the quick and within a single sentence. She’s been called an impressive series of terrible things over the course of her life; when he’d spat double-agent at her, it was one of the few that’s ever hurt. He knew where to take the kill shot and he hadn’t hesitated.
She’s still trapped between the rock that is Tony’s bullheaded ego and the hard place that is Steve’s tunnel-vision priorities. Not for the first time, she wonders why she’s tried so hard to fix this. Everyone else seems perfectly content to let it stay a broken mess.
“I know that what happened in Siberia was – ”
“Siberia,” Tony interrupts, “is a thing you’re gonna want to back away from. Come on, Romanoff, I thought you were good at this dance. The guy doesn’t always want to lead. Sometimes we appreciate a firm guiding hand.”
“Do you think I’m not still upset with Steve, too?” she demands. “You don’t have a monopoly on wishing he would have at least faked like we weren’t all relegated to second string the minute Barnes turned up.”
“Right, that’s why it took you this long to see if somebody kept the home fires burning,” Tony retorts, waving a sweeping arm towards the expansive window next to his desk. It overlooks half the surrounding grounds, which are now crawling with people – here on some kind of training initiative, another new development and one she’s not sure she loves. “You were just so frustrated with Rogers that you needed to give him the full poor-baby? Or did you just want a month of me-time?”
God, it’s only been a month. A month from start to finish, since the bomb hit Vienna. If he’d told Natasha a full year had slipped by, she might have believed him.
“I’m trying,” she says. “I’m here because I’m trying, Tony. Can you help me out with that at all?”
She knows he softens slightly whenever she calls him by his first name; this time is no exception. The vein in his temple stops bouncing and he slumps back and slides down, enough so their eyelines are even without her having to keep looking up.
“You brought this chair in here on purpose,” she says. Something fond sneaks into her voice, not entirely without her permission.
“Negotiation tactic number three. I didn’t make the first billion on the back of my dashing goatee,” he says. “I also turned the temp up about ten degrees. Sleepy people are stupid people.”
“Well, that explains some stuff. I’ve been exhausted for weeks,” she says.
“Tell me about it.” He steeples his fingers, bows his head to hide behind them for a moment. “Look. I’m glad they made it off the Raft. You know that. But I don’t have a magic string to pull here, Nat. Can’t just throw some money at it, which is my preferred way to clean up a mess. Anything short of the Chitauri taking another run at a major travel hub...”
She understands. That’s the shittiest part, that she understands.
Rhodes’s priority right now is rehabilitation, which is where it should be. Natasha has no idea if Pepper’s hit un-pause on their break. Bruce has been gone for a year. Steve got to keep the rest of the friends in the divorce, and Tony was left with – Viz, pretty much, and while Natasha knows Viz does his best, this more or less amounts to Tony being on his own.
And Tony’s not someone who knows how to exist inside a pause. He’s too proactive for that; he and Steve are exactly the same on that front. They both need a cause, a project, something to fling themselves into, and Tony found one.
He salvaged what he could. The way Natasha wanted to, and it’s dawning on her that he’s the one who’s actually done it the way an adult would. If there were things to pull from the wreckage, there wasn’t enough of it to repair: whatever’s going to be built out from the scraps has to take an entirely new shape and form.
He’s recognized that. She didn’t want to.
Maybe she wasn’t so far off in feeling like a stupid little kid in this office.
Since Leipzig, Natasha’s been clinging so tightly to the idea that there’d be a way to come home if she could just find the right angle. Stubbornly refusing to acknowledge what’s been here all along; this place, this team, this so-loved part of her life has been blown out from beneath her as entirely as SHIELD was a few years ago. They’ve chosen to disband rather than allow oversight; they might not have all entirely realized that was the choice they were making, but it’s been made. It’s done. It’s already happened and she’s been shadowboxing.
That’s another chapter closed, then. Another version of Natasha Romanoff, burned out and scattered to the wind. Another life to figure out.
Something in Tony’s face changes the longer she sits there quietly, processing. “Look. Your room, your office, they’re still – ” He waves his hand again, this time towards his door. “You’re about the only one I could, maybe, do something for, you know, on the war criminal front. Our bench is looking a little thin, the last guy I offered a spot turned me down. If you wanted to stick around – we could make it work. And I wouldn’t hate it.”
She smiles. Or she thinks she does, anyway.
“I’d only pay you half what you’re worth, because I am a petty, petty man,” he adds. “But I wouldn’t hate it.”
She decides to spend the night in the facility. It’s safe as anywhere else would be when there aren’t many safe places left, but it’s disjointing to walk into her familiar room. It feels like a mistake, like it’s her answer to Tony’s question before she’s actually made up her mind.
She’s spent hours turning his offer over in her head, compartmentalizing everything she left back on the island to be able to look at this objectively. The only thing she can come up with is that she needs space around herself, which leaves her furiously frustrated – she’s so tired of this, she’s tired of being this untethered when she’s finally been adjusting to having her feet firmly planted in the exact place she wanted them to be.
It probably shouldn’t too surprising that once she finally falls into a restless, shallow sleep, James creeps back in. He’s been extremely busy haunting her dreams for the last few weeks.
It’s not like Natasha doesn’t understand why. It makes sense from an objective perspective. There are recent anxieties and losses and frustrations and he’s a pretty reasonable focal point. She also knows that the more she demands that he get the hell out of her subconscious, the more space he’ll take up inside it, so she tries not to dwell on it.
Which still isn’t working.
The dreams all run along the same theme. Once she was laying on a beach made of black volcanic glass, sharp under her legs while she watched him splash around in the surf. He waved to her from the water’s edge, oblivious to the massive wave cresting behind him. She tried to scream a warning, but all that spilled out of her mouth was a sudden cascade of blood, and he disappeared beneath the wave as it slammed down.
Once he knelt before her with his hands curved over her hips and tipped his head all the way back, exposing his throat. Vulnerable. Supplicant. His pulse was visible, jumping beneath his jaw and she cut his throat without blinking, realizing too late she’d been holding a knife behind her back. “That’s what you do with trust?” he reproached in Russian, garbling through the place his neck was severed.
The night she dreamed about Odessa, back when she was still on the island, she startled awake and barely made it to the bathroom before she threw up. She spent the next two hours completely furious with herself for having that kind of weak-ass instinctive bodily reaction, for not being able to control it. Which is Red Room rhetoric, she knows, she knows, and so she spent another hour after that hating herself for the times she falls back onto Red Room rhetoric when nothing else works.
This time, it’s a complete departure.
They’re fucking in a bed with a familiar carved wooden frame. She can see the footboard clearly from her position on her back, his body above her with her legs wrapped around his waist. He grins at her with his hair hanging in his eyes and oh, something hot and thrilled bursts to life in her chest – he smiles so rarely and he’s never smiled at her like this.
One of his hands is in her hair, playing and pulling on it. The other bears his weight just enough so they’re still tangled together, and it’s perfect, perfect, he feels the same against her, he smells the same, a normal woman would melt for her lover’s soap or shampoo or aftershave but Natasha breathes in gunpowder and sweat and the metallic notes of blood and it lights her up, it breaks her apart.
Every thrust inside her is magic, every angle is a new explosion. She screws her hips up into his, bites his mouth and shudders and loses herself, it’s endless, they’ve never had time for anything this indulgent and drawn out before, but he’s here now, he’s here and they can take their time, he remembers and oh –
The broad expanse of his shoulders shifts, he buries his face in her neck and sudden abrupt knowledge slams into her, the way it does in dreams – she knows this room. She knows the pattern of the quilt beneath their writhing bodies.
She’s fucking James in Clint and Laura’s bed.
As soon as she realizes it, she notices that Clint is in the room with them. He’s been there from the beginning. Perched on top of the dresser with his back against the mirror and watching them fuck, his face intense and impassive all at once.
Natasha’s eyes snap open, jolted wildly, crazily awake on the force of the shock. Her heart is racing, her thighs are tensed and back arched, which together is enough to let her know that she’s been – embarrassingly – squirming around with arousal, even in her sleep. The guilt comes next, pounding in relentless waves. There’s nothing to be guilty for, not really, she knows that – but it’s here anyway and it wants acknowledgement.
She throws the blankets off and doesn’t turn on any lights as she walks to her bathroom. She leaves the lights off in here, too, strips off the overlarge shirt and yoga pants she slept in and lets them crumple in a pile on the floor. When she turns on the shower, she doesn’t wait for steam to fill the room; she climbs in immediately.
The cold water springs goosebumps on her arms and pebbles her nipples; she turns to face away from the icy stream and shakes her hair out beneath it, scalp tightening and gradually, slowly relaxing again as the temperature warms up.
Since she’s in here anyway and doesn’t actually have any better ideas, she reaches for the shampoo bottle to start washing her hair.
She’ll never be able to think of James as Bucky, even when she tries to separate him out into different people in her head. She’s never said a word to Steve – she’s never said a word to Clint, which is another issue entirely, but it’s never felt like a lie and it still doesn’t. Not even a lie of omission, really.
The closest she’s come to telling Steve was after Fury faked his death, before she knew about Steve’s own connection to the Soldier – how after Odessa, he’d become a ghost again, she had butted up against dead end after dead end.
I tried to find him was sugarcoating it, though, I tried to find him was Natasha giving herself way too much leeway. What she had actually done the last time she’d come up against the Winter Soldier was go temporarily insane.
Which she knows now, but had been impossible to see up close, at the time. The minute the grogginess from her surgery had worn off, once she was coherent enough to piece together what had happened and how she’d ended up here, she’d tried to pull out her IV lines and tubes and monitors on the ridiculous hope that any trail he’d left wouldn’t have gone entirely cold in the days she’d been unconscious.
And when she’d accepted the obvious fact that right now she was physically unable to go after him, she’d called in favors from her hospital bed with the phone she’d lifted off one of her doctors. Any old contacts she could think of, anyone she could track down with a shitty data connection on a tiny smartphone. She had threatened and cajoled and bribed and cursed and aggravated every tiny intricate stitch holding her insides together. She refused painkillers. She wouldn’t sleep. Her incision got infected and blew her post-op fever back up to boiling.
No one at SHIELD had ever seen Natasha, famously cool, composed, collected Natasha, come so entirely unreasonable and unhinged. She had terrified the shit out of everyone, possibly including Fury.
In the end, it had been Clint who put a stop to it. In the end, it’s always Clint.
He’d pulled a chair up beside her bed and wrapped a hand around her wrist. His fingertips were resting over her pulse – she remembers that sensation so vividly – as though he was measuring it out, timing the beats of her heart, and he looked like shit. His stubble was coming in patchy and his eyes were bloodshot, the bags beneath them had their own bags. He’d been wearing the same clothes for days and they’d smelled like antiseptic and burnt coffee.
“You don’t have to tell me what this is about, Tasha.” It came out in a voice she’d never heard from him before. She thought she knew all Clint’s voices by then, but this was new, flat and full of rage, helplessness, exhaustion, rolled into something thick and ragged. “Not ever. But you’re done. You’re gonna put it down now, because if you don’t, it’s gonna kill you.”
Everything she wanted to scream at him couldn’t make it off her tongue. It took too much explanation; it was too hard, it hurt too much, she’d failed so entirely and she has never lived in a world that gives credit for trying.
So she’d been silent. She let his words fall onto her. She let them dissolve into her skin.
“You don’t get to ask me to watch that happen,” he said. Raw and as ripped-open as she felt, every monster breathing inside her somehow given voice by the words coming from Clint Barton’s mouth. “Not like this, anyway. So please. Please.”
And she had done exactly as he said, because she knew he didn’t beg for anything but he was begging now.
She closed the book entirely.
When her fever finally broke, Clint brought her to the farm for the rest of her recuperation. She slept a lot. She let herself grieve the loss of something she hadn’t known she was still holding onto. Laura cooked clear soups and helped her brush her hair and take spongebaths. Cooper read to her from skinny chapter books and left Lego airplanes for her on the nightstand. She watched Clint paint the porch and mow the lawn and split firewood, and he stayed true to his word and never asked her about it again.
She had done what he asked. That was enough.
They were a programming flaw that could be corrected, that had been the theory after they’d been discovered together. A complicated problem with a simple solution: they would be separated. James would be wiped. They would never see each other again, and that would end the matter entirely. It could be corrected.
It had also been how the Red Room lost her. When they had taken James from her, they turned her into someone who finally had context for loss and pain and anger, things she could now understand in herself instead of observed at a clinical distance.
They had turned her into the person who could take Clint’s hand when he held it out and offered her a choice a few short years later. Ultimately, she’s grateful – for herself, at least – that things happened the way they did.
If James was the first scar carved into her heart – before she even realized she had one in the first place – it’s a scar that’s healed over by now, it’s knotty tissue no different from the deadened mess beneath her navel. Scars are reminders of how many things she’s survived and still gotten up off the mat to go another few rounds.
But Steve stayed somewhere in the recesses of James’s mind while he doesn’t even recognize her face.
It’s nobody’s fault – it’s not as though she’s been pining for what could have been – but she’s allowed to feel a little shitty about that. The same way she gets to feel a little shitty when she remembers that Bruce didn’t want her, or when she thinks about how Steve probably now considers her two steps up from homewrecker, Clint’s preferred vacation spot away from his wife.
All the people in her life who have mattered the most. It is shit to feel like the most generous description of herself in return is that she’s an excellent placeholder for whoever it is they really want.
That’s the way she makes up her mind when she sees Tony the next morning.
Early, before the campus fills up again; for all she’s excellent at blending in, the best weapon on a spy’s side is anonymity, and there’s no other spot in the country where the Black Widow is less anonymous.
He’s wearing a three-piece suit, neatly pressed with sharp lines, and a foil-etched red tie that looks great on him. She’s always mildly impressed that no matter what the hour, Tony’s ready to tackle it without any indication of lost sleep. One of his vile breakfast shakes in his hand, the color and consistency of moss, and she wrinkles her nose when he offers her a sip.
“Bad-ass, kills-people-with-her-thighs, looks-annoyed-more-than-anything-else-in-the-face-of-danger, but she’s undone by her precious tastebuds,” he says. “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“I try not to drink anything radioactive before sunrise and there’s no way you didn’t throw a full can of Red Bull in the blender,” she retorts. He shrugs: guilty.
“You’re turning me down?” he says, as close to neutral as Tony Stark can possibly be about rejection.
Most of the time, she knows that she’s inscrutable; it’s nice to feel like even so, there are times when she’s understood.
“I need to disappear for awhile,” she says. “Not forever. Keep a seat warm if you can.”
“You’re making a bad call,” Tony tells her. “I get that this is your usual play, Nat, but – hell. What do I know, right? Banner did the same thing.”
“I’m not Bruce,” she says. “I’m not completely shrugging this off. We’ll find a way to stay in touch and I’ll come if you need me – ”
“Obviously I already do, which is why I asked you to stay in the first place,” he says, frustration creeping in. “Great, none of us play well with others and we never have, but Jesus Christ, am I the only one who decided not to chuck the baby out with the bathwater?”
Tony huffs out a short, mirthless laugh. “Do you need money?” he asks – grudgingly, but he asks.
“No. Thank you, though,” she says. “Just – keep an eye on Clint’s family, okay? Keep them off the radar, if you can. If there are any strings you can pull to get him back to them, pull them. Hard.”
He nods, not quite meeting her eyes. For a moment, she thinks about telling him that she already knows, that Clint told her, but she doesn’t. That’s a fair penance; he can feel guilty and too afraid of her reaction to hope for absolution.
“I’ll come back, Tony. I just need some time,” is what she tells him instead.
She thinks about saying she’s sorry, but she isn’t, and she doesn’t want to lie to him if she doesn’t have to.
They’re all adults who don’t necessarily owe each other detailed itineraries or explanations of their whereabouts. They also generally trust each other to be able to take care of themselves. Natasha knows that. Often, she appreciates it.
Still, it’d feel a little bit like abandoning a pack of toddlers in the wilderness if she didn’t do something for them, and besides, she actually enjoys making fake passports and visas. It’s minute, detailed precision work, but she’s done this often enough that it’s relaxing. Like knitting, or calligraphy.
Tony’s palatial island getaway isn’t going to hold out indefinitely. Sooner or later, they’ll have to split up. They’re all going to have to figure out how to make their own way, and she won’t be able to do that for them.
But she can’t leave them with nothing to smooth the way, either.
It feels thin. Well – it feels thin because it is thin, it’s a paltry gesture and she’s making it while understanding full well that she’s leaving things on the table. Steve –
Actually, she feels mostly okay, about Steve. They left off somewhere she’s fine having left it. Nothing was going to be fixed in the span of a few weeks, but they both put forward a good faith effort; if they aren’t entirely at rights with each other, she can see the place where they will be, and it’s enough.
There’s exactly one person who’s going to see this for the weak bullshit that it is, and she barely even said goodbye to him when she’d beelined for the door.
If she’s felt trapped between Steve and Tony, that is nothing compared to this place she’s found herself in: the rock is how badly she wants Clint in her life again and the hard place is her pathological need for self-preservation.
Clint would feel like shit if he knew she’s thinking of him as something to protect herself from. Even if it’s just for right now. (She hopes it’s only for right now.)
After SHIELD fell, after she blew all her covers and wished Steve well and rode off into the sunset to decide what she wanted her next at-bat to look like, it had taken Clint less than a week to track her down even when she hadn’t left him a clue. He hadn’t even gone home first; he’d come straight to her.
The way she’d known he would. When he strolled into her condo in Caracas, she had – literally – just finished brewing enough coffee for two and put a plate of mandocas on the kitchen table. None of which he’d shared with her once he’d gotten started; then again, she hadn’t actually expected him to, so that was fair.
It had been their own private wake for the organization they’d dedicated their lives to, the one that had never actually existed. They laughed some, and raged some, and tipped some bourbon into the coffee for a toast – because in every safehouse either of them has ever had, anywhere in the world, one shitty room or pretty nice piece of property: he keeps vodka for her, she keeps bourbon for him.
In the end, they’d decided together that the Avengers Initiative didn’t have to die with SHIELD. Somebody was going to have to take Hydra out, neither of them wanted to hang it up, and if the guys were all on board – then that was it. That was where phase two of Hawkeye and Widow were heading. That was their plan.
Their plan, because that was the way it worked. He stayed six days. He did the cooking, she read a lot of books. She got badly sunburned when they went for walks in the park. Easy, quiet life things, an interlude before everything would kick into high gear again. Space to grieve, but also to breathe.
And it had taken months – months, until they were back in New York and linked up with the team again for her to realize what a disaster of a fuckup their lovely, calm week had been.
They had both needed to compress from the fallout of their lives – so they had spent a happy quiet week in a foreign country cooking dinners and touring historical monuments and sleeping late. Clint poking at a bubbling saucepan while Natasha read to him, interesting snippets of whatever book she was plowing through or things she pulled up on the internet that’d make him laugh.
Their plan, what was best for their partnership, how they would handle it.
It had taken her fucking months to realize that Laura had been cut out of this decision entirely and neither she nor Clint had even noticed.
She hadn’t noticed because it had been so exactly what she had wanted. Exactly how she had wanted it, the two of them together, leaning on each other to get through it with nobody else – at least for a little while. She hadn’t wanted the end of SHIELD to mean the end of the two of them. She’d wanted – she’d wanted. And so she had just taken.
It’s not just Caracas; it’s a pages-long list, front and back, of all the times she’s forgotten that Clint isn’t hers because sometimes he fucking feels like hers.
Whenever she has let herself forget that he never was, forget where the boundaries are, forget that she’s partly responsible for remembering to enforce them – Natasha is not somebody obtuse enough to tell herself that as long as there’s no physical contact, they’re not technically doing anything wrong.
There are so many other ways to do things badly, and her last night on the island was a perfect example. It’s just that there are also times when she doesn’t know another way to do them.
It’s not a door she’s ever actually let herself peek into. She keeps it firmly closed. There is nothing on the other side of it that is at all relevant. Every now and then, though – fuck. Every now and then, the temptation to at least set her hand on the doorknob and rattle it rears its ugly head.
Natasha Romanoff is not someone who fucks around with what-ifs. She lives her life in what-is.
When the last pages of fake documentation unspool themselves from the laminator, once she’s done arranging the chain of couriers and reroutes and dead-drops to ensure everything ends up in the right hands, in a timely-yet-untraceable fashion, she decides to dye her hair.
That was always the downside to joining the team: she makes a good footsoldier, she’s capable on the ground, but she has always been most valuable as a spy, and the last few years have left her entirely too visible to be much use at the thing she’s best at. For the last few years, she’s been comfortable in one skin, she hasn’t had to worry much about identifying marks and scent profiles and building a cover from the bottom up.
Maybe it’ll be a nice to fall back into it now.
Even as the idea gives her a little pang: she really likes her hair. But her color leaves her way too traceable right now, especially since she has a more complete understanding of where they all stand with Ross.
Tonight, the dead-drop. Tomorrow morning, the hair.
And tomorrow afternoon, she’ll be someone else entirely.
Every excuse Clint’s made to put off contacting his family since they broke out of the Raft is both excellent and totally reasonable. The farm could be under scrutiny. All lines of communication could be bugged by now. Laura’s got a terrible poker face and can’t lie for shit if someone starts poking.
There are also counterpoints to every single one of these brilliant excuses, and the voice in his head spitting them out sounds a lot like Natasha’s.
“If someone’s watching the farm, then someone’s watching the farm. That doesn’t mean your family doesn’t get a check-in if you’re functional enough to check in.”
“Really, all lines of communication, Barton? In all your years at SHIELD, you two never established protocol in case something went wrong? Never set up a dedicated emergency line that only you can directly access? Never taught Laura how to work a burner? Never wrote a few lines of code for messages via email spam? And these are just the ones off the top of my head? Because there is no way that you didn’t do at least one of those things? Because this is Spy-Civilian Marriage 101?”
“Laura might have a terrible poker face, but Laura is also not a fucking child or a fragile little daisy and she’d be pretty unthrilled with you for believing she couldn’t tell a lie if her family’s welfare very literally depended on it. Honestly, I’m pretty unthrilled with you if you actually believe that.”
Mental Natasha deals with bullshit about as well as Actual Natasha does.
But the problem is that it won’t be a check-in, and Clint knows it, and it’s why he’s stalled long past the point where he was settled enough to pick up the phone.
What’s waiting on the other side isn’t some quick state of their union.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to do this. Nobody has to tell him that after a decade-plus of marriage, three children, and countless hurts, ‘over the phone’ is the wrong way.
Unfortunately, Clint’s put them in a position where face to face isn’t an option. Might not be for awhile, either – a year, maybe even a couple of them, it doesn’t feel like he’s lowballing it.
A respectful, honest discussion that’d hurt them like fuck but would still honor everything they’ve been to each other is the very least he owes Laura, and it’s one more thing he’s depriving her. Since he’s had no solution for that, he’s left her hanging in purgatory – the same way he’s left her there countless times, sometimes with deliberate intention and sometimes just thoughtlessly.
He’s never been able to figure out which is worse.
She’d probably have an opinion, if he’d ever asked.
He made his choice. He knows that. He can’t unmake it; he’s not sure he would if he could.
But he thinks about the other side of this conversation, everything he’ll have to acknowledge is a reality and not just a theoretical. One of which is that he has no idea when he’ll see his kids again. He’s failed Cooper, Lila, and Nate on some profound level that’s entirely separate from failing at his marriage to their mother, and if there’s a way to set that right, he doesn’t know what it is. He didn’t mean to run away from them, it just sort of fell out that way – what the hell kind of father “just sort of” lets a thing like that happen?
How can he love them so much and be so incapable of coming home? How has he fucked it up to that point?
And he can't wallow in self-pity about it, either, because he’s not the one getting the raw end of the deal. He can’t let this be a front where he accepts his fuckup and rolls over on it. Where he just gives up, because kids are things you do not get to give up on. Ever.
He's been absent for large chunks of their lives already, he knows that, but this is different. This is acknowledging that it’s not a job with a heavy time commitment they’re all waiting out: going forward, his absence from their daily lives is what will count as his kids’ version of normal.
Which feels miserable; how could it feel anything else? He should have seen it from the outset, because even if it's nothing he intended - there should have been safeguards in place. Somehow. There should have been something.
But this is the place they've ended up, through his missteps and his active choices combined, and he's always been too close to the pattern to be able to see it taking form and color. This is where they've arrived.
He feels like a terrible fucking father, which he sort of suspects is the result of being one, and it's worse to think that the best version of him in his children's lives might mean keeping himself at a distance.
It's not that he's been hoping that on the other side of this thing, he'd be able to go home and everything would go back to the way it was. He knew what he was doing when he picked up that bag. It’s still hard to embrace the truth they were both doing their goddamndest to deny: this thing had run its course.
They weren’t happy with what they had grown into, neither of them. Lake vacations and marriage counseling and a third baby weren't cures for a thing broken at its roots.
He’s lived two lives for so long and he was always going to have to choose between them. He knows, now, he undeniably knows which one he can stand to be without.
But it doesn’t make it less difficult to acknowledge that it’s the end of a life neither of them had planned on ending. They’d been in love, once. They hadn’t always made each other unhappy.
When he finally picks up the phone to call their dedicated line, the sun's gleaming over the ocean and refracting the light in blinding splashes onto the walls in his room, but it's well after midnight in Iowa. It's mildly inconsiderate, but then, when somebody's raising three kids on her own, there's never actually a good time to call.
Laura picks up on the very first ring, like she's been waiting beside it ever since he left. “Clint,” she breathes, the relief in her voice so profound that for a completely crazy moment, he thinks maybe we could still fix this thing, maybe I've read it all wrong.
"I’m sorry," he says hoarsely. "I'm sorry, baby, I should have called sooner."
"You're calling now," she says. She sucks in a hiccupy breath and he realizes she's crying.
"I figured you'd be too pissed to cry," he says, and she lets out a watery-sounding laugh.
"I can be pissed at you and not want you to be dead," she tells him. "I haven't heard from you or Nat in weeks. It's been hell."
"I'm sorry," he says again, like that'll somehow magically imbue those words with actual substance. The last time he spoke to his wife, she told him if he was sorry, he wasn't sorry enough - not enough to stay, not enough to rearrange his priorities, not enough to try and make himself into someone different. But he is sorry, and he wants that to be enough; the knowledge that he never wanted it to be like this, that he shouldn't have aimed for a target that he knew, on some fundamental level, he was never going to be able to hit. "The kids - "
“They're okay,” she promises. He can picture her sitting up in her bed, smoothing the quilt over her lap, switching on the antique milk-glass lamp her grandmother left her and squinting at its sudden brightness. Her face crumpled from sleep and tear-streaked. Laura's an easy crier, with happy tears and sad ones. She can get choked up from laundry detergent commercials, but she's never had any shame about it. Natasha’s always liked that about her.
Thinking about Nat right now, even something that innocuous, is maybe the worst fucking thing he could do, so he shoves that thought out of the way.
"They're okay," Laura repeats. "Nobody's bothered us. I think your friend Tony had something to do with that. He’s called to check in on us every couple of days. He’s been very sweet.”
"Make any sarcastic noise you want," she scolds. "I'm grateful for him. They miss you, but it's not - well. You know."
"Yeah," he says. He doesn't deserve the way she's trying to spare him, but yeah, he knows. This is a return to form for them. It's nothing they aren't used to - with the exception of the last year, this is what they all remember. Their father’s absence is the most familiar thing about him. As far as kids can predict parental behavior, it probably isn't even all that unexpected.
Still, when he breathes in, there's a weight that's finally missing, his lungs don't feel like they're six sizes too small anymore. The kids are all right. That's what matters the most here. Their lives aren't disrupted, they aren't scared or crying or hurt, every ugly scenario he's run through his mind when he's lying in bed and staring sleeplessly at the ceiling.
He and Scott have tried talking about it once or twice. Trying to mitigate the pain by sharing it, or something, because the rest of the team is sympathetic, but it’s a hit they haven’t taken themselves and they can’t understand it entirely.
They both love their kids and would die for them without hesitation, and they both know that they're the sort of men who maybe should have given the idea of becoming a parent more consideration than either of them did. Which is a thing that's impossibly hard to say out loud. It's hard to find a way to say it that doesn't sound like what's actually being said is I regret having children, when that's not even close to what either of them would mean.
But he and Scott aren't really on that level with each other. It got to be too uncomfortable. It was too intimate, especially this particular unique clusterfuck, and after awhile, it was a subject they silently agreed to leave untouched.
"I'll tell them you love them," Laura says. "I mean - of course I always tell them that anyway, but - "
"No, I know what you mean," he says. He wishes he could ask her to go wake them up, so he could fumble towards some kind of explanation, so he could tell them he loves them himself and hear their sleepy voices chirp it back, but this is better for the kids, and that’s what counts.
It's better to let Laura handle it. She's the one who knows them the best; she's the one who knows how to explain it in a way they can understand.
She's an incredible mother. He doesn't think he's told her that enough, how lucky those kids are that if they drew the short stick with him, they still got her for a mom.
"What about you?" he asks. "Are you doing okay?"
"Oh, well, you know me," she demurs.
"God, you sound just like Nat," he says, and belatedly realizes that was the dumbest thing he possibly could have done.
But Laura decides to let it go, for whatever reason. "She's rubbed off on me over the years," she says. "I kind of hate it when she stonewalls, though, so I hope I've also picked up some of her better habits."
"I’ve never wanted you to be anyone else," Clint tells her. "You know that, right?"
"I know," she says, more gently than he deserves. "I know that. Come on, it's never been a question of that."
"Not ever, Laura, I swear to God," he repeats.
"Oh, honey," she says. "I figured out a long time ago that hating Nat wasn't going to help anything. She’s too much a part of… at some point, it would have been the same thing as hating you. And I don't hate you."
He closes his eyes. "Maybe you should."
"Maybe I should," she agrees. “But I don’t.”
He’s been drinking straight from the bottle for the last hour. He brought a glass as a vague gesture at being sort of civilized, but he chucked it against a palm tree. It felt good to watch something shatter.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he says.
She nods, but continues picking her way across the tiling carefully, climbing in precise movements. Which is stupid, since they both know she could have already boosted herself up and flown to his side. It’s not like she can fall in a way she can’t immediately right.
When she settles herself beside him, she reaches to take the bottle, so he moves it out of her range. “No. Mine.”
“You have had too much,” she chides.
“Not enough,” he growls, not looking at her. He’s squinting out at the palm tree; there’s a fine mist of shards still clinging to the place his glass broke against its trunk.
He wishes he’d brought up a few more.
“Endings are always hard,” Wanda says softly.
“Oh, what the fuck would you know about it?” Clint snaps, and when she flinches – he’s not nearly drunk enough to excuse being an asshole, so he clenches his fist and tries to start over. “Sorry. I didn’t – now’s not a great time for platitudes.”
“I didn’t mean it as a platitude.”
You’re barely over twenty years old. There are exactly zero ways for you to talk about divorce without platitudes, Clint thinks, but at least this time, he doesn’t let it loose. He grunts and takes another slug from the bottle instead.
Wanda clears her throat. “What would be helpful, then? If there’s anything…”
“Want to blast me out of my brain for awhile?” Clint says sardonically. He’s not entirely joking. “Make me think I’m twenty-two and off surfing Playa Grande?”
“Do you surf?”
“Did you when you were twenty-two?”
“Sometimes I know things that I don’t mean to know,” Wanda confides abruptly. “With people - sometimes things float to the surface and it is as though there is a billboard, suddenly, in my whole field of vision. I do not go poking and prying anymore, but if a thing is in front of me, what can you do but read what’s there to be read?”
Clint chucks the top from the Maker’s bottle against the palm tree, looking to hit the same spot. The red waxy cap beans it dead center and drops away, lost somewhere in the foliage below. “This your way of telling me I’m flashing you?”
“I have done awful things,” she tells him. “Very deliberately. With intention, I have done awful things. If I have tried to make restitution, I still never forget. I think sometimes you and Natasha are the only ones who do not forget, either. I feel safer, in that. With the people who know what I am and what I’m capable of when I’m angry enough, and who do not look away from it. Or pretend it was some fluke or accident. And who seem to like me anyway.”
Wanda puts her hand on his. Her skin is soft and warm, and something painful is crawling up the back of his throat as he looks at her.
“And that’s not wrong,” she says. “It is not wrong to decide you have to be in the place you are understood. Where you can live as the person you are. That is all I meant to say.”
She seems to know that it’s impossible for him to say anything in response to that, so she lets go of his hand and stands up. “I’ll give you another hour,” she says. “Then I am coming back to take the bourbon away for the rest of the night.”
Or at least, Clint’s pretty sure that’s his intention. He’s fucking it up pretty badly, which is the only reason Clint’s still listening; it’s coming out vaguely hilarious instead of massively insulting.
“I’m not saying Nat can’t take care of herself,” Steve says, for the third time.
Clint nods earnestly, then tilts his head to the side like he’s a little confused. The longer he keeps playing dumb, the redder Cap’s ears turn, so it’s kind of become a game within a game at this point.
“Or that she can’t make her own decisions, and I don’t want it to sound like I’m – obviously, I’m not saying that I know what’s best for her. I would never assume that,” Steve says.
He’s shifting his weight around now. It makes him look sort of like a kid who badly has to pee.
The sentiment he’s dancing around here is hurt her and I’ll stuff your own entrails down your throat, and if they were discussing literally any person other than Natasha Romanoff, Clint’s pretty sure Steve would have had zero trouble making himself clear in under twenty seconds. He’s not somebody who has a problem with threats. He really has no problem putting himself between somebody he loves and any possibility of pain.
Which – weirdly, is the other reason that Clint can’t find it in himself to be angry with Steve for this big-ass overreach. Steve’s uncomfortable trying to say it because he gets Nat.
He genuinely gets her. It took awhile, but Clint’s finally convinced on that front.
Steve understands her enough to know that this is not something she would appreciate, from anyone, but he loves her enough that the idea of not stepping in if she’s being set up for a fall feels like letting her down in an entirely different way. Sometimes that’s what being friends with Nat means: fighting protective impulses if there’s even a chance she’d feel like those impulses were overriding her own agency.
Clint’s been here. He’s been here every time he overheard assholes in the SHIELD locker rooms saying the things assholes say. Every time he’s been perched on a rooftop two blocks out with a growing sense that he should swoop in even though she hadn’t given a signal indicating she needed it.
He’s spent the last year being darkly, uncomfortably jealous of Steve’s place in her life, like he’s one of his kids not wanting to share space on the same couch. This is the first time he’s anything close to glad that she had him around.
Steve’s shoulders slump. “What the hell do I know,” he mutters, more like he’s talking to himself than Clint. “I haven’t been making her life easy lately. I just think maybe you don’t understand how easy it is for you to hurt her. I know you don’t mean to. Just – if it were me, I’d want to know. I’d want to be able to look out for it.”
A couple months ago, Clint would have found the sentiment patronizing as fuck.
Today, he just nods. Maybe it’s the graduation goggles. They’re all about to split up and who knows when he’ll see any of these people again.
But right now, he feels like he can give credit for good intentions. He can’t afford a lot of stuff, but generosity is a thing that comes cheap and he can pick it up in bulk.
“I get you, buddy,” he says. “I really do.”
Sam’s goatee was shaved. So was his head. “I see how it is. She’s still pissed off about that time I yelled at her,” he’d said glumly, which had made Steve laugh – the first genuine laugh any of them had heard out of him in over a month.
Clint’s was the least transformative. His photo only had a pair of wire-rimmed glasses and a couple days worth of stubble. He recognized it for the compliment that it was; Natasha knows she doesn’t need to give him pointers on how to blend. She trusts him to know what he’s doing.
His photo also meant that he could leave as soon as he wanted.
He can read into that, too. Even once he showed up in Germany, she’s done nothing but try to push him back to Iowa and away from her. And he gets it now.
Steve was right.
Which is the worst sentence in the entire world, but Steve was right, and it had fueled Steve’s glare when he caught them on the bed together. It was there in every single time Steve refused to go put her on the phone in the last year, whenever he swept her off for a private Cap & Black Widow strategy session.
If Clint’s missed it, it’s because he hasn’t wanted to see it: Natasha has been hurting, too. Steve hasn’t been trying to get in Clint’s way. He’s been trying to get between Nat and something that he had watched, up close, hurt her, over and over again.
The way things have been for the last year aren’t something she’s doing to Clint as much as they are something she’s needed for herself.
This has been killing her the same way it’s been killing him, and he was too afraid to look it in the eyes. It’s easier to let Nat inflict shallow cuts across his body than let himself believe he’s ever inflicted one back, because when Nat’s in pain –
When Natasha is in pain, it overrides everything else in his world. It always has.
For the first time since the day they met, Clint is unsure of what to do. If he should go after her immediately or if some breathable space is the right thing. It’s not like she’s been sitting around openly rooting for Laura to leave him; even once it became relatively obvious that ending up on the island meant he was very likely back in the avenging game for good, Nat didn’t believe it.
She couldn’t let him come back if it was temporary, because she had already had to say goodbye once.
He can’t fucking believe it took him this long to understand.
And even when he knows this split is, ultimately, the right thing, it’s not easy or straightforward or painless. He doesn’t know how he’s supposed to present the situation to her – “hey, good news, Tasha! I’m getting divorced from somebody you genuinely like! And I fucked up everything for my family – right, yeah, those kids you love, might not get to hang with them for awhile – but that means you and I are good to rock and roll again! Yeah! Hawkeye and Widow, back in action!” seems like it’s maybe not a great track to take.
He wishes she hadn’t gone to New York. It might have been less messy if she’d stayed. If she’d been present for the fallout.
Also the weather’s nice there, and the idea of eating his feelings in the form of endless fried mashed potato balls is the silver lining on the shitcloud that he’s been searching for.
Maybe not even silver. Maybe it’s just tin.
Either way, it’s good to know he can still look forward to something, and right now, that something is fried mashed potato balls.
With the long, circuitous path it takes him to get where he’s going, food is the first thing he heads for once he finally ends up in Spain. His Castilian accent isn't as flawless as Nat’s, but it’s still pretty good.
Which means the waiter at this tapas place is giving him that look entirely because he just ordered four dozen potato balls to go.
“And three bottles of Estrella Galicia,” he adds. “Cold, if you’ve got them.”
The waiter relaxes, probably because this makes it seem more like Clint’s picking up food for a couple people instead of the actual plan, which is to get to his place in Poble Sec and climb in the bed with one of the beers and the entire hot, greasy bag of fried goodness.
He will then fall into a heavy, carb-induced sleep, wake up, eat three cold potato balls for breakfast, and then start the business of trying to figure out what the fuck to do with himself now.
It’s a little strange to be back in a city after so long away. The farm was always endlessly secluded and Tony’s island was more of the same. He feels slightly out of step as he rides on the bus with his takeout in his lap, surrounded on all sides by people. Silent workers who are just trying to get home at the end of a long day with their earbuds plugged in or books open on their lap, friends happily chattering with each other, shoppers with string grocery bags bursting with vegetables at their feet.
He traveled all the time for work, more than he did anything else. It feels like such a marker of how long he’s really been gone, that a thirty-minute bus ride with strangers is bordering on sensory overload.
It’s another fifteen minutes from the bus stop to his small house. Clint honestly can’t remember the last time he was here; there are a couple places around the world that he bought sight-unseen for just such an eventuality, but he knows he’s been to this place at least once before.
He’s expecting to find a thin layer of dust on everything and that musty, unused scent a place grows when it’s been vacant for awhile. It’s a pleasant surprise that it’s clean and smells vaguely like somebody’s recently thrown a fresh coat of paint on the walls.
It doesn’t set off any internal warning alarms. People who are tracking somebody down rarely stop to do a quick remodel on a suspected hideout.
There are a handful of safehouses that he and Nat chipped in on together: this was one of them, and even if it wasn’t, they’ve always operated on a what’s-mine-is-yours system as regards places to lay low. It’s not the first time he’s shown up somewhere to see that she’s swapped out pieces of furniture, or replaced frilly curtains with wooden blinds, or forgotten a vase of flowers now mummifying in a windowsill.
She doesn’t do it everywhere, but sometimes she likes making decorative touches. These little bursts of impulse that mean no two places of hers have ever looked the same and make some of them feel more like a home than others do. It’s always sort of reminded him of the way he constantly remodeled the farmhouse, and in spite of everything, it makes him smile to see the evidence that she’s come through here at some point in the last year, even without him.
The walls are sea-green with metallic gold stenciling softly laid over, only half-done. There’s a dropcloth kicked into a corner with some trays and rollers, both caked with dried paint that matches the color of the room. Probably a project she got bored working on midway through. He likes it, though. It makes one wall look sort of like a giant mermaid tail.
Maybe that can be the big plan for what he does to kill time. Go buy some paint and finish off the walls. It’s as good an idea as anything else.
He makes a quick inspection of everything else he’s got on hand, mildly cheered to find a cache of throwing knives under the bed and a collapsible bow hidden in one of the closet panels. Six withered lemons in the fridge, a few canned something-or-others in the pantry. Fully stocked on toilet paper, toothbrushes, toothpaste, bar soap, shampoo.
With nowhere to be and nothing else to do, he pops the top off a beer and opens one of his bags. They had to farm his order out into three separate ones. Which he gets, because forty-eight fried potato balls is a lot to fit into one sack, but still, that’s a mild hit to his dignity.
The fact that he has no weapon on him is another hit to his dignity twenty minutes later, when the door opens and a tiny knife whizzes through the air, directly at his face.
He lunges out of the way in time, but grease and self-indulgence slow him down enough for the blade to hit in the fleshy part of his shoulder, thrown strongly enough to stick him even through his jacket. He heaves a grunt and yanks it out, rolls forward into a defensive position.
It’s a blonde in a long black dress and heeled boots, and he springs up and propels himself forward to slam her into the ground. He flips the knife to his left hand as she reaches to swipe it, presses it up against her windpipe –
And the next thing he knows, he’s on his back in one twist of her lower body, thighs clamped around him. He swings out wildly with the knife – doesn’t want to kill her before he’s asked a couple questions, but she’s not really leaving him a lot of options, but her grip is iron and as she pins both his hands to the ground above him, he finally sees her face.
She sees his at the same time.
Which is good. It would suck if they’d come through Germany only to accidentally kill each other in Spain.
“Barton?” Natasha says, utterly flabbergasted as she stares at him with wide eyes. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Apparently,” he croaks, “showing up too late to stop you from making a really fucking terrible hair decision.”
Natasha’s nails are digging into his wrist. There will definitely be marks later; she finally seems to realize it and lets go, rolling off his body. He sits up and flexes his hands, shaking them out a little.
“So, uh,” he says, dumbly. “You want a beer?”
“You want some stitches first?” she asks, nodding at the place where he seems to now be bleeding somewhat profusely through his jacket.
“Stitches might be good,” he agrees.
“First aid kit’s in the kitchen.” Her mouth twitches as she stands up. “Too bad you were an asshole about my hair. I could have made this painless.”
Whatever else this is going to be, Clint thinks as he watches her walk to the kitchen, I’m pretty sure ‘painless’ is not an option on the table.
As is no longer a surprise: one more chapter coming after this one. And thanks for bearing with me while this part was delayed by a week so I could write a super self-indulgent Marvel/Game of Thrones oneshot, I was briefly possessed. Also, it was suggested that I tag this work Clint/Laura - I don't know how I feel about that, as I'm generally a person who tries to use tags sparingly and I don't really like tagging for things that aren't the center of the story, so that one might get removed. But if anyone feels moved to make a strong case one way or the other, I like thoughts!
Natasha knows it was Laura’s idea to name their new baby after her. She’s also always known why.
After the fall of SHIELD, the Avengers had been busy. They’d been having fun – Natasha would never deny that. Some of them had taken this job on because of owed debts and a need for greater purpose, yes, but none of them loathed what they did. On some level, every one of them enjoyed the work for what it was, and besides that: there was special pleasure taken in the knowledge that right then, “the work” had equated to “relentlessly kicking the shit out of Nazis”.
Every single one of them had felt great about that.
They had also been overwhelmed and overworked, even with Tony out of retirement. Even once Thor had turned up, with his boisterous good cheer and desire to assist in any way he could.
It was an enormous undertaking. In the scramble for every single other world security agency to get their shit together in the wake of SHIELD’s collapse, their team was the first line of defense. Indisputably the most effective at actually smashing the cells they went after, once they’d been confirmed and rooted out.
All of which meant: nobody was taking a lot of breaks.
Clint hadn’t made it back to Iowa for over two months before he finally begged off for a visit. He’d timed it well, a quiet period where they had no current leads firm enough to move on, right after a massive undertaking in Denmark that they were all thrilled to put behind them. Everyone was using the pause to catch up on their own lives.
The night before he planned to leave, they ordered pizza and ate in his room in the Tower. Clint’s luggage consisted of two duffle bags patched in places with duct tape; she had been keeping him company while he threw an ungodly amount of dirty laundry into them. “You look like a college kid heading to his mom’s for Thanksgiving break,” she teased.
He grinned and chucked a filthy sock at her face. She swatted it out of the way with the back of her hand, protecting her slice of pizza. “That’s because I steal your fancy moisturizer,” he said. “Keeps me youthful and glowing.”
“It’s two hundred dollars an ounce,” she told him. “If you’re stealing it, you’re chipping in next time I run out.”
“I thought our entire relationship was conducted on a foundation of what’s-mine-is-really-ours,” Clint said. “Like, for example, this pizza.”
“Well, with your stuff, sure. Obviously.”
Clint laughed. “On that note – you coming with? Probably should have asked sooner, but since I know you pack fast…”
It had still been something of a novelty to even vaguely hint around his family while they were in the Tower, back then, but she had brightened at the idea. She hadn’t been looking forward to trying to keep herself occupied while he was gone; Tony and Bruce were using the time to deep-dive into their own research, Steve and Sam were catching up on Project Bucky, and she didn’t have the stamina to play Midgardian tour guide for Thor right then.
She needed a break that was a real break, too, and the farm had always been their mutually preferred location for that. It was nice, that he’d just assumed she would be coming with him. What’s mine is ours.
“Absolutely,” she said, smiling. It was close to apple season, and Lila liked it when Natasha carried her on her shoulders out to the orchard, where she could pick the low-hanging fruit. Cooper claimed he was too big for that now, but he would still tag along so the three of them could play hide-and-seek in the trees.
Soon they’d both probably be too cool to play hide-and-seek with Aunt Nat. She didn’t want to miss out entirely. And a slow, sleepy week or so in Iowa sounded like exactly the cure for the breakneck pace they’d been riding out for the last few months.
For the first two days, it had been the same as it ever was. Two kids, Natasha had grown to understand, somehow entirely outnumbered two parents, so it was always a good thing to have a third person around to pick up slack. Someone to distract them with games, or help get one down to sleep, to take a turn cooking. Someone always there in case an errand needed to be run or someone wanted a little time to themselves.
Three adults versus two children was an infinitely less exhausting combination, and Natasha liked feeling useful. In every aspect of her life, she liked feeling useful, but there was something about it here, in this place – usefulness here was something she found quietly centering.
The farm was a place where a little girl snuggled on her lap while Natasha read storybooks to lull her to sleep. Where she dipped apple slices in peanut butter and tossed them on a plastic plate when a little boy came to her asking if she could fix him a snack. Where she ran around with two kids in an orchard, temporarily with no worries worse than someone maybe twisting an ankle, getting stung by a bumblebee. Sometimes it was even boring in Iowa, sometimes the nights were dark and humid, utterly silent and deeply dull, and she would sit on the porch swing with Clint enjoying the dullness, marveling at the ordinariness of everything. Carefully labeled leftovers in the fridge and hand-crocheted afghans on the couch, Lego pieces scattered on the floor and a washing machine chugging away in the background.
The Black Widow with her bloodstained hands was allowed to touch this life. Was welcome inside it, even, showed no demonstrable signs of not belonging.
Well – that wasn’t quite right. Natasha’s gift was to make it look as though she belonged anywhere, if it that meant wearing oversize flannel in a midwestern farmhouse filled with children, or dupioni silk and diamonds at a gilded opera box in Prague.
But it was one thing to give the appearance of blending in; it was another thing entirely to feel it as a personal truth.
The farm was never anywhere Natasha could picture herself existing full-time, as a baseline, but it was always so nice to have the assurance that this sort of life wasn’t entirely beyond her ken. It was a lovely thing, to know that. To look at everything there and see herself inside it and know that if she had been judged, she had not been found wanting.
On the third morning of that visit, Natasha had been the first one to wake – even before the kids, which was not an easy thing to time, but the sun had crept across her pillow and she’d finally woken well-rested; behold the effects of going to bed at the same predictable hour for a few nights in a row. She’d brushed her teeth, thrown her hair into a messy ponytail, and gone to the kitchen in her pajamas to start the coffee.
It was stuffy downstairs – Clint had clearly, once again, closed and locked all the windows, in open defiance of Laura’s preference (if Natasha privately agreed with him, she’d always gracefully bowed out whenever he’d tried to rope her into their eternal argument on the subject.) She went around and re-opened them, took a moment to admire the view; dewy fog rolling in over the fields, sun starting to slowly burn off any chill from the night. Condensation rolled in beads down the windowpanes and everything smelled damp and fresh.
This was another thing she had always liked about Iowa, the surprise of how consistently breathtaking it could be. So much of the Midwest was handwaved off – “flyover country”, Tony always scoffed - but it had a specific beauty all its own. Not showy or dramatic, but there was a rhythmic consistency to foggy-warm mornings and firefly laced nights.
She knew which cabinet the coffee was in; knew how to work the coffee maker, knew where the cups and spoons and sugar bowl lived. Knew how strong to make it without measuring, she could open the bag and shaking grinds into the filter by eyeballing, and when it finished brewing, filling the kitchen with a familiar morning-smell, she turned around to see Laura watching her.
Laura’s hair was brushed out smoothly and her face was clean, all the bleariness scrubbed away. She was wearing slippers and a blue terrycloth bathrobe, belted tightly around her; her hands found the edges of the belt and she tugged it a little more taut even though there was really nowhere left to tug.
Natasha felt acutely aware, suddenly, of her own pajamas – the loose cotton bottoms that bagged a little around her hips, Clint’s pants that she’d swiped ages ago and had double-knotted the drawstring to make them fit. The tightness of her tank, riding up just above her navel.
The fact that she wasn’t wearing a bra beneath it. Her breasts felt aggressively prominent, almost too big. How many early mornings over the years had she swanned around the kitchen this way? Why had she never just thrown one on before leaving the bedroom? She would never have walked out for a team breakfast in the Tower without a bra – had she been too comfortable?
There was no telling how long Laura had been standing there, but Clint’s frequent assessment of his wife as someone with absolutely no poker face was an accurate one. Something was happening in her eyes.
Natasha tried for levity: “Coffee’s not flavored or anything. I promise.”
Laura opened her mouth. Closed it, as though she was buttoning the words back, then opened it again. “He’s my husband, Natasha.”
It landed with the force of a grenade launcher. Natasha tried to absorb the hit; it was not the absorbable sort. It was obliterating. Blood and viscera were spattered on the cupboards behind her. The hole that opened inside her was wide enough to pass large objects through.
And Laura wasn’t done. “He’s my husband,” she repeated, still very softly. “It’s the first time he’s been home in months.”
The coffee pot beeped. It propelled her out of her stupor. “Yes,” she said. “I know.” What else was there to say?
Why hadn’t she realized this time, she was intruding? Why hadn’t Clint?
There were ways to save face, of course. There were ways to navigate it; this was not, by a long shot, the stickiest spot she had been in over the course of her life. There were ways to play this and things to say that would let both herself and Laura off the hook. Natasha knew every one of them.
But Laura was being honest.
Laura had chosen her words with extreme precision, and it meant that Natasha didn’t want to paper over the moment or smooth it away. Natasha had made a gaffe; she deserved to feel the full force of it. She owed it to Laura to not pretend otherwise.
But having boundary lines reinforced in places she hadn’t known they existed had hurt. Worse, made her feel stupid, and Natasha had always despised feeling stupid.
She hadn’t lingered after that. She’d gone back upstairs, had dressed quickly and packed faster. Clint had just been coming out of the shower, towel knotted around his waist and hair still soaked as she carried her suitcase from her room.
“We rolling out?” he asked. “Gimme two minutes.”
He was home for the first time in months. It had been just over forty-eight hours, and without a second of hesitation, he was ready to leave with her.
For one awful moment, some dark, ugly voice inside hissed do it. It would be that easy.
“Just me,” she said easily, ignoring the swelling in her chest, the raging small monster demanding blood for blood. “You’re staying here and having a nice, leisurely breakfast with your wife. Old friend called in a favor back in New York. It’s nothing big, but – ”
“Yeah, yeah, debts and debtors, I can whistle this thing from memory,” Clint said, smiling. “Sure you don’t want an extra pair of eyes on it?”
“I’ll pull one of the boys if I do,” she said. “You’re not my only option anymore, remember.”
“You’re rude as fuck and I don’t like you,” he teased, but his eyes went a little more solemn. “Just – you really do need a break, Nat, two days isn’t exactly…”
“I’ll wrap it up quick and use Tony’s black AmEx to book myself into a spa for a couple days,” she told him. “Massages. Aromatherapy baths. Salted caramel gelato.”
“Guess Iowa can’t compete with that,” he said – lightly, but she knew it wasn’t really a joke. He wanted her to stay – wanted her to come back when her business was concluded. Her answer was a disappointment.
“See you in a week, Barton,” she promised. “Tell the kids I said bye?”
“Be good, Tasha,” he returned, and disappeared back into his bedroom.
When she went downstairs with her suitcase, Laura had done a double-take; apparently, she hadn’t expected Natasha to depart within actual minutes. Guilt had crept across her face, readable as a book, and Natasha wanted to tell her she had nothing to feel guilty for. She had done nothing wrong. This was not in any way a ridiculous desire.
Laura was not the one who had overstepped.
“Oh - Nat,” she said, and it came out almost pleading. “I didn’t – stay for breakfast at least, please. I wasn’t trying to…I didn’t mean you had to… ”
“Don’t apologize,” Natasha said. She shrugged; a half-helpless what-are-you-gonna-do? sort of gesture, one that she hoped conveyed that she understood. Who couldn’t understand? “It’s your family.”
Not mine. None of it.
She’d flown herself back to New York. Bruce had been the only one around the Tower when she’d returned; for lack of any reason not to, they went for dinner together at a hole-in-the-wall Indian place in Jackson Heights. The food was scorchingly hot, enough to scald the bitter taste from her mouth, and their conversation had been easy and compatible. And he’d been surprised to see her back without Clint, which was when she’d realized he had been operating under the assumption that they were a couple – had always been a couple – and had gone on vacation together for some alone time.
She’d corrected him more sharply than had been strictly necessary.
In some ways, that had been the beginning of that: the first time they had really hung out just the two of them, and it had been perfectly pleasant.
Natasha had never brought it up to Clint, and she knew Laura wouldn’t. The next time she came, she’d restricted the visit to an overnight and made sure to run it by Laura before fully accepting Clint’s invitation.
When they’d told her that Laura was pregnant again, that they wanted to name this baby after her, she’d seen Laura’s achingly hopeful face, how hard she was trying to hold this out as an offering. There was nothing to do, really, but smile and say that she’d be honored, because she understood: Cooper and Clint, Lila and Laura, Nathaniel and Natasha.
This was Laura saying, in her way, that she hadn’t meant it: of course Natasha was part of the family. Would always be part of the family.
Even though she wasn’t.
It was a lovely gesture, it really was, but the truth here had already been laid bare.
Laura, it seemed, understood why Natasha needed to be part of the family. If she wasn’t, what she and Clint were, the way they worked together – it was several state lines over from ‘inappropriate’. There wouldn’t be another lens to view them through. ‘Family’ implied a safety net that ‘coworker’ couldn’t cover. Nothing dangerous lurked beneath the surface, if she was family.
It was a little like choosing the red pill in The Matrix. Once you saw it, you couldn’t unsee it, and their – confrontation? Confrontation was the wrong word, but Natasha’s never been sure if there was a better way to sum up that morning in the kitchen – their confrontation in the kitchen had been as close as Laura had ever come to acknowledging that at the very least, even if she wasn’t ready to take it, she was by now perfectly aware that the red pill was a thing that existed.
Natasha hasn’t been able to stop thinking about it. She’s been picking at it over and over, ever since she climbed into bed tonight.
How important it had felt to her, too, to be part of the Barton family. How much it had meant and mattered. How much she wanted it to be the truth. How much Laura needed it to be the truth. How hard Laura had tried to make it be. How genuine their friendship and affection for each other has always been over the years, when it could have so easily gone another way.
It all plays on a loop through her brain as she's trying to fall asleep next to Clint, which is probably not helping to quiet things.
There are two rooms in their house in Barcelona; there’s only one with an actual bed. Natasha’s been staying here for weeks and hasn’t changed the sheets in about as long, so she should technically have dibs. On the other hand, she did stab Clint earlier tonight, and it’s not like he lost a lot of blood, but still.
The injured person gets the bed. Pain is the trump card.
She’d debated sleeping in the armchair in the living room – the only other actual piece of furniture in here besides the kitchen table she’d picked out a few days back – but he’d made an irritable noise at her, and in the end, it would have made it stranger if she hadn’t just taken the other side of the bed.
And things have already been strange enough between them. They’ve shared close quarters before – they’ve shared beds before. Lots of times, and and neither of them have ever been particularly precious about it. Now’s not the time to start.
It’s just that tonight, she’s so entirely aware of him.
The warmth of his body next to hers, the way he’s sleeping curled on his side. She bandaged his shoulder after she put in a neat little line of stitches, and the gauze is still snowy-white and clean; not a trace of blood wicking through. He purses his lips every so often, but the rest of him is entirely still; Clint’s never been someone who tosses and turns, which has always vaguely surprised her. He’s always seemed to her like someone who should be a restless sleeper, a kicker, a cover hog, but when he’s out, he’s out.
Observing it always makes her feel like she’s learning something new about him, even though she knows this, has always known it.
Of course he showed up in Barcelona.
It’s not something as trite as fate, it’s not even coincidence, really, and it makes her angry as much as it feels like a relief at the same time: she can’t cut him loose anymore than she could her own body. She has tried so hard to avoid him, for so long, and this is where they’ve ended up. A cold year between them, a prolonged lapse of contact and Clint Barton and Natasha Romanoff still move in parallel on the same gravitational orbit.
He didn’t mean to find her. She didn’t mean to be found.
They just are. It just is.
His voice comes out gruff and grumpy, but he doesn’t open his eyes.
“No, I’m not,” she protests.
“GotosleepNat,” he says, and stretches an arm out to hook it over her hip. If he was more awake, more alert, she knows he wouldn’t have done it; he hasn’t swum to the surface of consciousness yet, still more asleep than awake, and she wants his arm to stay there so much that it feels like the only reasonable thing to do would be to push it away.
But she doesn’t.
“Barton, listen,” she starts. If he’s waking up, they may as well start digging in. She’s so out of practice at talking to him; ten months of weaning herself off this hasn’t been entirely for nothing. Or maybe it’s just that it’s a too-big topic in a too-intimate space. Maybe she would know where to plant her feet if the room was less dark, the bed a little bigger, if she didn’t want -
He drags her in closer, closer, until her back is against his chest, her ass fitted in the cradle of his hips. She yawns, suddenly, an overwhelmingly huge yawn that betrays how tired she actually is. Funny how that’s escaped her notice in all these hours she’s lain here, letting her brain spin its anxious spirals.
“Innamorning,” he says. “Wecandeal innamorning.”
She envies him his certainty. His sleepy faith that even after all this time, he can still believe that everything will be there, waiting for them to be ready for it.
Stupid. He lost some blood last night. He should have already eaten something to keep his energy up, and when she turns around to tell him so, she sees that he’s up, too.
Clint looks considerably more alert than she does, like he’s been awake much longer.
“I’m trying to get used to the blonde thing,” he says, giving a lock of her now-shorter hair a gentle little tug. “I don’t know how I feel. I took it pretty personally when Emma Stone went blonde, remember, that was a rough week for me.”
She rolls her eyes, too thick with sleep to come up with an appropriate volley, and sits up with her back against the wall. There’s no headboard: this had been one of their emptiest bolt-holes. When she’d arrived, the mattress had been on the floor with the sheets still in the bag they’d come in. She’d only decided to buy the springs a few days ago, on the logic that if she planned to stay awhile, she may as well not live inside an empty, sterile box.
“How’s the shoulder?” she asks.
“Fine,” he says with a shrug. “You do know I’ve been stabbed before, right? Couple times, even.”
Natasha hums something that might be an agreement, belied by the way she simultaneously peels the tape on one corner of the bandage back so she can peek at her work. “We’re putting some Neosporin on that,” she tells him. “If it gets infected - ”
“Nat, it’s not gonna get infected,” he says gently.
“No, it’s not, which is why we’re putting Neosporin on it,” she says, annoyed with herself for feeling guilty. He’d accidentally cracked her in the face with his bow once during a combat simulation. It had nearly broken her jaw and had left her with a red welt on her cheek that concealer did nothing to hide for a full three days, and they had only ever laughed about it.
Things like this happen every now and then. No permanent damage done. She’ll still feel better once she’s put some antibacterial ointment on it.
“What do you want to do today?” she asks.
She doesn’t mean it as an evasion. Not even as a stalling tactic, really, because with global circumstances being what they are and an indefinite period of time stretching out in front of them, they aren’t going to be able to avoid a year’s worth of words spilling out. Everything he wanted to drag into the open when they were on the island – well, it’s nothing she can counter, now, if Natasha knows nothing else, she knows when she’s been outplayed.
But it’s one o’clock in the afternoon, it’s a beautiful day on the other side of the bulletproofed windows and there’s a whole city outside. She’s been enjoying Barcelona. She’s been making a concerted effort to use this time for herself before she starts trying to think her way back onto a path, and she’s not quite ready to…
Maybe she does mean it as a stalling tactic. It comes in waves; last night, she’d been ready to open the floodgates, but in the light of day, it buttons itself back so neatly.
Clint’s usually so game to let her set the tone they’ll follow, vestiges left over from their earliest days when he had to be patient if he wanted to coax anything at all from her – what sort of music she liked, what she wanted for dinner.
She’s expecting him to say the chocolate museum, or walk through Park Güell, or going to the corner café for sandwiches.
She’s not in any way expecting what happens next.
“We decided to get divorced,” he says.
There’s a faint ringing in her ears. He keeps talking.
“Apparently Laura can get it done even if I can’t sign, there’s a thing she’d Googled – she came to the conversation prepared. It’ll mean she has to do everything herself, but that’s pretty emblematic of most of our marriage, so. We’re getting divorced. It’s a done deal.”
Natasha opens her mouth; he’s not finished.
“There were things that we weren’t going to fix. It’s not because of you,” Clint says. He looks her straight in the eyes, head on; in this moment, he is entirely fearless. “It’s also not not because of you. It’s years past time for me to have told you that.”
It takes a minute for her to understand that this is the point where she’s supposed to say something.
“Do you have thoughts on this?” he eventually adds.
“Yes,” she says.
He waits expectantly.
Natasha’s limbs feel stiff, robotic, but when she gets out of the bed, she doesn’t appear to be moving any differently than usual. It’s a strange sensation, as though half of her has floated out of her body while the other half is being tethered to the ground by slabs of granite.
“I think I’m going to take a shower,” she says. “And I think you should find us something better for lunch than cold mashed potato balls.”
His brows furrow with confusion. “Nat?” he says, cautiously.
“Those are my thoughts,” she tells him, and walks out of the room, cloaked in that weighted-floating feeling, the tips of her fingers numb with it.
Sorry for the delay on this one, guys! Occasionally real life demands all of my attention, it's the worst. But we're still rolling along with this one, I promise - next part coming as fast as I can write it.
In retrospect, Clint probably could have handled that better.
At the very least, he could have worked up a respectable preamble. The original plan hadn’t been to redefine the meaning of the word “blunt”. It really hadn’t been to drop it on Natasha like some kind of cast-iron cannonball, before they’d even had breakfast with her feet still tucked underneath his knees. Not when she was touching him, finally, at least that was back in play. She’d slid her cold feet in the bend of his knees as soon as she’d sat up and he was pretty sure she wasn’t even aware she’d done it, which is the way it’s supposed to work, with them.
But as soon as she’d asked “what do you want to do today?” something inside him snapped.
She was closing every open door. Still. Circumnavigating around any indication that they’ve ever actually mattered to each other. He was not going to spend the day being dragged to the fucking Gaudi apartments and feigning interest in mosaic lizards with an ocean of unspoken words between them.
He couldn’t spend another second pretending like any of this was normal behavior.
It had taken an entire year to for him to hit his limit, but that was it, that was the wall. No more of this cool, collected, nice-working-with-you-Agent-Barton shit. Nope. He was done. Finished. End of the fucking line.
He probably shouldn’t be surprised that it did not go over great.
It’s not-NOT because of you.
Honestly, what the fuck. He couldn’t have come up with something worse to say if he’d actually sat down and written out multiple pitches in a document titled The Stupidest Things I Could Say To Natasha.
Because for all it was the truth – it was still just one part of the truth, and it wasn’t even the biggest.
He could have told her this would have happened even if you never existed, Tasha. If all those years ago I’d put an arrow through your eye and never lost sleep over it, if I had lived the last ten-plus years without knowing how colorless your absence was making them, I still would have woken up one day and wondered how the fuck I had ever found myself on that farm. I wanted it to be right. I spent so many years trying to prove to myself I could exist in that kind of life that once I had it, I never I asked myself if I actually wanted it. Laura and I had an expiration date from the day we met.
He could have told her I’m not asking for anything from you or I know this is a lot to hear or I’m so fucking sorry everything with the team has been blown entirely to shit or cutting me out of your life with no discussion was a real dick move even if you WERE hurting, maybe let’s talk about never pulling something like that again.
He could have, at the very least, given her breathing space between my marriage is over, this is ultimately a good thing and how he’d essentially followed with I’m not positive how long I’ve been in love with you, but since some shit’s been thrown into sharp clarity here, if I had to ballpark it, I’m pretty sure the answer is ‘since about six months from the day we met’.
Instead, he blurted out something designed to force a response, when he knows better than anyone that Natasha has never behaved predictably to someone trying to force a reaction from her one single time in her life.
He’d consider saying any one of those much better options now, but the shower is still running and has been for almost a half an hour. Maybe she’s trying to drown herself in it just so she never has to look at him again.
Clint would kind of like to drown himself for that same reason.
Clearly, she’s not planning to come out of there until he’s gone, and it’s not like she didn’t give him a specific errand to go handle. The food situation around here really is embarrassing; Natasha is no kind of cook and she never has been. Left to her own devices, she’s a grazer – popcorn and pieces of whole fruit, tuna out of a can, broccoli out of a bag. Clint’s always found it funny how she has scores of patience for everything else in her life, but the kitchen is the place it shorts out.
If it was any other situation, he’d be finding a grocery store or a nearby market or something; Clint actually kind of likes cooking, and he doesn’t get a chance to do it that often. Whenever they find themselves in situations like this, in holding patterns, that’s usually his responsibility.
Probably not something he should do right now, though. It doesn’t really feel like a great time to spend a leisurely afternoon picking out vegetables, but she did pretty much tell him to fuck off for awhile.
He pulls on his jeans and bloodstained shirt with the knife slice in it, hoping his jacket covers the worst of the mess, shoves a fistful of euros in his back pocket, and bangs the front door loudly, obviously when he leaves.
It’s not a very long line. All things considered, having to wait twenty-five minutes to pay for bocadillos that’d usually take ten is not some kind of human tragedy. It shouldn’t even be particularly rage-making, and more than that, patience is normally a quality Clint would ascribe to himself. He’s a sniper; perfect shots are not always things that create themselves. Angles can be bad, targets can move, wind can blow backwards.
Patience is not a virtue; patience has been a necessity.
An archer is not someone born wielding a bow; it’s not a talent that anyone is gifted with out of the gate. It’s strained muscles and ripped, bloody calluses. It’s shots gone wide and badly calculated trajectories. Patience is what keeps someone picking up a heavy, antiquated weapon until it functions as an extension of his own body.
Children are endlessly needy. They shriek and scream and refuse food you’ve slaved over and smack you in the head with their toys; they make messes and refuse to get dressed when you’re running late. They refuse to go to sleep when you need ten goddamn minutes to yourself, they don’t listen when you’ve explicitly told them to do something you know full well they’re capable of doing. Patience is what keeps a parent from terrifying children for behaving like children.
An assassin can corner his target in an alley, incapacitate her legs when he’s learned by now they’re her deadliest weapons. See her covered in blood that’s mostly not her own as she meets his eyes, knowing it’s her end and still fearless, still with a taut fuck you face. Know it’d be faster to nock and shoot and unfold the body bag in his pocket. Defection and rehabilitation will take months, maybe years. She doesn’t know how to interact with the world without clinical detachment. Patience is what made an assassin look at that woman and know, somehow, she would be worth every frustration and setback.
Everything in Clint’s life that he loves, everything that matters enough to hold onto, has come to him as a result of patience. It is not a thing he runs short on.
And the longer Clint stands here, customers creeping through the door at a rate ten times slower than they’re coming out, the more he can physically feel his blood pressure starting to rise. Tenseness creeps into the line of his jaw, the muscles in his back start to lock up.
It’s a slow rise, but it’s working its way methodically through him. When he finally gets through the door, the cashier greets him with a cheerful smile and he can’t force his face to do anything but snarl. Her smile vanishes. She visibly shrinks back from her register.
Stupid. Rule number fucking one, don’t give anybody a reason to remember your face, be polite but not memorable, and here he is snarling at a kid whose only crime is that she sells a decent open-faced ham and cheese sandwich. He’s not some asshole that can’t fucking handle being held up for a couple minutes and he knows how to put blame where it belongs.
Except that right now, he is so fucking angry that it’s all-consuming.
It’s sunny and warm in a gorgeous county with great food around every corner, maybe not Stark’s island-level of luxury but certainly more amenities than are ever actually guaranteed to be part of the safehouse package, his kids are safe and he’s not in prison under the ocean, and the fury that’s flooding his veins doesn’t give a shit about any of that.
His reserves of patience have finally been spent. There is nothing left.
Clint is not going to be the fucking bad guy. He’s not going to be the asshole while everyone else around him gets to be a martyr.
Natasha’s standing in that shower judging him? Then where the fuck has she been for the last ten months? She checked out. She cut him adrift like – like he’s just some regular person, like he’s some informant that outlived his fucking usefulness and she thinks she gets to pull this clinically detached I’m an objective observer, nothing more shit?
“Forget it,” he tells the bewildered cashier, and leaves without placing an order.
His pulse has worked its way up to his temples now, a furious drone of blood in his ears pushing past sense and good reason and he has been angry with Natasha before. Not often, but it’s happened enough that he’s comfortable wearing it. There has always been trust here; that is the baseline they have always operated from, trust that they could feel what they felt and whatever it was, they could work through it, that anger was as safe to show each other as anything else.
This feels like he’s gone a few levels past where he’s comfortable.
He storms back into the house and hurls the door closed behind him.
Natasha is standing on a stepstool in the corner of the front room. Her hair is soaked and streaming wet down her neck; the back of the shirt she’s wearing is damp all the way along her spine, like she hasn’t bothered to dry off since her shower. She’s got the stencil pattern pressed against the wall with one hand, a can of gold spray paint in the other. Her thumb is pressed over the nozzle, her aim careful and steady, but he can see her white-knuckling the can from across the room. The rigid precision of the way she moves the pattern sheet, the straightness of her back.
He has never seen anyone angrily stenciling a wall before. It’s really almost impressive.
“Fuck you,” he hears himself say.
Natasha blasts another spray of metallic gold onto the wall. “Fuck me?” she says with incredulity, without looking him. “What the hell is the matter with you?”
“What the hell is the matter with you?” he shoots back. This is a very circular argument they’ve fallen into. “You want to stencil the whole fucking city? That’s the priority right now?”
“Gotta do something when you’re not saving the world.”
“Right, and Leipzig – that was an example of you saving the world?” Clint demands. “Where I’m standing, that was the last time you strapped on some kevlar, so you might not want to start saddling up the high horse just yet.”
She drops the can; the sound it makes when it clatters to the floorboards is surprisingly loud as she steps neatly off the ladder. “If you really want to do this, if that’s where you want to start, then you’re setting yourself up for a loss out of the starting gate, Barton. You don’t get to talk to me about Leipzig.”
“I was on the ground,” he says. He clears the room in about three steps, stomping closer. “I was there the same as you were.”
“You know goddamn well it wasn’t the same as the way I was there,” she says – viciously, like she’s trying to take a physical bite out of him. “That was my team, and we played it wrong, but – ”
“Your team, really, here I thought we called ourselves the Avengers, not the Black Widow Brigade – ”
“You left,” she snaps. “There is no we. You left! You put it down and you walked away. That means you don’t get an opinion when – ”
“Oh my fucking God – you called me for my opinion!” he yells.
“Which you had no interest in giving until there was some perk in it for you!” she says, slamming the ball right back into his face. “Come on, Clint, you didn’t give a shit about the Accords, you didn’t give a shit about poor little wounded-bunny Wanda. If I’d asked you to suit up before Steve did, you would have happily backed Tony – ”
“That’s bullshit,” Clint seethes. “That’s bullshit and you know it. Wanda – ”
“Wanda’s gonna need to learn how to make her own decisions one of these days, and she’s not going to get there any faster with you and Steve and Vision buffering her on all sides, flinging your opinions at her before she’s formulated her own!”
“Are we fighting about Wanda or are we fighting about how I don’t give a shit about anything?” he says. “Just wanna make sure you don’t tap out in the first round, I’d hate for you to get sidetracked when you’re going for the jugular.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I’m just as happy going for a femoral,” she says. “You gave up your right to get involved. You don’t get to pretend the shit that was blowing up my life still affected you because you needed an adrenaline rush after sitting through too many episodes of Paw Patrol.”
“Fuck you,” he spits.
“Am I wrong?” she demands. “You could come up with something a little better than repeating ‘fuck you’ if I wasn’t – ”
“How long did it take you to write me off when I told you I was hanging it up? Right in that same moment or did you at least have to think about it for a couple days?” He’s moved across the room without realizing it, up in her face and she’s matching him toe to toe.
“I didn’t – ”
“You absolutely did and you fucking know it,” he says. “Did you think I just wouldn’t notice? Did you think that made it easier for me to go civilian overnight?”
“Oh, don’t you dare – it was not my job to help fix your marriage!”
“Clearly,” Clint snaps. “I thought it might be your job to not drop me like I’m some asset that wore out his welcome – ”
“What else was I supposed to do?” she yells. It’s startling, almost; what he told Steve a few months back was true, Natasha is not usually someone who yells. Not of her own volition, not unless she’s arguing with a person who’s made it clear they’d be more comfortable if she’d yell back. This is not a thing that she does of her own accord.
It should calm him down a little, to realize this means she’s at least as frustrated and furious and upset as he is. That wherever else they are, they’ve found themselves back on even footing, finally, and even if they’re ripping each other open, knowing where the damage exists means the damage can be repaired.
He’s not sure anything could calm him down right now.
“You don’t get to decide that we’re done,” he spits. “Not – no. I’m calling that right now, okay? Applicable going forward until one of us kicks the bucket - you don’t get to decide that you and me are just over and there’s not gonna be a fucking discussion about it. You don’t get to ghost me like I’m a shitty one night stand – I get a vote!”
“You voted when you retired!” Natasha yells. “You left me. Is that supposed to suddenly be okay now that Laura’s divorcing you? Am I supposed to be flattered that I’m your safety school?”
“Jesus Christ, Natasha, that’s what you think?” he shouts back, disbelieving. “You’re supposed to be this overachieving-ass genius-level spy and that’s the place you’re simplifying this down to?”
“Your wife’s had enough and suddenly you’re ready to slap an A back on your quiver – yeah, that’s what I think!” she yells. “Only there’s not a team left, Clint, there’s nothing here, and when the heat dies down and the thrill wears off – ”
“We are literally painting decorations onto a wall!” he thunders. “What the fuck kind of thrill do you think I’m getting out of that?”
Natasha’s lips work into a hard, taut line for a moment; when she releases, her mouth flushes from thin and white to reddened and full.
And Clint realizes in that same instant that he has become ferociously, painfully aroused.
Out of nowhere, like a lightning bolt has been jammed down his spine and lit him up, coating every nerve ending with desire. Her eyes are flashing, but her eyelashes are damp and he can’t tell if they’re wet from rage-tears or just the shower, but she is as close as she has ever been, red mouth and angry eyes but his Tasha and something has broken loose in his body that he’s spent over a decade boarding up, sealing off.
He will never be able to say who moves first: he reaches for Natasha at the same time that she jumps up into his arms.
Which is entirely fitting, really. That’s how they’ve done everything, when it’s something that matters.
Her legs are around his waist and he’s got one arm flexed under her ass, all it takes to help her keep balance when her thighs are that strong. He’s mauling her mouth already, or maybe she’s mauling his – it doesn’t matter, it will never fucking matter, she could kiss him bruised and bloody and it would still be Tasha’s mouth on his, burning him from the outside in.
He has avoided thinking about this scrupulously - kissing her. What it would be like and how it would go, and if he had ever let himself picture it – he’s glad he didn’t, glad it was a line he never crossed because it always struck him, somehow, that thinking about it would have been more disrespectful to Natasha than to his actual wife, which should have been a fucking clue right there – it might have been something very like this.
He might have never been able to fantasize about anything beyond filling the need in him, whatever shape it took.
And this need is more enormous than he could have ever believed. He is ravenous. He didn’t know that this kind of cavern had existed inside him, that it even could; he’d never looked this closely at his own capacity to need and need and need. The corpse of his marriage is barely even cold, if a coroner kicked it, it might still give a weak little kick back, but it’s blown itself from his mind in a gale-force wind; he thought he knew everything about Natasha, and himself, and how they moved together. Now he knows there are volumes left to learn.
He presses her against the wall and twin shocks ripple through him, sparked up by the noise she makes and the feel of her breasts against his chest; even through clothes, it feels like enough to give him a heart attack, she’s not wearing a bra and she’s warm and those are Tasha’s breasts and this is allowed, this is –
They trip over the dropcloth and the paint cans upend themselves around his feet, sloshing their contents to the floor, but Natasha shifts her balance, swings and rolls weights them, so when they tumble to the ground, it feels intentional instead of an embarrassingly clumsy showing.
Her legs are still around his waist and she hitches herself up against him. There’s sea-green paint in her hair and streaking up his arms, and he’d usually say something wry and witty right now – it’s funny, it is, they look ridiculous and he wants to laugh with her, he wants to know what it’d be like to kiss her with laughter on her lips – but he’s terrified that if either of them speak, they’ll find a way to talk themselves out of this.
It matters more to kiss her again, hotter, harder, cradling her face in his hands and hoping against hope that his silence can be its own kind of eloquence. She’s never had trouble reading him before and if he was someone who prayed, it’d be a litany of oh please oh please let this not be different please oh please.
Natasha makes a noise against his mouth, a low little keen, and her hips hitch and roll against him again. He’s got a thigh between her splayed legs, he presses it up against her and rides out the wave of his instincts – she’s grinding down against him and pulls his hair suddenly, sharply, hard enough that his head snaps back from their kiss. It forces him to look down, where her eyes are blown wide, her mouth red and wet and just a little swollen.
“Wait, oh – “ she rasps, but she’s riding against his thigh as he pushes up again and he sees the moment it happens, the exact moment, there’s white all the way around her irises and her mouth is open in a perfect circle of shock.
He buries his face against her throat, nipping the skin there and busying himself sucking her pulse; everything about her face in that instant means Natasha needs a second to herself, she needs to check in with herself independently of someone else’s input and he can give her that, he’ll give her that and assume that since he just made her come through her fucking pants that it’s okay for him to keep his mouth on her while she takes that second.
The paint is still dripping onto the floor. He can hear it; there’s a perfect moment of stillness, and then Natasha turns them with her thighs once, twice, as they roll through the mess on the floor and end up in the same position. Messy and streaked with color, rutting against each other as Natasha chooses to stay underneath him, with his full weight resting against hers.
Clint can’t remember conscious thought. He doesn’t know anything but what’s before him and he lets everything else blur to the background; common sense and rational thought, what’s right and what’s fair and rationalizing the rules.
Instead, his paint-stained hands catch the collar of her shirt. He rips it right down the middle without hesitation and decides he’s dedicating the next several hours of his life to keeping his mouth on her tits.
But they don’t talk.
Words would send them crashing back down to earth well before they’re ready to return to it.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise. He assumed that when he woke up, she would be gone. Which didn’t actually mean he would be okay with it, but he knows her; Natasha is no coward, and Natasha is usually someone who prefers to face things dead-on. When she runs from something or tries to duck away, though, she can always find a way to rationalize it, phrasing it as the sensible option for everyone involved in a way that’s makes it hard – or impossible – to marshal an opposing argument.
Part of him was expecting to wake up to a note. Braced for it, even, and figured the best he could hope for would be that she’d only left the house for awhile – a week or so, maybe – and not Barcelona in its entirety.
When he walks to the kitchen for some water, still in his boxers and thinking vaguely about getting cleaned up, she’s there.
Sitting at the kitchen table in her underwear and covered in about as much dried, cracking paint as he is. It’s flaking off her body in little chips, dusting the floor and the chair and even the table, a little. Her underwear looks clean and new; there’s beard-burn on the tops of her breasts visible just over the bra cups, which makes him feel equal parts abashed and turned on. She’s eating a grapefruit, peeling ruby-pink wedges of it back from the skin with the side of a spoon.
He remembers suddenly – not that he’s ever forgotten, but it’s a memory that comes on strong right then, born of association – how much he used to love the days when they’d turn up at the Triskelion together. Even strike teams occasionally had to fill out paperwork or sit through sexual harassment seminars. They both knew full well the reputation Natasha had cultivated, the awe that younger agents regarded her with.
They looked at her and saw an endless enigma. Natasha Romanoff was a puzzle that so many of them wanted to decode, to pull apart and put under a microscope until they could figure her out, and Clint loved watching them tie themselves up in knots over every observable behavior. If she drank coffee four mornings in a row and on the fifth abruptly made herself tea with honey, they’d rip into the significance of it, drive themselves batty wondering what this could possibly mean.
It never seemed to occur to anybody that sometimes it meant “Natasha felt like drinking tea this morning.”
To so many people, she’s never been just a person. Brilliantly talented, yeah, unparalleled in her field, a gifted chameleon, an accomplished liar, a whiz with languages and weapons and unraveling any target she set her sights on from the inside back out.
But that’s part of what makes her who she is; it all exists in the same sphere. She is more completely herself than anyone else he’s ever met; everyone builds themselves, in a way, but it’s a building that goes up over a lifetime, with most people doing it unconsciously. To Natasha, herself is someone she put together brick by brick, each one chosen and placed with absolute deliberation and awareness. She made a careful marriage between everything she had been and what she wanted to be.
She’s sitting here eating grapefruit wedges in her underwear, and if Clint was another kind of person, he would be trying just as desperately to decode this as those SHIELD agents.
It has taken him so long to be able to admit to himself that he loves her. He understands why, yeah, a whole fucking lot of things in both their lives pretty much depended on not falling in love, but he’s looking at her right now and legitimately cannot understand how he has ever managed to avoid it.
Natasha waves the spoon at him. “Want?”
“Yeah,” he says, sitting in the chair next to her as she unpeels another slice and hands it over. It’s sharp and sour on his tongue, almost unpleasantly so. “No sugar?”
“We don’t all have the palate of a six year old,” she says. Her legs are folded on the chair beneath her, otherwise he’d bump his foot against hers.
The silence as they eat is comfortable again. It feels like the hours after a thunderstorm; all the thick ugliness came to the forefront and washed back out, leaving the air clean again. He doesn’t think either of them is exactly going to apologize, because it’s hard to do that if they actually meant the things they said, but it’s gone, now, it’s okay that they’ve said them.
“Clint,” she says, after a few minutes. “What happened tonight…”
“I know,” he says, and reaches out to circle his fingers around her wrist, lightly.
“That’s not something that’s going to happen again,” she tells him. “Are we clear?”
She says it firmly; Agent Romanoff leading a debrief, he knows this voice. Whenever he’s heard it, it meant she was addressing an entire group before they dropped into a heavy-fire situation. It was never actually aimed at him.
“I’m going to say one thing first,” Clint says, calmly. He’s back on solid ground; however she wants to play this, they’re standing together. “I need you to listen until I’m done talking, though, is that okay?”
Natasha waits a beat, but she nods once, cautiously.
“It’s not like Laura asked for a divorce and I ran to you as a consolation prize,” he says. “I chose you and me the second I grabbed my kit and took off for Germany and we were barely even speaking then. If this is going to be messy and hard and shitty sometimes, you’re still the person I want to go through the messy stuff with. You always have been. Wherever we’re standing, you and I are on the same team. I’m your partner. If you never want to do this again, okay. But that part’s not changing. Not for anything.”
He can’t quite tell what the expression on her face is, but it doesn’t seem like she’s angry. That’s all he’s really asking for.
“I’ve missed you,” she tells him. Her voice cracks on missed and he wants to kiss her, badly, but he settles for squeezing her wrist tightly.
If they’re going to be anything, it has been and is and will always be on her terms before it’ll be on his.
Clint has always been fine with that balance.
Y'all aren't even surprised that there's more coming by now, are you.
Over the next several weeks, they fuck seventeen more times. Natasha knows it’s an arbitrary number, but after constantly telling herself this time was the last time, she is absolutely not doing this again, seventeen appears to be the number of times it took to make her resolve stick.
There’s also a chance she’s wrong. Yesterday, she had been sure the number was sixteen.
Then she’d walked into the bathroom to brush her teeth while Clint was taking a shower and somehow, abruptly, found herself inside it with him, one foot up on the bathtub ledge and bent in half while he fucked her from behind. It had felt like entering some sort of insane fugue state. She was putting toothpaste onto her toothbrush one minute, then: palms scrabbling for traction against wet tile with Clint pulling her hips in a rough, relentless rhythm the very next.
No clear memory of how, exactly, she had moved from the first moment to that one, like she’d casually skipped past a song on a playlist.
She knows the real problem, of course. She can always identify the source of a problem; when she has to turn razor-sharp insight onto herself, she can do it as easily as she can on anyone else.
It’s just that the problem is so embarrassingly base: for the first time in her adult life, Natasha Romanoff is drowning in lust.
This is a thing she has spent her entire career privately judging other people for; how easy it’s always been for her to lead a mark around by the hormones. She understands that desire makes people stupid and lowers defenses. She’s used it to her advantage more times than she possibly can count.
She just couldn’t relate. It has never been a thing that’s made her lose all willpower.
And it wasn’t for lack of experience, either. Natasha has had plenty of good sex. She’s had great sex, even.
But this is.
After defecting and coming to SHIELD, she’d gone through a slow and sometimes arduous process of finding an actual human being inside the titanium wreck the Red Room had built her to be. Some of the groundwork had been laid, yes; she’d been able to accept Clint’s offer because there was something of a foundation there. She’d cobbled it together in the ensuing years between fleeing the Red Room, burning it to the ground, and going to work for herself in a manner that had finally landed her on Nick Fury’s radar. But that foundation was new, and shaky, and obviously stunted, and with hindsight being what it is, she doubts that she would have gotten much further with it if she’d had to go on by herself.
The point is that she can, occasionally, have sexual hang-ups.
She’s not nearly too proud to acknowledge them and understand where they come from; it’s completely natural to have residual issues springing from half a lifetime being thoroughly convinced that her body didn’t belong to her, but if she has them under control, it doesn’t mean that they don’t still exist.
Growing up, she had been taught no limits. It was a phrase drilled into all the girls who survived; limits were not a thing allowed on an operation, because the job was to give the mark whatever it took to complete the job. Nothing was allowed to be distasteful. Nothing was allowed to be unpleasant.
She had been taught to have no limits; at some point, it had become the truth, and it had been an incredibly difficult lesson to unlearn. Her tryst with James had been enough to shine in a little light and give her a glimpse of what it was like to be more than a body encapsulating a fantasy, but it had taken years, and patience, and more than a few fumbles and false starts to arrive, firmly and feet planted, in a place where she understood - where she felt, that sex really could be for her, too. Where she could understand that it was all right – that it was encouraged – to ask a partner for certain things and say no to other ones.
It’s also why she’s always been extremely selective about her sexual partners. Sometimes the idea of having to explain this feels exhausting and more effort than it’s worth; sometimes these things are really just no one’s fucking business and she doesn’t want to detail it; sometimes she doesn’t want to see the look on a person’s face when she give a heads-up that, though it’s unlikely, she has the potential to fall into a headspace where she can forget she’s allowed to say no and may need to pause if she feels herself dropping into it, because she does not want someone who cares about her to feel they’ve dragged her to a place she didn’t want to be and had left herself behind on the way.
Navigating can sometimes feel like a minefield; she can sink into her own head and end up trying to see an angle until she’s twisted herself into a Gordian knot.
And while Natasha has had plenty of good sex, while Natasha has had plenty of great sex, Natasha has also never had what she’d describe as easy sex.
From the first touch of Clint’s mouth to hers, this has been dizzingly, gloriously, astonishingly easy. Addictively, thrillingly, uncomplicatedly easy.
What triggers could she possibly have to warn Clint about? What hard limits would he not already know? What uncomfortable conversations were even left to have? Pull the throttle and cut the brake lines and all systems are still a complete fucking go. She can turn off her brain. She can shut down her caution. She doesn’t have to do anything but feel, anything but lose herself entirely.
She has never fucked someone in her life that she has regarded with this kind of steel-forged trust. Anything she’s ever wanted to try, anything that would have lowered her guard too much – it’s on the table. It’s Clint.
It’s changed nothing, but it’s changed everything.
Natasha knows what Clint’s cock feels like inside her now, his thickness and length and preferred rhythms, she knows its weight on her tongue and his noises when fingernails gouge lines into his back, knows the timbre of his voice when it spills a litany of filthy encouragements, knows he likes to worry her nipples sore with his mouth and spread her open and just stare and can get hard again from nothing more than the sight of his own come streaking her thighs.
She’s trying to chop bell peppers while thinking her way back onto a rational plane; there is so much here, so much that she’s barely allowed herself to touch on, let alone brought up for the both of them to deal with. Chopping helps. She’s terrible at it, she’s hacking these peppers into oblong, mangled shapes, but the rhythmic thunk of the knife on the cutting board is like setting a metronome.
It’s enough to convince her that seventeen was enough to wash it from her system. She can drag them back into reality; she has to drag them back to reality. Call this nothing more than a lost weekend. A very long lost weekend, but it’s time. This has been going on for weeks and the only real conversation they’ve had about it happened after the first time, the paint and the floor and the total unmooring of a decade-plus of desire. They’re playing an increasingly dangerous game; there is every chance that they’ve made things irreparably worse, and the lack of willingness to discuss it between the both of them is not helping.
Natasha is not someone who behaves like this. This isn’t something she should have done so lightly. Or allowed to happen in the first place.
Her resolve to put this to rights is hardening when Clint comes up behind her and curves both hands over her stomach, rests his face against the back of her neck.
“Please,” he murmurs, low and hot against her skin. The tip of his tongue brushes the top of her spine; the handle of the knife slips from her hand and clatters into the sink. “Again.”
Her entire body throbs on three syllables. A cliché that she thought only existed in fiction, but there is no other way to describe what rolls all the way through her.
“Please?” he whispers, the edge of begging, oh God –
A whine spills out of her, instinctively, and her cheeks flush hot with color, an absolutely mortifying noise to hear herself make, as though she’s become a person that doesn’t know the first thing about control, and it causes Clint to actually rub himself against her ass, a desperate, graceless move that echoes the frantic need he’s suddenly stirred in her.
Natasha is drowning.
When she turns in Clint’s arms and meets his mouth without another word, as hungry for these kisses as they are for the rest of it, she wonders – briefly – if she even remembers how to surface.
He has one hand cupped between her legs and has for awhile, still moving his fingers against her in slow, rolling wavelike motions. Sometimes he eases them just slightly inside her; sometimes he rubs his thumb slowly across her pubic hair, or runs a knuckle against the crease where her cunt meets her thigh and along her folds. It feels good, a constant low thrumming buzz, but she doesn’t think he’s trying to get her going again, not exactly. It’s more…
Playing is an incredibly strange word to ascribe to it, but she can’t think of something more accurate. As though he’s trying to learn her cunt as intimately as he knows the rest of her. It makes her feel enormously fond of him and like she wants to roll her eyes at the same time.
Which seems about right for Clint, really.
He dips his head to kiss one of her nipples. “I could stop,” he offers, turning his eyes up to hers, lips still brushing the curve of her breast.
“No, you can keep going,” she says, her voice liquid and pliable as she reaches out to scratch her fingers against his scalp. “By all means.” The smile that stretches across his face can only be described as goofy.
This is her fault.
Clint had been direct and level-headed, honest and explicitly clear with her that anything that came next would be her decision. He wanted them to be partners again and would be fine with whatever form and shape it took. She could set the terms, the limits, the rules; she knew it, and she was the one who threw them all out the window because her body had shrieked so loudly at her brain to just, for once, shut the fuck up and not ruin this for me that it had been shocked into obeying.
“This is very literally all I want to do for the rest of my life,” he says, the words muffled by the fact that his face is now entirely between her breasts.
“We’re deep into autumn and the world’s still quiet, you might get your wish,” Natasha points out. “I guess it’d be okay with me. There’s probably worse exit strategies.”
He pinches her hip. “Thanks, Nat. Adequate, that’s the glowing review I’ve been aiming for.”
She smiles; she can’t help it, and strokes a hand familiarly down the back of his neck as he kisses her sternum, rolling some of his weight onto her and arranging their limbs so they’re curled into each other, close, comfortably.
Exit strategies. Retirement. Clint’s already tried that and it doesn’t seem like it took.
Those aren’t things she’s thinking about with any seriousness herself, not really – if it’s quiet now, they both know the drill. One day, the phone’s going to ring, the knock will hit the door, the call will roll in clean and unambiguous. Respites like this are never anything more than temporary.
Maybe that’s why she’s given herself over to it so thoroughly. Just because she can’t see the clock doesn’t mean it isn’t still counting down. Maybe part of her still believes that they’re going to fuck this out of their systems; when the timer eventually goes off, it will have burned out. Back to business as usual and they’ll pretend it never happened.
Or maybe she just doesn’t think any of this actually counts.
It’s a possibility she can’t discard; sometimes it does feel like they’re operating in a liminal space, like they’ve slipped into some alternate dimension where nothing’s quite real and it grants freedom from consequences. It would explain why Natasha feels less guilty than she expected she would; there had briefly been a massive amount, but after they rounded the corner on the third time (kitchen floor, Clint on his back, Natasha riding him like she was trying to crack him in half, both of them forgetting the windows were open and so loud that the neighbors now look impressed and admiring whenever they see them; Europe is great like that), it faded into something bleached out and pale.
The fact that he’s decided to get divorced is not immediate moral dispensation. Their speed would devastate Laura, and Natasha knows that. Deciding to call a time of death on their marriage was one thing, but even if Laura had resigned herself to the idea that there’d be a high probability of this, there is no way it wouldn’t feel like a full body blow if she ever learned exactly how quickly they dove on each other.
They’re like kids that begrudgingly ate all their vegetables and then demolished the entire kitchen table, with explosives, in their haste to get to dessert.
Of the two of them, Natasha’s always been the one willing to recognize that they betrayed Laura’s trust hundreds of other ways over the years. Allowing Clint to completely omit telling her anything about what Loki had done to him was potentially the biggest, but there are several other contenders for the title. Somehow this doesn’t feel like the worst of the bunch.
This is still unkind and ungenerous and hurtful. There’s no getting around that.
But if she’s always known that they brushed up against points where fucking had become an arbitrary line, she still wasn’t expecting crossing it could feel so arbitrary. Maybe that’s another reason why these weeks still shimmer with a patina of unreality.
None of her own actions and reactions have made any sense to her.
Clint nuzzles at her shoulder, bringing her back to the moment. “I’ve got a question.”
“Shoot,” she says, dragging the edges of her fingernails lightly along the nape of his neck.
“At the risk of sending this whole thing crashing to a screaming halt – I want it on the record that I’d like to avoid that – you know I’m gonna have to get your thoughts at some point. Right?”
Natasha sighs. “Come on, Barton.”
“I’m not saying it has to be this second,” he tells her. “Again, on the record, I am a man in the throes of some quality carnal bliss. And it’s not – it’s not like I don’t have a pretty good idea, Nat, and most of the time with you and me, we get each other enough that it’s fine to work on assumption. Every now and then, though – this is one of those times I’m gonna need you to actually weigh in. This matters too much for me to just assume we’re in the same playbook and everything’s cool.”
She tilts her head back against the pillow, focusing on the tin ceiling. This is such a weird house, all these surprisingly lovely details in such a small space. It was a good find, and she can’t remember which one of them picked it. She’s been racking her brains for this answer ever since he showed up – she can usually be relied on to keep track of these things – but it’s constantly eluded her.
“I am also,” he says, and a pause follows it, a hitch between words that tells her that this is the part that’s hard for him to say, “sort of worried that this time, we’re actually not in the same playbook. Which is why I’m trying to have this conversation.”
“I thought you didn’t need my thoughts right this second.”
“Yeah, that got away from me, I guess. Timing’s never been my strong suit unless I’m counting when to loose a shot. You know that.”
She does. What she doesn’t know is how to organize her thoughts right now, and it frustrates her.
How is she supposed to have objectivity when they’re in bed together? When they’re naked and his hands are running up and down the sides of her body, slow and soothing? How is she supposed to separate facts from feelings? Objectivity has never been a problem for her before – never with someone she was sleeping with, or interested in, and not even when it came to Clint; even when he had been compromised, even when there was a chance they could lose him, she did her job, and she did it well, and that’s what brought him back.
But something about combining these things, this added layer of intimacy and cloudiness, it’s making her totally unable to engage her ability to be coolly analytical.
It makes Natasha feel like she’s not herself, and it unsettles her. The closest point of reference she has for this is –
Well. It’s the weeks after Odessa, and while it presented itself with different symptoms, it feels the same. It’s the same sensation of being pushed just past the place where she can reach out and grab onto control, to steer the ship instead of suddenly realizing she’s only been dragged along for the ride.
Natasha is adaptable and has always played well with variables. She doesn’t need to have total command. But she doesn’t like situations that she has no ability to influence.
She’s startled by the way Clint suddenly pushes himself further up her body, looming over her briefly before catching her mouth, slow and deliberate and intense.
“I’ll drop it for tonight,” he says. “Tasha, I know how much we’ve gotta unpack, don’t think I’m entirely a moron, just – you know my bottom line.”
“No, I don’t,” she says. Her heart pumps an angry rhythm; she can feel it pick up speed, its slightly panicky hum. “Everything is such a mess, Clint, how can anybody have a bottom line right now?”
He shrugs. “Probably because I’ve had the same one for years,” he says. “I know everything’s a fucking mess and we’re not going to get to blow it off in Spain forever, but I’m saying – what if instead of choosing Steve or Tony, Avengers or no Avengers, whatever shit hits the fan, whatever comes next – we decide to choose each other.”
When he puts it that way, it sounds incredibly simple.
“And I already did,” he tells her. “The only thing I need to know is if you think you can choose me, too.”
Natasha takes his hand and tangles their fingers together. It’s the best she can do right now, in the absence of a better answer, in the absence of any explanation for why it is so impossibly fucking hard to just take the thing she wants. The thing she has wanted. The thing she has spent years refusing to entertain the idea of wanting.
No matter how many complications there are, Natasha is an operative and knows at a certain point, complication is another word for excuse: either do the thing or don’t.
All the same, it’s exhausting to reach age thirty-three and realize she’s not done unlearning shitty lessons. He knows she wouldn’t fuck him unless she actively wanted it; he knows she wouldn’t do something like that to him, to herself, to them, to what they’ve always meant to each other.
Can’t he let that be enough?
No one looks twice at the pale blonde in the long black coat – and the blonde in the long black coat is someone who would know if anyone was looking at all.
She’s been taking long walks during the day lately, sometimes long runs. She misses having access to a high-end gym, has thought more than once about signing up for someplace she could work out on aerial silks and dismisses it every time as too much of a giveaway. Those classes are things people take on a whim, for fun; if she gave herself the kind of workout that would qualify as an actual workout, people would notice.
Clint’s getting itchy, too, she can tell. Their skills are not things that are going to rust over after a fallow period, even if this one’s stretching on a little long, but still – they like what they do. They’re people who enjoy maintaining consistency, they’re –
She needs to stop thinking of herself and Clint that way. As a we, as an us.
(She’s always thought of herself and Clint that way. This is not an unusual term to think in. Why does everything have to feel so fucking weighted?)
And she did promise Tony that, at some point, she’d come back. She asked him to keep a seat warm and told him she only needed a little time to get her own head on straight. “A little” is stretching on at least a month longer than Natasha had assumed it would, and now that Clint is involved – Clint, who can’t go back to New York with her and pop into the complex without all hell breaking loose…
It’s a very extended calculus problem, and it’s not unsolvable – nothing is unsolvable – but it’s another thing frustrating Natasha: that she hasn’t been able to come up with the answer yet.
She stops to buy two coffees on the walk back, milky cortados that they’re both becoming slightly obsessed with; Barcelona had been such a practical choice, never a city that Natasha had any particular feelings on one way or another and it’s surprising to realize how much affection she’s come to feel for this city. There are places all over the world that she likes; there are places she’s tied to like New York and Iowa and even bits of Russia for the associations she’s formed with them, but she’s never really loved a city before. She’s never had the chance to try one on for size in this particular manner, not for a long time.
It turns out Barcelona is an easy place to love.
When she lets herself in with her key, she can hear Clint talking in the bedroom, probably on his newest burner; the door is open, so he’s clearly not angling for privacy, but she still decides to wait in the living room anyway. They have a couch now; it’s blue and enormous and hideous, but Clint brought it home after bragging about buying it off a guy whose girlfriend was going to make him throw it out, and she didn’t have the heart to say why in the hell is your callsign ‘Hawkeye’ if your vision convinced you anyone could possibly want this thing?.
So. They have a couch. And in all fairness, it’s pretty comfortable as she settles in to drink her cortado.
When he comes out, he looks unhappy but brightens a little when he sees the second paper cup in her hands. “Hey, for me?”
“Unless I decide to start double-fisting,” she says, and hands it over to him. He takes it with a grateful noise and sinks down onto the couch next to her; close, thigh to thigh. “Anything moving?”
“No, I was just talking to the kids. Caught them before they got the day started, it’s seven hours earlier there,” he says. “Laura was not, uh, super psyched about my timing. Apparently mornings on school days are very hectic around the farm.”
“I could have told you that,” Natasha says, a little amused, but Clint doesn’t seem like he’s up for finding the humor.
“Yeah, well, it’s not like I was a close contender for Dad of the Year anyway,” he says. “Forgetting their regular schedules isn’t the detail that shot my chances in the foot.”
“Don’t do that. You aren’t a bad father,” she tells him.
He closes his eyes and tips his head back against the couch. “I’m also,” he says flatly, “not a very good one. And don’t try to say otherwise, okay, Nat? We don’t lie to each other and you know this is more statement of fact than self pity.”
Natasha isn’t sure what she can say to that; he’s called it too accurately, and she doesn’t want to hurt him or offer him false absolution. She reaches out to card her fingers through his hair instead, dragging gentle lines along his scalp with the blunt edges of her nails.
He would play with her hair all the time, before - before, and it never felt overly familiar, but it was never something she did in return. This feels like another small bridge she’s chosen to cross, without entirely being aware she had done it until it was done.
“Are they doing okay?” she asks, after giving him a few minutes.
He exhales, a long gust of frustration. “They’re upset,” he says. “But – I don’t know. Laura thinks it’s more of a theoretical upset, where they understand that divorce is a bad thing, so they instinctively don’t want their parents to get one. But on a practical level, it’s not like their everyday lives are going to change. It’s not going to be that different from what they already know.”
“You think you’re really going through with it?” Natasha asks. “It’s not too late if you’re having second thoughts. I can’t imagine Laura’s actually filed anything yet.”
Clint opens his eyes. “Excuse me?” he says, a sudden vein of ice in his words.
“I…” she begins, and realizes she doesn’t have a follow up. “I don’t know. I guess I thought – ”
“You thought what? We’d hit a point where I’d go ‘thanks for all the sex, Nat, it’s been fun, but I’ve got it out of my system now, this’ll be our dirty little secret’?” he presses.
“I don’t have any more paint cans to kick over if we’re going to have a fight,” she says. “Don’t – don’t get mad at me for thinking it was a strong possibility.”
Clint lets out a long, low groan, like she’s kneed him in the solar plexus, and bends forward, tugging at his own hair in frustration. “See? This is why I wanted to have the playbook conversation,” he says. “Natasha, I told you. I’ve told you over and over – ”
“You have kids, Clint,” she interrupts, that same high, panicky feeling striking in the center of her chest all over again. “And they’re not mean little shits or annoying moppets, they’re just – really good, normal, lovable kids, and they mean the world to you. I did not want to get in the middle of something when kids were involved. I’ve never wanted that.”
“Tasha,” he says – and nothing in the world is more endearing, suddenly, than the way he sets his cortado down before he turns to her, takes her shoulders in his hands. “This sucks about the kids. I feel like shit about it, and I’m going to for awhile. But if I’m not great at the day in-day out dad stuff – I love them. And their mom loves them. And to the best of my knowledge, you love them, too.”
“Of course I love them,” Natasha says, because she does, so much, and not even just because they’re his.
“Then cool, when they grow up, we’ll have three people covering the cost of their therapy bills instead of two,” Clint says. “It’s fucking miserable, but Laura and I talked about this and we decided it’d also be miserable for them to grow up watching two people stay married who didn’t want to be. If there’s misery in either option, we chose the one that means it’s temporary instead of indefinite years of it.”
His thumbs are digging into the soft part of her shoulders, just a little too tightly; when he realizes it, he abruptly lets go and reaches for his cup again.
“I’m tired of you being endlessly reasonable about all of this,” Natasha says.
Clint snorts. “Well, if it helps, I said I don’t mind waiting and I meant it, but I’m not enjoying being the only one in this house who’s currently even a little emotionally grounded.”
“Hey,” she says, unexpectedly wounded.
“I’m not taking it back.”
“You know that’s not fair.”
“Oh, I know,” he says, unrepentantly. “I’m just still not taking it back.”
It’s Bucky, he tells Natasha. It’s Bucky, who’s apparently been sheltered in Wakanda all these months, but T’Challa reached out to let him know that things in his homeland are getting politically heated. That his doctors have also done as much as they can do, though Steve is unspecific as to what that actually means, and the king thinks it will be safer, for all of them, to clear out.
The subtext: faster would be better, and without knowing a lot about what kind of shape Bucky’s in, Steve would feel better smuggling him out of the country with Natasha on his side.
On the one hand, there’s part of Natasha that’s glad to get the call. It means Steve is – trying, at least, the same way they all are, he’s trying not to just keep it all in his own hands, he’s reaching out, and that counts for something, to her. It counts as a tacit admission that he knows there are things in the past he could have handled better, places he could have showed more trust.
On the other hand, James Barnes’s entire existence has become a sore point for so many reasons by now that there’s a tiny, self-preserving, deeply annoyed part of her that wants to say fuck off, no, I’m done with James-related favors.
Sam would approve, at least, a thought that makes her smile.
“Package deal, if you want me,” she tells Steve with her eyes on Clint, who’s silently been following along with the conversation when she put it on speaker. He doesn’t say anything, but he does wink.
This they don’t have to talk about, apparently, fine to make assumptions on their job plans. It’s only when they’re naked that Clint wants to cram ninety-minutes worth of dialogue. It drives her crazy.
Steve’s quiet for a second. “Barton?”
“Yes,” she says, neutrally, and in a manner that doesn’t invite further questions.
“Good. Three heads are better than two,” Steve says, apparently deciding to take the hint. “It might be a little tough getting in and out of there right now. T’Challa was very upfront about that.”
“Give us the specs,” Natasha says, and Clint nods his agreement. “This sort of thing used to be our specialty.”
I love all of you for sticking with this. Thank you for bearing with me on this long ride that is apparently not going to conclude until I'm on my actual deathbed. Sorry that I can't bring myself to label it 8/??? I just hate the question marks too much! I promise that when we're getting close to winding down, I will slap a definitive number in there!
The course of his life has taken him around the globe and back again, so Clint can say with some authority: he has never seen anywhere in the world like Wakanda.
Staggering natural wonders juxtaposed against the sheer scope of technological advancements – and those were just the ones visible on the surface level when they flew in – a nation entirely unconquered and uniquely its own has an impressive surface. There’s no real way for them to be inconspicuous here, which is a goddamn shame, because he’d love a few days to soak it all up.
And if he’s feeling an urge this strong, he knows this must be fucking killing Natasha. She’s a sponge; if it was born out of necessity in her childhood, it’s become a mainstay of her adulthood. It’s not just that she’s naturally brilliant – she has a deep, sincere love of learning. She doesn’t like not knowing things. It was part of what had always made her such an incredible spy; she’s capable of processing enormous amounts of new information quickly, she catches little details to weave into her covers that make them note-perfect, but it’s also something that she enjoys. When SHIELD gave them mandatory vacation after especially harrowing rounds of fieldwork, she once spent a week in Louisiana taking the bar exam. For fun.
When Clint had asked the very reasonable question “what the fuck?”, she’d answered – as though he was an insane person – how else he expected her to know if she’d actually mastered the intricacies of United States constitutional law without measuring herself against an objective rubric.
My secret Ravenclaw, he thinks, and tries not to smile when he glances over at her. She’s doing an admirable job of looking level and placid and like she is not at all dying to forcibly throw caution to the wind, find the entire Dora Milaje, and convince to take her to their favorite local place to eat for a quick lesson in colloquialisms.
Clint, for his part has been enjoying this whole experience probably a little too much – getting behind the controls of a jet again, navigating past the impossible protective barriers, sneaking into this underground lab facility without detection, it’s taken a considerable amount of all their combined efforts. Enjoyable should not necessarily be the first adjective that comes to mind when it’s also been stressful as shit.
But it’s the same way he felt on the trip to New York, mentally mapping out the plan for jailbreaking Wanda – knowing it was serious, knowing it wasn’t play, but at the same time, everything in his body singing at the knowledge that he was being put to use again. Knowing he was needed for something concrete, something he knew he could do. Something he actually had a fucking talent for, unlike every time throughout the last year he’d put his hand to something and it had come out for shit.
This is the same rush of energy. It doesn’t mean that he’s not taking it seriously. It’s just a recurring reminder: he has always liked being useful, and he has always loved his work.
It’s hard to explain to someone that doesn’t inherently understand. Laura, he knows, made allowances for it without ever really getting it: his work, a lot of the time, is ugly, dangerous, and casually flirtatious with messy death. On a surface level, it doesn’t seem like something a person should intentionally choose; it seems like what you fall into when there are no other options.
Maybe it’s hard for a civilian to realize they’d married someone who was genuinely comfortable with killing – who didn’t do it indiscriminately, maybe, but didn’t have problems with it, either. Maybe it’s hard to raise children with a person who routinely settles problems with violence. It wasn’t something they’d talked about in the last few years.
It’s probably another sign that the divorce was a right decision when thoughts like that do nothing but fill Clint with a profound sense of relief instead of weighting him down. There are going to be new problems, but at least these old ones are canceled out.
“I don’t like this,” Natasha says, and he turns to look at her.
“We’re not on a hard timetable,” he offers, though he knows the lack of a schedule is one of the things bothering her. Getting in somewhere is never the difficult part; it’s getting back out again, a rule of thumb that tends to hold true across the board, in both strike jobs and carpool lanes.
She raises an eyebrow at him, her telegraphed helpful, asshole, thank you so very much and he grins, he can’t help it.
“Come on,” Nat says. “Tell me you’re not feeling it, too.”
“Normally, yes,” he agrees, because she’s not wrong. When they flew in, a member of T’Challa’s guard, Ayo, had been there to greet them, inform them that the king requested they remain where they were, and that he and the Captain would arrive with their cargo very shortly. They’ve been parked in the belly of this underground hangar for over ninety minutes now without another word, without eyes or ears on the rest of the building.
He gets why this is gritting along Natasha’s spine, why it’s raising her hackles. “Normally,” he repeats, “but we’re not on a timetable, we knew there’d be a lot of feeling our way through this, and I trust that if something was really fucked, Steve would’ve found a way to get word to us. Let’s give it a little longer before we jump ship in the name of self preservation.”
“I wasn’t suggesting we take off and abandon the job entirely,” Natasha says, mildly offended.
“Yeah, storming the heavily guarded home of a beloved warrior-king whose country we aren’t even technically supposed to be in after his predecessor openly called our team a reckless menace,” Clint says. “That’s a much better plan.”
“Losing your edge?”
“Hell no,” he says. “It sounds fun. That’s why I think we shouldn’t do it. I have no common sense at all if something sounds fun, you know that.”
Natasha huffs out a laugh, and he reaches a hand over to rub the back of her neck, gratified when she drops it forward easily, letting his thumb coax the muscles there to relax.
I love you, he thinks, because if they’re not in a place where he’s allowed to tell her, not yet, it still feels good to finally think it.
Out loud, he says, “If you’re having trouble relaxing, we can hide out on the jet and I can go down on you to kill some time. That’s always an option.”
For a second, she looks like she’s going to laugh again. Then her eyes widen the slightest fraction of an inch, and before he turns around, Clint already knows what he’s going to see.
The king of Wakanda, not bothering to disguise his amusement. Steve standing next to him, not bothering to disguise his scowl. And Ayo, stone-faced, so her opinion on Clint’s dumb joke could probably go either way.
He gets to his feet alongside Natasha and feels the point of her elbow dig into his side as he opens his mouth to try and dig himself out of the hole. Right. Ignoring it, that’s probably better.
“Miss Romanoff,” T’Challa greets. “I’m very glad to see you again. I wish they were better circumstances.”
“They never are,” Natasha says agreeably. She likes T’Challa, Clint knows, and hadn’t liked that they’d parted on bad terms. Clint’s glad that she has a shot to smooth it out.
“And this is Mr. Barton?”
“Clint’s fine,” he says. “We’ve actually met before. I was the guy at the airport shooting the arrows at your face.”
Ayo makes an abortive move to lunge forward. He briefly considers hiding behind Natasha until T’Challa shakes his head at her. She stops, but her eyes are still alight with anger.
“He caught them right out of the air, it was really impressive,” Clint offers, like it’ll help smooth things over, but Ayo just keeps glaring.
Steve steps forward and pulls Nat into a quick hug. “New hair?” he asks.
“Nope,” Steve says, without hesitation, and Natasha smiles.
“Well, now that we’ve gotten the important stuff out of the way,” she deadpans. “What’s the situation?”
“I’m sorry we had to keep you waiting so long,” T’Challa apologizes. “There were a few minor issues in the laboratory. Sergeant Barnes is awake and doing well, but it would be inadvisable to move him just yet.”
“How long is yet?” Clint asks.
“They need at least another twelve hours of observation,” he says. “If we can swing a few more, that would be helpful, but it’s the minimum my team is telling me they need to assure the quality of their work.”
“I don’t like the delay,” Natasha says.
“I don’t, either,” the king agrees. “But there is no real choice in the matter.”
“The other problem is where we’ll go once we can move him,” Steve says. “I don’t have a lot of ideas for safe places the infamous Winter Soldier can lay low. I thought maybe we’d head back to the island, if…”
He trails off, looking at Natasha hopefully to see if she’ll back that plan, but she’s got a look on her face that Clint has been on the other end of a couple times, and he does not envy Steve for being its current focus.
“What the hell,” she says, very quietly, “is the matter with you.”
“Nat, it’s the safest place for him,” he says, almost pleading.
Natasha isn’t budging. “No,” she says. “You’re going to have to take the Bucky blinders off and start thinking objectively, Steve. After everything - you want to take him to Tony’s place, without Tony explicitly okaying it? You can find another way out of Wakanda. I won’t be part of that.”
She says it flatly and directly, no room in her to even continue this as a debate, and Clint realizes that in spite of all their time in Barcelona there must be a couple chunks of this story he’s missing. Fair enough, really, he had more pressing and immediate concerns in Barcelona, but still – this is a big chunk.
He trusts that Nat will catch him up later, so he clears his throat before this can escalate. “What about Carter?” he suggests.
Steve finally acknowledges his presence. “What about her?” he asks sharply.
“She’s got a place way the fuck out in the English countryside that she thinks nobody knows about,” he says. “The Carter ancestral homestead. She doesn’t use it, but the deed’s in her name.”
“And you know this how?” Steve says, like Clint’s on trial.
He shrugs, determined not to rise to the bait. He hasn’t forgotten the look on Nat’s face when Steve saw them together back on the island and that was before they’d even kissed; there’s something brewing here now, and she’s having a hard enough time letting it happen. Clint’s not going to make her more self conscious about it than she already is. “I know things sometimes.”
T’Challa nods at Clint with approval, as though it’s all settled. “It’ll be a long trip,” he says. “You’ll need a meal and somewhere to rest, after your arrangements have been made.”
“We’ll be fine staying near the plane,” Natasha assures him. “We’ve stayed in much worse places, all three of us.”
“Once Barnes is ready to be transported, I won’t be able to be any more help to you,” T’Challa tells her. “A decent meal and night’s sleep are the last things I’m able to offer before it’s out of my hands. Let me offer them.”
She looks at Clint, and they have a quick, silent consultation. T’Challa would know better than they would, the risks and reasonable measures to take within his own country – within his own walls. And while they can function on less – and often have – it’s never a bad idea to head out into the field well-rested and with a full stomach.
“Then it’s settled,” the king says definitively. “Captain Rogers will reach out to Miss Carter, and you’ll stay until it’s time.”
“I’m not sure about involving Sharon in this,” Steve says.
“She is a grown woman,” T’Challa says. “Ask and she will choose for herself from there. Let’s not waste time arguing.”
He understands why Natasha takes hers without a correction or a suggestion of playing musical beds. There are a hundred mitigating factors, and Clint’s not a child. This is a job, first and foremost, and they’re both in work-mode. Steve clearly can’t be counted on not to make A Thing about it if they disappear into the same room. Maybe more than anything else, it’d be a very public declaration when they haven’t yet decided to declare.
It’s the logical thing to do and Nat’s somebody who can always be trusted to make the most logical choice. Still, it makes something in his chest sink unhappily when he sees she really does mean to go through with it.
They have a moment alone in the hall, just the two of them, and after a second of hesitation, she reaches out to cup his face with one hand. “Okay?” she asks quietly.
He’s torn about how to answer, because on some level – on some level, no, it’s not okay, and he wants to be honest about that. He understands that it’s not a small thing, but there’s nothing Clint wants that’s especially scandalous right now: he wants to sleep next to her, feel her body curled into his like it’s been made to fit in that exacting spot.
But he also knows that what he really wants – even if it’s the middle of a job, even if it’s not the time for this, even if it borders on clingy – is any kind of small assurance that the last few weeks have meant the same thing to her that they’ve meant to him. He wants to know they weren’t just indulging in some hedonistic, extended lost weekend. He wants to know this hasn’t evaporated now that they’re not in Spain; he wants to know the things they’ve done aren’t just one more set of memories they’ll agree to abandon on another continent.
He wants to tell her he loves her without couching it in euphemisms that mean sort of the same thing. He wants to know if she feels the same way or if this is just a years-brewing itch that’s finally been thoroughly scratched.
But if he wished that she was someone who could make things easier on herself, it would be the same as wishing she wasn’t Natasha. If nothing else, Clint’s sure of who he wants.
“Okay,” he promises.
He tries not to let the obvious relief in her eyes sting him. He’s not entirely successful.
“Get some rest, Hawkeye,” she says. For a minute, he thinks she’ll – do something, he doesn’t know, squeeze his hand or kiss him or anything, but she disappears into the room, the lock giving a definitive click behind her.
“Yeah,” he says, though the only thing he has to talk to is the closed door. “You got it, Nat.”
He moves to head for his own room and sees T’Challa standing at the end of the hall, which means Clint is exactly what Nat has often accused him of being: a terrible spy. He shrugs, a little sheepishly - yes, your highness, I AM having lady trouble in the middle of a lot of other important shit, you’ve caught me staring forlornly at her door like an idiot, but what are you gonna do, right?
“Come on,” T’Challa offers, after a moment, and with more sympathy than Clint probably deserves. “I have something you will enjoy.”
Shooting with vibranium arrows, however, makes him feel like he’s just picked it up for the first time.
“I want ten,” he announces.
T’Challa looks pleased, seated in front of something that looks sort of like a giant round whetstone. He’s sharpening the claws on a pair of gloves that Clint’s assuming came from his suit; they’re silver and wicked in the dim lightning. “Only ten?”
“I’m hoping my selfless request will move you to gift me with a full cache of, like, a hundred,” Clint says, nocking another into the light compound bow he borrowed for practice. It zings to the dead center of the target and he feels as though he’s barely curled his fingers; more like it was reading his mind. “God damn. Forget it. A thousand.”
The metal shrieks against stone, a small shower of sparks skittering off the edges. “I’ll give it due consideration,” T’Challa says, lifting the glove to his face to examine the claws with an expert’s eye. “It can be tricky to work with.”
“Steve used to manage okay with a shield,” Clint says. “I’m learning here.”
T’Challa regards him curiously as he begins to pull the arrows from the target. “You fought at his side,” he says. “But – you’ll forgive me – he doesn’t seem to be especially fond of you.”
“Yeah, that’s a recent development,” Clint grunts, tugging a little harder on the arrow shaft. These are smaller and much more slender than the ones he’s used to working with, his custom-made SHIELD tech, the improvements Stark made on it. These are smaller and still pack twice the punch of his gear.
“Ah,” T’Challa says, and Clint glances back over his shoulder.
“Whatever it is – you can say it,” he offers. “I’m tough to offend and besides, you’re the one doing us all a giant favor. Least I can do is confirm your theories about interpersonal sources of tension.”
T’Challa grins and inclines his head, like he probably appreciates the candor. “He likes you as yourself. He doesn’t like you as Miss Romanoff’s lover.”
It probably shouldn’t feel so fucking validating to hear another person say it out loud, but it does. God, it does, and Clint had no idea how badly he needed to hear it until it was heard. Miss Romanoff’s lover, not her partner or best friend or platonic hetero lifemate or everything else they’ve been over the years, but here it is, the surface read, what’s between you two is obvious to the objective observer.
Between this and the arrows, Clint understands why the Dora Milaje are so thoroughly devoted to their king. He’s about ready to ask if they’d be willing to recruit him onto the force.
“That’s about the size of it,” he agrees. “And his reasons aren’t entirely terrible. Not many I can argue with.”
“So you take his jabs on the chin,” T’Challa says. “What’s her opinion on it?”
“Once she forms one, I’m sure she’ll let us both know,” Clint tells him. “She tends to not be especially shy about that once she hits her limit, you might have noticed. Nat is…”
There are a lot of things he could say, good and bad and bright and dark to sum up everything Nat is, and T’Challa supplies the answer for him: “A singular woman. I’d imagine being a person she loves is really quite something.”
“See, between diplomatic smooth talk like that and those claws, I’m amazed you have any problems in this country at all,” Clint says. He belatedly wonders if he even should have brought that up – it’s got to be stressing the guy out. Even thinking about being the leader of a small nation is enough to stress Clint out.
“You would be surprised,” T’Challa says gracefully, so it couldn’t have been that much of a gaffe. “My father always made diplomacy look easy. He knew a hundred solutions before he would ever think to solve a problem with violence, and he was widely beloved.”
Clint can read between the lines. “He probably wasn’t so beloved in his first year on the job,” he offers. “To make a sweeping generalization about humans across the board, nobody’s really great with change, especially when it’s forced on them. I get furious whenever I have to update iTunes, and that doesn’t affect the future of my nation.”
“My mother has said many things along those lines over the last few months.” T’Challa looks at him with curiosity. “You aren’t someone who holds onto grudges, are you?”
“No, I’m holding onto a few recent ones with extreme prejudice. You just aren’t one of them.”
“It was an ugly thing, that day,” he says. “For all of us.”
“Everybody on that airfield had a reason to be there. Some reasons were just better than others,” Clint says.
“And what was yours?”
He’d planned to be done with target practice for now, but he shoots three more arrows before answering. “I was on the bench for a long time. Turns out that I don’t like myself very much without my job. Steve offered me an excuse to jump back in and I barely let him get the details out before I had a bag packed. Nat – we were fighting a few weeks ago and she said that if she’d called first, I would have been fine standing next to Tony. She’s probably right.”
“That does not make your reason for being there a poor one,” T’Challa tells him. “Just different than mine.”
Clint laughs, a sincere one. “Please, please do not compare me being bored with my life to you trying to get revenge on the guy that you thought murdered your dad,” he says. “Letting me play with these arrows was a nice gesture. You don’t have to legitimize my bullshit like an actual saint. Please.”
After a moment, he’s pleased when T’Challa joins in and laughs, too. “All right,” he agrees. “All right, yes, yours is more bullshit.”
“Thank you,” Clint says. “I’m glad I wasn’t the one you were hell-bent on slicing up in Leipzig.”
“As am I,” T’Challa says. “But I am sorry for the outcome. The imprisonment. You were only doing what was right.”
“Yeah, well, we could have all thought our methodology through a little more,” he says, but he appreciates it just the same. This apology is more than any of them have gotten directly from Tony, at least, even if he’s begrudgingly agreed that Nat did, possibly, sort of, a little, have a point – they should have expected they weren’t going to get out of it with a wrist slap.
“Try one of the quarterstaffs next,” T’Challa suggests. “I won’t tell Ayo I let you handle them if you won’t.”
“Mind showing me how to handle them? If you’re not too tired yet,” Clint asks, and the king smiles as he stands from his work.
“It would be my pleasure, Mr. Barton – Clint.”
Steve fills them in on as much as he’s got while they’re waiting for the techs to escort Bucky from the lab. Beyond restoration of his metal arm, which he somehow lost in Siberia, they’ve spent the last several months working to find a way to reverse the damage Hydra left in his brain. The implanted trigger words and phrases, the holes in his memory. He willingly went back into cryo while they mapped and scanned his brain, while they built their cures from the ground up.
“He was finally out in the world,” Natasha says. “And he ended up somebody’s science project all over again.”
“It was his call, Nat,” Steve says. “It was the only way to – ”
“I know that,” she says, a little more aggressively than Clint feels like Steve deserves. It’s a sensitive point, born out of a past that Clint is entirely too familiar with, and he doesn’t care, he doesn’t give a shit – he reaches for her hand. Here in the moment instead of waiting to debrief and unload and unpack all the compartmentalization later – he’s here, and he reaches out to show her.
She takes it immediately, laces their fingers together and squeezes back, no clearer signal that she’s counting on him to ground her.
“I know that,” she repeats. “I’m allowed to not like that it was necessary.”
“Me too,” Steve says, exhaling on a sigh. “But I’ve gotta believe this is the place it can start to get better from. I have to.”
They’ve been prepared by the lab team for this. Bucky may be a little shaky on his feet, and air travel is likely going to make him sick. They’ve tested out the trigger words in as many languages as he knows, enough to be certain there’s no response. His filter will be down; he will say things without thinking, he may be blunt and hurtful, but it will self-regulate after a day or so. The blocked memories have come to him all in a rush; he may be over-emotional or angry, and it’s best not to prod, it’ll be best to let him steer the conversations.
Clint figures these are mostly guidelines for Steve’s benefit, so that he won’t smack the guy over the head with a hundred well-meaning questions.
When the door slides open without ceremony and Bucky appears, in a clean white undershirt, gray sweatpants, and trailed by T’Challa, they’ve all been prepared for the side effects as much as they can be.
What they are all unprepared for is the way Bucky's gaze slides right past Steve and lights on Natasha. He sucks in a rattling breath, as though his lung’s just been punctured, staring at her as though everyone else in the room has blurred to the background.
"Oh, God," he groans, guttural and choked, and staggers forward. “I didn’t - oh God.”
He falls to his knees before her, looks up at her like a man strangled and starving, lost and only now looking upon something that could mean salvation.
Natasha is rigid, her face frozen in some horrible rictus of shock that is miles away from the careful neutrality she always, always reserves for moments like this. Steve looks like he's been slammed upside the head with the broad end of a board, and Clint -
Clint's entire life lurches swiftly into freefall as Bucky stretches his hands toward her and, in one swift move, pulls her close and presses his face to her stomach.
As she allows him to do it.
"Natalia,” he moans, agonized. "Jesus fuck, what did I do, what did I do to you, Natalia, I didn't remember and I swore - "
"Nothing I couldn't survive," Natasha chokes out, in a voice that Clint has never heard her use in all the years he has known every single other thing about her. "Nothing you would have done willingly, I knew that, please don't… "
He still hasn't lifted his face from her stomach. His mouth is moving against the fabric of her shirt, right over the scar that Clint knows - intimately, knows its texture and its taste and how unbearably fucking close that bullet came to being the last she'd ever take - clutching her hips and moving his mouth over it endlessly, as though it's a form of prayer. As though he's allowed.
As though he's entitled.
Clint watches as Natasha - very shakily - lifts her hands to gently cup Bucky's head. She begins to stroke his hair, trying to settle him with aching tenderness in every slow glide.
“James?” she whispers, a question with a thousand meanings.
Bucky mumbles something vaguely affirmative into the fabric of her shirt. It sounds like Russian.
Clint’s heart has crawled all the way up the back of his throat.
"Would somebody," Steve says, abrupt and more than a little angry, "maybe, if they got nothing better to do, mind telling me what in the hell?"
AS USUAL: Part 10 coming soon! Thank you all for sticking with me, and thank you for your patience – November is one of those months that, between work stuff and life stuff and the holidays, everything tends to get a little backlogged, but we’re still rolling on with this.
SIDENOTE: the absolutely fabulous Noccalula gifted me with this marvelous soundtrack she made for Catching Bullets, which you can find here! I may someday post the extensive list of songs I’ve listened to while writing this monster; all the ones she’s picked have very definitely been added into the rotation. It’s marvelous and it made me so happy and I have now tricked her into being my friend. If anyone else is making things like this, soundtracks or gifsets or or fanart or stuff that you’re throwing onto Tumblr, that is always eight thousand percent okay with me, you have carte blanche, just please please promise me you’ll come drop me a link to it so that I can look at it and love it!
Natasha knew that Sharon Carter came from very old money. Even so, the estate in the English countryside, with its acres of land and massive stone manor house, is embarrassingly ostentatious. She can see why Carter downplays her ownership of the place – probably only holds onto it for a combination of half-hearted familial duty and tax reasons – but it’s clear that no one has set foot on this property in years. The interior is enormous, but it’s also covered in a thick layer of dust, cobwebby, and decades out of fashion. It might have once been cozy, if a little fussy for Natasha’s taste, but the décor’s original intended effect is someone’s forgotten memory.
It feels like they’ve moved into the Haunted Mansion, and the weather in England is cooperating with that aesthetic. After the golden, endless autumn of Spain, it feels pointedly dreary and frigid – not helped by the fact that the electrical writing is a bad joke and they’re currently heating only the room that has a fireplace (after Clint, the only competent homeowner among them, cleaned out the chimney and opened the flue). There isn’t even a blanket of snow to soften the severity; everything is dead and decaying.
About two miles back from the house, there’s also a very old graveyard, like a movie set decorator was very determined to complete the depressing tableau. Weeds have grown tall around the iron gate; Natasha idly pulls up a handful as she slips through the opening, but it’s an empty gesture – there’s nothing to do with them but toss them, uprooted, back to the patch she plucked them from.
It feels mildly like she’s trespassing for some indefinable reason, more here than anywhere in the house, but it doesn’t hold her back. She likes cold weather, always has, and she would rather be outside under the slate sky than inside anywhere near the piles of things left unaddressed. If she had found a tent anywhere in the Carter family keepsakes, it would be a considerable test of her willpower to avoid pitching it and sleeping in the yard to avoid the churning miasma of emotional baggage that’s taken up residence alongside the four of them.
Natasha is a lot of things, but she’s not a coward. Still: there’s a fine line between cowardice and this is my personal business, and it’s only been two days, but she’s starting to think she’s been jumping rope with it.
The ground is hard and frozen; the heels of her boots barely dent the earth as she explores the weathered stones. There’s a gap of more than twenty years between the final two Carters buried in the family plot; the last is Michael Edward Carter in 1939, but this is the only one that’s less a gravestone and more a memorial marker. A veteran, most likely, nothing to send home for his family to bury properly, and Natasha wonders if the marker brought them some comfort. Maybe it did. Or maybe it was a hollow gesture – a testament that he’d lived with nothing beneath it to give that testament any form or substance.
God. Something’s wrong with her. There’s no reason for her to be getting morbid or self indulgent – what the hell does she care about some long-dead soldier that nobody alive could possibly remember?
The rusty gate creaks as though in answer. When she turns to look, James has pushed it wide enough to walk through, when there was plenty of room to slip soundlessly around. Intentionally alerting her to his presence - that was thoughtful.
For a moment, they don’t say anything. It’s hard to know how to begin; there have been a lot of too-long, too-silent looks between them in the time since James was finally able to pull himself under control. It unnerves the shit out of Steve and Clint both, she knows, but she hasn’t actually come up with a solution, and she figures that watching them force small talk would only be a different kind of unnerving.
She can’t remember why it had hurt to know she’d been blown clean from his mind. It is a thousand times harder than she could have possibly imagined, knowing he remembers everything they had been. Everything they’d done. If he’s not entirely her Soldier anymore, he’s not Steve’s best friend from Brooklyn, either, and she’s been so exactly in this place: trapped between who he is, was, has been, was forced to be, and now struggling to identify which pieces were true from all those versions.
How is she supposed to articulate a thing like that? What can she begin to offer? What would he want her to offer, what is he expecting, what is she -
James clears his throat. “Is it okay that I’m…”
“Yes,” she says.
So that’s a beginning, at least.
He walks closer to her, holding out a mug with steam still curling over the rim. “It’s cold out here, so I wanted to… anyway, Barton said you like coffee better than tea,” he says. “Sorry there’s no cream, but he thought you’d still probably want some even without.”
Natasha knows her face gives nothing away, but internally, she winces: she can imagine what that was like, for Clint. How awful it must have felt to answer James’s questions, coach him on her specific tastes, and then watch James walk out the door on his instructions to speak with her privately, carrying the closest thing to a gift someone could rustle up in this place.
It makes her feel cruel. She can’t pick out which parts of this situation are her fault and which ones aren’t, but she knows the solution isn’t to continue washing her hands of the whole thing.
“I do – I mean, I would, yes,” she confirms, reaching out to take the cup. Its warmth is welcoming against the chill of her hands. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me til you taste it,” James says. “Turns out there’s not a lot of difference between those instant Via packets and the shit we used to brew in helmets.”
“Should have forced you to try some first. I might have just fallen for the oldest poisoning trick in the book.”
“Guy who trained you oughta be ashamed of himself,” he says, and a smile flits across his face that matches the one on hers – it’s nothing that should bring a smile, but they were never a normal couple, were they.
He broke her wrist, she cracked his jaw, they were brutal and relentless and combative. Buried somewhere in each of them are those ghosts – lovers and killers who made each other better. Who built, together, people that could survive long enough to evolve into what they are now: whole, human, standing here in a graveyard sharing a shitty cup of coffee because one day, they met by chance in a hopeless, lightless prison.
“There are things I gotta apologize for,” he tells her. “While it’s just the two of us.”
“There’s a long list,” Natasha says. “The guys won’t let us avoid them for a week, so we should agree to just hit the highlights.”
He chuckles, the laugh cracking white in the winter air, and beckons for her to come closer so they can keep passing the cup back and forth. He’s wearing gloves, the leather smooth against the tips of her fingers; the urge to run her hands over his cheeks, along his shoulders, through his hair as though she’s checking him over for post-battle damage pulses under her ribs for a moment until sensibility reels it back in.
“I embarrassed you, in Wakanda,” James says. “And I touched you like it was – well. I’m sorry for that.”
“They explained the possible side effects to us,” she says. “We had warning. It’s not your fault it didn’t occur to me that – it’s nothing you need to be sorry for, it’s not like you’re still – ”
“Openly pawing at you and panting over you in front of a room full of people?” he says wryly. “I know it was a side effect. I’ve also paid enough attention to know it made a weird situation a hell of a lot weirder, Natalia. That was not…”
She blows out a breath. “The way I would have wanted to tell either of them. No. You’re right, it wasn’t.”
“Yeah. So let me apologize for that much, at least. You should’ve gotten to do it your own way, if you’d wanted to do it at all.”
The last sentence has a hint of question, and she rocks her weight back onto her heels, widening the gap between them. “It was easier to keep it to myself,” she admits – more than Steve, more even than Clint, James is the one who deserves this particular truth. “For a lot of reasons. Some of them selfish. Most of the time, I told myself it was because it wasn’t relevant, but – would you let me leave it at it was complicated?”
“No,” he says, but his eyes are warm when he looks at her.
“Because if you were never going to remember us, then it was irrelevant, that was true,” she says. “Because Steve made enough of a mess as it was. Because my life moved on. Because I didn’t want anyone’s pity. Because it was over either way. Because it would have only hurt people I’d rather I didn’t hurt. And – because we were mine. Sometimes I wanted it to be only mine.”
He’s still and solemn, an expression she remembers so well, and her stomach twists; she doesn’t especially like this, that so many years have blown away, and things have happened, and lives have been lived, and this silent vocabulary is still here. She doesn’t like the way this shared history weights on her now that it’s been dragged into the light.
“Clint’s known some of it for awhile,” she adds. “And he’s smart enough to have pieced together the rest now, so – you don’t have to keep anything private on my account, James. You can tell Steve anything you’re comfortable telling without worrying you’re violating me.”
He nods, looking slightly relieved in a way that she understands. There’s not a lot of space for secrets anymore, between any of them. It’s not a way to kick off a new beginning.
“About all I’ve told him so far is that I loved you,” James says, quietly. “I loved you so goddamn much. Did you know that, at least? Did you know that I - ”
“I knew,” she promises, and this, she doesn’t dislike. This she hates, the way her voice shakes even just once, how many times her heart has been bruised in the same fucking spot. “Sometimes it was – a good thing, that you didn’t remember it.”
“Couple of small mercies, I guess,” he says, by now sounding unsteady himself. “Odessa’s years gone, that’s about the only reason I’m not a complete fucking basket case knowing about it.”
“I loved you back,” she tells him. “It was the first real thing about me, that I loved you, too.”
Hearing it makes his face look years younger, in a way that sends another painful wrench somewhere low in her chest.
She realizes, abruptly, that this is the first time they have ever said it to each other.
“I’m so sorry that it wasn’t bigger than everything else,” she says.
It’s an absolute absurdity; she can’t believe it came out of her mouth. Loving each other could never have been enough to overcome the circumstances under which they met or all the ones that came after.
She’s not stupid or sentimental enough to think otherwise. They were barreling towards ruination from the first time he pulled her into a dark corner and caught her mouth with his. They had been weapons more than they’d been people; neither of them, at the time, had the capacity to understand love, certainly not well enough to mold it into some kind of shield or protection or conquering force.
But she can’t regret that it happened, either. Not the chain of events that it set off for the rest of her life.
She breathes in through her nose sharply, the cold dry air clearing out her head as though she’s thrown back a shot of it. “We could have chosen any other setting for this conversation,” she tells him. “A graveyard, we’re ridiculous. We didn’t have to commit so hard to staying on theme.”
James snorts. “I think I’m gonna like getting to know who you turned out to be,” he says. “You got jokes now?”
“Oh, I’ve got jokes,” Natasha says. “It’s honestly deeply offensive – I’m hilarious and I never get any credit for it, at all.”
He turns a little, looking out across the expanse of the grounds, back in the direction of the house. “The mood in there is leaning grim,” he tells her. “Might have to look a ways down the road if you’re hoping for validation on that front.”
“It’ll work itself out,” she says.
James reaches out and brushes a piece of hair back, away from her eyes – an instinctive movement, as though it didn’t even occur to him that his touch might not be welcome. He stills with his fingertips gently hooked over her ear. She doesn’t have to spell it out for him; it wasn’t a trespass and she didn’t mind, but the new familiarity between them, gestures like that, are a reason why their present circumstance qualifies as something that needs to be worked out.
“Eventually,” she adds.
Clint’s blanket-nest is empty.
She rubs both hands up and down her arms briskly, trying to brush away the goosebumps, and pads softly down the long hall until she arrives in the kitchen.
Clint is bent over the oven door with a towel wrapped around one hand, peering in on whatever he’s cooking. Half the groceries they picked up are spread all the way across the massive butcher’s block, ancient pots and pans pulled from cabinets and scrubbed to a shine. She pulls herself onto the counter and reaches for a halved lemon, spinning it in her fingers.
Natasha’s not usually given to fidgeting when she’s nervous. And yet.
“Did we invite the nearest neighbors over for early breakfast and everyone forgot to tell me?” she asks. “Also, when did we meet the neighbors?”
Clint straightens up. “I couldn’t sleep,” he says, a little shortly.
“You worked on fixing the wiring all day, Clint. When you weren’t chopping firewood, or getting the water back on, or beating the dust out of the couch, or – ”
“I can handle turning a fixer-upper into an actual inhabitable home in my sleep, and no offense, but none of the rest of you are at all useful in that department,” he says. “Besides, Steve cleaned out the oven earlier, so I figured…”
“You figured why not roast a whole chicken at one o’clock in the morning?”
“With lemon and rosemary and it’s going to be fucking delicious,” he snaps, then holds out a hand. “Give me that.”
She does; he stretches his arm inside the oven, squeezes the juice out over the chicken in its pan, and closes the door quietly enough that it won’t disturb the house’s sleeping occupants.
“It would probably,” she says, speaking as delicately as possible, “be easier if you just asked me the things you want to ask me.”
“That it would,” Clint agrees. “Except there’s a hitch here, which is that I promised you once this was a thing you would never have to tell me about. Seems shitty to break it just because it’s suddenly relevant.”
That pulls her up short. “Clint…”
“No,” he says, his voice tightening up like a drawn-back bowstring. “No. Don’t do that, don’t get all – don’t get soft right now, Nat, that’s like two levels up from your Barton’s-on-his-actual-deathbed voice.”
“You’re not on any kind of deathbed, don’t be dramatic,” she says, scooting further back on the counter. Her hip bumps against a ceramic bowl of peppers marinating in olive oil, seeded and peeled into strips. “What is this?”
“It’s going to be red pepper soup if I can get a decent char on those,” he says, turning his back on her to start dicing celery. “Do you want to help?”
“You’ve got it under control, I think,” she says. She knows better than to take him up on it; Clint turns to cooking in these kind of enormous, complicated quantities when he’s working through something that he can’t exorcise on the range. Natasha isn’t used to being the cause of it, but she assumes her job is still to sit here, keep him company, and let him decide if he wants conversation or quiet.
He chooses silence for the better part of ninety minutes. She watches him pull four increasingly complicated dishes out of a kitchen that clearly hasn’t produced so much as a piece of toast since Nixon was in office, a leaden weight settling in her chest. He barely looks at her, which – again, isn’t unusual for occasions like this, but it’s loaded now, and she knows why.
Clint doesn’t speak again until he’s carved up the chicken and left it to cool on a platter he unearthed from somewhere. “Does he have to keep calling you Natalia?” he grits out. “I want to shove my fist down his throat every fucking time.”
“I didn’t notice,” she says. It’s a mild surprise, but now that he’s pointed it out, she realizes he’s right.
“You hate that name,” Clint says, finally turning to look at her. “You’ve always hated that name.”
“It’s different,” Natasha says, a little helplessly. “I didn’t expect this, Clint, you know that. If I had – ”
“What, you would have prepared me for it? Suddenly? After years of choosing to – you know, not?” he asks. “I told you that you don’t have to talk to me about him and as much as that sucks, I’d rather let my very vivid imagination fill in the gaps than have you lie right now, Nat, about any of this. Not even if it’s to soften it.”
She scrubs both hands back through her hair, frustrated and aching. “Stop.”
“I’m not trying to – “
“I know you’re not. Stop anyway,” she says.
Clint’s face crumples and he moves towards her, stepping between her legs. When he reaches out to cradle her face in both his hands, she doesn’t stop him, but something viperlike is coiling inside her, defensively circling up to protect the places he’s pushed. It wants to strike out. “I’m sorry,” he says, almost urgently. “I am, I’m sorry.”
“You didn’t – ”
“Yeah, I did,” he says. “I don’t – I don’t get to be an asshole about this. I don’t get to make you feel like you did something shitty to me because you were with somebody else once. I mean – come on. I was married.”
“You are married,” she says, with a sudden surge of venom. “Your family’s not quite a footnote in your personal history, Clint.”
Clint lets his hands drop back down to his sides. “Okay,” he says, slowly. “How about if I don’t get to be an asshole, you don’t get to be one, either.”
“I’m stating facts,” she says. “If they’re inconvenient facts, that’s not on me.”
“Are you bringing up Laura right now for my benefit or yours?” he shoots back. “I keep telling you this is a done deal, Nat, do you need to call her to confirm or something? I’m sorry I don’t have official documentation, but that didn’t exactly slow us down in Spain – ”
“When did I ever ask you to leave her, Clint?” she hisses. “When did I ever even hint that your marriage was the only thing holding me back? Fucking you for a couple weeks doesn’t make it my fault that you ran with that theory before I actually promised you anything.”
He’s silent for a very long time.
“Jesus, Natasha,” he says, finally.
Clint’s lips are bloodless, the lines around his eyes furrowing deep. His lack of willingness to verbally slap her in return is what shoots her misplaced anger down where it stands, puts it in the fucking ground completely; sick, sour regret crashes through her stomach like she’s forcibly chugged a gallon of it, her pulse roaring through her ears in a rush to force that burst of ugliness out.
“I didn’t mean that,” she whispers, stricken. “Clint, I swear. I did not mean that.”
He nods, once, but he doesn’t look like he believes her. She can’t blame him.
Natasha slides bonelessly from the butcher’s block, reaching out for him with her heart thudding in desperation, too far, too far, you always push him too far, why do you do that, WHY.
Clint doesn’t reach for her in return. “You know, when you and Banner were circling each other,” he says, slowly. “I never – took it seriously, I guess. I knew you too well.”
She’s not sure what he’s getting at, but she nods at him, letting him know it’s okay – he can go on, she won’t bite him for it this time. She’s done.
“That last day in Sokovia, you told me he didn’t want to hook up with the fighting, so you kicked him into a crater to force it. And even when you were telling me about it – you were sad, I think, it was right after he’d fucked off for good, but you also looked…under it, you looked annoyed,” he continues. “And I remember thinking, well, she’s better off, that one was never gonna work out. Nat could have never made it last with somebody who’d expect her to apologize for doing what she thought needed to be done.”
“That’s not my most attractive quality,” she says, after a second.
Unbelievably, Clint smiles. “Barnes shot you twice and you’re not taking it personally. You hit me in the head with a metal pipe and when you told me about it, you grinned.”
And she understands, then, what he’s saying.
Knowing there’s somebody else who also understands you on that particular level is terrifying the absolute shit out of me.
She rocks up against his body, hands curled around the back of his neck before he can back away. Presses herself to his chest and kisses him as though everything depends on it, because in this moment, there’s every chance that it does.
Too many things have been stirred up in too short a period of time and it’s all too close to the surface; if she’s confused and uncertain, she’s allowed to be.
But Clint has been trying to keep every promise he’s ever made her. He’s been avoiding asking for some confirmation that he’s not in this alone, and he can’t live on assumption and hope forever. If her first instinct has always been to protect herself, nipping at its heels has always been the instinct to protect him, and sometimes the one overtakes the other.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers against his mouth, until he’ll have no choice but to swallow the words. “I want you. I’ve wanted you. Of course I have. You weren’t wrong, it’s never been just you, I’m sorry.”
She knows it’s not half as good as telling him that she loves him, has loved him, but that would be a promise at a time when she knows she can’t make one.
His arms finally wrap around her waist in tentative belief, drawing her almost all the way up from the floor to keep her crushed against his body. They’ve turned at some point, moved across the kitchen, she’s not sure when, but her back hits the massive refrigerator’s icy surface. One of his hands is beneath her shirt, squeezing her breast on the very edge of too hard.
There’s a man sleeping in a room down the hall who only ever knew her as Natalia, but Natasha Romanoff wants Clint Barton and knows that she has lied to herself about its origin date for so many years that it would hurt, terribly, to count them up.
His mouth is open against her jaw, tongue at her pulse, hot breath gusting against her ear. Arms over her head, wrists gathered up in one strong hand and pinned in place. Shirt pushed up over her tits, bunched beneath her chin. Sweatpants pulled just enough out of the way, tangled around her knees.
She’s still too dry, but when she opens her mouth to warn him, his fingers are already there, urging them past her lips – he knows, he’ll take care of her, fuck, fuck, she sucks and licks his fingers soaked. He slides that hand between her open thighs, works her over deliciously, until she’s slick enough that he’s satisfied –
They fuck quietly, soft grunts and the occasional rattle of the fridge, and her eyes stay locked on his from beginning to end.
And she knows that in spite of everything – in spite of the fact that this is Clint – she’s never learned what to do with something she wants if she gets it.
“Not that strange, when you think about it,” James points out one day, when they’re taking a hike out across the estate. He likes being outside, and she likes spending time with him. “Life took a couple different turns, he could have watched his kids grow up in this house. I’m pretty sure that’s about the only thing he can see.”
When he puts it that way, Natasha feels foolish for not thinking of it herself. It’s not the kind of line she’d usually have trouble connecting.
Steve is surly, Natasha’s off her game, and Clint is throwing himself into home improvement projects like he’s trapped back on his farm. It says something that James is currently the most well-adjusted person in this entire group.
The only immediate way to ease it would be if she and Clint left, she knows that. It might not do a ton to improve on Steve’s mood, not when at least some of that is down to the location itself, but it would be one less source of tension.
Except for the minor obstacle: she doesn’t want to leave James yet. And James doesn’t want her to go.
Which they haven’t exactly articulated, but Steve and Clint are perfectly fucking aware that’s where the hold-up is.
The blast of AC/DC on Natasha’s phone is an actual shock, when it comes shrilling through as a ringtone. It sounds almost deafening in the quiet.
“Just FYI,” Tony says on the other end of the line, “that seat’s pretty goddamn cold by now, Romanoff.”
She relaxes at the sound of his voice, dropping onto the floor with her back against the wall. The carpet is marginally cleaner now, at least. “I know,” she says. “A few things came up, it’s been a ride.”
“Don’t beat yourself up. My hopes weren’t that high.”
Natasha smiles. “What do you want, Stark? These are international minutes you’re burning through and we’re not all billionaires.”
“Well, first order of business, we’ve got to get you on a better phone plan.” He hesitates, and for a second, worst-case scenarios unfold themselves at lightning speed – Ross is on his way to the Carter place right now, Lila didn’t come home from school one day, another hole ripped open the sky over Manhattan –
“I asked Pepper to marry me,” is what he says instead.
“….oh,” Natasha says. “Well… what’d she say?”
“That is the least flattering – I am extremely – were you born in a barn, who raised you,” Tony splutters indignantly, and a sudden laugh bursts out of Natasha’s chest – loud and real and probably filling the entire house. Even to her own ears, she sounds absolutely delighted.
“Congratulations, Tony. Really. I’m very happy for you both, when did you – ”
“A couple months ago,” he admits, a little gruffly. “But you know…”
“I do,” she says, because she does, and it sends a little sympathetic pang through her. He’d thought this could maybe end up being something he could tell her in person. Something at least a few of them might get to celebrate together, but it’s not going to shake out that way. “It’s good news. We could use some of that.”
“Don’t go thinking this means you’re special,” Tony says. “I’m only calling because she wants you to be a bridesmaid.”
“No, she doesn’t.”
“Well, she could.”
“Pepper,” she informs him, with another laugh, “is going to want to do it quickly and quietly and give you absolutely zero chance to Tony all over a wedding. There aren’t going to be bridesmaids. It’s going to be the two of you, one witness, and a judge, and if she’s spending money on anything at all, it’ll be on a well-tailored suit and matching Louboutins. Probably in an off-white.”
“That was terrifyingly accurate,” Tony says after a second. “How do you do that?”
“They taught me some tricks in the barn I was raised in,” she says.
It’s a happy, lighthearted conversation, and her life has been woefully short on those lately. By the time they hang up, she’s feeling miles more cheerful, enough to think about going out for a run.
Natasha passes by the library on her way, where the door is open and Steve is huddled over a pile of old books. “Some of us are trying to concentrate,” he says peevishly. “If you’re going to have personal conversations that loudly, you could be polite enough to – ”
She’s not entirely sure what comes over her. This is the sort of thing she’s been letting pass for too long now. Maybe it’s the residual boost from having her first normal, unweighted conversation in what feels like weeks, maybe it’s just exasperation – either way, she makes a sharp turn into the library, yanks the hardcover from his hands, and closes it with a slam that echoes in the room and sends up a puff of dust into his face.
Steve gapes at her in astonishment.
“Get up,” she says. “Now. We’re going outside.”
“I was – ”
“Not kidding. Get up.”
He follows meekly after her, eyes still stormy but temporarily cowed as she herds him out the door, into the yard shaded by a grove of old oaks – no real cover now, in the dead of winter, just long overhanding branches, stretching their skeletal arms into the sky.
“What now?” he says, the edge of something sullen in his voice.
“Take a swing at me.”
Steve balks with his entire body. “What?”
Natasha rolls her eyes. “I didn’t say use me as your personal punching bag, Steve, I said take a fucking swing at me. You’re a pain in the ass right now and you have to let it out somewhere, so. Let’s do a round.”
“You don’t like to do this when you’re angry,” he says, which is true. The two of them have long since had a policy of never holding back on each other when they’re on the mat. They go dirty and vicious and it used to be perfectly fair game for him to bring the shield into it; it’s how they got used to swapping it back and forth in the heat of a real fight.
But it also means she doesn’t like to work out with a partner when she’s angry, because it’s a hard limit for her. She doesn’t want to land a hit that’s about anything bigger than refining a technique.
“And I’m not angry now,” she says, meaning it. “You, however, don’t share those proclivities, so take a swing at me before I put you on the ground and force it.”
She must sound like she means business; Steve hesitates for another fraction of a second, then drops his left shoulder, an easy opening signal.
It’s furious and fast, but it doesn’t take much time; she suspected that it wouldn’t. They work each other over for a ferocious twenty minutes, cheap shots and a flurry of blocked and traded blows. Steve is the first to tap out, taking a knee and slapping her forearm with his cupped left hand. He’s not winded, but his blood is up, red in his cheeks and sweat slightly beaded at his hairline.
They sit with the frosted grass crunching slightly beneath them; it feels damp through the fabric of her pants.
“I hate it that you couldn’t talk to me about any of this,” he says. “There are a thousand things going on with you and you’re supposed to be able to come to me for that. I came out of the ice and you were the first friend I made. The best one I had, and I’m the one that broke us.”
Natasha thinks of what she can say, how truthful she can be without hurting him too badly. “You think the safest hands are your own. And I understand that about you,” she tells him. “I always have. But – if you weren’t ready to consider oversight at the time, when the bomb went off in Vienna… if you weren’t ready to sign, you knew that I’d signed. Tony, Rhodey - you could have trusted that we would have looked out for your interests right then, Steve. You could have trusted that none of us would have just let Everett shoot him in cold blood. You could have let us try.”
“And I didn’t.”
“No, you didn’t. Because James was in trouble, and that made everything else stop mattering. We can go in circles about the Accords and whether or not signing was the right thing to do, and maybe we’ll never come to an agreement about that – it doesn’t even really matter, now. But we both know that if Zemo hadn’t known how to play all of us – if he hadn’t known to pin it on James….”
Steve lets out a deep, shuddering breath that sounds as though it’s been trapped inside his chest over all these long, dragging months. “Yeah. We could have worked through it. We would have worked through it, eventually.”
“I’m glad you know that,” she says, quietly. “I’ve spent a long time feeling like I was the only one who did.”
He leans his shoulder against hers. “Thank you for being here. I haven’t said that, either. I know I haven’t been the easiest pal in the world lately, and both times I called you – you showed up anyway. Thank you.”
“Well, I have a little bit of a soft spot for you, Rogers,” she says, leaning back against him. “I’m looking into having it surgically removed, but losing that Avengers healthcare plan – out of pocket’s going to be a bitch.”
It’s better, this cleared air between them; she can see some of the tension visibly receding from Steve’s body, the line of his shoulders much less unnaturally straight and taut. “I’ve been a jealous asshole, too. As long as we’re getting it all out of the way.”
She raises an eyebrow at him. “Steve, I care about you a lot, but in a very platonic – ”
“No, stop,” Steve says, sounding like such a disgusted older brother that it makes her laugh. “No, I just – this is petty as hell, I don’t like myself very much for it.”
“Tell me anyway.”
“I keep thinking that’s classic Bucky Barnes for you,” he says, his mouth twisting just a little. “Coming through years of hell that I don’t envy one bit, but on the other side, you both get to – see each other. Touch. Talk. Say anything you wish you’d always said. And I’m.”
He half-waves a hand towards the house, a museum dedicated entirely to Peggy Carter’s ghost and a life left unlived. Surrounded day and night by memories he never got to make, chances they never took with no way to rewind the clock. For James, time opened up and Natasha was on the other side exactly as he remembered her, whole and strong and vibrantly real. For all the other attendant horrors and miseries, that’s a piece of luck that can’t be underplayed or discounted.
Steve’s wrong, Natasha thinks. It’s not petty at all.
It would have made a much lesser man than Steve Rogers bitter and angry, too. It would have made a lesser man turn into something worse than a person who snarks at someone about too-loud phone calls.
“I’m not immune to being a jealous asshole,” she says. “I know how it is.”
He hesitates; she can see him trying to pick his next sentence carefully, knowing this particular subject is a minefield that he’s already run roughshod over. In the end, he settles for quietly asking, “So – Barton?”
Her stomach turns with how badly she wants to not say anything at all, but that’s the point of this: there’s no room for half-truths here.
“I always knew that I could ruin his marriage,” she says. “I always knew that if I wanted to, I could do it.”
Steve, to his credit, does not flinch away from her.
“I spent a very long time not. I tried so goddamned hard for so long to not.” Natasha shrugs, an annoyingly helpless gesture from someone who knows she is far from helpless. “And it turned out I did it anyway.”
“It’s not all on you, Nat.”
“I don’t think assigning percentages of fault matters once a thing is done.”
“Says the woman who just made it clear that at least seventy percent of what went wrong after Vienna is on my dumb ass,” Steve says, nudging her gently.
“Don’t put it on Clint, that’s not true and it’s not fair,” she says. “And you need to start being nicer to him, by the way, he’s having a hard enough time as it is.”
“I’ll think about it,” Steve says grumblingly. “Are you at least – happier, now? With him? I’ve seen you take too many hits on this front, Nat, I just – that’s the only thing I want here.”
There are too many possible answers to that question. She picks the one that feels most right.
“I see a way that I could be,” she says, so quietly that it’s barely more than a whisper.
She wants to make sure that the universe isn’t paying enough attention to overhear. This is exactly the sort of delicate, soft hope that it would have fun immediately lighting on fire.
Next part coming soon, as per usual!
Also: there is now unbelievably gorgeous coverart uploaded in Chapter One, made by oceanssapart, who also made a perfect Spotify playlist to go along with this story! THEY ARE ALL REALLY AMAZING and I was stupidly touched by it and I can't stop listening to the Florence & The Machine song included on it, please check them ALL OUT.
You guys are all the best, seriously - that you so much for sticking with this, and for making writing this so rewarding and fun and post-AOU-group-therapyish. I love you.
Clint might have some trouble if he was asked to articulate the actual laws of physics, but he understands them on an instinctive level. Geometrical patterns calculate themselves at lightspeed in his head. There are fairly complex areas of mathematics that come to him with incredible ease; he barely even thinks of it as math, because he understands it the way he understands the English language, how to walk, how to breathe.
So there’s no explanation for why he never seems to be able to figure out how to calculate the fucking time difference between Iowa and literally anywhere else in the world.
“It’s okay,” Laura repeats for the third time, a yawn still caught in her voice. “Honestly. I drifted off watching TV on the couch, I’m glad you woke me. I’d have a crick in my neck all day tomorrow.”
He opens his mouth to apologize, again, and forcibly holds it back. “Kids asleep?”
“Theoretically,” she says. “We should try to lock down a solid time for you to videochat with them, though. Soon.”
There’s a hint of reproach in her words, in the way she punctuates them, which – fair enough, so he doesn’t take the bait. “Thanks for uploading all those pictures for me,” he says instead. “It was – I appreciated that, it was a nice thing for you to do.”
“You’re still their father,” she says.
Which is not exactly you’re welcome or I knew you’d love those. These conversations with Laura have dramatically shifted; she’s never rude or unkind, but her usual warmth is always notably absent from her voice. It’s not even a lack of you’re my husband and I love you fondness – he’d have been an idiot to believe he’d still warrant that kind of reception, but she has a baseline level that she usually operates from. Even with strangers, Laura radiates solid Midwestern amiability.
It’s nothing he can fault her for. It’s just that the coolness is still strange and unfamiliar. They’re still figuring out how to navigate this, and it makes him feel like an asshole to realize he had sort of been counting on Laura to provide the roadmap. There have been a lot of things he’s relied on her for over the years – he didn’t always realize he’d been taking them for granted.
Neither of them wanted this to be contentious. Clint probably should have realized that “not contentious” was not actually synonymous with “pretty much everything stays the same, we just won’t be married anymore.”
He clears his throat. “So…”
“So,” she says. “Did you just want to talk to the kids, or was there something else you needed? It’s only, I’m pretty beat, so if there’s nothing pressing – ”
“No – yeah, sorry,” Clint says, and clears his throat once more. “I needed to check in with you.”
“About what?” Laura asks.
“I know you said you could handle – you know, all the legal stuff, on your end – ”
“You want to know how efficiently I’m processing the paperwork for our divorce?” she says. She sounds a little amused.
“There’s nothing you need from me to move it forward?”
“There’s not,” she says. “It’s just the way it has to be done when you can’t get a signature from one party, it’s a lot of – look, I don’t want to bore you with details and I really am exhausted right now, but it’s progressing. I told you I’d take care of it and I am.”
“But it’s not done yet?” he presses. “It’s not official?”
“Clint. It’s so late, can this wait until – ”
“I know, but it’s important, so could you please – ”
“Is Natasha refusing to finally sleep with you until the state of Iowa certifies that you’re single?” Laura snaps. “Is that what’s making it important?”
Clint falls silent. His grip on the burner tightens so much that he can feel the blood leave his knuckles.
“Oh my God,” she says, once she realizes why his silence has stretched on for so long. “Oh my God.”
“You – are – unbelievable,” she chokes out.
“Listen, would you just let me try to explain before you – ”
“I don’t need the picture to get any clearer, thanks,” she says, her voice edging higher on every word. For all the times he has made some very idiotic moves in his life, this might be the crowning achievement. How did he think this conversation was going to go? What the hell did he think this would accomplish?
It’s possibly more humiliating that he knows the answer. The pathetic and small answer: he was thinking he would make this call, and Laura would cheerfully say all the loose strings had been tied up, and then he could tell Natasha, with certainty, that if she wants this, them, it’s all aboveboard. And it would be enough to convince her that this, them, is right. It would be enough to tip the scales.
And then maybe Barnes would, entirely by coincidence, decide he needs to move to North Dakota. Or fall off the roof. Or something.
Clint might have known better – he might have felt less urgent, or at least wouldn’t have ridden that urgency all the way into thoughtlessness if it weren’t for Barnes. If it weren’t for he way he and Natasha are with each other, the casual touches, the lingering looks, the abrupt questions he’ll overhear Barnes ask her the moment they pop into his head.
What’s her favorite thing to eat? Does she read a lot? Could she play him some song she likes? Most interesting jobs? Does she like movies? How about cars?
But it’s her easy answers that make Clint feel like someone’s spreading his ribs until they cracking apart one at a time. It’s the way she smiles as she talks to Bucky about chocolate-dipped salted caramels from a candy shop in Germany, the Rolling Stones, the evolution of television as medium.
It took her months to develop personal taste, and it took her longer than that to share her preferences with Clint, in the beginning. They were almost like gifts – when there was nothing else, she could give him little pieces of things that she finally knew were true, that weren’t for just anyone to know. How she took her coffee. How much she hated techno.
It’s not like these are still things about Nat that he hoards. Pepper Potts imports those German caramels for her as a gift at the holidays; she and Sam flew to see a Stones show in Canada on the last stop of their tour; she shares all her streaming accounts with Steve. (Clint only knows that because pre-Sokovia, she was constantly scolding him for fucking up her suggestion algorithms, which always made Steve defensively tell her that it’s hard to fuck up someone’s taste if it’s already terrible.) Nat’s not giving away things that are private, exclusive to the two of them.
Their conversations, their long walks around the property – she needs this, and she is not doing any of it to hurt Clint.
It’s just a really shitty side effect. Natasha shouldn’t let that stop her; Clint would never ask her to, but it’s still crawled under his skin, made him lose sight of logic, and now Laura’s the one who’s been stuck paying the check.
“I don’t even know what to say to you right now,” she says, furious and tearful and rightfully so. Clint is three inches tall. Clint is a bug. “Do you know how absolutely fucked up – ”
She trails off without finishing the thought and he can picture the look on her face as though she’s right in front of him. Profanity has never found a natural home in Laura’s mouth; she always seems surprised by her own audacity when she lets a fuck fly.
Clint still can’t make words come. Which, all things considered, is probably for the best. He’s never had an ex-wife before, so he can be forgiven some stumbles, but this – this was a giant fucking transgression, not a stumble. This was awful and there’s no way to rectify it; laying out the details, the Barnes of it all, that would just make it worse.
“Are you just going to keep breathing heavily into the receiver, or can I finally go to bed?” she says tightly.
“I’m sorry,” he says. He sounds rough even in his own ears. “I didn’t mean to – ”
“You never mean to, but things always seem to end up happening anyway, don’t they?” she says. “Don’t make me into this person. Don’t make me the exhausted ex-wife who drops shrewish comments about your little girlfriend – ”
“Oh, come on, don’t say shit like that – ”
“That’s what I mean,” she snaps. “Don’t make me think about Natasha that way. Leave me that much dignity, at least.”
The accusation of that, that he’s somehow taken away her dignity, intentionally or otherwise – it’s like someone’s snapped a rubber band in his brain. It’s been stretched back and forth, out to the limits of its elasticity and they didn’t mean to release it, but one slip and it’s soaring across the room before he can grab it back. “I’m sorry, were you planning on maintaining a close personal friendship even if we weren’t together? Brunch dates? Book club?” he asks sarcastically – more than sarcastic, it’s straight into caustic. Even in his own ears, he sounds like Stark on his worst day. “Not to sound like a first-grader here, but Nat was my friend first. Pretty sure I was always going to get dibs.”
Laura’s laugh is sharp and bitter. “Friends. When were you ever only friends, Clint? This thing with the two of you didn’t just happen after we split.”
“I did not leave you for Natasha!” he says – shouts, almost. “You and I agreed on this together. You don’t get to rewrite it just because now – ”
“The ink is not even dry on our divorce papers and you’re calling to give me the Clint Barton version of a gentle new relationship talk,” Laura interrupts. “We were married over a decade. I’ve had three of your children. How dare you act like I’m crazy for calling it what it is.”
Clint forces himself to take a deep breath, deep enough that she can probably hear it. She’s right, mostly but not entirely, and there’s not going to be a compromise in a fight like this. There can’t be.
“This is not – the place – I meant for this call to end up in,” he says, trying to measure out his words. “I wasn’t trying to – I didn’t mean to start this conversation.” And I definitely shouldn’t have told you Tasha and I are together before I’m sure that’s actually true. “You told me you were tired. I shouldn’t have pushed you. I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry, well. All better, then.”
“Look, I started it, I’m well aware, but this is really not – that’s not how I want…” She’s the mother of his children. Whatever else they are, there are three kids involved, and Clint is not going to let himself deliberately be an asshole to the mother of his children.
“You don’t get to decide how angry at you I’m allowed to be,” Laura tells him. “Especially when you pull things like this.”
“I know,” Clint says. “I really do, Laura, I swear, but don’t want to go back and forth saying shitty things to each other and make it worse when there’s not a way to make it better. So let’s just – can we both agree to stop here?”
She’s silent for a minute. “I wanted to get off this call ten minutes ago.”
“Yeah, you did. I should have let you.”
“I’m going to do that now,” she tells him. “Do not call again for awhile.”
“Okay,” he agrees. “Laura, hey. I really am…” He’s already talking to the dial tone. “Yeah. That seems about right.”
“What the fuck,” he yelps, rubbing his forehead with the heel of his hand. It feels like it left a mark.
“Oh, good, you’re up,” she says, pleasantly. “Why is Laura texting me?”
“I can’t say that I have a very good answer to this,” he says, after a moment. “Do I want to know…”
Natasha extends a hand to pluck her phone off his chest, where it bounced off and landed. “‘Please call Lila when it is convenient. She has been asking for you.’”
A massive sense of relief rushes through him. “Okay, so… I mean, I guess if you want to, call? Lila loves you.” Natasha gives him A Look. Her patented how have you lived this long without falling down a well somewhere look, and he has to actively stop himself from not averting his eyes like a guilty child. “What am I missing?”
“ ‘Please call Lila’,” she repeats, enunciating very precisely. “‘When it is convenient’. Period, no contraction. ‘She has been asking for you.’ Period. Again, no contraction.”
He must still look blank, because she lets out a huff of impatience. “Do you not understand how aggressive it is to use proper punctuation in texts?”
“Apparently I don’t,” he says. “Tone in texts is a thing?”
“She never uses periods, Clint,” Natasha says. “And no contractions? Imagine I sent you three in a row and didn’t use an emoji in any of them.”
“…oh God. Oh, God.”
“Thank you,” she says, but drops down onto the couch next to him, at least. “I have a guess, but I’d like to hear it from you.”
“You are an incredible spy,” he says. “I mean, constructing a complete picture out of only two sentences with no visual cues? That’s unparalleled work, Tasha, honestly. Not to mention you’re extremely accomplished in many other fields, and well-read, and brilliant, and you smell great, and you’re devastatingly beautiful in any hair color you choose – ”
“This must have been a truly incredible fuckup.”
“Like you wouldn’t believe, yes.” He scrubs a hand back through his hair, pulls himself up to a sitting position. “Can I get you to promise you won’t throw the phone at me? Seriously, that thing’s a brick.”
“I won’t throw the phone at you,” she says.
“Or stab me again?”
“That was an accident. You know that was an accident.”
He takes a deep inhalation, holds onto it before exhaling again. He’s only ever known one way to do things with Natasha, and it’s directly, even the times he’d really rather not. “The last time I talked to Laura, I told her that you and I were together. I didn’t do it…”
“Kindly?” she supplies, sounding unsurprised. He should probably do some self-reflection about that lack of surprise, at some point.
“No. Not intentionally, but – no. I didn’t do it kindly. I know that was me overstepping with you, too, and I’m – I’m genuinely sorry, Nat, I shouldn’t have thrown you into it, I was way over the line and please remember that you already promised you weren’t going to throw something heavy at me.”
He can put the picture together as well as Nat can, that’s the thing. There’s a little girl back in Iowa who’s been pestering her mother with Auntie Nat this, Auntie Nat that. Auntie Nat, who her father is more or less shacking up with, and right now, her mother cannot bear to hear that name in her home, in her daughter’s mouth. Her mother who won’t take whatever it is that she’s feeling out on her daughter, who won’t punish a child for her father’s behavior.
And it’s not like Laura doesn’t know that Natasha is someone she can trust to behave like an adult about it. One uncomfortable text, a quick uncomfortable conversation, and it’ll buy her some silence from hearing Natasha’s name, from hearing Lila’s open adoration, for at least a little while.
Natasha is very still for a minute; he knows that look on her, the one she gets when she’s working out her perspective without factoring anyone else’s opinions into it. Clint knows better than to keep rambling. He knows to sit tight and wait for the verdict.
Still, it feels like a very long minute.
But then she drops her shoulders and lets the tension drain from her posture. He’s not expecting her to lean into his side; he’s expecting it even less when she settles her hand at the back of his neck, her fingers sliding up into his hair and gently scratching along his nape.
It feels fantastic. It also means it’s his turn to sit perfectly still, because he has no idea what he did to deserve that, and he’s not entirely sure it won’t turn on a dime.
“You’re not mad?” he asks cautiously.
“I’m a couple things,” she says, and then nudges her mouth against his, gently.
He tries not to kiss her with too much eagerness; ever since that night in the kitchen, he’s felt like he’s been living his life on a pile of eggshells, as though playing it cool could possibly do him any favors. He’s too tangled in her for cool to be anything but a laughable façade and he knows it. There’s not a card in his hands she hasn’t already seen and memorized.
Touches, gestures like this – it’s not as though they mean nothing. It’s just that they don’t mean the something he’s searching to see in them. Not yet.
Maybe it means something all on its own that he understands her well enough to know the difference.
Still. He’ll take this. He will always take this. He will never take kissing Natasha for granted, this small miracle of her mouth on his.
“I don’t like that I’m not mad,” she murmurs against his mouth. Her voice has gone slightly husky; he snakes an arm around her waist, and when she leans in closer, he overplays his hand and tugs her onto his lap. She pulls back just enough for him to see her lips push into a subtle moue, but he spreads his fingers out along her lower back into five little pressure points and it disappears quick as it came. “But even badly handled, it was always an inevitable conversation.”
“I think so, yeah,” he agrees. Clint won’t say it out loud. He won’t make Natasha say it, either, because it’s at least a little shitty, but it’s still true: she’s glad that Laura knows, and it gives him a flicker of hope. It’s made this more real. “Look. She might never believe this, especially not with our, um…”
“Oh my God, you giant Scrabble nerd, I already know you’re smarter than me.”
She smiles. It’s a beautiful smile. “Fuck you.”
“Anytime you like.” He kisses the tip of her nose, because she’s here and because he still can. “But what I said to you in Spain was the truth. You were a factor, Nat, but you were not the only reason my marriage ended. If you tell me we need to knock this off – it’s pretty obvious that’s not what I want, but even if it’s what happens, for the first time since I walked away from the team, I’m back in the place I need to be. That’s still the right thing.”
Natasha shifts on his lap, a move to get comfortable, closer. Her legs are warm over his, the warmest thing in this otherwise icy room. He briefly wishes they were still in the phase where sex was always the preferred alternative to talking.
“I should go call Lila,” she says, and he raises both eyebrows. “Better than leaving the text unanswered when she knows I saw it. It’ll be okay.”
“This is a show that Laura and I have been doing together for a very long time,” Natasha tells him. He’s digesting that when she slides off and stands, running her fingers through his hair once more, with gentle affection. “Believe me, we both know our lines.”
Plus, having some work for his hands is vital when the list of Things He’s Pointedly Not Thinking About has about reached the length of a novel.
He’s on the ground in front of the heater, happily tinkering with all the various coils and rods and absorbed in the work when he hears heavy footsteps on the stairs; Barnes. He can tell from the tread. When Barnes makes noise, it’s overly intentional. Must have been one of the tips Natasha gave him – up until a week ago, he was unnervingly silent in all his comings and goings. Clint was seriously considering sticking a magnet with a bell onto his arm.
“Anything you need help with?” Barnes offers.
“No,” Clint says shortly.
He doesn’t take the hint. “You should probably be charging Carter for all the work you’ve put into this place,” he says. “I’m starting to feel like I’m not pulling my weight.”
“Gotta do something to pass the time.”
“Right, yeah.” Barnes clears his throat. “Any idea where Natalia’s gone to?”
That fucking name. Nails on a goddamn chalkboard. “She’s upstairs on the phone with the kids,” Clint says, tightening a spool of wire that he can’t pull too tightly, can’t fray it, they don’t have a ton of spare parts on hand. “She wanted some privacy to talk to them, though.”
The silence behind him is preferable to continuing this conversation. So preferable, in fact, that it takes Clint a little while to realize it’s finally edged into awkward. He’s trying to think of a more polite way to say please stop the creepy hovering when he turns around and sees the look on Barnes’s face.
The color’s drained out of it like someone’s scrubbed his face with an eraser; his mouth is hanging slightly open.
“What’s up?” Clint asks, curious in spite of himself.
Barnes swallows. “Kids?” he says, sounding strangled. “Natalia – she had babies? You two have…”
“What – oh!” he says, startled. “Jesus. Uh, no, they’re my kids, yeah, but she’s not – they have a mom. Not that Nat’s not great with them, I mean, she loves them and they love her, but she’s not their, you know. Natasha and I didn’t have kids together.”
The relief that sweeps over Barnes’s face is visible and all-encompassing. “Sorry. Kids are great, I just figured that’d be something she would’ve told me by now.”
And with that, it’s official: Clint can’t have this conversation and handle intricate, precise craftsmanship at the same time. He sets the parts aside and hauls himself up to his feet, wiping the grease and grit from his hands onto his jeans. “Would it make a difference?”
“If you two had kids together?” Barnes asks. “Make a difference in what, exactly?”
“Come on, man,” Clint says. “I want to be nice to you. I’m even a pretty okay guy, most of the time.”
The ghost of a grin crosses Bucky’s face. “You are, huh?”
“Well, I’m all right,” Clint amends. “Guys in our line of work, all right’s about as good as it gets, but you know.”
“Yeah.” Barnes nods, like he’s thinking it over; when he looks at Clint, he appreciates that the guy actually meets his eyes. “I don’t know her enough to say I’m still in love with her, Barton. I’m also not going to lie about how much I want to know who she became.”
A singular woman.
That was how T’Challa described her, and it was maybe the most succinct and accurate description of Natasha that Clint’s ever heard. Whatever else she is, she’s not the sort of person someone, anyone, could just get over after they’ve already fallen.
And he can respect that answer, but if Bucky doesn’t know that she likes Sour Patch Kids at the movies and is a very sore board game loser – those are the incidentals, the details that get painted in. When he and Nat have grown and changed over the years, they’ve generally done it in the same direction, but the core of her has been the same from the day they met. Stubborn and calculating and if not entirely fearless, most of the time able to do an excellent impression.
If Clint and Natasha had been together for years, this guy’s reappearance would probably still rattle Clint, at least a little. It’s not exactly that they’ve waded into a soapy triangle out of a book franchise, but it’s still one more thing they’re all fumbling to navigate. It’s a vague possibility, maybe, somewhere on the horizon, but it’s not as thought they’ve found themselves with their backs against the wall in ultimatum territory.
He doesn’t want to lose her, this new thing with her, but Natasha isn’t his bow. She isn’t something that belongs to him, something he could snarl at somebody to back away from and be within his rights to do it.
Bucky isn’t going to disappear. Clint is going to have to make his peace with that, with the fact that this guy is going to have a place in her life oh fucking hell, it comes into focus like a straight shot on a clear day, arrow nocked and ready, this is exactly what Natasha meant.
He pictures her upstairs right now, on the phone with his daughter, and the years she’s spent watching him with his family in Iowa; orbiting because Clint made it clear she was a part of his life, every part of it, even at the times it might have been kinder to separate church and state. How selfish he had been for so many years, believing this was the best his life could look and leaving it to Natasha and Laura to smooth over the wrinkles in tandem.
She loves his children. It will never be a question of that, but he is newly, blindingly aware of exactly what it is that he’s put her through. Even in the good parts, even the things he is entirely sure she always wanted to be part of – the things he’s made her stare in the face.
Clint loves her, has loved her, for so goddamn long, and it’s staggering, this realization that of course Natasha loves him, too, of course she has, and all her reservations and caution and pushback have roots that he helped plant and prune and nurture in a farmhouse in Iowa.
If Barnes had been unearthed as few as three years ago, Clint would have lost her. He knows that.
And he knows he would have deserved it.
“Should we just agree to do our best not to be weird about it?” Clint offers, and he wonders if this was the same accord that Laura and Natasha struck, once upon a time. If this was one of the lines they’ve learned.
Probably not, though. Natasha’s a lot more eloquent and a little less succinct.
“I’m not looking to muscle my way between anything,” Barnes says.
“Nobody ever goes looking to do that. Well – maybe some people do,” Clint says. “I think most of the time, though – if I’m any indication, you don’t get much a choice in how you feel.”
“Get a choice in how you act, though,” Barnes says, and then laughs, a wry sort of barking laugh like it’s more ironic than actually funny. “About seven decades of my life say otherwise, but you get the point.”
“If anybody tells you that your actions got out of line, it’ll be Natasha,” Clint tells him, then holds out a hand. “I’m not going to make it weird. This is her show.”
Bucky looks mystified for a moment, then reaches out to shake. “You’re all right.”
“Told you so.”
“I’m glad you are,” Barnes says seriously. “If she’d landed on Wilson, let me tell you, this conversation woulda been a whole lot uglier.”
Next part coming soon! Sorry, holidays, travel, life, etcetera, sucked up a lot of my time, but I am determined to finish this before we get a whole new bunch of canon dumped in our laps with Infinity War in case I have to SETTLE IN AND FIX THINGS AGAIN.
There are ringtones Natasha programs into any emergency cell she’s ever had, across the board – it’s useful in case she needs a heads-up on what she’s about to be walking into, conversationally speaking. She doesn’t vary them that often, because it’s become a useful shorthand for the times like now, when she’s down to some brick that sends texts by clicking a number multiple fucking times to land on the right letter.
And she misses Candy Crush Soda.
As far back as she can remember, she’s only heard Laura’s personal ringtone – not the farm’s land line, which had three possible callers, but the one that matches up to her cell – once. Three hours after the Chitauri had blown a hole in the sky and Tony had thrown a deployed nuke at them for their trouble; two hours after finishing a comped and, all things considered, very delicious lamb shawarma, fries, and falafel combo platter; one hour after Clint had fallen asleep across her lap in the smashed ruin of the penthouse and she and Tony had their first silent conversation. If Clint would have to be remanded to SHIELD custody eventually, the same way Loki had, if there would be hours of testing and talking, of psychoanalysis and debriefs, if Natasha was the sort of agent who understood perfectly well how much timing was of the essence to get down the most accurate account in situations like the one Clint had just come through –
Natasha had looked at Tony. Tony had looked at Natasha.
And she understood that he would bar anyone from entry until she told him otherwise. He would run interference with Fury, he’d do it with no questions asked and nothing owed. He had her back. Entirely.
She has never forgotten he did that. On their worst days, she has still never forgotten.
Clint was deeply, thickly asleep when the ringtone came through, her phone somehow still safely protected behind one of the endless zippers of her suit, and for a second, she almost didn’t answer.
She’s never forgotten that, either. Clint’s head in her lap and his hands wrapped tightly around her legs, as though he was afraid even in sleep she’d change her mind and run out on him – he was out, who knew if Loki had allowed him sleep over the past few days. He was so deep under it would have taken cymbals and a trumpet and the Hulk himself leading the parade to wake him. Natasha knew perfectly well a phone call wouldn’t make him so much as twitch, which meant ‘noise could wake him up when he really needs the rest’ wasn’t a real excuse.
If she didn’t have a real excuse, if she didn’t have something more concrete to hang her hat on than I don’t want to talk to you right now, it meant she had to answer, and so she did.
Laura was openly sobbing on the other end. She’d seen the news – the whole world had seen the news, by then – and now his phone was going right to voicemail. She had no one else to call.
“Please,” she wept. “Please, Natasha, just tell me.”
There was so much pain and fear in her voice. But two thousand miles away, her husband had come through the other side of hell to sleep on Natasha’s lap, with one of her hands in his hair and, until she’d picked up her phone, the other measuring the slow, reassuring thrum of his pulse in his neck.
These are not disposable people, Natasha had thought, and tried to grasp on to the image of it: an hour earlier in Iowa, so the sun wouldn’t have set yet. His wife with swollen salty eyes, still trying to lose the weight from their last baby, his son and his daughter, bottles and diapers and brightly colored children’s books and while Laura cried on the other end of the line, she was unprepared for the burst of anger to pop low in her stomach.
Laura thought these few hours of uncertainty were the same as fear?
There were worse things than death, and the worse thing was the call Natasha had been the one to receive. Barton’s been compromised, and no, you won’t run to him right away, will you? We know we can trust you to do your job, Agent Romanoff, we know you will work quickly and efficiently and intelligently, you will maneuver the chess pieces into place, and don’t think about how your heart is rotting inside with every minute that passes, because there’s nothing to be gained by going rogue and you know that, don’t you? You, with your steady hands and your steel spine and unflappable calm. You will be the way you’ve been built, you will be the asset we flipped and not the human inside it, no, the human is inconvenient right now and you know that, it’s why you won’t go rogue. You will play chess. You will play it over days. You will read the board. You will play it like it’s every other game you’ve played for us and you will pretend that what hangs in the balance is not the only thing in your world that holds any real value. And if it comes down to taking him out, we know you will do what needs to be done.
You will know if he was still in his right mind, he’d have wanted it to be you.
And now that they had made it to the other side, even Tony Stark knew enough to close the door and let them be still and quiet and alone together.
It was a monstrously unfair anger. Natasha knew that, but it had been too many days, and it had been too close, and it wasn’t ready to let her out of its grips.
“He made it through,” she said, curtly, and Laura wheezed out a noise that sounded like she’d been elbowed in the gut.
“He’s okay?” she said. “Can you grab him, can I just talk to him for a second – ”
“Not right now,” Natasha said. “Look – it’s not a good time.”
“Oh, Natasha, please – I’m sorry, I know it’s probably crazy there, I know it’s work and these things happen, but please – ”
“I can’t right now,” she snapped. “He’ll call you when he can. He’s alive. He’s okay.”
Laura let out another watery sound. “I’m sorry that I – ”
“It’s fine. I have to go,” she said, and hung up.
Mortifyingly, after Clint had been cleared by a battery of SHIELD tests and she’d arrived at the farm with him a few weeks later, Laura had tried to apologize to her for the inappropriately timed call and interfering “while she was working”.
There was no real way to explain to her that there had been only one asshole on that phone line and it had resoundingly been Natasha, so she accepted the apology and tried to not think about it too much. Any of it.
So. No. This is not her favorite ringtone in the world to hear.
This time, it wakes her from sleep in the pre-dawn light, everyone tinged vaguely blue and watery, like they’re suspended beneath the ocean. Steve makes an undignified whiny sound at the noise; James flops over onto his stomach, gracelessly, and burrows his head under his pillow.
Clint squints an eye open as she sits up, grabbing one of their blankets to take with her. She shakes her head, no, not an emergency, and he closes it immediately, dropping back to sleep like he was never disturbed. It’s a stupidly endearing move, stupidly adorable for no reason at all, and she can’t stop herself from smiling as she flips the phone open.
“Hello,” she says, her voice low. “Give me just a second?”
She shoves her feet into her shoes, kicked off just outside the entrance to the living room where they’re all still group-bunking like they’ve enrolled in the world’s worst sleepaway camp, knots the blanket around her shoulders, and pushes her way out onto the stone terrace.
The cold is an abrupt slap to the face, like throwing back three shots of espresso at once, and she shivers as she pulls the door closed behind her. The snow that the grey skies have been threatening for weeks finally dumped on them last night; they’ll have to be more careful about tracks, but it’s hard to deny the beauty of the thing. It’s remade this crumbling, dead mansion into something benign and lovely; a child’s gingerbread castle dusted with sugar, an elegant winter getaway (that still has no central heating.)
The snow makes friendly crunching sounds under her boots as she walks to the edge of the terrace past some rusting porch furniture, looking out at the sprawling, white-blanketed grounds. There’s a red hawk circling lazily over the thicket and some squirrel tracks crisscrossing the overview, but other than that, it’s peaceful.
She’s watched a lot of people die in the cold, most of them while she was growing up. Most of the time, she was the cause. The beauty is an illusion that makes people forget so much very real danger, and it strikes her, suddenly, that this is one of the ways that she knows she’s evolved. She’s someone who knows what this snow would look like spattered with blood; she knows all the ways there are to die in it, to make it a lure, to take the advantage.
And she’s someone who can look at it and think oh, it snowed last night, that’s pretty. Maybe it’s a strange peace to have made with herself, but sometimes she likes the reminders that she’s come to a point in her life where she’s made, at least, a tentative one.
Natasha tightens the blanket’s knot around her and brings the phone back to her ear. “Okay. Sorry, Laura, I can talk now.”
“You knew it was me?”
“And you picked up anyway?”
“Oh, you know. I’m a lot of things, but I try to keep chicken off the shortlist.”
Laura snorts in a way that lets Natasha know she doesn’t actually think anything’s funny. “I don’t even know why I wanted to talk to you.”
“I don’t have a lot of theories,” Natasha says, carefully. She’d decided days ago that if Laura wanted to unload on her, she’d take it – it wouldn’t be undeserved, especially after Clint had blundered his way through the whole thing. Not that she’d thought there would ever really be a good way to talk about it, with Laura or the family as a whole. Nate was about the only one she assumed would have no real reaction, and that was because he’s still mostly uninterested in anything that isn’t yogurt, his own feet, or toys that light up and make too much noise.
Though really, it’s probably time for her to call a spade a spade: she hadn’t imagined the reality of telling any of them because she hadn’t imagined there would ultimately be anything worth telling. It wasn’t as though Clint was under some obligation to disclose details about his post-divorce sex life to his family, and that was the sort of grey area where Natasha is comfortable making a home for herself.
It still shocks her when she remembers Clint’s plans really are bigger than that.
She knew he believed he was telling her the truth, that wasn’t something she’d doubted, but what someone believed and the actual truth were not always things that bore any kind of relationship to each other, and then – and then he’d gone and just blurted it out, no guile in him whatsoever, I told her, of course I told her, I told you how much I meant all of this.
“I did have one question. It’s been bothering me. Were we ever actually friends?” Laura asks. “Really friends, I mean.”
“Yes,” Natasha tells her, and then pauses, because that’s too easy, and whatever spurred her to make this call, she doesn’t think Laura’s looking for easy. “It would have been… inconvenient to not be, maybe, for both of us. And I think sometimes it was hard to hold onto. But I’d still say yes.”
“You think so, huh? Because I keep thinking about it and – what did we really ever have in common? Besides Clint and the kids.”
“Look, if we’d met in a yoga class or something, no. I don’t think we would have hit it off,” Natasha says. “But that’s not how it happened. Maybe sometimes, for some friendships, it’s enough that you love the same people.”
Laura’s quiet for a minute. “Cooper broke a kid’s nose today.”
“Yeah. One of the kids in his class was winding him up at recess, and apparently he popped off and sucker-punched him right on the bridge of the nose. Pretty accurate hit for a fifth grader.”
“Did he tell you what the other kid was saying? I mean, Cooper’s not exactly a ticking bomb, so it must have been – ”
“You know what, that is exactly why I’m upset,” Laura says, and Natasha can picture her clearly right then, forehead scrunched up, pinching the bridge of her nose like a sinus headache is coming on. “I don’t care what the other kid said, I don’t care how ugly it was. I’m not raising children who think violence is an option when it comes to problem-solving.”
It’s Natasha’s turn to go quiet, because there’s no helpful response here. She is absolutely a person who solves problems with violence, often, and they’re both aware.
“It’s such a lovely thing with kids, sometimes, when you look at them and you see something of yourself in them,” Laura says, and her voice cracks just a little. “You see these bursts of personality or a small physical gesture or, I don’t know, you love the same weird flavor of ice cream.”
“You three really are disgusting with the Lavender Honey,” Natasha says, softly. Because she knows. She has lived so many hours in that house; she knows.
“Exactly. And it’s so gratifying to think you passed on one of the good parts of yourself. One of the best things. It makes you think about that, the best things inside you. Then you get the phone call from the principal telling you that your kid broke another kid’s nose, unprompted, with one very specifically thrown punch, and you think and then sometimes the worst things show up.”
Natasha measures her words very carefully. “I wouldn’t say that’s the worst part of Clint.”
“Well, you wouldn’t,” Laura agrees. Out along the treeline, the hawk’s lazy circles have started to tighten, growing and more focused. “But you aren’t the one who’s spent a decade raising his children.”
There’s no acid in it; not even a rebuke, really, it’s a simple statement of fact not meant to cut, and Natasha’s almost pleasantly surprised to realize it doesn’t hurt. They fell in love with different versions of Clint. Their relationships have always been built on different tentpoles.
It was circumstance that meant Natasha was the one who fell in love with the truer version.
“And I’m not raising my kids to be like the two of you,” Laura adds, heavily. “That is not the life I want for them. I just wish I’d understood that I couldn’t have both before I married Clint.”
“I bet he was charming as hell back then, though.”
“Oh, yeah. He knew it, too. He used that line about never missing – ”
“Something he aims for, ugh, you actually fell for that?”
“I was twenty four. I wore beige lipstick and owned sandals made out of cork.”
“We all go through a bad wardrobe phase, I guess.” She pauses, shifting the phone to her other hand to try and warm that one up. “If it’s worth anything…”
“Don’t say you’re sorry. I don’t know that any of us can be sorry. Except Clint, but – I don’t know. I’m angrier with him than I am with you. I think that’s my prerogative, though.”
The hawk peels off. No warning; it’s abrupt, a sharp turn upwards after minutes of circling in on its prey, and for no apparent reason. It’s that fast.
It’s always that fast.
“Laura, get the kids in the car and start driving. Now. ”
“What?” Laura asks, startled. “Nat – ”
The prick comes just below her jawline, right at her jugular. The spot she opened up and cleared as soon as she moved the phone to her other fucking ear. “Now,” Natasha repeats.
Numbness is already seeping through her limbs; the urge to scratch at the place the syringe struck is almost overpowering, but she can’t waste the energy; she has to break her burner in half so they can’t see anything once she’s down – grateful, suddenly, that she went with the flimsy flip phone, of all things, because she’s not sure she’d have the strength to break it under her foot.
Already. Some barbiturate, but she can last at least two minutes and twenty six seconds conscious on most of those, she’s practiced, this is going to put her down in a hot sixty, it is not - it is -
Whatever was inside it winds itself through her bloodstream, molten and thick and a low buzzing filling her ears, but the phone – there. Two pieces, in her hands, she didn’t realize she had done it yet and her hands are numb but that’s done, then, good, if her vision is blurring at its edges, no one’s appeared at the edge of the treeline, not yet, which means they’re waiting until she’s fully down, fully on the ground because they want to do this quietly, they want an ambush, they do not want to give any heads up and that is
What that is, is someone’s awful mistake, because if it’s already too late for Natasha, if these are her last moments of life, it’s not yet too late for the people she loves.
She can’t hold whatever’s coming back, not like this.
But she can still buy them time.
One knee hits the ground, snow seeping through her pants, but her other foot is firmly planted and she pushes herself forward on it to grab the small iron tea table, it’s swimming in front of her and she thinks briefly is it heavy because it’s heavy or is it heavy because I’m – but she stops because the answer doesn’t matter, because this is the only thing she will be able to reach now and
She vomits, abruptly and without feeling any clench in her abdominals, just a thin stream of bile spilling onto the snow in front of her and she thinks of how undignified it is, this swift bodily rejection of what’s happening to her and she wants to be angry, at herself for staying so open and this drug and she
Pushes. Herself up. Hands clenched around the table’s iron legs and throwing it won’t be an option but she’s close enough and she
The floor-to-ceiling picture window over the terrace shatters in a cacophony of breaking glass, as loud as gunshots would be the loudest and only warning she’s capable of making and that’s the best she can do, so it has to be enough
“Clint,” she tries, but her lips aren’t moving and she’s too tired to bring them under control and
And it’s nothing but black and silence.
It takes ten solid minutes of concentrating before Natasha can flutter them open, and when she does, everything is still bleary, filmy. Her mouth is dry, lips cracked and throat sore, and she decides not to draw attention to herself before she has a sense of her surroundings.
She’s on her side, she realizes gradually, her head on something cushioning it from the vibrating metal beneath her body – she thinks vaguely, for a moment, of the SHIELD helicarrier, but the helicarrier flew smooth and the vibrations here are too strong; a truckbed, maybe, the floor of a van.
And she’s not restrained. That part is a surprise. She’s weighted down, which she mistook for restraints, but when she opens her eyes again, she realizes it’s just a very thick blanket. Rough and a little dusty, but a blanket. Someone’s taken care to make her comfortable.
All her limbs are still leaden, though, so they might already know she’s not going anywhere on her own power. She spends some time flexing her fingers beneath the blanket, lifting and lowering them individually until they stop dropping after a few seconds.
It takes another few minutes for her to realize that she’s too hot, sweating beneath the weight on the blanket even though the interior here isn’t – well, it’s not cold, quite, but it’s not warm, either. The dryness in her mouth is uncomfortable, reaching well down the length of her throat, but when she hears footsteps behind her, she closes her eyes. If nothing else, it’s pleasant that her brain is functioning well enough that she knows how to behave in a situation like this.
A hand descends on her sweaty forehead. Cool – and hard, too cold and hard to be skin, but she can feel the flex of five fingers and the hell with blinking; that’s when she abruptly tries to push herself into a sitting position.
Too fast. Way too fast, and she knows it, and James catches her in his arms easily, holding her while her body forcibly shakes through it. “Hey, Natalia, tsch tsch,” he soothes, a familiar chiding sound he makes with his tongue that she’d forgotten he did until just now.
“Water,” she croaks, which she is so grateful is a request he came prepared for; he lifts a bottle to her mouth, keeping her cradled against his chest with the other arm.
“Slow,” he instructs. “I’ve cleaned up enough of your puke for both our lifetimes.”
“I know,” she says irritably. “Don’t – mansplain – dehydration.”
James chuckles; she can feel it against her back, through her sweat-soaked shirt, and she sips, slowly as he said. Waits a moment to see if it’ll settle, then repeats it all over again as he holds the bottle to her lips, endlessly patient and attentive.
By her estimation, it takes her the better part of thirty minutes to get down one bottle, but by the time she finishes, the feeling is back in her hands and feet and she can speak without pain.
“You doing okay?” he asks.
“Pleasantly surprised to be alive, in all honesty,” she says, wiping her wrist across her forehead. “What the hell was in that tranq gun?”
If she’d forgotten the chiding noise, she hasn’t forgotten this; the way nothing in James’s face changes, precisely, but murder fills his eyes, a cold flat rage that she only ever saw a handful of times and reserved almost exclusively for when she’d been hurt. It was nothing a simple rough assignment could put into him. “Far as I can tell, you got hit with whatever cocktail they cooked up to knock out Steve, maybe me, too. There were two different sets of vials on the one with the gun.”
“I assume that guy’s never getting up again.”
“Thanks for that. How long have I been out?”
She is entirely unprepared for his answer.
“Fifty-seven hours,” James says, and smooths her drenched, clumping hair back from her face. “Welcome back.”
He really must have cleaned up after her enough for both their lifetimes lately. Fifty-seven hours blanked – possibly mercifully – from her memory. If Natasha is pleasantly surprised to find herself alive, it occurs to her that she’s also profoundly lucky that the barbiturate didn’t stop her heart entirely.
“Where are we?” she asks, forcing the subject change. The next question should have been the who and the why, but it’s too tightly linked to the unconsciousness and James will understand. She doesn’t like knowing she’s missing nearly three days, time she can’t account for when she was so far beyond her own control. Even if she was with the people she trusts with her life – if she thinks about it, she’ll fall into an anxiety loop, picking at things she can’t change and time she can’t get back, and that’s not useful right now.
“Somewhere over the Baltic Sea. Plane’s kind of shitty, but I was short on ideas for places they couldn’t track us. Autopilot’s working fine, though.”
“Mmm. Okay.” Natasha nods, which is immediately a mistake, and she lets her head roll back onto his shoulder, closing her eyes again.
It takes another few seconds for the dots to connect themselves in her feverish brain.
He’s their pilot. He was also the first one to come to her side when she woke. He was the one who’s been cleaning up after her for the last few days.
“James,” she says.
He understands her tone. “You were unconscious, Natalia, we had no idea if you were gonna pull through, and we took down the first wave but there were more of them on the way,” he tells her – flat, matter of fact, a soldier debriefing a fellow soldier who will understand the logic and set the emotion aside. “And since I’m the one who can run a three-minute-mile and still carry a shitload more than you weigh….”
“Steve and Clint hung back to buy time,” she says.
“What happened after that?”
“I asked you a question, Sergeant Barnes,” she snaps. “What happened after that?”
“I don’t know,” James says. “They missed the meetup. I haven’t heard from them.”
“What about Tony?” Natasha says. Her voice is so calm, even in her own ears. It’s like they’re discussing their favorite paperwork tactics.
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know.”
“Clint’s family? His kids?” She has done this for too many years, she has done this from too many sides, and if a team was encroaching on the Carter estate, there was already one in position at the Barton farm. She did not have to be there to know. There are too many things she understands.
“I don’t know.”
They’re silent for a long time, the plane humming noisily beneath them. They feel small, Natasha thinks. The two of them, prone on the floor, curled around each other with little idea of what hit them and why. With no actual temperature gauge on the fallout, just heads full of worst case scenarios and lifetimes of knowing how bad bad can be to flesh them out.
She meets James' eyes, and she is sure she’s never looked less threatening: weak and shaking, sweaty and feverish, unable to sit up without his solid, real weight bearing her up.
But when she looks at him, he smiles, suddenly. A malicious smile, a predator. A Winter Soldier.
And she knows she’s been understood. Entirely.
“Boy oh boy,” he drawls, almost lazily, for all there is promised bloodshed in his voice. “Did they ever let the wrong two people make it out of there.”
Next one coming as soon as I get over this horrible fucking flu that appears to be taking down half the US or this chapter would have been up two weeks ago. Not that I'm bitter my fic writing productivity was cut short, I'm mad about, uh, taking time off work. That's right. Work is the thing I am upset about, always.
Some spoilers for Black Panther in this one! Which, if you haven't seen it yet, run don't walk and then ask me for my thousands of words of meta about Nakia, because I am predictable in which characters I obsess over!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Clint always forgets how much stuff his ribs actually are responsible for until he breaks a couple of them.
It’s the most infuriating sort of injury, a dumb human frailty that highlights exactly how easy it is to put someone on the ground when they’re not enhanced, when they’re not super, when they’re only circus trash with good aim and a knack for improvisation. Clear out ten guys with ten clean shots but one solid, hard strike and breathing’s like being stabbed and laying down makes it worse, all the ripple effects and the frustration when there are times it’s physically impossible to push through the pain, when your body’s explaining no, yeah, I hear you, this is bad shit, but here’s the thing: I still very literally cannot help you out right now, bud to your screaming brain and –
He breathes. Slowly, in through his nose. One inhalation of cracking cold air that smells like iron and damp hay. Another. And again.
Maybe not broken; he can still do deep breaths, and deep breaths hurt like a motherfucker, but he’s physically capable of them. Bruised – if he can throw some snow on it, walk around a little – he can play through. Bruised isn’t the worst thing.
There were ultimately fewer casualties than Clint would have expected. Smart play in ambush situations is keeping the option to ask somebody a few questions, an instinct drilled into him with decades behind it, but – still.
Natasha’s lips were blue.
The train jolts beneath them, a shrill of metal-on-metal as it lumbers along its route. Somewhere on the other side of this freight car, it is, unbelievably, a sunny afternoon. A cheerful freighter carving a path through the picturesque English countryside and they’re stowing away with its cargo like some cartoon about hobos in the Depression.
Which Steve would know something about, he guesses. Maybe all of this feels familiar to him.
They haven’t spoken in awhile, not since they worked out a plan to get here and hopped on board. The silence is a little strange – there’s a lot to talk through, but maybe Steve’s trying to work through some of it on his own, the same way Clint is, before they decide what has to come next and how to do it. They’ve got awhile longer to travel, so it’s not like there’s a rush. Every rumble and clack of the tracks carrying them further from the scene they left back at Sharon’s, hours ago – not a hell of a lot of time for cleanup if they didn’t want to end up on the Raft again, and he’s not entirely sure Nat would be up for staging a second breakout when the first was such a pain her ass. She’s pretty fond of him and Steve, but it’s been a rough couple months; that fondness might come up against its limits.
Her lips were blue. Her pulse was thready.
“They didn’t move like a unit,” Clint says, because he finally has to say something, because if he doesn’t fill this silence with words, his brain will fill it with too many other things.
Steve turns his head. “No,” he agrees. “I thought the same thing. Military tactics, military training, but – ”
“No cohesion,” Clint says. “They weren’t a practiced strike team. So if they were Ross’s guys, it means they’re, you know, pretty much just – ”
“Guys loyal to Ross. Yeah. This wasn’t a sanctioned retrieval mission, this was under the radar.”
“Ding ding ding,” he says, and swipes his forearm along his jaw. It comes away bloody, still; he’s not entirely sure if it’s his.
“You think it was just us that got hit?” Steve asks.
“No,” Clint says, flatly. “I don’t. Ever hear the expression you come at the king, you best not miss?”
“Sure, but in this context – ”
“It means when you’re coming after Avengers and you know enough to work up a tranquilizer that can take down a supersoldier, you don’t send one single team to one single safehouse and hope you catch a lucky break. You take out an insurance policy.”
He sees the moment Steve gets it. The color leaching from his cheeks, the horror he doesn’t know how to hide. The hint of shame that it hadn’t occurred to him to think of this himself. Steve’s another one with no poker face. “Clint. No.”
“If you can make a sound argument for why I’m wrong, I’d be fucking thrilled to be able to believe you,” Clint says. “So what have you got?”
Steve lowers his eyes.
“Yeah,” Clint says. “That’s what I thought.”
They return to sitting in silence. Not a ton of small talk to be made when both of them are trying not to think about how big the body count might already be. Trying not to think about whether or not Nat’s included on it by now, or any of their friends. Trying not to think about his children –
He stands up abruptly, the sharp pain from his ribs twisting all the way through his torso. Everything inside a body is so much more connected than it seems like it should be, fucking up one part of it refracts all the way into everything else. His eyes water, his spine tightens.
“I have to get there,” he says. “It can’t wait.”
Steve stands, too, hovering like he thinks there’s a chance Clint’s going to collapse onto one of the giant bales of hay. This freight car is too enclosed and smells too much like his barn. It’s edging him closer to panic than he should be, something frenetic building inside him and nothing solid that he can hook it onto so he can set it aside. No steps he can take to ward it off until the train comes to a stopping place. Nate took his first steps just a few months ago on his chubby toddler legs; Lila and those big brown eyes and her thousands of crayons; Cooper, his boy, his first son, too serious and too solemn for a kid but sometimes he has those incredible bursts of mischief; Laura, exhausted with all the secrecy but that was never the same as signing on for this –
“We’re supposed to meet Bucky and Natasha,” Steve says, like he’s trying to gentle some wild animal. “We’ll regroup, we’ll see where the others are at, and then – ”
“You don’t have kids,” Clint tells him. “There’s no and then when you have kids, Steve, okay? There’s no such thing as wait it out.”
“Just - think about it for a minute. If they know about your family, they’ll know that’s the first place you’d head if you made it out of the Carter place. They’ll have time to prep another ambush.”
Steve’s voice shimmers with frustration. “Clint, come on. I understand – ”
“No, you don’t, you don’t understand, you can’t,” Clint interrupts, fury bursting through him like it’s spilled out on a time delay. “You aren’t a father. Those are my children and I wasn’t there when their home got hit. My job right now is to get to my family. There is nothing else. Not for me. Not right now.”
There is a very long minute before Steve finally nods. “Okay. You’re right, okay.”
“I wasn’t asking your fucking permission, Captain.”
“I know that,” Steve says, accepting the barb with a certain measured grace. “I meant – okay, then I’m coming with you.”
“Nobody asked you.”
Steve shrugs, one corner of his mouth curving up underneath the truly impressive beard he’s been sporting for weeks now. “Nat would kill me. Can’t let her down.”
Clint’s gut gives a grieving, thick lurch. They’ll miss the meetup and there’s no way to give any kind of alert – they just won’t show, they will be an unanswered question, another source of worry. And normally it would be no big deal; he and Natasha have hundreds of ways to signal each other, to get in touch even in the most impossible circumstances, a long vocabulary of codes and hacks and frequencies. They always know how to find each other.
Except right now, Natasha could be –
She’s fine. She’ll be okay. They just don’t have a system to transcend unconsciousness.
And while he’s sure Bucky and Steve had their own private language, their methods and failsafes, they haven’t exactly had time to re-establish or upgrade them. They’re leaving the people they care about in the wind. And the two of them, himself and Steve – they won’t find out if Nat’s – if Bucky even made it out with her, if they got caught three miles down the road and it was all for nothing – if they need help, too – if, if –
“She’d understand,” Steve says quietly, probing into Clint’s mind, the parts he’s trying to keep from surfacing, with the sort of accuracy that makes him furious.
“I know she’d understand,” he spits. “Can you just – fuck off with coddling me about it, Rogers, okay? I know she’d understand, don’t talk to me like you’re the only one that gets her.”
She would understand, she would choose the same thing – after Germany, after everything, he was cooling his heels beneath the ocean while she was mainlining caffeine and driving through the night to be sure that she was the first one to reach that farm, that no one else had gotten to them. There are two horrifying, unanswerable questions in front of him right now; there is no world in which Natasha would expect her well-being to be the first answer that Clint would hunt down.
She would never.
That doesn’t make it okay. That doesn’t make it fair.
He can’t stop seeing her, every time he blinks. Her skin grey, that sick bluish tint at her mouth. The slick of vomit on her chin and her hair washing out into the snow beneath her, her shallow heartbeat and loose, flopping limbs like a doll’s when Barnes gathered her into his arms. She looked dead already, as though if there was any chance for her to pull through, it was already threadbare.
Some kind of Alanis Morissette-level irony that this was the first time he had been thunderingly grateful that Bucky fucking Barnes is a person who exists. There’s room inside Clint for nothing but relief; if he had to leave her, if he had to trust her safety to someone besides himself, there is no one else in the world he could feel even sort of okay with.
“I’ve got her,” Barnes had sworn, “Barton, I’ve got her,” a promise Clint can trust just enough to keep from melting down completely, the only thing he can grab onto and stay afloat in this churning miasma eager to drown him. Bucky would take bullets for her without blinking.
“I’m sorry,” Steve says, quietly. He sounds like he means it. “I know – I do know you love her, Barton.”
Clint gives a jerky nod. What else is there to say? Steve’s not the only person in this freight car that understands Natasha; Clint’s not the only person in it who loves her, who’s trying not to imagine a life without her in it.
He’s not the only one who’s trying to find a way to compartmentalize when everything in his life that matters has simultaneously come under fire.
It seems like it’s enough of an accord for Steve, who switches his tone into something brisk, professional. “If we’re going back to the US, we need to get in undetected. And quickly. I don’t know that Tony would be willing to do me any favors right now, even under the circumstances, but do you think for you – ”
“I think right now I’d kill him on sight, so that’s a no go,” Clint says, a low growl. If it’s not entirely Tony’s fault, he’s got a share of blame, and it’d be enough to make him look like a fair target.
Tony would have helped for Nat, he knows, and maybe he’d help begrudgingly, but if Nat had called it in, Tony would have come running in under an hour. She’s always been the glue holding this grand plan of Fury’s together, which Clint wouldn’t have predicted.
Well – Fury probably did, come to think of it. Guy thinks long-term.
“In that case, I think we’ve got one option,” Steve says.
“We’re running up a pretty big tab with him,” Clint tells him, but Steve’s right.
If they want undetectable, if they want fast, there’s really only one person equipped with the resources they need.
The flight that should be close to ten hours will only take seven. They never actually see T’Challa; just the moving controls and his occasional disembodied voice. Not that he’s talking much, other than to give Clint instructions on how the medical kit onboard the Wakandan jet should be used if he wants its maximum efficiency. He apologizes once, tells them that his sister’s much better at explaining it than he is, but she’s currently out of the country.
Clint didn’t even know he had a sister. They’d all tried to avoid too many questions during their brief trip to Wakanda, not taking more than what T’Challa offered freely when they were highly aware of the reasons his homeland kept itself off the world’s radar.
And now he’s come to their aid again; the king of Wakanda, piloting their plane at a distance and doing it himself, when there are surely better ways he could fill these hours. Like governing his nation. Like spending time with the girlfriend he talked to Clint about a little that night with the quarterstaffs, the reason he sympathized with Clint staring moonily at a closed door.
A lot of people would have delegated.
But T’Challa is overseeing this himself, all so Clint and Steve can rest up and heal, so they can prepare for whatever’s coming. Clint would have room for gratitude in any other circumstance. Natasha’s usually the one who keeps a mental record, things owed and what she owes in return – he’s not much of a scorekeeper.
This, though. This, he knows, is the sort of deep kindness, goodness, that he will never be able to repay. T’Challa had heard my children are in trouble and hadn’t hesitated. Not for a second.
Waiting. The waiting is the worst part, when there’s nothing to do but grit it out.
Steve comes to sit beside Clint. He looks like he’s splashed some water on his face, maybe changed his clothes. “I got in touch with Sam.”
“Fine. Better than fine, even – no movement in his neck of the woods. Not even a tail on him. And Sam’s good at spotting that stuff.”
That’s interesting, enough that Clint can latch onto it. “Huh.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Steve says. “He’s checking in with Wanda and said he’d get back to me with an answer, but – and I think we’d know, by now, if Tony was included in the roundup. That would have made some noise.”
“You think it was just the four of us?”
Steve hesitates for a moment, like he’s thinking through how to phrase it. “If everyone else who went to ground managed to stay there, and if they weren’t just after recapturing Buck – if they really were coming for all four of us, which, from the fact that they brought tranqs for the two of us and for you and Nat…”
Clint’s reminded all over again that a stupid fucking amateur-hour mistake might have cost Natasha her life. His rage on that front hasn’t come close to spending itself even after days – it can’t until he knows she pulled through, until he can see her, touch her face, feel her heartbeat. A stupid fucking mistake, some trigger-happy lunatic that pulled the wrong vial and didn’t think to check it before he took the shot.
What Barnes had done to that guy was less than what he deserved. He’s pretty sure Barnes felt the same way.
“And my family. Insurance,” he says, and rubs the heels of his hands against his eyes. They feel gritty. He needs to sleep, he knows, there’s nothing he can do right now anyway, but it seems impossible. “So what’s it add up to, Cap? We got a common denominator?”
“We’re the only four who were in Wakanda,” Steve says.
“We’ve only just gone public,” T’Challa says, after a moment. His voice fills the space like he’s right here with them. “It’s been… a transition. But – the timing, do you think?”
“Yes,” Clint says, abruptly, and Steve nods in agreement. “If I was someone who had something stashed in Wakanda, or wanted something I could have only gotten there, and I learned four people like us flew in and out on a covert operation, right before the nation revealed itself to the rest of the world, I know the conclusion I’d draw.”
T’Challa sighs, a very weary noise that makes him sound twice his age. “The General is going to make someone bleed for this.”
“Good,” Steve says, roughly. “Ross?”
“He’s not a stupid man,” T’Challa says. “Not a pleasant one, either, but he is not stupid, and he is deeply pragmatic. But I don’t believe his interests would have been material. There was – it is a very long story, and I don’t have the urge to relay the whole thing, but there was a very recent attempt to destabilize the nation. There was – briefly – another king in Wakanda. Before you arrived for Sergeant Barnes. It very nearly led to a civil war.”
“Another king?” Steve says. He looks shocked; he sounds it.
“He was dealt with,” T’Challa says crisply, in a tone that allows no follow-up questions. “And it would not surprise me if foreign interference played a role, even in the background – even without his knowledge – in helping push him onto the board as a playable piece. Your country has its own political agenda.”
“Really makes you feel proud of your call sign, huh?” Clint tells Steve.
“Yeah, this is exactly why I went to war, to prop up shit like this,” Steve says angrily. “I’ve never liked that guy. Nobody has.”
And it would have been fine if Ross didn’t know I had a family, Clint thinks. Moving to destabilize a regime before it could become a new world superpower for no good reason, out of fear and uncertainty and that’s why his kids are in trouble, that’s why Natasha took a toxic cocktail in the jugular. For some asshole to make political hay, to play war games, push the pieces around and never get his hands dirty himself.
Clint’s never held much respect for the guys who keep their hands clean while ordering other people to plunge theirs right into the filth.
Clint wasn’t really expecting anything else, but it’s a gut-punch just the same, and it’s a second backhand to see the little details that have changed in the time he’s been gone. The porch and the railings have been painted over in blue trim instead of green, snowdrifts have piled up on the steps and left swirling patterns of ice frosting the windows. The pipes are probably a mess if no one’s been here to run the taps every day. When he left, it was just barely the end of spring, and now it’s become full-blown winter. Two seasons have passed since he’s seen his children on something other than a screen.
If he gives into the crushing sensation right now, though, it’ll drown him. Clint Barton can’t be present for this; Hawkeye has to take the lead, and if this is the hardest it’s ever been to compartmentalize – he has to do it. Has to.
Natasha could have done it, but she’s not here to show him the path.
They sweep the barn first, then the house. The front door is cracked open and it’s freezing inside, and Laura’s car keys are between the frame and the door, preventing it from swinging closed. Like she only just absentmindedly dropped them and walked away to unpack groceries.
Lila’s stuffed walrus is on the ground, a few feet into the entry alcove. It’s coated in a rime of frost; Clint bends down and picks it up, very carefully. Dropped on the way out the door, next to the keys. If he’d been running the op, he would have thought those things were pretty likely to have trackers on them, too.
Only they didn’t.
And they didn’t because this has never been a place he insisted on taking those precautions. Other than securing a dedicated line so that Clint can always reach home, other than scrambling signals and the VPN that Natasha set up herself, he and Laura were always committed to the idea that their kids’ lives would be normal, that this would never be a part of it, that here was the safest place in the world. How fucking arrogant – both of them, how did they never face the truth?
Was Lila scared? Was she crying? Did they let Laura bring a car seat or did she just have to hold Nate on her lap – Jesus, did they even let them stay together, did they split them up, Nate’s a baby –
He doesn’t realize he’s been standing motionless in the entryway; that minutes have gone by until Steve comes back into view.
“I finished the sweep,” he says, an unbearable sort of carefulness in his voice. “I thought I should give you a minute.”
“Yeah,” Clint says. He’s trying not to sound as lost as he feels. So that’s helpful; apparently one of two useless emotions can be in the drivers’ seat right now, incapacitating rage or helpless terror. “I’m – sorry. I’m sorry, I’m trying to think. I really am – ”
“It’s your children,” Steve says. “There are things – you aren’t a bad operative for having a little trouble right now. Okay?”
Clint nods and keeps trying to force his way through the thick brick wall in his brain. It shouldn’t help that Steve’s not judging right now, that Steve apparently sort of figured at some point in this, he’d be carrying a little bit of Clint’s deadweight; it does, though, at least a little.
“They want us to find them,” Steve continues. “Keep that in mind, right at the front. We have information Ross wants, and that means he’ll be willing to make a trade.”
“Wanda was in a straitjacket. She was in a shock collar.”
“But Wanda’s not one of your kids,” Steve says, patient but not condescending. “None of them can do the stuff she can do. And the rest of you were at least…”
“Yeah,” Clint repeats. He’s leaning on that word a lot. But this is something he can cling onto; maybe none of them were exactly in the lap of luxury on the Raft, weren’t overly comfortable, but they weren’t mistreated, either. And they wouldn’t have been taken to the Raft; that’s an official facility, and everything about this is covert.
If he were running the opp – okay. He can do this, he can think like this. If he was running it, first thing would be a defensible position in a secluded area. No shortage of abandoned buildings out in farm country. Not too far, because like Steve said, the idea here is an informational trade and they want to be found.
He taps his comm link. “T’Challa, I can think of a couple possibilities, but they’d be a few hours away in a couple different directions. You got any way to trace body heat signatures from a distance?”
“My sister would be very offended by this question,” T’Challa informs him. “Your rudeness will be noted and relayed.”
Steve makes a sound sort of like a snort, and Clint appreciates them both right then, this small injection of levity in a way that’s not inappropriate.
Even if they were, it isn’t as though either of them would sell T’Challa out, go telling tales about things that aren’t theirs to repeat.
So Clint kind of figured the plan here was going to involve a little bit of scouting, recon, and then lay out a decent two-man strategy. Neither of them are sure how many guards would be put on the place; three kids and a woman with zero combat experience wouldn’t pose much of a challenge, but after all, they would eventually be expecting company, so.
T’Challa’s plane has enough stealth capabilities that they should have been able to get a decent read on the situation. There’d be no reason to charge in like it was the wild west.
Until their discussion is interrupted when a body is thrown out one of the shattered windows at the top floor. An immediate burst of gunfire rattles out an encore.
Clint’s hurling himself across the field as fast as his legs will carry him and Steve is hot on his heels. Inside, there’s a woman screaming – Laura? – but it’s swallowed up in another round of gunfire and shouting.
There is an unbelievable amount of blood on the splintering staircase, noise and chaos all around as Clint’s voice adds to the cacophony. “Laura!” he bellows, as though the word is being ripped from his chest.
A brief pause, then: “DAD!”
“Coop!” he shouts back, turns to Steve with wild eyes. “They’re – ”
“That way,” Steve agrees, and they shouldn’t be running, this place is all crumbling brick and icy patches. The bulk of the gunshots and shouting seem to be coming from a higher floor. If it’s a trap, it’s a trap, but there are worse people he could have at his side than Captain America.
The hallway is full of rusting lockers and doors falling off hinges; the further in they go, the darker it gets, the low winter sun outside not doing much to illuminate the path. Steve kicks open a set of heavy double doors like they’re paper. They burst open and stay that way, and when they round the corner, Clint nearly collides with his son.
Cooper’s jeans are in tatters and his face is bone white. He’s carrying his wailing baby brother and in spite of that, he throws himself against Clint’s chest so hard that he nearly topples them both over.
Clint throws his arms around his sons. Holds them in his arms as though if he can do it tightly enough, it will somehow make up for this, for everything. He kisses the top of Cooper’s head, then Nate’s, and then Cooper’s again, probably too hard. He cannot pull them both close enough. There may never be any such thing.
“Dad,” Cooper gasps out, his face buried in Clint’s shirt with a still-sobbing Nate crushed against them. “Dad-Dad-Dad – ”
“I’m here, Coop, I’m right here,” he says. “Oh, my best buddy. Hey. Hey.”
His son sucks in a harsh, rattling breath. “Mom told me to run, I grabbed Nate too –”
“You did great,” Clint promises, cupping Cooper’s face in his hands, cradling it. “You are so brave and you did so great and I’m here, I’ve got this. Where’s Mom and Lila?”
“Bbbback there, in the basement,” he wheezes out, like he’s trying to forcibly stop himself from crying. Another gunshot rings out from floors away and his whole body flinches; Clint smooths his hands along Cooper’s cheeks, keeps him from looking away. “Dad, I ran, I just left – ”
“You did great,” Clint tells him firmly, “you did what Mom told you to do, you even took your brother. I’m gonna go back for them. Right now.”
“There’s people – ”
“You and Nate are going with Steve. You remember Steve?”
Cooper hiccups and hitches Nate up on his hip. Steve holds out a hand, solemnly, and he takes it after only a fraction of hesitation.
Clint meets Steve’s eyes. There are several hundred unspoken things, not the least of which is that Steve knows perfectly well that Clint could use backup on this. Steve also knows this is not the time to argue; that these are two little boys and there is a hail of gunfire floors above, there are people who have actively put them in the way of harm and this is the best way he can be useful to Clint right now. He can get his kids onto the plane.
He can say none of this and avoid frightening them any further.
Clint kisses the top of Coop’s head again. “I will see you out there with your mother and your sister,” he says. “Need you to be brave for me just one more time, buddy, okay? I love you.
Cooper gives a watery nod.
“I’ve got them, Clint,” Steve promises. He tucks Cooper under his arm, sheltering him with one arm free to lead him back the way they came in. They’ll be okay. Steve will get them to T’Challa’s plane, and –
“I’ll see you so soon,” Clint calls after his kids, and turns away to move into down the pitch-black hallway, into the basement.
He can’t see a thing for several feet, feeling his way along with a hand on the depleted wall. Panic must have been the only thing propelling Cooper forward through this, until he turns a corner and sees the faint grey glow coming from one room – what used to be a storage unit, maybe. Emergency lights, weak ones –
And then comes Laura’s voice.
“Please,” she begs. “Please – just let my daughter come sit on my lap, please.”
Clint slips back into the shadows and edges closer, thinking about makeshift weapons, thinking about what he will do to this man when he gets there.
“Your daughter can come back to you when we get this situation under control, and when your son is returned,” comes a male voice, no one Clint recognizes – Ross won’t even do his own dirty work here? “Or you could make this simple and tell me how the padlock was slipped. How did you signal them?”
“I didn’t signal anyone. I don’t know,” Laura whispers.
“You’re a terrible liar.”
“Please just give me my daughter!”
“Jesus. I’m done with the whining, we don’t need all of you,” the guy mutters. There’s the unmistakable sound of the safety being switched off and Clint’s not thinking, he’s just moving forward he’s on autopilot he’s
The guy’s head turns, abruptly – in the opposite direction of the place Clint just threw himself into the light, but Clint can see everything from his new position.
There are ten compartments, each with a padlocked door made of chain-link fence that looks new, like it was prepped for this; you wouldn’t need anything more extreme for that with civilians. Laura’s behind one of them and the guy with the gun is facing her. One of his hands is wrapped tightly around Lila’s braid, keeping her pulled into his side, but something in his face has wobbled.
It’s probably because Natasha is standing in the unit next to Laura.
As though she just magically appeared out of the back of the unit, like she walked through a wall. Her own gun is trained at his heart and her hands have never trembled with a weapon in them, not even once.
“Told you,” Lila says triumphantly. “Told you my auntie Nat was gonna make you so sorry.”
“You know who I am?” Natasha says.
The guy nods.
“You feel like Ross pays you enough to deal with me?”
The guy says nothing. They’re locked in a standoff and Clint can’t breathe or move or draw even the slightest bit of attention away from this; he can’t even process his relief at seeing her alive, he can do nothing but watch and wait, like Laura, like Lila.
“You know this is already over,” Natasha says. “You’ve heard what’s happening upstairs.”
Barnes. Clint should have realized, and even in this moment, as tense and locked as he has ever been, there’s something that the assassin in him can’t help admiring in it – the way she and Barnes have worked together, the full-scale assault, the division of labor.
Of course they came for his kids. Of course they were the thing Natasha would move to protect first and of course she’d bring James along with her.
The guard’s gun is still trained on Laura, as surely as Nat’s is trained on him. The air is so thick, the equilibrium ready to shatter on one side or another; it’s a sensation not unlike chewing on tinfoil.
But Natasha doesn’t shoot first, and neither does he.
Lila turns her head and sinks her teeth into the hand he’s got wrapped around her braid, bites deep. The guard drops the gun in shock, a howl of pain and surprise bursting out of him.
“You little – ”
He pulls back his arm to backhand her and then he’s on the ground, ass over feet, entirely upended.
Natasha moved so fast that Clint barely registered it.
“Are you okay, baby?” she asks Lila, the infinite gentleness in her voice entirely at odds with the heel of her boot digging into the guy’s windpipe, keeping him pinned.
And Clint understands that the only reason he’s still breathing at all is because Natasha was not going to let Lila watch someone die right in front of her. She thought of that, in this moment. A thousand other things and she still thought to spare his daughter that, to hold herself back from what instinct and rage and protectiveness would have dictated she do.
Lila nods a yes. “That’s cool, Auntie Nat,” she says, sounding amazed.
“Thank you,” Natasha says. “I’ll teach you how when you’re older.”
Laura lets out a sound like dry sob, and it shocks Clint into motion, stumbling forward over his own feet so that all three heads turn towards him, surprised.
“Hey,” he says. “Sorry I got here late.”
“Daddy!” Lila yelps, and runs to him, jumping into his arms. He scoops her up and cups the back of her head, pulls her as close as he did the boys and scatters kisses all over her cheeks.
Laura’s hands tighten around the chain link. “Thank God,” she says, her voice cracked and desperate. “Oh, Clint – ”
“I’m so sorry, I’m,” Clint says, and then makes himself shut up, because like that means anything. Like that’s enough. “We’ll get you out of here right now, Steve’s got the boys on the plane. Tasha – ”
“You go on ahead,” Natasha says. “Get them home. James and I can handle clean-up and – ” Her heel presses slightly harder onto the guard’s throat; he lets out a little gurgle, “ – maybe ask a few questions. We’ll meet up with you soon?”
“You are a fucking magician,” he tells her. The padlock on Laura’s gate twists open; when Laura stumbles out, he enfolds her into their hug as well, their daughter cradled between them as Laura hides her face in his shoulder.
“Thank you oh God thank you,” Laura says. He’s not sure if she’s talking to him or Natasha or maybe just a prayer, but he doesn’t think it matters. He keeps an arm wrapped around her shoulders even when they part, so he can support both of them down through the dark and anybody Barnes has left standing.
The gunshots have petered out, so he assumes the answer is yeah, he definitely didn’t do that.
“Back at the house,” Clint tells Nat. “Soon.”
Natasha smiles at him. A real smile, nothing in it but the satisfaction of a job handled. There is no misunderstanding in her, there’s nothing but that smile, she’s alive and she’s here and she came, she didn’t hesitate. There will never be words for that.
It still feels like he’s leaving it all unsaid, like they have their own unfinished business, but he has to get Laura and Lila out of here even if it means letting it linger.
He looks over at his shoulder at Natasha one last time, that nagging feeling of helplessness, like he’s giving her the short shrift yet again not ready to let him go. And maybe it’ll always be like this – maybe that’s more than he should have ever asked her to settle for.
But then Natasha does the very last thing he’s expecting, in the last way he ever could have expected it.
She mouths the words so carefully, making sure there’s absolutely no room for misinterpretation even across the width of the room, even in the dim light.
I love you, she says silently, and smiles.
Well, for the first time I can label this 13/14 and mean it - we've got one final chapter to go after this one, my friends! (I say this now; I'm sure when Infinity War comes out, the first thing I'll do is rush to AO3 and go "lol jk here's the first part of Catching Bullets: Volume II"). Thank you all for the patience and sticking with me so long!