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some moments more spectacular than others

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JUNE---

When Janet suggests a team bonding event, Natasha thinks she means… you know, normal stuff: an art gallery, a movie; hell, even bowling. She does not expect--

“Clowns?” She looks up from the ad Janet’s brandishing under her nose. “You want to go see clowns. As a team bonding experience.” It’s not a question; sometimes, restating what someone says makes it more clear, or, more often, makes the other person realize they’ve just said something idiotic.

Neither happens. “Not just clowns,” Janet huffs, as if Natasha is being deliberately obtuse. “There’s other stuff at the circus! Like, um--”

“Turkey legs,” Steve supplies. “Big ones.”

“Pickpockets,” Bruce adds.

“Extremely flexible acrobats,” Tony sighs, then coughs. “Though I, of course, would not partake, being deeply committed to Pepper above all others.”

Great save,” Natasha tells him, grinning sharply when he sticks out his tongue.

No,” insists Janet. “I mean, yes, but there’s also the trapeze, and the trick riding, and ooh, this circus has an archery exhibit!”

“And clowns,” Natasha reminds her. Sitting back in her chair, she flicks a hand in Tony’s direction. “We already have a clown right here; what do we need to go to the circus for?”

Janet, evidently giving up on Natasha’s support, rounds on the others. “Well, what do you think?”

Steve pauses, then glances apologetically at Natasha. “Sorry, Nat, but I’ve been in the mood for cotton candy for, like, a month now.”

“Do they force exotic animals to perform?” Bruce asks. Janet peers at the ad, then shakes her head. “Fine. I’ll go.”

Thor says, “Steve mentioned turkey legs?”

And Tony looks at Natasha with that fake innocent smile that even Pepper can’t stand and says, “Janet, I think this is the perfect team-building event.”

They all look at Natasha then, waiting. She can, theoretically, say no. She does, in fact, often say no, like when Janet wanted her to go for bikini waxes and brunch with her socialite friends, or when Bruce invited her to forage for mushrooms in Central Park. It’s perfectly easy to say no to one at a time, or even when Steve and Tony try to team up on her; but three years on the Avengers has yet to teach her how to say no collectively, to five sets of superpowered puppy dog eyes.

“Fine,” Natasha sighs. “But I’m not clapping for the clowns. Or the shitty magic tricks.”

***

She does, of course, because there’s a troupe of clowns that tumbles out of a miniature Avenge-Jet dressed up like them, right down to a Rapunzel-length wig for Thor and a hideous muttonchop-goatee hybrid monstrosity for Tony.

“That looks just like you,” she whispers to Tony, who elbows her back, hard.

And, all right, fine, she claps for the magic tricks, even though the sleight of hand is so boringly obvious. It’s just--she’s on the end of the row, wedged next to a young couple and their tiny human whom she judges to be somewhere between zero and ten years old. And, well, that kid is just blown away by Oswaldo the Odorous or whatever the magician’s name was. Try as she might, Natasha can’t not ooh and ahh along with the kid. Despite popular opinion to the contrary, she’s not made entirely of stone.

So having already fallen down on her resolution to be stoic in the face of calliope music, she gives up and tries actually enjoying herself; and surprisingly enough, there are some legitimately talented people in the show. Trained athlete though she is, Natasha is well aware that she’d fall face-first off the trapeze after a few twirls. High wire? Out of the question. She thinks she’d like to try juggling, but on horseback, like the brightly smiling girls standing in their saddles? No, thank you.

For her, the most engaging act is the Amazing Hawkeye, the aforementioned archery routine buried somewhere between the unicycles and the star-spangled girl who shoots out of a cannon. At first, the most interesting thing is the guy’s costume and matching pointy mask, which are both so violently purple that he must have lost a bet; but then he lifts a ridiculously big bow, seriously almost as tall as he is, and nocks three arrows, all fletched with lavender feathers. “Do you think this guy likes purple or what?” Steve leans over to whisper, but Natasha shushes him. Marksmanship: now that’s a skill she’s interested in.

And oh, how he delivers. Each of the three arrows hit the bullseye on three separate targets, kicking off the five most impressed minutes of Natasha’s life. He shoots fire, boomerangs, even a grappling hook that swings him across the little circus stage. No matter how improbable the angle, no matter if he can’t even see the target, he makes the shot. And even though the display ends with the classic William Tell apple shot off the top of his very-bored-looking assistant’s head, Natasha is far more affected by the stunt just previous, wherein he outlined the same apprentice in arrows so close and so precise that every finger is defined.

It’s… incredible; it’s all she can think about the rest of the show. There’s a guy with that kind of talent just--just waltzing around the country, unaware? He could be famous, or maybe infamous, the way she was, once. He could be an assassin; hell, he could be an Avenger.

Oddly, nobody else shares her opinion when they compare notes after the show. “I think I took a nap during that part,” Tony says; Thor shrugs and says that all Asgardians take archery in nursery school. Janet, the designer, and Steve, who was a travelling performer during the second World War, want to talk about costumes. Costumes, honestly, as if the greatest marksman Natasha has ever seen isn’t somewhere around, possibly unaware of just how talented he is.

“Well, why don’t you go tell him that,” Janet says with some asperity, so since nobody else seems to care, Natasha sets off to do just that. Hi, she practices as she winds around clumps of people. You probably don’t recognize me, but I’m the Black Widow, and you should know-- No, that won’t work at all. Hi, I’m Natasha. Did you know that you’re unbelievably talented? Oh, no, but what if he’s full of himself already, like Tony? She shudders. Hi, as an authority on both projectile weapons and killing people, let me start by saying--

She is mercifully saved from her own mind by a girl, no more than 20, trying to pick her pocket. She’s not half-bad, honestly, and probably would have made the grab were Natasha not, well, Natasha. As it is, Natasha closes her hand around the kid’s wrist and pulls her in. “It’s not nice to steal,” she says with a pleasance that belies just how tightly she’s holding on.

“Ow!” cries the girl. “Let go of me! Clint! Clint! I’m being attacked!” Her long black hair whips into Natasha’s face as she tries to escape. Natasha ignores this, smiling politely at the people passing by and trying to figure out why the girl looks so familiar. She’s ready to say it’s okay, I’m an Avenger if someone asks, but no one does--it is New York, after all--and eventually the heavy footfalls of someone jogging their direction cut into the kid’s wailing. “Clint!” she says. “I was just walking by and this crazy woman grabbed me!”

Natasha turns around, prepared once again to say it’s okay, sir, I’m an Avenger, but what comes out is something closer to, “Guh.” The girl throws some serious shade her direction at this, which--okay, fair; but in her defense, she hadn’t prepared for “Clint” to be, as Janet so often says, “a dreamboat.” He’s tall and golden; not like Steve, but like he spends long afternoons in the sun. Which would also explain the tan and the freckles and the shards of burnished gold in his blond hair that just barely flops onto his forehead and over the thin purple wires that snake behind his ears. And whatever he’s doing outside keeps him in good shape, too, because his arms and shoulders are just--they’re just pure muscle underneath that threadbare t-shirt. Natasha knows her mythology: this is Apollo, lean and bright and lovely, and she’s never been affected by another person this way.

“Katie,” says Clint, coming to a stop with a gratifyingly exasperated expression. “What did you do now?”

The girl--Katie, apparently--squawks, and Natasha, recovering, says, “She tried to steal my wallet.” She hesitates, looking from one to the other. “She your girlfriend, or--”

Katie makes a sort of indignant vomiting sound, if such a thing exists, and Clint looks like he’s choking on a lemon. “God, no,” Katie says. She pulls away again and this time Natasha releases her, feeling stupidly relieved. “And how many times do I have to tell you: it’s Kate, not Katie. I’m not a child.” She punctuates this by flipping her long black hair over her shoulder and flouncing away.

Clint releases a long-suffering sigh and swipes a big hand over the back of his head. “On behalf of my apprentice, please let me apologize,” he says. “She only joined up recently, and I think she thinks being in the circus is just, like, a morality free-for-all.” He smiles out of the corner of his mouth. “I mean, it sort of is, but she doesn’t need to know that.”

They watch Kate-not-Katie successfully swipe a stick of cotton candy from a stall as she goes by. “The cat might be out of the bag, there,” Natasha remarks. It’s easier to talk to him, she finds, when they’re standing side by side and she doesn’t have to look up and meet his eyes, the same color blue as Kate's stolen cotton candy. Really, she should be leaving, anyway; the team chat on her phone suggests they’re waiting on her, and the irresistible pull she feels toward him sets off quiet but persistent klaxons in her gut.

“But seriously, I feel terrible,” Clint says. “Please, let me buy you, uh--” He looks around. “A slushie? A pretzel?” He smiles winningly. “Please?”

Natasha is a world-class spy, but even she has weaknesses, like, apparently, beseeching blue eyes and winsome smiles. [ I’ll make my own way home, ] she texts the team, then looks up at Clint and smiles back. “A slushie would be great, thanks.” She watches him go, eyes sliding over the hard muscle and easy confidence of his body, and suspects she’s about to make either a huge mistake or the best decision of her life. It’s a toss-up until he comes back, beaming--really, is flirting with a cute guy ever a mistake?

“I didn’t know what flavor you wanted,” he says, slurping purple ice in a way that somehow isn’t unattractive. “I just got cherry because it reminded me of your hair.” He looks meaningfully at the artless bun at the top of her head, goes a little red himself, and only barely manages to not drop the slushie right down her shirt. “I don’t usually buy slushies for attractive women after shows,” he apologizes, looking embarrassed.

It’s stupid to be flattered--you’re the Black Widow; it’s your literal job to be attractive --but she is, somehow, anyway. “What, Carson’s Circus isn’t chased around the country by a pack of groupies?” she asks, cautiously tasting her slushie. Hopefully, her mouth won’t end up as red as Clint’s is purple. Hopefully, she'll also stop thinking about his mouth.

He laughs, the corners of his eyes folding into happy crinkles. “For the acrobats, maybe,” he says. “No groupies for me, unless you count Katie-Kate, which I don’t because she’s, like, twelve, and is also the most annoying person I’ve ever met.” She means to ask which act Clint is a part of, but is distracted, mostly by the story of Kate running away from her trust fund but also, a little, by the way his tongue is stained that specifically artificial color of concord grapes. In fact, she’s so distracted that it takes far too long for her to realize that nobody who walks by them is greeting Clint by name. People wave, or high five, or congratulate him on his performance; but it’s only when someone yells, “Nice show, bird boy!” and he responds with some kind of affirmative bird call that she puts it together.

“Oh, my god,” Natasha blurts, interrupting her own attempt to describe being friends with Tony Stark without mentioning his name. “You’re--you’re Hawkeye.

Instantly, Clint’s smile goes megawatt, though he tries to cover it. “Oh,” he says, trying and failing to achieve nonchalance. “Yeah, uh. That’s me.” Now he’s the one looking out of the corners of his eyes, gauging her response. “Did, uh. Did you enjoy the show?”

“Did I--” This must be what brainfreeze is, unable to think of cohesive words and incapable of doing anything other than goggling like a teenager. It’s not enough that Clint’s goofy and sweet and the definition of gorgeous, but he’s also, apparently, the single best marksman she’s ever had the privilege to see. Natasha looks at his kind eyes and his purple lips and his perfect archery-sculpted shoulders and thinks she might scream. “Did I enjoy the show?

Clint eyes her. “Is that a weird question?”

“No, it’s--” Get it together, Romanoff. “Clint, I can honestly say that was one of the most impressive things I have ever seen, and you don’t know me, but that’s really saying something.”

He turns red again, making his freckles stand out. “It’s nothing,” he demurs, glowing, and Natasha’s just about ready to throw caution out with her melted slushie in favor of finding out how their mouths fit together--

And then Kate-not-Katie runs up. She’s not scowling anymore, or flippant; the honest concern in her eyes makes her look younger. “I can’t find Lucky,” she says to Clint without preamble. “We have to find him before he wanders out of the fairground.”

The smile falls off Clint’s face like the sun in a hurricane. “Lucky is my dog,” he says to Natasha, throwing the remains of his slushie into a trashcan twenty feet away. “He’s dumb and I love him and I’m really sorry, but I have to go.” Before she can offer to help, he lifts her hand to his lips and drops a kiss into it, palm up. “Thanks for the slushie!” he yells over his shoulder as he and Kate jog off together, leaving Natasha bewildered like she hasn’t been in years, staring at her fingers as they close protectively over her palm.

 

JUNE, A YEAR LATER---

As it turns out, Carson’s Circus doesn’t have nearly the same clout as Barnum & Bailey’s, or the Ringling Brothers. They don’t have any website to speak of, or even a Facebook page with tour dates. JARVIS could figure it out, probably, but that would mean actually asking JARVIS, which feels uncomfortably close to asking Tony for help. If she can’t fully explain to herself why she wants to find the hot guy who nearly dropped a slushie on her, then she definitely doesn’t want to try justifying it to a know-it-all gossip of an AI. The better option is to just forget the whole encounter, and Natasha resolves to write off her attraction to Clint as a fluke.

And she does, she totally one hundred percent gets over it, until the sea of Fifth Avenue pedestrians parts a year later and, miraculously, there he stands across the street, looking in her direction. More specifically, he’s scanning the sidewalk, but his eyes catch on hers and he stares, blinks, stares again before crossing the street, barely dodging a taxi in the process. “We’ve met before, right?” he asks, the same voice splashing like whiskey over ice. He studies her for a second. “Slushies, ” he remembers, a smile blooming across his face, and it turns out she hasn't gotten over those fifteen minutes of attraction, not at all.

“Most people call me Natasha,” she says as casually as she can manage. It’s a cloudy day in the city, early spring hanging low between the skyscrapers, but there’s a lone ray of sunshine hitting Clint exactly right, as if he brings it with him wherever he goes. Apollo, Natasha dizzily remembers, golden sunlight and infectious warmth. “Er,” she says, inelegantly struggling to find a better way to say what are you doing here, “What brings you back to the city?”

He shrugs, easy, carefree. “Couple days off before the show,” he says. “I thought I’d do a little sightseeing, check out the Public Library, but I think I’m lost, so I’ve basically just been wandering around.”

Natasha raises an eyebrow. “Couldn’t you just ask for directions?”

“Everyone tells me you New Yorkers are mean,” Clint says, but he smiles and shrugs again. “And really,” he tells her, leaning a little closer, as if it’s a secret, “I don’t mind being lost. It’s nice to be directionless, sometimes, you know?”

“Sure,” Natasha says, because she can’t remember the last time she did something just… because, or even had a day doing whatever suited her whims. Directionless is not exactly a prized personality trait in the Red Room, or in superheroes, for that matter. “Well, you wandered in the right direction, because it’s just down the block.” She points to the frieze of the building, just visible over a tree, then hesitates. She’s supposed to be meeting Steve to review data from their last mission with Maria, their head of Operations, but--“I can walk you there, if you’d like.”

Clint stops squinting for street signs and brightens. “Would you mind?” he asks with an eagerness that makes her tuck a smile back behind her lips. “I'm not always great at directions.”

“I don’t mind at all,” Natasha says, which is true. “It’s on my way,” she adds, which is not true, but Clint doesn’t need to know that. The library is only a couple blocks off, giving her plenty of time to deposit him there and veer back on course. Being a few minutes late won’t hurt.

“Isn’t that Avengers tower?” Clint asks as they turn down the sidewalk, pointing almost exactly to the conference room where Steve and Maria are likely already waiting.

“Uh,” Natasha says in a fair attempt at being uninformed, “Yeah, I guess it is. You stop really noticing it after a while,” she adds, which really isn't even a lie. Sometimes on days like these, when she’s just another pedestrian jaywalking across Fifth Ave, she forgets about gods and monsters and Tony’s ego massage of a tower. Sometimes she enjoys vanishing into the crowd without trying to, not because she needs to tail someone, but because she’s just a random person going about her day. Sometimes she’s just Natasha, walking down the street next to the human embodiment of sunshine, answering his questions and asking after Kate-not-Katie and matching her steps to his loping stride.

She almost wants to lead him astray, turn him down the wrong street to prolong the unexpected delight of running into Clint on a Tuesday morning; but that would be wrong, probably, so she walks him up to Patience, the stone lion guarding the southern steps the library, and tries not to sound disappointed as she tells him, “So, yeah, this is the library.” She glances at her watch: there’s about a thirty second window for her to leave, or else she’ll be late. Say goodbye, she instructs herself, but what comes out instead is, “Of all the places to visit in New York, why are you coming here?”

Clint looks up the shallow steps to the library in speculation. “I don’t really know,” he admits. “I just read about it in a magazine once, like when I was a kid or something.” His smile turns sheepish and he ducks his head. “That sounded much cooler in my head. I, uh, I had kind of a weird childhood.”

You have no idea, Natasha almost laughs. “I get it,” she says instead, because she’d spent one secret summer poring over the photos in one of her French textbooks, dreaming of the view from the top of the Eiffel tower until her trainers had taken the book--and the daydreams--away. “It’s not stupid,” she adds, her hand touching his elbow for a fleeting moment. “I’ve heard it’s beautiful inside.”

“Hold on,” Clint laughs. “You walked me all the way over here and you’ve never even been inside? Do you wanna, I don’t know--” His smile dims as he looks around at the stream of suit-clad bankers and frantic interns rushing into offices. One of those low-hanging clouds move and blot out the sunlight that’s followed him along the sidewalk. “I’m sorry. You said you were on your way somewhere; I didn't mean to keep you.”

“Oh, no,” Natasha says, waving a hand. “It’s just--” She pauses, considers. It’s just a data review. It’s not like she’s rushing to a briefing, or a full team meeting, or even a sparring session. Maria only needs one of them there, really, and for all that he is and always has been a rebel, Steve is also the exact sort of nerd who wakes up in the future and falls deeply in love with the power of a good Excel spreadsheet. Usually, Maria and Steve do all the talking, while Natasha plays Tetris on her phone under the table and periodically makes sure Maria hasn’t killed Steve for spending twenty minutes investigating a single cell of data. It’s not much more than a glorified babysitting assignment, and now that she’s thinking of it in such terms--“You know what, it’s actually not important,” she tells Clint. “It’s too nice of a day to spend working, don’t you think?”

Clint looks up at the steadily dropping ceiling of clouds, which chooses this exact moment to split open. “Too nice a day, huh?” he yells through the sudden plunge of rain, grabbing Natasha’s hand and hauling her along as he dashes up the stairs to the library. They push through the heavy doors together, whirl through the vestibule, and suddenly Natasha finds herself out of breath, dripping wet, and nose to nose with Clint. The rain and the run have worked together to send a strand of her ponytail drooping over her eye, and before she can push it out of the way, his fingers are there, tucking it behind her ear and lingering on her jaw for a second, just a second, until a harried woman rushes through the door after them and says, “Excuse me, can you move?”

“Right,” Clint says, “Sorry,” and tugs Natasha down the hall with him. He doesn’t let go of her hand, even once they’ve left the vestibule behind and found a cool marble hallway, even as they wander into the high-ceilinged research room, its walls lined with bookshelves of dark, rich wood. He doesn’t seem to notice his hand tightening on hers, or that the lady manning the circulation desk is sort of glaring at the little puddle they’re dripping in the doorway; his eyes are only for the panorama of books, the green-lidded glass reading lamps that punctuate the long tables that stretch across the room. “ Wow,” he breathes, one word so laden with awe and wishing and childhood longing that Natasha’s throat momentarily tightens up.

“C’mon,” she murmurs, pulling Clint along one row of shelves before the librarian can shoo them off. “Let’s find somewhere to sit.” His fingers trail along the book spines they pass, reverent, as if they might dissolve beneath his touch. The gesture is familiar to her, too familiar; she’s reminded of being thirteen, sacrificing precious minutes of her mission timetable to detour through the stacks of the National Library in St. Petersburg, pretending to be a regular girl on a school trip instead of an assassin assigned to murder a visiting academic in his carrel. She’d never seen so many books in one place, so much knowledge, so much to learn; from the looks of it, Clint hasn’t, either, a commonality between them that fills her up with a glowing sort of ache.

The map division is quiet save for the rain that continues to lash against the window, dulled to a pleasant hum by the thick panes of glass. Natasha settles into a window seat tucked in a corner and attempts to flip through a nearby atlas while Clint slowly circles the room, but she’s distracted by his wide, serious gaze as he studies the framed maps and leather-covered books and gilt-plaster decorative ceiling. He’s full of words when he finally joins her, buzzing about designs and maps and books, all the books, so excited he practically levitates off the plush cushions. Natasha doesn’t often have use for the word, but it’s adorable, the kind of sweet she never gets the privilege to observe.

“Uh, anyway,” Clint fumbles, a flush rising in his cheeks as he finally runs out of steam. “I, uh. I guess now’s the time to explain that I’ve been with the circus since I was, ah--” She knows he knows how long, probably down to the second, even though he looks to the ceiling for answers, one hand at the nape of his neck. “Since I was a kid, basically. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a library, but I always--” He breaks off and looks at her now, an intensity in his blue eyes that fades everything around them to grayscale. “Look, growing up like I did, it was--it was shitty. But when a kid left a book in the stands, or we went through a town with a book drive, it was like an escape, you know? I could be someone else for a little bit; and a library like this?” He gestures broadly, as if helpless in the face its enormity. “If I had known, I mean really known, that it would be like this, I would have quit the circus and run away in a heartbeat.”

When the Red Room sent her to Vatican City, where her cover would be expected to regularly attend Catholic mass, they taught Natasha a new word: communion. And they lectured about the evils of Christianity, the fallacy of the Eucharist and the foolishness of its adherents; but what Natasha remembers, as she sat three exact rows behind her target week after week, was that communion was sharing, in the ceremony and in the faith and in something bigger than the church they all sat in, something she couldn’t comprehend. And she understands that the Avengers is something like this concept, this belief they all hold in a world they can save from itself; but she has never understood communion so clearly, nor felt so deeply understood herself, as she does in this moment, where Clint’s eyes are a deeper blue than the sea and where they sit together in a room full of maps, not needing the guidance of a single one of them.

And yet to say she understands, or agrees or relates, feels insufficient; so instead she says, “That sounds like the sort of thing EL Konigsburg would approve of,” with a crooked sort of smile, and when he smiles back, oh, it’s like looking at the sun during an eclipse, the kind of blinding brilliance only found in momentous convergence.

“Yeah,” he says, and his voice is different now, slow. “Exactly.” The rain against the window seems to hum at the same frequency he does, steady as his eyes on hers. “Would you wanna to go there with me, too? The Met, I mean. After we’re done here?”

She should say no; she should go back to the tower and do her laundry and probably explain to Steve and Maria that she was unavoidably detained. She should; but instead she says, “I’d love to,” and takes his hand in hers as they stand to leave the room.

***

Of course, it’s another full hour before they leave for the Met, because even though there’s not actually all that much for a couple of tourists to do at this branch of the public library, they still explore every corner, poke their heads into every room, dare each other to change into the overpriced t-shirts they insist the other needs to buy--his purple, hers red. “We look ridiculous,” she complains around a mouthful of falafel as they set off to the Met, but there’s not much heat behind it. “Also, if I’m walking forty blocks next to you in that shirt, I need to know what your deal is with purple.”

“What do you mean?” Clint squawks, outrage mangled by the hot dog he’s actively shoving into his mouth. “Purple is great! It’s the color of royalty, you know.”

The only person Natasha knows who wears so much purple is Bruce, and that’s only when he hulks out; but she can’t exactly drop that into this conversation. “Hmm,” she says instead. “And your claim to royalty is what, again?”

Clint grins, irrepressible. “Well, Kate says I’m a royal pain in the ass.”

Natasha snorts. “Kate is right,” she informs him, and Clint clutches his heart and falls against her in exaggerated insult without even checking to see if she’s joking. She appreciates that he doesn’t take himself too seriously, or her, for that matter, unafraid to poke fun at any presented opportunity. He smiles at her jokes--which she also appreciates; she knows that she’s not the kind of person who usually makes people laugh outright--and asks questions; not the way she interrogates people, or the way guys at bars feign interest to get laid, but questions she doesn’t have answers to, like what kitchen utensil is she most similar to, and what food would she want to be encased in during a hypothetical Han-Solo-in-carbonite moment, and also does she agree with Kate that adults shouldn’t eat Pop Rocks? He seems delighted that she answers with real thought (a pocket corkscrew, melted Swiss dark chocolate raspberry truffles, yes); and of course, he has answers for all his weird questions, because, reportedly, there’s nothing else do on the road between fairgrounds--for the record, he’s a whisk, he’d choose to be encased in mashed potatoes, and perhaps obviously, he firmly believes that loving Pop Rocks should have no age limit.

(And, come to think of it, he talks about food a lot. And eats a lot, too: on top of the hot dog, there’s the pretzel he grabs at 53rd Street, slathered in hot mustard, and then six blocks later he sees the sign for the self-serve frozen yogurt at the Plaza and insists they have to go, even though it’s not remotely ice cream weather. “Yeah, but this is froyo,” Clint says blithely, a chocolate mustache over his lip until he carefully licks it away.)

She forgets, sometimes, how lovely it feels to make someone smile just for participating in the conversation, especially when that someone looks like Clint, and smiles like Clint, as relaxed and radiant as a summer afternoon even in the dreary Midtown fog. She hangs out with her team--plays chess with Bruce every week, sees trashy movies with Janet and good ones with Thor, hangs off Steve’s arm at art shows to dissuade his fans from mobbing him--but it’s not this, not easy, not simply walking down 5th Avenue arm in arm, laughing and talking and even silent in turns.

That quiet evaporates in the Great Hall of the Met, lost in the scuffle of laughing school kids and the snap of camera shutters. Natasha knows this place like the workings of her favorite gun, and she plays docent to Clint, who walks through it all with eyes like dinner plates and an ever-widening smile that definitely doesn’t lodge itself in her ribcage, certainly doesn’t glue her tongue to the roof of her mouth. That would be impossible, not because Natasha doesn’t have feelings, but because she can’t possibly care about this guy she’s basically just met, that she doesn’t even know, that doesn’t even know the first thing about her.

Except. Except he runs his hands over the walls in the Tomb of Perneb as if he can read the history in them like Braille, as if he somehow knows that she does the same when she comes here alone. Except they lose a good hour in the gallery of arms and armor alone, because Clint is not just willing, but absolutely thrilled to talk about swords and the evolution of projectile weapons with her. Except Clint looks up and up and up at golden Diana and her golden bow, shining under the high rain-streaked greenhouse roof of Engelhard Court, squeezes the hand she’s forgotten he’s holding, and confesses, “This is my favorite room,” without any idea that Natasha has probably found more peace in this one gallery than she has anywhere else in the city.

So maybe he does “get” her, even if she can’t think of the word without surrounding it in piles of quotation marks. But why should that make her stomach twist with pleasant dread? She comes here all the time with Steve, and they walk together all over the place, so there’s really no difference.

Only, when she proofreads that sentence again in her head, it’s annotated, parenthetical additions all over: She comes here all the time with Steve (but they don’t pull each other by the hand from exhibit to exhibit), and they walk together all over the place (though his laughter, while lovely, has never made her feel like she’s drenched in sunshine), so there’s really no difference (except Steve has never once compared her hair to the royal velvets of Medieval queens). And when she looks at these edits, when she reads the notes her subconscious has been scribbling in the margins of her day, Natasha is forced to acknowledge the truth: this isn’t another afternoon out with Steve, for a variety of reasons.

Most notably, that she’s never wanted to kiss Steve, whereas she finds herself pulling Clint under a medieval arch without really meaning to, or really knowing what to do next. The Black Widow does this all the time, but usually with a knife up her sleeve; Natasha does this… never. “I think--” She picks his pocket, steals his phone in a pull even Kate wouldn’t catch, and Clint laughs when she adds her number and a smiley face after her name. “I think I should probably give you my number,” she says, curling his hands around his phone and her hands around his.

“Sure! Definitely, yeah, please,” says Clint, words tumbling out of his mouth. “Um, but--” There’s not much in Natasha’s life that’s sweet, but it’s the best word for the unsure twist of his hands under hers, and for the half-cocked smile she has to kiss before he asks the question he wants. Why? Oh, there are real reasons, there's his charm and intelligence, his grace, his laughter that banishes gloom; but Natasha kisses Clint and the reason narrows only to the lovely pressure of his lips on hers, warm and expressive. What more reason does she need than the fact that even the dehydrated museum air tastes like sunlight on his tongue--besides maybe that his phone clatters to the floor, forgotten, as his hands come up to bracket her hips and he kisses her in earnest, with the same joyful focus with which he does everything else. There’s no need to ask why, she thinks, when she’s sighing into his mouth under a Gothic arch like some displaced Brontë heroine, not oblivious to but simply choosing not to care about the museum guard rolling his eyes or the little old ladies nudging each other and tittering. Her skin tingles; she’s filled with something glittering, fluttering, vibrating--

No, that’s her phone, which she hasn’t looked at or even thought about in hours. “Shit,” she says, breathless, laughing against Clint’s mouth. “Hold on, I--” The best kind of incoordination makes it hard for her giddy fingers to find her phone, and she answers without really looking. “I’m in the middle of something,” she says into the phone, unable to stop grinning stupidly wide up at Clint. “I’ll call you back--”

But she’s not paying attention, really, so she doesn’t notice that she’s accepted one of Tony’s hologram calls. “Widow,” says Tony, urgent, his iron-clad shoulders and helmeted head rising from the screen of her phone in spindly blue lines. “Where are you? Doom’s resurfaced in Saskatchewan. Haven’t you received any of Cap’s--” He breaks off and looks over her shoulder at Clint. Tony and his armor are so deeply interconnected these days that she can read Tony’s jolt of confusion, then surprise, then smirking curiosity all from just a tip of his head. “As I live and breathe,” he drawls, spreading one gauntleted hand across his arc reactor. “Miss Romanoff, do you have a gentleman caller?

Natasha presses two fingers to the bridge of her nose. “Tony--”

“I can’t believe you went on a date and didn’t tell me,” he goes on, wounded, as if he didn’t just last week program DUM-E to follow her around the Tower, plaintively warbling ra-ra-Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine! over and over. “That’s what this is, right? A date?”

“No,” Natasha says.

“Uh, sorta,” Clint says, behind her.

Natasha looks at Clint’s big hand still clasped on her waist, its warmth radiating into her bones. “Maybe.”

Tony tilts his head. “Fascinating,” he says, the same dangerous way he talks about dismantling old cars and evil robots. “Well, I’ve got to go save the world. Feel free to join in once you’re done canoodling, if you can spare a minute.”

“I’m not --” Natasha snaps, but his avatar has already dissolved. “Ugh.” Hesitant to meet Clint’s eyes and find hurt or betrayal, she’s surprised to look up and find him still staring at her phone.

“You know Ironman?” he says, completely awestruck; then his eyes flicker, sweeping down her body and over her red, red hair, iconic now that she spends more time as the feature event on the nightly news. “So then you're--” Clint stops himself, snorts. “Never mind.” He smiles ruefully, shakes his head. “Would this be a weird time to mention that I was the Black Widow for Halloween last year?”

God, but Doom has the worst timing. “A little bit, yeah,” Natasha says, trying and failing not to smile. “I, um. I sort of have to go, you know.”

“Of course,” Clint says, still staring at her with eyes she could drown in. Impulsively, Natasha slides a hand to the back of his neck and pulls his face down, searching for one last taste of sunlight as she kisses him hard and thorough. His eyes are dreamy when she finally steps back, his hands still chasing her waist. “Can I call you?”

Natasha sorts through a dozen answers. “You’d better,” she finally tells him, and carries his laughter with her across the Canadian border.

 

JULY---

Only, he doesn’t.

Of course, it takes a week or so to realize this, since kicking Victor von Doom’s ass all the way back to Latveria always takes more time and energy than she wants. By the time he scuttles back to his fortress of solitude, Natasha’s nearly forgotten the whole episode; rain-drenched New York feels like a lifetime ago. It’s only when she climbs into bed in her Tower apartment, freshly showered, tea in hand, ready for a few days off from megalomaniacs and their exhausting complexes, that she thinks of Clint--the exact opposite of egocentric, and exactly who she wants to talk to.

And, listen: she doesn’t think it’s full of herself to expect him to have texted. She’s the Black goddamn Widow --she knows what she looks like; and even discounting that, they’d had a great time together, and he had asked if he could call her, and a kiss as electrifying as theirs merits, she thinks, at least one attempt at contact. But when she dives for the phone, there’s nothing: no missed call, no text, no new followers on her blue-checked Twitter account.

Tony could find his number. Actually, she could, too, with a little time and energy. But that’s--that’s definitely creepy. Right? And while she’s debating that, a more pressing and insidious worry wriggles into her conscience: Tony could also tell everyone what he saw. Correction: Tony will also tell everyone what he saw. Natasha likes her teammates--really, she does--but she can’t imagine anything worse. Janet will want to “optimize her wardrobe” for dating. Steve will want to talk about how she feels . Thor--Thor will give her a high five and go about his business, probably, but all of this is really secondary to the fact that Tony will absolutely reference this day in and day out, even more insufferable than he already is.

Probably, he’s plotting some obnoxious reveal right now, thinking she’ll be surprised. Ha! The Black Widow’s never surprised, she thinks with a savage sort of victory. Natasha shoves her feet into slippers, pulls on the giant “I got crabs in Maryland!” sweatshirt she’s appropriated from Thor, and stomps down to Tony’s workshop in righteous fury. Try and pull one over on me, she nearly tells JARVIS in the elevator. Me! The Black Widow!

“I know what you’re doing,” she announces, bursting into Tony’s lab with none of her usual subtlety.

Tony looks up from whatever he’s working on, a welding mask covering his face. Behind him, DUM-E pops its little head up and trills happily before launching into the first notes of “Rasputin.” “Welding?” says Tony, muffled.

“Yes!” Natasha nods triumphantly, pauses, shakes her head. “No. I mean--I know what you’re doing.”

Tony lifts the welding mask and stares at her in seeming lack of comprehension. He holds up a gauntlet on one hand and a precision blowtorch in the other. “Welding,” he repeats, louder, enunciating each syllable as if she can’t hear him, or is a moron.

Nobody else she knows makes Natasha want to stamp her feet the way Tony does. “I’m not talking about welding,” she snaps. “I’m talking about last Thursday. The guy,” she adds when Tony still looks perplexed. “When you holo-called? I know you’re planning to tell everyone.”

“Oh,” Tony says, “that,” and then his face folds and smooths back out to blank, an origami project in reverse. “I was under the impression,” he says, voice studiously bland as he turns his attention back to his gauntlet, “that you wanted to keep that a secret.”

“I do,” Natasha insists. “Which is why --” Her brain finally catches up and she snaps her mouth shut, reading the defensive slope of Tony’s shoulders. “Which is why you haven’t said anything,” she realizes with a sigh. “Shit, Tony, I--” Abruptly, she feels foolish and small, dwarfed by the sweatshirt that hangs to her knees, surrounded by the sharp metallic scent of Tony’s workshop and DUM-E’s ongoing exaltation of Rasputin’s romantic conquests. “I should go.”

She’s nearly at the door when U, her favorite robot on account of it not currently singing, grabs the tail end of her sweatshirt. “Or,” Tony says when she turns back. He drops his work, scrounges in a cabinet, and produces a grimy but unopened bottle of vodka. “Or you could stay.”

This is who they are, who they’ve been since the day they met: a pair of emotionally constipated idiots who can’t talk about feelings without something else to look at, something to absorb all the things they deflect with self-deprecation and quick subject changes. Natasha sighs, takes the bottle, throws herself onto the ancient, ratty couch in the corner of the workshop. “Or I could stay,” she says, mainly into a couch cushion.

Wheels roll, then footsteps, then Tony’s lifting her legs and laying them over his lap like roller coaster safety bars, as if that might protect him from the incoming conversation. For a few minutes, there’s only the background whir of machinery and the quiet of the bottle passing between them--and DUM-E, of course, who sings and sings until Tony finally says, “All right, give it a rest, bud.” To Natasha, he says, “So what’s this guy’s name?”

“Clint,” Natasha says into a pillow that--ugh --smells faintly of varnish. “Jesus, Tony, when was the last time you cleaned this thing?”

Tony pokes her in the side. “Stop deflecting. Where did you even meet this guy? You don’t go anywhere.”

Natasha glares at him. “I go places,” she argues. “Last month! We went to that gallery opening and I met a perfectly nice guy.”

“He was an elementary school teacher,” Tony scoffs, the same way Janet says Natasha’s shoes are from last season, or the way Steve derides the contemporary Cavendish cultivar banana.

“He was hot,” Natasha defends; and that’s not even the point . She takes a big slug of vodka, squeezes her eyes shut, and admits, “Clint’s a circus performer. A trickshot archer.”

“Yikes,” Tony says. “Uh, I mean. Cool?”

“Oh, fuck off,” Natasha grumbles, too comfortable to be truly grumpy.

“Hold on,” Tony’s still going. “Where did you meet a circus performer?”

Natasha throws an arm across her face. “Remember a year ago, when Janet wanted to go to the circus and you all ganged up on me?”

She knows Tony so well that she can hear his brow furrow, then clear. “Romanoff, you dirty dog --”

“It wasn’t like that,” Natasha insists, whacking him on the arm. “We met, he bought me a slushie, that’s it. But then I ran into him last week, and--”

“And you made out with him in a museum like a tourist?” Tony supplies, grinning.

“This is why nobody likes you,” Natasha tells him. “Do you want to hear about him, or do you want me to go back upstairs?” But she starts talking even before Tony flaps a hand at her; it’s almost a relief to let the story bubble up and spill out.

Most of their teammates would be shocked to find them like this, confessional and friendly, not an ounce of fight in their words; but then, this is how the Avengers began: not with heroics and fanfare, but with Tony figuring out that Natasha was a Russian spy in his company, Natasha simultaneously figuring out that Tony was secretly dying of palladium poisoning, and the two of them figuring out how to save each other. Everything--and everyone--else came later. And for all that she laughs most with Thor and banters most with Steve, for all that Tony and Bruce are nigh impossible to separate most hours of the day, Natasha and Tony always turn back to each other in crisis, birds always returning to the same nest.

And crises there have been many. There was the I think I'm in love with Pepper crisis (Tony), the I think I have PTSD crisis (part I: Tony; part II: Natasha), the I think my dad loved Steve more than me crisis (Tony), the maybe I was actually supposed to be a dentist or something crisis (Tony), the I think I'm in emotional arrested development and will be forever crisis (Natasha but also Tony). Tony has significantly more crises than she does, not having been trained since infancy to suppress all emotions, but the Great Existential Crisis of 2009, which they never speak of, had sent both of them spiraling until JARVIS had summoned Pepper to get the two of them to stop weeping.

So in comparison, this doesn’t feel like a crisis at all; at most, it’s a conundrum. “Of course it’s a crisis,” says Tony when she expresses this. “When was the last time you were seriously attracted to someone, and I swear to god if you say the elementary school teacher I will ban you from this lab.”

“What a punishment that would be,” Natasha says with a roll of her eyes; but she thinks, sinking deep into the pools of her memory, where what is and isn’t real about her tangles in the murky depths. “There was someone, once,” she says at last, still uncertain even as the words form on her tongue. “In the Red Room. He was--” It’s all mixed up, like seaweed pulling at her ankles: a rifle, a pas de deux, an arm that’s metal instead of flesh, a knife, a stubborn brown curl of hair on a wide forehead, a kiss, a scream. “He wasn’t like the others,” she finally manages. “And I’m sure he’s nothing but a ghost by now.”

“So it’s been a while,” Tony says, as close as he ever comes to gentle. “It’s okay if you’re a little scared.”

“I’m not scared,” Natasha insists. “I’m just… vaguely alarmed.”

Tony laughs. “JARVIS, throw up the definition of afraid for me,” he calls, and smirks when AFRAID (adj): filled with apprehension or alarm pops up in front of their faces in ghostly blue letters. “You were saying?”

Natasha sticks her tongue out and dismisses the message with a wave. “You can call it whatever you want,” she says, trying for a breezy tone, “but there’s nothing wrong with being skeptical.” She sighs, closes her eyes, and flops half off the couch so that her hair brushes against the concrete floor. She looks ridiculous, probably, but that’s how she feels, wobbly and unpredictable like one of those terrifying wind tube dancers Pepper is always deleting from Tony’s Amazon cart. Thinking this much about a man who hasn’t called her back five days after kissing her senseless makes her a bad superhero slash role model slash feminist, she suspects, so Natasha deflects, again: “I seem to recall you being skeptical, too, once upon a time.”

It’s quiet in the lab for a minute or two, nothing but their breathing, slightly out of sync; then Tony pulls her upright, gentle, deliberately waits until she opens her eyes again. “I was,” he says, his voice stripped of all the laughter and snark he usually wraps around his words. “I was very skeptical of you, and then of Pepper, and then this team and this tower; and now--”

“And now you’re running away?” Natasha supplies. “You're realizing you've made a terrible mistake?”

“Hey, I’m using all three of my yearly allotted serious minutes here, shut up.” He clears his throat. “And now I’m so fucking happy with my life that it’s honestly nauseating.”

“How… lovely,” Natasha says, nobly ignoring the sudden prickle at the corners of her eyes.

“I’m not saying not to be skeptical, or afraid, or whatever,” Tony goes on, ignoring her. “Just--I dunno, Nat, you obviously like this guy, so just give the whole thing a chance and don’t do that spider thing where you cocoon yourself off, that’s it. Okay?”

Natasha chews her lip and looks down at her hands, then the couch cushions, then, finally, at Tony. “You know spiders don’t make cocoons, right?” she says; but she kisses him on the forehead as she leaves, because languages built by people like them don’t have words for thank you.

 

AUGUST---

[ hi ]

[Who is this?]

[How did you get this number?]

[ hi i’m the idiot you met recently ]

[I’ve met a lot of idiots lately]

[You’ll have to be more specific]

[ the idiot who kissed you in new york and won’t shut the fuck up about it but also is too scared to like actually talk to you ]

[Oh, THAT idiot]

[Hi Clint]

[You’re being surprisingly forthcoming]

[ yeah well i decided kate was right ]

[ i’m ridiculously into you and i was being stupiddsjlhf ]

[???]

[ fuck ]

[ oh my god ]

[ shit ]

[ natasha i am so sorry ]

[ i put my phone down for a MINUTE and kate STOLE it ]

[ disregard everything she said ]

[...]

[So you’re not actually ridiculously into me, then]

[ wait ]

[No worries]

[ hold on ]

[i figured as much when you didn’t text me but it’s seriously fine]

[ uh ]

[ i mean ]

[ ... ]

[ hypothetically ]

[...]

[ let’s say kate isn’t totally wrong ]

[...]

[Go on]

 

SEPTEMBER---

The first photo Clint sends her is a night sky, an artist’s smeared palette of blues and blacks and purples that haven’t existed long enough to have names, splattered with stars like so many drops of luminous paint. [ outside charleston ] it’s captioned, a purple pin pushed into the map of Natasha’s mind. She sends back the sizzle of early fall rains on the hot New York streets, the steam shrouding the skyscrapers in glowing fog.

The next set of stars come from outside Savannah, a crescent of his thumb in the corner of an otherwise clear photo of the ursa major constellation. Natasha sends back the stars from Mogadishu, wishing she knew enough about astronomy to make her caption more specific than the city. Not that Clint seems to mind: they text back and forth for an hour, until the cybernetic arms dealer she’s hunting leaves his secure compound and her stakeout ends.

The nice thing about texting Clint--well, there’s more than one nice thing. He doesn’t mind if her responses are paragraphs in length, or dwindle down to single words, or vanish altogether. He doesn’t press for her location, or ask if she’s doing something dangerous, or suggest that she’s fragile. He doesn’t send dick pics.

He does send: approximately one hundred pictures of a one-eyed dog, each captioned [ this is Lucky, the dumbest best dog in the world ]; a video of himself and Kate practicing trick shots, punctuated by whoops and cheers; backstage photos of Clint in his hideous tunic and Kate in her lilac jumpsuit, punching each other and sticking their tongues out and one with Kate’s arm slung around the girl who gets shot out of the cannon; videos with no picture, just the miniature hammering of rain on the aluminum roof of his trailer; a picture of every single slushie he ever eats, apparently; a video of himself sneaking up on where Kate and the cannon girl sit together next to a bonfire, narrating in the absolute worst butchery at an Australian accent; a subsequent selfie, blurred because he’s clearly running and Kate’s clearly chasing him.

It’s… nice. It’s like having a friend.

Or maybe it’s not like having a friend, but just is what friendship looks like for normal people, who aren’t superheroes. It’s not as if she has any frame of reference, but she likes knowing there’s something waiting for her on her Starkphone besides meeting minutes and emails from Maria claiming to have evidence her of stealing all the good coffee from the break room (again). And she likes having someone to talk to outside of this life, outside of monsters and mayhem and massive egos.

So she secretly snaps Clint a picture of Namor, the king of Atlantis, when he surfaces off the coast of Oman demanding pizza. He’s the only person outside of the Tower who sees what happens when JARVIS malfunctions and traps Tony in the helmet for an afternoon, or when Steve and Thor get bodyswapped by AIM, or when she tries on one of Janet’s old uniforms and accidentally hits the shrink button. And she sends him the real stuff, too, the everyday things: sweaty post-gym selfies and the black cat that haunts her favorite tea house, stupid license plates and flowers growing between sidewalk cracks and the mess she and Thor make of her kitchen when they attempt to replicate an Asgardian feast.

“When did you get so into photography?” Pepper asks when she catches Natasha lining up a shot of their martini glasses during their weekly ladies’ night.

“I’m,” Natasha stalls, utterly, unprofessionally unprepared for this eventuality, “I’m thinking about getting an Instagram?” Pepper looks skeptical, Janet thrilled, Maria distinctly unimpressed, so she forges on, “Even Bruce has one, now, I think. I should probably get on board.”

[ so now I have an instagram I guess ] she texts Clint that night. Because it’s not just exchanging photos--no, it’s also the daily report on Tony’s newest failed kitchen gadget; it’s the ongoing saga of Kate falling head over heels for America, the girl who flies out of the cannon; it’s a never ending argument about tea versus coffee that Natasha refuses to admit she started and Clint refuses to concede; it’s diner reviews from all over the country that make Natasha laugh during team meetings; it’s a two person book club slash support group as they slog their way through Game of Thrones; it’s texting Clint about a nightmare at 3 AM because she knows he’s on Pacific time, knows he’s still awake, knows he’ll send her a picture of Lucky or maybe even himself, sitting on top of his trailer, awash in the sunset reflecting off the silver exterior.

[ finally ] Clint texts back. [ i’ve been dying for a picture of every single plate of food you ever eat ]

You could come visit , Natasha types. I could take you to dinner and then I wouldn’t have to send you a picture. There’s an archery themed Indian place I think you’d love. You could stay the night if you wanted. I have a spare room, or--

Ugh. Delete.

[ I’m going to make you regret that ] she responds; puts her phone on silent and leaves it inside when she goes onto her balcony to stare hopelessly through the light pollution for the stars.

 

DECEMBER---

It’s New Year’s Eve in Chicago, and Natasha is in crisis.

And, well, she’s been in crisis for a while now, since December showed up and started asking questions she didn’t know how to answer. Should I suggest we meet for the holidays? No, that would be weird. Wouldn’t it? Maybe I can just send a gift--but then I’d have to ask for his address. Does he have an address? Wouldn’t that be weird to ask? What if I just hack into his service provider and triangulate? That’s not weird, right?

The most frustrating thing is to feel so intimately acquainted with someone and yet know that, however Victorian the sentiment sounds, there’s really no established understanding or commitment between them to justify whatever it is she's feeling. Unless commitment is the star map of the eastern seaboard she could build from the photos he sends her. Unless understanding is talking so often that she’s invested in the drama over recruiting a new trapeze artist, just as Clint can’t wait to hear whether or not Bruce has reunited with his ex-girlfriend Betty. Unless these things and a hundred more aren’t just an oversized text chain on her phone, but that they actually mean something.

See? Crisis.

But tonight, on New Year’s Eve, the crisis is that Clint texts, [ happy new year from naperville illinois!! ] His arm extends into the photo, toasting the sky with a can of beer, and the horizon glows orange with distant city lights. Which wouldn’t be a big deal, except that her GPS tells her that Naperville is a suburb of Chicago, not even an hour away from where she's attending the overly expensive party the city mayor is throwing as thanks for the Avengers preventing Kang the Conquerer from, well, conquering the city the day before.

[ it’s only 11 in illinois, clint ] Natasha texts back, stepping away so Janet and Bruce won’t pick up on the glass of champagne trembling in her unsteady hand. [ well yeah but you’re in new york and i’m not ] Clint replies, [ so this is as close as i’m gonna get ]

Natasha hates sudden realizations--Tony has them all the time and is unbearably smug about it, and there’s something so entirely cliche about them, a deus ex machina feel that sets her teeth on edge--but there’s no real other way to describe it. “I need a car,” she tells Tony, pulling him away from the mayor. He raises an eyebrow and she shrugs, nonchalantly meeting the question in his eyes. “Breaking out of the cocoon. You know.”

“In that dress? He’s gonna have a heart attack.” She can’t remember the last time Tony looked so uniformly delighted. He taps his phone a few times, his grin slightly too proud to be sharp. “Last car on the right. Thumbprint unlock. Don’t say I never gave you anything.”

Two minutes later, she’s in Tony’s classic scarlet Camaro, her dress sliding across the leather seat; ten minutes later, she’s westbound on the highway; and thirty minutes later, she’s outside the city limits, trying very hard not to drive as crazily as she feels. It’s not crazy, she attempts to rationalize. What’s so crazy about running out of a party and driving to the country on New Year’s Eve to look for a man you’ve kissed once and texted a lot and who doesn’t even know you’re on your way?

She meets her own eyes in the rearview mirror and winces. Yikes. “JARVIS,” she sighs, “am I making a mistake?”

“No, Miss Romanoff,” the AI replies, pleasantly cool and familiar. “Your exit is not for another mile.” The exit, of course, is the only place she could turn around at this point, and she can’t even go through with the idea at the end of the exit ramp because the fairgrounds  back up to the highway; she’d have to literally drive past the entrance to turn around. The gates aren’t closed, and Natasha creeps the Camaro quietly through the camp, feeling utterly foolish. Why am I here? she thinks, why am I here, why am I here, a constant looping refrain until she sees the silver curve of Clint’s classic Airstream trailer and everything in her sings that is why, this is why, so loud and certain that she completely ignores JARVIS warning, “Miss Romanoff, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you the temperature--”

Natasha doesn’t wait to hear the end of the sentence--car parked, ignition off, door open--and steps out into cold, shit, cold Illinois night. This is where impulsivity gets her: a field outside Chicago, shivering in nothing but a strapless purple gown because she left without a coat, and still with twenty yards to walk--in heels--because she hadn’t wanted to ruin the surprise. Not that she’s quite figured out how, exactly, to turn up at his door and say hello, I’m here, please pay attention to me! but only in a good way.

In the end, she takes three minutes to line up the shot at the far end of the trailer, catching the same rounded side of the Airstream in the corner, perfectly matching the tilt of the glowing lights of Chicago on the horizon. She doesn’t have a can of beer to hold, so she holds out her empty hand, pale wrist catching the moonlight. [ but I’m not in New York ] she sends Clint, timestamp 23:57. As far as bad ideas go, this one’s probably towards the top of the list; and yet still--

Natasha waits. Waits. Waits.

And then the door to the trailer bangs open to reveal Clint silhouetted in the doorway, his face cast into shadow by the light inside. Kate shoves her head between his hip and the door frame, America’s head stacking above and Lucky’s dopey smile poking out below. It would be funny, if Clint was doing something other than staring at her, or if her heart wasn’t wedged in her windpipe.

Under the weighty silence, Natasha--master spy, trained to withstand any multitudes of torture--cracks. “So I know the optics aren’t great,” she says through her chattering teeth, “but I, uh, I was in Chicago, and there aren’t that many fairgrounds in Naperville, you know, there’s actually only one, so it’s not that creepy, I think--”

In the romance movies Janet’s made her watch, things start to move in slow motion here, couples reaching for each other across molasses moments, or sometimes running through fields for slow embraces. And sure, Clint crosses a few yards of tramped-down dead grass to engulf her--but slowly? No. Nothing is slow about the kiss Clint lays on her, an onslaught of emotions on his lips, in his hands as they dig into her hair, in his arms as he easily lifts her off the ground. This kiss is a tidal wave, an outpouring, and rather than fight it, Natasha adds to the current, wrapping her legs around his waist and holding his face in her hands, sliding her tongue against his at the exact stroke of midnight so sparks fly and fly and fly as the fireworks erupt above.

And in movies, the couple usually turns to find someone gaping at them, a slack jawed audience, or maybe an old lady makes some snappy comment. Theoretically, Kate and America would fill this role, but when Clint carries her to his trailer, the doorway is an empty yellow rectangle of warmth, and when he pulls the door shut behind them, it seems the girls have even taken Lucky with them. These are things that should be apparent, that Natasha would normally observe as easily as breathing; and maybe she would, were she not pressed up against a mini-fridge by 230 pounds of solid muscle intent on thoroughly kissing her. “Where’s your coat?” he mutters dazedly into the hollow of her throat, as if just realizing that the heat of his mouth has been moving steadily down her neck for the past few minutes, unencumbered.

“I left in a-a hurry,” Natasha laughs, breathlessly happy. “Hold on, hold on, hey--” She pushes gently and he immediately leans back, propping himself against the tiny sink barely a foot away. It’s her first proper look at him tonight, and her eyes snag on the way his t-shirt clings to his heaving pectoral muscles, revealing a slim arrow tattoo along his bicep. She wants to lick it; she wants--“Happy New Year,” she says, a spark catching in her throat, quick and bright.

Clint watches her, his adam’s apple bobbing as he swallows in the crackling silence. “I’m really glad you’re here,” he finally says, voice low like crashing trees. “I’ve wanted,” he begins, meets her eye, starts again. “I want--” It is clear that he means I want you. It is clear that he is handing her a tinder box and waiting to see what she does with it.

Natasha strikes the match. “I’ve wanted you, too,” she says; and just like that, there’s fire. This is a slow kiss, hot open mouths and Natasha’s unhurried hands sliding under his shirt in search of skin. Fire doesn’t need to rush--it consumes everything, eventually--so she takes her time running her fingertips over smooth skin and hard muscle, batting Clint’s hands away so she can pull his shirt up and off herself. Even in the winter he’s golden, perfect, and Natasha leans back in to slide her mouth to his chest, as if the gold might come off like sugar on her tongue.

But she misses as Clint’s hands slip from her hips to her thighs to her calves and he follows them down, sinking to his knees. “You’re gorgeous,” he says, somewhat muffled by the full swirling skirt of her dress. “This dress should be illegal.” His leans back to flash her an impish grin. “And I know you wore purple because of me.”

“I did not,” Natasha hotly protests, glad he can’t see the flush of her lying face, or the alarming variety of purple dresses piled on her bed back at the Tower. “What are you--oh--” Under the hem of her dress, Clint’s hand finds her ankle before his fingers trace steadily upward, until his big hand circles her thigh and finds--

“A knife?” Clint fights his way back out from under her dress, laughing; when he looks up at her, his eyes are so full of admiration and approval and maybe just a little reverence, like a pilgrim at a shrine, like she’s just as much of a god as he is.  

Natasha swallows down the sudden thickness in her throat. “A woman’s got to be prepared,” she shrugs.

“Uh huh,” Clint says, still grinning as he slides the knife out of its sheath. Natasha tries to track where it skitters off to, but Clint ducks back under her skirt and puts his mouth where his hand was only a second earlier, his tongue tracing the crease left by her thigh holster as he unfastens it. He says something unintelligible under the drape of fabric, and the warmth of his breath cuts right through her.

Clint,” she says, but she only gets a muffled, “I’m busy” in response, and then her underwear is pushed to the side and in its place is his sure, steady hand, sliding one and then two fingers into the center of her, careful and constant and so hot-slick she forgets all about the knife and the Idaho-shaped magnet digging into her shoulder. Clint says something that sounds vaguely like “this would be a lot easier if you were naked,” but it’s just ripples of breath across her navel, not nearly as interesting as the curving movement of his fingers or the way his thumb pushes just right against her clit; and then Clint mutters again, nudges her until she has no option but to hang one leg over his broad shoulder, removes his thumb and replaces it with his mouth.

And this --this is seeing in Technicolor after a lifetime of silent pictures. This is geometry exploding kaleidoscopically behind her eyelids, endless. This is knowing for the first time what it is to be an arrow on a bow string, every single cell drawn tight with a single target, vibrating in need of release. And when at last his fingers crook exactly right and his tongue stops circling to push hard against her clit, when at last the bow string snaps and every atom in her body goes nuclear, when she's returning from zenith and floating back down to earth, Natasha slides down into Clint's lap in a wobbly cloud of purple crepe in the shade of a smile so brilliantly filthy it sets her on fire all over again. "You might not believe me when I say this," she sighs, resting her forehead against his, "but that felt almost as good as saving the world." Clint’s eyes deepen, a blue darker than the oceans, and Natasha feels her heart cut zig zag down the middle, not broken but ready to give half of itself away like a friendship necklace.

But there’s no time for that, not now. Now is for biting his lip in a bruising kiss, for getting their feet under them in this miniature entryway; now is for pulling at his belt and zipper, for pushing him through the little galley kitchen to the bed at the back of the trailer. She knocks Clint onto the bed and he sprawls there for a minute, pants around his ankles and a sparkle in his eyes, so unfairly handsome that Natasha’s usually nimble fingers feel like rubber. “Let me help you,” he laughs, stepping over to her and out of his jeans after a minute of her struggling for the zipper at the back of her gown.

Behind her, the sharp hush of an undone zipper; then his mouth, warm and soft, pressing kisses on and between the vertebrae of her spine, no stone left untouched as he carefully helps her out of her dress. Finally, finally, he sinks to the bed and draws her into his lap, bright and burnished against her own pale skin. There’s a finality around the whole thing, really, or-- eventuality, that’s the right word. This story was always going to lead them right here, with her knees bracketing his hips, with him pressing so hard against her that she can’t imagine how he hasn’t exploded.

“Maybe don’t mention that,” he winces when she brings it up; and then, perhaps because he knows that it’s exactly Natasha’s plan to thusly torment him, he reaches around to deftly unhook and toss away her strapless bra, and then she’s the one in torment. Clint sighs appreciatively and buries his face in her cleavage, exploring first with his hands and then his mouth until Natasha shakes; then he rolls until she’s under him on the bed and just-- looks at her, in a moment that feels like forever, with something shaped like adoration in his eyes.

“Nat,” he says, just as she says, “Clint,” on a half-formed sigh; and they laugh together as she draws him down for a kiss, and another, and another. She catalogs ever muscle her hands rake over, dedicating the feel of him to memory even as his hands roam her own skin, push her underwear and his both down and out of the way. Like King Midas, his every touch turns her skin to gold, glowing and glittering and new like she hasn’t ever felt before. This is the good kind of drowning, in the blue of his eyes, drunk on the shape of his skin against hers; this is the drowning she never wants to end.

“Nat, I,” he says again, and this time she sees the grit of his teeth, the delicious cording of every muscle straining for absolution. “Do you--” Natasha nods into the corner of his shoulder, but he doesn’t move, and she blinks up at him to realize he’s still waiting.

“Yes,” she says, gently nibbling along his collarbone just to see him shiver. “Clint, please.” He grins then, drops an incongruously sweet kiss on her nose, lunges for a cabinet and rolls on a condom with sizzling speed. He kisses her again and again, hard and slightly off-center, before sliding into her so smoothly and deeply that Natasha gasps.

“Okay?” Clint stills, peering down in concern.

In an echo of their earlier kiss, Natasha rolls her hips to meet his, then wraps her legs around him, all so slowly he groans. “Very okay.” She’s trying, but it’s impossible to stay cool when Clint is the wood and she is the fire and they’re burning so beautifully together. Every brush of his hands and mouth, every time his hips meet hers: it’s all kindling to flames, the bonfire they’re building to the sky. And just when she thinks she can’t possibly take the heat anymore, just when her back arcs from the bed like an ember escaping a flame, Clint’s hand steals between her legs, his mouth closes around the tip of one breast, and just like that, Natasha turns to gold and melts.

It would be embarrassingly incoherent, not to mention loud, if not for Clint following her right over the edge with equal enthusiasm. Still, it’s a couple long, panting minutes before she has the wherewithal to push Clint off of her and, incidentally, the bed. “That bad, huh,” he wheezes from the floor, but when he jackknifes up, the smile spread across his face could blind the moon, it’s that sunny.

While he’s in the bathroom, Natasha wraps herself in one of Clint's purple sheets and tours the trailer, having neglected to pay attention earlier. Clint always describes himself as quote sort of a mess, but the place is carefully neat, arrows and books and playing cards tucked away into built-in shelves and cubbies. She likes places like these, everything miniature and perfectly proportioned; and even though everything has a home, it’s not devoid of personality. Apart from the honestly staggering amount of various purple-themed decor (coffee cups, dishtowels, throw pillows?), there’s an assortment of books, many of which she remembers hearing about. One aluminum wall is covered with magnets from seemingly every corner of the country, simple state outlines and lovingly detailed state birds or flowers, fill in the blank name ones like KATE went to Florida and all I got was this magnet and CLINT got wet at Niagara Falls. Instead of picture frames, photos are just attached to the wall with some of these magnets, and Natasha’s breath hitches in her throat when closer study reveals that many of them are ones that she’s sent him: Central Park in warm sunlight, Thor draping his thick blond hair like a wig over her own, Natasha grinning directly into the camera with a bowl of ice cream balanced on her head.

“That one’s my favorite,” Clint says, resting his chin on her bare shoulder, arms coming to circle her waist. The edges of his voice curl with hesitation. “It reminds me of New York, and--I mean, I thought it would be weird to ask, so--”

Natasha turns without leaving the circle of his arms. “I like it,” she says, looking up into his unsure expression. “I like you.” As far as words go, like feels pretty insufficient for the shimmering golden feeling that pools in her chest; but Clint smiles like he knows what she means, anyway, and when she takes his hand, he follows her back to bed.

 

JANUARY---

By some unspoken agreement, villains and superheroes alike take January off, to plan or go on luxurious vacations, or whatever; more than once, Tony and Otto Octavius have ended up on the same Fiji beach, and Janet swears up and down that she and Madame Hydra belong to the same exclusive spa in the Swiss Alps.

Normally, Natasha takes stock in January, trying to be productive. She tours her safe houses, maybe trains on a new weapon or fight style, thinks about learning to knit. In fact, she’s buying new sheets for her studio apartment in Nashville when her phone beeps. [ hello memphis ] Clint’s text says; and, well, it’s only a three hour drive through the Smokies. And I do like mountain driving, she argues to herself, as if that’s the reason for this undertaking and not the taste of Clint’s mouth as soon as he opens the trailer door. “Please tell me this is going to be a recurring thing,” he gasps ten minutes later when his clothes are gone and Natasha’s tongue is tracing the arc of stars tattooed across his hip.

And, look: if she just happens to notice the tour dates stuck to his refrigerator, so what? And if she just coincidentally needs to make a lot of updates to this Nashville apartment while Carson’s Circus tours Huntsville and Chattanooga and Atlanta, what of it? And does anyone really need to know why she’s suddenly very desperate for a new bolthole in Austin despite her previous staunch opposition to owning property in the state of Texas?

 

FEBRUARY---

The third time Natasha checks the jet out, Tony says something. “Another booty call?” he teases, but quietly, eyes darting to where Bruce and Thor argue about physics on the other side of the lab.

Her response options are:

  1. Ugh, Tony, because she will be on the literal brink of death before she discusses her sex life with Tony, even if they are best friends, even if Tony has no similar compunction about giving her way too many details about what he and Pepper get up to, even if Tony insists that this is because she is the Charlotte to his Carrie. (Especially because she is clearly the Miranda and he is definitely a Samantha and, also, Sex and the City ended in 2004, Tony, so how are these roles even relevant?)
  2. Yes, because maybe that’ll stun him long enough for her to get out of the lab and onto the jet before he tries to start a conversation about feelings or relationships. And, well: it’s sort of true, anyway.
  3. No, though, because Clint’s made his way down through Arkansas to Louisiana and Texas, where the winter is still warm and the sun sets early and glorious, and they sit on the roof of his trailer together, shoulders and thighs pressed against each other in one unending line so the dying pink-orange light has to wash over them both at once. Clint makes enormous omelets for breakfast; Natasha takes the lead in their ongoing game of poker. They have the same conversations they would have over text, only she’s there to see the crease of his smile, the wrinkle of his nose. They bicker. They banter. They tell each other stories about themselves, and some of them are even true. Their laughter floats against the trailer’s aluminum roof like sparkling stars.
  4. I don’t see how that’s any of your business, because this all feels so fragile, she doesn’t even know what she’s doing. She can’t tell Tony what this is or isn’t because she can’t frame it herself. All she knows is that she likes who she is with Clint, likes the solid heat of his body curled against hers, and that these are the only things she can admit to chasing.

None of those answers quite, work, though, so Natasha tells Tony, “Or something,” tossing him a smirk as she flies off, a bird flying south for warmth.

 

MARCH---

“Waterloo,” Clint says. “Iowa.”

They’re trying this thing now where they talk on the phone, officially because of the distance but unofficially because Natasha likes the way her name curls off his tongue like a trapeze artist flying into the dusty air. Really, she likes the way he says anything; he laughs at her, but she likes the way that sounds, too.

So, anyway, that’s her story: she’s distracted by the way his voice dances through her veins, and that’s how she misses the tremble of his voice, the way Iowa comes out a little shaky at the end. Natasha falls a little harder for Clint every time he opens his mouth, so he says, “Waterloo, Iowa,” he says, “Natasha, I need you,” and she grabs a jet and falls into his arms and wakes up the next morning completely alone.

“About time you woke up.” Or, not completely alone: Kate slouches over an oversized mug of coffee, her black ponytail curtaining around her face. “Do all superheroes sleep this late?”

“When I can,” Natasha replies, opting to put the kettle on for tea before grappling with whatever Kate wants from her. “Don’t you?” she goes on after a minute, even though she already knows Kate’s the one always dragging Clint out of bed to practice.

Kate scowls deeply into her coffee. “This is early even for me,” she admits. “It’s Sunday! It’s the day of rest, or whatever! Day of staying in bed with my girlfriend, not babysitting Clint’s.”

Babysitting,” Natasha repeats, removing the howling kettle from the stove.

Kate’s nose scrunches up remarkably like Clint’s does. “Oh, don’t get your spandex in a twist, you know he didn’t say that.”

“What did he say?” Like standing in front of a Monet, sliding into the seat across from Kate reveals the brushstrokes of worry that make up her scowl; her normally perfect manicure flakes off at the tips, and her lip twists between her teeth. Natasha blows on her tea before carefully asking, “Kate, is something wrong? Where exactly did Clint go?”

Another brushstroke swipes anger over worry. “Waverly,” Kate says, the word hovering darkly between them.

Natasha blinks, remembering zipping past a road sign pointing to Waverly twenty miles north. “What’s in Waverly?”

One of Kate’s sharp shoulders goes up. “His family, apparently,” she mutters. “He wouldn’t say anything else, just to tell you he’d be back later.”

In the light of day, Natasha sees what was obscured by night and lust and impulsivity: the quiver of his voice, how closely he’d held her all night, the way he’d said need like oxygen itself. And she sees something in Kate, too, a fine rebellion itching under the skin. Natasha studies her between sips of tea. “I know Clint woke you up, but you could’ve gone back to sleep,” she points out. “I would’ve come to find you eventually. You could’ve told me later.” Another sip. “So why are you here and not in bed with your aforementioned girlfriend?”

It’s the right question: Kate’s pointed chin juts forward, though in defiance of who, Natasha isn’t sure until she firmly declares, “I think you should go after him.”

Part of Natasha is on her rented motorcycle the same second Kate says go, so much of her that she has to grip her tea tightly to prevent herself from leaving. Directions. Intel. “Don’t you think he’d have asked if he wanted company?” There, that sounds reasonable.

Or, so she thinks, but Kate throws her an exceedingly pitying look. “What, and you always ask for exactly what you need?" She pauses, rolls her eyes. “Don’t answer that, okay, I forget you’re a perfectly self-actualized superhero. But we both know that Clint isn’t.”

“He did call me,” Natasha feels the need to point out.

This does not impress Kate, who pushes a thumb into the frown forming between her straight black brows. “Yes, and you’re doing so much help twenty miles away.” She pushes Natasha’s keys across the table. “Now are you going, or what?”

This early on a Sunday, the roads are empty; her only company on Highway 218 are lowing cows, hidden from her view by gently waving walls of golden wheat. It’s picturesque, idyllic; the quiet country sort of living that she’d dreamed of within the Red Room’s reinforced cinder block walls. And this is where Clint grew up, she realizes. Or is it? She doesn’t know anything about his family, his life before the circus; he’s never mentioned and she’s never asked, perhaps selfishly, because those kinds of conversations demand reciprocation and she doesn’t want to receive the special brand of pity she usually gets, the Oh My God You Poor Thing, the eyes shining with tears, the trembling lip. Janet still gets like that, sometimes. It gets old.

So instead she’s here, speeding north with an anxious urgency, pulling her backwards and forwards at once. Natasha is a brilliant spy and a terrible small-talker, and the thought of pulling up in front of some ancient house with a white fence and--and a laundry line, probably, already pulls her jaw tense. Hello Mrs. Barton, Mr. Barton! Your house is lovely; also, why has Clint never mentioned you? Okay, no. Hi, I’m Natasha, Clint’s --she can not introduce herself as his girlfriend. Long-term text buddy? Special friend? Partner? Lover? Oh god, okay: skip introductions and go straight to the conversation. I’m just here to support Clint! By the way, could you elaborate on why Clint joined the circus at the young, impressionable age of -- She doesn’t even know that. Maybe she should guess? Maybe she should turn around? Maybe--

All her questions dry up, though, when she exits the highway onto 4th Street as Kate instructed and pulls up in front of--Oh. Harlington Cemetery, est. 1862. Oh. Towards the back, where a pair of birch trees grow from one set of roots, she sees the shape of Clint’s beloved truck. Oh.

It’s not a big cemetery; Natasha leaves her bike near the gate and walks the path that winds around tombstones and placards, making yet another set of revisions to the script she’s been writing and rewriting since she got on the bike. Small talk? Out. Big talk? She grimaces. What even is that? What does she even say? What does anyone say in these moments, regular people, for whom death is not a coworker?

Ultimately, the decision is made for her. As she draws closer to the tree that shades Clint’s truck, she hears a quiet glide of guitar strings twined with Clint’s gentle voice. Rounding the truck, Natasha takes note of Clint’s hearing aids set on the grey dashboard, Clint himself sitting by two graves of equal age and unequal tending. If he notices her footfalls, feels their vibrations through the cool grass, he doesn’t say anything, not even when Natasha folds herself onto the faded yellow quilt and sits next to him; he sings on, and Natasha’s eyes track from the careful fingers on his guitar to the neatly kept grave before them, laid with a fresh bouquet of violets. Edith Barton, the stone says, Loving mother, dutiful wife; the next grave, overgrown and choked with weeds, reads only Harold Barton, and the spy in her that never turns off says, ah.

Deliberately, she pushes it down, all of it, everything but the grass and the shade and the man next to her. Clint stops singing and sets the guitar down on his other side, but he says nothing. When Natasha steals peripheral glances, he’s still, staring straight ahead, arms draped over his pulled-up knees. The ground is cold and hard--Iowa, it seems, isn’t giving in to spring just yet--but Clint doesn’t move, and so Natasha doesn’t, either.

“The reason I’m deaf,” he says twenty-three minutes into the silence, “is because my dad was an abusive alcoholic fuck.” He’s not just still now, but brittle, years away from his usual flexible, easygoing current self. Natasha doesn’t know the right thing to say, because there isn’t a right thing to say. Instead, she shifts minutely, just enough so that her hip is flush with his, the cool of his thigh seeping through her jeans to her own.

In equally small measures, Clint relaxes against her, like a python unclenching, until he says, “I’m kinda fucked up,” with a laugh that can’t unstick itself from his throat. Natasha, too, finds her throat constricting, dry and harsh, as he talks. “They only got married ‘cause my mom got knocked up. I think they were happy when it was just them and Barney--that’s my brother--but. I dunno. He was a butcher and I guess business wasn’t doing so well, and I was an easy target, being four and scrawny. Anyway, after he dislocated her jaw--” His hands curl reflexively. “I started putting myself in the way. He couldn’t do anything to her, I figured, if he had me to beat on. Which is stupid, when I think about it now, but I mean, I was still only six by then. I didn’t know shit. I thought if I took all the beatings, if I let him break my nose, my arms, my skull, then I could--I could--” Uncurling, his hands hang limp, defeated. “He said they were going out, that they were going on a date so she’d stop nagging him. I stood in the door because he was already drunk and it wasn’t even dark out yet, but my mom--my mom said it was okay, and that she’d bring us back some ice cream if we were good while they were out. We sat in that house for a day before the sheriff showed up and told us they’d driven into a tree.”

Too often, tragedy falls like a line of dominoes, chaining cruel spiraled patterns. None of their foster homes work out, so Barney and Clint end up running away to the circus. The fortune teller keeps an eye on them, but they work longer hours than children should, taking tickets and picking pockets and scrounging for change. As they get older, Clint’s talent flourishes and gains attention while Barney is kept backstage, fuming. After one too many nights in jail for petty theft, Barney gets whisked away to a military school and their already tenuous brotherhood falls apart.

“And that’s all the family I have,” Clint says, flat, disaffected. “Two dead parents and a missing brother.” He shrugs. “Anyway, we’re normally around here this time of year, and Mom loved music, so I come and keep her company.”

Unlike Janet, Natasha only thinks oh my god you poor thing when children are involved; but the breeze shifts the trees and the light dappling down through the leaves brushes the age from Clint’s face until he’s young again, soft rounded cheeks and eyes hardened far too early. Her fingers flex with need: to undo one death and painfully redo another, to draw Clint away from this sadness, to wrap herself around him until he doesn’t hurt anymore. She always feels this way about children in need of rescue, but not this much, not with her heart straining this hard to escape her chest. If she doesn’t do something, say something--

It’s not about you, her conscience reminds her, leaning hard on the brakes of her runaway thoughts. He came here alone. He left his hearing aids out. She remembers these things; she remembers sitting next to Tony for hours while he shook like a lone winter leaf in panic attacks and how Maria always begins ladies’ night with we’re here to talk shit, not solve each others’ problems. She remembers, and she sits quietly next to him for hours, even as her well-trained muscles go cold and stiff.

(“You didn’t have to worry,” he tells Kate when they get back. He’s been saying this the whole drive back, but he tells Natasha again, “You didn’t have to come after me.”

Kate looks at Natasha. “Is he serious?” Natasha lifts one shoulder and Kate sighs, rolls her eyes, and flicks Clint good-naturedly on the nose. “Of course we did, you idiot,” she says. “That’s what families do.”)

 

APRIL---

The Avenge-Jet feels like home after a long, dirty infiltration, even if it’s only a few steps up from the dank hallways and bleak labs of the latest Hydra bunker they’ve spent a good three days liberating. Natasha and Steve do this so often that they have a routine: Steve trades his splashy patriotic uniform for a standard tac one while Natasha stashes their gear, then she changes while he initiates the takeoff sequence. Steve gets flight snacks, Natasha gets their personal phones from storage, and they rendezvous in the cockpit for takeoff. It’s a science. If there was an award for synchronized superheroics, they’d win it.

This routine normally takes ten minutes; today, Natasha slides one arm into her jacket, powers on her phone, and is immediately inundated with a wall of two-day-old notifications:

 

[ do you think america wants a carebear backpack for her birthday ]

[ no right ]

[ okay i bought it anyway but i can ]

[ oh shit ]

[ fuck ]

Missed call

Missed call

Missed call

[ hey uhhhhh how muchh blood loss is tOO MUCH?????? ]

[ cna ]

[ *can you call me ]

[ call me ]

Missed call

Missed call

Missed call

Missed call

Missed call

Missed call

[ CALL ME ]

Missed call

Missed call

Missed call

[ ok ]

[ sorry about earlier ]

[ crisis averted ]

[ or whatever ]

[ hey how often are you supposed to check on people who have concussions ]

 

There’s more, but she’s already dialing, hands shaking off the speed dial button more than once. “Pick up,” she urges the dial tone, “Pick up. Pick up.”

The line clicks. “Natasha?” He sounds tired.

She chokes on all the questions rushing up her throat, so that all she gets out is, “I-- Clint,” almost a sob.

“Hey,” he rushes to say, “Hey, hey, it’s fine, I’m fine, it--it was Kate, Nat. Kate and her friends were driving back from town and hit a deer.”

“You--” Her reaction time is abysmal. “You’re okay?” Clint explains the dark night, the broken headlight, the seatbelts that don’t work in Kate’s friend Teddy’s dilapidated station wagon, but all Natasha feels is fear fear fear, is a rising wave, is out of control. Natasha knows her fear, and she knows where it belongs: when she’s one finger’s-grip from falling off a building, when the Hulk bellows, when someone says the names Natalia or Ivan or Yelena, when she wakes up in a hospital room without knowing how she got there, when her nightmares take her back to her small hand around a big knife in a room painted red with blood. Fear--it doesn’t belong with Clint, doesn’t fit. Clint is warmth, kindness, laughter, safety ; Clint is the opposite of fear, and so the dissonance is overwhelming.

“Natasha?” he says, like he’s said it more than once, which is how she figures out that she hasn’t said anything, done anything. She’s still standing in the back of the jet, still with just one arm in her jacket. “Nat, honestly, I’m okay. We’re all okay.” There’s a long, gulping pause before Clint asks, “You still there?”

“I--sorry,” Natasha says, shaking herself. “I’m glad everyone’s okay. Hey, we’re taking off, but I’ll call you back, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Clint says. “Bye, Nat.” She closes her eyes and absorbs the smile she can hear in his voice. Maybe if she stands here long enough, holding onto that warmth--

“Who was that?” Steve leans against the door to the cockpit, brow furrowed.

Natasha realizes what she must look like: pale, shaky, jacket still hanging on one arm. “Nobody,” she says, trying to zip up her emotions with her jacket. “Ready for takeoff?”

Subtly, Steve shifts his weight so that she can’t push past him to her seat. “Natasha, c’mon, I’m not an idiot,” he says. “Also, you’re crying.”

“I’m what?” Because this is Tony’s jet, there’s no shortage of reflective surfaces for her to examine her face and realize, shit, she is. She swipes at her eyes. “No I’m not.”

Steve sighs, exactly the way he does when Tony’s being obstinate, which Natasha would object to if she (a) noticed or (b) wasn’t, in fact, being obstinate. “Nat, can I just offer--do you want a hug, or… something?” And, bless him, he actually waits until she nods before wrapping his huge arms around her.

It’s just--the crash was two days ago, just a bit after she and Steve landed outside Linz. Two days. And Natasha’s not a what if person, because there’s no room for what if when you’re staring down the barrel of a gun, but: what if Kate had been really hurt, or what if she’d died, or what if--she chokes on this one--what if, instead of Kate, it had been Clint in all those scenarios? What if he’d been dead for days, and she’d turned on her phone to an endless stream of missed calls and sobbing voicemails from Kate?

Of course, she feels this way about her teammates; of course, she’d be upset to get the same sort of notification about another Avenger, or Pepper, or Maria. But Clint--he’s a civilian, and he’s supposed to be safe out there in the wandering Midwest so that she doesn’t have to worry, and if he’s not then what is she--how is she supposed to protect him?

“Have you talked about this?” Steve says, exceedingly gentle, because apparently she’s lost all sense of self-preservation and dignity and has just verbally fell apart all over Steve without even noticing.

“I-- no,” Natasha says wetly. “I’m kind of having a revelation here.”

“Okay,” Steve says, and even though she knows he has no idea who she's talking about, he doesn’t ask any questions, just stands there until she tells him where she wants to go.

***

The show must go on, of course, so Clint’s on-stage solo when Natasha arrives. By now, she knows everyone: she greets Luke, the strongman, and asks after his wife Jessica’s new baby, then watches Colleen and Misty practice their swordfighting act, the Daughters of the Dragon, before finally ducking backstage. The fist of fear around her heart loosens at the sight of Clint, even in his ridiculous costume, and she leans against a stack of crates to watch the final minutes of his performance. Watching the Amazing Hawkeye never gets old: the pure strength of his arms, the charisma that drips from his pores, but most of all the joy that just radiates from him, enveloping the entire audience in the radius of his sunshine.

And when he comes off stage, sweat hanging off his temples and darkening his golden hair like a sunset, all that sunshine gets directed at her. “You’re here,” he cheers, immediately dropping his bow to lift her in a crushing hug that turns into a deep, back-bending kiss. Someone whistles, and Clint flushes, ruddy and unrepentant. “Hi,” he says, his smile like a lamp in the darkness. “I didn’t know you were coming.”

“I wasn’t,” Natasha admits, sliding her hand into his as they slip out into the night. “I wanted to see you.” They meander through the carnival stalls, buying a bag of kettle corn and eating most of it by the time they visit with Kate, who's mostly healed and very cranky; then they wander back to Clint’s trailer, where Natasha manages to peel them both out of their clothes without letting go of him once.

"I'm gross," Clint laughs. "Let me shower first."

"Later," Natasha insists against his mouth. She doesn't want to let him out of her sight. She's chasing something, a feeling she can't identify, a word to soothe her rattling heart; and she finds it, maybe, in the spaces between his breaths or the curl of her name on his lips as they together fall apart. Together, she thinks, surfacing from the blissfully static after-fog. I want us to be together. I don't ever want to be afraid for you again.

That's not what she says. "I think I should move here," she tells Clint.

He laughs. "Here like Turtle Lake, Minnesota?"

Natasha elbows him. "Here like... here," she says, gesturing vaguely to the tin ceiling, the magnets, the holey purple sheets. "With you. Here like wherever you are."

Slowly, Clint rolls to face her. "Does the general Midwest need that much avenging?" he asks. “I think I heard something about a, uh… squirrel girl? In Michigan?”

Natasha puts a hand on his chest. "I wouldn't be here for the avenging," she says. "I'd be here for you." Saying it aloud flushes her whole system golden with relief. It's a realization that feels good, that she wants this, wants him, permanently.

Clint looks at her for a long, heart-thudding minute. “You’d quit the Avengers?” he finally asks, low, quiet. “For me?” He tucks some of her hair behind her ear, smoothing it like water. “But you love your job. You love helping, and--and protecting. And your team, your friends.”

“Yeah, but I also--” I also love you. She can’t say that. “I mean, I wouldn’t be quitting completely, just--I don’t know, stepping back, I guess. They could still call if they needed me, and I could just scramble a jet at the nearest air base, or something.”

“What if--we’re not always going to be near an air base,” Clint points out. “What if it’s immediate, or--or what if they’re incapacitated, and can’t call you? Nat, I--”

Dread pools under her skin like bruises. “Do you not--” Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. Embarrassment lances through her, dying her whole body red. “Oh my god, Clint, I--I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have assumed you even wanted --” She rolls to sit upright, hunching her shoulders in search of escape. “I’ll go--”

“No! Nat, listen, please.” She stills under the solid heat of his hand on her arm. “Natasha, I love --” She hears him curl back the same word she did earlier, a word neither of them know how to wield. “Selfishly, I’d love to have you here, every day, forever. God, Nat, I want that so much, but you--your job is really important, and you’re good at it, and you love it. I mean, I see you after a mission and you’re just so--so alive, so full of energy and power and light. It’s,” he laughs at himself. “It’s honestly, like, super hot, with the suit and all?” Clint shakes his head. “Anyway, look, my point is that most people hate their jobs and you don’t, and that your job is important and mine isn’t. It’s not,” he gently insists when she tries to argue. “Not like yours. And it’s not my place to let you do anything, but I can’t let myself be selfish enough to hold you back. I can’t keep you to myself. I don’t want to.” His hand slides up to curl over her shoulder. “Not even if you’re worried about me.”

In the darkness, she doesn’t try to lie. “I don’t know what I’d’ve done if that had been Kate calling to say that something had--that you’d--” She bites her lip, but it bursts out of her anyway. “And what if it’s the other way around? I’m always one wrong move from death, Clint. Always, and the only person who’d know to call you is Tony.” She lets her hand find his in the dark, clutching at it like a lifeline.

He knows this, of course. She’s a celebrity of the most dangerous sort, the kind which makes any personal connection a weakness for supervillains to exploit. “Would you--have you ever thought about--” Asking the question means receiving an answer, and the answer could be no , and she doesn’t know what those two small letters will do to her heart. “Would you ever consider moving to New York?” she finally forces herself to ask. “Not--not so I can protect you; just so, you know…”

“I know,” Clint says, serious and soft. In slow half-motions, he gathers Natasha into his arms and holds her for long, uncounted minutes, until she can hear his heartbeat slow with hers. “I’m not exactly qualified to hold, like, any job,” he says into her hair. “But I’ll think about it.” He presses a kiss to the top of her head, her forehead, her temple, her nose, then rests his forehead against hers. In the night, his blue eyes are clear and honest. “I promise.”

 

MAY---

Thor arrives at team brunch thirty minutes late, scowling ferociously over his strawberry frappuccino. "You know my shithead brother?" he says more than asks.

"You have a brother?" Tony asks, dropping his fork.

“Were you asleep in Puente Antiguo?” Natasha asks.

"Is this the one from the myths?" asks Bruce. "With the horses?"

"Horses?" Steve leans over to ask Natasha.

"Don't ask," Natasha whispers back.

"Why's he a shithead?" asks Janet, eagerly resting her chin on her hands. "What'd he do?"

Mjolnir clunks onto the table; the couple at the next table jumps. "I would ask if you want that answer chronologically, alphabetically, or categorically," Thor says, "but today it's because he got his hands on an infinity stone--" a silencing glare cuts off Tony's next question-- "and is about ten minutes from opening a portal for an alien attack."

They all sit for a minute, dumbstruck. Giant bugs they deal with on the regular; evil robots, sure, whatever. But aliens? Really? It’s so cliche.

Thor noisily slurps up the last of his frappuccino. "Aliens? Today? Hello?"

"I didn't even get to finish my french toast," Steve sighs. "You think they'll box it for me?"

"Probably not," Natasha says, pointing at the giant hole suddenly opening in the sky.

“Ugh, fine." Steve sighs again and pushes back from the table. "Avengers… assemble, I guess. And uh," he turns and looks for the waiter. “Check, please?”

***

“Hello?”

Natasha winces. “I was really hoping you wouldn’t pick up,” she confesses.

Clint smiles through the phone. “I can hang up if you want,” he laughs.

“No, I--” There just isn’t time. “Look, Clint, the thing is--I love you.”

It hangs there in the radio waves between their cell towers. “I,” Clint stumbles. “ Natasha --”

“Just let me finish,” she says. “We--there’s a portal vomiting aliens all over the city right now, and I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I don’t know what the fuck the six of us are supposed to do against an army of a thousand. But I--but I know that I love you, and I know that I’ve loved you since the day I met you, and I know that if I don’t tell you now then I’m a fucking coward. And you don’t have to say it back,” she rushes on. “It’s fine, it’s okay, I just--I needed you to know that you’re absolutely worth every single second of every single trip, and I’d do it all again in a second. Clint, I--” There’s a mechanized whine in the distance, then a boom.

“Nat, where are you?”

“I gotta go, okay?” Natasha says, phone wedged between shoulder and ear as she snaps her bracelets into place. “We’ll talk later, but--” Another boom, a distant roar. “Okay, bye.” She ends the call, zips her phone into her breast pocket, and squares her shoulders. It’s time to work.

***

Fighting aliens is disgusting. Not that she has much experience in the alien-fighting business, but these Chitauri feel weirder than anything the human race could imagine, with their reptilian eyes and hybrid spear-ray guns and way they have to plug their faces in for their flying jet skis to work. And it gets a little easier to fight them once she gets her hands on one of those spear-ray guns, as it does a much better job of beheading than her Glocks, but that just means that she's covered in purple goo and silvery guts and generically disgusting slime.

Her comm buzzes. “Perimeter set,” Maria reports across the channel. “National Guard’s here, Navy and Air Force are scrambling jets. What’s the latest?”

“I hate these fuckers,” Tony announces, as if this is news. “Consider me retired from superheroics, effective immediately.” Bruce never has anything to add during these mid-fight conversations, but they hear the Hulk roar in apparent agreement. With Janet, Tony, and Thor in the air, they have a pretty good picture of the fight: a huge portal directly over Avengers Tower, through which a mothership can be seen, dispatching Chitauri warriors and enormous armored space whales (or something; they can’t agree what) at a steady, alarming rate. “There are also reports of star-shaped flashes around the city,” Maria adds. “Seconds at a time, but nothing else seems to happen.”

“I saw one--ugh! This uniform is custom, you creep,” Janet says, and Natasha hears the glowing hum of her bio-electric fists, then a nasty-sounding thud. “Anyone know what’s causing it?”

“No idea,” says Steve. “But I think we need to circle up and coordinate an attack. Let’s meet at the source and try to stop them from there.” Steve never signs off in the field, which is just as well; Natasha’s too busy trying to figure out the fastest way to get from Radio City to Grand Central and wishing, not for the first time, that she can fly. Leaning on her purloined spear-ray gun, her eye catches on a flying jet ski zooming past. She smiles. This might actually be fun.

It’s more complicated than she originally thinks, and she ends up having to ride an elevator with a man disturbingly unconcerned about the literal alien invasion happening outside the window, but once Natasha’s on the roof of the mid-sized office building, she’s in business. From here, it’s no trouble to leap onto a jet ski zooming past, dispatch the copilot to the asphalt ten storeys below, and use a pair of knives in the back of the pilot to steer them to Grand Central Station. When they reach their destination, she stabs the pilot an extra time, jumps off, and hopes she’s steered him to crash into the ground and not another building; it’s hard to plan that and also time her tucked roll so as not to break her spine, though, so she doesn’t sweat it.

“We’ve got to close that portal,” Steve says as soon as she dusts herself off and looks around their little circle. Janet’s managed to keep the yellow of her uniform relatively clean, but Thor’s missing some scales from his armor, Tony’s got a massive dent in the side of his suit, and Steve’s lost his cowl for about the millionth time. “As far as I can tell, it’s powered by that giant ship on the other side, so they’re going to keep coming unless we either close the portal from this end or blow it the fuck up over there.”

“I’ve got a lead for the latter,” Maria says through the comms. Naval command says--”

“It’s happening again!” Janet interrupts. Everyone starts to ask what, but it becomes immediately apparent as a star-shaped hole opens out of nothing. It’s a fine, shimmering, translucent blue, and as it grows larger, they each turn their weapons its direction. Once it’s as tall as Thor, four shapes start to form: one tall, two medium, and one low to the ground. Natasha pushes forward on her toes, ready to leap onto whoever or whatever comes out.

“Finally!” The forms step out of the star. “We’ve been looking all over the city for you.”

For the first time in her entire life, Natasha drops her gun. “ Clint? ” It’s absolutely, completely impossible; perhaps they need to add hallucinogenic projections to their list of Chitauri powers, because she can’t fathom what else would lead to Clint here, here, in his stupid hideous fuschia tunic, complete with the pointy-eyed mask and a quiver full of trick arrows slung over his shoulder. How--just, how else is it possible for her to see not only him, but Kate and her lilac costume with the impractically large hip holes, America’s worn red motorcycle jacket over her star-spangled cannon jumpsuit, Lucky’s permanent wink? It just can’t be real, except that she turns and sees Tony and Steve exchanging equally baffled looks, and the Hulk is squinting at Lucky as if he’s a new friend to play with. So this is real, then. She faces the little group, and the only question she can ask is: “How?”

In response, America lifts a foot--she’s wearing, Natasha now realizes, the custom American flag Air Force 1s that always sit on the shelf above her trailer’s little dinette table--and stomps, producing a star identical to the one they’ve just walked through. Bending, America lifts it and holds it up, displaying a circus scene within its five points. Through it, Natasha sees Jessica and Misty crowd close to a television, watching a live telecast of the New York invasion with matching worried frowns. America taps the star and they see president Ellis and his cabinet in the Situation Room; taps it again, and now they see Maria up in the Tower’s mission control room, scowling at a holoscreen. “I’m not… from around here,” America says in the understatement of the goddamn year. “I can, like--okay, look.” She looks skyward and her eyes turn that same shimmery blue, and then she’s flying, shooting straight at a too-close Chitauri warrior and exploding him to shining dust. As she settles back to the ground, Natasha, Clint, and Kate--and the rest of the team, really--stare at each other in unanimous, mutual shock.

It’s Clint who breaks the silence. "Why didn't you say you could do that, like, any time before now?" He looks at Natasha and she knows they’re thinking the same thing: we could have seen each other literally any time we wanted???

"It's not relevant to the art of being a human cannonball," America says, unconcerned. As if unaware that she's wearing a bedazzled unitard under her jacket, she adds, "I was experimenting with normalcy."

God, that’s hot,” Kate mumbles, and America grins, smug, and it’s so much like hanging around in the late-early hours of Clint’s trailer that Natasha forgets for a second that they’re in New-fucking-York in the middle of an alien-fucking-attack with her entire-fucking-team gaping behind her like a bunch of gawkers.

Only for a second, though, until an explosion down the block rocks them all. “Okay, so America can do that,” she says, attempting to take control of the conversation. “But that doesn’t explain what any of you are doing here.”

“Well,” Clint says, stepping forward. “You didn’t exactly give me a chance to say anything earlier. I was ready to drive across the fucking country until America said she could get me here faster, but the point is: Natasha, I love you. I love you. I'm so in love with you that I'm here in an active alien invasion to tell you so, because the idea that you'd be out here, saving our collective asses, without knowing that I'd hang the fucking moon for you, just tore me up. You're funny and you're brilliant and you're strong, you're so goddamn good, and I want you, somehow, forever, and we can figure out the details later."

Everyone, even the circling Chitauri, seems to hold their breath until Natasha finally nods, unable to stop a smile from splitting her face in two. And then, in the middle of everything, he kisses her. Like really kisses her, with a dip and everything, one hand at the back of her head and the other wrapped around her waist. He holds her so tight and warm and right that Natasha sees not just stars but galaxies and universes, endless new heavenly bodies created in the press of each of their fingers into each other, each time his tongue slides against hers. It's perfection. It's the kind of stuff that makes her want to save the world, not just because she loves her job, but also because it guarantees someone, at least, intends to thoroughly thank her for the effort.

“Not that this isn’t deeply informative as to why Natasha’s been ‘busy’ for the past ten weekends,” interrupts Steve.

“Not to mention wildly romantic,” gushes Janet, who looks like she might cry.

“But we kinda have, y’know, an invasion on our hands, if you’re all done with the declarations of love or whatever?” Steve continues, although his stern Captain America voice is somewhat undermined by a huge, sappy smile. “And you’re all civilians, so you’re going to have to take cover. Hill, where--”

“Oh, uh, Cap--” Steve turns and next to her, Natasha feels Clint freeze, whisper, “ Fuck,” then continue at full volume, “Uh, Mister Captain America, sir? We, er--we came to help.” Natasha freezes, then, too, and swivels her head in slow motion. Clint looks back at her for one long, measured moment, lifting one corner of his mouth as if to say, trust me.

“This is extremely cute,” Tony says, smirking, “but you’re just--” He flinches as Clint’s bow swings up to simultaneously take out three Chitauri jet skis that have apparently decided this confab is really screwing up their world domination schedule. They fall, shrieking, and the entire team’s gaze swings as one from Clint to the new wreckage to Clint again, bow reloaded with three fresh arrows in less than a second. “You’re just what we need, apparently,” Tony says, and slaps one gauntlet-covered hand onto his shoulder. “Welcome to the team, Legolas.”

Steve looks at Natasha. “Fine, but kids?” He gestures at Kate and America. “We can’t have twelve-year-olds out here with us. The press will tear us apart.”

“I’m twenty-two,” Kate says, incensed. “Is it my hair? Do I need to get an edgy haircut?”

“Age isn’t really a thing where I’m from,” America shrugs. “But same, I guess.”

Natasha looks at them, then at Steve. “I’ll vouch for them,” she tells him. “We need all the help we can get at this rate, anyway.”

“About that,” Maria pipes in over the comm line. “Now that the nuptials are over, can we maybe get the fuck back to work?”

“Sorry,” Natasha says, but her arm is wrapped around Clint’s waist, and she knows Maria can tell she really isn’t.

***

They get shawarma afterwards. Saving the world really builds up an appetite, especially when it involves the Navy donating a short-range nuke for the express purpose of Tony flying it through the portal into literal space, and then the rest of the team subsequently worrying when all the aliens have fallen in apparent hive-mind-breakdown and yet Tony still hasn’t returned. By the time he just barely slips back through the rapidly closing portal, the Hulk is bellowing and Steve is about to bite through his lip and Natasha is trying very hard to pretend she’s not actively crying.

“You can’t do that again,” she tells him as he lies on the ground, recovering his breath. “Samantha would never make Miranda cry in front of everyone. Now everyone knows I like you. People are going to think I’m soft.”

“You are soft, you dumbass,” Tony wheezes, and she laughs and turns her face into his hand.

So, anyway, shawarma: they hobble down the block like the world’s worst band of cosplayers, scratched and bloody and covered in grime. Thor uses his cape to wipe off a couple of tables, Tony transfers an enormous sum of money to the starstruck owner using a phone that’s more cracked than not, and they cluster together, shoveling food into their mouths like it’s going out of style. By her assessment, Natasha is shocked that everyone is relatively fine: Tony is absolutely going to need (more) therapy, and Clint’s got a back full of glass from where he fell through a plate glass window, but Steve looks mostly unharmed and Bruce just looks tired. Normally, Janet would be fussing over everyone, but instead she’s shoulder to shoulder with Kate, trying to help her figure which picture is best for her I’m basically an Avenger now Instagram post, while America watches on in bemusement.

“Is it always like this?” Clint asks, surreptitiously slipping Lucky some chicken under the table. His face is scraped up and his lip is split, but he’s got his leg resting on her chair as easy as if this is just another night of Natasha fleecing the whole circus at poker.

She tips her head to the side and studies the ruined mess of his costume. “Yes and no,” she says. He raises an eyebrow: go on. “Well, usually it’s Steve who’s got the most obnoxious outfit on,” she tells him, and when he tips his head back and laughs, sun streams through the shawarma shop window and the last threads of worry disentangle themselves from her heart.

 

JUNE---

“I still can’t believe you brought a dog into a warzone, Clint,” Natasha says as Lucky pulls them through Central Park.

“He’s trained!” Clint insists as Lucky sniffs disinterestedly at a flock of pigeons. “He can attack!”

Natasha gives him her most skeptical look. “We all saw him lick a Chitauri’s face,” she says, just as Lucky opts to lie down in a patch of sunlight and placidly watch the birds hop around. He does this every fifteen feet or so. For probably the twelfth time, they settle on the closest bench to wait it out. It’s been a long walk.

Not that she minds. Clint and Kate and America have been in the city for almost two weeks now, and she knows that time is soon coming to an end. Like a sponge, she wants to absorb every single second she can of this almost-real time, this dream where they wake up next to each other every day, where they explore the city, where Clint falls in with her adopted family as easily as she has with his, where they have long nights and soft mornings and she never has to think about when she’ll have to leave to catch a ride home.

She knows it won’t last; good things often don’t. “Hey,” Clint says, apparently catching her flagging spirits. He tips her chin up with one finger for a quick kiss. “What’s wrong?”

Natasha blows out a sigh; she’s ruining the mood. “Nothing.”

It’s Clint’s turn to look skeptical. “Right. Okay, well, there’s something I wanted to talk to you about, anyway. Remember that night back in April when you--”

“I remember,” she cuts him off. Oh god. She’s still embarrassed about it.

Clint gives her a look that tells her he knows what she’s doing. “Yeah, well, I thought about it a lot and I, um--” He picks up both of her hands and gathers them in his. “I talked to Tony about it.”

“Oh.” Not what she expected. Then she thinks about it. “Oh no.” In fact, the more she thinks about what this conversation looked like, the more concerned she gets. “Clint, whatever he said, whatever he did, I’m sorry, he’s just like that--”

He frowns. “It… was fine,” he says, and she can see the memory unspooling like a film. “I told him what you said in April and he said something like, ‘ha, Miranda’? I don’t know what that means.” He looks at her, as if she has any answers for the inner workings of Tony’s mind. “Anyway, there was also a singing robot, and he tried to get me to commit to a purple suit like his, but I told him that I was fine with some exploding arrows, and then, oh! Did you know he can make boomerang arrows?”

Natasha seizes on the most recent turn of this absolutely confounding exposition of information. “Boomerang… arrows?” she asks carefully. “For what?”

Clint thinks. “I dunno,” he finally says with a cheerful shrug. “Because boomerangs.”

Honestly, the things he gets away with because of that smile, those freckles, that mischief in his sparkling eyes. “Okay,” she says, and kisses him, because there isn’t really any other response. “Because boomerangs. But why is he making you arrows at all?”

“Oh!” He kisses her again, deeper this time. “I decided--I’ve decided to move to New York.”

Someone in ringing a bell entirely too enthusiastically in Central Park. They must be, because a ringing this loud can’t only be happening in her ears. “I--that’s--” Emotions of every height and shape flutter like leaves in the wind, hindering her ability to actually organize words into functional sentences. “You found something you’re qualified to do! That’s--” Midway to kissing him again, she frowns. “Wait. Arrows. Explain.”

Clint’s smile turns serious. “Well, he--he offered me a spot on the Avengers,” he admits. “And, um, he told me that the two of you are joint decision makers for new team members, so I--I’d like to make my case, if you’ll let me?”

Natasha hesitates, thinking about his unaltered biology, about the fragility of the human body and every way she knows it can break. But then, he’s also made it through the gauntlet of what the news is calling The Battle of New York. She bites her lip and nods.

“Okay,” Clint says, taking a huge breath. “Natasha, before I met you, I thought I was the best version of myself that I could possibly be. I perfected my routine, I took care of my friends, I made sure that kids with nowhere to go felt like they had a home. And then--and then I met you. And I watched you fight and fight and fight against everything bad in the world, and never give up. I watched you make room in your heart for me and my family of obstinate ducklings even though you already had a family here. Our childhoods were shitty in their own ways, but you grew from it--overcame it, made it your own--and I just stayed the same. I know I’m only human. I know it’s dangerous. I know I’d be putting my life at risk every time we go into the field. But Natasha--you made me realize that I have this talent, this skillset, for more than just entertainment. I mean, that’s important, but if I can do this, then I’m giving the opportunity for others to provide entertainment without the fear of giant bugs or aliens or whatever the hell else you fight.”

“Robots,” Natasha whispers; she can’t get much else past the lump in her throat.

Clint beams. “Robots,” he agrees. He squeezes her hands. “So, Natasha Romanoff, will you please let me join your team of superheroes, so that I can fight robots and protect the world with you until we both get too old and Kate sticks us in a nursing home?”

“Yes,” Natasha says, or so she thinks; there’s a lot of crying going on all of a sudden, and she’s not sure if it’s her or Clint or both, but most of the words they’re both saying are sounding more like gulps and sobs. She wipes her face on his T-shirt, breathing in his warm, sun-soaked scent. “Let me try that again.” She cups his face in her hands and sniffs only a little. “Yes, Clint Barton, please join my team of superheroes to help us fight robots and protect the world.” One of them kisses the other, she doesn’t know which, but it’s long and it’s deep and it says I love you over and over in every measured second.

Lucky eventually wanders over and nudges at Clint’s knee. “Onward?” he asks Natasha, offering his hand. She takes it, pressing a kiss into his upturned palm. It’s a cloudless, sunny day; he seems to have more freckles every time she looks at him.

“Onward,” she agrees, peering down the stretch to a gathering of food trucks and vendors. She grins up at Clint, happiness sloshing out of her like overpoured champagne. “Want a slushie?”

“More than anything else,” says Clint, grinning brilliantly, and they stroll on together into the golden midday sun.