There’s a diner at the end of the block, and that’s what it’s called. It’s open 24 hours a day, 364 days a year (closed only, for some reason, on Groundhog Day). The seats are upholstered in kelly green vinyl, the tables are a speckled pink Formica, and the black-and-white tiled floors never stick to your shoes. The neon DINER sign on the roof never flickers. It is not listed in the Yellow Pages, nor will it show up on any Yelp search, but if you’re in Brooklyn and find yourself hungry, there’s a chance your stomach will walk you to the right street corner.
People visit The Diner at the End of the Block for two reasons: to lose something, or to find something. Most visitors are unaware of this fact. Were you to poll the regular patrons of The Diner at the End of the Block, they’d perhaps mention the perfect Rueben, the jukebox, or maybe the waitress who knows exactly what you want even when you don’t know it yourself. All of them, every single one, will mention the pie.
(The pie is, in fact, very good, but we’ll get to that later.)
This isn’t a diner story, mind you; no waitresses will be tripping endearingly over handsome men who need saving from themselves, and there will be absolutely no writing of phone numbers on takeout cups of coffee. It’s just important that you know there’s a place like this, somewhere in Brooklyn, because this is where our story starts.
Clint Barton is a seer. He deals mainly in coffee grounds and tarot cards, although he’s trying to get archery fortune-telling to take off (so far, no dice). Clint is the guy you go to to ask about major life decisions, like if I switch jobs what will happen and should I ask this girl to marry me. Clint’s handicap is that he can’t produce those little predictions people always want when they hear he’s a seer, like what will I eat for breakfast tomorrow, which means at parties he usually just says he’s in sales.
On this particular morning, Clint is late to work. To be fair, Clint is usually a few minutes late, because he lives right upstairs and also people who want their fortune told first thing in the morning are few and far between; but today Clint is a whole thirty minutes, with what he thinks is good reason.
“Okay, listen to this dream I just woke up from,” he says upon entering the shop, which has HAWKEYES across the glass door in thin purple stretched letters. “I’m in bed, playing the accordion, when a dog walks in. And there’s an iguana on its back? They try to sit on the radiator, but it’s too hot, so they invite me to go plant a tree in Central Park. Only, when we get there, it’s turned into a marsh.” He pauses, runs one broad, tanned hand through the dark blond mess that is his hair. “Also, I think Ronald McDonald was there?”
He recites this information to the young woman in the shop, who uses a purple gel pen to record it in a notebook covered in stars. “You think a dream that boring merits being thirty minutes late?” she asks, blowing straight black hair out of her eyes. “When you decided to have an actually interesting dream, let me know.”
Kate Bishop is also a seer. She’s young and spirited and loves to cryptically tell people not to eat the crab dip as they enter a seafood restaurant. (They shouldn’t; the line cook forgot to refrigerate last night’s batch.) She deals mainly in tarot cards and palm reading, but dabbles in dream interpretation, usually Clint’s. Kate is great at parties, but absolutely useless when it comes to anything important; she can tell you what time your neighbors will start having inconveniently loud arguments, but not where your true love will find you. To call this a handicap would be to suggest that Kate believes this to be a drawback rather than simple good fortune.
“I hope you don’t talk to your actual clients that way,” Clint says, pouring his coffee from the old-fashioned silver percolator.
“What clients?” Kate asks her own coffee, which doesn’t answer. They are a new business, Hawkeyes, and their style of fortune telling is a departure from drapes, tapestries, crystal balls, culturally-appropriative turbans. They sit now in the kitchen where Clint’s patrons meet him, filled with sunlight from the plate-glass window and the smell of coffee catching in the curling vines hanging from pothos plants above the cupboards. Those who come to see Kate are shown to an equally bright sitting room, where a cluster of low-slung purple armchairs group around an avocado-shaped coffee table. Their clientele list is short: it takes time to lure people out of their comfort zones, their expectation that they can only be truly seen in a dark room swirled with incense.
“They’ll come,” Clint says, as he does every day, before spreading his tarot deck on the kitchen table across from her. As if this is a vision, Kate nods. They reach into each others’ spread-out decks with practiced ease and present one card to each other: Kate holds the Ace of cups, and Clint, the Empress. “Cups again for you,” he says, feeling a prophecy pushing against the back of his tongue. “Third time this month.”
Kate smirks and takes Clint’s card, where the Empress, in a dress printed with lemons, smirks back. “I don’t even need to read your palm to tell your fortune today,” she says, draining her coffee and shoving her cup over to Clint. “Hurry up, I’ve got old Mrs. Padgett in five.”
Clint examines the dregs of her coffee, noting a loaf, a harp, and what he’s fairly sure is a fountain pen. He makes a note in his diary, then looks back up at Kate with eyes that he knows are glowing blue. The fortune pushes itself beyond his teeth: “UNEXPECTEDLY, YOUR TRUE LOVE MEETS YOU IN A SHOWER OF STARS. THE END OF THE BLOCK IS THE BEGINNING.”
When Kate tells fortunes, her entire form outlines in violet and her long hair flutters in an unseen wind. “you’re gonna eat the most delicious fucking pie you’ve ever had,” Kate tells him, her voice centuries older and deeper. “and the woman who makes it isn’t going to listen to you.”
“Someone not listening to me? Shocking,” Clint says, making another note. “Anything else?” he asks as Kate’s chair scrapes back.
“you should change your shirt,” Kate adds, her judgmental gaze sweeping over his holey t-shirt printed with faded sleeping dragons. Her prophecy voice fades away; her hair resettles. “This is technically a place of business.”
Alone in the kitchen, Clint finishes his coffee and examines his own patterns: a bridge over a mountain, and the unmistakable shape of a woman. Trouble, he decides, and goes to change his shirt.
The great convenience of having a new business in a new city is that you can take a nice long lunch and nobody will miss you. (For the sake of simplicity, let’s call Bedford-Stuyvesant a different city than the Upper East Side, where Kate dropped out of the best charm schools, and Greenwich Village, where Clint interned with Dr. Strange, the most annoying psychic in New York.)
The great inconvenience of having a new business in a new city is that every street looks the same, and you have no idea where the best lunch spot is. This is how Clint and Kate, defeated after wandering their corner of Brooklyn for twenty minutes, stumble upon a diner at the end of a block.
“It’s not on Yelp,” Kate says dubiously, flicking at her phone. Across the street, a man exits the diner, bringing an enticing waft of rich coffee and fry grease with him. In the wide windows, two women laugh over cherry-topped milkshakes.
“As long as it’s not on the Health Department list, I don’t care,” Clint tells her, and crosses the street without giving her the chance to argue. Inside, the smells are even better, accompanied with the sizzle of the range and the low murmur of patrons over “Dream Lover” wobbling from the jukebox. The menu over the counter, white letters on a black felt board, lists the specials: tater tot casserole for lunch, chicken fried steak for dinner, and whimsy for pie.
“‘Whimsy,’” Kate says, disgusted as she slides onto the stool next to Clint’s. “This place is obnoxious. Whimsy is not a pie.”
“It’s actually fantastic,” says the waitress in front of them, though she definitely was not there a second before. “You should try it before you knock it, princess.”
“Puh-lease,” Kate says, or begins to say, or doesn’t say at all. It’s difficult to pinpoint what, exactly, is or isn’t happening in Kate’s throat, especially since Clint is paying more attention to the waitress. Kate also appears to be paying more attention to the waitress, whose hair is a piled celebration of deep brown curls, and whose light brown arms are covered with tattooed stars that scintillate and pulse if you look just right. The apron tied around her waist is striped blue and white seersucker; the name tag pinned to her faded red t-shirt is covered in star stickers. “I,” Kate tries again, turning poleaxed blue eyes on Clint. “Stars. ”
Clint blinks. “Coffee?” He holds up two fingers to Stars, who nods and vanishes. He looks at Kate and remembers, again, always, that prophecies are a sticky, complicated business. “Stars,” he agrees. “A veritable shower of them, I’d say.” He considers the morning’s words that still linger in that secret place below his tongue. “End of the block, too.” While he isn’t looking, the coffee appears at his elbow, and he nudges one to Kate, whose head is now on the counter. “Damn, I really am good at this.”
“Shut up,” she says to the counter, which didn’t say anything. Clint sips his coffee and waits for Kate to finally add, “Is she coming back?” There’s no need to answer; as if summoned, Stars reappears. Kate reanimates, spine straight as she tastes her coffee. To Stars, she says, “I think we maybe got off to a weird start. I’m Kate.” She gestures to the menu. “What would you recommend?”
Stars studies Kate, glances at Clint, then vanishes again. “Feels like one of us should have seen that coming,” Clint says, but Kate only rolls her eyes. The way forward is unclear: do they move to a table? Will a new waitress be materializing? Are they hereby banished from the diner?
But in the end, Stars returns five minutes later with an enormous golden grilled cheese and a thick wedge of pie. “You seem to be in a melted cheese mood,” she tells Kate, sliding the sandwich across the bar. The pie she hands to Clint. “You seem like someone who eats dessert first.”
“I always want melted cheese,” Kate mutters, but it’s halfhearted and also muffled by said cheese.
“I am someone who eats dessert first,” Clint says, impressed. “How could you tell? Do I have a dessert-forward aura?” He hooks his thumb across the diner to the woman shouldering in the front door, baseball cap pulled low over her face. “What’s her aura?”
Stars scowls. “Auras aren’t real. I just know.” She gives the woman the same study she’d previously directed at Kate. “That’s our piemaker. She’s going to want a cup of plum white tea and strawberry french toast. Watch.” Together, they watch the piemaker greet Stars, set a kettle on a hot plate, rummage for tea, and laugh with the chef as she puts in an order.
“Okay, but you know her,” Kate argues. Clint avoids the discussion by shoving pie into his mouth. The base of the pie is lemon meringue, but simplifying it to that flavor would be insufficient. He tastes raspberry and white chocolate (normal pie flavors), marshmallow fluff swirled with rainbow sprinkles (abnormal pie flavors), and that very particular feeling of roller skating on a warm sunny day with an ice cream cone melting down your wrist (not, in fact, a pie flavor at all).
“Kate,” he says, breaking into the argument that’s now really better described as belligerent flirting. “Katie, it really does taste like whimsy.”
Kate, fork already in her mouth, freezes. “Your eyes are blue,” she says.
“My eyes are always blue,” Clint replies, but then he feels the words surging in the back of his throat, glowing and bright. To Stars, he croaks, “Get the piemaker.” It’s the least argumentative he’s seen her yet: she whisks back into the bowels of the kitchen and reappears almost immediately with the bewildered piemaker on her arm.
“What’s the problem?” begins the piemaker.
“I’m a seer,” Clint barely manages, “and YOU HAVE HELD HIM OFF FOR YEARS, BUT NOW HE COMES FOR YOU. YOU WILL BE STRUCK. YOU WILL FALL.”
The diner is silent for a long, stretching moment, save for “Heart of Glass” arcing from the jukebox, until someone drops a plate and the white noise returns. “For the record,” the piemaker finally says to Stars, “this is not what I’d classify as an emergency.” And with no further comment, she returns to the kitchen.
“Maybe you didn’t hear me,” Clint says two minutes and twelve seconds later. (The delay is because it takes two minutes to convince Stars that yes, he really does need to get back into the kitchen and speak to the piemaker again.)
“You’re in my way,” says the piemaker. Clint doesn’t count this as a reply since she does not, in fact, respond to anything he’s said. “Could you step to the left, please?”
Clint steps to the left and hands the piemaker a canister of flour when she gestures. “Listen--” he tries, then breaks off when he remembers he doesn’t know her name. “Look, I can’t keep referring to you as The Piemaker.”
“Can’t you?” The piemaker smiles for the first time in his presence, a brilliant and sharp crescent of white that seems a little shark-like for a wholesome diner. She has to look up past her Yankees ballcap to see him, and her eyes this close are green like springtime, bursting and new, distracting. “It’s Natasha,” she admits while Clint attempts not to stare. “Natasha Romanoff.”
Natasha Romanoff is a piemaker. (She can make other things, too, but that’s not important.) The pies Natasha makes are the best fucking pies in New York and this is not hyperbole. Her banana cream will lift your troubles, her chocolate silk will increase your goodwill towards man, and her apple pie a la mode will make you call your mom, or at least want to. She makes banana cream, apple, chocolate silk, cherry, and pecan every day. If you don’t want any of those, or if your waitress decides you need something else, you get The Special and feel however it is Natasha feels when she created the recipe. If you were to ask her about this, she would profess to have no idea what you’re talking about. (Obviously, this would be a lie.)
Of course, Clint doesn’t know these things. At the moment, Clint doesn’t really care about these things. “Natasha,” he says, nodding like a check mark and proceeding down his to do list. Next up: “Listen, Natasha, it seems pretty clear that you’re in danger.” He’s never said the words YOU WILL BE STRUCK to anyone before, he thinks.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” says Natasha over her shoulder, her back to him as she plucks eggs from the refrigerator with small, sure hands. “I mean, what’s the worst that could possibly happen.”
This is not posed as a question, but Clint takes the opportunity to answer it, anyway. “You could, oh I don’t know, be struck and fall,” he says, gestures wide with distress. “You could get hit by a car! A bus! A bike courier!” To her pie in progress, Natasha snorts. “It could happen,” Clint insists. “We’ve all seen Fleabag! ”
Natasha snorts again, but looks at him. More specifically, she looks at his shirt, which is printed in Mondrian squares. “Cool shirt,” she says, which is once again not a response, although it does seem to soften her somewhat. Not that this is immediately evident, as the next words out of her mouth are, “Could you hand me the cornstarch?”
“Look,” says Clint. Natasha gestures impatiently until he locates and hands over the cornstarch in question. He sighs. “Natasha, listen. I’m not in the habit of making bleak predictions. Let me at least read your cards and see if we can figure out what kind of danger you’re in.” The constant motion of her hands stills. Pressing the seeming advantage, Clint goes on, “Call it a protection of my reputation. I can’t have it getting around that I predicted someone’s demise and then didn’t try to help her.”
“I’d love to call it overprotective worrying,” Natasha replies. “Or unnecessary posturing.”
He tastes victory and wonders if it’s her doing. “Call it whatever you want,” Clint says. “Just come.”
She smiles when he pulls a business card from the pocket cleverly designed into one of the squares on his shirt. “Fine. I’ll be there after lunch tomorrow.” One firm, floury hand pushes at the center of his chest, leaving a perfect print in the middle. “Now out, please.”
Clint goes. Back at the counter, Kate is twirling her hair around her finger and making embarrassingly heart-shaped eyes at Stars. “Out we go, Katie-Kate,” he tells her, grabbing her elbow and waving goodbye to the smirking waitress. Only once they’re back at the office do they realize: neither one of them got her name.
Kate returns to the diner the next day, but Clint does not. (Remember, this is not a diner story.) Instead, Clint’s morning is spent ceaselessly wondering what the hell Kate meant when she’d paused before leaving and said, “you’re gonna wish you’d paid more attention to your socks.” He runs upstairs to his apartment between each of his three morning appointments to change, and is considering going again when the most incredible woman peers into the window of his kitchen.
(Clint doesn’t know this, but gorgeous women peer into his window all the time, usually when he’s not there. In fact, had he been in the shop yesterday instead of out to an extended lunch, he might be in the middle of an entirely different story.)
The woman outside the window has a tumbling glory of shining red hair that reminds him of cherries and good wine. He can’t see the expression behind her oversized green cat-eye sunglasses, but watching her teeth dig indecisively into her red heart-shaped lips is enough to make Clint drip the tiniest bit of coffee onto the counter. He sees this woman, with her black jeans and faded Franz Ferdinand t-shirt and incongruously enormous tote bag, and says to the universe, please please please make her walk through that door.
Often, the universe is too busy to deal with requests like these, but on this day the universe has a second to spare, and so Clint watches the incredible woman pull open his front door, push her sunglasses into that mind-bending hair, and reveal herself to be none other than Natasha Romanoff, piemaker. He spills a little more coffee on the counter. She definitely notices.
“Saw your sidekick making eyes at the waitress again,” Natasha says in greeting, dropping her giant bag with a thumk. She shakes her head at the offered coffee pot and asks, “Do you have any tea?”
“Oh, right, yeah,” Clint says, remembering the plumes of steam from the teacup at her workstation the day before. He fills the electric kettle so he doesn’t have to look at that hair, those eyes, this crush he’s just fallen into. Disaster. “I’m Clint, by the way.” Disaster! “I think I forgot to say that yesterday.”
Natasha slides seamlessly into one of the tall chairs at his counter, holding up his business card between two slim fingers. “I surmised,” she says. Her eyes flick to the plants, the window, the well-worn deck of cards. “How does this work, then?”
Clint crosses to the window and angles the wood blinds for privacy. “You drink your tea, I drink my coffee, we play with the cards, we get some answers.” The electric kettle whistles and he brings it to the table with the loose-leaf tea variety box he keeps on hand. “Steps one and two: done.” He smooths on his client smile. “Already halfway done.”
She smirks but fixes her tea, relaxing at the first sip. “Is this one of those things where we hold hands and chant?” They both look down at their hands, hers pale around her tea and his wide and freckled as he fans the deck out.
“If we were at my old employer, yes,” Clint says, wishing briefly he was still studying under Dr. Strange if only just to hold her hands in a dark hazy room. “Here, where we avoid schmaltz at all cost, no.” He waits until she sets her tea down to begin: “Let’s start by thinking about what we’re here to do. Don’t say anything,” he says, watching her mouth open and snap closed. “Just think. Focus.” He cups the silence in his hands like mercury for a moment, two, three, until Natasha looks incapable of staying quiet any longer. “Now,” he says. “Choose three.” She glares at him a moment, then pulls in quick succession from left to right. Clint flattens a smile and swipes the rest of the deck away. “Lay them out in a line, any order you’d like.” After a moment’s hesitance, she flips them.
In the center, a woman sits up in a bed made of zodiacs and roses, shielding herself from the nine swords hung like shelves over her bed. On the left, Adam and Eve inverted, nude, gaze up at an angel gilded by the sun. On the right, a blindfolded woman crosses two swords before her chest as if guarding the sea by which she sits.
Clint studies the cards and sighs: in his enthusiasm, he’s misjudged this encounter. “We need to try this again,” he says.
“What? No!” Natasha’s small hand stops his from sweeping the cards away. “Explain.” Clint hesitates, and she leans closer. “Unless you’re going to admit this was unnecessary.”
He pulls his hand away and spreads it on the counter. “There are five types of people who get their cards read,” he says. “A spectrum, if you will. Over here--” he taps his pinky against the quartz-- “These are the true believers. Then you have the dabblers and enthusiasts here. In the middle you have the person who’s dragged in with a friend, but is generally open to to process. Here--” he’s reached his index finger-- “This is the person who’s dragged in with a friend and is not open to process. And the thumb is someone who refuses to believe in the entire thing.”
A frown develops between Natasha’s brows. “And?”
Clint picks up a card, the blindfolded woman with the crossed swords. “And I thought you were an index finger, but this means you’re a thumb.” Natasha folds her arms across herself in the universal sign of you’re right, but I won’t admit it. “And a thumb is going to mess with the results, because a thumb isn’t taking this seriously, and so the answers can’t be trusted.”
“Stop calling me a thumb,” Natasha says. With one finger, she traces the two swords, the blindfold, the sea. This is where Clint should be collecting his deck, encouraging an open mind, recommending a reading later in the week when she feels more receptive, but her resistance sticks like peanut butter cement between his jaws. He watches her finger the cards one by one, opaque and silent.
All at once, she flips them with the finesse of a blackjack dealer. On the backs, gold stars wink on a midnight sky. “I’ll try again,” Natasha says, “With one condition.”
(The key is literally in the door and Clint remembers, in order: the socks all over his couch, Kate’s previously-nonsensical prophecy, and how much he hates clairvoyance.)
A bowl of peaches has been sitting on Clint’s counter for the past few days, ever since he’d looked at himself in the mirror over his toothbrush and told himself, “WITHOUT THE STONE FRUIT, YOUR PLANS WILL GO AWRY.” He’s ignored them, mostly, barring the occasional wary glance at them while he makes his coffee, as if they might erupt with plans as yet unknown.
When Natasha steps into his kitchen, she picks them up with cool, assessing hands. “I’d ask how you knew,” she says, tongue firmly in cheek as she doesn’t finish the sentence. Instead, she refuses Clint’s offer to help and explores his kitchen herself, sticking her nose in cabinets and murmuring a greeting to the pilot light behind the oven door. The corner drawer that’s been stuck for months slides right open for her, and there’s butter in the fridge he’s pretty sure he didn’t buy.
(He forgets that places can do this, that places can love people back. He forgets how the fortune teller’s circus wagon never let him fall asleep cold and always kept at least one can of beans in the back of the pantry even when he’d swear it was empty.)
Probably, he shouldn’t stare at a client, even if his kitchen is literally glowing around her. That being said, it’s legitimately difficult not to stare when Natasha reaches into her huge bag and brings out canisters of flour and sugar, a tray of blueberries and, after wrinkling her nose at his beaten-up aluminum baking pan, an opaque yellow glass dish with a thin white stripe around the middle.
So really, he has to ask as he spreads out the cards: “That thing connects to your kitchen, then?”
Natasha’s arm is so far into the bag that she has to stand on her toes. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” she says, raising one brow and daring him to comment as she pulls out a worn set of metal measuring spoons.
Right. Clint curls his lip between his teeth to avoid smiling. He waits until she’s slicing the peaches into even wedges before saying, “Okay, point to your first card.” Her hand stiffens on the knife for a second before she points with it, and Clint thinks, baby steps. He flips the card--nine of swords again--and asks, “What are you making?”
Her eyes say, I know what you’re doing, but her mouth says, “Blueberry peach cobbler. I was literally planning to pick up some peaches after this.” She offers him a slice and he takes it, ignoring the zip of electricity when their fingers meet, ignoring the curve of her lips as she takes a bite. “I didn’t even ask,” she goes on, flicking a worried glance at him across the counter. “Do you even like cobbler?”
Clint smiles this time. “I like everything,” he promises. Natasha nods and points to two more cards. It goes like this, back and forth, push and pull. He has to wait until she’s absorbed in a task to draw her cards, which means he spends a lot of time studying her face: the uneven V that frowns between her brows, the freckle at the corner of her eye, the one-two-three tap of her knuckle against the counter as she thinks. He likes the way she answers his questions out of the corner of her mouth, not secrets but afterthoughts as she talks herself through her recipe. He carries the conversation for both of them, answering questions she doesn’t ask him back: she’s been in the city for six years, him for four; her college roommate owns the diner, while Clint met Kate when they each had a vision of a bench in Washington Square Park at twilight.
Here’s a secret: a good fortune teller reads the person, not the cards. A good fortune teller listens for the sigh at the end of a name, the hiccup of smothered laughter, the crinkle of a smile. A good fortune teller uses the cards like pliers, pulling on threads until the truth unravels itself. A good fortune teller sits across the table and sneaks sugared blueberries from the bowl, prying as cautiously as he can, until Natasha is a series of cards laid in front of him.
“So what’s the verdict?” she asks, almost (but not quite) disguising her curiosity.
“Well.” Clint pushes the cards around as if they’ll rearrange themselves into a key and unlock the woman in front of him. “Okay, so these indicate that something serious is going on. These --” he prods another section of his spread-- “tell me that this is a long time coming.”
“Ominous,” observes Natasha.
“Quite,” Clint agrees, though he refuses to pick the word up and see if there’s sarcasm underneath. “Half the cards are Swords, which is aggressive, but then the rest turn up Cups, which is emotional. That’s unusual, plus--” He pulls on the bottom card of a small pile, revealing the Empress dressed in pomegranates and crowned with stars. It feels meaningful that the last time he’d seen the Empress was in Kate’s hands the day before, smirking with withheld knowledge. “I think this is you, but you’re covered by three different people, likely men, which doesn’t make sense. The prophecy said he comes for you, not they.” In turn, he taps the cards: “This guy is wise, but maybe reckless. This one’s independent, but brash and capable of holding a grudge. This one, well… He’s young, mischievous, doesn’t worry so much about consequences.” He pauses and considers: which of these options poses the greatest threat?
(Feel free to make your guess, if you’d like. You’re part of the story, too.)
Music floats in the open window across the apartment, golden and light and scratching at the tiny corner of Clint’s brain that says he’s missing something, something. “I guess,” says Natasha, lips pursed despite herself. “This one.” She leaves a dab of blueberry next to the king of Wands. “Brash, independent, holding a grudge?” Clint nods; she frowns. “Sounds like my ex. It was--” She looks down at her nearly-assembled cobbler. “Maybe not the most amicable break up. Things were said,” she doesn’t really explain. “Fingers were pointed.”
“Would he hold a grudge about that?” Clint asks, earning a shrug and a chewed lip. He translates: maybe, yes. “Do you know where to find him?” A break in the rhythm as she drops batter on top of fruit: yes, no maybe about it. He holds his last question until she sticks the pan in the oven, twirls the oven timer, begins carefully placing supplies back into her bag. “Do you want to stick around while that bakes? I’ve got last week’s Dog Cops recorded.”
Her back is turned. Over her shoulder, she asks, “You offer television service to all your clients, then?”
Clint waits to answer until she turns around, scooping an ounce of charm onto his smile. “Only to those who I let use my kitchen,” he says.
Natasha’s lips tilt up in a hesitant smile. “So, everyone, then,” she says, rinsing her hands. “As long as I’m not getting special treatment.”
“Absolutely not,” Clint agrees, making room for her on the sofa and paying no attention at all to the warm gulf between their hips.
[ are you watching dog cops ]
[yeah what the hell is going on]
[ this is ridiculous ]
[ in what world did we need a hamster mafia subplot ]
[in no world]
[hey what are you baking tonight]
[ banana bread pudding ]
[ want some? ]
[i will literally be there in ten minutes bye]
[help i tried making brownies and my oven smells like death]
[ that means you burned them, clinton ]
[how! i set the timer!]
[ what temperature is your oven ]
[ that’s why they’re burnt ]
[i followed the recipe!!!]
[ well it’s a garbage recipe ]
[ did you get it from allrecipes ]
[well i guess you learned something today]
[meg ryan fest at the hologram theater tomorrow. coming?]
[ rom coms are dumb so no ]
[ ?? ]
[we’re not speaking anymore]
[ okay fine when is meg ryan fest ]
[ ONLY because i have a lot of cookies to offload ]
[ no other reason ]
[ :) ]
[ do you really think someone’s trying to kill me ]
[ i’m really in conflict because ]
[ i think you’re fun ]
[ i like you ]
[ but also, you’re foretelling my doom ]
[ which kinda puts a damper on our friendship ]
[i’m not usually wrong]
[but i hope i am this time]
[ i hope so too ]
From the personal dictionary of Clint Barton, seer:
crush (noun): 1. going out of his way to “forget” to buy bread at the bodega so that he has “no choice” but to accompany Kate to the diner for lunch over the next several days. 2. always ordering the pie at the diner, even if its flavor is listed as “Irritable” and tastes like Red Hots and lines at the DMV. 3. maintaining a secret and deeply embarrassing mental catalogue of the different colors of red in Natasha’s hair. 4. deciding to stake out this grudge-holding ex-boyfriend to see what kind of nefarious plot he’s clearly hatching, even if stakeouts are fully outside his job description and skill set.
foolishness (noun): 1. staying up all night, staring at the Germany-shaped water stain on the ceiling, and wondering what flavors Natasha puts into a pie when she has a crush; 2. doing a bad enough job finagling the name of Natasha’s ex that she catches on to his plan.
mistake (noun): 1. inviting Natasha to join him on the stakeout under the reasoning that she’d best know whether the actions of her ex are strange or unusual. 2. opting to conduct a stakeout on a sultry summer evening, in the close confines of Natasha’s ancient Cabriolet, which smells like cookies and cherries. 3. looking over at Natasha just as the streetlights flicker on, casting her face into glow and shadow like the femme fatales of noir.
distraction (noun): 1. “So, like. What happened between you two?” 2. looking anywhere other than the curve of her lips as they pull in thought.
half-truth (noun): 1. a look across the car with unreadable eyes, green and deep. 2. “He was in love; I wasn’t. He wanted more; I didn’t.”
disappointment (noun): 1. a strange, twisty wobble in his chest that shouldn’t be there for someone he barely knows. 2. “So you’re not a romantic, then?” 3. something one tries to cover up with half a grin in the dim light.
brutal (adjective): 1. “I’ve made it this far without love.” 2. The sort of shrug that makes one want to give someone a long, comforting hug. 3. “No reason to buy into it now.” 4. the sort of lingering silence that hangs in the air after a statement like that.
comic relief (noun): 1. “Wow, way to kill the mood.”
exasperation (noun): 1. an eye roll so big it can be seen from space. 2. The absolute barest hint of a smile, hardly visible in the dark. 2. “Now I wish I’d killed you instead.”
levity (noun): 1. “What! I’m charming! Everyone says so!” 2. dodging a halfhearted slap by scooting into the corner of his bucket seat. 3. “I’m just saying that someone who deals in emotional pies should probably be open to more emotions!”
challenge (verb): 1. to lean close over the center console, so close that noses might touch. 2. “Oh?” 3. to set one’s hands on the dashboard and headrest of the passenger side, so that one’s target is boxed in. 4. “And I suppose you’re going to show me how?”
delicious (adjective): 1. the vanishing distance between them. 2. the press of her knee against his. 3. “I can show you lots of things.” 4. the dart of her green, green eyes from his, to his lips, to the windshield.
deflation (noun): 1. when her eyes stay fixed on whatever she sees from the windshield instead of returning to his. 2. “That’s him!”
befuddlement (noun): 1. the lingering state of intoxication brought on by close proximity to a gorgeous, frustrating woman. 2. “That’s who?”
exit (verb): 1. to slide out of the car on quick, silent feet. 2. to stick one’s head back into the car and hiss, “My ex? He’s leaving? Let’s follow him!”
resignation (noun): 1. remembering this was all one’s idea in the first place. 2. accepting that this was a terrible idea. 3. “I thought this was just a stakeout?” 4. realizing that Natasha is already taking off, her shadow long under the street light, and that there’s nothing to do but catch up.
Details Natasha shares about her ex-boyfriend: his name is James Barnes, he has brown hair and grey eyes, and his favorite dessert is plum tarts fresh from the oven.
Details Natasha does not share about her ex-boyfriend: he is enormous, he has an arm made of interlocking metal plates, and he is the head Science Librarian at the New York Underground Library, Flatbush.
“I don’t really see how that matters,” Natasha whispers as they tread slowly through the stacks, hunched over like they’re in a Scooby-Doo episode. Ahead of them, James turns a corner, leaving Clint clutching Natasha’s arm in the middle of the Magical Creatures section.
“You don’t see how it matters,” he hisses, “that the man who is trying to kill you is gigantic, super strong, and probably knows how to use science to murder you?”
When Natasha sighs, the warmth of it curls around his cheek as if trying to reassure him. “He’s allegedly trying to use science to murder me,” she corrects. “The man reads books about robots all day. What’s he going to do, drop a book on me?”
“Maybe!” Natasha slants a warning look his way and he lowers his voice. “I’m just saying, we can’t rule it out.” To this, her only response is hands thrown in the air, so they continue, stalking James through the labyrinth of the library, including a room that appears to be upside down and one in which beautiful books swim across the air. Somewhere in the middle, Natasha produces a bag of what she calls “stakeout snacks,” which turn out to be soft buttery cookies that taste like almond-flavored curiosity. “You’re making this more fun than it’s supposed to be,” Clint tells her, but he smiles, and she does, too.
They fall behind little by little, stopping to examine a chessboard that appears to be playing against itself, to check the back of a disappointing wardrobe that leads to Nebraska instead of Narnia, to scratch behind the ears of a black cat that evidently lives in the Norse Mythology shelves. Truthfully, Clint’s lost the thread of the evening: there are bowls of paper flowers to tuck behind Natasha’s ear, and bizarre book titles to add to each other’s hypothetical library bags, and strange doors and dark corners and endlessly stretching shelves of knowledge. Wandering, too lost to whisper, they laugh over old joke books, tell stories to a painting that demands payment to pass, and touch every reachable corner of a room whose walls turn gold under their hands.
You know, of course, what happens next: they find a room that’s not like the others, the darkness here sinister instead of cozy. The word WEAPONRY arches over the doorway, and a light glowing within indicates that, for the first time this evening, they aren’t alone in the room.
“Shh,” Natasha says, putting her hand over Clint’s mouth. He didn’t say anything, but he doesn’t mind: Natasha has nice hands, he’s learned over their brief acquaintance. While he thinks about her hands, and how nicely they’d fit into his hands, Natasha peers through a shelving unit apparently made of old swords. “It’s definitely him,” she says, unnecessarily. Her hand is still on his mouth. It smells like almond cookies.
“What’s he doing?” Clint asks (or, more precisely, asks her hand).
Natasha casts a startled look at her hand and drops it back to her side. “He’s reading,” she says, the duh implied.
Rolling one’s eyes in the dark, sadly, doesn’t have much effect, but Clint does so anyway. “Reading what?” He shuffles closer, trying to see through the shelf and jostling Natasha in the process. She glares but otherwise doesn’t move, leaving Clint to essentially hook his chin over her shoulder and peer at their target.
James Barnes is too big for the desk he hunches over, flipping rapidly through a book and muttering to himself. The whir of his metal arm fills the room with a dull, ominous hum. Clint squints to read some of the titles of the books Barnes has stacked precariously high: Projectiles in World War II, Snipers of Ancient Societies, something partially blocked but ends with Death.
“Okay,” Clint whispers, “this looks bad.”
“Let me see,” says Natasha, her elbow digging into his side. There’s a pause while she does her own squinting. “Oh.” She forgets to whisper, but her voice is so small it doesn’t matter.
Clint doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like any of this, not the unfriendly dark, not the grey fear dimming Natasha’s bright eyes. “We should get out of here,” he says, also forgetting to whisper. “C’mon, let’s--”
“Shh,” Natasha tells him for the second time this evening: this time, her palm covers his entire face.
Clint removes it. “Do you mind --” he begins.
“Shh,” she says again, pushing her hand more firmly into his face, and this time he hears it: the shuffle of feet, the curious murmur, the whirring of an arm in motion. Clint looks at Natasha, Natasha looks at Clint, and the truth is there between them: they are trapped.
“I can’t believe you didn’t see this coming,” Natasha says as they edge backward from the center aisle of the room.
“I only see major life events!” Clint says, defensive.
“Oh,” Natasha hisses, “and our impending death doesn’t qualify?” Clint can only fold his arms in response (you’re right but I won’t admit it in action once again). “There’s nothing else for it,” Natasha says at length, her voice low and hurried by the footsteps at the next shelf. “You’re just going to have to kiss me.”
“I--what,” Clint says, redefining the word flabbergasted. “I can’t--” Natasha looks steadily at him. “We can’t--”
“If he sees my face,” she explains, “he’ll know we’re onto him.”
“Yeah,” Clint says, “but--” There are no other words in his brain. “But!”
The whirring is close now, the footsteps quick. “But,” Natasha agrees, the word barely out of her mouth before she chases it, before she closes the distance, before she crowds him into the wall and kisses him.
When he was fifteen, Clint wrote IT WILL HAPPEN IN THE LIBRARY in his journal of prophecies, and waited and waited and waited for it to come true. Now, he can’t imagine it meant anything other than Natasha’s urgent mouth against his, warm and faintly almondy, sweet and soft. It must mean the way her lips smile against his, the heat seeping through his t-shirt, the curl of her hair in his hands, the absolute inability to remember why they’re here at all. It has to be this. He won’t accept anything else.
“This is a library,” says someone very large and very close. Clint breaks the kiss and looks up and remembers: James Barnes, metal arm, murder books. He doesn’t say anything, hiding Natasha’s face by tucking her under his arm, and James Barnes sighs. “Library? For books?” he plucks one off the shelf and shakes it in their direction. “Books? Reading? Not for makeout sessions?”
At this particular moment, the weaponry section of the library seems like the perfect place for a makeout session to Clint. “Uh,” he finally gets his vocal cords to say, “Okay. Sorry.”
James Barnes sticks the book back on the shelf with more force than strictly necessary. “Fucking tourists,” he growls, stomping away until his footsteps recede entirely.
It takes about two minutes for Clint to realize that Natasha is still curled under his arm, her nose just brushing his sternum, and another before he realizes that she won’t move until he says something. Briefly, he contemplates saying nothing, standing against this bookshelf forever, feeling the constant inhale and exhale of her against him.
Then she says, “What now?” into his chest, but neither it nor he has an answer.
A word of advice: unless you want to feel extremely silly, when you see your prime suspect during an innocent walk through Prospect Park with the woman of your dreams, it’s best not to accuse them of murderous intent while they lie on a blanket under a tree.
“Look,” Clint says, “could you just stand up?”
“You just accused me of murder,” says James Barnes, still on the ground. “I think I can stay down here if I want to.”
“Fine,” Clint says, although he feels ridiculous. “Fine! We still know about your plans!”
James looks with exaggeration from his book to the park around them. “Yeah,” he says slowly. “I think most everyone with eyes does, too.” He pauses, and then, as if annoyed with himself for asking, says, “Who exactly is ‘we’?”
Relieved, Clint waves over Natasha, noting that James snaps his book shut as she approaches and almost does stand up. Considering the insistence with which Natasha pushed him out from behind a tree to initiate this encounter, Clint expects her to say something other than, “Hello, James. Been a while, no?”
The surly James Barnes Clint has been interacting with melts away. “Yeah, I--how are you? Good?”
Natasha looks at her hands. “I’m--well, I--”
At this point, Clint, wondering why nobody is getting to the point, feels justified in interjecting, “Listen, James, the gig is up!”
James looks to Natasha. “Gig?”
Natasha’s lips quirk. “The jig.”
This is, maybe, the most frustrating confrontation of Clint’s natural life, not that he’s actually had that many. “Whatever!” he says. “Whatever it is, it’s up!”
This pronouncement is not taken seriously: “Who is this guy?” James asks, and Natasha definitely smiles when she lays a hand on Clint’s arm. “He’s my soothsayer.”
At this, James grins outright. Grins, like he’s not a homicidal maniac! “You have a soothsayer?” He studies Clint with new interest. “I could use a soothsayer, honestly. What’s your rate? Do you charge by the hour or by the day?”
This is absolutely out of control. In a voice two octaves above his usual pitch, Clint insists, “I’m not giving my rates to a man planning a homicide!” Homicide is not a nice word: James stiffens, and a family on a nearby blanket shoots them a collection of scandalized looks.
“James,” Natasha says, “Clint had a vision of someone chasing me, trying to kill me--”
“Kill you,” James repeats, and now he actually does, finally, get off the blanket. “Now, hold on--”
“And I have been dodging your calls,” Natasha goes on. “I mean, I’m not a seer, so when someone says I’m going to be struck and fall, I feel like I should take it seriously.” (This is news to Clint, who hasn’t seen Natasha take this seriously until the night before in--he flushes, remembering--the library.)
“I’m not trying to kill you, Natasha!” James scrubs a hand across his face. “I just wanted closure!”
“Oh, sure,” Clint says. “If by ‘closure’ you mean murder!”
(Several visitors of Prospect Park find themselves wondering, at this point, if they’ve stumbled upon some sort of outdated flash mob, or perhaps a spontaneous Shakespeare In The Park performance. At least one of them will go viral for live-tweeting the encounter.)
“By closure,” James says, clearly at the end of his rope, “I mean, like, coffee. And like, apologizing for trying to make you someone you weren’t. That was shitty of me. I’m sorry.”
Both he and Clint watch Natasha, whose throat works with unsaid words. “I appreciate that,” she finally says. She looks at James. “Really.”
There comes a turning point in every confrontation, where the hypothetical endings solidify into the inevitable. Despite his gut feeling rather like a lava lamp, Clint says, “But what about all those murdery books you were reading at the library?”
“They were suspicious,” Natasha agrees.
For many moments, James gapes at the two of them like a handsome fish. “I--I’m working with a historian at the museum to put together an exhibit on the evolution of weapons engineering! It’s actually very interesting and, may I add, normal! You can’t--I’d never--” And here, just when Clint is starting to feel very bad about this whole thing, James looks at him again and says, “Hold on. I knew you looked familiar! You were in the library last night! You--” He gasps at Natasha, who avoids making eye contact. “You two--”
Clint doesn’t need any prophetic vision to recognize that now is a good time to leave. “Anyway!” He takes two steps backwards. “Glad you’re not a murderer!” Another large step. “Sorry for the inconvenience! Enjoy your book!”
And as if this truly was a Shakespeare In The Park performance, Clint exits as if pursued by several bears.
There comes a point in every story when the hero doesn’t know what to do.
For Clint, that point comes when it’s four days since The Incident In The Park and all his visions and readings are coming up blank. He can’t bring himself to go back to the diner and tell Natasha that although he can see the future, although he can read her cards twelve times, he can’t figure this out.
These are the circumstances under which Clint enters the door that says HAWKEYES across the glass door in thin purple stretched letters and hears Kate in her sitting room. Normally, this would be cause to burst in and make some sort of false, annoying prophecy, but his heart’s not in it, and there’s someone already in there. Tired, discouraged, Clint doesn’t even pretend not to eavesdrop.
“It’s honestly getting disgusting,” says the non-Kate voice.
“Unbearable,” agrees Kate.
“Yesterday I had to give a man a slice of regret,” says not-Kate, who Clint realizes with a jolt is Stars, the waitress. “Regret! And then he cried. Cried! Right here!” There’s a thumping sound. “On my shoulder!”
“Horrible,” Kate says, clearly smiling. “Worse than--oh, what was it the other day?”
“Ugh,” says Stars. “Confusion. I mean, don’t get me wrong, confusion is always a crapshoot, but this time it was like blueberry-peach-white-chocolate plus that feeling when someone is just too hot to be believed, which is kind of a hard sell. And then, oh my god, the day she made longing, and it was literally just kiss-me-in-a-library with a little bit of almond tart.”
Clint, as you can imagine, is listening so hard at this point that his ears might as well detach from his head and walk into the next room. It sounds like they’re talking about Natasha, and pie, and maybe, possibly, him. “I just,” Stars goes on, in a stretching voice that suggests she’s flipped herself half off Kate’s couch. “I’m about two days away from blasting ‘You Give Love A Bad Name’ on the jukebox all day so she’ll take a hint.”
“Shot through the heart,” Kate agrees, and Clint--well. You know those moments where you’re in the shower, or on the stairs, or halfway through your shopping list at the store, and whatever it is about the move of your muscles or the distraction of your thoughts leads you to an understanding so obvious that you can’t fathom how you possibly didn’t know it before?
This is the journey Clint takes as he thinks about Bon Jovi and shot through the heart, about Valentine’s Day, about struck by Cupid’s bow, about falling in love.
“I said,” Kate says, louder, keying Clint in to the fact that he’s missed a line, and also that Kate knows he’s listening, “Sound like she’s been struck! Lovestruck! Maybe she’s fallen! In lo--”
“I got it,” Clint says, irritated at everything because he’s irritated with himself.
“you’ll know--” Kate begins, but for once, he knows exactly what she’s going to say.
Much like you don’t believe someone when they insist that “no, it’s not a pyramid scheme,” you shouldn’t have believed that this wasn’t a diner story.
The Diner at the End of the Block is busy when Clint arrives, which means that at least seventy-five people are there to witness him throw open the door right in the middle of the jukebox extolling the virtues of “Love Potion Number 9.” He has been here enough times in the past few weeks that the host and the counter waitress wave him through to the kitchen, where Natasha--
Where Natasha stands in a beam of errant sunlight, turning her hair to fire and her eyes to gold. Where Natasha is singing tunelessly along to the jukebox and doing the smallest possible dance. Where Natasha is allegedly, unbelievably, in love with him.
“Hey, so,” Clint says, not a prophecy but his heart stuck in his throat this time.
“Do you ever properly greet people?” Natasha asks, but she smiles.
Clint shrugs. “Pretty much no,” he admits. “So, listen. The thing is, I’m a moron.”
Natasha stirs her pie filling. “Could you be more specific?”
He laughs. “Well, I figured out the prophecy, and it’s not--” He breaks off to investigate the pie in progress. “Is that apple pie?”
“Yes? Well, peanut butter-apple.” Natasha blinks at him. “What does this have to do with the prophecy?”
“It doesn’t,” Clint says, distracted. “Those are just--I love both of those things and nobody ever puts them together.”
“Oh.” Natasha turns an interesting shade of pink. “I just came up with it last night.” She offers him a spoon. “Try it.”
He intends to say, the prophecy says you love me , but this wild pronouncement is fortunately wiped from his tongue by the flavors of apples and cinnamon and peanut butter, by the taste of casually held hands and standing so close in the dark that your heartbeat matches someone else’s. “This tastes like--” Like joy, like laughter, like library dust, like the hot thick tension of a car at midnight. “This tastes like us.”
“I thought so,” Natasha says, and her smile is nervous like she somehow hasn’t noticed that the jukebox plays love songs whenever Clint comes in. She steps into his space and looks up, her eyes green and clear. Her voice goes warm and low. “So, the prophecy?”
“Right,” Clint says. “I was totally wrong. It means--” He closes his eyes, rests his hand on her waist. “I think it means this.” He waits, afraid to be wrong, but then he feels her lips on his, soft and firm, her tongue cinnamon and sugar against his. Her hand fists in the sleeve of his shirt as they lean against the counter, lost in each other for long golden minutes, like time doesn’t exist.
(The entire diner is watching, of course. The girl drinking a milkshake at the counter looks up from her phone, recognizes Clint as the man from last week’s viral Prospect Park Twitter thread, and can’t believe her luck.)
All kisses must end, though, and so Clint steps reluctantly back. “So, uh, yeah,” he says. “Your only danger was losing your heart to me, I guess.” He doesn’t feel bad about the outcome, but still, he adds, “There are probably less stressful ways to find love.”
“Possibly,” Natasha says. “Take me to dinner and all is forgiven.”
“IT’S A DATE,” he tells her, a prophecy and a promise wrapped in one.
It’s rare for someone to both lose and find something at The Diner at the End of the Block, but then, don’t the rare things have the best stories?