If Natasha looks at the sky long enough, she thinks it might paint a picture.
The morning picture would be this: a girl running, leaping, borne to the wind with long legs and longer hair. Wispy clouds represent her resourcefulness, her speed, her inability to be tied down. The sky represents her limitlessness. The colors of blue and white and grey represent the parts of her that she’s grown into over the years, love and loss and life melding together in a colorful paint brush of emotions.
The evening picture would be this: a boy with laughter, wind-blown hair and a half-crooked grin. Heavy pools of spilled ink represent his dark humor, his fierce loyalty, his quick temper that could be a benefit as much as it could be a detriment. The colors of maroon and black and indigo represent that the weight he carries with him, the pain he’s gotten so good at diffusing so that he can appreciate all the good he’s had since his childhood.
Eventually, the hues will fade to a canvas of slick black and the painting will vanish. But Natasha will keep staring up at the stars, chin resting on her knees, waiting for the next sunrise.
It’s all she has left, and she hates when she misses it.
Steve comes back to Avengers Compound one day about three weeks after Thanos has wiped out fifty percent of all living things, and he doesn’t tell anyone where he’s been or why he’s disappeared. Natasha spends most of her time in the now abandoned training center, practicing with firearms and telling herself that it’s better to be prepared. Thanos could come back at any moment, and only half the world was left.
Steve visits her from time to time, and Natasha thinks it’s because she’s the only one who will let him sit behind her while she fires multiple rounds into thin air.
“You know,” he says during a pause in shooting, “the group is always accepting new members.”
“What group?” Natasha asks as she reloads her gun, tossing her braided ponytail over one shoulder.
“The support group,” Steve answers, sounding tired. “The one I’ve been going to for the past few weeks. You could come one day, if you wanted.”
“Right.” She aims again and relaxes her shoulders. “A support group. For people suffering from what they’re calling Post Traumatic Snap Disorder.” She shoots seven consecutive rounds and lowers her arm. “No thanks.”
“Nat.” He waits until she turns around, and she sees that he’s standing, leaning against the window for support as if the weeks have accelerated him to his actual almost one hundred year old age.
“Steve.” She regards him carefully, cooly, tactically.
“You can’t keep shooting bullets at blank targets all day. You gotta move on.”
You gotta move on. She knows what he means. You gotta call Clint. You gotta check in on your best friend.
“Why don’t you call me when you decide to move on, Mr. Support Group?” she asks calmly. “And you should leave before I decide to take my blank target and make it a patriotic symbol.”
Steve sighs, but Natasha knows he won’t push it. They all guard the little sanity they have left with gentle and protective walls, because they know that if they sacrifice that last bit of glue holding them together, they fail not only the world but also each other. And that’s not a fight they can afford to lose just because someone decides to be selfish enough to open a loose cannon of emotions
So they keep their sanity in the ways they know they can, the only ways they can. Drinking coffee, going running, making lists. Spending time in support groups, shooting at blank targets until their fingers turn numb, tinkering with whatever has been left for them to tinker with.
It’s why Natasha likes watching the sunrises and sunsets. The world may have felt like it ended, but at least the moments where the world woke up and went to sleep were still constant. They always were, no matter where she was -- in a cell block room in Odessa, on a quinjet after a thirty-six hour mission, on a farm with homemade iced tea, on the rooftop of a Manhattan office building masquerading as one of the most secretive organizations in the world.
“You missed the last one,” is all Steve says before he leaves the room, closing the door behind him.
Natasha has met Viktor, Stan, and Luis, and she liked them all just fine -- adequate personalities and skilled language comprehension that made her feel like she was at least in the same league, if this brash and competent American was going to be this hardcore about taking her in and giving her some supposed “new life.” But when she meets Clint Barton, she immediately takes a liking to him that far surpasses how she’d felt about his covers.
They’re supposed to meet at three in a professional office setting, but she’s feeling antsy and still a little uncomfortable about the whole situation. So in the late morning hours of that Tuesday, while the world is still deep in the throes of coffee and breakfast sandwiches, she finds herself on the balcony of the fifteenth floor, overlooking the Chrysler Building. She expects to be alone, is surprised when she realizes she’s not, and he turns around before she can run away.
“Oh shit.” His eyebrows jump in surprise when he sees her. “Am I late?”
“Um.” Natasha’s momentarily confused at what he’s asking and shakes her head. “No...I don’t think so.”
“Oh thank god,” he mutters, his shoulders slumping. He sticks a lit cigarette into his mouth and takes a pull, exhaling a cloud of grey smoke. “Sometimes I go up here to get away from all the bullshit and then I lose track of time, and the last thing I need today is my fucking head on Fury’s silver platter.” He breaks off, as if realizing how she might be looking at him -- confused, intrigued, hesitant. “Sorry,” he continues, quickly taking another drag before dropping the cigarette and snuffing it out with his toe. “Bad habit. You mind?”
She wants to ask if the bad habit is the smoking or the cursing but she shakes her head anyway; far be it for her to chastise him for his health when she’s had to do too many compromising things to her body just to stay alive. Cigarettes were practically vegetables compared to the stuff she’d ingested when the Red Room sent her to infiltrate drug rings and Russian mob bosses.
“Good.” Clint smirks. “Wouldn’t want you to judge me too much before we started working together.”
“Are we?” she asks sharply, maybe more sharply than she means to. “Working together?”
Clint shrugs. “We’ll see. Don’t tattle, but that’s what this meeting is.”
Natasha narrows her eyes, moving her gaze to the streets below. “I barely know you.”
“Not true,” Clint counters, rocking back and forth on his heels. “We spent a week together in Volgograd.”
“Not with you,” Natasha says sharply. “With your covers.”
Clint looks annoyed, and Natasha can tell that it’s killing him not to take out another cigarette and light up in frustration. Stress smoker, she surmises, trying to sum up Clint Barton in five seconds. Probably came from a less than savory family, where no one cared about what you did and staying alive meant just keeping busy enough so that you didn’t get beaten. Didn’t have many allegiances. Definitely didn’t care what lines he drew in the sand but did care enough about some things to put effort into them, namely (for whatever reason) her.
“Look, Natasha -- Nat -- can I call you Nat?”
She glares, knowing her disdain isn’t lost on him. He holds up his hands.
She sighs loudly, shoving his hands away. “Natasha.”
“Okay, Natasha.” He places his hands on his hips, and Natasha instantly sees how he might have conned his boss into not shooting her on sight, even though he still maintains that was never his plan. “See, contrary to what you might think, I’m not here to babysit you. I’m here to work with you. I wanna do things like go on missions and shoot bad people and go undercover and work as a team, and I think that you want that too, even if you won’t admit it. Now, if you don’t wanna work with me, that’s fine -- I’ll get you another agent. Hell, I can get you six other agents in this fucking organization, and they’d all jump at the chance to try to prove they’re better than you. And maybe you’ll really like that for awhile, but I sure as hell can confirm they’ll shove you under the bus the first chance they get. Then you’re on your own, and you either go off the map and start killing and it’s me who deals with the shit that comes with your actions, because I’m the one that made the case for you being worth something. Or you just kill some SHIELD fucker who pisses you off but I still get shit. You see where I’m going with this?”
He’s barely paused to take a breath but he doesn’t even sound winded, and she finds that a little impressive. She adds good at talking his way out of shit to her mental list of what makes Clint Barton tick.
“And what do you offer me?” she asks calmly, lowering her voice the way she might try to trap a target. She already knows her tricks won’t work on him -- he’s too smart and doesn’t give a shit about trying to play along with her -- but in this case, it feels natural to turn to the only tactic she knows.
For a brief moment, Clint looks surprised and then nods. “Trust,” he says finally. “And a promise that I’ll never turn my back on you or stop fighting for you, even if it costs me my life. I’m not the best agent in this organization and I can’t offer you much in the way of cool missions, but I can offer you those things.”
Natasha puts her tongue between her teeth, considering his offer. I know no one’s ever offered you those things before, is the sentiment that follows that he doesn’t say. And if they did, they were a lying sack of shit, which I’m not. Ultimately, she knows she’s already in between a rock and a hard place; she’s here and she’s committed to SHIELD whether she wants to or not. The only way out at this point was betrayal or death -- both things she could do, but really, was it worth it? The Red Room had kept her alive and now SHIELD was determined to keep her alive and honestly, it made no fucking sense to her why people thought she had any worth to give. But sure, she could keep playing the game if it got her somewhere.
“Do I get a uniform?”
Clint’s lip twitches, his stoic facade breaking just enough.
It makes her smile.
“Yeah, I think we can manage that.”
She’s lying to Steve. The first thing she did, even before they left Wakanda, was call the farm, holding her breath as the line rang and rang and rang. She tried Laura’s cell phone, Clint’s cell phone, and even the landline at the safe house no one except her knew about. There was no answer, and Natasha didn’t have to do research to know what that meant.
It meant that Laura (and possibly Cooper, and Lila, and Nathaniel, and maybe Clint) had been some of Thanos’ fifty percent. It meant that she could go to Iowa and poke around and make herself feel worse about things, or she could sit here and keep herself busy and try not to think about everything that happened.
Natasha chose the latter because she thought that being around friends as opposed to being around no one would be more helpful, and she was proud of herself for choosing an option that she knows she never would’ve considered years ago. And it had helped, for awhile. There were guns to shoot and hot meals to make and people like Steve to talk to.
She’d never been good at just being, though, and it’s starting to become a problem.
She sees Rhodey, sometimes. She helps him with physical therapy because she knows Tony was the only one who cared that much about checking in, and they don’t talk much, but she knows it’s because they’re both grieving. She sees Bruce, sometimes. He wanders around looking just as lost as she feels, but she never does anything more than throw him a sad smile of understanding. Everything about what happened three years ago still feels raw and strange to unpack, especially in the wake of what’s happened.
She’s lying to Steve because she did try to go to one of his meetings, once. She trailed him to the abandoned gym where survivors sat around in hard plastic chairs and talked quietly about the guilt they felt at being left alive. She stood outside the door, listening, trying to force herself to go in, but her feet stayed glued to the ground and the words that she wanted to say stuck in her throat.
Natasha had lost her best friend. She’d lost her family. Everything hurt to the point where she didn’t know if her pain was from still healing injuries or just pure grief and anger. But it didn’t feel right that she should sit in a meeting talking about what she had lost, when she’d spent her entire life losing so much more and never batting an eyelash about it.
She’d never really taken to guys before. Out of the many she’d slept with or courted that had been par for the course with her job, there had only been two that she’d actually cared about, that she’d let herself fall for. Alexei, because he had been safe, and James because, well...James had been a different kind of safe.
She considers this as she stands at the doorway of the small training room, watching Clint go through his routine of stretching. If she’s being honest, she much prefers watching him in the field, because that’s when she really gets to pay attention to how his body works -- the way he moves and reacts, the quick turns of his head and twists of his legs that signal when he’s going to pivot or focus on a target, the calloused fingers tightening on the bowstring and the sharp commands barked into his comm unit, mingled with the snarling swears when he gets angry.
But when he’s stationary like this, it provides Natasha with a different kind of perspective. She’s able to observe how his body works in slow motion, the way he bends and methodically reaches, pulling all his muscles, his face concentrated and firm while going through the motions as if he knows he has to do this particular thing. It’s the kind of calm that she sees when he sleeps or when he’s reading reports, the moments she always wants to dissect but never has the right chance to.
“Was ist das?”
Clint looks up from where he’s stretched out on a yoga mat, reaching for his toes.
Natasha rolls her eyes, because she knows damn well he can understand her. “What’s this?” she repeats, holding out a slip of paper. Clint glances up, realization etching into his features when he sees what she’s showing him, and his eyes darken.
“What the fuck? Where did you get that?”
“Medical,” she answers calmly, keeping a steel hold on the flimsy paper. “Care to explain?”
Clint draws up his legs, huffing out a sigh. “Not really. Because it’s none of your fucking business.”
“Hmmmm. See.” Natasha drops down next to him in a crouch, dangling her arms between her knees. “I thought being your partner meant was that things were my fucking business, especially if they involved sneaking pills.”
“Jesus Christ Natasha, I’m not --” He breaks off, rubbing his eyes, as if realizing the effort of arguing is too damn much. “Fucking hell, just leave me alone, okay?”
She doesn’t intend to move defensively, but maybe it’s ingrained in her or maybe she just wants to see what’s going to happen if he gets pissed off. He takes a hard right blow to the jaw and trades one back to the side of her bicep; she knees him in the groin and he grabs her arm, twisting it back, effectively sidelining her.
She stumbles away when he lets her go, half pissed off because she knows she instigated the whole thing when she could’ve just walked away, and half proud because she didn’t expect him to go at her that roughly. They’ve trained enough together for her to understand that he’d never actually hurt her, but it felt good to know that she could fight without holding back and trust that he’d stop her if things became too dangerous.
“I told you. I didn’t intend to babysit you.”
“I appreciate that,” Natasha says, looking at her arm and feeling a little bit of pride at the bruise appearing on her skin. The piece of paper lies between them, crumpled and torn, and Clint looks down at it.
“My parents died in a car accident,” he says gruffly. “Dad was piss-ass drunk and the only reason mom got into the car with him was to get him out of the house for me and my brother. Clearly, that ended well for everyone.” He makes a face at his own words. “When I was younger, I used to go on these benders -- would just get black out wasted and end up on some floor or in some random woman’s bed and I wouldn’t remember a shit minute of anything. Now I get some pills and sleep the day away and it’s better for everyone involved.” He nods towards the paper. “So I’m sorry you found my dirty secret of coping, but I swear I’m not a fucking junkie, Natasha.”
There are things you can learn about a person, Natasha thinks, as Clint’s gaze returns to the floor. She knows so much about Clint from watching him in the field, she was able to suss out his tells and traits from the first time he dropped his covers and presented himself as just Clint Barton. She knows how he likes his coffee because she pays too much attention when he takes breaks during their downtime, and while some people would notice and forget, she knows that he hates hot sauce on his eggs and would rather just eat them plain.
“I don’t know when my parents died,” she trades carefully. “It was sometime after I left the Red Room, I think. I was never told.” She moves closer to him. “Maybe we can make it a thing.”
Clint snorts. “What, like a dead parents club anniversary?”
“Yes,” Natasha agrees. “Or it could just be something we have in common, and we can…” She pauses, knowing the moment the words come out of her mouth she’s going to regret it, if not because it sounds terribly saccharine and not at all like her. “Help each other.”
Clint looks up, and Natasha can tell he’s seriously considering her words. “I should warn you...however crass you think I am on a normal basis, I’m ten times worse around those days. That’s what you’re signing up for. Not a competent partner -- a miserable asshole.”
Natasha shrugs. “I don’t think that’ll change my opinion much,” she replies with a smirk. “But if you’re so sure, I’m happy to punch you every time you piss me off.”
Clint laughs, and Natasha realizes it’s the first time she’s heard him actually laugh; it’s not a sound that’s sarcastic or annoying but one that’s genuinely light and relieved.
“I’d like that,” he says after the laughter has subsided, and she smiles back.
She does try to be kind. She tries to be less abrasive. The problem is, it’s so easy to slip into anger and denial, and those are traits she’s so used to feeling that it’s almost natural for her to add bitchy and short-tempered to the mix.
Since she barely sleeps anymore, she brings Steve coffee every morning, making sure there’s just enough in the pot that they can each have two cups if they need it. She leaves it outside his door and doesn’t check up to see if he’s accepted it, but knows it’s enough of a gesture for him to understand that she’s there if he needs her.
“We gotta do something,” Steve says one day when he wanders into the kitchen. Natasha’s sitting at the large table, dismantling her gun, and staring down at the parts already laid out on the table.
Steve sits down, dropping into the chair next to her. “Don’t put this on me, Nat.”
“Excuse me.” Natasha looks up sharply. “Don’t put this on you? Yes, Steve, continue to blame yourself for Thanos and for what happened. Make it all about you and not about the dozens of people who were fighting with you, like we all weren’t there.”
Steve puts his elbows on the table, lowering his head. “It was me, Nat. I had him. I had him in my bare hands and I wasn’t strong enough -- I wasn’t smart enough.”
“You’re missing the point,” Natasha snaps, now annoyed. “You’re not the only one who has guilt to carry around because you didn’t do enough to save people! You’re not the only one who watched people they care about disappear!”
“People died because of me!” Steve blasts back. “Wanda and Bucky and --”
“No one is dead,” Natasha returns harshly, because she refuses to believe what people are saying on the news and in the papers. Being dead meant, well...dead. Not living, not ever returning. Dead wasn’t what the people who faded away were. They could still come back. She has no idea how, but she has to believe that there’s a fix for this.
Steve looks skeptical, and Natasha figures he’s probably read on her face what she’s been thinking. “You know, you’ve got all this talk about fixing things, but all you’ve been doing for the past year is shooting guns and making coffee,” he says bitterly. “What would Barton say if he saw you like this?”
She wants to take a clip and and throw it at his face because fuck you for bringing up Barton. Fuck you for implying that having Clint here would mean she’d be acting differently, better, more in control.
Because she knows exactly what Clint would say. He’d stand in front of her, hands on his hips, hair wet from a recent shower. Shirtless, maybe, new scars and cuts from their latest mission marking new cities across his body, eyes hard and lips thin.
“Okay, Natasha,” he’d say. “I get it. You’re angry. You couldn’t stop that kid from getting killed. And you think it’s your fault, so I’m here to tell you that it’s not your fucking fault. We try our best and we do what we can but sometimes, things don’t go our way, and that’s just life. That’s SHIELD. And yeah, it sucks, and it hurts, but we don’t get to take our mistakes and blow them up into world’s problems. You wanna know why? Cause the next case is gonna drop from Fury in about ten minutes, and you better be sure as shit that you can get yourself back on track so that someone else doesn’t get unnecessarily killed.”
He’d say it all without breaking stride, and she’d marvel at the fact that he could stand here and be such a hardass when she knew that underneath his competent exterior he had the softest fucking heart in the world. She’d be envious of the fact that he could say this all to her when she knew it had to be just as emotionally damaging for him, when she knew he was beating himself up for what happened just as much as she was. She’d spend years trying to learn that, how to be strong and put on a face when you had to be a brick wall for others while everything inside of you hurt to the point of wanting to just scream in pain.
Natasha looks back down at the table, and twists her mouth into a frown.
“He’d say I was a fucking idiot for taking my gun apart like this.”
She knew something was up. It wasn’t that Clint changed, but, well...everything else changed. When she looked for him during training or during lunch, he was often absent, disappearing for long stretches of time. When he came back, she would press him about where he had been -- all good-natured ribbing inherent of their relationship -- but he always played coy. On weekends, he’d cite having personal business and be gone for two and a half day, but he never told her where he’d been or what he was doing.
So when he invited her to come out with him on one of his “personal business trips” for a weekend, flying them far away from New York and to a farm in the middle of nowhere, she’s barely surprised when he drops the bomb halfway across Ohio.
“I have something to confess.”
Natasha waits, nodding, biting her tongue because she thinks saying I know, dumbass wouldn’t be the best way to start the conversation. Clint lets out a long breath and then pulls a picture out of his jeans pocket.
“I’ve been seeing someone for the past few weeks.” He slides the picture, half creased in the middle, across the control panel. “Her name is Laura.”
Natasha picks up the photo and squints at it. The girl in the picture is naturally pretty, dark wavy hair falling across her shoulders and spilling into her arms, one of which holds a bright yellow purse. Her eyes are gentle and blue and her face is innocent and her smile is wide; this is a girl, Natasha understands, who doesn’t know anything about spies or guns or bows and arrows or secret organizations or undercover missions. She decides she likes her based on that alone.
“Uh.” Clint looks uncharacteristically embarrassed. “Couple of months. We met while I was overseas -- the Madripoor mission? It was at a bar, if you can imagine that.” He smiles hesitantly. “She was there because she was visiting a friend from college and we got to talking, kind of hit it off. I didn’t even expect I’d see her again, but she mentioned she lived in the States too and gave me her number, and then…” He shrugs, and she can tell he’s feeling slightly embarrassed. “Called her on a whim one day after I got back to SHIELD and then I started visiting her. She lives on a farm, inherited the place from her parents.”
Natasha hands the photo back. “She’s pretty,” she says, because it’s the truth. “Didn’t expect you to find someone so normal looking.”
Clint scowls. “Yeah, well. She’s definitely way too good for me. Doesn’t know what I actually do for a living -- I told her I work for a CIA type place, which is kinda true? Anyway, sorry for not saying anything before. It’s just...it’s fucking me, y’know? The fact that she even looked at me in the first place feels like a joke, and the fact that she keeps looking at all...I just keep waiting for the other stupid shoe to drop.”
His self deprecation is masked by a joking tone, and she almost wants to ask why he’s even trying if he knows she’s going to see right through him. She reaches for his hand, letting their fingers lock together.
“Hey,” she says quietly, tugging on his wrist. “Don’t put yourself down like that. This girl seems to really like you. And you obviously really like her. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be taking me to see her, right?”
Clint nods slowly, looking down at Laura’s picture. “I guess.”
Natasha smiles. “There’s a lot to like about you, Barton, even if I only think of you as an annoying, foul-mouthed idiot. Just remember that. Oh, and don’t shoot her by accident when she pisses you off, okay? I know you can be a difficult asshole sometimes.”
In person, Laura is exactly like her picture -- warm, gentle, curious. But for all her sweet words and open arm welcomes, Natasha can sense that she has a protective wall around her, a wall not unlike the one she knows Clint keeps for himself -- a wall that means I’ll be pleasant and nice and I won’t judge you, I’ll give you a chance, but if you try to do something to me or anyone that I care about, I’ll shoot you on the spot.
Laura offers tea and alcohol, and Natasha sits at a table in a big kitchen listening to Clint and Laura recount stories of their first meeting and first few dates. Natasha thinks she’s going to feel way too out of place and like some sort of deranged third wheel, but Clint makes sure to include her in every part of the conversation and Laura is so easy to talk to that Natasha can’t help but feel endeared towards this charming, kind woman who her partner is clearly enamored with.
After that, Natasha changes, too. She spends more time at the farm and less time at SHIELD. She gets to know Laura better, and eventually, Clint comes clean about his real job and why him and Natasha are always together. The fact that Laura doesn’t immediately run out the door upon finding out the truth about both those things is what makes Natasha realize that this girl is a keeper.
“So whaddya think?” Clint asks a little apprehensively on the way back to New York after their first meeting.
Natasha chews on her tongue. “She’s nice,” she says honestly, because she means it. Laura was nice. It was baffling to her how Clint could find randomly find someone who he seemed to work so well with, but then again, Natasha knows she’s never been surprised at how Clint’s managed to connect with people. “I like her a lot.”
Clint looks relieved, but only for a split second. “This changes nothing, you know,” he says quickly. “I mean, me and you, we’re still...even if Laura’s in the picture for however long, we’re still us. We still get to be us. I don’t want --”
“Barton.” Natasha cuts him off in exasperation. “If you’re trying to convince me that you’re not going to drop me for your new girlfriend, and if you don’t think I already believe you based on what we’ve been through together, I’m literally going to kick your fucking dumb ass to the moon. Copy?”
Clint closes his mouth, which she knows has been poised to deliver another babbling tirade, and Natasha feels a hint of victory when he doesn’t push the matter further.
Try to move on.
She thought she could, at first. When the pain was fresher, when the world was a little darker, when everything seemed like it could be reversed so easily. She had spoken with Steve in hushed tones on the way back from Wakanda, trading theories and stories. There had been a spark of hope threaded between their voices, one she had been energized by -- they had gone through terrible things before and they could keep pushing on like they always did.
She hadn’t realized how hard that would turn out to be. Maybe that was dumb of her, but she hadn’t thought that things would be any worse than when aliens invaded New York, or when SHIELD fell, or when Clint and Sam and Wanda and Scott were taken to the Raft. So when plans fell short and friends fell apart and the world seemed to get a little more depressing, Natasha felt her optimism slipping away with it. It was easy, then, to retreat to punching bags and journal writing and target practice.
Try to move on. It’s what the posters all say. It’s what everyone is telling her. It’s what the world seems to imply, despite the support groups and empty streets. Try to move on.
But she hasn’t been able to move on, so she keeps her days busy by distracting her mind and at night, she writes letters to Clint and Laura. She puts them in a box under her bed and wonders if she’ll ever tell them about how scared she was and how vulnerable she felt. Sometimes, she finds herself thinking about how much she’d underestimated Clint and Hill and even Fury, people who had to deal with this kind of hopelessness more than she would have ever guessed, but still managed to keep a straight face and push on and do their jobs.
She feels like a failure for letting herself get pulled down into the abyss so easily when the people who raised her and supported her did everything in their power to show her how to be strong, to look beyond the hurt and pain, to fight, fight, fight.
The one thing Natasha’s gotten good at -- no, great at -- while being at SHIELD is knowing when to understand you don’t belong somewhere.
Granted, it hadn’t come easy. Natasha had built her entire life on the opposite premise -- being in places where she wasn’t supposed to be, making sure she knew all the hiding places and best tricks to hide somewhere so she could get information without anyone seeing. The first time she found out that probably wouldn’t work at SHIELD was when she tried to spy on her own test results following a simple field op. She’d gleaned the idea from knowing that Clint sometimes hid up in the vents, and jimmied herself into the ones above Hill’s office when she knew the briefing was happening.
Unfortunately, she realized that SHIELD had cameras and spies literally everywhere, so while no one called her out during the actual meeting, afterwards (when she was back in her room and attempting to feign innocence that she had been anywhere but here the whole time) she was subjected to a lot of yelling from Fury and a few harsh words from Clint about trust and privacy and respect.
This time, though, she figures the blame can’t totally be put on her. She’d had no idea that when she approached Fury’s office to hand off some late reports, she’d be on the receiving end of a very loud and very intense shouting match.
“You knew,” Clint threatens. “You knew exactly who was on the other end of that mission and you knew she would be affected by it, and you didn’t tell us!”
“You were clear on your orders,” Fury says, and it sounds like he’s repeating something he’s said a dozen times before. “Just as I was clear on mine.”
“Bullshit,” Clint spits out. “I don’t believe that for one fucking second, Nick. I’m not a twenty year old kid anymore, you can’t just pull an excuse out of thin air and expect me to go along with it like some impressionable lackey!”
“And what would you have me do?” Fury asks, raising his voice. “Last I checked, you were a Level Seven SHIELD agent who took responsibility for Romanoff knowing there could be consequences. You told me that you could deal with those consequences if you had to, and from what I understand, you have to.”
“You’re a goddamn piece of work,” Clint shouts, anger vibrating through his voice. “I know what you’re trying to do and you don’t get to call fucking rank on this!”
“Barton,” Fury replies dangerously. “I am your supervisor and the director of this organization. You’re lucky I’m not hitting this button and calling the World Security Council on you right now.”
Clint laughs sardonically. “You think the fucking Council is going to care? Really, you think they’re going to give a shit about a street-smart asshole with a bow and arrow who is causing an argument because his boss is telling him that his partner deserves a demotion? Fucking hell Nick, the reason why she acted out is because you neglected to fucking tell us that the person we were going after was her old Red Room companion!”
“As Director, I am not permitted to give you any information about a mission that I think will compromise my agents’ wellbeing, and it would do you good to remember that,” Fury says, his words clipped. “Get out of my office. Now.”
Natasha hears Clint spin on his heel, as if he’s going to attempt to make some dramatic getaway, but then his voice is rising again.
“You can stand there and play god with these assholes all you want, but you made a fucking poor choice,” he starts. “And if you ever pull something like this again or try to pull something that will put Natasha’s head on a target board for all your black-suited roaches who have been trying since day one to shut us down for being damn good at what we do, I will walk out of here and dump every single dirty secret you’ve ever had into the world. I’ll wipe SHIELD out like a goddamn bug, and don’t you think I can’t do it.”
Natasha moves the moment she hears the door open, fleeing back to their shared quarters. She positions herself on the bed with shaking legs, not realizing how much the conversation has affected her until Clint’s words stop ringing in her head.
By the time Clint walks back into the room fifteen minutes later, there’s little to no trace of the angry man Natasha had overheard in Fury’s office. A pulsating vein in his forehead is the only indication that he’s pissed about something, but the vitriol is gone from both his face and his body, and she wonders how he’s managed to diffuse it all so quickly.
“You get those reports done?” he asks nonchalantly as he walks to the instant coffee maker, shoving a pod in the machine. When he turns around, his face contorts. “Aw, shit.”
Natasha doesn’t know whether she’s relieved or annoyed that he’s managed to read her so easily, but at least it means they can talk about it and she doesn’t have to sit with her thoughts.
“It’s because of Yelena, isn’t it?”
Clint sighs, sitting down on the bed across from her. “Well, yeah, they weren’t exactly happy that you shot to kill.”
Natasha bites down on her lip. “You shouldn’t have let me go on that op. I wasn’t ready.”
“No,” Clint agrees. “You weren’t ready. But I don’t think you were ever going to be ready. I think you know that, too. And I’m pissed as hell that they knew what they were sending us out for and didn’t say anything. That’s on them, and I’m not fucking happy about it.”
Natasha swallows and looks down at her hands. “I didn’t meant to overhear anything,” she says softly. “It was an accident.”
“It’s okay,” Clint says. “I lost my temper, but that fucking idiot was going to try to make this your fault, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let that happen.” He pauses, a wry grin surfacing on his lips. “Fury’s a real good guy, you know? Brought me in when he shouldn’t have looked at me twice, given the way I was acting. He saw something in me and gave me a second chance. I owe him a lot, but sometimes, his loyalties get tested and I have to push back because if I don’t, who the fuck will?” He runs a hand through his hair, grasping at the short ends. “I mean, I guess if I was answering to a bunch of high-level jerks, I’d be the same way.”
“You are the same way,” Natasha says lightly, but she knows what he means. Whether it was his personality or just the sheer confidence that came with always having to put himself first, Clint had the rare ability of being able to go toe-to-toe with one of the most powerful people in their organization, while being as forceful as he wanted to get his point across. It’s a move that Natasha knows should have landed him in some remote field office stripped of his duties a long time ago, but somehow, he keeps coming back kicking and screaming.
“Look,” Clint continues, ignoring Natasha’s response. “I gave you my word that I’ll always protect you. What I told you when I took you in that day wasn’t a joke -- I just wanted you to have a chance at a decent life. I know what it means to be on the other side of the smoking gun, literally and figuratively. So just know you can trust me, okay? No matter what happens...you’ll always have someone in your corner fighting for you.”
Natasha nods, trying not to think of the details still fresh in her mind -- the way Yelena had looked at her when she’d aimed her weapon, the way her hand had trembled when she realized who she was looking at on the other end of her gun, the way Clint had yelled when he realized what she was doing with her finger on the trigger.
“Thank you,” she says, because she’s not sure what else she can say. Clint smiles from across the room, his eyes soft and warm.
Natasha returns from a run around the property and goes straight to the kitchen to grab a gatorade. Sweat runs down the back of her neck and her left knee tingles; she knows it’s never been quite right since the Battle of New York when she’d twisted it by leaping from the alien carrier onto the roof of Stark Tower.
She closes the refrigerator and finds herself looking at one of the flyers from Steve’s support group. Natasha makes a face at it and yanks it off, the magnet clattering to the ground as she balls up the paper and chucks it into the trash.
“Killing trees in this day and age is a bad idea,” Steve says from somewhere behind her.
Natasha rolls her eyes at the fridge. “I appreciate you trying to tell me to get help and move on, but in case you’re living under a rock, none of us seem to be moving on.”
Steve walks closer, stopping when he’s visible in her sightline, and folds his arms over his chest. “I know I get frustrated, Nat. I know we’re all frustrated. But the only reason I keep pushing you on this is because I care about you.”
Natasha takes a long sip of gatorade, feeling the sugary grape liquid refresh her body. “You care about me?”
Steve looks a little affronted at her words. “I have to, don’t I?”
“You don’t have to do anything,” Natasha responds. “I don’t need people to take care of me just because half the world is gone.” Just because my best friend is gone. Just because my family is gone.
“Everyone needs someone,” Steve says, sounding sad. “If you didn’t think that, you wouldn’t have flown to London for Peggy’s funeral.”
Natasha swallows down a lump in her throat, willing her emotions to stay in check. It’s a fair rebuttal, because no, she didn’t have to go to the funeral under the guise of wanting to tell him about the Accords in person. But she knew that she couldn’t let him go through that hurt alone. Clint would never have let her go through something like that alone, and even though Sam had been there, Steve would have never admitted that he wanted or needed anyone else to share his grief.
“It doesn’t mean I don’t believe it,” she says finally, turning around and putting the gatorade on the counter. “It means that I don’t need people to check up on me just so they can make sure I’m not throwing myself off a roof.”
“Nat.” Steve’s voice is quiet, resigned, and it feels like a year has worn him down entirely. “If we don’t have each other to lean on...if we don’t have someone we need -- how do we move on?”
Where do we go, now that they’re gone? She thinks of the words written on the support group flyer, and her throat aches.
“So what do you want me to do?” she asks finally. “What do you want us to do? We’re barely a team right now.”
“Maybe we’re not a team, but we’re something,” Steve returns firmly, and she can tell it’s taking all of his strength to be resolute. "We can be something."
“Be what?” Natasha asks, more frustrated than she can express. “Have you even looked around for the past year? Half of us can’t get our shit together to do anything but sit and cry with a bunch of people in a support group, and the other half of us just sit around and dwell on what we can’t change.”
“We don’t know if we can or can’t change things,” Steve says, leaning against the counter. “But we can still do something to save the people we care about.”
Clint. She doesn’t need Steve to say it out loud to know what he’s implying. Natasha grinds her teeth together and turns around so he can’t see her face.
“You don’t know if he got dusted.”
“No,” Steve admits. “I don’t. But Natasha, when in your goddamn life have you ever just not cared when it came to your best friend? When in the history of being you did you decide that you’d rather sit around instead of attempting to find someone you love?”
He has a point, Natasha realizes, and she hates to admit it. She’d much rather he couldn’t read her as well, she’d much rather she didn’t know that they both shared the same loyalties towards people they cared about -- the kind of loyalties that caused them to fling themselves selflessly into the abyss when it came to protecting them. True, she’d never quite agreed with the way Steve had acted during the Accords mess, but she knew deep down, despite all of her pushback, she didn’t have much of a leg to stand on. She knew, and Steve knew, that if it was Clint in Bucky’s place, she’d be acting the exact same way.
“So what are you implying? I leave? We fight?”
“I don’t know,” Steve says haltingly. “I don’t. But --”
“But?” Natasha interjects, because suddenly she wants to fight him on this the way they used to when they were bantering during missions at SHIELD. Steve sighs, and gives her a heartbroken smile.
“But whatever we do has to be better than a year of this.”
Natasha isn’t even sure if she wants to go to the farm. She’s tired, and she’s not in the mood to put on a face for Clint’s son, and even though she does miss Laura, she has half a mind to just fly the quinjet past the farm and back to New York. But something -- she’s not sure what, and she hates that she’s always had this stupid sixth sense when it comes to Clint -- makes her feel like she should at least stop in to say hi. So when she walks up the dirt path, she’s not surprised to see Clint waiting for her on the porch. As much as she had a sixth sense about certain things, he had the same kind of innate feeling when it came to her.
“How was it?” he calls across the lawn.
“Fine,” Natasha says with a wave of her hand as she walks closer, eventually climbing up the steps. “I’ve got notes, but they’re short. I can do the paperwork later. How was your week?”
“Pretty good,” Clint says, sounding thoughtful. “Can’t complain, anyway. Oh, Laura’s taking that job at the art gallery, I think. It’ll be good for her to keep busy when I’m away.”
Natasha nods, looking out over the farm. “Less missions, a kid, and a job in an art gallery. A quiet life, then.”
Clint snorts out a laugh. “Yeah, I guess. Want a beer?”
Before she can respond, an open Bud Light appears in front of her, as if it’s appeared out of thin air. She takes it from him and clinks the bottle against his own before setting it down on the porch ledge, staring out at the open sky.
“I’m heading to DC this week,” she says, picking up her bottle and taking a drink. “There’s a big meeting at the Triskelion, and Fury wants me there.”
“Fun,” Clint says in a voice Natasha knows means he’s not envious of her in the least. She glances over at him.
“How’s Laura taking the news of your new assignment?”
“Well, she’s not thrilled,” Clint admits ruefully. “But she knows this is what she signed up for. So, hey, babysitting some cosmic cube of power in New Mexico for god knows how long, when I could be here for all of Cooper’s baseball games and for all of Laura’s baby appointments.”
Natasha puts a hand on his shoulder. “It might not be so bad,” she offers. “I heard that Erik Selvig is supposed to be one hell of a scientist. You might learn some cool things.”
“Science was never my strong suit,” Clint replies, shaking his head. “Why even have science when you can figure something out with pure logic? Also, it’s a goddamn cube. So what if it’s alien-based or something? Still probably pretty easy to figure out.”
Natasha takes another sip of beer and watches the sky turn from hazy blue to brilliant orange, the colors seeping together like cartons of spilled paint.
“Do you ever think about how different your life would be if you didn’t have SHIELD?” she asks after a moment.
“All the fucking time,” Clint says matter-of-factly. “I mean, I was a messed up orphan from a broken home. If I hadn’t...well...if I hadn’t made a name for myself in other ways and caught someone’s attention while I was being irresponsible, I’d probably be dead by now.” He looks over at her and raises an eyebrow. “You?”
“All the fucking time,” Natasha echoes. “I’d probably still be trying to figure out things in the Red Room. If there’s even still a Red Room to work for. But I wouldn’t have you.”
Clint grins. “And I wouldn’t have you,” he replies warmly. Natasha smiles back, feeling content and cozy despite the lingering chill of the spring evening that raises goosebumps along her skin.
“You curse less.”
Clint laughs again. “We’ve got another kid on the way, remember? I can’t run my mouth as much anymore...Laura would kill me.”
“Well,” Natasha says as she plays with the sweating label on her beer bottle, “in that case, don’t get too comfortable. You know how things tend to go around here.”
“Yeah, I know,” Clint says with a roll of his eyes. “Don’t worry, Nat. If I ever need to, I have no doubt I can easily switch from domestic dad right back into angry asshole assassin.”
“Thank god for that,” Natasha teases darkly, though part of her wonders what it would actually take at this point for Clint to regress so deeply, given all the progress he’s made over the years to clean up his act as a lone wolf who barely trusted anyone. She looks at the person sitting beside her -- the crinkle of his eyes, the lopsided smile curving over his face, the red-lined scar on the side of his neck from a recent assignment gone wrong -- and she decides she’s glad she’s here with him after all.
Besides, it’s not like there were tons of people in the world who she felt comfortable just existing with, and she figures she shouldn’t take that for granted.
There’s a hidden spot Natasha likes to go to, not often, but sometimes – a place Clint had sought out when he was teaching Wanda, a small nook on top of the roof of the compound that slopes downward and manages to still work as a hidden crevice while providing a pretty expansive view of the open sky.
It’s where she watches the sunsets and sunrises from, because she knows it’s the one place where no one will look for her or bother her.
She misses having a place like this. At the farm, she liked to climb up on the roof of the barn, even though it was far from private; Laura wisely left her to her own devices once Clint gave her a stern talking to about Natasha’s need for alone time. In the Red Room, once she got older and graduated from being handcuffed to the bed to being trusted to sleep on her own (albeit with just as many failsafes that weren’t handcuffs), she would find a way to break the rules and sneak into the catacombs of the Red Room’s many underground rooms, relishing in how it felt to be away from everyone who just wanted her to do things for their pleasure and service.
Natasha stares up at the sky, trying to paint tonight’s picture, eyes squinting as she focuses on the stars. An arrow, maybe, she surmises as she finds a first cloud in the inky black. Or maybe a sword, if the bowstring could be considered a hilt.
She had chastised Steve for taking the blame of not being able to save everyone, for putting all of Thanos’ victims on his shoulders, as if his broad frame could support all that hurt and guilt without crumbling. But Steve had been right in calling her out for not being herself. She had felt like herself because she was hiding under anger and target practice and avoidance, not accepting the fact that she didn’t know how to fix something that, for the first time, seemed so hopeless. And if she really was herself, she would’ve left for the farm the first chance she got as opposed to being too scared to confirm that the people she loved were actually gone. She would’ve hunted down every single clue that meant Clint could be alive, and she wouldn’t have let Steve stop her from looking.
It was easier to be angry -- to stay angry. It always was. But Clint had thought once that it was easier to be angry, until he realized there was warmth and comfort in letting other people in. And that had started with her.
It would always start with her.
Natasha gets up and vacates her hiding space, descending down the stairs that lead away from the roof. Her backtracking lands her in the room she’s been using as a firing range, and she pauses to stare at the mess of hanging targets with large holes ripped into the paper.
“We’re not giving up.”
Natasha flinches at the sound of Steve’s voice behind her, but knows she hasn’t made enough movement for him to notice.
“We’re not giving up.”
Natasha turns around slowly, watching as the moonlight from the floor-to-ceiling windows throws a jagged spire across her friend’s otherwise perfect face.
Steve blinks, his brows creasing slightly.
“How do you know?”
Natasha smiles thinly. “I just do.”
Steve stares at her for a long moment, moving his mouth back and forth without saying anything. “Okay,” he says quietly, and that’s all the acknowledgement she needs for what she knows has to come next. “Call me if you need anything.”
She turns to look at the messy targets one more time and then exits the room, heading through the compound until she gets to the room she’s been staying in. She only gathers the necessities -- she’s done this too many times and has too many routines to worry about forgetting something -- and then quietly makes her way down to the garage.
Tony’s never been one to skimp on nice cars, end of the world be damned, so Natasha chooses a silver-streaked Audi from the mix, because it reminds her of the way Clint’s arrows would catch in the light when he aimed for a target -- something beautiful and deadly, gleaming and secure, confident and dangerous.
Where do we go, now that we’re gone?
She gets in the car, takes a deep breath, and starts the engine.