In retrospect, she always knew she would die this way.
She’d thought about it a lot over the years. She never calculated how long she lived in these scenarios, she just imagined how she’d go, and it felt much more comfortable to imagine herself dying in a car chase or by throwing herself in front of a bullet or from an alien spear made of some kind of insane poison as opposed peacefully drifting away in a house by the seashore, or by losing her life in something as mundane as a hit and run.
So really, a cliff in the deepest, most desolate, and unforgiving part of space wasn’t that far off.
He’d really thought he could subdue her with his arrow though. She’d almost laughed and turned their fight into a friendly sparring match -- exploding arrow? Really Barton? That’s all you’ve got? To be fair, even on their best days he was much better at using his weapons as an advantage knowing he had the tactical skills and she had the combat skills; together they were a deadly combination but against each other they both came up short in one or two abilities and usually, that was what got the best of them in the end.
It’s why she knows he won’t even realize she’s grabbed his grappling hook and clipped it to her bites until it’s too late, because Clint has always been about what he can see and what he can quantify, finding targets and demolishing them with ease. Natasha, on the other hand, had always been about stealth, about finding ways to turn the tables on your enemy when they least expect it.
When they go over, she loses his grip quicker than she expects, but he manages to hold on. She doesn’t realize how much she wants to grab his hand -- how much she wants him to be able to pull her up, to save her from this -- until she tries and fails to let him help her. She can hear the words he’s not saying out loud -- don’t let go, don’t let go, goddamn you, don’t let go, and maybe if it was any other situation she would try harder. But they were here, there was no way out, and she had to let go because if she didn’t, this was all going to be for nothing. Afraid or not, she couldn’t let it all be for nothing, even if she was the one who had to take the fall -- literally.
“I’m sorry,” she breathes as she kicks away from the cliff, the words tearing themselves from her throat like raw screams.
I love you is what she wishes she would have said, and it’s her last thought before she dies.
“Do you believe people can become good?”
“That’s a trick question.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you don’t become good. You’re born good. Everyone is. The choices you make in your life decide whether or not you become good or bad, but you can always reverse your decisions.”
“So...you don’t believe people can change for the better?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“What did you say?”
“I said that I believe people are good. I mean, unless they really don’t give a fuck about human decency. But it’s not like a three strikes you’re out thing, or you do one bad thing and you’re bad forever. People make mistakes, Nat. And honestly? I wouldn’t judge someone on their worst mistakes.”
Natasha opens her eyes and quickly closes them against the onslaught of sunlight that threatens to blind her. She rolls over, biting down on a cry because as she moves, she realizes everything hurts.
No, that’s not entirely accurate. It’s only her head that hurts, a dull and painful throbbing that leaves her feeling like she’s smashed it into a concrete wall. She’s no stranger to mission injuries and she’d had a bad concussion once -- an assignment in Bahrain where she’d been thrown off a building and misjudged a safe landing spot -- but for some reason, this feels worse than anything she’s ever experienced.
Natasha lies still with her eyes closed, willing herself to make the effort to sit up, knowing that in her current state the action will probably end badly. Slowly, hands gripping the coarse bedsheets, she forces herself to lift her head. The moment she’s upright her stomach churns wildly, dizziness swimming in her gaze, and she leans over the side of the bed to throw up. She only ends up dry heaving in the direction of the wood floor because there’s apparently nothing in her system.
Natasha steadies herself with deep breaths, closing her eyes in hopes that the room will stop spinning. When she opens them again, she’s relieved to find that things seem relatively still; her head is still aching but the nausea is subsiding enough for her to finally take in where she is.
The room is small, sparsely decorated but peppered with enough of what Natasha can tell are personal touches to belong to someone who lives here more than just every so often. The bed is warm and lumpy and it’s a bed she recognizes, because she feels comfortable in it and there are only a few beds she’s slept in that she truly feels comfortable in. Clint’s bed at SHIELD is one. The safehouse they always use in Madripoor is another. The bed in the guest room at Clint’s farm is another. So is the one in his Brooklyn apartment.
A low noise from outside the closed door causes her to jump but the moment the shock passes she calms; she knows that voice, that low singing and humming that has woken her up on countless missions and on even more days at the farm. This is Clint’s apartment, and that makes her feel slightly better because while she’s still confused, she’s at least she’s in a place she knows. But she has no idea why she’s here in the first place, given that she hasn’t seen this apartment in years, not since Clint sold it back in 2014.
Natasha rubs her eyes, blinking away rogue sleep, and gets up. She notices she’s wearing what would be standard post mission pajamas -- a torn SHIELD t-shirt and too-big sweatpants with the drawstring tied up several times, clothing that clearly belongs to Clint judging by its size -- and makes her way to the full length mirror on the back of the closet door. Double checking her appearance was more out of courtesy to herself than to Clint, given that she feels rougher than usual.
She meets her reflection and stares in shock at what she sees.
Instead of the long, red-blonde hair that she had let grow out over the course of the past five years, her hair is fully bright and fiery red, falling in soft waves slightly above her shoulders. She cautiously runs a hand through the loose curls, letting her fingers work the mussed strands into a style that looks less unkempt and quickly undresses, staring at her body in the mirror and desperately trying to see if there’s anything else about her body that’s off. Slowly, she works her fingers over her skin, cataloguing every bullet graze and homemade stitch, every angry cut and every sparring scar, every bruise and every tanned freckle from too much time in the sun. She breathes a sigh of relief as she finishes working her hands over her body; everything else about her seems like it tracks and why her hair is the one thing that’s different, she has no idea.
But she knows who might.
Putting her clothes back on, she opens the door, allowing the strong smell of waffles and coffee to pull her towards the kitchen. Despite the fact that she still feels a little nauseous, she realizes she is hungry, her stomach growling as if she hasn’t eaten in weeks.
“Hey, sleeping beauty.”
Clint’s standing at the island in the middle of his kitchen, looking at a newspaper with dirty glasses falling down his nose. He tears them off as she enters, raising his head to smile, and as she tries to focus, she finds herself wondering if she can pass off her confusion as part of her apparent injury. She’s relieved to find that he at least looks the same as he’s always looked albeit somewhat younger; his hair is shorter on the sides and there are fewer lines on the side of his face and between his eyes. Other than that, however, he looks like the Clint she’s always known, down to the crooked smile and mismatched socks and the scar on his chest that she can see thanks to the fact that he’s half-naked.
“About time you got up. Coffee’s on the table.”
Natasha glances over where a pot is sitting on a warming pad, the steam rising from it as gentle and inviting as the smell itself. She manages to smile in thanks; their relationship over the years had never been strictly platonic because it couldn’t be, not with their history, which meant that casual and joking flirting was often a staple of their banter -- especially when they were alone. But something about the way Clint had smiled at her when she emerged from the bedroom and the fact that he was casually parading around the apartment with half his clothes off when there was no medical reason for it seems off, and she’s not sure if she’s overthinking things because her head still hurts or because she’s tired.
She moves to the cupboard to grab a mug before she realizes she doesn’t actually know where they are, because Clint has never stored anything in the right place the entire time he’s lived here. She’d eventually figured out where to grab the appropriate things -- a towel, a cup, a bag of sugar -- but it was always a guessing game of where the object ended up each time she came back to the apartment. Feeling embarrassed, she opens three different doors until she finally finds the cupboard that holds a selection of mugs, taking one out while Clint raises an eyebrow.
“Wow,” he says with a small smirk. “You’re really out of it, aren’t you?”
“I’m fine,” she lies, reaching for the carafe. She pours herself an almost full cup, hoping that maybe the scent or the taste will jog something in her memory or at least help her figure out what she’s doing here. “My head just hurts.”
Clint snorts. “Yeah, no shit. That fall you took on Stark Tower when you jumped off that Chitauri thing? You hit your head pretty hard on the way down.”
Natasha stops with the coffee halfway to her lips, lowering it slowly to the countertop as his words hit her. “I did?”
“Yeah, not surprised you don’t remember.” He reaches over to give her shoulder a squeeze. “We were all in the moment with closing the portal and Stark throwing himself into space and everything. I don’t think you even realized you were hurt. I mean, you still managed to convince me to take that drink after we sent Loki off, so I figured you weren’t too bad.”
Natasha swallows, biting down on her lip. “Clint…” She trails off, looking around the apartment. “What year is it?”
Clint’s brows knit together and he looks entirely confused. “Guess you took that fall a lot harder than I thought,” he says with a frown, getting up and moving closer. He brushes hair out of her eyes and rubs his thumb over her forehead gently. “It’s 2012. We just saved the world. Remember?”
Natasha fights to keep herself upright, not wanting to give him any other clues that make her seem like she’s off her game. She glances out the open window; through the fire escape bars she can still see smoke rising from some of the buildings. Clint’s words couldn’t have been wrong, it had to be right after the Chitauri attack, that much she can at least figure out. What she can’t figure out is why she’s here in Clint’s apartment and why she’s apparently time traveled back to a period of her life she hasn’t thought about in years.
“Hey,” he continues softly, turning her face towards him. His eyes, gentle and worried, find hers easily. “You okay, Tash?”
The familiarity of the softness of her nickname, the one she doesn’t allow anyone else to call her, somehow breaks her more than the past twenty minutes of being confused. She nods, feeling a single tear drip down her cheek, and he immediately brings her close for a hug.
“It’s alright. I know yesterday was a lot, but we’re good. We won. You even saved me, because you’re just that badass. We’re fine, okay?”
Natasha lets herself feel comforted against him, because she needs this -- she needs to hold him after losing him, after falling, after dying -- she needs to physically remind herself that he was present and here and whole, because the last time she touched him, she was hanging on for dear life. And if there was one thing she knew she could always count on to make her feel better, it was Clint. It was his touch, his words, his voice; as much as everything seemed like it was spiraling out of control right now, at least she had this. At least she had him.
Or some version of him, at least.
“I don’t think I’m supposed to be here,” she says against his chest. He pulls back, looking confused again.
“What do you mean?”
Natasha takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “I mean, I don’t think I’m supposed to be here.”
“Well, where else are you supposed to be?” He gestures towards the window. “In case you haven’t realized it, no one is going into the office today. Fury doesn’t even want us to work. So unless you have something more important to do, I thought we were gonna enjoy our day off with take-out and one of those new movies you illegally downloaded.”
“No,” Natasha says, shaking her head and grimacing at the movement. “I mean, I don’t think I’m supposed to be here. I know it sounds insane, but the last thing I remember was you and me together and --” She stops, not wanting to say the words out loud, not wanting to tell him or admit to herself that she died, because maybe this was some afterlife. Maybe this was heaven and she was making a big deal out of nothing and she should just accept that her heaven included Clint, which honestly would be a pretty damn good compromise for her sacrifice. “And it was 2023,” she finishes. “Not 2012.”
Clint exhales loudly, putting his hand on the side of her scalp. “I know you’re still dealing with your concussion,” he says quietly. “If you need to go back to bed --”
“It’s not my head,” she snaps loudly, twisting away from him. “Something happened. Something happened because I was in the future and now I’m in the past and I’m...I’m here and you’re here and I don’t know why. You have to believe me.”
For a long time, Clint doesn’t say anything. Natasha picks up her coffee and takes a long sip, wishing she felt less defeated. She doesn’t know how to make her words more clear, but she also has no idea how to convince him, and she needed to convince him. The problem is, she knows that even though this Clint had seen monsters and magic and nothing they were ever trained for, it was nowhere near what they would see in the future. He had every right to be skeptical right now if his mind wasn’t there yet. God knows she would be, if she was in his position.
Natasha looks up. “What?”
“Prove that you’re from 2023.”
Natasha puts her coffee cup back down and considers what to say, given that she knows anything she could tell him about the future -- about Hydra, about the Accords, about Thanos -- it would all be pointless because neither of them knew that stuff existed yet.
“Check your messages,” she says finally. “Your burner phone. You’ll have a message from Stark saying that today we’re going to send Loki back into space with Thor at Bethesda Terrace in Central Park at 2pm.”
Clint gives her a wary look but disappears into the bedroom, coming back with a large Motorola. He scrolls while frowning, narrowing his eyes.
“Okay, so you’re from the future?”
No, she wants to say, her mouth aching to find the right words. It’s not just that I’m from the future. It’s that I fell and died but didn’t die. Or maybe I did. Maybe this is where I’m meant to be. But you’re here, and this seems real, and there’s so much I want to tell you, and I never want to leave your side after what happened to me.
“It’s not exactly that simple,” she says slowly. “But I don’t know if you’re ready to hear the whole story.”
Clint shrugs. “I was ready to watch some crappy movies today, so it’s not like I was going for anything important.”
Natasha smiles, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. She keeps forgetting her hair isn’t long anymore, because her hands move to play with it more than she realizes. Clint seems to sense that she feels a little off, because he takes Natasha’s cup and brings it to another part of the kitchen, opening the cupboard and reaching for a glass bottle.
“I know it’s only ten in the morning, but we had a shit week,” he says as he pours two shots of rumchata into the coffee cup. He walks back towards her, heading to the large grey couch, and sits down. His free hand lands on the cushion next to him in simple invitation and Natasha laughs softly as she joins him, because at least she knows now that this is definitely Clint, no matter what time travel crap has been thrown at them.
“So tell me the story,” Clint says as he sticks his feet up on the worn coffee table. “Or a story.”
Natasha swallows, wondering how to start. “The Avengers, we...we become a real team,” she says, deciding to start with what he already knows -- there was no need to rehash the past; the only past she’s concerned with is their past but that was a conversation for another time. “We’re real friends, we care about each other. We have a bunch of different missions and save the world a lot. There are some new people we meet in the future, some good and some bad. But the ones who are good are really good. They become part of our team, too.”
“Hope no one is as good with a bow and arrow,” Clint says with a wry smile, and Natasha can tell he’s trying to joke to keep the mood light.
“Not a chance,” she confirms softly, smiling back. “No one is as good as you.”
“Thank god,” Clint mutters, sipping the coffee before handing it to her. “What else? What am I like? I mean, this future version of me that you think exists?”
I don’t think, I know, Natasha answers in her head. “You…you’re not really that different.” She doesn’t want to tell him about those five years, she doesn’t want him to know that in another lifetime he eventually becomes a guilt-ridden murderer who kills for a living. “You’re still a SHIELD agent and an Avenger. We still work together and we’re still best friends. You still have the same stupid sense of humor and I yell at you for all the dumb things you do when we’re supposed to be on a job and you’re not taking it seriously.”
Clint laughs. “Well, it looks like you’re still you. And I’m still me. Are we any different?”
She knows what he’s asking, and it feels weird to answer. In this universe, she’s slowly picking up on the fact that if Laura doesn’t exist, she’s definitely not part of the picture. “We’re not...really. You retire a few years after New York to be with your family, even though that doesn’t really stick. You get back in the game eventually, and we’re still partners. You have a wife and three kids.”
Clint blinks rapidly at this reveal. “I have a wife? And it’s not you?”
Natasha manages to smile. “No. It’s not me.”
“Well, the future was sounding pretty good with all that Avenger stuff, but maybe I don’t wanna move past 2012 after all,” Clint jokes, and Natasha can’t help the morose look that she knows is taking up residence on her face. “What?”
“I don’t think this is even that,” Natasha says, finally voicing what she’s been wondering since they started talking. “I don’t think it’s even going back in time or moving forward. Because if it was, you would’ve been married by now. You met Laura back in the early 2000’s, before we became partners at SHIELD.” She pauses. “I don’t think we’re in the timeline that I knew in 2023. I think this is some alternate timeline, or a different universe, as insane as that sounds.”
Clint rubs a hand over his chin, staying silent for a long time. “You know, I’d say that sounds insane, but we just fought aliens from outer space and I just had my brain hijacked by a demigod, so I guess I can try to buy it. You’re saying we’re in a different universe?”
“I don’t think you are,” Natasha corrects. “I think you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. I think I’m here because...because of some other reason.”
Clint frowns. “No offense, but that makes no sense. Aside from this weird future stuff, you’re the same person who fought with me yesterday and then slept with me last night. And suddenly today you’re different? Like you’ve been totally replaced? I mean, you’re still Natasha, aren’t you?”
“I am,” she says slowly. “And I don’t understand it either. I don’t know how it works. I do know that there are...there are multiverses.” She tries to remember what she’d read briefly while they were planning the time heist, wishing she had paid more attention to Bruce’s notes in the moment. “Maybe this is one of those. Like the same universe, but another kind of timeline. A variation, or something that splits off into its own world.”
Clint shakes his head. “Still makes no sense.”
Natasha stays quiet, not sure what to say. What she wants to say is she’s here for his questions, that maybe they can figure this out together, the way they always have. What she worries will come out is what’s currently rolling around in her head like an anxious bowling ball -- don’t leave me again. Don’t leave me, don’t leave me, don’t leave me.
“We still have the same experiences,” Natasha offers. “At least, I think we do. The invasion of New York happened in my timeline in the exact same way.”
“What about Abidjan?”
Natasha blinks, surprised by his sudden question. “Four rounds gone, one bullet left, almost crushed to death by a falling building.”
Clint huffs out a laugh and a small smile, indicating that at least that story has matched up. It makes her feel a little bit better.
“Saved your ass from getting shot at the last minute thanks to your exploding arrow when I had to shoot your bow. You told that story to SHIELD for almost a year, making me sound like some sort of stupid hero.”
“Worst food poisoning ever.”
Clint laughs again, a sound that this time seems lighter and more relaxed.
She falters, the words frozen on her tongue. In her own world, it’s a carefully constructed story, a code and a secret they used to measure the severity of a situation. It was a grounding point. In this timeline, however, it might very well be the one thing that makes a difference, given that their relationship was apparently different.
“I was dying and I didn’t think I’d make it home. You kissed me for the first time.”
Clint slumps back on the couch, nodding. “So, we still have a history.”
“We still have a history,” Natasha echoes softly as Clint takes her hand and squeezes it, his thumb comfortingly looping through the space between her own thumb and pointer finger.
“So then I guess we’re still us.”
“I was thinking about what you said.”
“About being good. I think you’re wrong.”
“It just doesn’t make sense. Humans aren’t built to forgive people and give them second chances. That’s not how it works.”
“Look at who you’re talking to, Nat. You’re here, aren’t you?”
“But I shouldn’t be. You’re an anomaly. You’re not what everyone thinks. You can’t tell me this is how the world will always see me. You can think I’m good, but no one else ever will.”
“So, what? Are you just gonna spend your whole life believing that everyone sees you as a villain?”
“At least villains can be forgiven. Good people never get to know how it feels to fuck up.”
“I disagree. You think I’m good, right?”
“Well, I fuck up all the time. And believe me, I know how it feels.”
“But I never want to feel like I’m so good I can’t be flawed. That’s not who I was made to be.”
“You don’t have to be who they made you, Nat. No one does.”
She doesn’t know where to go from here. Where do you go after telling your partner, your best friend, the person you love with your whole heart, that you’re in some different timeline and therefore, despite being mostly the same, actually somewhat different?
She feels like following up their morning conversation with “I’m pretty sure I’m here because I died” won’t go over well, but she also knows she’s not going to be able to keep that conversation secret forever. Fortunately, with New York still in disarray and both of them not having much to do in the way of work, Clint’s got a bevy of ideas to keep them busy.
“We can hang in and relax and then order in for dinner later if we want,” he suggests after they both dress for the day, dirty jeans and sweatshirts substituting for their pajama-like clothes. “You’d be surprised how many places are open. I’m figuring you wanna take it easy with your injury still.”
Natasha smiles, her hand moving to her head for the hundredth time since forgetting she doesn’t have long hair anymore. “I appreciate you trying to take care of me. But I think I want to get out of the apartment for a bit and take a walk, if you’re okay with that.”
“Sure,” Clint says, sounding surprised. “I mean, whatever you feel comfortable with.” He grabs his keys from the ring by the door and puts on his shoes, and she’s surprised but not shocked to find that her shoes -- similar to the way she found her clothes -- are placed neatly by his own, a further indication that she might do more than just spend a lot of time here.
As they head down the long flights of stairs and out the door, he slips his hand in hers automatically. Natasha flinches for a second before relaxing her fingers in his grip and tries to focus on the outside world, the first she’s seen of it since waking up. Since most of the destruction had taken place in midtown Manhattan, Clint’s part of the neighborhood had gotten away mostly unscathed, and aside from the air feeling heavier and smelling more soot-ridden, if she didn’t know any better she wouldn’t even realize anything terrible had happened.
“I have an odd question.”
Clint laughs, squeezing her hand. “I don’t know what can be more odd than what you’ve already told me.”
Natasha watches a bird fly overhead, flapping its wings against the wind. “We’re together, aren’t we?”
“I think I liked you better when you had a concussion,” he replies with a smirk. “Of course we’re together, Nat. I mean, no one really knows, but that doesn’t matter.” He glances at her. “You said that in whatever other timeline you came from, I have a wife. So I assume we aren’t together there, right?”
Natasha looks up and tries to smile. “Not in that way,” she says with a pang of guilt. “But I still love you.”
“Well, that feeling goes both ways,” Clint answers. “The real question is, have you seen me naked?”
“Plenty of times,” Natasha says, rolling her eyes. “Seeing you naked is definitely not exclusive to your marriage.”
“Then I guess the only difference is that we’re not fucking,” Clint says with a wink, and Natasha isn’t even surprised at the bluntness in his tone. It was Clint through and through, every layer of him that would be piled on for the world stripped away in favor of showing his true self -- swears, honesty, cracks, vulnerability and all. But this time, instead of belonging to mostly her and a little bit to Laura, he was all hers.
And she wants to protect that. She wants to stay here, to start over here, to have what she couldn’t have for so many years even though she genuinely loved Laura and cared about her, even though she knew Clint was happy in his domestic life. She doesn’t know if what she wants is even possible; she has no idea if this is some sort of stopover into the afterlife or if this is some alternate reality the soul stone has constructed to keep her distracted, or if she’s going to go to bed tonight and wake up somewhere else because this has all been a very realistic dream.
“Sorry,” she apologizes, wondering how long she’s been distracted while he’s been saying her name. “My head is just...it’s everywhere.”
“You wanna go back?”
She wishes she knew what she wanted to do. Part of her wants to go back and do nothing except hole herself up in Clint’s apartment; maybe by barricading herself with him she would be able to hide herself from anything that could happen. On the other hand, the outside world was refreshing and freeing and it reminded her that she was alive, or at least alive in some form, and that was what she needed right now.
“No. I want to keep walking...I like being outside.”
He looks at her warily and she can tell he’s cataloging every emotion she’s trying to hide, trying to decide whether or not to push back or ignore her very obvious attempts at pretending to be okay.
“We can sit, too.”
She nods and lets him steer her to a bench on the other side of the street, sitting down next to her and putting his arm around her shoulder. This time, used to his regularly intimate touch, she leans into him almost instantly while he strokes her hair.
“Look, Nat.” He pauses, collecting his words. “I don’t understand what’s going on. I really don’t. I know what you told me and I know there are differences. But I don’t want you to feel like you’re not comfortable with me. I need you to know that when I look at you, I don’t think about those differences and I don’t see them. I just see...I see you. I see the person who stood at the other end of my arrow, who has seen every wretched part of me, who has done everything in her power to save me when I needed to be saved. I see the person I love. That’s all.”
Natasha tries to keep tears from leaking out of her eyes. If this was the Clint she had left on Vormir, there were so many things she knows she could say. She could apologize for not finding him for five years, for letting him go through his grief alone, for not telling him her real feelings sooner because she had resigned herself to never being able to change what already was. She could tell him she loved him, and even though it was something they said to each other often, she could tell him and know that this time, it was different.
“What do you think happens when you die?”
Clint shifts against her, and she imagines him frowning. “That’s deep.”
“Shut up, Barton.”
He sighs. “I don’t know,” he says after a moment. “I mean, we’ve both been there, right? Or almost there. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about what would really happen if I actually died -- like, what happens after. I’m sure it’s not like the movies, though.” He sits up, letting her slide her head off his shoulder. “Why are you asking me about death?”
“Just...something I’ve been thinking about,” she says, and it’s not a total lie. “Tony flew that nuke into space, you know. He could’ve died.”
“Yeah, that was both the dumbest and more heroic thing I’ve ever seen,” Clint mutters. “Crazy son of a bitch. I wouldn’t have had the guts to do it.”
Natasha smiles, thinking of Sokovia, of Clint shielding a small child with his own body, ready to die to protect him -- of Vormir, of him running and leaping off the cliff before she bested him at the last minute.
“I think you’d surprise yourself.”
He gives her a skeptical look and she shrugs, offering a smile. “I mean, just a feeling.”
Clint smiles back, getting up and tugging on her hand. “Come on,” he says, pulling her to her feet. “We can pick up something for lunch and sit out on the fire escape for a bit. The bad movies offer still stands, or I’m sure we can find something else that will make us laugh for awhile.”
She lets him protectively hold her as he guides her back towards his apartment and she tries to let herself take in the moment, tries to let herself believe that this second chance is something that she deserves and not something that’s going to be suddenly taken away.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes.”
“Good for you. Welcome to being a human. Do you want a medal?”
“It’s not funny, Clint. I’m trying to be honest with you. I’ve killed people.”
“So have I.”
“Willingly. Without thinking. I enjoyed it. I didn’t question if it was wrong or not.”
“Yeah, me too. What’s your point?”
“My point is that being good doesn’t mean you get to erase the red that you’ve spilled on your ledger. I don’t know why you won’t accept that.”
“I never said I wouldn’t accept that. You can have all the red you want on your ledger, Tasha. I’ll never judge you for it. But I also won’t let it change what I think of you.”
“That I’m a good person.”
“You’ve got a really messed up idea of what it means to be a person, you know.”
“Not really. I just like believing in people. I like believing in you. One day, you’ll stop fighting me on it and you’ll believe it about yourself.”
“Don’t hold your breath, Barton.”
As much as she enjoyed being out of the apartment and feeling the effects of the outside world, sitting on the couch with cartons of half-eaten Chinese food splayed open on the coffee table and a blanket spread between them while the credits of The Princess Bride play out on the television screen feels more than right. It feels comfortable. It feels needed. She shoves a last eggroll into her mouth and chews thoughtfully while her eyes gaze around the room.
“You know, I’m beginning to think Buttercup had the right idea.”
“Oh?” Clint tosses her a look.
“Yeah,” Natasha continues, trying to keep the smirk off her face. “Beat up the man you love, because you know he’ll forgive you for it.”
“You’re really funny,” Clint says dryly. “And by the way, she shoved him down a hill, she did not shove his face into a metal bar and then punch the living daylights out of him.”
“Well, it worked, didn’t it?” She pauses, pulling her legs up on the couch. “Did you sleep okay last night?”
She had seen the pills on the bedside table and remembered them from so long ago, she was the one who had gotten them for him less than 24 hours after she’d knocked Loki from his mind. Knowing he would never admit that he needed help, she had used a few spare moments to sneak into the med bay on the quinjet and she had pilfered some medication, forcing the bottle into his hand when she had the chance and watching him swallow them every night.
“Mostly.” He offers her a shrug. “Was more worried about you, though.”
“Always,” Natasha says with a sigh. “You know, if we spent less time worrying about each other, we might be better at saving the world.”
“Hey, I think we saved the world pretty well being just the way we are. Besides, if I don’t worry about you, who else is going to?”
She knows he means the words jokingly, because he can’t know how much they hurt given the context of where she’s been and what she’s experienced. She’d spent her whole life thinking she didn’t need anyone, and then when she thought she could handle herself -- when no one was there, when Clint was off the grid, when Steve refused to come home -- she’d fallen apart, the absence of human connection and love and care taking a bigger toll on her than isolating herself by killing people ever did.
“Good thing I’ve always got you, then.” She throws him a smile, hoping to hide her suddenly overwhelming emotions, and he raises an eyebrow.
“I’m proposing an early night,” he says as he gets up, shutting off the television. “We’re both still beat, and I want you to get some real sleep tonight. You with me?”
She nods, even though sleep is the last thing she wants. She’s still scared that once she closes her eyes, that will be it -- she’ll wake up and not be here anymore, she’ll wake up and be in a different place altogether. More terrifying than dying, she realizes, is losing Clint a second time, especially this Clint, the one who is a carbon copy of the one she left on Vormir but who gets to love her the way she’s always wanted to be loved. But she figures at least if she’s not sleeping, she can pretend to sleep and he can hopefully sleep, and no one will know about her issues. Besides, it’s not like he’d be suspicious about her state of mind if she didn’t get a full seven hours of shut-eye, that’s not how either of their bodies have been trained over the years.
Clint gathers the mess of chinese food cartons while Natasha makes her way to the bathroom, deciding to just sleep in the casual clothes she’s wearing and not bother with changing. By the time she’s brushed her teeth and washed her face (all her stuff is neatly lined up on his shelf, she doesn’t even have to look hard to find any of her toiletries), he’s finished cleaning up and is lying on the king sized bed, reading glasses perched on his nose, fingers of one hand expertly holding a thick book open above his face. She stops at the doorway of the bathroom and stares at the sight, taking it in, knowing he’d never allow himself to be this open or this relaxed with anyone else. It did -- and still does -- thrill her to know that as much as he decides to show the world, he reserves the tiniest and most important parts for just her.
“You know, if you stand there long enough, I might finish a chapter,” Clint says conversationally without taking his eyes off the book. Natasha curbs a smile and walks forward, shoving his legs aside as she climbs into bed.
“You’re a pain in my ass, you know that?”
“Takes one to know one.” She gives him a pointed look. “Did you take your pill?”
“Yes, ma’am.” As if to prove himself, he gestures to the half-full glass of water by the bedside table, which Natasha knows means absolutely nothing. Tonight, though, she’s willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because it’s not like she would be sleeping, anyway.
“You want me to turn off the light? I can finish reading tomorrow.”
“Don’t bother,” Natasha says, turning over, specifically making sure her back is to him and angling her face so that her hair covers a good portion of her cheek and her eye. “I’ll be fine.”
“If you say so,” Clint says a little doubtfully. Natasha listens as he continues to read, each quick page turn a soft beat of a lullaby in an otherwise silent room. Her phone is charging in the kitchen and so she doesn’t know how long she lies there, pretending to be asleep, occasionally closing her eyes in case Clint gets up to move around. She tries to distract herself by pressing her body as close as she can to his, digging her feet between his legs, reminding herself that she can do this. Being intimate and sleeping together wasn’t exactly off the table in the world she knew, but it always came with a caveat of knowing they had a roadblock -- a roadblock that didn’t exist here.
The problem with keeping herself awake, she realizes eventually, is that without a distraction like a movie or a book she does become tired. Restless and frustrated every time her eyes start to feel heavy, she finally gets up, attempting to be as quiet and as stealth as possible. Clint’s heavy and even breathing indicates he’s fast asleep; when she quickly looks over she can see him passed out with his face pressed into the pillow. She slips out of the bedroom, heading to the couch, knowing that watching tv is out of the question because of the noise level. But Clint’s never been one to slack on having good literature at his disposal, and she knows there has to be something that’s long enough interesting enough to keep her up. She finds a copy of Lord of the Rings and cracks it open, letting the natural moonlight streaming through the window guide her eyes in the absence of artificial overhead light.
“You’re not sleeping.”
In retrospect, she knew she couldn’t get away with this. Even with his pills, Clint sleeping through the night was spotty at best, and she’s had enough experience to know that -- she had just hoped that she could at least get through one night where she didn’t have to pretend, to make it easier on both of them.
“I’m not tired.”
Clint raises an eyebrow. “I’ve heard that before. You wanna talk about it?”
“No,” she says automatically, the words coming out faster and more harshly than she intends them to. She tries again, attempting to tone down her frustration. “No, I just...I can’t sleep, so I wanted to read for a bit.”
“Okay,” Clint says with a nod. “Well, I can stay out here with you if you want. Just until you get tired.”
She shrugs, because she knows it’s going to be the same tune regardless of whether or not she pretends to be okay. It was the downside of Clint knowing her better than she knew herself, and it went both ways -- there were times that she refused to stop taking care of him even when she knew he was far beyond okay and just wanted to be left alone.
If I don’t worry about you, who else is going to?
It was too true of a statement when it came to both of them. They could try to leave each other alone, but in the end, the urge to be each other’s rock was too strong and too ingrained. She moves to make room for him on the couch and he drops down beside her; she notices he has the book he’s been reading in his hand and she almost scoffs at it. Clearly his intent in coming out here hadn’t been as innocent as simply wandering out of the bedroom, but she’s too exhausted to rag on him for it. Instead, she concentrates on her own book as he wraps his arm around her.
Natasha tries valiantly to keep herself awake, the losing battle becoming worse with each page turn. The heaviness of her eyes combined with Clint’s warm hold on her body is like a lethal combination and it doesn’t help that she knows she’s genuinely worn out; whether it’s from the events of her previous life or the emotions of the day, she doesn’t know.
She does know when she falls asleep against her will, because she’s back on Vormir, dangling once again over the side of the cliff, uniformed legs smacking uselessly and bone-crackingly against the rock. His face hovers above her, twisted in the frame of an agonizing cry, and this time, when he reaches for her, she does everything in her power to reach back.
She doesn’t tell him it’s okay. She asks him to help her, she pleads with him not to let her die, even as his hand starts to slip out of his. Paralyzing fear rushes through her body as he loses his grip and as she falls against the cold wind, the whole manner of her death feeling even more horrifying now that she knows what’s coming -- a hard rock, a cracking of her skull, a twisted mess of limbs and excruciating, terrible pain for one split second before her world blacks out and her heart stops beating.
And she knows that this is it. Whatever life she had with Clint in 2012, that wasn’t going to be on the other side this time. Maybe something else would, maybe there would be another timeline and another version of the person she loved. Maybe death would just be that -- death and darkness and unfeeling, cold fingers like the ones that are crawling over her body, trying to take her before she’s even had a chance to allow herself to get used to the fact that she's no longer alive.
“Natasha, wake up! Wake the fuck up, Nat!”
Strong hands shake her violently and she realizes that it’s not the wind or death’s arms but Clint, his fingers white-tipped and pressing hard into her biceps. Her eyes fly open and she realizes she’s in the middle of screaming, her voice hoarse and raw.
“Hey, look at me. Look at me -- you’re okay. I got you.”
She manages to lock into his eyes, soft and real as they’ve always been when he’s had to wake her from a nightmare or a traumatic memory, and she nods, trying to show him she’s okay.
“I’m fine,” she croaks gruffly, attempting to find her voice again. “Fine. You can let go of me.”
He does so, albeit reluctantly, and she notices that there are already dark bruises forming where his fingers have been. She wonders how long he’s been trying to wake her up, how long she’s been sitting here refusing to snap out of her mind’s hellscape because of her dream.
Her dream. That’s all it was: a dream about dying, but not her actually dying. Just a vivid reminder, one that pulls at the edges of her brain and refuses to let go of her memories. She was still here. She was still alive, technically. Clint was still here.
“No,” she says, swallowing against a burning throat. “Not Loki.”
Natasha looks down, unable to find an answer, and he puts a hand against her leg.
“Clint, don’t. Please don’t.”
“Nat, I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s going on.”
“I know you can’t!” Natasha snaps, because she can’t take the feelings that are bottling up inside of her, pressing against a dam of walls that are getting weaker by the second. She’s tired, she’s hurting, and she’s scared out of her goddamn mind. “You can’t help me because my dreams aren’t about Loki! They’re about me dying! I died, Clint! In my timeline, I died!”
The moment she says the words, she wants to take them back. She could’ve probably told Clint anything about the future -- about his near death experiences, about Thanos, about his family being snapped away while he watched helplessly -- and he could’ve probably taken it in stride with his normal demeanor. But she sees it all on his face, the shock and then the pain that contorts over his features when it sinks in what she’s just said, and all of a sudden, her whole world is spiraling back into darkness.
Natasha clutches at the fabric of the couch, trying to calm her increasingly rapid heartbeat by focusing on her breathing. She can’t seem to get herself steady, though, and it feels like her lungs have reached their capacity for oxygen -- no matter how deep of a breath she takes, she can’t draw in enough air to not sound like she’s being strangled. Vaguely, she wonders if she’s having a panic attack, and then Clint’s hand is on her chest, his palm resting above her wildly pumping heart.
“Breathe, Nat. I need you to listen to me and breathe. Can you do that? Can you breathe with me?”
Yes. Yes, she could. This was their routine, this was their trust fall, and it had worked so many times -- during nightmares, during trigger moments, during missions gone wrong that she had to come down from. This is why Clint was the only one who she trusted with her life, the only one who she would ever allow herself to get close to, because he did this. Because he knew this.
She manages to draw in a significant amount of air, which helps some of the black edges shrink back from her eyes. Slowly, taking her time with each inhale and exhale, she focuses on breathing in and out with Clint’s hand as an anchor on her body, until eventually she feels like a human again; her breaths still echo loudly in the space of the room but they’re only labored, not filled with the sounds of someone who is drowning against an unforgiving sea.
Natasha raises her head, and she knows she can’t help the tears that have already started to fall. He pulls her in close, kissing the top of her scalp, talking quietly into her hair; she has no idea what he’s saying but it doesn’t matter, because she doesn’t need to know. He was telling her that she was safe, that she was home, that she was taken care of.
“You think you can talk?”
She doesn’t know if she can, but she also knows that she has to. Now that the truth was out, she had to at least address it.
“I don’t know.”
“Okay,” Clint says soothingly, his voice a carefully placed blanket. “How did you die?”
Somehow, she knows that him being gentle and understanding is what’s going to make her lose it all over again. It would have been enough for him to accept that she was from another timeline entirely, now she’s asking him to accept her as a formerly dead best friend and he’s still treating her like she’s valid, like she’s telling the truth no matter how insane she sounds.
“It’s hard to explain.”
“Try,” Clint says softly. “And whatever you can’t explain, just don’t. Tell me what you can, and I’ll listen.” He continues to stroke her hair, a calming, soothing pattern of trust. Natasha closes her eyes.
“In...in 2018, there’s a guy named Thanos who uses things called Infinity Stones to wipe out half of all living things in the universe. I survive -- some of the Avengers survive. You survive. Your family doesn’t.” She hurries on before he can ask questions. “We try to get the stones back from Thanos but we fail, and for five years, everything is awful and horrible and the world lives with half of its population gone. And then, one day, we find a way...we find hope.” She swallows down a crack in her voice. “We’re able to get the stones and use them to bring everyone back, but one of the stones is on a planet in outer space called Vormir. We’re split into teams, and that’s where you and I are sent.”
She feels like she’s talking way too fast with nothing she’s saying making much sense, but Clint continues to nod and she can’t tell whether or not he’s simply placating her or if he really understands her story.
“No one tells us that in order to take the stone, we have to make a sacrifice -- lose that which you love. You don’t want me to die and I don’t want you to die and so we fight....we fight over who is going to kill themselves to bring everyone back, to save the world, and you come so close. But I beat you. I’m the one who falls off that cliff. I’m the one who lets go of your hand. I’m the one who dies.”
Clint stays quiet, the darkness pressing in on them as much as the tension is. Finally, he speaks, his voice a muted whisper.
“So when you woke up yesterday and you were confused about where you were…”
“It was because when I woke up here, it was right after I died,” she says, her voice equally soft. “After I fell off that cliff. The last thing I remember was the ground coming up to meet me. And the impact. And the cold.” She stops before her words falter, but knows he’s already seen her break. “But then I was here and it was...it was good. I was with you.”
“Is that why you were having trouble sleeping?” Clint asks, lowering his head. “Because you didn’t want to think about dying?”
“And because I was afraid if I went to sleep this would all be a dream,” Natasha admits, her voice shaking again. “I was afraid I would be somewhere else, in some post death reality and I’d lose you. I’d lose you again, for the second time. And I can’t -- I can’t go through that again.” She chokes back a sob. “I can’t.”
“Tasha.” He kisses her, letting his lips linger against her forehead. “Look, I don’t have much skin in this game, okay? I’m the same idiot who went to bed last night after saving the world and woke up and spilled coffee all over his shirt. But I’m pretty sure I didn’t die in my sleep and wake up in some purgatory hell. This is real. My world, you being here, us -- we’re real. You’re not in some dream. You’re not going to just disappear.”
Natasha shudders, barely able to see through the water pooling in her eyes. “How do you know?”
“Because I know you and I know us. And if you’re here, it’s because you’re meant to be here, because we always come back to each other. Right?”
Natasha nods slowly, thinking of Budapest, thinking of New York and the Accords and Ronin.
“Okay. If you don’t wanna sleep, I get it. I’ll stay up with you. But if you do wanna sleep, we can stay out here or I can stay with you in bed and I promise -- I absolutely promise -- that I’ll still be here when you wake up.”
Natasha swallows past her fear, letting out a long breath, feeling the comedown from the nightmare and rush of adrenaline as her emotions fully settle, knowing she doesn’t need to think about the answer.
“I want to sleep.”
He stands up and leans down, picking her up easily, like he’s done so many times before. By the time he puts her back down in the bed, she’s almost asleep, and by the time he crawls next to her, she barely registers the feeling of his arms wrapping tightly around her body.
“No shit, Nat. I can read your name on the file.”
“I mean, it’s me. It’s all of me. I want you to know everything. What I’ve done, who I’ve been…”
“You still on that I’m not a good person kick?”
“This has nothing to with whether I’m good or bad. It’s about trust. I want you to know who I am.”
“I’m pretty sure I already do.”
“No. You think you do, but you don’t.”
“Nat, you think the things written here are going to change my mind about you? You think I’m just gonna throw you to the street and decide you’re terrible and bad?”
“If you did, I wouldn’t blame you.”
“Well, I’d sure as hell blame myself. I don’t throw people away just because they have a lot of red in their ledger.”
“You might be the first person.”
“Maybe I am. But I bet I won’t be the last.”
“So then what if I am? What if I am a good person?”
“There’s no what if. You’ve always been a good person.”
“One day, Barton, you’re going to change your tune about me.”
“Call me crazy, Romanoff, but I doubt it.”
She doesn't know how long she sleeps but when she wakes up, sunlight is streaming heartily through the thin blinds and she doesn’t open her eyes screaming or terrified that she’s dead again, which is a strong plus. She feels slightly confused about where she is at first until the events of the past few days come flooding back, alerting her to the fact that she’s here, she’s safe, she’s alive.
She smells the coffee before she sees Clint, pushing through the door slowly. “Didn’t know if you were up yet...was gonna leave this for you, but it’s yours if you want it.”
“I’ll take it,” she says, sitting up in bed. Clint walks over, handing her the coffee, and then sits down by her knees.
She is, actually. A real amount of uninterrupted, undead, and non-nightmare sleep had done her wonders; her brain already seems more alert even without the help of caffeine and her head feels refreshingly clear.
“Yeah. Guess I needed sleep.”
“Guess you did,” Clint answers, leaning over to kiss her. Natasha smiles, now that she’s feeling a little calmer about her situation she’s also realizing she’s more comfortable with his easy displays of affection. “Told you I’d still be here.”
“You did.” She takes another sip of coffee and looks down at the covers. “I should know by now to believe in you.”
“I’ll take my wins where I can get them. Anyway, if you’re feeling better, I thought maybe we could take a drive today and get out of the city.”
“Get out of the city and go where?” Natasha gives him a curious look and Clint grins mischievously.
Back in her own timeline, she’d seen him pull this kind of thing with Laura. She’d stood back during visits to the farm, watching him tease her about a new project or an anniversary trip or something else similarly adorable and sweet; Clint had the surprising dichotomy of being able to be the world’s most ruthless, hardened killer and also the world’s softest, most domestic sweetheart. Natasha had always envied that Laura got both sides of that equation while Natasha got maybe one and three quarters of it.
“Do I have to bring a bathing suit?”
“Eh.” He shrugs. “Debatable. Just get dressed when you’re ready, we’re not in a hurry.” He kisses her again and gets up, leaving her alone in the room. Natasha takes a few more sips of coffee before getting out of bed, testing out her limbs and stretching slowly. Everything still feels sore, but she also notices that she feels less sore than yesterday and she’s not sure whether that’s because of an increased amount of sleep or because she’s getting further away from her day of death with each dawning morning.
She hopes to god it’s the latter.
She takes her time getting ready, starting a long shower and savoring the spray of hot water against her still-healing skin while letting the heat fill up the bathroom like an overflowing sauna. She styles her hair more carefully than she has in a long time, using the blow dryer hidden behind the sink, running her fingers through the shoulder-length tresses she’s finally getting used to, and dresses in a new pair of jeans and a slightly fitted shirt. When she emerges from the bedroom, Clint does a quick double take that he tries to unsuccessfully hide.
“Guess you’re feeling better after all.”
“Well, you didn’t tell me where we were going,” Natasha points out as she leans on the counter, smiling coyly. “I figured I should be dressed for any occasion.”
“The fact that you, Natasha Romanoff, are prepared for anything even without tac gear, does not surprise me in the least,” Clint says as he grabs his keys. “I made another round of coffee for the road, by the way. Figured you’d need a double caffeine jolt and it saves us time from stopping.”
“Thanks,” Natasha says, genuinely grateful as she accepts the thermos he hands her; she had wanted to ask if she could have another cup anyway. “How long is this drive, anyway?”
“Long enough to be far away from here,” Clint says, jerking his fingers towards the apartment walls. “Come on.”
She follows him downstairs and down the block, where his old Honda Accord is parked crookedly in a bad show of parallel parking. “I forgot how nice SHIELD cars were,” she groans as she folds herself in, the car door scraping against the sidewalk as she pulls it closed. She almost says something about how much better cars were in 2023, but decides to not bother.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s not a Strike Team Delta roadtrip of any kind unless you insult my car,” Clint says as he gets in and turns on the engine, navigating away from the curb and down the road. He rolls down the window, letting the warm mid-May air snake through the car, and she sits back in the seat, letting herself relax as Clint turns on the radio.
She’d thought about taking him away like this, after New York. While they downed drinks in one of the hidden rooms of Stark Tower after SHIELD had showed up to detain Loki, she watched him carefully, taking note of the way his hand shook and his leg twitched even though he confidently participated in conversation with his trademark dry snark. She waited out the next three days, the nightmares and sleepless nights and vomiting episodes, but eventually realized that he didn’t need to be taken away from New York and the place that triggered him, because it had never been about New York. He needed trust and he needed her, and it didn’t matter where he was as long as he had that. She had stayed with him for two months, the longest amount of time he’d ever been away from his family exclusively, until she felt like he was okay to face the world again.
Despite the fact that she’s had more than a good night’s rest, between Clint’s easy humming against the radio songs and the smooth drive, she finds herself nodding off again, only waking up when the air switches from city exhaust to clear, pine-filled greenery. She peers out the window, frowning at the suddenly lush surroundings.
“Where the hell are we?”
“The Catskills, technically. 2 hours outside of Manhattan. More specifically, we’re in East Durham, at the Furlong Bridge.”
“Nature,” Natasha observes dryly as he pulls the car over. Clint laughs.
“Something like that.”
As soon as she gets out of the car, her ears pick up on the sound of rushing water. A thin chill runs through her body, but she tries to ignore the uneasy feeling until she realizes that Clint’s leading her to a watering hole surrounded by epic slopes and cliffs. She glances up at the jagged spines and varying heights of the cliffsides, eyeing the rocky gravel and the heavy trees blanketing the area and the long distance down.
“You couldn’t have chosen a ball pit?”
“Nah. Go big or go home, right?” He winks and holds out his hand. “Come on, let’s just take a walk.”
Natasha sighs but continues to walk with him; despite how much better she feels on a mental level, it still unnerves her to be so physically close to something that’s the cause of all of her unsettling memories. She knows Clint can tell how she’s feeling because instead of striding ahead like he normally would, he’s moving more slowly, making sure he’s in sync with her steps.
“I’m not stupid,” she says finally when they stop at the edge of one of the slightly taller rocks. “I know why you brought me here. I know you’re trying to do that stupid therapy crap, the stuff I did with you and Loki, that thing where you make me try to face my fears by taking me to the place where I was traumatized in the first place.”
“You know, it’s been years and your intelligent insight never fails to surprise me,” Clint cracks, rubbing a hand over his eyes. “That’s not why I brought you here.”
“You didn’t bring me here so I could face my fears like a normal human being who jumped off a cliff and fell to her death?” Natasha asks bluntly. Clint shakes his head.
“Not exactly.” He pauses. “I didn’t bring you here so you could look at a cliff and deal with your memories. I brought you here because I want you to jump off of one.”
Natasha whirls around, almost losing her balance against the uneven ground, and her eyebrows shoot up into her forehead as Clint grabs her to make sure she remains steady.
“Are you out of your fucking mind?”
“Maybe.” Clint shrugs. “But look, you said that you were scared that you would wake up and this would all go away -- that I would go away. I don’t want that and you don’t want that. You want to stay here, right? You want to be with me?”
Natasha nods, not trusting her voice for a moment. “Yes,” she whispers. “Of course I do. I want...I want this life. I want this life with you, it’s the only thing I want.”
“Well, I want it, too. And not just because I apparently had it before.” He looks wistful but also determined as he says the words. “You can’t control your nightmares -- god knows I understand that better than anyone. But you can control your reality. And if you do this and prove to yourself that it doesn’t dictate whether you live or die, then that’s one step you can take to move on.”
Natasha runs a hand through her hair, trying to calm her nerves at just seeing a sight similar to the one on Vormir. “This is dumb,” she declares, feeling the fear rise inside of her, unable to shove it down. “It doesn’t matter if I get over my issues. It’s not going to make a difference. I’m always going to remember what happened, even if I live an entirely different life. I’m always going to be scarred by what happened.”
“So if it doesn’t matter, why not do it?” Clint asks, staring down at the underside of the cliff. “Take the leap. What’s the worst that happens?”
Natasha grits her teeth. “What happens is I that I die again.”
“And if that happens, I’d die with you.”
It takes her a moment to realize what he’s suggesting, and when the implication of his sentence hits her, she shakes her head violently. “That’s the last thing I want, Clint.”
“Well, maybe that’s how it should have been in the first place,” he argues. “Not just you, but both of us. I mean, lose that which you love, right? Who’s to say that you can’t do that together, especially if you both love each other?”
“And what happens if we survive?” Natasha challenges, turning to face him, hair whipping away from her face.
“Then I guess we survive,” Clint answers easily. “And we’re still us.”
Natasha swallows hard, staring over the edge of the cliff as Clint removes his shoes and socks, placing them neatly on the side of the rock. “This is crazy.”
“Crazier than jumping on the back of a Chitauri just to save the world? Crazier than throwing yourself in front of a bullet to save my life when you’ve known me for two weeks?” He gives her a look. “I know you’re gonna hate me for saying it, but if I’m gonna die, I’d rather die with you than live without you.”
“I do hate you for saying it,” she mutters, unable to hide her smile because there’s knowing each other and knowing each other. “But I hated that I had to leave you alone in the first place. I hated that it had to be a choice between us.”
“So don’t make it a choice,” Clint says, taking her hand. “Besides, this is all hearsay, anyway. We could jump and die. Or we could jump and survive. Fifty-fifty chance of something going our way, and those are better odds than we give each other on a normal basis.”
Natasha manages to laugh, because she knows he’s right. How many times had they willingly jumped into missions, assignments, Avengers battles, each time knowing that their chances of survival were realistically less than ten percent, give or take a little luck? How many times had they stopped and thought about the possibility of dying until it came right up to them, staring them in the face in the form of a bullet or a falling city or a blade or an alien? The only time she had felt truly optimistic about anything going their way was the time heist, and, well...maybe there was a reason for that. Maybe she was supposed to always bet against the odds, as opposed to being hopeful. That’s how most of her life had worked, after all -- Clint had bet against the odds when he put down his bow, not knowing whether or not the girl on the other end would snap his neck the first chance she got.
“Okay,” she says quietly. “But don’t...don’t let me go this time.”
Clint squeezes her palm. “You got it, Tash.”
He lets go of her hand long enough so she can remove her footwear and together, they walk towards the front of the cliff, positioning themselves right at the edge with their toes dangling over the side. Natasha realizes her legs are shaking and when she looks down, dizziness overtakes her, threatening to pull her over before she’s ready. Clint keeps his hold on her hand, his touch steady and firm, anchoring her to the edge of rock.
Natasha opens her eyes, turning to meet his face. She nods and takes a step forward, and he follows.
“One,” Clint starts, and as scared as she is, Natasha finds herself marveling at the calmness he’s displaying. “Two. Three.”
She jumps before he finishes, and for a single moment, she’s afraid she’s left him behind. But as she falls, she registers a hand in hers, a body falling next to her, a yell that’s too loud and deep to be her own, and she lets herself feel the wind and the exhilaration of letting go, of being weightless -- of falling but not being alone, of knowing she’s not falling for a hope or a prayer.
She hits the water hard, sinking quickly, and momentarily panics when she tries to surface against a weight pulling her down. It takes her another second before she realizes it's Clint’s hand, which is still holding her own tightly, and then his strong body is moving towards the surface, dragging her with him into the light and air.
They break the water together, gasping and wet and shivering, and Clint turns to her with a huge grin.
“Well,” he says breathlessly, staring up at the cliff and then back down at Natasha. “Looks like we didn’t die.” He lifts their hands, bringing the back of her palm to his lips as drops of water fall into his eyes.
“You didn’t let go,” Natasha returns, and she can’t tell if the water on her face is from her tears or from her fall.
“No,” Clint says, treading water with her as he brings her close. “I didn’t let go.”
“It would be okay if you were, though.”
“If I was what?”
“I mean, if you were the only one. The only one who believed I was good.”
"I don't think I am. But does that mean you’ll accept that you’re a decent person as long as I believe you are?”
“I guess maybe is better than nothing.”
“I guess it is.”
“You know what, though?”
“I can’t wait until one day, I get to prove you wrong.”
They crawl out of the water together, wet clothes plastered to their skin, finding a spot on one of the rocky spines in the sun. Clint leans back, stretching out, and Natasha positions herself as close as possible to his body. As uncomfortable as she is with her jeans and shirt sticking to every inch of her body, she thinks she’s more at peace than she’s been in a long time.
It’s the thought that’s going through her mind when she turns her head and meets Clint’s lips, his tongue slipping out from between his teeth and finds its way into her mouth. Shared air and intense emotions mingle between their touch and Natasha feels like she’s watching herself in a movie, an almost out-of-body experience. Unlike her death, however, it’s not an experience that’s scary. It’s one that’s euphoric, heightened and fierce.
In another timeline, she dreamed of kissing him like this -- long and slow and passionate, tongues wrapped around each other’s teeth, mouths exploring mouths and everything they’d ever wanted to say to each other tangled into a conversation of passionate intimacy. She’d thought about what it might be like to have that moment she so desperately wanted, because the kiss in Budapest had been just that -- a kiss, but one that was simple and in the moment, filled with all the last passions of someone who might not live to see another day. They never spoke about it and she knew she could never have it again, but she wanted it, and sometimes she wanted it so badly it hurt her heart.
Clint finally lets his lips part, sliding his tongue down her chin as he kisses her jawline and the underside of her neck, letting his head fall by the side of her face.
“What are you thinking of?”
Natasha pauses, still taking in the kiss. “Second chances,” she says honestly, because she is. She doesn’t know why she’s been given this do-over. She’d thought she was out of second chances, she’d thought her nine lives had long been snuffed out. She still doesn’t know if this is the universe’s way of repaying her the debt that she’d left the world or if it was just a lucky fluke or a random construct of time, but as Clint had just proved to her, none of that meant a goddamn thing. Because she could jump off a cliff and still be alive. Because she could kiss the person she loved, she could tell him she loved him, she could be with him, and she could still be alive.
Clint smiles, pushing wet tendrils of hair out of her eyes. “Well, things we lose have a way of coming back to us in the end, if not always in the way we expect.”
Natasha raises her eyebrows, squinting into the sun. “Did you really just quote Harry Potter at me?”
Clint laughs gruffly, rolling over so he can face her. “You okay with jumping now?”
Natasha nods, shivering slightly in the warm air as his breath tickles her face. “Yeah. I think I am.”
“Good,” Clint replies. “Because as far as I’m concerned, now that you know you’re here, we get to stay here forever. And I know that means you might have to relive some stuff -- I know that you technically lived some of this stuff already. But you already know that I don’t care about any of that, because you’re still my Natasha. And whatever we do, we get to do it with each other.”
It was true -- Natasha hadn’t wanted to consider the other side of the equation that came with her second chance, which was that she did have to relive it. It was 2012, after all -- Hydra was still slowly infiltrating SHIELD and no one knew yet, while numerous superheroes were being born and created in parts of the world that she didn’t even know existed.
But what she did know was that timelines were timelines for a reason. They were different, and they could be altered, and there was no promise that whatever happened in her own timeline would happen in this one. Maybe there would be stones, but no Thanos. Maybe there would be different choices. Maybe this time, if it came down to it, she’d know what would happen on Vormir and she -- or they -- would make a different decision. Maybe this time they’d do it the way they did just now: together.
“I do get to do it with you,” she says. “And I like when you use that word.”
Clint’s forehead scrunches into thin wet lines. “What word?”
Natasha stares up at the bright blue sky. “Forever.”
She closes her eyes, letting the sun beat down on her still-wet body, feeling every breath of air as it passes through her lungs, every quiet rustle of tree leaves, every simple lapping of water as it pushes up against the rocks. She feels Clint beside her, real and alive and warm.
And she knows nothing else in the world matters right now, because forever exists.