Natalia didn't use her wings very often.
When she was training they weren't necessary. When she was trying to sneak to a location unseen they would get in the way. She only put them on when she was supposed to be infiltrating a location. Meeting with a target. Seducing someone.
They were a deep red, similar to the red wine she pretended to drink at those social gatherings. They were big, but not too big, and the feathers fluttered in the wind. Beautiful. When she returned to the Red Room, she would remove them, give them back, and move to her next mission.
Natalia never gave it much thought. Yes, everyone wore wings, like hers. Everyone also wore shirts. It was just something people did. Other's moved more than hers, but they were probably just more expensive, made to look more alive. Wings were pretty, but that was it. She never questioned them.
Clint used his wings all the time.
Since he joined SHIELD they had grown bigger and bigger. His wings were broad but spindly, not the strongest things ever, but big enough that he could use them to climb to his perches. When he was in one of his nests, they would fall behind him like a purple cloak, and helped coin the code name 'Hawkeye'.
He could remember them being so small they couldn't stretch part his hands, let alone how far down they draped now. How she could wrap them around himself to stave off the cold.
Clint liked his wings.
“This woman is very dangerous, and this could be our only shot at taking her out. We do that, we strike a blow against the red room.”
Clint grimaced in thought. “Couldn't we bring her in sir? Her intel would be more useful than just taking away their favourite toy.” He flicked through the file for the thousandth time.
“Negative.” Coulson said firmly. “She's far too dangerous to try. And the last thing we need is a dangerous, pissed off KGB agent in our organisation.” Seeing Clint's uncertainty, Coulson met his eyes. “You copy?”
“Yeah.” Clint muttered, “Yes sir.” His wings were rolled up against his back.
“What's up?” Coulson asked. “This isn't your first mission like this.”
“I know.” Clint said, “I just...” He sighed. “I know it's part of their tactics, but...” He plucked the one picture that had been snapped of his target, blurred. Wings just the wrong shade to match her hair. “Something just seems... wrong.”
“She puts you off.” Coulson commented. “That's what they do. That's their main strategy. Don't let her.” His wings hung around his shoulders. “This shouldn't feel right. You know that.”
Clint nodded, closing the file. He swallowed. “How's May?”
Coulson's wings drooped and his face fell. “Not good. I went to see her in administration last week, but... it was like she didn't even see me.”
“She'll be okay Phil.” Clint tried to comfort him, but he was just as worried. He loved May, she was fun, great at her job, caring, protective. But now... “She will.”
“I hope so.”
Clint awkwardly patted him on the shoulder. “Let's go be good guys.”
It was a simple mission really. Natalia was to go in, socialise, pretend that she belonged there, no- be like she belonged there, smile, talk, dance with strangers, pretend to drink the champagne. Drug her target in the men's bathroom after seducing him into a stall. Steal his card key for the hotel room upstairs.
Take out the security guards on her way.
Walk in and complete her objective. Do her job.
Clint Barton scouted the gala with an increasing sense of unease. He wasn't sure what it was about this woman. She just seemed... wrong. Not in the way he was used to, even.
He shook himself. He knew that if he got distracted, the Black Widow would take him out without hesitation. Hell, even if he wasn't distracted that might happen. This was gonna be tough. He kept his interest hidden, so as not to attract her attention, but caught the identity of the guy she was playing.
Clint used the gadget some kid from sci-tech had made to open the balcony door without issue, closing it again behind him, and stood in the dark corner, his wings wrapped around him fully to camouflage him into the shadows. He levelled his breathing and heartbeat, like Melinda had helped him do, feeling his bow on his back.
He was ready. As ready as he could be, anyway. He would have preferred to be a building or two over, but they didn't know where she was going.
He did now. The Black Widow was coming here.
The door opened and Clint held his breath.
Then she entered. Deep red wings at her back, her slight stature hiding the deadly force he knew she was. Clint watched as she made for the bed, turning her back to him.
He readied to pounce, but before he could she had spun around with unnerving speed, landing a solid kick to his gut through his wings. Clint grunted in pain, and ducked the swipe she made with a knife, making to sweep her legs out from under her.
Too fast for that, she jumped, and Clint took the momentary opportunity to pull his bow free and swing it at her face. It made it's target, but the next second her hands had closed around it, attempting to pull the weapon from him. Clint pulled back, his wings coming to his aid in attempting to shove her away, but only succeeded in causing both to overbalance and topple to the ground.
Rolling with it, Clint pulled an arrow from his quiver and levelled it at the Black Widow.
It was then that he realised what had been bugging him about her. What it was that was wrong.
She had fallen onto her stomach, and both knew there was no way she could right herself before Clint's arrow hit home. That wasn't what got his attention though. It was that, during the fall, one of her wings had fallen loose. Like they were attached to her by some kind of harness, her left wing hung like a broken swing. It was like she had no wings. Her eyes, which he were expecting to be dark, cold and murderous, were lost, wild and confused.
Clint made his decision quickly, and jammed the tranquilliser into her neck, knocking the Black Widow unconscious in a matter of seconds. She glared at him venomously, spitting some kind of Russian curse before her body sagged and her eyes shut.
Clint examined the wings, their attachment to her. He was right, it was a harness to her back. There wasn't even a hint of feathers underneath. Using his arrow to cut them off, he heaved both the Black Widow and her supposed wings up in his arms, and used his own wings to climb down from the balcony.
Coulson was going to kill him for this.
Natalia woke in a cold, empty room. For a moment she thought she was back at the red room. Then it came back to her. She jolted into action, trying to rip her arms free, but then realised that they weren't restrained.
She was seated in a sparse room, a dirty carpet on the floor, the bunk which she was sitting on was bolted to the wall, no springs in the mattress. A sink was welded to the wall, and she was dressed in some standard issue clothes with an eagle symbol on them. The wings were gone.
She could see three different security cameras watching her every move, so she sat, waiting.
She didn't wait long. A few minutes later there was a knock on the reinforced door, and a man entered. He was older than her, had thinning brown hair, wore a nice suit and a pair of large golden wings. He carried a paper plate with a sandwich. “Hello.” He greeted softly. “My name's Phil Coulson. I brought you some food.” He put the sandwich on the bunk beside her, sitting in the bolted down chair.
Natalia glared. She knew this tactic. Bring the person you're interrogating a gift. Something they want. Make them think you're on their side. And drug it to make them cooperate.
Coulson seemed to notice her hostility. “I know. You think I'm here to pump you for information.” He sighed softly. “Not gonna lie, we'd appreciate that. But that's not why I'm here.” He paused. “I'm here to tell you that we'll protect you, for now. My colleague thinks you deserve another chance. I believe in second chances. Take this one. They don't come around that often.”
With that short introduction and offering, Coulson left.
Natalia stared at the sandwich.
She didn't eat for three days, despite Coulson's frequent visitations with food.
After those three days, the other one visited. She knew him. Mostly from the wings trailing behind him. She liked the colour.
“Hey.” He greeted, smiling transparently. “You gonna hit me again?”
Natalia gave no response. She stared ahead like no one was there.
He gave her no mind. “Coulson says you haven't been eating.” He said, bearing yet another sandwich. “You think that maybe you should?”
Good God, this man was infuriating. Natalia wasn't sure if it was her lack of sleep, lack of food, or lack of orders, but she was closer to breaking her silence now to snap at this man than she had been in three days of Coulson's gentle questions.
He must have noticed, as he chuckled. “It's good.” He said in a patronising tone, taking a bite. “Mmmm, nice salad.”
This was another test. Trying to get her to react. Natalia did not react.
“Definitely not spiked with truth serum or poison.” He grinned, putting it back down. His point was proven. “Not that I'd lug you through Saint Petersburg just to poison you here, jeez, I'm way too lazy for that.”
Natalia was silent.
“Not that you'd know there's no truth serum, I guess.” He said thoughtfully. “Ask me a question! Then I can prove it.”
Natalia glared. She knew this game. He was being far to obvious with his intentions.
He threw his hands up. “Okay!” He said. “You don't wanna talk. But I am a fifty foot pink elephant. Just so you know.” With that odd remark, he left.
Natalia stared at the sandwich for a while after that, before caving and taking a small bite.
It was a pretty nice salad mix.
The next person to visit was even more different again. He wore a long black coat, a pair of matching wings, and an eye patch. He engaged in a staring contest with Natalia for several minutes, after which time he sighed angrily. “I'm gonna level with you.” He said. “You are a right pain in my ass. I didn't want you here.” He slowed, leaning back. “But Agent Barton thinks you can be an asset to us.” The distrust in his eye was clear. “I happen to value his judgement, or else I wouldn't be wasting my time trying to help you, when my agents could be doing their jobs. So you do something to prove him right, and you do it fast, got it?”
Natalia was pretty sure her disdain showed. She didn't care. If they were going to kill her then so be it.
Next she was woken in the night to an unidentifiable noise. Natalia sat up, instantly alert in her darkened cell. A moment later her door opened.
“Hey.” He greeted softly, shutting the door behind him, his wings slipping in and out of the shadows. “I bribed the night shift guy on surveillance to accidentally switch off your cameras. If you wanna know anything... you can ask. No one's watching.”
Natalia was silent. But her eyes were wide. He was coming to answer questions, not ask. What technique involved giving information? Telling your captive that, for the first time, they weren't being observed. She could kill him here and now. Her fingers twitched.
“I'd really appreciate it if you don't attack me.” Barton joked. “I- uh, thought you might want something that wasn't a sandwich, so I brought some chocolate.” He handed it to her, and looked surprised when Natalia took it. She was surprised with herself as well, actually.
Barton hesitated, then sat beside her on the bunk, his legs hanging off the side. “Is there anything you wanna know?” He chuckled. “Dumb question. Duh.” He took a breath, “I-”
“Why did you spare me?”
He stared for a solid few seconds, then laughed softly. His wings shook with mirth. “Oh man, you don't know how many times I've been asked that lately.” He paused. “I-I don't really know. Because... I don't think you were given a choice in what you were. I think you deserve that choice.”
Natalia's eyes fell to her knees. “You have a lot of faith.” She murmured softly.
To her surprise, he shook his head. “No. I don't know what you're gonna choose. You deserve the choice, but I don't know you.” Barton swallowed. “If you want to join SHIELD, you'll have some hoops to jump through, but you'll be welcome. If you don't, there are a lot of options. Fury would keep you under surveillance, so you don't go off the grid, but if you wanna live a normal life, we'll help with that too.”
Though Natalia didn't look at him or make a sound, it felt like he was reading her mind. “We can't let you go back though. Not that I can see why you'd want to.” A question.
“I have to.”
Natalia was silent again. She had learned not to ask those questions.
He cocked his head. “What do you remember about it?” When he saw the cold electricity in her eyes, he backtracked. “Don't tell me!” He exclaimed, holding his hands out peacefully. “Just... think about it. What'd they ever do that made you loyal to them?”
That quiet was back to her, the kind Clint saw when they were watching her alone in this cell. Contemplative, but not calm. Waiting. “I know. I shouldn't be doing this so fast. You can probably grade me on how shitty I'm doing in interrogation.”
“Interrogation?” Natalia's voice sounded a lot more innocent in her own ears. Hopeful. Was this an interrogation?
His eyes widened. “No, I didn't mean it like that, I- I was just joking. Promise.”
Natalia's green eyes remained on him steadily, and Clint was struck by what a nice colour they were. “Talking about interrogations though...” He tested, watching for her reaction. “Is it too much to ask for your name?”
Natalia glanced away. She shouldn't. That would be surrendering information for nothing in return. She liked him though. Barton. That was what the tall man in the coat had called him.
“I get it.” He murmured, “You don't wanna give up any information. I just wanna know what to call you. Do you have a nickname or something? I'm getting a little tired of just talking about 'that Russian who relocated my spleen'.”
It was a joke, and it almost made Natalia smile. Her face did soften a little as a compromise. She thought about it, and eventually decided, “Natasha.” She said. “You can call me Natasha.”
Barton did smile at her words, a boyish grin that lit up his face. “Well,” He extended a hand for her to shake. “It's nice to meet you Natasha, I'm Clint.”
Natasha felt... better. Most days at least. It was liberating to know that she could do what she wanted now, but figuring out what that was was harder than she thought.
Her nights were haunted though. She woke up screaming from nightmares she couldn't remember or process. She spent her waking hours terrified, feeling those memories she didn't want at the edges of her thoughts, just waiting for her to push a little. But she didn't want to push. She didn't want to remember what she had done, what they had done to her.
The anxiety bled into her almost nightly conversations with Clint. She liked him. At least she thought so. He was... kind. He filled the void with his own voice, yammering on about nothing important. It felt like he understood. But she knew deep down that he didn't. Not really.
She listened to him talk anyway though, because it was nice to pretend. He was nice. She didn't say much, sometimes barely enough to keep whatever it was they had going. She asked questions though. Occasionally.
After a couple of weeks, something that had been niggling at her since waking up came to the surface. “Why do you wear your wings all the time?” She asked softly when Clint stopped talking.
He seemed confused. “Why do I- what?”
“Your wings.” Natasha repeated. “Why do you wear them all the time?”
“Wear them?” Clint was struck dumb when he realised what she meant. He was pretty sure his heart broke then and there. “Y-yours...”
“You took them.” Natasha mumbled, suddenly feeling like she'd asked the wrong thing. “Are yours permanently attached?”
Clint stared at her, open-mouthed. Horrified. “I-I... I'm sorry, I can't- Natasha, I'm sorry.” With that he ran from the room, leaving a confused Russian assassin in his wake.
He swept through the dark corridors of the base, his wings twitching sporadically. Permanently attached? Wear them all the time? Did Natasha even realise that other people had wings? What had they done to her in that place that she didn't even know what people's wings were, let alone grow her own?
Clint wasn't sure where his legs were taking him, but he eventually arrived at admin. He swallowed. There was no one around, no one to talk to, to share this revelation with. They had their theories about why she had no wings, but... Clint hadn't expected this. Going two for two on bad decisions, he quietly opened the door to the legion of cubicles.
All were deserted and dark except one. Clint made his way over, blowing the occasional file onto the ground with his spindly, twitchy wings.
He sat on the ground beside her cubicle, seeing the shapes moving under her jacket, hiding wings he knew were a beautiful blue. “Hey Mel.” He greeted. “I- uh. I know I should have visited sooner, just...” He trailed off. When she said nothing either, the tears started to burn at his eyes, and he struggled to stay in control. “M-Mel, she- she doesn't even know that my wings are real.” He stuttered.
That made May pause in her paperwork. She looked down at him. “What?” She asked flatly.
Clint took a shaky breath. “She doesn't have wings.” He said, making Melinda's wings twitch. “That's why she was putting me off on mission. The wings she had weren't real.”
“That's why you spared her.”
“I- kind of.” He admitted, wrapping his wings around himself. “She doesn't- Mel, she doesn't understand. She thinks they're all fake. How... how do I fix that?” He felt like he was going to be sick.
“You don't.” May said coldly. “Clint, if you're trying to fix her, you can't. You can't change what's already happened.”
Clint quivered. “Then what do I do?”
“Whatever you want.” May said shortly. Clint could see the pain buried deep. But he knew he couldn't help Melinda. Not now, at least. Instead he decided to nut up and help the person he could.
He put a hand on May's shoulder in farewell. “'Love you, Mel.” He murmured.
Clint knew that Natasha had nightmares. He would know that even if they didn't have twenty-four hour video surveillance of her room. He knew.
That didn't mean he was prepared for the state she was in when he returned.
She wasn't tossing, she wasn't screaming, and she wasn't sobbing. She lay perfectly still, one arm suspended off the side of the bed. Her brow was furrowed, in fear, confusion, Clint couldn't tell.
And she was talking.
Clint wasn't sure what she was saying. The Russian was too fast for him to comprehend. It sounded like a repetition though. Some kind of hypnosis? Had they programmed her? Was it wearing off? Was she a sleeper? Was this their plan all along?
Maybe he made some noise. Maybe he was too close. He was definitely too deep in thought, because the next thing he knew Natasha had him pinned, her elbow digging into his throat.
Her green eyes were wild and vicious. Clint grunted. “Natasha.” He gasped around his suddenly limited air supply.
As quickly as it came, the moment was gone, and Natasha released him. “You shouldn't be here when I'm asleep.” She murmured, moving to the other side of the room, as far away as she could get.
Clint massaged his throat. “Noted.” He rasped.
She eyed him cautiously. “Why did you come back?”
Clint rubbed his face, keeping his wings behind his back. “I- I shouldn't have run away like that. I'm sorry.” He moved to sit on the other end of the bunk, giving her the space. “You... you scared me before.”
Natasha stared like she didn't understand. Of course she didn't. That was the whole problem. Clint toyed absentmindedly with one of his primaries. “I- Natasha, wings aren't... fake, do you know that?”
She frowned, paused, and shook her head.
“They're not.” Clint said softly. “Everyone has them, they... they usually start growing when you're a kid.”
Natasha licked her lips. “Why don't I have any?”
“I don't know.” Clint said quietly. He didn't want to go into that tonight. “Do you remember anything, maybe from when you were younger?”
She was already shaking her head. “I don't remember much. They- did things.” Natasha admitted. It was the first mention she'd made to the red room. She glanced back to Clint's wings. “You mean it. You're not... joking, again?”
“No. I promise.”
Clint could see her eyes darting to his wings, then away, then back to them again. He saw her hands, unnaturally still, since he had noted Natasha habitually fiddled with them. He swallowed nervously. He didn't entirely trust her. He wasn't that stupid. But... “You can touch, if you want.” He offered, extending one towards her, slowly.
Natasha recoiled slightly. “People don't usually do that.” She murmured.
“No.” Clint acknowledged. “But it's okay.” He didn't want to push. Instead he just kept them draped over his shoulders.
A moment later tentative fingers brushed his feathers, and Clint smiled. His mischievous side wanted to knock her over with one, but he stemmed the desire. Her gentle touch felt nice. Calming.
Natasha looked in awe. Clint was right. His wings were part of him. They trembled in reaction to her touch, alive, almost like they had a mind of their own. She examined further down their length, taking in their structure, the joints, how they could fold in, how lithe they were. She was loving their deep colour even more now.
When her fingers reached the base, where they connected to his back, Clint barked out a laugh and squirmed away. “Sorry.” He grinned, wings curling defensively on reflex. “I'm ticklish there.”
That look wasn't one he'd seen on Natasha's face before. The distant ghost of a smirk. Knowing and smug. Dialled down, but definitely there. Clint chuckled. “Don't even think about it black widow.” He warned teasingly. “I kicked your ass before, I'll do it again.”
The glimmer in Natasha's eyes was also new. Delighted, but still cautious, uncertain. Clint wondered how long it had been since she had joked. “You got lucky.”
Clint laughed out loud. “Ooohh, them's fighting words!” He cried in an affected accent. It was a blatant attempt to make her smile, but he didn't care. He wanted Natasha to be happy, for her to see that it was an option for her. He wanted her to live.
He brightened as a thought occurred to him. “Hey, why not?”
“What?” She asked, the mirth disappearing faster than it had appeared. Clint couldn't be talking about what she thought he was.
“Spar.” Clint clarified. “I'd have to talk to Coulson about it, but... I bet it'd be nice to stretch your legs.”
He looked so happy with the idea. Natasha swallowed, willing her heartbeat to slow. She had fought before. And it would be... interesting to see the rest of this place. She banished her feelings and nodded. “Okay.”
Clint beamed. “Great!” He said. “I'll talk to Coulson tomorrow. Odds are he'll want a chaperone, but I think we'll be fine.”
His smile did make Natasha feel better. He was so bright, and his smile so boyish and genuine. She nodded again.
Clint hesitated before leaving. He felt that he should do something. A hug, a pat on the shoulder, something. They'd taken a step tonight. He felt closer to her now. Maybe he even trusted her a little. Before he did something that ruined it, Clint stood. “Goodnight.” He murmured with a gentle smile.
Natasha mumbled a farewell in return, and lay down in another attempt at sleep when the door clicked shut. She shifted uncomfortably, wishing for another shirt. This one had started to make her back itch.
It took Clint longer than he hoped to get Coulson to agree. But only slightly. It wasn't like he expected it to be easy.
It didn't start with sparring. First it was Clint just taking her on brief walks, usually when there weren't many people around, and never anywhere crucial. He could tell that Natasha noticed this, but she didn't say anything. She didn't talk very much at all, really, but Clint did his best to fill the gaps.
Their first actual match was a test, and they both knew it. Clint was acutely aware that Fury was watching via the security cameras, and he could sense Coulson's concern. He wished her was the only one who did, but he could see Natasha's eyes taking in every tiny detail of the seldom-used gym they had settled on to stretch their muscles.
Clint didn't like this. Sparring with the black widow would be stressful enough without knowing he was under tight surveillance from SHIELD's head. He much preferred for these kind of work outs to begin feeling loose and comfortable. Not stretched taunt like this.
Despite the whole thing feeling wring, he grinned. “Ready for your rematch then?” He asked cheerfully. Natasha looked even more on edge than he felt.
She shrugged, eyes darting around distractedly.
“It's okay.” Clint tried to assure under his breath. “Just like our walk yesterday, but with more punching.”
The joke did nothing for her. Natasha swallowed. This was hard. Normally to fight she would let her training take over. But she couldn't do that here. She couldn't.
Clint threw the first punch, which Natasha caught easily. He grinned, and some of her nerves eased off. Maybe she could do this.
He continued the assault, and Natasha continued to catch, duck, and roll with the punches, not quite up to launching her own attack. She could do a lot with someone else’s movements though, so she continued with that.
Natasha started taking chances. A swing here, a sweep there, trying to keep him on his toes. Her blood was pumping, more than it had in a long while. This wasn't the calm control of taking down a mark, it was practice, it was training with a... partner? Friend? She didn't know what Clint was really.
Her distraction was her downfall, and Clint took the opportunity to sweep her legs out from under her, pouncing and seizing her arms to hold her still. “What was that about getting lucky?” He teased.
Natasha went rigid. She wasn't here. She was... where was she? She didn't know. Memories crashed upon her in an unrelenting wave, memories she couldn't place. Memories of training with other girls, of pinning them down, then... then...
Clint had expected something to happen with their little match. What he had expected was for Natasha to attempt to kill him somehow, through some weird Black Widow brainwashing. Nothing personal, but he wouldn't be surprised.
He didn't expect this.
Natasha... practically went rabid. She screamed and thrashed, and when Clint loosened his grip, she pulled herself free, kicking, scratching, biting, ripping feathers from his wings, her nails leaving deep scrapes in his skin.
Natalia couldn't breathe, she couldn't think. She was going to die. She had lost. When she lost, she died, that was just how it worked. So she fought, in any way she could. She shoved the other one away, she kicked and clawed until she had no one left to fight anymore. Because that was how it worked. She was dimly aware of someone calling her name. What was happening?
When she came to, Natasha remembered where she was. She heard voices yelling, and one soft voice much closer.
Her eyes settled on Clint on the other side of the mats. He was curled in on himself defensively, covered in bloody scratches. His wings had feathers missing in chunks, deep red blood seeping from those places. His knee looked like it was dislocated, and there was a nasty bruise forming over his left eye. “Natasha?” He whispered softly, fearfully.
Natasha quaked, realising what she had done. A moment later she was grabbed by four security guards and taken back to her cell. She offered no resistance.
What had she done?
“She's not a threat!”
“Barton, are you even looking at yourself right now?!”
“That wasn't her!”
“Looked like her to me!”
“Go to hell Sitwell.”
Fury stood, his wings flaring out in intimidation. “Both of you can either shut up, or get out. Now.”
Clint was on the verge of arguing, but Coulson shook his head quietly, and he sighed. “Yessir.” He grumbled, sinking further into his seat.
Fury sighed tiredly. “What do you think?” He asked his other companions.
Hill bit her lip. “If she wanted Barton dead, he'd be dead.”
“Agreed.” Coulson murmured. “And it wouldn't have taken her this long. They've been out before today. This wasn't an intentional attack.”
“Then what was it?” Fury rumbled, looking at the frozen screen. “Why bother programming this? What's the point? Sleepers don't work like this.”
“She's testing us.” Sitwell said. “Seeing what she can get away with.”
“I swear to God Jasper...” Clint struggled to keep his temper under control.
“I'm just calling it how I see it Barton!” He exclaimed. “She's dangerous, you can't deny that, no one can! If we let her get away with this now, who knows what she'll be doing next week?”
Coulson interrupted before Clint could snap again. “I don't think this was something intentionally programmed.” He said softly. “Don't look at it like that, just... look at her face- there.” He froze the video. “What does that look like?”
They were all silent for a moment.
“Fear.” Hill eventually responded, “She's terrified.”
“Of what?” Clint murmured. “I- she knows I'm not gonna hurt her.”
“We don't know what kind of training they have in the KGB.” Coulson said softly. “You had her pinned. We don't know what comes after that in her experience. You could have triggered some kind of panic reaction. Fight or flight.”
“She was just scared.” Clint whispered. “She needs help.”
Sitwell sighed. “And how many agents are we gonna lose because she's scared? You're already going to be out of the field for weeks, and this was just her first match.”
Clint's anger was again interrupted, this time by Maria. “You're both right.” She acknowledged. “She is dangerous, but she does need help. Question is, what do we do about it?”
“Leave her to me!” It burst out of Clint before he or anyone else could stop it. “You're worried about losing agents, then just let me handle her. That way the only life you're risking is mine.”
“Clint.” Maria said softly. “You can barely stand.”
“I'll handle it.” He grunted. “This way it's even. You risk one agent, you gain one agent.”
Fury cleared his throat. “You send me weekly reports.”
“And don't do anything stupid. You take backup whenever necessary, and she's to wear a tracking bracelet at all times.”
“Anything you need, talk to Coulson.”
Coulson nodded as well, and Clint tried not to let his relief show. “Yessir.”
Clint wasn't allowed to go to her until the next day. When he did finally make it to Natasha's room, he didn't like what he saw.
There was dark circles under her eyes, even deeper than usual. She was dressed in the same clothes as the day before, which still had spots of his blood on them, and she sat on the edge of her bunk, staring intently at the floor. For all Clint knew, she hadn't moved since being brought back here. All bets were that she hadn't.
“Hey.” He greeted fake-cheerfully, crutching through the door. “I brought breakfast, if you're hungry.”
Natasha made no acknowledgment that he had spoken, so Clint sat down, placing the plate of toast and fresh fruit beside her.
“You're not in trouble.” He said. “Fury's left me in charge of you for now. Nothing's gonna happen.”
Still she didn't react. Clint was used to her not talking, but Natasha usually spoke through her eyes, through her expressions. Now she may as well be a statue.
He tried for a joke. “Hey, if anyone should be doing the silent treatment it's me. My beautiful face is ruined Natasha!”
She trembled, then raised her head to look at him. Upon seeing the state Clint was in, tears began to swim in her eyes.
Clint winced. Shit. “Oh, hey, don't... come here.” He limped over to the bed and wrapped his arms around her. It may not have been the best decision, given what happened the last time he had her in a compromising position, but he couldn't very well let her cry alone. “It's okay.” Clint murmured, trying not to touch her with any of his bandaged parts.
Natasha didn't move to return the hug, nor to push it away. Tears leaked from her eyes unbidden, soaking his shoulder, and she shook with silent sobs. She wanted to say something. She wanted to apologise, to tell him that she was a lost cause. But the words wouldn't come. Only the pathetic tears would.
Clint shushed her gently, taking a chance and wrapping his wings around her too. They were bandaged a little, but healed faster than the rest of him. “It's okay.” He assured, bringing his wings in tighter when she didn't shy away from them. “You're okay.”
“I'm sorry.” Natasha gasped around the tears.
“It's okay.” Clint repeated. “Just breathe. With me, you know.” He took deep, calming breaths, which she soon began to copy. He could feel the trembling start to abate, but didn't let go just yet. “Did you sleep?” No answer. He grimaced, pulling away. “Eat something. Please.”
Natasha swallowed the lump in her throat. “I can't.”
“Please, Natasha. For me.”
For him. Okay. To apologise. To prove that she was really sorry. Even if she wanted to show him that she wasn't worth the effort. Natasha fished a piece of toast from the plate and nibbled at the crust.
A sad smile crossed Clint's face. “Thank you.” He stayed right beside her, letting one wing wrap around Natasha's shoulders. “That wasn't you yesterday. I know that, and I think you do too.”
“What does it matter?” She asked flatly. Natasha should have known not to trust Barton. He was a believer. He trusted people, even when he shouldn't. It was nice to pretend for a while that she could change, but the truth of it was that it was too late.
“It matters cos I'm not giving up on you.” Clint murmured. “You deserve better.”
Natasha was quiet. Thoughts of what she really deserved floated around her fractured mind. She didn't notice that Clint had stood until he returned.
“Here.” He said gently, wielding a damp cloth. “Let's clean you up a bit.”
Natasha made no movement as he carefully wiped the dried blood off her neck, her cheek, and eventually her hands, holding her wrist in a way that almost felt comforting, and carefully working the cloth around her fingers, cleaning his own blood off her hands.
She stared at the top of Clint's bowed head, seeing his wings folded behind his back. The stark white of the bandages was impossible to hide. Her free hand brushed one, and Clint stilled a little. “It's okay.” He murmured. “They heal faster than the rest of me.”
Natasha swallowed so that she didn't start crying again. “Why?”
He was lying about something. That was okay. She deserved it. Clint tugged at her wrist, pulling her hand back. The cool cloth did feel nice on her skin. “I'm sorry I pushed you to spar so soon.” Clint mumbled, pretending to focus on her hand. “I could see that you didn't want to, but I pushed anyway.”
“Don't.” Natasha said firmly. “Don't do that.” She had attacked him, hurt him, after he had spared her life. And now he was sitting here, cleaning his blood off her hands, and apologising?
Clint swallowed, and pretended that he needed to hold her hand a little longer. “I wanna help you, Natasha, but I'm gonna make some mistakes. Don't be scared to tell me if I'm making you feel worse, or... anything.” He raised his head. “Okay?”
He was being earnest, which was so much worse than when he was joking or trying to piss her off. Natasha nodded tremulously and withdrew her hand. “I don't know why you're wasting your time on me.”
Clint smiled. “Well,” He said, “I can't go back in the field for a few weeks. I might as well spend them with you.”
Clint stayed true to his word. He visited every day. Sometimes he brought paperwork to complain about, sometimes he brought a deck of cards and taught her how to play a game called 'uno'. They went out again, but hadn't ventured near the gym. Once he had brought a computer to show her a movie he thought she didn't know of, and Natasha didn't have to heart to correct him.
It was actually kind of sweet, how he looked to her at every new development to see her reaction, excitedly asking what she thought. He was kind of a puppy at times.
Ten days after their incident, Natasha noticed something on their morning walk to the cafeteria. “Your wings are still growing.” She noted, “Don't they stop when you get older?”
With how squirrelly he usually was when Natasha asked questions about wings, the smile surprised her. It was a crooked, fond kind of grin. “They are a bit, aren't they?” Clint said thoughtfully, toying with one of his primaries.
“Do they grow all your life?”
Clint now looked shy. “Yeah.” He said, the hint of a blush on his cheeks. “They- uuh... yeah.”
There it was again. He was holding back. It wouldn't bother her so much if Clint wasn't so open about everything. “It's... hard to explain.”
“You're lying.” Natasha noted without venom. She wasn't accusing, it was just an observation. “You're always lying about this. Why?”
Clint was silent for a little while, and Natasha let him think. She liked just walking together, even if she did have this ridiculous tracking bracelet on every time she left her cell. “I- I promise I will explain it, Natasha, I just can't right now. I will though.”
That got a proper smile out of him, that roughish, boyish grin that lit up his face and made his eyes glow with warmth. “Yeah. Really soon, I think.”
Something here was going over her head, but Natasha tried not to be frustrated by it. Instead she took what petty revenge she could.
“What is that?” She asked skeptically, pointing to the tray of hash browns.
“Huh?” Clint glanced to them, then back at her. “They're hash browns... uuhh, fried potato things, you know?”
Natasha blinked, keeping on the best 'I'm an ignorant foreigner' face she could muster.
It seemed like he fell for it. “Oh man, you've gotta try these, they're great.” Clint forked three onto her plate, and Natasha smothered a grin when he turned away. This could be... fun.
She felt several pairs of eyes on her when they sat down, and Natasha sat up straight, squaring her shoulders to show that they didn't get to her. She felt Clint prickle beside her, but neither said anything. They were both the subject of a lot of whispers, but Natasha knew she bore the brunt of them. She didn't care. It certainly wasn't the first time people had been whispering about her.
What did bother her a little was how everyone present had wings. All different colours, sizes, and shapes, but everyone had them. She had held onto some hope that there was someone how there like her, who didn't have any.
She almost wished for her fake ones back. Almost.
“Hey,” Clint got her attention, noticing her zoned out eyes. “You okay?”
Natasha nodded quietly, stabbing her bacon. She felt... vulnerable, somehow. It was annoying. Then something drew her attention. Something behind her. Trying not to be too paranoid, Natasha glanced around. Clint's wing was out, unlike usually, when they were neatly folded behind his back. It was shielding her somehow. Hiding her? Not quite, but... it felt defensive.
She looked at him, silently questioning, and he shrugged. “What?”
Clint wasn't oblivious. He had to know what he was doing. He had picked up on Natasha's unease and... tried to protect her, in the least obtrusive way he could. “Nothing.”
Clint smiled and nodded to her plate. “You should try the hash browns then, they're better when they're hot.”
Natasha barely refrained from rolling her eyes, but took a bite, faking mild surprise at the taste. “It's good.” She said, and Clint grinned.
“See? I told you!”
She kept the smile inside, seeing his childish excitement. Yeah. This was fun.
Natasha kept her pretend questions simple. She asked what metaphors and figures of speech meant. She asked Clint what SHIELD's symbol was supposed to be. She also asked genuine questions, to muddy the waters a little. Her favourite by far was when she managed to convince him she didn't know what a gondola lift was, leading to a five minute explanation with hand drawn diagrams to help her 'understand'.
It was funny. And sweet. Natasha wasn't sure which she liked the most.
After a week however, she decided that seeing the look on his face would be much funnier, and she was getting a little bored of keeping it up. They were watching a documentary in a small, out of place, common area, when Natasha pointed to the train on the screen and asked, “What's that?”
Clint frowned. “That's a train Natasha, you know what a train is.”
Natasha kept on her innocent facade and watched the realisation creep onto his face.
Clint turned his head slowly to stare at her. “Wait, you... and the gondola, the- the purse dogs? The hash browns?!”
He sounded so betrayed. Natasha bit her lip to keep from smiling. She kept her gaze fixed on the screen.
“You little shit!” Clint exclaimed, righteously outraged, and he pounced. He held her down with one hand on her sternum, leaving her arms free, and playfully battered at her with his wings. “I'm trying to educate you and this is the thanks I get?” He questioned with a wide grin.
Natasha spluttered at the assault, swatting at the wings with her hands but making no real effort to get away. She could feel... something, bubbling up inside her, and it became more intense with every second, until she burst out with a quickly stifled laugh, and a not so stifled smile. It felt strange to be laughing and smiling for no one's benefit but her own. She liked it.
Clint slowed his attack to smile down at her. He hadn't ever seen Natasha laugh before, not really. He'd seen her laugh to seduce a target on his recon of her, but that was different. That laugh was silky and smooth and deeply unsettling. This was bubbly and cute and, actually, kind of childish. He loved it.
He realised with a jolt how much better Natasha was doing. Only weeks after almost gouging his eyes out in a sparring match, here they were again, him holding her down, and instead of mauling him, she was smiling. Even laughing a little. Letting him hold her down. It warmed his heart, and before he could second guess himself or she could stop him, Clint had leaned down and pressed a kiss to her cheek.
Natasha stilled, staring at him, and Clint quickly retreated off her. “Sorry!” He said, “I didn't mean to- Nat? You there?” She didn't move, though he could thankfully see that she was breathing. “Earth to Natasha!” Clint waved a hand in front of her eyes.
That did snap her out of it, and she sat back up with an uncertain look in her eyes.
Clint cocked his head. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I'm fine, I... yes.” Natasha said quietly. She wasn't looking at him.
“I'm sorry if I crossed a line.” Clint said, “I didn't mean to... I dunno, I'm sorry.”
“It's okay.” She murmured, raising her head to meet his eyes. Clint was surprised to see that she seemed... happy. Shy, but happy.
He noticed something else too, something that made him smirk. “Are you blushing?”
“No.” Natasha said flatly, covering her cheeks with her hands, which even she had to admit undermined her denial just a little.
Clint laughed. “Oh my God, you are!” He exclaimed delightedly.
“Awwww, who's the cutest little secret agent in the world?” He teased, reaching to mess up her hair.
Before he could, a hand clasped his wrist, and the next moment Natasha had him in a firm hold. He grunted in surprise, but quickly found that it didn't actually hurt. It wasn't even uncomfortable.
Clint laughed into the couch cushion. “You softie.”
“Go to hell Barton.”
“Only if you come too!”
Natasha woke immediately at the first hint of pain. It was her usual response, even on the off chance she got cramps in the night. She couldn't risk being attacked.
But this wasn't an attack, and neither was is cramps; those weren't due for another two weeks. No, this was something on her back. It itched and stung and ached. She rotated her shoulders and grimaced. Was something wrong with this shirt? It felt like pinpricks on her back.
She pulled it off over her head and felt it catch on... something. Natasha grimaced. She felt strange.
Blinking in the dark, she saw that there were blood spots on the back of her shirt, and frowned. How could that have happened? She felt around on the bed to make sure there was nothing sharp, but only found a few more patches of blood on the sheets. What was this?
Natasha twisted one arm around her back, reaching for whatever the hell was going on. Her heart stopped when she felt something protruding from her back, realising that she could feel her own touch on it as well, even sticky with blood. She hissed with pain when she realised she had accidentally pulled something off.
Bringing her arm back confirmed her suspicions. It was a feather. Blood clashed with the emerald green of the downy plume.
Natasha stared at it in the dark. She hadn't expected this. If you were born without a limb, it wasn't supposed to magically start growing when you were all grown up. What the hell was happening here?
She wrapped herself in her dirty shirt to sneak to the showers, which were thankfully empty. She watched the blood wash down the drain, trying to grasp what was happening. She gently towelled off, but found that manipulating the towel around her newly sprouted limbs to be difficult. Thankfully most shirts she had encountered lately were made to hold full sized wings, so hers were easily hidden under the material.
The next step was to clean her sheets and her old shirt before anyone noticed. Natasha didn't stop and wonder why she was going to such lengths to hide this. Something just told her that she should.
She bundled the fabric in enough of a ball that the blood wasn't visible from the outside, and swiftly walked to the laundry area in the basement. Very few SHIELD agents used these facilities, she had noted, so the odds of running into anyone were slim. And the kind of agent she might run into wouldn't look twice at bloody clothes. That was usually what they were washing too.
She had barely been there a few minutes when there was a knock at the door. “Natasha?”
She turned her head. Coulson. Great. “Hello.” She said softly. He looked out of breath. “Is something wrong?”
“I was about to ask you the same thing.” He asked, approaching. “Your tracker put you out of your room. At this time, I wanted to check on you.”
Check that she was okay, or that she wasn't taking their base apart via the plumbing? “I appreciate the concern, but I'm fine.” Clearly sending him away. He'd have to be a stubborn bastard to stay.
Phil caught sight of something soaking in the sink, and grimaced. “Are you sure?” He asked gesturing to the bloody material.
Natasha fell back on the one thing that would make men cower. “I'm just a little early this month.”
Far from retreating, Coulson raised an eyebrow. “Really?” He questioned, without the hint of a blush. “On your shirt?”
Natasha went still.
“It's okay.” He tried to comfort. “Look, Natasha, if you've hurt yourself, you can tell us. We're here to help.” He tried to put a hand on her shoulder, but stopped when she flinched away. Coulson frowned. It had been a few weeks now since Natasha had been so defensive about physical contact. “What's wrong? Did you have a flashback?”
“No.” Natasha said shortly, deciding that her clothes had soaked for long enough, and heaving the wet material to the washing machine, the dripping water soaking her knees when she crouched down.
It was in seeing her bending like that, the material of her shirt pulled tight over her back, that Coulson started to see what had happened. He gently reached with one hand, tracing his fingers over Natasha's shoulder blade.
The second his fingers encountered that telltale bump, Natasha yelped and fell over, staring at Coulson with wide eyes.
“I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you.” He said quietly, offering her a hand up. “How do you feel?”
Natasha took it, pulling herself up. “I- I don't know.” She admitted. “I don't know how I'm supposed to feel. I don't understand much about them.”
Phil sighed. He had a bad feeling about this. “How much do you know?”
She shrugged, going back to pushing her clothes into the machine. “I know they're real.” Natasha muttered, throwing in some powder. “I know you can't fly on them. Colours vary. I know they grow your whole life.” She faced him.
There was a sadness in Coulson's eyes. “Do you know why?”
Natasha hesitated and shook her head. “Cl- Barton said he'd explain later. He kept putting it off.”
Phil rolled his eyes. Of course he did. He sighed. “Why don't you and I get some tea?” He offered.
“People usually start growing their wings within the first few weeks of their life.” Coulson started, sipping his coffee. The two were sitting on the roof, watching the sun gradually creep over the horizon. “Colour's pretty instant, which I guess you noticed already, and their size... fluctuates over your lifetime.”
“So why didn't I have any before?” Natasha asked. “And why now?”
“Clint didn't tell you.” Phil took a deep draught of his coffee. “I don't know how it works specifically, some of those scientists in the lab could probably be more accurate about it, but... the upshot is that the more people who love you, the bigger your wings are.”
Natasha hid how hard that hit her, the tightness in her chest. She didn't say a word.
“And the strength of that love makes them bigger too. That's why babies get them so early, parents' love.”
Natasha swallowed the lump in her throat. “So, my parents... they didn't-” She broke off. “Before they...”
“Your wings shrink when someone who loved you dies.” Phil said sadly. “My dad died when I was a kid, it happens.” He could see that this was bothering Natasha, however well she hid it. “Natasha. I know it might not feel like it right now, but this is a good thing.” Sunlight hit her face, illuminating her eyes, the bottled tears glittering like starlight. “Someone really loves you. Enough to make your wings start growing. Any idea who that might be?”
Natasha shook her head, even though she knew right away who it was.
“Sure.” He clearly didn't believe her, but didn't want to push.
Coulson gently put one hand on her shoulder. “It's not all him you know.” He said softly. “And don't think I haven't noticed his wings getting bigger lately.”
Natasha bit her tongue. “It's not... it's not like that.”
Phil smiled. The sunlight made his wings glow. “What it's like,” He said, “Is love. It doesn't change anything. He loves you. That doesn't come with any expectations. It's simple.”
“It doesn't feel simple.” She muttered.
Coulson's wing wrapped around her shoulders. “Because you're not used to it.” He said. “But you will be. And you don't have to hide them.”
“They hide themselves.”
“Not for long.” Phil smiled.
Natasha glanced at him sideways. “You sound very sure of-” She broke off with a strange little yip, feeling the stumpy limbs puff up a little.
Coulson chuckled, like he knew exactly what had just happened. “Don't worry.” He said, “You'll get used to it.”
The sparkle in his eyes told Natasha exactly why her wings had just grown, ever so slightly, and she smiled gently. Maybe this was a good thing.
She did want to tell Clint. She really did. Natasha just didn't know how.
In the two months that they had known each other now, he had always been the one to start conversations. Natasha's response to them had grown over that time, from blank stares, to glares, to nods, to occasional one word responses, and finally to questions of her own, but she didn't know how to do this.
Coulson seemed to at least want to help her do it, she thought, looking at her new quarters. Far from luxurious, but a nice step up from her cell. This one had a real bed, and a window, even if the glass was bulletproof. There was also a bar fridge, a small kitchen, and a TV.
“How great is this?!” Clint exclaimed, looking at it all. He checked the fridge. “Oh, man, you've got doctor pepper!”
“What's that?” Natasha deadpanned.
Clint glared. “I'm not falling for that again.” He muttered, and Natasha tried not to grin.
Swiping one can of the drink, Clint continued his exploration of her quarters. He seemed much more excited about this than Natasha was, though she had just grown two new limbs, so a new room didn't seem like much by comparison.
She was caught up looking at the view from the window when she heard Clint call from the other room, “How do you have a better bathroom than me?!”
Natasha smiled, safe in the knowledge that he couldn't see her right now. “I'm a valued guest.”
“Oh fuck you Nat.” That was the second time Clint had used the nickname now, and he was still waiting for her to comment. Confirm that it was okay. He'd keep using it until then at least. He liked it.
Natasha lay down on the couch, getting used to the feeling to small wings pressed against her back. It wasn't too bad, just unusual. It was nice to note that, even in the thirty or so hours since they had sprouted, her wings were gradually getting bigger. Like they had been waiting to burst out.
Clint came back, stolen drink hand. He smiled when he saw her sprawled out on the couch, that smile that made his eyes crinkle. “Comfy?”
Natasha shrugged nonchalantly. “It'll do.”
Clint chuckled. “Better than the basement.”
“I don't know.” She said stoically. “At least down there I didn't have to deal with you next door.”
Clint put one hand over his heart in mock offence, and Natasha barely pulled her legs away before he sat on them. “I'm hurt, Nat, hurt.”
She rolled her eyes, sitting up and snagging her drink back. “You keep calling me that.”
Clint raised an eyebrow. “Do you want me to stop?”
Natasha paused, then shook her head. “I'm just not used to it.”
“Then I guess I should do it more, so you get used to it.” Clint grinned, and snatched the can from her. He shook it, aghast. “Empty? Nat, how could you?”
She rolled her eyes. “It's my drink, придурок.”
“You're a bread duck!” He said petulantly, and Natasha stifled a laugh.
“Придурок.” She corrected.
That one made her laugh fully, despite her best efforts. Natasha smiled, teeth gleaming. “Just... stop.”
Clint beamed, like making her laugh was his intention all along. It probably was, come to think of it. “Only cos you asked nicely.” He said sappily, mussing up her hair with one wing.
When Natasha batted him away, Clint went to wrap his wings around her shoulders, as he had done a few times before. So he was surprised when Natasha squirmed away.
Clint immediately withdrew his wing, not wanting to make her uncomfortable. “What's wrong?” He asked.
“Nothing.” Natasha said, not looking at all on edge, actually, which was something of a relief.
Clint bit his lip. “Nat, if I'm ever doing something that makes you... uncomfortable, or anything, just say and I'll stop okay? You don't have to let me run things, I'm not your boss, or your mark. I'm your friend.”
He expected the tiny grin on her face. Natasha was new to this, that was clear as day. But the way Clint felt his wings flexing bigger and bigger every day told him that she wasn't that opposed to it.
“It's not that.” She said softly. If anything she looked... excited.
It was infectious. “What is it then? Did you sprout a pair of little pink wings?” He said it teasingly, but something on Natasha's face told him that he'd hit the nail on the head. “Wait, really?”
Natasha shrugged, still grinning.
“Crap, I-I mean, not that there's anything wrong with pink, it'll clash like fuck with your hair, but it's a nice colour and-”
“They're not pink.”
“Oh thank God.” He sighed. “Wait, what colour are they then? Show me!”
Natasha's shoulders curled in defensively. She hadn't shown them to anyone yet. She hadn't even seen them herself due to their size.
“Come on Nat, you've seen mine! Show meeeee, please? Pretty please?”
He was trying to make her laugh again, and it made that bubble of warmth in her stomach grow some more. “You just want me to take my shirt off.”
Clint pulled a face. “Gross, who'd want to see that?” He teased, succeeding again in getting a laugh. “Besides, why do you think they invented sleeves? On your back?”
This would be one of the times she could tell him to stop, and Natasha knew he would. She didn't want to though. Someone had to see them first, and she wanted it to be Clint. She hummed a little in thought, the mood changing to one of quiet bonding. “Okay.” She murmured, turning a little and trying to pull the oversized sleeves around the small limbs.
Natasha felt Clint's calloused fingers help, brushing her skin and making her shiver. “Nat.” He breathed. “They're beautiful.”
“They match your eyes.”
“Spend a lot of time staring into my eyes, do you hawkeye?” She teased, and Clint barked a laugh.
He let his fingers gently skim the soft feathers, then pulled the sleeves back over them. It didn't look like they'd be able to stay hidden for very long. “Do you still wanna know what makes them grow?”
Natasha ducked her head, feeling her cheeks grow warm. “It's okay.” She mumbled. “Coulson told me yesterday.” She swallowed her apprehension at admitting it, admitting that she knew that Clint... loved her, that others did to. It was nice. She liked this tangible reminder that these people actually cared for her.
“Oh.” Natasha could practically hear the smile growing on his face in the silence that followed.
Clint paused, not sure if this was crossing a line. As always, it was best to ask. “Can I hug you?”
Natasha looked up, surprised, then smiled a little and nodded.
Clint grinned and pulled her into a crushing hug. He'd wanted to do this for a while now. He was glad to note that Natasha wasn't tense, wasn't scared or put off. After a moment she even returned the hug, her arms wrapping around his ribs and her head resting on his shoulder.
Natasha was, however, surprised, when she felt Clint's wings come around her as well, a soft shield. He'd done that once before, but it felt different now. She trembled at the touch, then gave in, sinking against him. This was actually really nice. The wings were made from love, and Clint had his wrapped around her. Holding her, protecting her.
Clint smiled at how she relaxed when his wings joined in on the hug. He sighed softly. “I'm really really glad I didn't shoot you.”
Natasha snorted. “Way to ruin the moment.”
“Aww, we're having a moment?”
“Fuck you.” Natasha grinned, pulling away, but found Clint's wings inescapable.
“No, stay, we're having a moment!”
Natasha scowled, then smirked when an evil thought occurred to her. Her arms flung over his shoulders, fingers wiggling at the base of his wings.
Clint instantly burst out laughing, his wings retreating in defence against the unexpected attack. On reflex, he pushed Natasha's hands away and fell onto his back, a mess of feathers, cheeks flushed with laughter.
Natasha grinned down at him. She loved his smile, his laugh. She loved that this SHIELD assassin was ticklish. She loved how he had all the coordination of a baby bird leaping from the nest and plummeting to the ground. She loved his deep purple wings. She loved his hugs.
Even with them hidden behind his back, Natasha could see his wings expand that little bit, and the warmth in Clint's eyes confirmed it. She felt her own stretch and stifled a yelp, even though she was sure that Clint knew.
He smiled crookedly, pushing himself up onto his elbows. “I'm really glad I didn't shoot you.” Clint said again, softly, warmly, and Natasha couldn't help but smile back.
Months into their partnership and Natasha is not jealous of this girl that Clint is seeing. She's not.
Natasha Romanoff was not jealous. She knew that she wasn't because she had never been jealous before, and it was too late for her to start now. Then again, she hadn't had wings until a few months ago, but that was different. She wasn't jealous, she was just annoyed. Yeah, that was it.
Clint hadn't shut up about this girl he had been seeing. Not just to her either. Maria had noticed too.
Because it wasn't just his constant talking. His wings had been growing so very big over the last few weeks that he'd forget about them sometimes, and they'd clip shelves, bump into door frames, endless running into people, and even losing his balance on occasion, when a strong gust of wind pulled him over backwards. That had been kind of funny.
It wasn't jealousy that made Natasha feel strange seeing Clint's wings growing so big. It was just that she knew he was most of the reason hers were as big as they were, now almost reaching her knees. The idea that Clint had so many people who loved him that much wasn't an unpleasant one, it was just... he would be fine without her. Natasha wasn't sure if she could say the same for herself.
It was fine though. Just because Clint had someone new in his life didn't mean that she was going to lose him. They were a team. STRIKE Team: Delta.
The two were perched on a roof in the dark, scouting the area. Natasha glanced at Clint out of the corner of her eye. His wings looked even bigger now. Bigger than him. Bigger than her. She swallowed and looked away.
Clint cocked his head. “What's up?” He asked quietly.
He hesitated. “Are you sure?” Even now, now that he was unafraid to call Natasha his best friend, now that they spent most waking hours together by choice, he still didn't want to push.
“Okay.” Clint murmured. “But if you decide that it's not... you know where I am.”
“Right next to me.” She meant it as a joke, but it felt very sincere once she said it out loud.
“Always.” There it was again. She could hear the cheeky grin on his face, but under it all was that warmth that Clint always had.
One of his wings gently wrapped around her shoulders, and that did make her feel a little better. Even if Natasha couldn't bring herself to free her own wing to return it. “How's Lucky?” She asked, eyes still scanning the streets below.
Clint frowned. Natasha making small talk? He supposed weirder thing had happened. “Good.” He smiled. “It took a few days to get him to leave Ebony alone for half a minute, but he's going good.”
“Lucky likes her?” Great.
“Oh yeah, he loves her. He was a little rough at first, you know? Doesn't know his own strength. But they get along great now. We all went to the park together last week.”
“That sounds nice.” It really did. But something about it made Natasha feel oddly lonely, which wasn't an emotion she was used to. “Never took you for the type. Secret agent by day, dog walker by night.”
Clint snorted. “Well we're basically superheroes you know.”
“No superhero uses a bow and arrows. They're caveman weapons.”
Clint's eyes narrowed playfully, even as his gaze remained fixed on the street below. “You're just jealous. And actually, they're from the Palaeolithic era.” He muttered, tightening his grip on his bow. When Natasha didn't reply, he sighed. “Seriously.” Clint murmured, for the first time breaking his eyes from the street. “Are you okay? You seem... off.”
God, he was just so... Clint. “I'm fine.” Natasha murmured. “Don't worry about me.”
“Can't help it.” He grinned. “You're my best friend.”
Just hearing him say it had a lump forming in her throat, and Natasha turned away, shrugging his wing off. “Hawkeye. I'm fine.”
“You're not.” He said. Natasha only called him 'Hawkeye' when she was upset about something, “But we'll talk about it later, okay? We can order pizza at my place after the mission's over. And hey, you can meet Ebony!”
Natasha bit the inside of her lip. The last thing she wanted was to spill how unnaturally lonely she felt to her best friend and his new girlfriend. But she couldn't tell him that. Hey, she hadn't even met this girl yet. Maybe they'd be friends too.
Yet some part of her doubted it.
By the time the two had completed their mission, made it back, debriefed with Coulson, and done their paperwork, Natasha had almost forgotten about Clint's promise-slash-demand that they would sit down and have a Talk over pizza, with his new girlfriend.
All it took was a grin and a suggestion for Hawaiian for it to come back to her, and Natasha rolled her eyes to hide her apprehension. “No. Pineapple on pizza is evil.”
“You love it.”
“You little liar.”
Natasha hid a smirk. “You're trying to kill me again Clint.”
“That was one time.”
Natasha managed to get in before Clint to order, but hesitated before ordering their usual large supreme. “Should we get something for Ebony too?”
Clint looked surprised at the question but shook it off. “Nah,” He said, “She'll eat whatever.”
Natasha shrugged. Okay. She was starting to think that this girl would just do whatever Clint wanted.
When they opened the front door, Clint was almost bowled over by an excitable golden retriever. “Hey buddy!” He cried, smiling widely, patting Lucky even as he jumped and whined.
Natasha sidled past him. “Don't let him get the pizza.” She warned, holding it higher.
Clint laughed, “What, but Eb gets some?” He asked, ruffling Lucky's ears.
Natasha frowned, but before she could say anything another shape came scurrying towards them, a black mess of limbs and yaps. It reached Natasha first, sniffing at her feet and staring up at her with its big puppy eyes and its perky little puppy ears and its big puppy smile, then promptly turned to Clint, whining with its little puppy voice.
Clint cooed at the puppy. “Aww, did you miss me?” He picked her up, “Did my baby girl miss me? There there, poor girl.” He tried to hug her, despite the puppy's incessant squirming and attempts to lick his face.
Lucky nudged Natasha's hand until she scratched his ears. Natasha stared at her partner and the puppy in his arms. Just to be sure, “Ebony's a dog?”
“Sure!” Clint said cheerfully. “Uuh, what else would she be?”
Natasha was torn between groaning and laughing. Of course it was a dog. As if Clint would ever be that excited over a girl. She raised an eyebrow, waiting for him to get it.
“Wait…” Clint looked from Natasha to the puppy and back again. “You thought she was...”
Natasha rolled her eyes to hide her relief. “Trust me Clint, I'm not the only one.”
Ebony finally managed to squirm out of his arms, clattering to the floor and bolting down to the kitchen. Clint groaned. “Hang on, why would you think she was a girl?! I told you she bit me.”
“You did say it was an accident.” Natasha smirked, walking towards the living room. “And you said you made her dinner.” She put the pizza down on the table.
“I make Lucky dinner every night!”
Natasha fell backwards onto the couch, rubbing her eyes tiredly. Idiot.
When she looked up, it was to find Clint looking at her with those soft eyes that seemed to go right through her. “So... is that what was bothering you?”
“No.” Natasha said flatly. She was not going to admit that she was jealous of a dog. She wasn't.
“Aw, Nat...” He wrapped a wing around her, pressing a kiss to her hair. “You know you're the only girl for me.”
“Suck up.” She grumbled, but let her face rest against the soft feathers. She was allowed to like being close to her partner. It wasn't a crime.
Clint smiled and gently rested his head on hers. He tried to reconcile the woman he had fought in a hotel in Saint Petersburg with this one. He couldn't. Her hair tickled his ear.
He flicked on the TV to some game show and poked Natasha every time she interrupted with her own answer or criticism. He knew she was smiling. Lucky soon joined them, jumping onto the couch and resting his head on Clint's lap, nudging his hand until he scratched behind his ears. It wasn't until he felt Natasha shiver that he noticed he had unconsciously been running his fingers through her feathers too, and he smiled. “I like your wings.” He mumbled into her hair.
Natasha scoffed. “You would.” She said. “You made them.”
“Nah.” Clint said. “I just helped.”
She shrugged. He wasn't wrong. A moment later Ebony scampered up to them, jumping and growling playfully at Natasha. She frowned and looked to Clint for help.
He laughed. “Guess I'm not the only one who likes your wings.” He said with a grin. “She likes to play with mine, give it a try.”
“I- okay.” Natasha said, hesitantly bringing one wing around to nudge gently at Ebony. The puppy yapped and jumped at the emerald limb, pouncing on it when Natasha held it still for too long.
Clint watched curiously as she continued to play with Ebony. Natasha had had her wings for a long time now, but her movements were... cumbersome. Surprisingly clumsy for such a graceful woman.
When the gameshow was over and the pizza gone, Clint felt it was safe to ask. “Do you use your wings much?”
Natasha looked at him, startled. “What for?” She asked defensively. “I can't fly.”
“I know Nat. Only Beyoncé can fly.” Clint chewed on the inside of his lip. “I still use my wings though. They can help you balance, reach stuff, I use mine to climb. They can keep you warm.”
Natasha's wings drew in behind her back, hiding. She did that a lot, Clint had noticed. “I guess I got used to not having them.” She said, not looking at him. “I can get by without using them.”
“A lot of people use them to dance.”
Natasha tensed imperceptibly. She knew that already. “I don't dance.” She said shortly.
“You could.” Clint said. “If you wanted to. Hell, some people use their wings to fight with. They're other limbs after all.”
Natasha sat up with a slight smirk. “You think I need to fight better?”
“Not what I said!” Clint cried, holding up his hands in mock terror. “Not what I said!”
Natasha laughed softly and Clint grinned. He liked seeing her happy, and he pretended to watch the TV as she tried to play with Ebony using her wings, laughing when she managed to lift the puppy off the ground for a moment. This was nice.
By the time the sit-com they had both been more or less ignoring wound to a close, Ebony was asleep in the corner of the room, her tongue half sticking out. Natasha watched her with an affectionate smile. She wouldn’t ever call herself a softie, but that puppy was pretty damn cute.
A click followed by the sound of jazz music made her stiffen and her eyes dart immediately to her partner. He was smiling at her in that way that made her feel very small. “Come on.” He murmured, holding out a hand. “It’s just us.”
Natasha’s wings shied behind her back, her hands curling closer to her. “Clint-” She didn’t know how to put into words what this was for her.
“It’s okay.” His wing brushed her shoulder. “This doesn’t have to be a big deal. I promise I won’t tell anyone if you step on my toes.”
The joke made her lips twitch into the semblance of a smile, and Natasha took a deep breath. He was right. It didn’t need to be a big deal. She took his hand, “No promises if you step on my toes.” She joked, making him beam as he pulled her to her feet.
Natasha was surprised by how awkward she felt. Their hands were joined as they slowly danced to the music, and she tried to focus on what Clint was doing with his wings rather than how he was looking at her. He must have picked up on her shyness, because he seemed to shake himself, clearing his throat. She noticed a flush climbing his neck but ignored it in favour of trying to copy the movements of his wings.
Clint smiled. “That’s good.” He said, “You’re a natural.”
The compliment sent a sick feeling through her stomach, and Natasha faltered, her wings twitching to a stop as the song changed to a slow acoustic guitar song.
Clint hesitated, but when it seemed that she wasn’t going to pull away, he drew a little closer, one hand staying in hers but the other wrapping around her waist. They continued to sway to the music, neither wanting to let go. “You’ve done this before.” He murmured.
Natasha let out a sigh. “Not like this.” She let her head rest in the crook of his neck, hoping he didn’t ask any questions. This was nice. This must be what dancing was meant to feel like. Close and safe and happy. She didn’t want that feeling to go away and be replaced by what she had used to feel.
She didn’t jump when Clint’s wings wrapped around them like a cocoon other than to melt that little bit more. “I don’t know if this counts as dancing.” She whispered.
Clint bit his lip. “We can stop.” He said quietly, “Whenever you want.”
Natasha shook her head against him, her own wings coming around to encase them as well. “No.” She didn’t want this to end. Ever, if she had any say in it.
He pressed a kiss to her hair, smiling. “Okay.” I love you. The words filled his mind, sat on the tip of his tongue. He knew that she knew, but saying it was another thing entirely, even when it was harder to hold the words back.
Natasha hummed against him, her eyes flickering closed as she tried to commit this feeling and moment to memory. The rest of the world had melted away, and all that was left was the two of them wrapped in a cocoon of feathers.
The sound of scampering didn’t pull her from the moment, nor did Clint’s soft chuckle. But the impact of a small bundle of fur against their wings was difficult to ignore. “I guess someone felt left out.” Clint whispered, his breath brushing her ear.
Natasha smiled and let out a sigh, pulling away. “Or a little jealous.”
Clint grinned, his eyes sparkling with more affection than she knew how to handle. “I’m not worth two ladies like you fighting over.” He said, scooping Ebony up.
“She’d win anyway.” Natasha joked, moving to hide her wings behind her back where they usually were. It wasn’t until she did that that she realised they didn’t fold onto themselves like they did an hour ago. Didn’t hide.
They were too big.
Her eyes darted to Clint’s wings and she could see the same thing had happened. A quick glance at his face told her that he had noticed. She swallowed and bit the inside of her lip. Dancing hadn’t felt as awkward as this.
Clint cocked his head at the sight of her. Cheeks a little flushed, refusing to look at him. He knew that Natasha still struggled with emotions, and her wings. Whether she admitted it or not, it scared her. She didn’t know how to talk about things, even the things that anyone could see. Maybe she was afraid they’d disappear upon being noticed.
His eyes slipped down to the puppy in his arms, then back up to Natasha. “See,” He said with a reassuring smile, holding Ebony up. “I told you she’d like you.”
Natasha stared at the puppy, not sure for a moment whether he was serious until she looked at him. His eyes said it all. That look of quiet love and comfort that said it was okay if they didn’t talk. It was enough that she loved him, and he loved her.
A million words clawed at her throat, but none made it to her lips. She wanted to say thank you. She wanted to try to explain all the ways that he had saved her. She wanted to tell him she loved him, because she knew he’d want to hear it.
Most of all, she just needed to know that he understood, so she tried to push past the lump in her throat. “Clint…”
He smiled and moved to hug her again, sandwiching Ebony between them. “It’s okay.” He murmured, “I understand.”