Author's Note: For the language and translation square on my trope bingo card.
The Language She Knew
"I'm in love with people's hands and the way they clench their fists and the way their fingertips lightly press down onto piano keys or thighs. Calloused fingers or dainty fingers. Hands writing poems or memos or parking tickets. Hands writing futures. To me, every crease on the palm is a love line." — Mesogeios
When she came to America, she was lost. She had been at home in a sea of languages, from Slavic tongues to Asian tonal languages to African creoles and European accents back and forth in a rhythm of communication that took in the entire body and all the tells of too many cultures all at once. Here in America, there was a sameness to it that startled her because it was not a sameness she was comfortable in. She was a slippery fish sliding into the sky behind an archer, a hawk. How could a bird explain the heavens to a fish?
She was younger than her reputation would indicate and somehow, he had cracked open her walls in the month they had danced with each other in her home sea of nation packed against nation. She slipped her hand through one of those cracks and tucked her fingers into his.
It said something for both of their training that they didn't react. Natasha didn't flinch at what she had done, though vulnerability had long since been trained out of her. (Blood on Yasha's arms, tortured eyes as they tore him from her arms and sold him back to Hydra.) This archer was an assassin and spy, and so he shouldn't react; he should adapt to ground conditions, and he did.
Their hands were different. Hers with slender, delicate fingers carefully groomed for the images she had to present. His were callused in ways that wouldn't tip off a spy used to those who handled guns. The calluses were all wrong, and though Natasha knew why, she also realized in that moment that if she hadn't seen his bow and quiver or how deadly he was wielding it, she wouldn't know. She would hold his hand innocently and not think him an assassin, let alone a sniper. It was a convenient strength. It reminded her of her own strengths.
She glanced around at the thick crowds, the marks, the targets. She made herself adapt as he had. She began to remake herself, to take on the way they walked, the way their hands fit against their bodies, the way the women held their bags. She made herself watch and become, if not comfortable, a good fit, as they walked hand in hand like other couples down the streets of this New York.
Natasha had worked here once, she reminded herself. She had worked in this America, and finally she felt the mannerisms coming back to her, another persona sliding on like a second skin. And in that moment, she turned to smile at the archer with the ease of these New Yorkers, and he looked at her with that intent expression of his he used when he was working. Her smile faltered. She was young and lost again for a flash, cracks breaking in her walls.
In that moment, he squeezed her hand in reassurance. The walls didn't crack. They crumbled.
The truest way Natasha had seen a person was when the adrenaline was rushing through them and their life was on the line. She loved to fight and scrabble against her partner, draw blood if he dared to let her. He never let her, but they always drew blood.
From the moment, they let her out of the holding cell and the careful conversations with handlers and Director Fury, out of the labs and the rehabilitation center, she wanted to settle back into herself. She was wired up tight, and he was standing there when she stepped out of the doors from one side of SHIELD's headquarters to the other, smiling at her so his eyes crinkled slightly in the corners, hands held loosely at his sides.
He was ready for combat; she could see that. It wasn't in the tactical suit or the quiver at his back, the bow in one hand. It was in the way he stood, in the way his hands could easily reach out, clench into a fist, create a defense, jab a hostile. It was in his eyes, wary and comfortable. This was who he was as much as the fire burning inside her was who she was.
"Hey," he said, and it was relief.
There was no assessment, no strange ways of talking as if she should somehow be normal and have normal wishes and want a normal life. It was acceptance and stability in his body, in his tone. This was the language she knew, the language of muscle and subtle cues and the work they did.
"I want to hit something," she said without masking her Russian accent. That would come with time and not before she wished it.
The archer chuckled low, eyes flitting up to Nick Fury's supposedly imposing figure behind her back (she did not find him imposing with his missing eye when she had loved a winter soldier with a missing arm; she knew what threat the ones with missing limbs imposed). She knew this language in the archer's eyes when he asked permission and received it.
They had not let her fight. They had kept her carefully watched, carefully guarded, carefully under wraps with their technicians writing reports with soft hands.
"You can hit me."
So she had. Natasha followed him to the mats and ran a hasty series of stretches before they sparred in hand-to-hand combat like she hadn't had in too long (so long). He was hard and strong and better from a distance than at close work, but he was good. She watched his hands that knew, his eyes that saw, the way he dove into her every opening even as she closed them, and the way he closed the openings she dove into with him. They left bruises, left blood. She watched the clenched fists, the slicing hand, the raw instinct he brought to the fray, and she loved it.
"Clint," he said afterward, looking into her eyes intently with that focus that earned him the name Hawkeye.
She rubbed the blood from her hands with a towel and tightened her braid around her head. She decided she would keep him. "Call me Natasha."
This was the language she knew, the way her partner stood steady at her back as she launched herself over the roof and into the next door window, his eyes sighting over her like a hawk, arrow at the ready.
This was the language she knew, the crinkle at his eyes, the warmth of his hand at her elbow as they played their parts undercover.
This was the language she knew, the knife aimed at her heart, the kicks and fists and grapples that did not hold back.
This was the language she knew, the coffee cup pressed warmly into her hand, callused fingers sliding over well-manicured ones, eyes intent and wordless.
This was the language she knew, the steady hand stitching up her battle wounds, the gentle touch washing away the blood and grime before he did.
This was the language she knew, the uncertain notes at a piano as she danced, feet and legs and arms in perfect ballet though she had only learned but never been taught.
This was the language she knew, the language of hands and eyes and fist and wrist and steady breaths and strength at her back. He crumbled her walls, then became them.
She did not like this English. She could not make it do what her tongue wanted, to tell him in words somehow what he was to her, but there were no words in any language but the language she knew, so she said it there and bit her tongue when he looked at her intently without pretense like the assassin he was. In time, she came to believe that was his way of saying it back.
"Are you ever going to tell him how you feel?" Maria Hill asked her once as they curled up together on Natasha's sofa in front of a movie they had both tuned out about ten minutes ago in favor of ice cream.
Natasha shrugged and answered in words that were never quite right, never enough. "I do not feel it."
Maria tilted her head with that sigh of a 'headache' of incomprehension (nothing was a headache until you had nearly starved and been forced to train and train and train in the sounds of heavy artillery fire until you could not even see straight for the pain). "You love him."
"Love is for children." Natasha nibbled slowly on her ice cream. How could a fish explain the ocean to a bird?
She watched Maria's hands brushing back her hair from her face as if it would help her understand. Perhaps it did. She had seen those hands shoot a gun, write a memo, type a number into a security pad or a phone, always with that same confidence and precision. It was something Maria knew how to do, using her hands, the tool of her body. Perhaps, it was not only Natasha's language.
She reached out and took Maria's hand, felt it freeze with tension, caught the flicker of Maria's gaze to where they touched.
"This," Natasha said, "is your body. It is you and you do not feel it until someone else touches it."
Maria frowned and studied her hand. "I suppose."
"Clint is my hand and my back and my eyes," Natasha said and let her friend go in favor of the ice cream. "I do not feel anything for him." She didn't. He had crumbled her walls only to become them. Without him, she was nothing. Without him, she was the widow.
He became her summer soldier when she washed the blood from his hands and watched him learn piano so he could find an excuse to watch her dance. She wore the fire-red slippers he bought her and stretched upward like a prayer. He watched her with the language of his eyes, the flicker of his hands across the keys.
He washed the blood from her hands, folded his kiss into the creases in her palm, and whispered, "Natasha."
This was the language she knew.