So, I was absolutely floored by the response to Rivers and Roads. Thank you all who read and reviewed that story. I'm trying to go through and answer your lovely comments, but I'm horrible at that so forgive me for being so slow.
Anyway, Clint and Natasha have pretty much stolen my heart and I couldn't resist writing more of them. It's another rambling, introspective piece (I seem to write a lot of those, heh.) but I hope you enjoy.
P.S. Since I firmly believe in spreading good music around, the title to this and the quotes are from the song Stones From the Riverbed by Matthew Perryman Jones. Give it a listen sometime. It's beautiful.
I'll stop rambling now. Yeah.
Fall into that mystery
Or it will pull you under
- Matthew Perryman Jones
The train clacks its way through the mountains, winding in between snow-capped peaks. Natasha stares at the scenery just to avoid looking at the man seated across from her. She doesn't know why she invited him along. This has always been a private ritual—too personal to share with anyone else.
But he isn't anyone else he's Clint, which makes him somehow more. And perhaps there is her problem.
Or perhaps she's simply thinking too much.
She risks a glance at him, lingering long enough to take in his profile before she turns back to the mountains. He shifts slightly in his seat, stretching one leg out across the narrow aisle. It brushes hers briefly and she almost jumps in alarm at the sudden contact.
He still sees. He sees everything, and his eyebrow arches slightly in surprise. She wants to tell him to shut up, get off the train—she was stupid to invite him along—but instead she ignores his unspoken question and closes her eyes.
She feels the moment his gaze leaves her face, but she keeps her eyes shut and focuses on trying to relax.
She's not sure whether the fact that it's Clint makes this easier or more difficult.
Yes, definitely thinking too much.
A voice she doesn't know but should have been Coulson calls her three months after the world almost ended and quietly informs her that one of her European safe houses was compromised and had to be destroyed. She will have to find a new one at the earliest convenience.
She hangs up the phone and stares at the ceiling in thought for several long moments. Things have been quiet recently. Now would be a good time to go and she wants to find a new place quickly. Europe has always been a haven and she's not about to lose it.
Fury is understanding—tired and distracted and still cleaning up ruins that are too important for her to touch, so why should he need her?—and so she packs a bag and prepares to leave. Everything is in order, but for some reason, her feet carry her down to the weapons room where she knows she will find Clint.
He cleans his weapons when he can't sleep and she knows he hasn't slept in a long time, though he'll never admit it. He glances up when she enters and gives her a faint smile that's only a shadow of his usual grin.
"I'm going to Europe," she announces—still not sure exactly what she's doing and why.
"Okay," Clint replies softly and she wonders if she imagined the sorrow that flits briefly across his face.
"Come with me." The declaration surprises both of them. This is something she has always done alone. It is safer that way—not having anyone else know where she goes to hide from the world.
Still, Clint doesn't hesitate. "Okay."
Natasha doesn't dwell on why it's suddenly easier to breathe.
There's a hand on her shoulder and her eyes fly open as her body tenses, ready to attack.
"Easy," a familiar voice says and it is Clint standing over her. She relaxes and glances out the window. The train has stopped moving and houses now dot the landscape. "We're here," Clint continues, before smirking ruefully. "I think."
"We're here," she agrees, rising swiftly to her feet and grabbing her bag.
The Swiss town is quiet in the pale morning light and Clint is a silent shadow at her shoulder as she moves through the cobblestone streets in search of the realtor's office. Buying a home actually on the market is simpler and more efficient than building one or searching for something that has long been abandoned—at least in her opinion.
The realtor is waiting for them and his face matches the voice she heard on the phone—old and kindly and rooted in tradition, unlikely to ask questions. He gives them a smile and extends a hand, introducing himself in lilting French.
She responds in kind, giving him a name out of the many she has called herself. Then, without really knowing why, she places her hand on Clint's arm and says, "And this is my husband."
She first met Clint staring down the barrel of his gun. She was worn out, exhausted, and at the end of her rope, but she was going to die with dignity. So she straightened her back and raised her chin in the defiance she'd held onto through all the turbulent storms of her life and all the people who had tried to take it from her.
Only the man with the arrows and the guns and the too-blue eyes didn't fire. He lowered his weapon and looked at her with a respect and admiration she hadn't seen since she was a child. He told her he worked for an organization called S.H.I.E.L.D.—that they would be happy to have someone with her skills. They were the good guys, he said, with such conviction she almost believed him, and if she came with him all the killing and the red and the loneliness could stop.
She didn't believe him—not entirely—but she still took his outstretched hand and let him lead her into the future. Because he was the first person in decades, maybe in all her life, who had looked at her and seen something worth saving, and she was not about to let go of that.
The first house has too many windows, the second too few. The third is not remote enough and the fourth is too small. They jump towns and countries, leaving Switzerland behind and heading east into Austria. Clint is quiet on the train rides and the tours, glancing at her with questioning, contemplating eyes.
She hates that look—how calculating it is and how somehow, impossibly, it always bleeds into a depth of understanding that still terrifies her. Clint Barton knows her better than anyone else in the world. She thinks he might even know her better than she knows herself, and that was never supposed to happen.
But his presence at her side is solid and almost comforting and his hand is warm when his fingers tangle with hers. He fits easily into the role of her husband—into something she might cherish—and that makes both fear and elation clang around inside of her chest.
It has always been this way with Clint, since the moment she met him, and now, years down the road, she's still waiting to see which emotion will win or if there will be a victor at all.
On the plane ride to Europe, Clint falls asleep with his head on her shoulder. It startles her—this gesture of trust from a man who usually holds himself so aloof and distant—but it shouldn't.
After all, Clint calls her Nat when no one else ever has and throws his arm across her shoulders after difficult missions as though he can somehow take on all her burdens and hold her up. Clint grins at her like she's the most brilliant thing in the room and laughs with her like the world with all its blood and wars and suffering is a big, private joke that only they are privy to.
She has a feeling, most days, that Clint trusts her with far more than just his life. The weight of his head, heavy on her shoulder, is just another reminder of that.
She smiles to herself, in the darkness of the plane, and carefully reaches up to run her fingers through his soft hair. There's no one around to see, so she can allow herself this moment to be vulnerable.
When Natasha declares the eighth house too big, Clint arches both eyebrows at her. She knows she's acting strangely. Normally, it doesn't take nearly this long to decide which house will be her new haven. But something is … off. She can't put her finger on it, not yet, but she will. Eventually.
For the time being, she ignores the curiosity in Clint's gaze and leaves the house at a brisk walk, sucking in deep lungfuls of crisp Austrian air and trying to calm her suddenly jittery nerves.
Their first mission together was remarkable for one reason alone: how well they worked as a team. No one had ever seen anything like it, her fellow agents would later tell her. It was as though her and Clint shared the same brain, existed on the same wavelength—perfectly in tune with each other, instruments in a two-man orchestra of chaos. Natasha didn't know how it happened or why, only that it was an absurdly natural thing. Clint Barton fit next to her like he had always been there, like the empty space that existed before him was shaped in a hole only he could fit into.
Like all her life, she had been waiting for him.
And that was a stupid thought, so Natasha crushed it into dust and told herself it didn't matter.
Then, Clint sank down in the chair next to her, grinned that smirking, confident smile of his, and congratulated her on her first assignment, calling her "Nat" like it was the most natural thing in the world.
Natasha didn't know what to make of this mystery in front of her, but she was strangely glad to have him there.
That thought was much harder to destroy. Maybe, she was just thinking too much.
In the tenth house, somewhere in Slovenia, Clint sprawls on one of the chairs and closes his eyes, looking perfectly content, perfectly at home, and it hits Natasha like one of Thor's lightning bolts.
Clint is the problem.
Before this the safe houses had always been empty—permeated with a haunting kind of silence she could wrap around herself like a cloak—but now Clint is here, filling up the space.
After more than five years of him by her side, she's still not used to him filling up the space.
He opens his eyes and blinks at her, lifting his lips in a fleeting smile. He hasn't smiled as much since Loki, but they're coming back in starts and stops and half grins. This is a smile she's only ever seen him direct at her—lazy and dripping with affection she never quite knows how to face.
"Do you like this one?" She blurts, because she's never asked his opinion once on this trip and she's starting to realize that might be the thing she's waiting for.
Clint glances around the simple brick house, calculating eyes taking in everything. After a long moment, he turns his attention back to her and she can see the start of a frown cutting into the corners of his mouth. "Not really. It's kind of … dreary. You should go for something with more color. S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters has enough gray to last a lifetime, you don't need more here."
Natasha gives the house another onceover. There isn't much color to be found at all, but that normally doesn't bother her. Clint is the colorful one. She's always preferred the subtlety that comes in shades of gray, black, and white. Now, she tries to imagine the place without Clint in the armchair, filling up the space.
The silence isn't haunting but hollow and the drab walls press in.
"You're right," she decides and tries hard not to think about why. "We should keep looking."
Clint pushes himself up from the armchair with all the fluid grace of an assassin and nods. "Sure."
He's so acquiescing, willing to let her drag him all over Europe, and she grateful for that—for his patience with her that never seems to run out. If she were anyone else, if he were anyone else, she would thank him. But she doesn't have to.
He already knows.
On their fifteenth mission together they spent two weeks camped out in the woods, waiting for a retrieval team to find them. It was a rare period of peace in the eye of the hurricane and Natasha knew that she should be worried about their enemies finding them, about the mission that they had failed, but she was too caught up in the sunlight through the trees and the rushing whispers of the river.
Clint pulled stones from the riverbed and skipped them across the surface of the water with expert flicks of his wrist.
She thought it was a little funny, watching a grown man indulge in children's games, grinning like a fool when he skipped a stone especially far, but she didn't tell him that. She was enjoying watching him too much to make him stop. It was in moments like these that the mystery of Clint Barton only deepened. He was as haunted as her by his own ghosts and demons. He, too, had red in his ledger and blood on his hands. But he still maintained a carefree air that baffled her.
He was free, in ways she didn't think she'd ever learn how to be. She wondered if it came from spending so much time on top of the world, brushing the sky, or if it was something Clint carried inside of himself that was too strong to die.
Perhaps it was both.
Right before the retrieval team finally arrived, Clint pressed a river stone into the palm of her hand. It was smooth and dark with veins of color running through it—one of the most beautiful things she'd ever seen—and sunlight flashed across its surface in bright flares.
She curled her fingers around it and didn't let go.
"We should go to Italy," Clint announces from his seat on the train.
She turns her gaze from the bland ceiling to his face. He's looking out the window—eyes somewhere far away and too bright. "Why?" She's never contemplated Italy before. It's always seemed too … cliché. No matter what anyone else might think, her life is not a James Bond movie.
Clint shrugs and meets her eyes in the glass. "It's colorful."
Colorful like river stones, like Clint's eyes, like a world she has never allowed herself to touch.
She sits up, staring at her hands in quiet contemplation. When Loki attacked New York and a portal opened up in the sky, she thought the world was going to end. In a way it did. Maybe that means it's time for a change.
Raising her head, she smiles at Clint. "Okay. Italy."
Clint's answering grin is full and bright and he surges to his feet. "Then, let's get off this train, Nat. It's going in the wrong direction."
For the first time in a long time, Natasha laughs.
She kissed Clint once. Only once, and he doesn't remember, but it has stayed with her in ways she didn't think it would.
He had almost died—had died, because for a brief, terrible moment, his heart had ceased to beat beneath her frantic hands—and she was reeling from the powerful, crippling knowledge that his death would matter. That losing him would be like losing a part of herself—a hole ripped right through the middle of her that would never heal.
He had almost died and now he was hooked to hospital machines—too pale and still, buried in wires and white sheets. She ran her fingers through his hair, remembering the warmth of his blood on her hands and his dying, gasping breaths in her ear. He had been trying to tell her something, but she'd never know what. She was glad for that—glad he would live to keep things to himself again.
The thought of being left with his dying words, with something he would never be able to say in life, was too difficult to contemplate for long.
The kiss was an impulse, blindsiding her as she stood by his bed. He would wake up, the doctors had assured her, but it could days or weeks or months before he did and in the meantime the silence was suffocating.
The silence was suffocating and she missed him. He mattered, and in that moment she wanted him to know. So she bent and pressed her lips to his.
In another life, this would have been on her doorstep after a date at a fancy restaurant. In another life, he would have kissed back. But he didn't and she doubted he ever would. When she pulled away, she vowed she would never kiss him again. Love was for children.
Love was for children, she told herself that often.
Love was for children, but sometimes, in her more foolish moments, she was haunted by the lingering feel of his lips against hers.
Clint insists on gelato when their train arrives in Rome. He's been so patient with her and her whims for the past two weeks that she indulges him.
They sit on a bench, not far from the Trevy Fountain, and watch people of all shapes and sizes pass them by. The sunlight is warm on her face, if a little too bright for her tastes, and watching Clint stuff his face makes her snicker.
"What?" He asks around a mouthful of gelato.
"You're ridiculous," she declares, as if they both don't already know that. Afterall, a man who favors bows and arrows over far more practical guns can be nothing short of ridiculous.
"I'm 'ungry," he insists, finally swallowing. "Train food is disgusting."
She has to agree with him on that point. Compared to train food, the gelato is the most heavenly thing she has ever tasted and she's glad Clint was so insistent on it. Of course, that doesn't stop her laughing when he gets brain freeze less than a minute later and cradles his head like a petulant child.
She laughs around him a lot, it would seem. In fact, she might only laugh around him. Nothing else seems to hold the same shine, the same wonder. She's never been naturally inclined to laughter. Even as a child there was little in her life to laugh about. But Clint Barton pulls it from her with ease.
"C'mon, silly," she says, standing and hauling Clint to his feet, smirking as he continues to wince and press the heel of his hand to his forehead.
But she thinks that with more affection that she used to consider herself capable of.
When Coulson told her over the phone that Clint had been compromised, the world dropped out from under her feet for a brief, heart-stopping moment. Then she was moving again—a hurricane of violence strong enough to drown out her fears. By the time her interrogators had been dispatched, she was approaching calm again.
Clint had been compromised—taken by the enemy—and she might never get him back. Some day in the near future, she might even have to face him on the battlefield. If that day came, she would kill him without hesitation. She owed him and the cause they had both sworn to uphold nothing less. It would most likely break her heart, but she would do it, and she knew she could.
She was absolutely certain she could. She wasn't weak and love was for children.
But when she was back in her quarters on the helicarrier, turning a well worn and familiar river stone over and over and over in her hands, she couldn't ignore the pinprick of doubt that dripped down her spine like a shard of ice.
The eleventh house is too big, too bright, and full of far too many windows. She feels exposed standing in the brilliant stream of sunlight pouring into the entryway.
Clint brushes past her, staring at the old villa with barely concealed wonder. "This is awesome," he says, flashing a grin over his shoulder as he moves deeper into the house. She remains frozen in the doorway, listening to him exclaim about the sunlight and the distant roar of the sea and the beauty of the old plaster and paint on the rough walls.
"Nat, there's a whole field of sunflowers outside!" He calls, sounding like a young boy in a candy store.
She smiles to herself, taking in the house once more. It's too big, too bright, and has far too many windows, but it's also full of color. It feels alive.
Alive like river stones, like Clint's eyes, like a world she has never allowed herself to touch.
Maybe it's time to finally try. With a quiet, private laugh, she steps over the threshold and into the sun.
When, against all odds, she got Clint back, she was so relieved the force of it nearly took her to her knees. In those moments, trying to pry his knife away from her neck, she was more scared than she'd been in years. And it wasn't the prospect of dying that terrified her—she'd been dying in one way or another all her life—but of killing him, losing him.
She had killed dozens of men over the years and never felt a drop of remorse. Until, somehow, Clint Barton threw open the doors to her heart with an outstretched hand and an unprecedented show of mercy. She wanted to hate him for that—wanted that hatred to be enough to turn the knife on him and cut out all those bleeding parts of her soul—but she knew she never could. Clint had showed her how to be alive and killing him would end her own life, even if she continued to breathe.
She got him back, though. She got him back. He was beside her again, filling up the space.
There were still nights when she woke up screaming—dreams full of horrors fueled by Loki's twisted words—and she hovered close to Clint in the aftermath of it all, wanting to reassure herself that everything was going to be alright.
She got him back. And she more scared of letting him go again than she would ever admit.
Clint is waiting by the window in the kitchen, grinning like a loon. "This is the one," he insists, leaning against the counter and fixing her with a stare that would have firm if not for the smile still dancing in the corners of his mouth. "This place is perfect, Tasha."
She thinks he might be right.
She opens her mouth to tell him so when his cell phone buzzes. He frowns, fishing it out of his coat pocket. The frown deepens when he stares at the screen and she knows who's calling.
"Barton." His tone is clipped and brusque when he answers—all business again. He listens for a long moment and then nods. "Yes, sir. I'll be there as soon as possible."
Another pause and then he hangs up. Disappointment is written all over his face.
She smiles, trying to cheer him up. "Duty calls?"
Glancing down at his phone, he sighs. "Unfortunately. Duty has been so demanding lately. I just want a break."
"You got a break," she points out, nudging him.
"A longer break."
She's a little puzzled that they don't want her, too. Usually, her and Clint come in a pair, though not always—sometimes, not when she thinks it really matters. Last time, they spent almost a year apart while she guarded Iron Man and he guarded hammers out in the desert. She prefers missions with him to solo ones, but that's just another thing she will never say.
"Well, duty sounded like Director Fury so you'd better go."
He smiles at her—all soft around the edges with that affection she both loathes and craves. "Guess so." He glances out at the sunflower field before pinning her with another stare. "Seriously, though. This is the one."
"I guess so," she deadpans and tries not to smile at his arched eyebrow.
She fails and they share a moment of soft laughter before he pats her shoulder. "See you around, Nat."
"Good-bye, Clint." Even as she says it, she knows it's not enough. It's never enough. Months after Manhattan and she's still terrified of letting him go—terrified of the good-bye that might be their last. She would say that she doesn't understand why she suddenly became so afraid when it never mattered before, but that would be lying.
She knows, but it's another one of those many, many things she will never find words for.
He's halfway to the door when she manages to get her feet to cooperate and chases after him. "Wait, Clint!"
He turns, looking puzzled, and then lets out a startled huff when she all but ploughs into him, wrapping her arms around him and holding on tight.
"Be careful," she murmurs, and that's cliché—really, terribly, cliché—but also true.
He hugs her back just as fiercely and for the first time she wonders if he's terrified of letting her go, too. "You too."
He steps back far too soon and heads out the front door, giving her a small wave before starting down the road into the village where a taxi can take him to the airport. She watches his retreating back as she leans in the doorway and for once doesn't attempt to quell the fondness stirring in her heart.
If she were anyone else, if he were anyone else, she would tell him that she loves him. But she doesn't have to.
He already knows.
With another private smile, she fishes out her phone and dials the number of the real estate agent they had spoken to in the town. When he answers, asking if she likes the house, she looks out at the colors of the sunflowers and the ocean and lets her smile widen into something close to a grin.
"Yes. I'll take it."
It's okay, say good-bye.
It's okay, say good-bye.
It's okay, it's okay, it's okay, say good-bye.