Author's Note: Blame my parents. I never saw a microwave until I went to college, but by God I knew my Russian fairy tales.
Rating: T (some bad language)
Disclaimer: Clint Barton, Natasha Romanoff, and all associated characters and concepts are property of Marvel Comics. I derive no profit from the use of these characters and concepts, and have received no compensation. Please accept this work in the spirit with which it is offered—as a work of respect and love, not an attempt to claim ownership or earn money from these intellectual properties.
by Totenkinder Madchen
Clint Barton had been a circus star, a criminal, a professional assassin and a spy, but those were just professions. Each of them was overlaid on the core of him, like spreading fresh wallpaper over a bullet hole in the plaster, and none of it ever managed to entirely change who he was. At his heart, Clint—killer, runaway—had always been a country boy with a bad sense of humor, a fear of abandonment he wouldn't ever acknowledge, and a love of showing off.
Theatricality appealed to him, even when he was a kid. Back home, it had been a death sentence: drawing Dad's attention was guaranteeing yourself a black eye, and the Barton boys learned to make themselves invisible. But when Clint Barton, runaway became Clint Barton, circus kid, the dam burst. Clint needed to be seen: to prove that he existed, that he could accomplish something, that he was worth paying attention to. And that, if someone tried to make him disappear, people would notice.
A tendency to show off is a bad trait for a professional assassin, and Clint learned stealth later on. But there was still the element of the theater in those that knew him: snarky patter over the comms, a SHIELD uniform he modified for his own purposes (and to say "look at me! Hawkeye walks among you, and he isn't like you!"), and later still, a partner that most men would give their balls to walk beside.
Some of them had, too. Natasha had cut a swathe through the mob families of Europe and Asia before coming over to the side of the angels, and she had always been creative.
Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, spoke to the part of Clint that longed to be known and acknowledged. Perhaps he was a narcissist—nowhere near Tony Stark grade, of course, but those early years of invisibility had left their mark. Yet with Natasha, he didn't feel the urge to show off. She knew him, acknowledged him, and trusted him, and that was a higher accolade than having his face and nom de guerre on posters ten feet tall. The Black Widow normally trusted nobody, and when he had saved her life and become her partner, he became part of something that was bigger and more important than just Clint Barton and his various professions.
And so he stepped back a little, letting the limelight shine on without him. Natasha took his place in the center ring, and he turned himself to becoming the best partner she could have: she the star of their little act, and he the one watching from a distance, enjoying the show and making sure it went on.
At some point, Natasha caught on to it. He didn't know how, either. He'd never been anything less than professional (well, his version of professional—what were infrared scopes for, if not amusing himself during dull stakeouts?), but she twigged to that love of visibility, and sometimes gave him one of her small, rare smiles that pointed him out to the world as her partner and friend.
Clint Barton didn't make a habit of falling in love. It was making his work really fucking awkward.
They sat on the hillside and watched the lights fade from the Malibu house. Stark was gone—flown off, far up the coastline, to pass out someplace and probably piss in his armor again. Coulson had both Stark and Rhodes on satellite feeds, and would let them know if there was a problem. For now, they had a moment to breathe.
Clint didn't really care for this assignment. Natasha had always been required to vamp it up for their jobs, and he accepted that, but this was somehow worse. Stark wasn't exactly their usual grade of target, and it was eerie to watch a brilliant mind self-destruct while his partner nudged him along. Coulson and Natasha had discussed what she should say, if Stark asked her what she would do on the last night of her life, and Natasha had been firm about her choice of answer. "It has to get worse before it can get better," she'd said. "When he crosses that final line, in front of his friends and hangers-on, Rhodes will lose his temper and take a suit. And Stark will let him. We need a substitute Iron Man while we get this one back into shape, and Rhodes is as good a man as any." Coulson agreed, Clint hadn't had a say, and he had watched from his perch on the hillside while his partner gave Tony Stark tacit permission to ruin what life he had left.
When the party broke up, she had slipped out. Potts needed to be alone, and Natalie Rushman had nothing else to do in the wake of the disaster. So she traded her sky-high Louboutins for the sensible boots she kept in her car, pulled a long coat on over her dress, and climbed up to join Clint in his perch.
He said nothing when she arrived, just handed her a cup of tepid coffee from his Thermos. She sipped and sat down next to him, and they watched the lights dim in in the house that Stark built.
"He's like a prince," she said. Her voice surprised him, but he didn't show it. Clint had long ago trained himself not to flinch.
"He's inbred?" he deadpanned. No question who she was talking about.
"No. He's the star." Natasha emptied the thermos cup and set it down on the packed dirt. "Even when he isn't competent, he's always the hero of his story."
"Uh . . ." Clint scratched his head, making a show of not getting it. "I hate to burst your bubble, 'Tasha, but aren't the princesses always the stars? I saw a few movies when I was a kid-" Sitting in the tree outside the O'Grady house, because their kids had a TV in the front room and a mom that smiled all the time. "-and the prince was usually pretty useless."
She smiled a little, shedding her Natalie Rushman stiffness with the smallest quirk of her lips. "Maybe in the movies, Barton. But in Russia, the prince was almost always the main character."
Clint had seen the book of Russian fairy tales once, in her quarters on the Helicarrier. He hadn't touched it, because it was 'Tasha's, and because she'd know if he did. And he hadn't asked why an agent with a background like hers was reading children's stories. Remembering or forgetting, it was none of his business.
"And Stark is your perfect fairy-tale prince?" he snorted. "Too much vodka, 'Tasha."
At that, she elbowed him in the ribs. "I didn't say he was perfect, you idiot. Far from it. The prince was always . . . naïve."
"Stark is naïve?" He didn't need to fake his surprise or incredulity at that. He wished she'd say more, but they had their little routine, like a call-and-response at a country dance. If he didn't make fun and prod at her, she'd never say anything more, and he'd be left wondering how her mind worked.
"In a manner of speaking. He's always been sheltered from the real world." Natasha relaxed backwards a little bit, loosening her coat. Cold to Clint was balmy for his partner—one more little tinge of Russian she hadn't quite blotted out. "His kidnapping was the first time his actions really had consequences, and he still hasn't quite adjusted to it. Now he's dying, and he can see it coming. It scares him, because he still has a lifetime of being useless to make up for."
"Which makes him a prince."
"The princes were sheltered too," she said. "Prince Ivan Tsarevitch is given a task, but he doesn't know how to see it done. A woman, or a god, or a magic horse, has to guide his steps before he can complete his quest." Her lips quirked again. "And they usually get the short end of the stick, too. Prince Ivan gets the glory, and the girl."
"Well, Prince Tony is shit out of luck on that score," Clint pointed out. "Potts looked about ready to have him arrested right that second."
"Of course she did." Natasha looked at him like he was trying to shoot with the safety on. "She loves him, and he's killing himself in front of her."
"Does that make her the magic wolf?"
"You're deliberately asking stupid questions again."
"Sorry." He wasn't.
"No, you're not." Damn, caught again!
"You're right. I'm not." He zipped up his own jacket and huddled into it, still keeping on eye on the beach house. Coulson would radio them if Stark was headed back their way, but it was something to look at. Something that wasn't his partner leaning back with her coat undone. He might have trained twitches and flinches out of himself, but he was still human, and he was determined not to wreck a friendship. "So what is she?" he added quickly, forcing his train of thought to derail. "The princess?"
"She's the Vasilisa."
"Oh, come on," he complained genially, hunching his shoulders a little. "That's not fair. You complain at me for asking stupid questions, and then drop a term you know I don't have a fucking clue about, forcing me to ask more stupid questions. Make up your mind already!"
Natasha didn't giggle, but she made a small noise low in her throat that might have been the merest hint of a stifled chuckle. It was as good as a belly laugh from anyone else. "You're right, I'm not being fair. Literature isn't your forte, is it? You're the type who thinks the Little Mermaid was supposed to live."
He'd only seen the movie once, when Karen O'Grady had scored well on a math test, but he remembered it pretty well. "She didn't?"
"They never do," Natasha said dryly. "Vasilisa is a name from the stories, Clint. She comes in two forms—Vasilisa the Wise and Vasilisa the Beautiful. They're kind, intelligent and very magical, and they sometimes fall in love with men who aren't quite worth it."
He was tempted to ask if Potts was a witch, because he wouldn't be playing his part if he wasn't. And he definitely wasn't thinking about a beautiful Russian who always seemed to be on the arm of men who didn't deserve her. To his surprise, though, Natasha kept speaking.
"She's Vasilisa the Wise, I think. According to one of the stories, Vasilisa was in the form of a dove when a man named Andre happened upon her in the forest. He wounded her, but she asked for his mercy, and he repented and brought her home to heal her. When Andre proved that he was a good and kind man, she resumed her human shape, and he fell in love with her.
"They were married, and lived happily for a while in Andre's little house. But the corrupt tsar fell in love with the hunter's beautiful wife, and sought the advice of a councilor on how to get Andre out of the way. So the councilor proposed impossible tasks—to travel to the land of the dead, and to go and retrieve a legendary monstrous cat. When Vasilisa helped Andre accomplish both of those tasks, the tsar ordered him to travel to the land of I Know Not Where and bring back I Know Not What. Vasilisa was powerful, but even she couldn't guide him through a land that nobody knew existed, and Andre had to go alone."
There was a long moment of silence. Clint waited, perhaps holding his breath just a little (not that he would ever admit it), but she didn't continue this time.
The usual irreverent comments immediately rose to mind, but he squashed them again. "But," he said, "for the story to work, this Andre guy needs to find some kind of amazing weapon while he's out there. I'm pretty sure fairy tales don't talk about Andre, the Iron Peasant."
"He did find a weapon, though," Natasha corrected. "And a friend. He made his way to the land of I Know Not Where, and he discovered that I Know Not What was an invisible force, a creature named Brother Nobody. Andre was the only one who treated Brother Nobody with respect, so the two traveled on together." It was too dark to see her face now, but from her tone, he knew she was smiling. "And together, they wreaked a terrible vengeance on the tsar who had tried to defile the wise Vasilisa."
"Huh," Clint said. "So the lesson is: Stark is a fairy tale prince. What does that make us?"
"Fairy tales don't have places for people like us, Barton."
"Says you," he drawled. "You're beautiful and scary as hell, I'm an orphan who ran away to join the circus. We're both spies and assassins. Our lives bleed cliché drama. So what do you think? Hansel and Gretel?"
"Beauty and the Beast? Yellow's not your color, though. And I'm not growing my hair out, no matter how much you pay me-"
"Barton." Her voice flattened, and his heart dropped just a little at the sound of it. "Enough is enough, I think. We should check in with Coulson."
"Yeah. I guess."
He packed up his equipment. She radioed their handler. They bid each other a silent goodnight—her slipping into the skin of Natalie Rushman, him making his way down the hillside to a dirt bike and a long ride back to the crappy motel where SHIELD had him set up.
In seventy-two hours, he would get the word that Coulson was being moved to New Mexico, and that he was going with him. In less than a week, he'd monitor the SHIELD frequencies as Hammer drones ran amok in New York and Natasha ruthlessly crushed twelve men in the name of saving five million. In less than a month, he'd draw his bow in the rain, watching (and rooting for, because come on, this guy knew how to put on a show) a mysterious blond man who tore through agents the way Natasha did, all for the sake of some hammer that nobody could even pick up.
In less than six months, he would be brainwashed and forced to kill men and women he considered his friends. He was lucky, that night in Malibu, that he didn't know that.
But in less than six months, as he convalesced in a SHIELD medical facility Clint Barton would also pick up a book and learn that Andre—the man who took pity and refused a kill, who loved a woman that showed different faces to the world, that fought and clawed to return home and crush an evil man—was an archer.