A/N the First: Thanks to my pre-readers, cheerleaders, readers, and my beta, mxpw! This is the final chapter (alas). If you want to get an ebook version of this story, I've made one and put it on my blog (the link is on my profile). It's got all of the graphics I made for the story attached, too. Thank you for reading, for reviewing, and for favoriting and following! You guys are the best!
When they were alone, Natasha shucked off her boots and stowed them to the side. She cradled the bottle against her chest with her injured hand and made her way, sure-footed and at ease with the swaying of the boat, onto the bowsprit, settling in beside Clint. They'd sat like this after so many battles and errands for Fury. It didn't matter whether it was in the crow's nest, on the bowsprit, or in the back of Fury's pub. They usually found each other in the quiet.
She preferred the quiet.
Clint wordlessly took the bottle from her and uncorked it. "How fares your hand?" he asked as he handed it back.
Though it pained her like nothing else—accelerated healing or not, her hand still hurt—Natasha made sure to use that hand to lift the bottle to her lips. The alcohol burned like the midday sun at sea. "Don't do that to yourself," she said, once she'd taken a long slug.
Clint's jaw went firm. "At least I missed when I was doing my best to shoot you," he said.
She nodded. "Ten times. The great hawk-eyed sailor missed me ten times. I am the only person in the world that can make that claim, I think."
She could see wounded pride warring with relief, and stayed quiet. She knew what it was like to be unmade and controlled, every thought put into her head by tutors who cared little for her or her safety, save that she continue to be one of the Lost Sisters. She might not have believed in magic until the Lyskilden had changed them all, but she had known there were monsters all along.
Now there was nothing to do but wait for Clint to make his peace with that as well.
"Is that how you knew?" he asked.
It had been a strong clue, Natasha had to admit. But even stronger than that had been the small flash of relief that had crossed her partner's face when the Angel's cannons had rocked the Trickster, causing his first arrow to miss. "You were a bit small for a full Draugr," she said. "Bit scrawny, too. You call that a fight, Barton? I barely felt any of it."
"I would have you know I was stronger than Steve," Clint said, gesturing at her with his bottle.
"I suppose I should content myself that I did not cause any more damage than I did. Loki, he…" Clint was silent for a long time. "He made you want to obey him. That was what he took. I suppose the scepter, it took everything, but I still had parts of me left. My skill, my wits. I remembered everything, but it was like there was a bulwark between how I felt and what I knew. All that remained was that whatever Loki wanted, I wanted that, as well."
Tony would have chosen that moment to make a jest about Clint finally wanting to eat saltpork, as Clint famously loathed it. Natasha chose to remain silent. She'd known what to say to Steve, she thought, and to Loki, but when faced with Clint, words seemed to wither away on her tongue. She had no idea how to help him or how to respond.
"The worst part, though, is when he took an interest in me, special-like. That scepter…" Clint twisted the bottle around in his fingertips. He had yet to put on a tunic after she had cut the first one, so she could see the marks of battle on his torso. He had at least bandaged the cut over his heart. "He used it to see into my head. He poisoned every memory I have."
"Every memory?" Natasha asked, pausing with the bottle halfway to her lips. She hated the taste of alcohol, but she needed its comfort after the day she had had. Coulson was a shade, Loki was in captivity, Steve was heartbroken, and Clint was…she wasn't sure what Clint was.
"Not precisely every memory, but the ones of import, yes." Clint regarded her steadily; her heartbeat sped up the slightest amount. "He knows about your past, Natasha. He drew that from my head."
Natasha put her hand on his wrist, tentatively. She was not usually one for tactile contact, but it felt necessary. "Aye, he knows," she said. "It will do him little good. Nobody will believe him beyond the ship, and for our crew-mates, I told Bruce myself. You know he will discuss it with Tony, who will delight in confronting me about it at what he considers the opportune moment."
When Clint looked at her, there was an apology in his eyes. She shook her head, tightly. She had no need for his contrition.
"It matters little," she said. "It was a different life."
"I fought him, but I had no hope of defeating him. I had no defenses against him." Clint rubbed a hand down his face, looking ragged and weary. Natasha wondered if he had been allowed to sleep at all during his time in Loki's thrall. He certainly didn't smell pleasant, but she had the less-than-fresh scent of battle clinging to her own skin, so she said nothing. Thankfully, he'd shrunk down from his Draugr size, once again only a hand taller than her. She liked that he felt and looked familiar, if tired. "Now I have nothing of my own. Even my thoughts are not safe in my head. What caliber of a man does that to another? What sort of man pulls another apart at the seams like a used tunic?"
"Not a man," Natasha said. "A monster."
The half-smile that quirked at Clint's lips was forced and humorless. "Do you remember when our lives were common and plain? A simple sailor and a lady's maid on a big ship, sailing the world?"
"Pro Rege et Patria," Natasha agreed. "Our lives were never plain, Clint."
"But they are our own. Or they were."
Natasha tightened her grip. "Aye, we made them our own when we took over the Angel." For the first time, every Avenger, every member of that crew, had been a free man or a free woman, released from the shackles of society that had forced them into roles to which they were ill-suited. "Is that what worries you? That you are enthralled by Loki still?"
"No," Clint said. "No, he is gone from my head, I can sense that. It's only my memories that have been poisoned and that bear traces of him."
Natasha turned his words over in her mind, considering them. To her, memories were fickle things, the strands of reality throughout them as fine as gossamer. Clint had always prided himself on his mental acuity; even though she had taught him to read, he had always done sums in his head with speed and alacrity, and his eyes had always been so sharp that he had always been able to recite the outfits of everybody in the room with either of them when prompted. Only drink muddled his mind, and only when he let it. He did not have a childhood of hypnosis and lies to fortify him against such an attack, as she had.
"I cannot think of them without remembering him within them," Clint said.
"I am afraid you will have to make new memories," Natasha said. "I do not think we will find a cure that will simply remove the annoying Norwegian from your thoughts."
"Were that we could," Clint said, taking a long swig from his drink.
"Aye, I could think of a few of us that would cheerfully forget him." Natasha tapped her bottle to his. "A toast to new memories?"
"And to another battle at our backs," Clint said.
Natasha clicked her drink to his—or would have, had he not beaten her to the punch. Unfortunately, he misjudged whatever Draugr strength he had left, so when he tapped his bottle to hers, his bottle shattered, rum exploding in a geyser down his hand and arm. Natasha jumped.
"My apologies," Clint said, shaking his hand out so that glass fell to the sea. "I'm no proper judge of my own strength anymore, it would seem."
"We should count ourselves fortunate you did not break your bow into pieces."
"I still have some misfortune." He held his hand up to the lamplight from the deck; Natasha could see a splinter of glass, as long as the tip of her smallest finger, lodged deep into his palm. "Some new memory, eh?"
"Let me. You favor that hand." She handed her own, thankfully undamaged bottle to drink—he took a long gulp—and pulled his injured hand closer to get a good look at it. Mercifully, there seemed to be only the one splinter. "I wonder if your strength will remain like Thor's servants, or if it will fade."
"I assure you, I will find my existence upon this earth a far more pleasant one if I am not constantly breaking bottles of good rum."
"Steady," Natasha said, smiling a little at his words. "This will pain you some." Clint hissed out a breath when she pulled loose the shard, but he did not swear, at least. "There," she said, holding the splinter up to the flickering lamplight. "Done."
"Somebody ought to warn Doctor Banner that he might have surgical competition." Clint's voice deepened fractionally. Part of Natasha noted just how close they were, pressed shoulder to shoulder, mere centimeters between their faces. Around them, the atmosphere felt hushed, quiet save for the lapping of water against the hull, the familiar creak of the Angel's boards. It made it easier to feel the thump of her heartbeat, which had sped up considerably. She met his eyes, even though they were shadowed at this angle, impossible to read.
He slid his uninjured hand into her hair, fingers carding through the strands until his palm rested, warm, callused, familiar, intoxicating, on the back of her neck. She did not lean into it, though she wanted to.
Was this not why she had told him everything of her past?
"Clint," she said, her voice even with a calmness she did not feel. "What are you doing?"
"Making a better memory." He eased forward, as though testing the waters, and kissed her. He tasted of alcohol and the sea. There was nothing desperate or furious or frantic about the kiss, which surprised her. Every time she had imagined kissing Clint, there had usually been danger, passion, and some sort of death-defying experience overcome, but now, his lips moved slowly over hers, as though he had all the time in the world and absolutely nothing he wanted to do more. That, she discovered, was fine by her as well. She could think of nothing she wanted more, either.
Clint pulled back to smile at her, though she felt him tense, waiting for her to attack him. Instead, she gave him a look. "I said new memories," she said, "not better ones."
"I prefer better ones myself."
"We should give the matter some discussion." Natasha swung her leg over the bowsprit so that she was facing him, scooting closer and lifting her face to his to kiss him again. She didn't know what felt better: that Clint was safe and with her once more, or that this was real and finally happening, and best of all, mutual.
Their bliss, however, was interrupted by a howl and a call of "Yo-ho, pirates!" in a familiar voice.
Clint rested his forehead on Natasha's shoulder and groaned. "I thought he was abed."
"Red! Yo-ho, Red, where be ye? Natasha? Nat?" Tony's voice carried well over the deck of the Avenging Angel, followed by admonitions from Pepper to be quiet, that the crew was no doubt trying to sleep off the exhaustion of battle. After a second, the man himself appeared, carrying something large in his arms. He spotted the pair on the bowsprit, still quiet firmly and unmistakably wrapped around each other, and his eyes went comically wide. "Oh-ho-ho, what am I interrupting?"
"Did you require something, Stark?" Natasha asked.
Pepper hurried up, giving Tony a peevish look. When she glanced over at Clint and Natasha, however, she clapped both hands over her mouth in delighted shock. "Oh! How long has this been taking place?"
Tony set the object in his arms—Natasha couldn't make out what it was in the dark—on the deck and turned to his lover. "It certainly sheds a good deal of light onto the motivations of our first mate in retrieving the crew of the Trickster, does it not?"
Clint sighed and lifted his head from Natasha's shoulder. "It seems our privacy has expired. It is time we faced our tribunal."
Natasha pushed herself to her feet and clambered easily off of the bowsprit. She didn't bother to put her boots back on. "What is that that you have by your feet, Tony?"
"A gift for my new friend."
"You are friends now?" Clint asked.
"It is a lengthy tale," Natasha said. She blinked as the lamplight allowed her to see the object quite clearly. "Where in the name of Gavriil of Belostok did you happen upon a cello?"
"Pepper found it," Tony said, the pride in his voice clear. "It was aboard the Trickster, in the hold. By all logic, it must stand to reason that this instrument belonged to whomever Loki defeated when he stole the ship, and since the Trickster has been surrendered to us, this is now property of the crew."
"We think you should have it," Pepper said. "You played so beautifully the other night, and Clint will surely want his violin back. Think of the duets you could play—"
"That does not seem to be all they will play, Pep," Tony said.
"—And we could have so much music aboard the ship again. It would be a delight."
"Really? You played in front of others?" Clint asked her.
"It was Bruce's fault." Natasha picked up the cello, which was lighter than she had expected, and stood it up so that she could get a better look. It certainly seemed to be a fine instrument, intricately carved with Cyrillic etchings in the scroll and along the fingerboard, underneath the strings. She plucked at one of the strings, nodding her approval at the clear sound. "Seems to have fared well against a life on a ship," she said, twisting one of the pegs to tune the string. "A most excellent acquisition. Thank you, Pepper, Tony."
For his part, Tony looked genuinely pleased for a minute. He did not attempt to hug her, as Pepper did, which Natasha appreciated even more.
"So," Clint said. "We are to be a proper crew again? Is the Angel fully back in service?"
Tony shrugged his good shoulder. "We've a captain again, now that he's been freed from the ice, and a crew proper." Though Clint's eyebrows went high at the mention of the ice—she had yet to inform him of everything that had happened between Tortuga and the Isla de la Luz Azure, Natasha realized—Tony barreled onward. "Thor will want to take Loki and that infernal instrument of death back to Norway, but we must at the very least return the lovely Miss Foster to her father's estate. And then, who knows? We've a seaworthy vessel, our quartermaster is a shade, our surgeon's other half has a name of his own, and our captain is in love with a mermaid. If that is no call for a grand adventure, I couldn't fathom what is."
Natasha and Clint exchanged a long look. "Jane will not want to wait long before following Thor to Norway," Natasha said slowly. "She will of course want the swiftest ship for the journey."
"And surely Governor Fury will wish to send emissaries to the most honorable occasion of the nuptials of the Duke of Asgard," Clint said, agreeing.
"I personally have never attended a Norwegian wedding," said a new voice, and Bruce joined them. "I find myself curious."
"Excellent, Doctor!" Tony threw an arm around his shoulders and turned to face the rest of the crew. "We'll drink the finest mead and celebrate the nuptials of a crew-mate. There will be drinking and merriment and if you don't mind Hawk-Eyes over here scowling at you in ugly jealousy, you could convince Nat to dance with you."
"Or me," Pepper said, and Tony pouted.
Bruce regarded the group gathered around him for a moment, eyes lingering on the cello supported in Natasha's hands. "Ah, curse your bones, you lot would be lost without me to mop up the blood. Very well, to Thor's wedding we go."
"I am having a wedding?" This time it was Thor who strode up, his war hammer swinging from one hand and a baffled expression on his handsome face. Steve followed close behind, a neutral look in place. Thor looked about in general confusion. "I must confess, I do hope the bride is Jane, or this will be a very difficult thing to explain to my father upon my return."
"I do believe, Lord Asgard, that they are speaking of your eventual wedding to Miss Foster," Steve said. He raised his eyebrows at the lot of them. "In fact, if I understand what we have just come upon, the crew has taken the liberty of inviting themselves to your wedding."
"But of course." Thor's expression immediately cleared into a smile. "I would have nothing less! Indeed, you shall be guests of honor. I cannot bring dear Jane with me to Norway without her father's approval, but the moment he has fully given his consent, you will all feast on the finest of smorgasbords with me and my kin."
"And there is our invitation to come to Norway," Natasha said to Clint. "I told you it would happen eventually."
He sighed as he reached into his trousers pocket and pulled out a coin, placing it in the palm of her hand. "I really should know better by now," he remarked to Pepper, who gave him a sympathetic smile. "She always wins our wagers."
"So, Captain," Tony said, turning to look at Steve. "Does this mean we can go to Thor's wedding? It is your boat, we follow your orders."
Steve gave them all a level look. "Are you going to mutiny if I refuse?"
"It is likely," Natasha said, shrugging.
"Then very well. We will return the good folk to Tortuga and make preparations immediately—as respectable sailors," Steve said, giving them a look when Tony let out an obnoxious whoop and tossed his top hat. "We will run a reputable, honest trade. No more smuggling, no more pirating, no more privateering. If we are to attend a wedding, we will be upstanding and upright."
For a long moment, there was dead silence among the crew. Finally, Bruce coughed. "Have you worked that from your system, Cap?" he asked, kindly.
Steve rolled his eyes and smiled. "It was a token protest," he said. "I know a crew of pirates when I see one. Now get to bed, you scurvy dogs, we've work ahead of us if we are to send Thor off in a seaworthy ship."
There were a few calls of "Aye, Captain!" and one sarcastic salute from Tony, and the group that called themselves the Avengers disbanded, heading below or to the other ship, wherever the most comfortable lodgings to be found were. Natasha waited behind, ostensibly to pull her boots back on. Steve, the last man off the deck, gave her a nod as he left her alone with Clint and her new cello.
Clint picked up the cello, testing its weight. "We'll have to fashion a case for this. There are supplies on the Trickster that will suit nicely, I think. But I do have to say that that was an absurdly thoughtful notion on Stark's part. What, did you finally put him in the leg-lock you have been threatening for years? Has he finally learned to fear you?"
"No, we simply struck up a truce." Natasha licked her fingers and extinguished the candle in its lantern, as the night watchman would have his own lantern and she did not wish for the Angel to burn to cinders while she slept. "It is as I said: we are friends now. Come."
Clint grabbed her hand. "Where are we going?"
"To make new memories." Natasha pulled him toward below-decks, smiling as the realization struck him.
He hurried his pace so that he was tugging her along instead. "Better memories, I said. I am certain I said better memories."
"They had best be better memories, Barton," Natasha said, and pulled him, laughing, into her cabin.