Fandom: The Avengers, post movie
Rating: very mild R (for nudity)
Genre: drama, hurt - comfort
Prompt: "How do you know you're in love?" "All songs make sense."
Disclaimer: don't own them. Bummer.
A/N: this was supposed to be a story about songs. It turned into a story about reclaiming self, through means of traveling. I always wanted to write about places that I personally know, and this time I got to do that. I enjoyed writing and describing Dubrovnik bit the most. A tiny bit of history - Dubrovnik was never conquered by any foreign army through its long years of existence. The writing "Libertas" is featured on many places within the city. Lokrum is an island near Dubrovnik, and the mentioned local legend is authentic. As far as I know, anyone who attempted to actually own the island (and it's a gorgeous island) met not so pretty fate. Translation of the conversation in Croatian can be found below.
Please read and let me know what you think! Comments are love!
They get two weeks off. Natasha thinks she could have bargained for more, and Fury would probably agree, but she doesn't see the point. If the problem can't be fixed, or at least diminished within span of two weeks, she will have to rethink her strategies. A simple trip certainly won't help then.
She packs their bags. They take a flight from New York to London, and then London to Zagreb, and she sleeps through most of the hours they spend in air. Clint doesn't; he doesn't get much sleep lately, if any. She wonders if he dreams about Loki and things he would force him to do.
They land on Pleso airport in three a.m. It's a small airport, quiet in this time of the night and she begins to relax as soon as her feet touch the solid ground. Nothing bad ever happened here, and nothing bad was ever done by her. Clint gets the local currency ("Kuna? How do you pronounce that?" " Like ha – KUNA – ma – ta -ta" she says without missing a beat.); Natasha goes to rent a car. She chooses a Volkswagen; she'd always liked reliable German cars, besides it's a common sight on local roads. She doesn't want to draw attention to them in any way.
The young guy at car rental agency looks sleepy as he hands her the keys. He can't be more than twenty but his English is perfect. She braves her rusty Croatian; it's a distant relative of Russian and speaking makes her feel just little nostalgic.
"Hvala lijepa," she thanks him, thinks how her accent drags.
"Nema na čemu. Idete li daleko?"
"Prilično duga vožnja,"
he smiles, and he would probably offer the advice of taking the highway. She doesn't want to, though. She gives him a kind of smile that will satisfy a young man like him.
"Možda ne dovoljno duga."
Clint doesn't complain about her choice of car. Just as she hoped, he pulls the seat down as she enters the car on the driver's side, bringing in a plastic cup of coffee. She's slept enough, and she certainly drove for longer hours than she is planing on now, but she needs the caffeine kick. Between two of them Clint is the true fan of coffee, she treats it as a necessity she doesn't particularly enjoy. He smells the coffee, hums, reaches for the cup. She swats his hand away.
"Sleep," she says. "I've got this."
Only the destination is new. Other things are meticulously planned and picked; worn and familiar clothes, his and hers alike; shoes they've worn in and books they've both read. Things that they both know, safe memories that don't reside on minefields.
She has his mixtape of all country horrors to settle with through the long hours of her drive. Beside her Clint snores softly, and somehow that works to calm her.
She listens to his music – Johnny Cash, Rolling Stones, Lynnard Skynnard and a long, long list of country performers she never heard of. Clint's taste in music, in her honest opinion, is more or less awful. It's not the only thing they just don't agree on, or the only thing where their personal tastes differ. He likes his music the way he likes his cars; there has to be an old fashioned and bit battered, with just enough power. He like when it means something, when it speaks to him in some way. Natasha likes the music that doesn't take away her focus from other, more important things. She enjoys some music, sometimes, but she doesn't really need it. To her it's simply sound to fill the silence. To Clint it's a whole different affair; she could swear he has a relationship with some songs to match this thing between them. She certainly doesn't listen to music like Clint does, and while the car rolls through the night she heads for the old road rather than the highway. Nothing on this journey can be quickened.
She concentrates on the road, but the songs are persistently occupying her mind. How does one even begin listening to something sentimental like country in the first place? She glances at Clint from time to time, he is finally asleep and she muses about that for some time. Sometimes the distance helps, sometimes what one needs is to run away. She frowns at her thought, it sounds too much like something from one of these songs. The road stretches in front of her and she concentrates on the signs, checking the road map from time to time. She's been here before, but everything is different in the darkness. Everything is misplaced. It rolls in front of her, in front of them and all around them, and she heads on forward, steering them both, determined to find a horizon.
The sun starts to rise when she's in the mountains. She's passed Gračac by now, she's heading out of the barren, scorched hills made of stone and for the promise of blue. In just a few hours everything will burn around her; the stone and the sky alike, and there will be no shade to take cover.
Six years ago, this was a perfect hiding place for her. A country that was constantly struggling to repair itself and rise from the ashes. Natasha assumes this hasn't changed much, some places just look prettier. But not these places. She regards small towns they pass through, houses scattered around the hills, places that look abandoned and forgotten. It feels like the war had ended but never really left this area, hanging in the air like an old, sullen ghost. A child looks at the car as she drives past. There's something on his face that makes her press the gas just a bit more.
She pauses in Knin to buy newspaper, bagels; some fruit and water. The city is a striking landmark towering over hills and valleys around. The woman in the store obviously guesses Natasha is a foreigner, offers her a few more things, but Natasha politely declines. She never liked this town in particular. The fortress stands strong around the old city, but the breath of war constantly lingers like a phantom pain. The point of origin, she thinks. How could anyone forget that?
Clint is still asleep when she puts the groceries in the back of the car and gets going. Natasha rolls the window down and turns up the music just a bit more. Now she's the one needing distraction.
She usually doesn't listen to lyrics. She lets them slip her mind, because music is a meaningless thing; an illusion. But she keeps on going, and beside her Clint is still dead to the world. It's not how he usually sleeps; he wakes up easily, because even in sleep he is half alert. They both are.
This is a different deal. This is him, trusting her to take care of him. This is, actually, what his songs are about.
After a four hours long ride the songs start to repeat themselves. Natasha skips lot of old fashioned country songs and ancient old rock, to finally find that one album which sounds like a bastard child of Dire Straits and a country singer. She is aware that the voices are, actually, Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris; that her analogy is in fact correct, and most songs just stick with her. They're introspective, deceptively cheerful, ironic; they're layered and in essence, too honest to deal with. There's a song about picking up pieces, and there's a song about happily ever after; a song about ruined lives, and a song about finding that one incredibly precious thing one doesn't even dream of. Natasha drives and Clint sleeps beside her as the countryside changes. The barren rocks make way for red soil and plants so very particular and small in size, characteristic for Mediterranean. She thinks about Clint, about what these songs mean to him; she thinks about who he is, and what he means to her. Why she tolerates his music when she doesn't like it (why she lets him sneak under her radar and past her walls. There is no use for fortress walls one can slip past inside so seamlessly, so easily.)
An uneasy feeling struggles through her chest when she finally reaches that point she's been waiting for. It happens suddenly – the road is clear of mountains, there aren't any more obstacles and in front of her is Adriatic sea – vast and blue with its almost virginal beauty.
She pulls at the side of the road, goes out and leans against the car. The music still plays, Clint still sleeps. Natasha thinks about castles and walls and songs.
Clint wakes while they're passing Split. The city is a glinting jewel of stone in the sunny distance, and the sea is a wide blue ribbon of bliss. Natasha reaches the point where she can't tolerate country music any more and switches to a local radio station, forcing her mind to understand the spoken language and the dialect. The local music isn't any easier on her ears, though; she listens to vocalizations that sound like waves, hears the songs about melancholy and lost loves and difficult lives. It's the same matter as Clint's songs, and they eventually go back to his mixtape, which is on its third loop now. Natasha would manage to ignore it, if Clint wasn't humming along. It's the only sign that he's awake and present. He keeps facing away from her, and staring towards the sea. It's quite hard to push his voice out of her mind. Frustrated, she resigns that she just has to listen to it.
Three hours later they finally reach her goal.
The sight of the old fortress is what affects Clint enough to become fully, completely awake. Every inch of Natasha's body is sore, it was a long, exhausting ride, but the sight of Dubrovnik spreading in front of them like a crown on the sea surface is exactly what she was aiming for. It's magnificent. It's stunning enough to distract Clint from everything else in his head, and as far as she's concerned, she is starting to feel a little bit like a tourist. She remembers that this time she isn't hiding. This is a vacation. One with a purpose, but a vacation nonetheless.
Technically, they can afford the most expensive hotel in the city, but Natasha had chosen one in tourist resort in Lapad cove. It's an old building, a remnant from times of socialism; but it has been renovated and it looks inviting, with white painted window shutters, small balconies hidden by tall pine trees, and a stony beach right underneath. It's still early enough in the summer season, and there aren't too many people here. Natasha arranged for two rooms next to each other, and once they're settled she heads for the shower and stands under the spray of water for fifteen minutes straight. An hour later she seeks Clint out, wearing sandals and summer dress.
"We're on vacation," she says when she sees the look on his face. He doesn't say anything. He still looks battered and tired. "Come on, I'm taking you out."
"What does it mean?"
"It means liberty," Natasha says, looking in the direction he's looking at. There's a flag, or more like a banner on top of one of the wall towers. It's white, with a red square in the middle and white letters written inside, proclaiming "libertas" above the old fortress. The sun is setting over the city walls and they stroll slowly along.
"I know it means liberty," he says. "Why is it there?"
Li-ber-tas. She stares at the letters and lets the word roll over her mind. It's written everywhere, all over the town, like a prayer and a claim; on banners, tourist pamphlets, on buses. It's a symbol, not merely a writing. It's a sign of fortress never conquered; a sign of city that never fell.
She doesn't tell him why it's there. Her throat is too tight when she thinks about it, about all conquerors that beat their mighty fists against these walls and went home empty handed. It's such glorious, and humbling thought to hold in her mind; that there still are untouched places in this world; and that they are walking through one of them. She wonders if that grace can pass on them somehow. They walk along the walls that stretch around the city like stone wings of a guardian angel.
She lets Clint get ahead of her, watches him as he moves, recognizes him in the way he shifts from foot to foot, in the way he observes everything. She wishes she could stretch her arms around him, steady and strong like old stone walls.
Observing and noticing things is Clint's game. Taking action is hers. She is the one with less patience between them, but this time she plays Clint's tunes, watches the set of his shoulders, the way he walks, the way the sun and the sea melt away the tension.
She carefully watches, waits, counts her steps until she can put her hands onto his back. She rubs circles of sunscreen along his shoulders; her front pressed against his muscles.
There's something about sun and beaches and being reduced to your skin and minimal bathing wear. It somehow minimizes the worries. The point of reference shifts with the sun leaping off the horizon of blue. Natasha watches Clint move over the rocks and toward the water. The sun is good to him, he tans evenly, and his eyes become a deeper, brighter shade of blue. Not the kind of blue they both fear, but something brilliant as the sea, something purified. Natasha swims for long hours. There's something comforting about salty water, and how it feels like she couldn't drown in it even if she tried. She lets herself float, while Clint is watching her from the shore, and she counts the things she is thankful for.
He can sit next to her again without tensing up when she approaches him. He's willing to touch her, remove her bra straps to rub olive oil into her skin. As they sit on a rock, with their feet in the water, eating peaches and licking salt and fruit juice off their fingers, she feels it. That one thing they don't have a name for. Love is for children, she thinks, and they're not innocent. She just doesn't have a name for this. It's invisible, but substantial, real like electricity running along her thigh that's resting next to his; and it's in his eyes as well. He looks at her and she thinks she might even understand what his songs are about.
This was her goal all along - to take him to the island not far away from the city.
It's a short ride in a ferry boat with only ten other people, after which they make their way into solitude. Clint follows her down a narrow path and towards a small cove hidden by trees. He doesn't ask how she knows about it. They work in a wordless way, where trust is given and received because it was earned.
He observes their little hideout first. Natasha is itching to act, though, impatient as she starts removing her clothes. They say if you travel for long enough you finally end up running into yourself. Her reflection is shifting on translucent water, eluding her, while she's shedding her clothes. She doesn't stop until everything is gone, and she doesn't have to turn around to know Clint is watching her.
The sea is a comforting hug around her as she strokes through water, turns around and swims back. When she nears the rocky shore Clint is still standing there, dressed, looking at her. Despite the distance between them the look in his eyes is unmistakable; longing and desire rolling toward her like old sea wall. They hang on opposite ends of it, and it feels like holding a tight rope.
Then she decides it's time to give it a tug.
"Clint," she calls.
Her heart hammers against her ribs as she watches him taking off his clothes and the they way he does it, purposefully, like he does everything else. Clint, he is made of precision, of determination and weighed purpose. He treads the water slowly, and it rises up his body as he draws near, then he swims the short distance to her, until he's close enough so she could see all different shades of blue in his eyes. He reaches out his hand and movers strands of red hair away from her face.
"It's beautiful here," he says finally. She licks her lips and tastes salt and sun.
"I was hiding here. Three months, I traveled the coast, back in 2006," she says. "I had to act like a tourist," she's telling, and he's simply waiting for her to continue. "Croatia was a good place to hide then," she says.
"Not any more?" he asks. She shakes her head.
"I've never done anything here," she says. She doesn't have to explain that any further, he understands. Instead she tells him what she'd wanted to tell him about ever since she planned all of this. "I've been to several cities on the coast. I liked Dubrovnik the best. And this island, Lokrum," she says and looks around them, toward the rocks, the shore and thick, curvy trees. "The locals have an interesting legend about it," she nears him a little and places her hands on his chest. His look is still steady but she can feel his heartbeat picking up, the rate and the sound of his breathing changing. Their bodies sway in the warm water, with no obstacles between them, and all she wants to do is touch him.
"What kind of legend?" he asks.
She looks at his chest as she speaks. "The island was cursed, long time ago. The legend says, local priests cursed it, so nobody could claim ownership. No nobleman, no king, nobody could own it, even though many tried," she says, and a shiver goes down her spine, and her voice becomes quiet. "Nobody could -," she touches the side of his face, slides her fingers down his cheek, until her fingertips meet his lips. Her eyes are never leaving his. "Nobody could take it. All those who tried ... They were all punished for their attempts."
He nears her, so close, she can feel his breath on her face. He swallows, hard.
"It's a legend, Tasha," he says softly as his eyes are seeking something. There's too much sadness in them, and all she wants is to tell him that places like these exist, that they make sense; that they have to.
She wants to hold his face between her hands and tell him that nobody will ever take him from her; nobody will ever lay a claim onto his body or soul; and that is why she led him here, to a city that was never conquered, to an island that can't be owned. She wants him to feel safe, just like she feels safe sitting on the rocks of a cursed island no one can claim. He is her island, and she will lay a curse on him if she has to; her soul is made of black and red anyway, but he will stay safe. Unconquered.
"Maybe," she says. "But nobody owns this place. Nobody -"
He kisses her, and she gasps; he stales her air, but gives back himself, and perhaps that's what she needs the most. It's not awkward because they fit, like they always do, in everything they commit together, and she melts against his mouth, against his body; drapes all over him like a banner of liberty and the blood of the fallen in battle. She kisses him back, holds him with the freedom of her arms and legs. He will be her castle and she will be his wall; and nobody will ever conquer him again.
This time she does feel like a tourist. They walk through the old city every evening and decide that's when they like it the best, under the moon and street lights. Sometimes they hold hands, by the fingers, and the beauty of this place is that nobody notices. Nobody looks at them, nobody knows how big and important it is.
On the night before they go, they walk into one of those local bands Natasha wanted to see ever since she's been here for the first time. A group of nine young men are standing in semi circle, singing a capella, and they voices melt together. A large group of people is there, all standing and listening to the singers. Clint is standing behind her, his front pressed against her back, and he leans his cheek against her hair.
"What are they singing about?" he asks. He listens intently, and she assumes that he understands music in a way he understands his bow and arrows. She understands the words, at least some of them, but when she tries to translate it, it sounds wrong and plain in her head. She could say it's a song about lovers departing, but she can't find words powerful enough to describe the longing and the pain of the music. She finds it's hard to explain these simple things. They make sense, and that's enough.
"It's a love song," she says instead, and looks at him and he looks like he understands. It's a love song, it's music; it's a way to find the pieces of yourself that you've lost along the way. She lets her fingers embrace his.
"Hvala lijepa" - Thank you very much.
"Nema na čemu. Idete li daleko?" - Don't mention it. Are you traveling far?
"Do Dubrovnika." - "To Dubrovnik."
"Prilično duga vožnja," - It's a pretty long ride.
"Možda ne dovoljno duga." - Perhaps not long enough.