Natasha became a recluse during the next few days. No one saw or heard from her. And although they would not openly admit to anything, it was evident that the team was growing worried. Breakfast was usually a rather loud affair, but today, everyone seemed a bit subdued. It had been three days since they had seen their favorite red-haired assassin.
"You don't think she slipped out of the Tower when we weren't looking, do you?" Bruce voiced out as he slowly stirred his cup of lemon tea.
"No." Tony and Clint responded simultaneously. They glanced at each other.
"She wouldn't leave without telling me." Clint stated firmly.
"I may or may not have asked JARVIS to keep an eye on her." Tony mentioned casually to no one's surprise. Tony may act like he didn't care, but they all knew the truth. "How's she doing, J?"
"Agent Romanoff's vitals are all within normal range. She is currently in her bedroom."
"Although I suspect she has been hoarding food from the kitchen." Tony pointed out. "And my bar is suspiciously missing three bottles of my best Russian vodka."
"Maybe we should check up on her," Steve suggested.
Clint shook his head. "Not unless you have a death wish. Trust me on this one, when the Black Widow wants to be alone, it's best that we leave her alone. She'll come out when she's ready. It is kind of a lot to take in."
Tony snorted. "No shit, Sherlock. She's fucking royalty!"
"It appears that the Widow and I now share something in common." Thor said, beaming through a mouthful of bacon.
"You mean aside from sharing the same love for hair care products?" Tony asked with a grin.
"Tis nothing to be embarrassed about! The conditioner of hair has made my blonde locks ultimately softer!" Thor exclaimed. The team burst out laughing. His brows then furrowed. "I am curious, though. What are the duties of an Empress? Are they similar to that of a Prince?"
"I'm not really sure," Bruce replied thoughtfully. "Monarchy doesn't really exist in Russia anymore."
"I apologize for the interruption but it appears that Miss Romanoff is packing her things."
JARVIS was met with no response.
Tony cleared his throat. "Well, looks like the Princess has made a decision."
"It doesn't matter what her decision is," Steve put in. "All that matters is that Natasha has found her real family and we will support what ever choice she makes."
Her real family.
For some reason, those three simple words hit Clint like a shot to the heart.
That afternoon, Clint decided that he had enough of waiting. If she was planning to disappear on them without a moment's notice, Clint wasn't going to let her get away with it. He cracked his neck and stretched his fingers before raising a fist to knock. It froze mid-air as a peculiar sound echoed from inside.
"Far away, long ago
things I yearn to remember."
Clint felt his jaw go slack. She was singing. The Black Widow was singing. And damn, did she have a fucking sweet voice. He almost forgot what he came here for. He tilted his head to the side as he listened. The song was a familiar one. Clint knew for certain that this was not a song he had heard from any of his teammates, with Tony's preference for hard rock, Steve's affinity for the blues and Bruce's love for classical music.
The song belonged to none of those categories. No, this one was slow and lilting - like a lullaby.
The musicbox in Marie's sitting room.
"And a song someone sings
Once upon a December."
There was no doubting that this was the real Anastasia Romanov. They didn't need a DNA test to prove it.
"If you're done hovering by the door, Barton."
Clint cleared his throat and stepped inside. Two of SHIELD's standard suitcases stood at the foot of her bed. Knowing Natasha, one would be holding several articles of neatly-pressed clothing while the other would contain several pieces of weaponry.
You can take the Tsarina out of the assassin but you can't take the assassin out of the Tsarina. Clint thought with a bit of amusement. Natasha was already dressed in a pair of jeans and her favorite leather jacket.
"I was just about to come to you," she said.
Clint felt momentarily relieved. See, she would never leave without telling you. "Thought you could use a hand with the packing," he gestured towards her bags . "But I guess you're all done."
"You think this is a bad idea."
Clint shot her a look. "What makes you think that?"
"You have that look."
"Look? What - I don't have a look!" He protested, offended.
"Yes you do," Natasha said, eyes narrowed. "You're looking at me like I just kicked your puppy."
"First of all, I would never ever own a puppy. And second of all, maybe I'm -" Clint paused, wondering if it was a good idea to say it. But then he thought, fuck it she might never come back. "- maybe I'm just going to miss you, is all."
Natasha stared at him. Something was flickering in those green depths.
"And for the record, I think this is something you should do. I think you'll regret it if you didn't go."
Natasha nodded once. "You're right."
"That I'm going to miss you?" He asked with a shit-eating grin.
Clint knew that there could only be two answers to that question. She was either going make some snarky comeback or he would be graced with the infamous Black Widow Eye Roll.
Instead, he felt two arms wrap around his waist in a tight hug.
Hmm, good answer.
The team (plus Pepper) were waiting for her in the living room. All of them were wearing similar expressions of glumness. Well almost all of them. Tony was practically bouncing on the balls of his feet, shivering with unmasked excitement. Natasha arched an eyebrow at him. "Eager to see me leave, Stark?"
"I'm thinking field trip to Russia," was Tony's reply. He clapped his hands together with a wide grin. "What do you say, team?"
Pepper stared at him with wide eyes. She shot Natasha an apologetic look. "He doesn't mean that. You don't mean that, Tony."
Tony sighed and rolled his eyes. "You will have to introduce us to your grandmother, sooner or later, you know. We are Earth's Mightiest Heroes after all and Thor here, Thor outranks you. He's a Prince. From another realm. He should meet the Midgardian Queen or whatever."
"She's an Empress, Tony." Bruce stated with some amusement.
"We will miss you, Lady Natasha." Thor exclaimed, sweeping her into a bone-crushing hug. She stiffened at first, not quite used to having anyone other than Clint wrapping themselves around her. But Thor's brightness was infectious and she found herself relaxing sooner rather than later. She received the next set of arms readily - it was Bruce's.
"If you need anything, you know where to find us." The doctor murmured softly.
"You'll come visit us, right?" Steve asked hopefully as he took his turn. Natasha felt her heart twitch. Who could resist those big blue eyes? They were worse then Clint's kicked-puppy face.
"I'm sure she will," Pepper said with a smile, hugging her warmly.
Tony did not hug her but he did wrap an arm around her shoulder as he led her outside towards the Tower's helipad where Clint was waiting with the quinjet. He handed her a clear glass rectangle. "This is a Starkphone. It has JARVIS and all of our contact numbers just in case. Yep, even Fury's. So don't lose it. You're the only one aside from Pepper and Rhodey who has one. Okay? Okay. And don't tell Clint or he'll keep bugging me for one too. Hell he might even shoot me-" Stark continued to ramble all the way to the quinjet.
Natasha couldn't help it, she smiled.
The flight to Russia was mostly quiet. The silence was only briefly interrupted by a brief call from Fury who wanted to discuss Natasha's 'vacation'. Clint didn't need to listen in to know what they were talking about. Fury had already pulled him aside the day the DNA test came back positive.
Fury may seem like an asshole on some days (okay, on most days) but the two agents knew that he only had their best interests at heart. Which was why, he 'neglected' to tell the Council of Romanoff's true identity.
What the Council doesn't know won't kill them.
As they neared the Russian border, Clint stole a glance at his partner. A normal person might not see it, but he could tell, from the firm set of her jaw, that she was nervous.
"Do you want me to come with you?" He asked, squashing the hope that was building inside of him. He hated it. Hated how it had been building since - Budapest.
"I need to do this on my own."
He nodded. He expected as much. Even as he swallowed the last of that fucked up feeling.
They finally touched ground a half hour later.
"Well, this is it." Natasha said as she prepared to disembark. Her green eyes were flickering with something unreadable. "Wish me luck."
Clint opened his mouth to ask - are you coming back?
Instead, what came out was: "Good luck."
Because Clint was a patient man. And he'll wait for her no matter how long it takes.
Three weeks later...
It was midnight and Clint was leaning against the balcony railing of Stark Tower, watching the lights of Manhattan glow brightly in the distance. The sound of approaching footsteps reached his ears. "Couldn't sleep, Captain?"
"Sleep has never come easy to me," Steve replied with a shrug. He was holding two beer bottles. He handed one to Clint. It was perfectly cold. Just the way he liked it.
"I thought you can't get drunk," Clint commented with an arched eyebrow. He twisted off the cap and took a swig. The alcohol went down his throat smoothly. Ah, the benefits of living with a billionaire.
"Maybe I just like the taste," Steve said as he leaned beside the archer. "So, you think Natasha's okay?"
Steve Rogers, the Star Spangled Man with a Plan, was so startled that he actually dropped his beer bottle. It landed on the floor with a crash. He looked at it sheepishly. "Sorry, I didn't see you there."
"Most people never do," Natasha stated primly, her lips twitching.
"Wow. You're back! This is - I mean - uh, I'll leave you two alone now." Steve said, hurriedly rushing into the penthouse. The two assassins watched with some amusement as he tried to wave off the other three members of the Avengers who had apparently heard the crash. Bruce and Tony were both covered in oil smears while Thor looked somewhere between being disgruntled at having been awakened and ecstatic at the sight of Natasha. Steve tried to lead them out of the room in order to give them some privacy but Tony was adamant. He settled onto the couch with arms crossed and turned on the television. Steve sighed, and after receiving a nod from Natasha, joined him. The other two wandered slowly into the living room after him.
Clint didn't mind. They wouldn't be able to hear their conversation from inside, anyway, thanks to Stark's soundproofed glass windows.
"So," Clint began, taking another sip from his drink. "You're back."
Natasha had taken up Steve's recently vacated place beside him, but facing inwards. Her elbows were propped on the railing on either side of her as she leaned backward. "Don't tell me you weren't expecting this."
Clint smirked. "Maybe I was. I knew you couldn't stay away from me."
Natasha rolled her eyes.
"How was it?"
She breathed deeply as a wistful expression came to rest across her face. "She was exactly as I remembered her to be."
"Did you tell her?"
"About the Red Room?" Natasha grimaced. "No. She already blames herself enough for losing me in the first place. She doesn't need the added nightmares. She understands though."
Clint nodded, knowing fully what she meant. They had discussed it on the way to Russia. It was something that Nick Fury had been obstinate about: As far as everyone was concerned, Anastasia Romanov was dead. Only the Dowager Empress was privy to this vital piece of information. Not even her 'cousins' were allowed to know that she was alive.
"She was disappointed that I couldn't stay," Natasha recalled fondly. "But she knows that it's for her own good. She made me promise to come visit her as soon as I was free."
"You should," Clint agreed. "She's the only family you've got."
She fell silent after that.
Clint noticed that Natasha was observing the team within. Tony was repeatedly poking Bruce in the side while the scientist batted his hand away with some annoyance. It was obvious that Steve was telling him off, the irritation clear on the Captain's face. Thor was lying down on the recliner, his eyelids fluttering closed as he tried to resume his slumber.
"She isn't what?" Clint asked, confused.
"She isn't the only family I have." Natasha clarified, green eyes sparkling.
Clint once again felt two arms wrap around his waist just as like they had three weeks before and that feeling resurfaced from his chest. The inextinguishable hope - for something more.
And it seemed that his patience had paid off this time, as a pair of soft lips pressed against his, consuming him with pure unadulterated bliss.
"I've got one right here."
And a song someone sings
Once upon a December.
A/N: And we have reached the end. A review would be nice! :)