"Where are you?"
Clint coughed, sharply inhaling through the com before muttering, "Around...you know."
"Clint, where the hell are you? Get to the rendezvous point, our ride is nearly here!"
"Let me guess...It'll leave without me if I'm not there?"
Natasha gritted her teeth.
"Quit joking around, Clint!" There was a pause. "Where's your location? I'm coming to get you."
"Quit babbling Barton and give me your location."
"We don't have time for this, Barton! Are you still at your position?"
Natasha cursed in Russian.
"Where are you?" She pleaded.
Clint said nothing for a moment, before finally his voice cracked through the link, "Remember Moscow?"
Natasha blinked, "Of course I do. It was a stealth mission, you-"
Natasha scoffed, "An infiltration mission. We posed as a couple-"
Not one of her prouder missions. "Yes," was all she answered. "Clint, I don't-"
Natasha thought momentarily.
"We never went to Lis-"
"No, but we should have. It's lovely, I've seen pictures."
Natasha turned her head towards the skies, scanning for sight of the approaching Quinjet. It'd be here any moment, they needed to leave.
"Barton, where is your position-"
"I've never been to Wales," He mused, more to himself than to Natasha. She sighed, racking her brain for what possible excuse Barton could have for delaying his arrival to meet with her as well as taking this trip through memory lane. It was unnerving and she'd probably hit him for it once they were back on base.
"Romanov," he warned.
Without saying a word, he answered her hidden question that something was, indeed, wrong in the first place.
"Clint, hold still, I'm coming to your position."
"Don't what, Clint? You won't tell me what's wrong, you're not here! Either show up in the next five seconds or I'm coming in after you-"
There was a long break of silence before Clint came back on.
"Clint, if you don't answer me-"
"I talked to Steve."
The distant chops of the blades came into hearing and Natasha saw from the darkness as the Quinjet appeared before her, it's shields disarmed as the hanger dropped. It approached with remarkable speed, enough to throw her off as she watched, dumbstruck, as it approached. She could just make out the blurred image of red and blue standing at the hanger's edge.
"Barton, where are you-"
"Clint, this isn't a joke, get up here now! The Quinjet's-"
Natasha felt her breadth tighten a bit, her heart jumping as she watched Steve vault himself from the hanger.
He didn't respond.
"You're not going to make it to the Quinjet, are you?"
Steve's form was at a full sprint the moment he touched down, making his way towards Natasha, who stood rooted to the concrete of the building's roof.
"You should go see Lisbon, Natasha. I'm telling you, it's gorgeous. I know Portuguese isn't your strongest-"
"Clint," Natasha blinked away the irritation in her eyes-tears from lack of blinking, not of fear of panic or sheer terror that Barton wasn't going to make it. "I'm coming in to get you," She turned on her heels, but already Steve was in front of her, his hand gripping her wrist. She could have easily twisted and wrestled out of the grip, but Barton's words caught her off guard.
"No, you're not, Natasha."
A swift hit to the back of the head cut Natasha's cry short, and in one swoop she was slung over the shoulders of a reluctant and sickly feeling Steve.
He's proposed to her three times, and she said yes each time.
The first time, they're in London. It's a crowded day, just under Big Ben and overlooking the Channel from the railing on the bridge. They have a tip off that an exchange between two marks whom Shield has had run ins with before will occur at this time and place.
They're not the only two agents in the field at the moment; Briggs is seated next to Anders, and Lloyd (He's one of those peculiar people with a first-name last-name) is posed at a telephone service across the street, pretending to make a call when he's really just using it as an excuse to stare absently out into the crowd.
Natasha is wearing whatever thrifty dress her pocket change could buy, because her and Barton haven't even made it back to base from their previous mission before this one was sprung on them mid-return. They had already been in Europe at the time and Shield needed more eyes, so in half an hour they went from flying over the Pacific to turning around to land in London. Her camera was disposable and had no film but she pretended to use it, clicking at empty pictures and hiding her eyes behind the lens.
Barton looked casual in his clothes, far more color than Natasha was used to seeing. He had layers of flannel and plaid, varying in size to fit him properly. Natasha let her free hand fall to her necklace, a string of fake pearls that finished the dress off nicely and somehow salvaged it.
Barton twisted at the ring on his thumb-a faux school ring that had gone for his earlier cover when he'd pretended to have been an alumni of their target's affiliated college. There was a deep sapphire set in it, with some fake year inscribed on the side and an eagle on the other.
"Any sign of our men down there?" Came Fury's voice through their ears. Natasha pretended to adjust a strand of loose hair, instead fumbling to push the earpiece.
"It's really cloudy. I hope it doesn't rain," She mused, staring forebodingly at the clouds. Weather was coded for no sign.
"I don't think it'll spoil our day, darling," Barton quickly remarked. Natasha nonchalantly stared towards the direction Barton was watching. Familiarity coded for a sighting.
"You're always so positive, dear," Natasha affirmed, catching sight of one half their target. Fury's voice could be heard through the com, connecting to Biggs and Anders and Lloyd, informing them to get a visual on what Barton and Romanov spotted.
Natasha dropped her camera, a pure accident, but the clang caught the attention of the few standing by. She dared to send a look towards their target, who had frozen. Shit, she thought. He must be jittery, paranoid, because he looked about ready to bolt, to jeopardize his own exchange and their chance of catching him. Natasha shot Barton a warning glance, but he already had dropped beside her to retrieve the camera, trying to play it off like the doting partner he was posed to be.
"Clint," Natasha hissed, warning. "The target is about to bolt. What do you suggest we do?" She was speaking as much to Fury as she was Barton. They needed to act quick, Anders was about ready to break into a sprint after their guy. Even if they catch him, his partner was somewhere nearby and would slip away no doubt. They needed to catch both of them..
"I suggest you say yes." Barton muttered back.
Before Natasha could question him, Barton had set the camera down, not having risen to take a stand beside Natasha, instead twisting his ring from his thumb, hiding the gem and letterings as his large fingers cupped it so only a small gold band was visible.
Several onlookers pause to gasp and grin at the duo, darting between looking at the dumbfounded, goofy grin on Barton's face and the pure shock, which most certainly was not an act, on Natasha's.
"B-babe..." She stutters, trying to stay in character but half her head fearful, fluttering with 'what if he's already dropped his'. He can't be serious.
"Barton, Romanov, what the hell is going on?"
"I know the old man won't stand for it," Barton grins, speaking loudly so the onlookers can hear, and it occurs to her he's putting on a show.
That 'old man' is currently screaming in both of their ears, demanding to know what is compromising the mission.
Barton dares to spare one glance past Natasha at the target, who seems satisfied enough that this suspicious couple is just another romantic tourist duo trying to make the most of their vacation, and that he's simply over thinking and on edge because of this public meeting. Barton also looks to Anders, to make sure he's tailing the target but not approaching him. Barton gets away with these flickering glances because everyone's eyes are on Natasha, and she's giving them a performance for the ages, with her audible gasp and brightened eyes.
Behind those fake tears, he knows she wants to kill him for this little stunt.
Natasha allows herself to quiver a little, to add to the performance and she hears the cooing from the crowd and knows she's feeding them just what they want.
"But I can't see myself with anyone but you," He delivers, and it's gold and the ladies around them swoon at the romanticism.
"So, will you...marry me-"
"-Yes!" She cuts him off, because this is ridiculous and painful to watch. She jumps around his neck, hugging him and only he feels her fingernails dig into his neck and skin.
Through their earpiece, they hear Briggs' voice carry over, demanding their apprehended targets to freeze. The crowd disperses as Barton pulls Natasha in, not quite selling it with a kiss but pressing his forehead against hers to give the impression of intimacy. She hears Anders grunt, giving chase, and a gun shot.
When the duo finally make a clean escape from the prying eyes of blessing Brits, they back peddle to Briggs and Anders' location. Both targets are out cold and Lloyd has a small gun wound in his shoulder, but otherwise is fine and has applied pressure.
He looks pale and is breathing hard, but Natasha knows he's fine because he has enough wit in him to snidely remark,
"So, have you two set a date?"
Natasha punches Barton in the head and they silently agree that they're never allowed to bring this up again.
"My friend was a sniper."
Steve felt stupid the moment he said those words. Because Barton and Bucky were two completely different people-they weren't in comparison to one another.
Bucky was cocky and gregarious and followed his own beliefs and morals. He made calls and judgments blindly solely by faith and he was a charming, social guy. He had a good shot but he hated not being in the frontlines. Because at heart he was as desperate to fight alongside his brothers of arms as Steve had been. He just was a little more understanding of reality than Steve might have admitted to being.
Barton wasn't a sociable person. He was easy to get along with, but not necessarily trust. Bucky had such an approachable air to him that you felt drawn towards him. You felt comfortable around him. Barton was unnerving to stand by. But, you felt safe by Barton. Like he honestly had your back. He was your second pair of eyes.
Barton could easily be in the frontlines-he was adaptable. He just was more necessary as the patient, lone sniper. But his talents didn't end with a good shot. Neither had Bucky's. Barton was every bit as sensible as Bucky had been, too. He knew when to withdraw, and he knew when it wasn't the time to play hero.
It wasn't merely just the comparison between these two men that made the Captain's words foolish. It was the opening of the Pandora's box that was the memories of Bucky. Of his men, of everyone left seventy years in the past. He was warned against dwelling on those memories but not a minute went by that he didn't. He hardly voiced anything about it, but what drove him to say something now, in the midst of silence, and to Barton of all people...
Maybe it was just a part of Barton's character, to surface these memories and regrets.
Despite the regret, Steve had nonetheless spoken his thought out loud, and no amount of back tracking could save him.
"I mean, he wasn't as good a shot as you-well, no, he was a damn good shot. I-I, actually, I can't say who was better, but then again-"
Barton said nothing, pausing mid motion in his descent from the den to the hall, watching Steve through a quirked eyebrow. Finally, Steve sighed, giving up. Barton wasn't going to acknowledge him anyway, so it didn't matter if his words made sense or not. Hell, it didn't matter what he said.
So, since Barton wasn't moving, and it didn't matter, Steve continued.
"His name was Bucky. Well, it wasn't Bucky-I called him that. We'd grown up together...been around each other since..."
Steve tried to count the years in his head but dates and ages didn't make sense to him anymore so he gave up.
"He was like my older brother. Always looking out for me. I sure knew how to pick fights...and he'd always pull me out of them. Always had my back-"
"He was a sniper."
Steve blinked, snapping his eyes to focus on Barton who, other than a slightly jarred mouth, hadn't moved.
"What? I mean, how do you know-"
"A sniper always has his partner's back. His team. He's their eyes and ears, he has to cover them. When they get into a situation, in over their heads, it's the sniper's job to clear the path for them. They watch your backs for you...and your fronts, and the sides-everything. It's what we do." Barton shrugged slightly, and that was it. He took his leave, with Steve still stunned silently on the couch, bewildered in that that was probably the most Steve had heard Barton say outside of a mission and Natasha's presence.
This conversation, as one sided as it appeared at the time, flashed back into his head the moment Steve caught sight of Natasha. Barton's link weakly broke through the controls, "Captain."
"Barton? Where are you, I have a visual on Romanov but not-"
"I'm not making this trip round, sir."
"Barton, where are you-"
"Get Natasha out of here."
"Barton, give me your coordinates, we'll send a response team-"
Rogers blinked, looking between the pilot, who looked equally disturbed and silent, and the figure of Natasha, who was slowly blurring into focus as the Quinjet lowered. Steve turned away from the controls, tweaking his earpiece as the hanger landing dropped.
"Barton, don't do this-"
"A sniper's job is to watch his team, his partners. He is their eyes and ears. He clears a path for them. I am asking you to be Natasha's path."
"Barton, hang on a second, we can find you, get you both out of there-"
"Knock Natasha out if you have to. She won't see it, but I do."
"I missed the bus, Captain." Steve could hear Barton's mouth snarling a smile, "I'll catch the next available one."
"Barton, if you don't get yourself out of there-"
"Get Natasha out for me. Worry about that-"
"Damn it, Clint! I've already lost enough friends, I don't need to add you to the list-!"
"I'm touched, Captain," Barton strained to joke, but his voice faltered and there clearly was emotion behind the forced jest.
If sentimentality wouldn't work, perhaps orders would.
"You're supposed to keep your eyes on this team. Whose going to watch us, Barton? If you're gone, who will be our eyes and ears? Barton, get up here n-"
"I had an older brother, sir."
Steve shook his head. "What? Barton, why are you telling me thi-"
"He passed a long time ago, too. I couldn't do anything to save him. His name was Barney."
Steve blinked, watching as Natasha frantically shook her head. Judging from the pauses, Steve guessed Clint was switching between the two com links to address himself and Natasha. If he imagined their conversation was sour, he could only judge that Natasha was having no fairer luck in convincing Barton away from his intended fate.
"We weren't that close, me and you, Captain. But you reminded me a lot of Barney. You never said it out right, but I think I reminded you of Bucky."
Steve smiled, a bitter twist of the corners of his mouth.
"You and Bucky were nothing alike."
They had so much in common.
How they knew when and why to never play the hero, because that was reckless and insensible and those kinds of actions should be left up to brash people like Rogers and Stark.
And how the one time they finally did act the hero, it killed them. Like they always knew it would.
Because they were human, nothing special. No serum, no suit.
"Barton...Natasha isn't going to like this."
"...I know," Barton breathed. His voice was shaky and he sounded winded, like it was such a strain just to talk. Steve could only begin to imagine what kind of state Barton was in then.
"Just convince her that I'm right."
"...You want me to hit her?" Steve chuckled, dryly.
"I want you to watch out for her."
The laughter died, just as Natasha came into view. Her eyes were already swelling red. Shit.
"You're the eyes and ears of the team, now, Captain. Don't let them down. They look up to you."
He clicks back to Natasha's frequency, but he only gets static. Cap must have reached her by now. Barton closes his eyes and leans his head back against the wall, sighing in relief as another gurgle of blood spouts from his punctured lung, spilling over his vest and arm.
He tries to shift, maybe get comfortable before the inevitable blast, but being impaled is hard to work around, and he winces and gives up on that. He tries to force his eyes open, but he's damn tired and it's too painful to even breathe at this point.
He tries a final sigh, maybe his final breadth, and he hopes to a God he hardly ever called upon that Steve got Natasha out alright without too much of a fight.
Barton lets his eyes close and wonders if he'll even make it through the wait for the explosives to go off.
The second time he proposes to her, he's drunk and Steve witnesses it all.
To Stark's disgust and dismay, none of the Avengers, his makeshift permanent guests at the tower, are as adamant about drinking as he is. Not that he wasn't too thrilled about the prospect of having these live-in tenants who very well could be a freak show on their own, but their had been a sliver of hope yet when he'd thought they'd be, if nothing else, entertaining drunk.
It wasn't that they all out right refused alcohol-though some did. The problem was they all seemed as immune to becoming shit-face wasted that by the time any of them showed signs of so much as a tingling effect, Stark was already out of it.
His biggest hope had been the largest disappointment. Steve Rogers, the wholesome Captain America; Stark made it his personal goal to get this guy trashed. If nothing else, it'd be hilarious.
Seven drinks in and a half conscious Stark later, Rogers had the mind to casually announce the serum didn't allow him to get drunk. It had slipped his mind at the time, he mentioned. Stark could have killed him. Instead, he vomited at the street corner.
Banner would have been his next victim, except his insistence that while he couldn't hold his liquor, 'the other guy' very well could. It had taken quite a successful day in the lab to boost Banner's confidence enough to get him to take a shot or five.
Stark learned his lesson in tempting the doctor with alcohol after that...well, after the 'other guy' made an appearance and the bar banned the duo. Forever.
Stark doesn't even remember the night with Thor, only the next morning where the God was brimming as brightly and godly as ever, while Stark had a hangover headache that could have split skulls.
Thor's booming voice didn't help.
Stark approached Natasha once about drinking, and that was the last time.
So his final hope on a decent drinking buddy fell to Barton.
To Stark's surprise, he was approachable enough about the subject. He'd just gotten out of training, a spar with Natasha that to anyone other than them looked like a death match with no clear winner. Stark had insisted he wouldn't take no for an answer.
Barton shrugged, through a sweatshirt over himself and agreed to meet Tony out front in ten.
So roughly thirty minutes later, Stark was sitting at a bar stool, eyeing the agent peculiarly as he sipped at a beer.
"You want to ask me something, Stark?"
Stark flinched but didn't avert his eyes.
"Just...wondering. You don't, I don't know, have some sort of...immunity to alcohol in you, do you? Like, some odd tests run through Shield's recruit days, to make you impervious to alcohol?"
Clint shrugged, but smiled. "Nope."
What he did have was one hell of a tolerance for alcohol. Stark later would learn that while, no, Shield did not inject some immunity to the effects of alcohol into their agents, they did somehow rig them up to last far longer than the average man. Natasha would later explain that this was all apart of their training to keep a clear head and blend in. How many missions called for agents to go undercover with drug lords and corrupt bureaucrats who showered in champagne and such? Agents had to keep their heads and tongues about them-trained not to slip up after so many drinks, yet never draw suspicion as to why they didn't drink. Stark would learn that had Clint wanted to, he easily could have acted drunk after three glasses and Stark would have never been the wiser.
But Barton didn't try to trick Stark, and so after more glasses than even Stark thought was healthy, Barton still appeared as fine and unfazed as ever.
Stark also learned that Barton didn't drink often, outside of missions mostly, because it had an effect on the muscles and the mind that he, being as top-shape as he was, couldn't afford. Why this night in particular was an exception, Stark would never know. Rogers, however, had the luck to find out.
Stark almost drowned himself in his own shots, loosing a grip on his final hope, when he noticed the slight slip up of Barton. Ever so woozy, Barton's fingers fumbled and dropped a quarter he'd been flipping. He swayed a bit to reach it, and it was then that hope reignited itself.
"Another round! On me!" Stark cheered, pushing his own drink aside. Barton smiled and took the offered drink, unsuspecting of Stark's intentions.
"A purple little little lady would be perfect for a dirty old and useless clown-"
Barton stumbled, gripping Stark's shoulder hard enough for the other man to wince under it.
Natasha was already waiting at the elevator's entrance, just as the door swung open and Barton slumped forward. She caught him instantly.
"I know you since you were twenty-I was twenty?" He slurred, smiling and singing as Stark shrugged Barton onto Natasha, who was glaring at him from under Barton's arms.
"What the hell, Stark..?"
"I-we went out for a few drinks-"
"A few? He's sloshed!"
Stark shrugged. It was at this moment that Steve walked in, roused by the noise coming from in the hall outside his own room, witnessing a staggered Barton gripping between Stark and Natasha.
"He can't hold his liquor, maybe..?"
"Alright, maybe we had more than a few-he had more than a few."
"This is your fault."
"What? My-? How can you blame me-"
"I ja kljanus obossav dva paltza- chto ty!"
Stark double backed to look at Barton, "Is that Russian? What is that..?"
"Stark, help me with him!" Natasha snapped. Barton tried to stumble to his feet, but he was so far gone it was impossible for him to stand.
"Start wearing purple, wearing purple for me now-!"
"It's a catchy song."
"Shut up, Stark."
Steve didn't need to announce his presence, as Natasha had already eyed him. With a quick nod, she motioned for Steve to switch with Tony, relieving him from carrying Barton, who had continued to ramble on the song, shouting about the color purple, as much as Steve could determine.
"Stark, get some water. He'll need it to help flush all the alcohol from his system."
"It won't stop the hangover." That was inevitable.
Maybe Stark was just too tired to argue, because he left without even dropping a final trademark quip. Steve shortened his steps to match Natasha's and tried to lean the stupor man more against his side rather than Natasha's. Not that she wasn't strong enough to hold Barton up, it was simply courtesy.
This shift in weight did make it easier for Natasha to fumble Barton's door open, to which she was grateful of Steve for. In a few short steps, the trio had reached Barton's bed and collapsed him on the mattress. Steve had unceremoniously dropped Barton, while Natasha had lowered him onto the bed, still gripping his waist in a half-hug of sorts.
"Tasha," Barton slurred, and it occurred to Steve Barton might not even be aware he was in the room at the moment.
"No more drinking with Stark, you got that?"
Steve watched the exchange between the two. Barton looked sober-fine, other than the smallest of grins and glazed-over eyes. He watched Natasha a moment, and Steve truly did wonder if it was all an act. If Barton was as aware and sober as himself.
"It's his birthday today," he finally muttered, a half whisper that Steve barely caught. Natasha hesitated, her voice also lowering as she mumbled back a curt, "I know."
Steve didn't know who they were talking about, but if he took a guess now he'd say it was Barney. At the time, he could only watch the intimacy between the two agents as they simply leaned on one another, until finally Barton's somber face broke into a wide grin,
"Let's get married, Tasha!"
And just like that, Tasha hesitation was gone. She was back to fumbling around the sheets and Barton, pulling off his shoes and setting him further up the mattress, tucking him in. She simply nodded, only half listening to Barton, mouthing off like she's heard this all before; like it's routine.
"Alright, Clint. Yes, sure."
Steve just stared, dumbstruck. A second later, Barton was snoring, and Stark appeared at the doorway, glass in hand.
"What'd I miss?"
Before a mission, even as far back as the first one Natasha ever took with Barton, she remembered, she could always recall him slipping away briefly before they departed for their quest. No matter how simple and short or long or risky the mission was, he always took a quick detour to his chambers. He always had been packed and prepared, hours prior, and she could never guess as to what he did.
It was two years into her parole as an Agent of Shield that she finally (Really, what took her so long?) decided to catch him in the act. At first she'd dismissed it as some petty guy thing. Something unnecessary or vile. Or maybe a ritual-a religious prayer or shrine. But she'd been in his room before-no such shrine existed. Even more surprising, when she finally followed him, she found he didn't lead off into his own quarters.
Instead, he slipped into an empty room, no larger than a closet. She tried to peek in on him the first time, but he was quick and she caught nothing. Several times after, she couldn't hear nor see into the room. He covered his tracks. It was always a different room, a different setting.
She knew he was on to her stalking him after half a year because he would try to loose her in the halls, throughout the base. He never did, and a part of her suspected he wasn't hardly trying to. It was a game to him, having her trail him. Maybe it was a form of extended exercise, like an extra bit of training for her, though it wasn't a challenge.
She finally caught a glimpse in the room one fateful night, just after a tedious assignment with a high risk. He wasn't nearly as cautious and she'd easily slipped in a view of the setting. The lights were off, and he sat before a screen. She noted the red light, and realized he was recording.
He was video taping himself.
She caught sight of him leaving, slipping a disk into his pocket. She made it her own personal challenge, her mission, to get a hold of that disk-to see what the contents were. What was his secret?
She never once asked him about it. That broke the game, ruined the challenge.
She wanted to see that disk so damn bad!
Natasha got her wish three weeks after the fateful mission in which Steve had pulled her from. She hadn't sulked a moment yet, not in the normal sense. She was as cold and hardened as ever, and her teammates feared that about her. That she could show such little emotion after his fall.
Then the disk came.
It came in an envelope, handed to her personally by Fury himself. He remarked that it should have been Coulson delivering this to her.
She said it should have been Barton himself.
She went three days without even so much as opening the envelope. The others were curious as to what was inside, but she knew it was the disk. She tore the envelope open, turning the disk in her hands and flipping it between her fingers.
She went a week before she finally snapped the disk into the computer.
Immediately, Barton's face jumped to the screen.
"Natasha," He jumped in. He looked rushed-already dressed for the mission, he looked hardly any different than the last time she'd seen him. Except his face had more color and he still looked fresh and clean of gunpowder and debris.
"I..." He rubbed the bridge of his nose, calculating, "don't know...how many takes I've done of this tape. I've made this tape at least a hundred times. Once before every mission I've ever been on, since meeting you-"
"-And...if you're seeing this one, finally, then...you know why." She chuckled, but it caught in her throat and came out as a cough.
"You and I both know the risks, so don't say anything. I know you're probably outside the door, or hiding in the rafters in the hall-you've been trying to get a peek on me since at least six years ago-"
"-but...I think I still got you beat, seeing as you haven't hit me yet for doing something so stupid," he motioned towards the screen, the camera. "So...I guess I win, eh?"
Natasha blinked, her vision blurring and Clint's face fading out of focus.
"...I really didn't want you to see this, Tasha," He sighed. "Hopefully you aren't..."
"Don't get too down about me, alright?" He chuckled, and the knot in Natasha's throat tightened. "What am I saying? You're the professional one, here. You were the better agent, you know? If you'd have asked me, I'd admitted that to your face, but...you never asked, so here's me answering you," He nodded, smiling reassuringly at Natasha through the screen. Like he knew what he was talking about.
"I'm full of surprises, aren't I?" She openly laughed at this. Yes, you are, you bastard.
"Here's another one," he winked.
"I love yo-"
She hit eject, the tape quickly cutting off as she snatched the disk up from the machine.
She wouldn't listen, she wouldn't hear it. Those words were the words someone says when they're about to die. When all hope is gone and they want to leave this world in peace.
She would be damned if she gave up hope now, and she was going to kill Barton if he thought he was 'at peace', leaving her the way that he did.
They had hardly any possessions to their name. They had a locker, and the contents of that locker were the contents, the puzzle pieces, of their lives. Coulson had a few shirts, some childhood memorabilia; Captain America trading cards, a figure or two. Some old photos. His preferred pistol and some unfiled reports or paperwork that he'd 'get around to'.
He never did.
Natasha had nothing from her childhood, and even less from her Russian heritage. What she did have was a few pieces of jewelry to her name that Clint had bought her on a whim at one mission or another. Something that caught his eye once, after he remarked she had nothing personal. Shield provided all the necessities for her disguises-the dresses and jewelry. It was all rented and designed for her character, not her. Clint's pieces tended to be tacky or hand crafted, therefore flimsy and frail. They were her favorites.
She had her collection of fake IDs-only her favorites. She never noticed the pattern at first, not until half a year ago, that all the marital statuses of her ID collection were 'married'. Barton had held onto the matching IDs. The ones that also mirrored 'married'.
There was one ring that was hers that she insisted on wearing during those occasional covers that she was married to Barton, if only in character. It was a ring he'd bought her, down in an African country, where borders of states and tribes mingled. She wore the ring on her ring finger every time, and would fidget with it occasionally. It was the piece that reminded her that underneath the borrowed dress and make up and wigs and contacts and behind that fake ID, that she was Natasha Romanov.
Barton's locker was clean save for his bow and quiver, a hand gun, his uniform, and a single photograph. It was a torn and worn thing that she'd seen him looking at frequently but never caught a glimpse of. She assumed it was of perhaps his childhood, judging by how weathered it looked. She asked once, "What's that photo of?"
He smiled and retorted, "My family."
She knew better than anyone of his past. The brother, the circus, the abusive parents. She knew him as well inside and out as he did her. She never took him for a nostalgic type. He never cared about his mother or father. It had to be of Barney, she decided upon.
It was a stretch, but maybe the photo was from his days at the circus. Maybe that was enough of a family he'd ever known that he'd still look to it as such.
It was after his disappearance, when she cleared through his locker, that she came across the photo.
It was of her.
She'd later learn it was the very photo from her original profile. The original portfolio, the folder of the mission presented to Agent Clint Barton to assassinate Natasha Romanov, aka the Black Widow. The mission, and file, had been terminated. But he'd kept the photo.
When Natasha came bounding up to the others, remarking that she wanted to take a trip to Lisbon, no one said anything. At first. Steve glanced about the room, knowing what each one of them was thinking.
Was this alright?
Her partner, her friend, on so many emotional levels her soul mate, was pronounced dead just two months prior. Tony couldn't count the times he'd suggested she take a vacation on his fingers, so it was no surprise (That, and it was Tony in the first place) that he was the first to speak up, a congratulations of sorts and insistence that they leave immediately; New York was getting to cold for him anyway.
After perhaps the longest plane ride of Steve's life (Not considering how long his crash landing had seemed to play out, at least in his memory), the entire team touched down in Lisbon soil. Banner was stiff, Stark had lost no energy, Pepper was irritated and Rogers was quiet. He said nothing, but kept his eyes on Natasha, who was just as quiet.
But if she was feeling any bit of sorrow or apprehension or anything, it didn't show.
"Let's check in!" She beamed, and that was the most disappointing part about it.
Steve cornered her that night, outside their respective rooms on the terrace of the rented rooms which Tony had bought up, giving them utter privacy in a rather luxurious branch along the beach front strip. The climate was cool enough, the air fresh and carrying scents of foreign spices and foods from neighboring restaurants.
"He wanted to come here," Natasha finally mumbled, a whisper that Steve caught. He said nothing because he wasn't supposed to. She was talking to air, now.
"He suggested we come here...I almost feel like he's been waiting here. Like when the Quinjet took off, he took off on his own to beat me here. When he said we should have gone here...It was like he was trying to hint that this was where he'd be."
Her head tilted a bit and Steve realized, he always knew, that she was talking to him. He didn't ask when Barton had mentioned this, had suggested Portugal of all places, because he knew exactly when he'd done so.
"And I feel like I'm supposed to turn around and he'll be standing there. A-and he'll ask what took me so long?"
Natasha whipped her head around, her eyes brimming lightly with tears that refused to fall but her face cracked into a smile that hesitated before dropping. She turned around expecting to see Barton.
Steve stood in his place.
She didn't say anything else, until finally Steve smirked, snorting to himself.
"You know that wouldn't happen."
Barton isn't coming back.
"He sees better from a distance."
He's unreachable, wherever he is.
"He's watching you from a distance right now."
He's still watching over you. He's got your back.
"He wouldn't have minded if you made him wait a year."
He's a sniper. He's patient.
"That's just who he is."
Don't you remember him at all?
Natasha slowly nods, her smile cracking into a cry as she lowered her head.
"It's alright, Natasha," Steve whispers, trying to comfort the agent. He was afraid to touch her, because she was so fragile, so uncharacteristic of her usual self and so distraught.
Because Barton would pierce him in an instant with his arrow if Steve so much as touched her.
When they returned to New York, unfulfilled and silent, they expected Natasha to have found closure. But she never needed it. She was the same as before-professional and hollow and every bit as focused and whole as her usual self save her eyes that reflected how empty they all felt.
Steve checked on her once a week or so, a different night each time, trying to catch her releasing her frustration or anger or depression in some form, some way. He wanted to save her, to be able to help her or do something, because as she was now he didn't know what to do and he didn't know what she needed. That uselessness was something he'd sworn off the moment Bucky died. He had to be able to do something, to save someone, because he couldn't stand to watch another friend died. He'd taken to backseat for far too long in the form of frozen preservatives.
He stopped when he finally caught her reading over material. Papers, files, folders. He picked up the nearest one; she ignored his presence completely as he fumbled through the tops. They were old mission reports, and it took a quick glance at two reports simultaneously to guess what they all had in common-they were partner missions with Barton.
"Natasha-" he cautioned.
"Montreal." She blurted. Steve cocked a brow at her.
"We posed as a couple, in Montreal. He mentioned it, you know? Before you showed up-" Before he died, "And Dominica, too. And Moscow." She scoffed, shaking her head. "I keep looking for a pattern. What did those missions mean to him, that he'd mention them again? Why bring them up? Maybe there's clues, maybe there is some sort of hint hidden in these files, in those missions, that I'm suppose to find. They'll lead me to him-"
"-Why would he bring them up? Why those particular missions? What am I not seeing?"
"-I keep looking for a pattern..."
Steve breathed slowly, watching Natasha as her body shuddered once over and she stopped talking, stopped moving. She just stopped.
"...There isn't a pattern, though...is there?"
Steve said nothing.
She laughed, and it was hollow and chilling and Steve hated it.
"He could have said Oslo, or Budapest, or Hong Kong. It didn't matter the city. It didn't matter the mission-all that mattered was that we'd been there." Steve caught the rare sight of those brimming tears, the ones that never fell. "All but Lisbon."
She brought a hand up to cup her mouth, her smile cracking at how frivolous she'd been, how foolish she was, thinking he'd calculated clues to leave behind, a trail for her to follow to lead her to him.
"It's not a trail, because there's no end. It isn't some puzzle piece, and once I've figured it out he appears from behind some curtain as the grand prize. This isn't a game, there's no reward. He isn't waiting somewhere, timing me to see how long it takes for me to figure it out. There's just the hollow last words of..." Of a dead man.
Steve inhales and holds his breadth, looking down at the file reports without reading them.
"I think he left you a trail," he stutters, and Natasha whips her head up to look at Steve.
"He left those words to help you find the path to move on from."
He's telling her she's right. Barton set her on a path, in his final moments, and she's right to follow it. To heal, to move on. She's right, he meant something in his words to her.
He just isn't the prize at the end of it all, is all.
It's not long after that night when Natasha finally snaps, and it's the most relieving sight to watch. Steve gets to her before anyone else does, her position near enough to his. She's been shot through the thigh, a clean shot, straight through, but she's standing on pure shock and adrenaline alone. Her hands are cupping the trigger to the gun and the corpse at her feet is testimony to it.
Steve doesn't step any closer because at that moment Natasha lets out a scream and shoots the dead man three, four, six more times. The round clicks empty and she drops it. Eight bullets pierce the chest of the man, dry holes where blood has already run and there's nothing left.
When Steve does finally make himself known, Natasha doesn't look up. Her eyes and wide and her breathing is raged and she drops to her knees, but not from pain. From exhaustion.
She murmurs, and it's the worst lie she's ever told.
He knows why she did it and he can't condemn her for it. The man could've ended the world if she hadn't stopped him, but her world already ended. Six months ago, it ended.
Steve just sighs, rubbing his neck. At least she didn't destroy a bar-that had been his coping.
The others are quick to join the duo, and finally they manage to pull Natasha up, leaning her on Banner as an acting crutch, and make their way from the corpse, from this mission and this whole damn mess.
She doesn't try to justify herself, why she took the initiative to shoot down the target, and no one asks her to.
Because when they finally make it back to the Tower, Pepper walks in on Natasha crying at a photograph and when she tells the others they all pretend to turn away. Because she needs this and because it's a sign she's finally healing, allowing herself to mourn or move on instead of standing merely from shock and adrenaline alone.
"Natasha," He starts, getting right down to it.
The camera light is blinking red, recording.
He knows Natasha is somewhere outside this very room, scanning the hallway for him because they need to be leaving soon for the mission. He's long since gotten over the secondhand embarrassment of making these kinds of tapes; he's had to rerecord them before and after every mission and it's practically written into his morning regiment to film this.
But it doesn't get any easier, putting yourself in the shoes of the Widow and imagining what are the last words you'd want to hear from your partner; your friend.
"I..." He rubs at the bridge of his nose, calculating, "don't know...how many takes I've done of this tape. I've made this tape at least a hundred times. Once before every mission I've ever been on, since meeting you-"
437. He knows exactly how many damn times he's redone this tape. He just doesn't want her thinking he does.
"-And if you're seeing this one—finally- then...you know why." That's such a cliché line, but how else is he supposed to word it? He keeps thinking about the mission they're about to go on; sounds easy enough. This is just a precaution. He's always been one to be overly prepared.
You've got to be when your weapon is as outdated as the technology of today and of gods; how else would he keep up if not being prepared for every situation with an arrowhead of only one spectacularly specific use?
"You and I both know the risks, so don't say anything." What is she going to say to a video monitor? "I know you're probably outside the door, or hiding in the rafters in the hall-you've been trying to get a peek on me since at least six years ago-"
He thinks he can hear her boots; she doesn't make a sound when she's sneaking, but he still knows she's there, and it's close enough to hearing her.
"-but...I think I still got you beat, seeing as you haven't hit me yet for doing something so stupid," he motions to the camera. "So...I guess I win, eh?"
Who really wins, if he does die today?
"...I really didn't want you to see this, Tasha," He reminds himself to speak this way, in this tense, because he needs to sound as much that he's speaking to her now as it'll be if she is to play this tape years from now. "Hopefully you aren't..." 437 is a pretty impressive streak.
"Don't get too down about me, alright?" He chuckles. There's something twisted about talking in terms of your own death. He has to consider the basics; don't blame yourself, don't spiral into a depression, don't go dark or do something stupid like that. But he also has to sound as believably himself as he can, because that's what she needs; she'll need a personal video. If she wants to hear protocol, she can talk to Fury.
"What am I saying? You're the professional one, here. You were the better agent, you know? If you'd have asked me, I'd admitted that to your face, but...you never asked, so here's me answering you," He nods, smiling reassuringly at the camera. At Natasha.
"I'm full of surprises, aren't I?" He smirks a little, cause even after 437 times this part always gets to him-
"Here's another one," he winks.
"I love you." He tries to keep his eyes focused on the camera, counting enough seconds to drill the meaning home, bearing into Natasha's own eyes before he finally can't any longer and looks away, bringing his hand quickly up to the back of his neck.
He fumbles with his pocket, considering drawing its contents out—hesitating—and then finally shrugging, thinking why the hell not. He pulls out a ring; his fake college ring, from the mission in Europe, and he turns it so the gem and emblem are hidden.
"I meant every word I told you, that day in London? Maybe not the part where I called you 'babe', but…I really can't see myself with anyone but you." Cheesy. He scoffs.
"And I really wasn't that drunk the night Stark dragged me in. You said yes that time again, too. You thought I'd forget, and I know you just said it so I'd go to sleep, but…you did say yes," he suggests, smirking to the camera. He can imagine Natasha yelling at him from the other side 'is this some kind of joke to you?'
"Even though you've said yes twice now, I thought I'd go ahead and ask one last time, in case you've changed your mind since…"
He can't look at the camera.
"Will you marry me?"
That's cruel, he realizes, and a knot slips up his throat. He turns the ring a couple times in his hand before shaking his head, tossing it back in his pocket.
"I would've used the ring you really like-the one I got you in Africa that you keep using as our cover wedding ring when missions call for it? But…you'd notice if that one went missing."
He sniffs and realizes she might mistake him for crying, so he quickly raises his head as if to prove his eyes are dry.
"And I get it. You're going to hate me for this, you're going to curse me to hell and spit on my grave; you're going to do whatever you need to do to forgive me for leaving you like this, andfor leaving you this-" he motions to the camera, to the space around him; this video message, this confession that's coming too late if it comes at all. This proposal that she can't ever say yes or no to.
In his head, he hears her say yes for a third time and smiles because it's not like she can say no to him—not that he'll ever know of at least.
"But…you'll be alright." He nods, reassuring himself more than her. A quick run through of his hand through his hair and he stands. That's it, he thinks.
437 takes and that's the best one yet, even if he still didn't deliver his 'last words' flawlessly or he still managed to choke up a bit at the end. It's still a shame she won't see this.
He cuts the camera off, ending it with one final awkward shot of his torso covering half the frame. The CD burns and ejects and he slips it into the envelope that's crinkled and yellowed considerably since seven years usage. It doesn't stick closed anymore, not after over four hundred reseals, but it hasn't ripped completely apart and he'll take that.
And he slips the CD in his jacket, keeping it hidden before slipping out of the room to his locker. He hides the CD in a false bottom that Natasha has yet to find, and before he closes the locker he glances at the only photograph he's ever kept.
It's of Natasha, and her eyes are dull and he isn't in her life yet in that picture. He grins to himself, because he takes a bit of pride that the woman before him is so much different than this picture of a shell of a Russian, even though they're one of the same and the photograph is, albeit hardly, a younger her.
Then, he shakes his head and sets the photo back. That message always gets him too touchy-feely, too nostalgic, and he needs to be more focused on the mission.
Just as Clint closes his locker, Cap comes up from beside him, clapping his back.
"I'm coming with you and Romanov. Meet on deck in fifteen, Bucky."
Clint just nods, wondering if Rogers even noticed that he called Clint 'Bucky'.
Natasha is waiting for him outside. He took longer than he'd meant with the video, but they're still good on time before the mission.
"Where've you been?" She mocks, like he isn't aware that she stalked him outside the room.
Barton shrugs, the disk safely sealed within an envelope back in his locker, where Natasha suspects he keeps it but won't look until after the mission, when he's already erased and terminated the message to replace it with a new one when their next mission comes along.
"Miss me?" He winks, and she rolls her eyes.
"We'll plant the explosives at each corner of the base foundation. It detonates nine minutes after we set the final one, so you have roughly five minutes to reach the roof. A Quinjet will recover us exactly two minutes before the devices detonate, so don't be late." She instructs, shooting Barton a warning look as she knows how he is with punctuality. He's never late, but in blatant, spy terms he's usually a 'last minute' arrival. His entrances can't be any worse than Stark's, though.
He cracks a grin at this, picking up on her meaning before stretching his arms out, reaching for his bow and nodding his approval.
"Right, set the explosive, five minutes to roof, nine minutes to explosion. Not our worst time crunch, by far."
"Elevators are out of use-stairs only."
Clint scoffs like it's nothing.
"What, you're frightened by a little exercise?"
"Just make the deadline, Barton."
He smiles, genuinely, and her shoulders relax.
"Steve's heading the mission?"
"He'll be commanding from the Quinjet. His com link is line 2."
Turning to follow after her, Barton chuckles again.
"I like the Captain. He's a good guy."
Natasha nods, her own small smile spreading.