RATING: Maybe a light R (language, some racy bits)
FANDOM: Marvel-616 (Captain America/New Avengers/Tales of Suspense?!)
CHARACTERS: Permutations of Bucky/Clint/Natasha, Carol Danvers. Nat-centric.
SUMMARY: Awkward meetings with exes, glasses of water, trajectories and conclusions.
It is raining in Brooklyn tonight, and the dirt on the sidewalk would stick to you if you tried to lean up close. Natasha knows: her face has been on the ground more than once. But she's inside and her hair is dry. Her toothbrush is standing in a blue plastic cup twelve steps down the hall. The nearest exit is out the third-story window. If she were to fall, eighty-eight percent chance she'd survive it. Fifty-four that she'd walk away. The statistics are keeping her warmer than the sheets, she thinks. James is sleeping beside her, his breath choked by her hair. Sometimes he twitches and kicks the blankets out of place.
Natasha doesn't know what she's doing here.
Long ago, he'd climbed in through the window, in the endless daylight of Leningrad summers, smothered by the concrete bunkers so that every breath came out a hush. And his words had come out like ribbons then, the promises you pin on a jacket. He'd place his hand upon her stomach and the metal would warm to her touch. It was forbidden, whatever it was they'd had, and Natasha had once been young enough to mistake romance for intrigue.
James opens his mouth once, then twice. He shoves his face into the pillow; army men can fall asleep at the drop of a pin. Natasha decides she's thirsty. Her legs stretch out, she pulls his shirt over her head.
The freezer doesn't have one of those ice dispensers attached, and so she has to pick the cold up and hold it in her hands. It's quieter that way, she tells herself, the water flowing down the tap, the noises mixing with the rainfall. She could leave at any second, she thinks, and then remembers her toothbrush waiting upstairs. Thinking only leads to trouble, thinking only leads to trouble, every girl knows that.
But the sound of footfalls is leaking in from the next room. Natasha knows who they belong to: he'd gotten shot in the leg by an AIM stun-gun a decade ago, and his steps have been off ever since. And sure enough, he's appearing, the lines of his face rearranging the way they do when he is angry.
"Clinton Francis Barton," Natasha says, and she draws out the syllables. He never figured out how to pronounce her middle name.
When they first met, she was all pearls and Givenchy, rabbit fur looping her neck and satin strangling her arms. The veil, too— she was a widow, one would do well to remember. But she drove her own car, in those days, with the police frequency wired into her earring and both gloved hands upon the wheel. He came barreling down the street like a damsel in distress, wearing a mask he wasn't sure was fitting right. She did not know it then, but there were lines on his face that went deeper than his age, eyes that saw trajectories without making out conclusions.
What Natasha thought, when she saw him, was, stupid Americans, thinking that good is best accomplished with pomp and purple and happy meal toy arrows. What she said was, "You look like you need a ride."
"What are you doing here?" he asks. "Spying for Stark?"
"I don't even know where Tony is, right now." This is the truth: he slipped off the radar before the skrull corpses were cleared out of Central Park. "You should probably thank him. He was the one who deleted this place from the SHIELD records."
"You're not working for—"
Natasha doesn't let him get the name out. "Don't be ridiculous, Clint. It's not as charming as you think." She'd left the tower before Osborn announced he was taking over, officially. She wondered if he'd take the time to translate her goodbye note.
"So what are you doing?"
There is three feet of space between them and they regard each other like chess pieces. But she is closer to the silverware, if he wants to make a move. Natasha would not weep for the glass if she had to throw it to the floor. "What does it look like? I'm getting a drink."
"You don't just walk in to Avengers HQ to get a drink," he says.
"Then I hope none of you ever get thirsty." She pauses, and puts one hand on her hip. "Come on, Clint. You can figure this one out."
She can see his thinking, written across his face. Luke Cage is married, Logan is short, and Spider-man talks too much. It can't be any of them. "Man, the next time I see that kid, I am going to stick that shield—"
Natasha hadn't taken many lovers at all. There was Alexei, her husband, but her memories of him were all fog, quicksilver, and though she had his letters and knew the exact folds of their paper, she did not well remember their nights. There had been others, in the decades that followed, but not many, no one of importance. Natasha had nothing she could give to them, except the cold angles of her wrist, her elbow, the curtain of her hair. She would liked to have been beautiful the way a tower is beautiful, the way white stone can shine in the sunlight but not reflect.
When Clint slept, the anger swept off his face like leaves bled from the trough, and Natasha thought that it piled under the sheets somewhere. A great black pool of his troubles, whatever they were, and they’d fallen into it sometimes when they were both rolling around. Splashing, like a game. Drowning, someday maybe. She watched from the corner, her own hands clasping her knees. Sometimes she watched from up close.
It isn't that he was naïve, exactly, because luck had struck him harder than most. And maybe that was why he couldn't just let her lie there, some pretty piece of jewelry wrapped around his arm. His teeth and tongue begged her to come alive, and she knew the mission would be lost without him, so she did her best. One night, templed in bedsheets, the warm glow of hotel lighting bouncing off his naked chest, Natasha thought she would be the thing they all thought she was. Some nightmare from a Bond knock-off. It is good like this, away from cold winter. Always cold in Russia. You keep me warm, da? And he laughed, he laughed as he kissed her, and she'd never known a man to laugh like that as a woman rolled on top of him.
How do you say in English? It is straw that is breaking camel's back.
"You're sleeping with Bucky."
"You should give him a chance."
"Uh-huh," says Clint, crossing his arms in front of her. "This is not something you leave up to chance," and he's not sure if he means being Captain America or dating Natasha or something else he can't quite scratch at. His lips strike out an empty syllable, then he continues. "Was it your idea? Another one of your little projects?"
He's being ridiculous. "You're being ridiculous."
"Am I?" He knows he is being ridiculous.
"It was Tony's idea. Everything is Tony's idea, these days." She glances down, tries to spot the tiny flakes in her water. "I told him it was a bad one." Natasha could tell him about second chances and all the other things he's taught her. But those aren't the words that fall out of her. "You slept with Moonstone," she says. "You aren't allowed to talk. About anything, ever."
"Oh, shut up. I'm sure there're plenty of guys you've dated just as bad."
"No," she replies, shaking her head, "the only supervillain I ever dated was you."
Once, twice, three times they came within striking distance of Iron Man. Hers was a mission of peace, the cell that powered his suit could light Moscow up for days, could give withered babushkas in boxed apartments hot water for their tea. Hers was a mission of peace, and that is what she told Clint, while he fixed his other face on. And that is what she told herself, when she could see that he doesn't believe her.
Natasha found it exasperating, the way her country had given her nothing to fight with but lipstick and opera gloves. But more than that, she despised the way Clint retreated at the barest hint of harm. Harm to her— he was reckless with his own skin, letting himself fall like marbles cross the floor, seeing how long he could go without picking them up. But with Natasha, it was different.
"Why do you deny me the opportunity to die for my country?" she asked him, glass-eyed and cradled in his arms. He laughed.
One day, not long after, he tripped down a scraggle of stairs, running from well-dressed thugs who had come cross Siberia for her. It was a bad sprain. She could tell just by looking. But their footsteps were beating across the rooftops, and Natasha knew it was best for her to keep running. Yet something bright welled up in her ribs and curdled there, something that made it impossible for her feet to move.
Briefly, Natasha understood.
"The point is, sometimes, people prove you wrong," she finishes. "Even me."
"Yeah, well, I still don't like it," Clint says.
"You don't have to."
"And the second he screws up," he continues, as if she hasn't said anything, "wait, scratch that, the second before he screws up, I'm gonna punch him in the face." He pauses.
"I heard Bobbi came back," says Natasha, laying the words out like a blanket.
She'd only known Bobbi as the voice on the other end of the telephone line, the hand that picked up sometimes when Natasha would call late in the evening, when she needed to make sure she still had an effect on people.
"Yeah," he says, and smiles. "Yeah, she did." There's a break between them, the clean kind. "How are you, Natasha?"
They were running, cooped up in a $35 motel room some ways outside the city, with dead trees bordering the parking lot and iron bars across the window. Clint breathed in, like he could taste the air, like if he could, it would have been familiar. There were cracks in the walls, spider-cracks that climbed hand by hand. They had to be careful. The walls were not soundproof.
She caught him in the bathroom, haloed in halogen, scraping wood into the toilet bowl. The walls were too small to fit them both, and she couldn't see what his hands were doing beyond his shoulders. On the sink: chemicals, flint. It smelled of iodine.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
There was not really enough space for him to turn around, but he made the effort anyway. His elbows caught upon a mirror, he tries to hold his hands up. Now she could see, in the shower, a small pile of wood. Pressed between his fingers was an arrow-point. He had been saying yesterday that he was running out.
"I'm making things," he said. "Sometimes we do that."
He didn't say, "and not the opposite," but she heard it, anyway. The non-sound rose like a bird, like a plastic bag. It got caught around her ears.
They talk for some time, until James comes down to look for her and sees Clint there in the kitchen.
"Barton," he says, stick-straight and almost formal.
Clint takes a moment to look at him, eyes narrowed. He takes a step backwards, taking the whole picture in. Clint makes like he's about to throw a punch, to see if the other man will finch. He doesn't. For a second, Clint smiles, wry and off-center. But only for a second. "Yeah, whatever," he says, moving his left hand in circles. "I'm going to bed." And that is what he does, drumming his fingers at the top of the stairwell as he walks down.
The sun creeps up with grey and slender fingers, painting pale lines across the sky. Big Brooklyn windows do their best, to let the light in. Natasha is sitting, curled up on the couch, sleep still in her eyes, and Carol Danvers is bringing her coffee.
"I ran out on Osborn," she is saying. "He offered me my old job— you know, Avengers leader. He offered it to me, and I told him to go fuck himself."
She pauses, to set the mug down. It trembles, just a bit, when it meets the tabletop.
"I can't believe I did that. I mean, technically, he's my boss. I've been in the air force. I know how the chain of command works." Carol sits down, runs her hand through her hair. She has so much of it, it falls like rain across her face. And it's hard to see where you're going, in a storm. "Are you here for— for the team?"
"No," Natasha says. She doesn't need the team, not like the rest of them. And Fury had wired her earlier with another assignment. Deep undercover, no space for avenging.
"So, then why are you here?" Carol asks, perplexed.
"I was spending the night with a friend." Natasha doesn't want to get into it. A part of her is saying that no one will understand, because she knows how James is, around people, how he zips himself up. Like Lot's wife, almost, straight and tall and always looking back. Part of her is saying she has better things to do than giggle about boys.
"I don't know what the hell I'm doing, honestly," says Carol Danvers. "Just walking away, like that. But it is what it is. Sometimes, you just have to make things work."
Natasha thinks of her toothbrush standing in the upstairs bathroom, waiting quietly in its cup, upright and content. She thinks of the metallic sting of tap water running down her throat.
"Sometimes you make things," she echoes.
Later that night, she stares out onto the rooftops. There are windows, everywhere, squares of light like constellations. Wrought iron bars sprinkled with rain and little curls of rust. Natasha closes her eyes, and tries to remember dancing.
To be a dancer is to stand for a long time on tip-toe, being the highest thing you can be. But there's no permanence, there, no painting to hang on the wall or poem to keep in to your breast. It's a moment, a single moment, when all your muscles arc and the parts of you are painful, but right. And then, tumbling into exhale, you are done, and there is nothing else. You must dance because you love it— and it takes strength to love something that will not stay.
But Natasha has never been a dancer at all, has she?
James is lying there, in the bed, covered over with white and silence. It takes her back to the old days. He had been so bold but so distant. Climbing up to her window, making oaths like a silent-movie prince. She thinks of how Stalin died: bleeding to death, but slowly, from the inside.
Her toothbrush is still waiting, silent, as she draws her body up next to his. And they are templed in the bedsheets, for a moment, and alone he is anything but silent. There are living things, there, here, behind is eyes and beneath her fingertips. He doesn't know what to say, sometimes, and his words are no longer like ribbons. But James is crooked, and he is warm, and sometimes, when she is moving with him, he laughs. And for that second, for that second she cannot hold onto, things are painful but right and Natasha knows what she is doing.