A/N: Welcome to my three-chapter story! The topic is obscure, but I just gotta say, I totally loved working on this. It's mostly for me, but I hope at least someone will appreciate it like I do (: Thanks for reading; please review if you like it!
The Good Old Days
"Lucky!" Natalia squealed, fluffy orange bangs falling in her eyes as she scooped the golden retriever up in her strong arms.
"Ruff!" Lucky's 'happy dog' face made its quick appearance, as his tongue rolled out lazily and slopped a layer of spit bubbles all over her face. He blinked his one eye rapidly, as though he were too pleased to see her to possibly keep it open.
Giggling, Natalia tackled him to the ground, flopping over next to his warm, fuzzy body as he panted and squirmed all over on his back, waiting for her to scratch his belly.
"Careful there," Clint warned her, keeping his expression neutral as he stored away his bow and arrows after their last mission. He was trying to pretend he didn't notice how laughter and a puppy could change the terrifying, unfalteringly lethal Black Widow into a playful, free-spirited teenaged girl. "You might start making him feel like a psychotherapy dog; give him a big head."
She sat up and gave him an annoyed look, delightfully juvenile in nature. "I don't need a psychotherapy dog," she groaned.
"Everybody needs a psychotherapy dog," Clint corrected with an appreciative smirk at the formerly abused stray. "How else are you gonna explain why Lucky loves—literally—everybody? He knows everybody needs therapy. He just tries to therapize everyone."
"He doesn't like tracksuits," Natalia pointed out, absently realizing she was sitting with the drooling head sitting in her lap, stroking his soft ears. His long yellow fur was coming off all over her mission suit.
"I'd just as soon bet," Clint didn't bother glancing behind him, going to the kitchen for a beer, "that if they took him back, and up and started treating him better, he'd forget about all that abuse and love them tracksuits like anybody else, within weeks. He's good like that," he gave an affectionate, wistful quirk of his lips toward the dog.
"That sounds a lot like you," Natalia's eyebrows went up.
Clint did a double-take. "Whaaaat?" he drew out the question purposefully, to make fun of her.
"No, really," she laughed at him, her accent thick as she spoke. "You never hold a grudge. Not even against me. You haven't even mentioned yet that I broke your knee into shards the other month ago," her voice grew regretful and serious.
Clint looked for a beer, and finding none, settled for a Coke instead. "Whoa, hang on, where's that coming from? Don't tell me you feel guilty, Romanova-Moldova."
Stupid nickname, Natalia's peeved glare told him without saying as much. "Well, it IS kind of important to have an intact knee joint for walking," she pointed out. "And it cannot have been convenient to get sent to the hospital for eight months' therapy."
"I DID get a girlfriend out of it, best I've had so far. I'm pretty sure could've been a lot worse," Clint shrugged, picking back up his soda and taking a good, large gulp.
Natalia rolled her eyes at him, gesturing to his knee. "I can still see you limp," she explained irritably. "I don't know if YOU even notice it, but I see it, and I think, 'I don't know, maybe I could've NOT splintered the knee of the man who is going to save my life and become my only family?' But that's just me," she ended with a sarcastic edge in her Russian-accented voice.
"Don't be so hard on yourself," Clint advised her affectionately. "I mean, it could have been a lot worse, but it wasn't. Let's count ourselves lucky and move on, eh?"
"Is that why you named your dog Lucky?" Natalia smirked. "Because the worst always, almost happens to you, but you always get lucky at the last second?"
Clint rubbed his nose and shrugged. "Guess you could say that." He gripped his can a little tighter, and before he knew it, it was spilling over onto his hand. "Aw—"
Natalia burst out laughing at him as he attempted to shake the stick off of him. Lucky barked and began licking up the drops as they fell to keep them off the floor.
"Get outta here," Clint shooed him off. "Coke," he groaned. "Nat, get the door, will you?"
She looked up, seeing Clint's girlfriend, Laura, pass through the halls with her arms full of groceries.
Natalia opened the door and smiled shyly at her as the other woman gave her a warm one in return. "Hi, Nat," she gratefully unloaded some of the groceries into the girl's hands. "Happy birthday!"
"Thanks," Natalia's eyes glowed. She'd never gotten to celebrate her birthday before, not since she was too young to even remember. The Red Room had drilled into her that whatever loving traditions her family had practiced with her before her kidnapping were useless, mindless wastes of time.
Come so recently to live with the Hawkeyes, Clint and Katie, with people like Laura and Phil Coulson around all the time, she could barely contain her excitement that she was finally living the way 'normal' people did.
Laura set the groceries down and gave a grateful Clint a kiss as he finished washing off his hands, and teasingly offered to dry them on her instead of a towel. She grabbed the cooking mitts and threw them at him, and he laughed while drying himself on the quilted material before beginning to hunt through the groceries.
"Marmalade?" he wrinkled up his nose. "Who eats marmalade anymore?"
"Katie likes it!" Laura defended.
"Who cares what Katie likes? Pickled beets, pickled mushrooms, pickled sauerkraut—do Russians eat anything that isn't pickled, Nat?"
Natalia grabbed the mushrooms and a jar of caviar and sighed happily. "O, moy! So much eggs, too—" her grammar slipped in her excitement, "are—can we make crepes?" she turned eagerly to Laura.
"We'll have enough crepes for an army if we use all these," Clint managed to stack all three cartons and still hold them steady on top with his thumbs, nudging the refrigerator door open.
"That's so Kate can have her marmalade on them and Nat can have her mushroom sauce," Laura assured them both.
"What are WE gonna have?" Clint complained.
Laura's silence made him turn around, confused, just as he saw her slip something behind her back.
"What are you hiding?" his lips quirked in amusement.
"Nothing," Laura's huge grin gave it away.
"Let me see!"
"No!" she scrambled out of the way, just as Clint caught her around the waist and accidentally hit a ticklish spot. "No, it's mine! Clint, stop!" she doubled over in a fit of uncontrollable laughter. Clint was laughing, too, trying to hold her up as she nearly fell on top of him in the narrow confines of his apartment-sized kitchen.
"Aha!" he held up his prize. "Nutella?! Why did you hide this from me? That's practically a crime! I'm feeling wounded over here!" he gave up, falling on his butt beside her and laughing so hard he nearly couldn't get his breath.
"What the heck is going on in here?" Kate's voice rang out, as she stumbled through the door with her arms full of luggage and camping gear.
Natalia merely looked up at her and grinned.
Kate pointed in her direction. "I know that grin. What are they doing, having sex on the kitchen floor?" As she dumped her bags, Laura and Clint, having heard her, instantly scrambled to their feet, suddenly red-faced and mortified.
Kate looked as though she was making a heroic effort to keep from laughing. "Come on, kids, we're not five any more."
Clint pointed at Natalia, who gave him a scathing look in return.
"Natalia is a grown-ass sixteen fricking years old today," Kate folded her arms across her chest. "Aren't you?" she raised an eyebrow in the girl's direction. "Are we too grown-up company for you?"
Natalia blushed and giggled, tucking her red hair back behind her ears. "At least we know why they are so in love with each other. They both are so passionate about the Nutella."
Kate's eyes grew wide as saucers. "Nutella? Who has Nutella?" her sharp eyes zeroed in on Clint "Hawkguy? Where is it?"
"You are NOT getting it!" Clint exclaimed seriously. "You get marmalade!"
"Katie, we changed our minds, go home!" Laura chuckled. She was hiding it again, this time with Clint helping her from behind the counter where Katie couldn't see. Their hands fumbled together, around the jar, through the cupboards, until the jar was safely hidden out of sight. "We don't want you on our trip anymore!"
"It's Natalia's birthday," Kate pointed out smugly. "Plus, I already searched the width and breadth of Hell's Kitchen, Bed-Stuy, AND Manhattan to find a suitable babysitter. I'm eating as much sugar as I can possibly hold before returning to the horrifying realm of parentage."
"You can't just raise a kid and not ever let them have sugar," Clint told her disdainfully. "Bad for mental health. No ice cream, no fairground food, no chocolate syrup?" his eyes grew painfully sad, just from the thought.
"Don't tell me how to raise my kid, Barton," Kate growled.
"Can I try this stuff?" Natalia's voice broke the tension, as she smirked at all three of the older adults. "The Nutella?"
They all gawked at her.
"You've never had it before?" Kate's eyes were wide.
"All her caregivers were like you," Clint shot back.
Kate stuck her tongue out at him.
Laura grabbed a spoon, with barely any hesitation, and pulled out the hidden jar. All attention diverted to that as she screwed the jar open, peeled off the top, and plunged the plastic spoon in deep enough to get a huge dollop.
"Careful," Clint grabbed Natalia's shoulders, eyes glinting at Kate. "Hawkgirl—"
"—woman," Kate interrupted.
"—woman thinks you'll make our child fat. Don't give her too much, now!"
Natalia merely rolled her eyes and opened wide as Laura, grinning widely, shoved the whole spoonful into her mouth.
She closed her lips around it, feeling around the giant glob of chocolate spread with her tongue as her brow wrinkled up in concentration. After what seemed like forever, she pulled the spoon out and laid it in the sink, swallowing. "It's too sweet," she grimaced, to everyone else's shock.
"Lies," Laura breathed after a moment.
"More for me," Clint shrugged, swiping the jar for himself.
"And I'm not your child," Natalia scolded them, licking her lips clean.
"Come on," Kate straightened authoritatively, "we've got birthday business to attend to. Nat, grab our tent, will ya?"
"Can I bring a pillow, at least?" Laura grimaced.
"But I'll be there," Clint acted wounded.
Laura put her hands on her hips and gave him a look that transcended all words.
Clint was genuinely confused. "I don't know what '…' means," he 'harrumph!'ed.
"Awkward," Katie scooped up the bags of groceries and nudged the door open with her foot. "Come, Nat, the losers can join us when they've settled their differences. C'mon, Lucky!"
"I think it goes without saying that I am ALSO not your dog," Natalia sighed loudly, setting the tent on her shoulders with no less than supersoldier-level ease.
Kate smirked over her shoulder as she descended the stairs.
As often as Natalia denied ever having been biologically 'enhanced' during her time in the Red Room, she was pretty convinced the procedure had still been done, whether or not her young so-called mentee was able to remember it. After some of the stories she'd heard so far, she wouldn't put it past those freaking senior Black Widows to have kept the enhancement a secret just to make sure their recruits trained that much harder for their missions.
The two heroes-for-hire leaving the room with the dog left Clint trapped, alone, with Laura.
Laura had thankfully stopped giving him that look, but Clint was still terrified.
He knew 'that look'. 'That look' was the look too many women had given him before they left him—without ever telling him why.
"I'm—sorry?" he guessed, wincing at the apology he had no idea why he was making.
Laura sighed, her long hair dropping across her face as she leaned against the counter. "I know. I get it," she eyed him sympathetically. "We haven't talked as much as we need to, and I've been letting it eat at me instead of just telling you."
Clint gulped, overcome with sudden, deeply felt love for her. She cared about him, enough to help him fix whatever it was he'd done wrong this time, instead of slamming the door in his face. Bobbi had never done that.
"Clint, I can't keep waiting. Not unless—I know what I'm waiting for. You told me that you want us to get married—but when? What has to happen before you know that's okay for you?"
He blew out a huge breath. Of course, she was mad about the one biggest question he'd ever faced in his life. Then again, women were always scarier to him when he DIDN'T know why they were mad.
"I—" he stuttered, then stopped. "Aw, Laura, it's complicated."
"Then explain it," she griped.
"The better we—we get," he started again, wincing at just how HARD it was to put this sort of thing in words, "—I know it's gonna screw up at some point. It's gonna screw up and—I won't know how to fix it because—I love you too much to do anything right." He gulped, watching her face as she tried to process what he was saying. Interpret, rather. He wasn't making any sense. He knew it. He hardly made any sense to himself. Kate would be asking him to repeat himself right about now, so he decided to do it. "I mean that I love you and I don't want anything bad to happen to us, so I tried not to love you so it wouldn't hurt as bad when it did," he blurted out.
Laura's eyes were on the ground, listening, thinking hard. A sinking feeling filled the pit of his stomach.
"I made even less sense with that last one, didn't I?" he cringed.
Slowly, Laura shook her head. "Keep going," she said quietly.
Clint took a deep breath, and before he knew it, he was rambling incessantly. "Love is a thing that scares me so bad, because I've screwed it up before and I don't wanna do it again. I'll be honest-I tried not to love you. But I can't help it. You're everything to me. I'd do anything to make you my wife-I'd be your slave if I had to, and love every second of it. And I'm really sorry, 'cause I'm not real good with words, and none of this makes any sense, but I love you. Laura, I love you more than everything in the world. So much it hurts and I don't even know how to say it."
He paused for air, not even noticing how wide Laura's eyes had gotten at his confession. He felt like a fool.
"I'm just waiting for something—any kind of thing that'll tell me that I'm good enough for you. And that I don't have to screw it up again this time. I don't want to marry you and one of us leave each other. That's the point of getting married—is 'cause you're saying you'll never do that, and I don't know that I'll never do that to you. I'm afraid—crap, I'm more scared than I've ever been in my life—that I'll leave you or not be enough for you, and both of those things, I think, would kill me because you're—" his throat closed unexpectedly, frustrating him.
Why couldn't his stupid emotions wait until he got out the most important part of the sentence? Just a few more words and he would be done—
He heaved a breath that sounded humiliatingly like a sob, sniffled, swallowed, tried everything to get the lump in his throat to go away, before Laura wrapped her warm arms around him and just held him tightly. He scrunched up his eyes and leaned over on her shoulder, holding her head and shoulders tightly against him for a long, long time.
Mainly because it took way, way too long for him to get himself under control enough to pull away and face her again.
When he at last did, eyes searching her face pleadingly to find some sort of hope in her answer, she gave him a watery smile. "You blow me away," she whispered in his ear.
Before he knew it, he was kissing her, feeling so overwhelmed he didn't know how to stop.
She was the one who pulled away.
He nuzzled close to her ear. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
"I love you," she whispered back.
They just stood there, forgetting about Nat and Katie completely for as long as they possibly could.