I can NOT believe it's been an entire year. Y'all left so many amazing comments and reviews on this story last year, so, although it's once again late in the evening, here is Part 2 as requested!
We get a pretty in-depth look into a unique part of Natasha's backstory, and although it wasn't my intent, if you squint *really* hard, there's a bit of Romanogers.
Enjoy, my friends. It's CAPTAIN AMERICA'S BIRTHDAY! as a certain two-year-old friend of mine is very excited about ;D
Their Country Loved: Part 2
"The only reason I'm pretending to be okay with this is because we're best friends," Natasha swallowed her mouthful of cherry coke with a grimace, leaning back on the picnic blanket with her sunglasses settled firmly over her eyes.
"That hurts, Nat. Right here," Clint pointed to his chest.
"Don't say anything more about it," her voice had a dangerous edge.
A tinge of fear appeared in Clint's eyes. "Yes, Ma'am." He caught Steve's eye from where the Captain was perched on the edge of the blanket, silent as he looked around him as if him so much as moving would break the stained-glass moment. Clint laughed at him. "What's the matter, Cap? You're stiff as a corpse."
Steve gave him a tiny, nervous smile. "Don't get me wrong, Clint, this is great; but I'm utterly clueless as to how you got everyone out here."
Tony was on his phone, Pepper had arrived and was checking and rechecking the picnic basket for silverware and napkins, Bruce was snoring under a large tree, and Thor was twirling his hammer on one thumb dangerously close to Natasha's head because he was bored—however, every single one of the Avengers was out in Central Park.
Having a picnic.
A normal, everyday, Fourth-of-July family picnic.
Steve was sure there must have been blackmail involved, and he was afraid to ask what kind.
Suddenly, Thor's hammer slipped from his finger and, with a metallic shearing through the air, flew up and over several children's heads across the lawn.
All six mouths opened, as Thor's hand instinctively reached out to call it back before it could hit anyone.
"Rrrrrrrrrgraurghf!" The high-pitched dog's yelp interrupted them.
Steve and Clint both turned, eyes wide, to watch as a huge black lab leaped up and caught the handle in his mouth, landing smoothly on all four paws.
Thor stared with his hand still outstretched, dumbfounded at the sight.
The dog stood, panting and with summertime drool running in foamy streams down the sides of his mouth, leather and iron clenched firmly between his teeth.
Even Tony's attention was ripped away from his phone by now. The all stared at the animal, as it looked left, then right, then straight at Thor before trotting right over and dropping the huge metal weapon in the god's lap.
He "Rruff!"ed again, wagging his tail before planting his bum right in front of their blanket and panting up at Thor expectantly.
Nobody knew quite what to say, but then Clint broke into a huge grin. "Harbo!" he exclaimed, snapping his fingers in front of the dog's face and clapping his hands. "What're you doing here, boy?"
The dog's attention swerved from Thor to Clint, and he bounded up with recognition onto the blanket beside the archer, nuzzling against every inch of clothing he could find to leave his shedding fur behind on. Clint just laughed and slapped Harbo's sides affectionately.
He was a huge dog, but just young enough that his coal-black fur didn't have a trace of grey in it. He flapped his ears with a shudder of pleasure when Clint rubbed his belly, and the rest of the Avengers could see that he was missing part of one ear.
Harbo then caught sight of Natasha. Clint smirked as the animal trotted over to her, despite the fact that his sandwich got stepped on in the process. Clint scooped up his damaged food and settled back with his hands behind his head as the dog, intent on getting at least SOME kind of recognition from his other best friend, nosed his huge head up under her arm and stuck out his long tongue to lick her face.
Natasha tried to ignore him, grimacing as she pushed him away. "Yeah, I really needed that," she grumbled sarcastically, growing frustrated as the dog continued to peruse her. "Go play puppy wrestling with Clint."
This was apparently the wrong thing to say, because Harbo assumed she meant she wanted to play like puppies with him. He bounded up, paws up on her chest and shoulder, knocking her sunglasses and drink to the ground and nearly taking her with him.
"Arggh!" Natasha growled, shoving him off hard enough to make him yelp. "Get out of here! I hate you!"
Steve's insides froze. He'd never heard or seen that kind of outburst from Natasha Romanoff. She was always the picture of poise and determination. She wasn't exactly one to lose her temper, no matter how provoked. Was she joking around or did the dog really get to her that badly?
Clint gave him a warning eye, which suggested the latter. Steve was flabbergasted.
Banner and Thor looked up from the food and were soon engaged in keeping the dog's feelings intact by crooning and petting him like he was a furry baby, but Natasha merely frowned deeper as she wiped off her face, resettled her sunglasses, got up and began walking away.
Steve offered Clint an inquisitive look, but Clint was looking in another direction.
Sure enough, someone else was approaching. A woman of middle-age, rail-thin with long black hair and very fair skin came striding up on long legs, hands on her hips. "Clint Barton," she shouted behind her sunglasses, "Did you seriously just kidnap my dog again? Oh, hi Nat," her expression changed instantly with her tone as Natasha marched by on her way out.
Natasha ignored her.
"Hey!" the woman called after the Black Widow. "Can't even stand the sight of my face now, huh? What is your problem, Nat?!"
Tony was amusedly watching the exchange. "What, are they ex-assassin partners or something?"
Clint sighed loudly, from beside Steve, and turned away as though he didn't want to watch what happened next.
Natasha whirled around on the black-haired woman, giving her a hard stare for fifteen long, hardcore seconds.
The taller woman folded her arms and gave the Russian assassin across from her an equally intimidating stare.
Steve's eyebrows went up. Clearly, the two were an even match for each other, and that certainly didn't happen often to Natasha. (He guessed.)
Slowly, smoothly, Natasha's chin lifted slightly and she spun on her heel, turning her back and striding away. The message from her gait was clear: Follow Me, and Die.
The other woman huffed, seeming to melt a little like a marshmallow in the sun before dragging her feet over to their blanket.
"When you said there'd be fireworks…" Tony began, but Pepper stopped him with a warning look.
"Is she—going back to the Tower?" Steve whispered to Clint in a hiss, speaking of Natasha.
"This animal is remarkable!" Thor was exclaiming, off to the side, still engrossed entirely with the dog carrying his hammer.
Clint shook his head, dejected. "Probably. She doesn't really like this holiday," his eyes met Steve's. "Siddown," he then turned toward the newcomer, jerking his head toward the blanket. "Plenty of room for you to come claim your runaway dog."
The woman gave him a look. "He doesn't run."
"From me," Clint's mouth quirked up.
"You can't live vicariously through your son, Kate."
"You have no idea how much I want to stick my tongue out at you right now."
"Yeap, then all the Avengers will know just how much a nine-year-old you really are!"
"For a guy who taught himself nautical physics without even trying, you suck at math. Hi, everyone," she turned and waved to the rest of the group, appearing to have shaken off her bickering faceoff with Natasha.
"Everyone, this is Kate," Clint waved his hand around lazily. "World's most immature archery student ever." He smirked.
"Not the one covered in dog hair because I'm wearing a white shirt and playing with a black-haired dog," Kate sassed back at him, swiping a taste from his beer before plopping herself down on the blanket. "Hi, nice to meet you guys," she extended a hand to Thor, then Bruce, and Clint scooted over as she continued to introduce herself. "I see you've already met my dog."
She settled in, grabbing a sandwich from the basket, like she had been part of the group forever. Before long, she and Thor had struck up a conversation.
"Whaddaya say we go for a walk, Cap?" Clint suggested bluntly.
Steve was more than happy to oblige.
As he and Clint walked the length of the park together at a leisurely pace, Steve found himself realizing that it was best not to ask Clint questions if you actually wanted information.
He was a spy, after all. It was better to let him come out and speak on his own. Training that spies received was no doubt geared toward resisting potential interrogators, and that training probably involved dealing with seemingly friendly questioners as well as the terrifying, overt ones.
Not asking questions was the way to earn the trust of a spy. Yet, not even he had been able to earn Natasha's full trust. At least, that's the way he saw it. He knew she was a special case, but that made him want all the more to figure out how to ally himself with her.
"Sorry about that," Clint started, catching Steve off guard. He'd been expecting it would take Clint longer to speak.
"What about?" his brow furrowed.
"Nat and Katie don't get along, but they used to just fine," Clint explained, tilting his head back to look at the sparse clouds in the bright summer sky. "Nat doesn't want much to do with her old life. And by her old life, I don't mean the KGB. I mean when she first started training for SHIELD. Took her forever before she started talking to me again."
"What happened?" Steve's forehead creased. He wasn't aware of any significant events in Natasha's life following her recruitment to SHIELD. He assumed when she darkly alluded to her demons she was always referring to the Red Room.
"You'll have to ask her," Clint shrugged. "I know—I know almost as much as she does. In a way, I know even more of what went on after she was compromised, but I wouldn't tell you 'cause it's not my story to tell. Thing is, being part of this—part of us—was just the thing she needed."
"And who is Kate?" Steve asked, confused.
"Old friend of ours." Clint's eyes took on a distant look. "See, Nat won't talk to Kate anymore. She's part of the old life; you wouldn't have recognized Natasha back when I first brought her from the Red Room, Cap. She was young and cute she loved dogs, and she was so proud to live here in America after all the Red Room put her through. Thing is, she respects you. You're the guy who gave her a fresh start as an Avenger. Maybe you could talk to her. She might just tell you why she hates this day so doggone passionately."
Steve wasn't sure he should be the guy to do this, but Clint had told him to and he wasn't about to risk letting a chance at getting to know Natasha better go to waste.
He found the superspy cloak-and-daggering behind a newspaper on a park bench, in such a conspicuous place he knew immediately she intended to let him find her.
"Thought this was supposed to be our day off," he joked, taking a seat beside her, but avoiding her gaze. "Or is this what spies look like when they take a day off?"
Natasha coolly turned a page of the paper she wasn't reading. "Why're you here, Rogers?" she asked in an undistinguishable tone.
Steve shrugged. "Who doesn't like dogs?"
Natasha smiled at that, laying her paper down on her lap. "Got a little emo teenager you never expected to see from me, huh?"
"I don't like Kate," she clarified, her eyes still hidden behind her glasses, but her voice sounding sincere. "It's not her fault. She just doesn't understand—I used to look up to her. Now it feels like I'm always looking down."
Feeling like he was getting somewhere a lot faster than expected, Steve nodded. "What changed?"
"Everything." Natasha stared at nothing in particular. "The same things that made me want to be a soldier instead of a spy. The KGB found me," she explained suddenly, "years after I had been inducted into SHIELD. They tortured me for two years. Brainwashed me. I've been trained to kill and extract information almost since I could walk, but this was different. Somewhere along the line, I gave in. I made the choice to let them turn me into a monster."
Steve sat beside her in stunned silence. "That's why you don't trust anyone," he acknowledged finally. "Not even SHIELD."
"I don't trust myself around SHIELD. I almost don't trust myself around Clint, but he showed me that he knows how to get through to me, just like I got through to him when Loki brainwashed him. At least he understands, in a distant kind of way."
"And Kate doesn't."
"Kate isn't the one who searched for me for three years and never gave up, not even when the stories became so bloody and deranged he never should've come near me, let alone held an arrow to my throat and chose to bring me back here instead of killing me."
"Back home?" Steve ventured.
A slight smile crossed Natasha's lips. "I don't think I deserve to call America my home."
"I don't think anyone deserves their home, per say," he mused. "Whether it be Russia, America, England; Germany, or someplace else. Nice thing about this country, though; you're welcome to make yourself at home here, no matter where you're from. Whether you 'deserve' it or not."
She turned to look at him, pulling her sunglasses from her face and blinking her large green eyes twice.
Steve turned to her as well. "It's a good way to have a fresh start."
Natasha smiled. A real smile this time, not her fake, clever, espionage-ing smile.
Picking up her cherry coke from the space beside her on the bench, she raised it and took a sip, passing it off to Steve. "Here's to fresh starts."
He smiled back, tipping back the can and finishing it off for her.
What'd y'all think? Not the backstory you were expecting for Nat, eh? XD Let me know your thoughts in the hungry box below!
Happy 4'th, once again, peeps. You guys are the best.