Type Of Gift: Fic
A Gift For: inkvoices
Summary/Prompt Used: There is snow on the ground, snow against the windows, and in a library on a long winter's night she finds the life that has led to a ledger.
Author's Note: Many, many thanks to those who helped me find my own story to tell. :)
banner by frea_o
There is red in her ledger, and she had never forgotten this.
She stands poised on the edge of the sidewalk, the flush of anger at this unexpected storm warming her skin against the cold. "I'll be fine." And her lips bite off the edges of the words, clean and precise like scalpels, shining and steel like surgical tools.
The librarian stays tucked into the entryway, shoulders braced under the dark jacket, while the wind scatters drifts higher than her knees across the parking lot, around her buried car.
"Come back inside," he tells her when she stays where she is, snowflakes catching and melting in the curls of her red hair, collecting and running like ice down on the nape of her neck.
There is blood in her writing, curling and curving and sweeping, and it is bright against the light, dark against the white of the snow.
“This looks interesting." She surveys the books that he has laid out on the table, his hands caressing each like an old friend. But they are meaningless to her, a jumble of titles and subjects that can have no possible connection, Budapest, Grimm's Fairy Tales, The Art of Dramatic Writing. Her own hands are small on the bindings as she glances through them, hovering over surnames and covers with care but not recognition. “Why do you have them?”
"Because they have something in common,” he replies, truthfully and quietly and treating it all with the air of expectation that makes the skin between her shoulder blades prickle. "Since we’ve got time to kill until the plows get here, why don’t you see if you can figure it out?”
"Is that a challenge?" She asks him, the grad student ID and Maine driver's license and library card tucked into the backpack slung down at her feet, at the legs of the table. They are a comforting weight, a solid presence in a world full of sudden winter storms and men who insist on her staying in the warmly lit library, in the company of books.
He raises a single eyebrow, his answer clear in the amusement behind his blue eyes and the quirk of his lips.
And something should be wrong, this should feel like a set-up or a trap or something, but the reassuring air of the library wraps itself around her shoulders and warms her, grounds her.
It's because this feels familiar, because this feels expected, like she's been waiting for this all of her twenty-five years of life and nineteen years of schooling, that she glances back down at the assorted books and reaches out, takes one up.
There is red in her ledger, dripping bright and crimson from the vellum chapters, blood on the snow, melting it away.
"Clint," she gasps, the word stone and anchor on her tongue even as her fingers dig into the plastic of the table. There are hands on hers, gripping her wrists, holding her upright, but as soon as she opens her eyes the librarian takes his hands away and steps back, saying without words that he means her no harm.
Natasha chokes on a throat gone dry with winter's cold, swallows a laugh too bitter and weak to be let out, because it's Clint. If he meant her harm, she would give it back with no holds barred.
It's too much, the memories swirling and jostling in the eaves of her mind for space, for order, and spatial reasoning triumphs over chronological order as her mind struggles to contain itself. Herself. Her.
"What the hell happened?" She asks, staring at the innocuous novels laid out with scattered pages in the space before her, black and white and print with no hints given of the memories they had contained.
"Did you find yourself?" Clint asks, intent and hopeful and not quite right, so that another laugh dies on her red-painted lips when she looks, truly looks at him. It's his face, his hands, his shoulders under the woolen jacket, but there's an emptiness in the corners of his mouth where his self-deprecating humor should be hiding, a lack of lines on his face from the ever-present awareness of his surroundings and its threats. It's Clint, and it's not.
She wonders if she would have that same sense of unsettling déjà vu if she were to take out the IDs in her backpack and thumb through them, looking at the girl who had been Natasha Romanoff until she woke up.
Until she was woken up.
Relief passes over his face, unmistakable and endearing, even as this not-Clint relaxes.
"Then it's possible. Then you did it."
"Clint," she starts to say and cuts off, another girl's airy t-shirt hanging off her torso, a pea-coat she has never purchased chafing her tensed shoulders. He sits down in his chair, slumps against the back of it with gratitude and ease. "Have you?" Natasha asks instead, already seeing another table of books in her mind's eye, Robin Hood and The Far Side and Lord of the Rings opened to let his memories out.
But he hesitates, stills, shakes his head slowly.
"I can't find the books."
How can you know, Natasha wants to ask, how can you say what books are the ones you need? And yet the multitude of tomes in front of her is reply enough, the torch on their bindings a flame in the night.
"Doesn’t matter," he continues, dismissing himself in a way that makes her sick to her heart. "You're back. You're going to be okay."
Natasha swallows, lips tasting of a chap-stick she's never used before, and words fall to ashes in her mouth.
There is blood on the snow, cold and crystalline on the edges of the pages.
"They told your story, scattered across dozens of books; just bits and pieces, parts stashed here and there. Maybe they didn't know what they were doing, or maybe they always meant to bring you back. But when I started reading, I knew what I was looking for, and I kept looking until I found you."
How, Natasha wants to know, fingers curling into fists, when your own story isn't here, when you could have no memory of who I am to you? But this not-Clint is standing by the door, her backpack in his calloused hands and a lopsided touch to his lips, and the answers to her questions will never come.
She has looked, hunting volumes through the library with nothing more than a vague sense of rightness, and despite all her efforts nothing has worked. If he's right, if they didn't write down enough of his story to make it complete this time around, if the novels she needs were damaged or lost and never replaced -
"I'll find you," she promises softly, taking the backpack from his hands with its burden of books she won't let out of her sight. He nods in that rocking motion she knows so well, amused and knowing and already two steps ahead in the game, but this isn't a game.
"I'm okay," Clint tells her, without alien inflections, with that heart-wrenching voice. "I am, 'Tasha."
When Natasha freezes, from more than the cold on the wind or the snow, he cups her face and runs his thumb over her cheekbone.
"Stay safe," he whispers, and vanishes below the surface of a stranger.
She leaves with her mind and her soul intact, snow catching in her hair as she makes her way to her Acura, and in the curve of her heart is a fire that never died.
There is red in her ledger, and all that's left now is snow.
Ten months later she arrives with the first winter storm, a satchel full of books slung over one shoulder and a cellphone with contacts that read Pepper, Tony, Bruce, to look up into a face both familiar and strange.
"I found you," Natasha says, triumph a fierce gleam in her eyes, and steps inside.
Jane keeps her research material tucked under one arm, cheeks red above her deep blue scarf, and announces, "Anyone who hits my texts is going to get what’s coming to them." Moments later a snowball arcs neatly over her head to splatter against the red berries of a holly brush, thorns and greenery and bright in the winter light.
"Can you blame them?” Pepper asks, seeing Natasha’s subtle headshake. “It's the first snow of the year. And it's the first big gathering we've had this year." This go-around, she doesn't say, but all three of them understand.
Before Natasha can respond, a snowball plasters itself across the corner of her jaw.
"Has Barton written a will this time?" She asks calmly, expression unchanged as her skin pricks and stings. Pepper maintains a bland air while she considers the question, consulting her extensive knowledge about the archivists in this new time.
"Actually, I believe he has."
“Good.” Natasha reaches up to scrape the trickling snow off her neck with a gloved hand. Then she steps off the sidewalk, pumps and skirts be damned, and heads into the fray.
It’s a fractal, a tree, a pattern she is a part of when she tugs on snow boots and ties the crinkled laces, ever aware of the massive man sitting at the kitchen island, the books with fight and fire and a furnace to ignite her memories stacked carefully by his elbow.
It unfurls and spreads from those who return to this life already knowing they will be needed, sensing the destruction that will come and wipe more history from the earth unless they stop it. Each librarian triggering the next, a chain reaction spiraling outwards with roots and tongues and branches, seeking those who don’t remember yet who they once were. And always there is something the same, something constant, Thor’s work-roughened hands and broken fingernails, her red hair and dancer’s grace.
Her partner, the Hawk to her Spider.
Natasha finishes lacing up the boots and surveys the bedroom that now seems foreign to her, a life she cannot recall and would not choose to return to. An inhale, incense and fading flowers and the faint hint of old books still lingering in her clothing. An exhale, and she rises.
She’ll help Thor find the others now, the fractal spreading further, and they’ll go once more hunting through the shadows of countless libraries to bring the flame of knowledge to a safer place. The torch of the Library of Alexandria, burning in the dark hours of history to make sure not all is lost again.
Clint’s utterly absorbed in the biography of a politician Natasha vaguely remembers seeing elected at some point in the last century, his feet propped on the table, his hearing aids resting on a battered Western that couldn’t have come from the nearby shelves. She leans over the arguments of long-dead philosophers and taps her hand lightly on the table, counting on the vibrations to get his attention.
They do and he glances up, blue eyes meeting hers in a moment of preparation. She shakes her head slightly as an assurance that there is no trouble before she sets the coffee mug in front of him, curls of steam rising up as the winter wind howls outside their building.
You angel, her partner signs with pleasant surprise, reaching for the mug.
Hot, she warns him, her own fingers still warm from the handle alone.
Yes, he agrees without a trace of shame, you is.
Flatter, Natasha signs back and flicks her eyes to the vaulted ceiling above them for emphasis.
Always, Clint replies with a grin.
Just for that she picks the mug back up, bringing it to her lips without breaking their eye contact. The coffee, when she takes a long sip, proves to be barely cool enough to drink without scalding her tongue.
She doesn’t bother adding a comment when she sets it back down, because the look on Clint’s face tells her she doesn’t need one. Instead, a single eyebrow raised, Natasha settles back in her chair to dig through more esoteric ethics while more than the hot drink banishes the winter’s chill.
He thanks her for the coffee later that night, making her incredibly glad she hadn’t burned her mouth on the drink, and when they lie thigh to hip and head to shoulder under a snow-covered window, she rests her hand over his heart and listens.
They are comfortable in sign and signage, in speech and printed word, and yet the vow that links Spider to Hawk has never been set down in type or tongue. It has never needed to be.
Clint has always understood her when she means I love you.
There is red in her ledger.
She has never forgotten this, and how could she, a librarian, an archivist, a researcher and analyst and always the one person in the right place to avert disaster or delay it, until their recovery missions are through. There is red in her ledger, there is blood in the vellum chapters, and it’s always been seeping through the careful bindings.
There is red in her ledger – but when the moment comes to leave it behind or leave another volume in its place, she leaves it to the winter without a backwards glance.
Soon enough, crystalline and cold on the edges of the pages, all that is left is the snow.