Title: The Nature Of Dust
A Gift Basket For: sugar_fey
Rating(s): R for sex
Length: approx. 10,150 words
Warning(s): highlight to view (spoilerish)*sex, mild bondage (with rope), offering sex as payment, kind of personified weather trying to kill people/nature as violent and deadly*
Summary: Fic with accompanying collage of graphics/manipulations and icons for the prompt 1930s dustbowl AU. Clint and Natasha are members of a travelling circus. Dark/supernatural elements a la Carnivale optional but very welcome. Thanks to this prompt I am now watching Carnivale, but I’m not familiar enough to use the supernatural elements from it… so I made up my own.
Authors Notes: Title taken from the song ‘Nature of Dust’ by Laura Marling. This site covers all of the circus slang used in the fic. I’ve aimed for historical accuracy, except for use of fire poi – my research suggests that wasn’t really around until the early 1960s, but the character that performs with it is well travelled and innovative, and I really wanted to use it ;)
It takes a village: many thanks to the legion of people who helped me with the research for this, thanks to everyone who bounced ideas around with me, huge thanks to the amazing rthstewart and lar_laughs for applying their magic beta abilities to my words, and thanks to anuna_81 and cybermathwitch for orchestrating this whole Secret Santa party.
For as long as he can remember Clint has always been getting into trouble for seeing things that he shouldn’t, or rather for getting caught at it. Oklahoma, 1934, and this time trouble comes in the form of a girl.
It’s an hour before doors and he’s searching for the gaffer, because Rose is complaining again about having to be his assistant when she has an act of her own and Clint’s hoping that Carson can come up with something to bribe her with. Failing that, Carson can be the one to shout her into costume.
Rose can cry at the drop of a hat and even though it’s fake it gets to Clint all the same. Worse, she knows it. All of which adds up to it being a bad idea for Clint to try making her do something she doesn’t want to do.
When Clint finally tracks Carson down it isn’t a surprise that he’s not alone, the hours before a show being a gaffer’s busiest time, but there’s a woman trailing Carson that Clint’s never set eyes on before and she brings him to a dead stop.
On the rare occasion that Clint has tried to explain his ability he’s compared it to joining a circus or carnival for the first time. You’re surrounded by people from all walks of life and a lot of them look just plain weird. At first you keep staring and turning to look whenever something catches your eye, but eventually you learn to live with it. Until there’s someone or something brand new that catches you out all over again.
Clint has mostly gotten used to what he sees, but the new or the powerful can still overwhelm him. That’s what happens now. He can’t stop staring.
It’s the woman’s hair that his eyes fixate on as they seek out her nature, a vibrant blood red that pours in waves over her shoulders and the sun behind her sets it on fire. It recalls blood spilling over the edges of ancient altars, death to worship and call forth new life. It’s the victory flag flying over the battlefield and the ground beneath sodden red. It’s the two sides to living, where you know how alive you are by how close death is.
“You’re catching flies,” she snaps and that brings him out of it. All at once her face comes into focus. It’s not a happy face.
Clint used to try pretty much anything to make people happier with him, from denials to apologies to begging for forgiveness, but trouble is trouble and he’s never found a way to dig himself out of it. These days he doesn’t bother.
“Barton,” says Carson, yanking off his bowler hat with one hand and rubbing at the back of his neck with the other. “What the hell do you want?”
“I need some help with Rose.”
“He’s busy,” says the woman. She has a slight accent, something foreign, that Clint can’t place.
“Not, I’m not,” says Carson. He runs a hand over his head, smoothing down what hair he has left, and replaces his bowler. “We’re choking on the nut; we’re not hiring. Head on home.”
Her shoulders slump until the two bags she carries, one in each hand, almost meet the ground. There’s an air of defeat about her, something that’s all too familiar in these parts, but Clint can still see the other side of life behind it, the indomitable fire and not just the desolation it causes.
“You should hire her.”
“Oh I should, should I?” Carson looks at Clint skeptically, probably wondering why Clint had said that. Clint wouldn’t mind knowing too since it’d just popped out. “You know this gilly?”
“Sure,” says Clint, because shutting his mouth never got him out of trouble either. He’s been told it might at least stop him from digging himself in deeper, but then he believes that sometimes a bit of trouble makes life interesting. “She’s my sister.”
“Really,” Carson drawls, looking from Clint to the newcomer and back again.
Clint draws on everything he’s learned about faking emotions from Rose and tries to look casual and honest.
A lot of the artists have family of some kind on the show. They say that circus is in the blood. Acts are often made up of family groups and circus folk tend to intermarry. They don’t always stay with the same circuses though, and rumor has it that if you bring in the revenue then you can get family hired as a favor. Clint’s never asked before, so he reckons he’s owed one.
“Fine,” says Carson eventually. “Tell you what, you leave Rose be and your sister can take her part in the William Tell act.”
“I have my own act,” says the woman as Carson walks off.
“Look, I got you in, didn’t I? I didn’t mean for you to get saddled with me, so sorry about that, but at least now you’re on the show. That’s what you wanted, right?”
She glares at him and he unfastens and fastens the bottom button on his waistcoat, needing something to do with his hands.
“Right. So, that was Carson, of the famed Carson’s Circus Of Wonders, and I’m Clint. Clint Barton. Um, what’s your name?” he asks, still fiddling with his button. “Because I should probably know that.”
“I’m going to suffer for that sister thing, aren’t I?”
Clint sighs again and shoves his hands in his pockets in an attempt to keep them still. He tends to avoid unfamiliar people, not seek them out, and certainly not set himself up as related to them.
“Jones is in charge of the carnies,” he says, continuing the introductory spiel. “Carnival workers, that is. The carnival is separate to Carson’s, but we’re travelling together this season. They’ll be set up on the midway already and we start letting folks into the big top in about an hour. Show starts a half hour after that, give or take. You got your own costume or do we need to find you one?”
“I have my own costume and I’m not a goddamn rube,” she says, hoisting up her bags and walking towards the back yard without him having to point it out. “Now tell me what I have to do for this William act.”
Natasha doesn’t get any happier when Clint tells her what the William Tell turn entails, even when he swears up and down that he never misses. She’s like a different person once she’s in front of an audience though, all brilliant white teeth smiles and blowing kisses at the children in the front rows as she gets into position.
The Amazing Hawkeye draws an arrow and lines up his shot, giving the people watching plenty of time to admire his flexing muscles. He wears a waistcoat without a shirt underneath for performances, because it gives him greater freedom of movement, but also because it puts his arms, oiled until shiny, on display for the punters.
Natasha’s eyes, however, are fixed on his.
“If you shoot me I will hurt you,” she’d told him as they were waiting to go on and he doesn’t doubt it.
Clint releases the arrow and it skewers the apple on top of Natasha’s head, straight through, the tip sinking into the board Natasha stands in front of and fixing the apple to it.
She doesn’t move, doesn’t twitch, doesn’t even blink let alone show any sign of relief.
He pauses to give the audience time to react, then draws three arrows at once, pauses to let the audience take in the number of arrows and his arms, then releases. They hit the board simultaneously, just shy of Natasha’s right shoulder, elbow, and hand. Another pause, three more arrows, a pause, and the arrows land in a perfect mirror image on her left.
Clint draws one final arrow and sends it flying, striking the first arrow and splitting it in two down the center of its shaft. He watches a small trail of apple juice slide down Natasha’s forehead as she steps away from the board, leaving the pinned apple behind.
The audience loves it. Noise slaps him in the face as they clap, cheer, whistle, and yell at each other about how amazing he is; the Amazing Hawkeye. It’s a wonderful thing to see from people who spend the rest of their time in a waking nightmare of despair, drained of life, hope, and color. Clint enjoys waking them up.
Then Natasha is standing right in front of him, her eyes never having wavered and burning fierce.
“You should kiss him afterwards,” Rose had told Natasha in a tone that said it was more of an order than a suggestion, one of the many voices throwing tips at the newcomer in the space between the grand entry and their turn. “You don’t need to use tongue, but definitely on the lips. Drives the crowd crazy.”
Rose had always kissed him at the end of the act. She’d throw her arms around him, press her painted lips to his with a smack, and then keep one arm around his shoulders as she’d curtsied and he’d bowed. All he’d had to do was put a hand on her waist and remember to smile.
Natasha takes his face in both hands and kisses him like it’s a punishment; hard and finishing with those brilliant white teeth. She poses for the applause with her hands held high before practically skipping out of the ring, everything an act, but not her eyes and not the bite in her kiss.
The Amazing Hawkeye barely remembers to bow before following her, licking his bottom lip. It tastes of blood and apple juice. He’d like to see if she tastes the same. Then he remembers that she’s meant to be his sister and at this point, smiling ruefully, he thinks to himself that he’s cursed.
In actuality, Clint Barton doesn’t yet know what being cursed is.
As the lights go out for the night Clint shows Natasha to his truck, the back of which he’s converted into a living space. It doesn’t have much clutter, especially compared to other people’s set ups: a bed, a trunk of clothes, archery equipment, a piece of wood that doubles as a shelf, a table, and a desk, general items for living. The only thing that he thinks stands out is the ‘wall’ that he’s working on covering with newspaper cuttings, the advises and bills from past years, ticket stubs, pictures, scraps of paper with quotes or addresses or doodles on them, and just scraps of anything with a memory attached to it. It adds some color and personality to the place, and the reminders of good times make him smile.
“You can leave your bags there for now,” Clint tells her, pointing to the top of the trunk, “and you can take the bed.”
He leaves her to get on with sorting herself and goes about pulling the spare mattress out from under the bed. There’s just enough space for it to fit between the bed, which is lengthways along one side of the truck, and the decorated wall.
“You’re sleeping in here too?” he hears Natasha ask behind him as he crawls around on the mattress fixing sheets and a blanket.
“Comfier, less dusty, less windy, we’re supposed to be related and not care; pick one.”
“What about when I want to get changed?”
Clint turns around, ready to say that he’ll go outside then and wait, but the words dry up in his mouth when he sees her sitting on the edge of the bed in nothing but her underwear.
“You were staring at me earlier,” she says quietly, then removes her bra. “Do you like what you see?”
“You don’t need to say anything,” she continues, still in that soft tone. “I know that you like it. I even felt it, when we kissed.”
Natasha slips her thumbs into the waistband of her panties, starts to slide them down over her hips, and Clint closes his eyes.
“I think you should leave those on,” he manages to say.
“Because you don’t want to have sex with me.”
“You want to have sex with me,” she says and her tone is sharper on that sentence. She sounds more like herself.
“Um, people have sex with each other because they both want to have sex with each other, far as I know.”
“People,” says Natasha derisively, “don’t do favors for other people unless they want something, and you want sex.”
“What?” Clint’s eyes open in shock. “I didn’t get you hired because I wanted to sleep with you!”
She looks at him in anger and disbelief, but at least she leaves her panties where they are.
“Are you trying to tell me that you don’t want to sleep with me?”
“I’d be an idiot not to want that,” he tells her, “but I don’t sleep with people who don’t want to sleep with me.”
Natasha folds her arms beneath her bared breasts and he swallows again.
“You got me a job here and you want sex,” she says. “What I want is to pay my debt.”
“You plan to do that by sleeping with me? And to get that over with right now?” Clint pinches the bridge of his nose. “Look, you don’t owe me anything. Other people get family hired on, but I never… That’s not something that I can do, and it seems a shame to let a favor like that go to waste. I’m alone, I figured you were alone, and as one person without anyone to another I helped you out. That’s it.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“You don’t have to.”
He lies down on the mattress facing away from her and pulls the blanket over himself, still fully dressed. An inch from his nose there’s a playbill with an illustration of Bobbi balancing on the high wire, a parasol in one hand, and Clint stares at it until he falls asleep.
Clint is behind the wheel early in the morning waiting for the vehicles in front of him in the line to start moving when the passenger door opens. Bobbi pauses for a moment at the sight of Natasha sitting next to him before shrugging and clambering in anyway. It’s a bench seat and Natasha shifts over to let her in, but they all end up with their shoulders and thighs pressed together.
“The toby news said we had your sister on the show,” says Bobbi. “I didn’t know you had a sister. How come I didn’t know you had a sister?”
He doesn’t answer her and Bobbi turns her head to look out of the window, although there’s really nothing to see. The fact is that Bobbi never expects answers and never wants them, not unless people are willing to give them or she really needs them.
Natasha takes the opportunity to look Bobbi up and down, and Clint wonders what Natasha sees. Probably a slim woman in a plain blouse and skirt, average looking really apart from the old waistcoat covered in purple sequins, which she’d pinched from him but Clint will never admit it.
He makes a mental note to remind her to leave it behind if she steps outside the circus. In Dust Bowl towns, where the dull people wear dull colors, she’ll stick out like a sore thumb and he’d hate for her to get the kind of unwanted attention that can cause.
Clint himself sees stark edges, thin lines walked, and sincerity, but Bobbi’s nature doesn’t demand his attention; she’s someone he’s used to seeing.
After a moment she pulls out a familiar book - The Murder at the Vicarage - and opens it at a folded page, presumably where she’d left off yesterday.
“You don’t mind, do you?” she asks Natasha for politeness’ sake. “I’ve got my parents, five brothers, a pile of cousins, and their husbands and wives. All of them acrobats and aerialists and trapeze artists, and all of them noisy like you wouldn’t believe. I love them to pieces, but God help anyone riding with them. Never a quiet moment and I do like a bit of quiet to read in. It’s all right if I ride with you and read?”
“It’s fine,” says Natasha, even though Bobbi, expecting no reply, already has the book open and shows no sign of putting it away.
Bobbi nods and settles in.
Clint’s spent more days than he can remember travelling with her next to him and it’s easy between them, only now Natasha is between them, literally, and nothing seems easy anymore.
He tightens his hands into fists around the steering wheel and hopes for a short road ahead.
Clint sits on one of the small platforms in the big top that are at either end of the high wire with his legs dangling over the edge and a pile of folded up parasols next to him. Far below, in the ring, Natasha performs her act for Carson, trying to get on the show as something other than Clint’s assistant.
Her act is a new one to Clint, apparently consisting of spinning weighted colored balls of some kind on the end of long ropes around and about herself as she dances. It looks beautiful, all graceful motion and unfolding patterns.
He probably shouldn’t be watching, at least not without permission from the gaffer and Natasha, but it’s unlikely that either of them will spot him up here.
“Hand me another,” Bobbi tells him, standing near him on the high wire.
Clint unfolds a parasol and passes it to her, so that now she has one in each hand.
Clint got acquainted with Bobbi in the first place because they would both search out quiet high places only to find them not so quiet because the other was already there, and then they became comfortable being in high places together, not always quietly.
“She’s good,” he says, nodding at Natasha below them, then, remembering that as Natasha’s brother he probably shouldn’t sound so surprised at that, adds, “I mean, she’s better than she used to be.”
“Hmm, it’s called practice,” says Bobbi absently. “Another, please.”
All of the aerial or high acts have allotted practice times in the big top and Clint would feel guilty about invading Bobbi’s, except she views him as a convenient parasol provider. He keeps unfolding them and passing them over until Bobbi has six that she’s spinning around her arms by their hooked handles while still maintaining her balance on the wire.
When Clint looks below again Natasha has changed her colored balls for ones that are on fire and leave trails of light behind them as she dances.
He whistles softly.
“Turns like the two of you do make mine look dull.”
“Well,” says Bobbi, taking three steps backward and then three forward at the same quick speed, “I suppose you do just shoot at things.”
“Hey,” Clint protests. “I shoot at things and I never miss.”
“You’re talented, I’ll give you that. What you do though, it’s a display of that talent. You play for the audience, sure, but it’s a display. We perform.”
Bobbi spins in place on the wire, parasols twirling around her arms, and below Natasha dances as fire unfurls around her like deadly petals.
Bobbi, absorbed in her act and speaking to Clint without really thinking about what she’s saying, at her most honest in the air. Natasha, a different person in the ring, warmth that draws you in, like flames that you feel compelled to touch when you know full well that it’ll burn. Clint, meanwhile, oils his arms because Carson told him to and has to remember to smile and bow.
“I’m the World’s Greatest Marksman,” he says.
“Yes,” says Bobbi, and Clint can hear the amusement in her voice. “You are.”
Unsurprisingly Carson agrees to Natasha having her own act, but she also continues being his assistant for the William Tell turn without ever complaining about it.
“You’re good,” Clint tells her after her first real performance and just before they enter the ring for their turn together. “You’re really something.”
“And you never miss, right?”
It’s a challenge that she throws over her shoulder at him with a wicked grin, alight with success, before her show face goes on.
Damn right, Clint thinks, grinning back. He’s The Amazing Hawkeye, World’s Greatest Marksman.
Time goes by and they’re rattling along another narrow highway to another tired town when Clint starts to see unnatural but familiar formations at the side of the road. It’s farm equipment, rearing up out of the ground where it’s been buried under loose topsoil and dust, made recognizable by the parts that are exposed. Wheels. The end of a plow.
“Places like this,” says Natasha softly, “they’re like a shipwreck I was – that I saw once. It looks all the sadder, being so far from the sea.”
Clint doesn’t say anything. He agrees that it’s sad, but passing equipment left to die by the side of the road can’t compare to passing people left to do the same. He’s seen more of that than he cares to, and the camps for people with nothing aren’t much better places to end up.
“I can’t imagine how hard it must be to watch your home drown, under dust or water, or anything else,” says Bobbi. She lowers her book with a sigh and looks across at Clint. “She’s not your sister, is she?”
“No,” says Clint, keeping his eyes on the road. “No, she’s not.”
He knows that this is his own fault, that he should’ve explained about Bobbi to Natasha, or at least that talking around Bobbi would be a bad idea, but then he would probably have ended up having to explain about himself too and he hates that he has to, that there are people like him and Bobbi that need explaining. People, Clint feels, should just be allowed to be.
The three of them are silent for a while until the signs of this small part of the world ever having a farm are taken away from them by distance and the obscuring dust.
Clint can feel Natasha tense beside him and from the corner of his eye he can see sparks in her hair.
“That’s it?” she finally says. “You’re not going to ask why I’m pretending to be his sister, or who I really am, or anything?”
Bobbi slowly closes her book and holds it in her lap with both hands, stroking the cover with her thumbs.
“You’ve been with us for awhile,” Bobbi says, her words measured. “You must’ve noticed. People are more obvious about it in the carny, but some of us in the circus have it too. An ability. Abilities, really, because they’re all different. We’re different. We can read your dreams, hear voices that aren’t there, talk to animals.”
Clint glances over at Natasha and she doesn’t look disbelieving.
“I hear the truth,” Bobbi continues, her eyes on the road ahead. “When people speak I can hear if they’re lying or not, if they’re lying but they believe they’re telling the truth, if they’re not telling the whole truth, things like that. Sometimes I don’t want to hear the truth or people don’t want to give it. Best not to ask for it unless it’s something freely given or something I really need to know.”
“She could hear that you hadn’t lived on a Dust Bowl farm,” says Clint when it seems that Bobbi is finished, “and she knows that I have.”
“You didn’t think that was something I should probably know as your sister?” says Natasha, crossing her arms as best she can in the confined space and not bothering to keep the point of her elbow from digging into him. “Extra abilities or no extra abilities, if I don’t know basic things like that I’m going to get caught out!”
He runs a hand through his hair.
“I’m sorry. It’s not something I really talk about.”
“He’s the strong, silent type,” Bobbi says, taking Natasha’s attention. “I’m circus born and raised, myself. What with most of us being related and marrying each other, I suppose it’s no wonder so many of us with extra abilities end up in the same place. Like hair colors; it runs in families.”
Clint’s grateful for the rescue, but he knows that Natasha is right, that if he has the audacity to make her his sister, he needs to share more than his truck and his act. He thinks about it, about sharing more, and finds that that it’s not that he doesn’t want her to know, about his past or his ability or anything at all, just that he’d rather she knew without him having to tell her.
That’s not something that Bobbi will help him with though. She believes people should share their own truths.
“I grew up on a farm,” he begins, “a lot like the one we just passed. Pa was trouble. He up and left one day and didn’t come back. I had an older brother who was the same. I stayed to help Ma, but there’s nothing we could do with the land going the way it has. The farm died and she died with it. So, I ended up leaving too.” He flexes his hands around the steering wheel and adds, in his best fake-cheerful voice, “I ran away to join the circus.”
He doesn’t dare look at Natasha, because her nature is such that it not only shows the harshness of life as much as the joy in it but gives each equal weight, and he doesn’t want to see that right now. Clint would rather the joys counted for more.
“I was trained as a ballet dancer in Russia,” she says quietly next to him, unfolding her arms and resting one hand on his thigh. “When the revolution and the civil war came my parents persuaded a family friend to take me out of Russia. They were supposed to follow when they could, but they never did. I believe they knew that promise to be a lie.”
“Lies aren’t always bad things,” says Bobbi, the one of them who can never hear anything but the truth.
Natasha leaves her hand where it is and Clint thinks that maybe he doesn’t mind telling her about himself after all.
Clint finds himself watching Natasha practicing her act, again without her permission, when he comes back from practicing his own and she’s twirling her colored balls around herself not far from their truck, kicking up gravel and dirt.
Carson’s labeled her The Black Widow, saying that she spins webs around herself and she’s enticing, but beware her webs of fire. Clint just thinks that Carson likes naming his artists after animals and that’s the closest fit the gaffer could think of.
As he watches, Natasha varies her speed and there becomes no discernable pattern to her movements. It’s a whole different kind of enticing to Clint, especially when there are arrows in his quiver, his bow is in his hand, the memory of the string singing echoes in his ears, and he hasn’t had a moving target in a long, too long, time. He challenges himself to work out where the balls will be next and to imagine the shots he’d need to take to hit them. She’s wearing her costume and the strings of her corset make a convenient wind indicator.
It’s not something he’d try with anyone else, he realizes, but every time they’re in the ring together there’s a challenge in Natasha’s eyes and somehow it feels right to nock an arrow and take aim.
His first arrow hits her red ball just off center and sticks in it, the head poking out of one side and the fletching out of the other. Something trickles out of it, sand maybe, and the force of the hit knocks the ball off course.
She doesn’t stop.
In the middle of the whirling balls Natasha turns her head to look at him, but she doesn’t stop. I dare you, says her fierce gaze and Clint smirks in return. Challenge accepted.
She doesn’t stop dancing until he’s shot every single one of her balls.
Natasha drops the ropes the moment he’s done, the weighted balls sending up clouds of dust as they hit the ground, and comes at him like a train hurtling along its track.
“Could you do that with streamers or something attached to the ends of the arrows?” she demands getting right up in his face.
“Um, sure.” Clint blinks. “Why?”
“What about arrows on fire? Could you set my poi on fire with them?”
Clint blinks again, but this time he doesn’t just see Natasha as close as she’s ever been to him and utterly herself, her nature blazing, but also what she’s talking about.
“You mean add archery to your act?” It’s an intriguing idea. “I’d have to see what your balls are made of, make sure the arrows don’t go straight through them or set anything on fire that they’re not meant to. And it’d probably destroy them. Can you afford to keep making new ones?”
“Balls?” She laughs. “You mean poi. And yes, I make new ones for each fire turn anyway, and I use those on chains instead of ropes.”
“Show me,” says Clint, possibilities dancing through his mind, and she leads the way to their truck, collecting the practice poi that she’d just been using as she goes.
The truck isn’t happy on the drive to the next town, so not long after they arrive Clint has the hood up and his head down. He only recognizes that there’s a storm coming when he realizes that he’s getting more dust in everything than is usual when he works on the truck.
“Wind’s picking up,” he calls out, slamming down the hood.
“I hear you,” says Ezekiel, who always parks his caravan next to Clint.
The back yard layout might look confusing to an outsider, but there’s actually a plan. Clint always ends up at the end of the last row with Ezekiel on one side and no one on the other. He likes the privacy and he loves the clear view when he opens his door in the morning, however barren the landscape.
“I’ll pass the word around. You best see to that sister of yours. I saw her heading off a ways to practice today. She cooking up something new?”
“Hopefully,” Clint replies with a grin.
Ezekiel heads off to the cookhouse. Clint can hear him hollering as he himself walks away from the back yard and out into the emptiness behind where the circus has set up. He suspects that this whole area was probably a farm before the dust took it, but now it’s just dried up and useless. It makes it easy to see Natasha running back, the skirt of her dress being blown about, but it also makes it easy to see the clouds of dust gathering behind her and heading in the same direction.
It’s not the worst dust storm Clint’s seen, but it’s far from the smallest and he yells for her to hurry up.
As she reaches him he moves behind her, trying to shelter her from the worst of the wind as they dash for the truck, and that’s when he sees the grit thick in the air whirl up into the shape of a person, one taller than even the giant in the carny, reaching out for Natasha. Its fat fingers wrap around her arms, its hands as wide as her forearms are long, and she stumbles.
Clint grabs her with both hands himself, above her elbows, lifting her off her feet for a moment before setting her back down. He keeps hold of her, urging her up the steps, and only briefly releasing her with one hand to shove the door open.
The wind howls angrily in his ears and then the figure is gone as if it never existed, dissolving into mere dust, as they tumble into the truck. They land on their hands and knees, and Clint kicks the door shut behind them.
“What the hell was that?” he says, spitting dust onto the floor.
“Storm,” Natasha replies, rolling onto her back and closing her eyes.
“I know it was a goddamn storm! I’m talking about that thing inside it.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Clint stares at her, as rattled by what must be a lie as much as he is by the event.
“Yes you do.”
She doesn’t reply, just lies still on the floor, her practice poi discarded to one side.
“Yes you do,” Clint repeats.
He crawls across the short distance between them and over her, rests a knee on either side of her hips and plants his hands on either side of her head.
“There was a man made out of the storm, furious with you,” he says, the sight scoured into his mind. “Have you seen your arms? They look like the dust carved rings around them where it grabbed you. You’re a mess.”
Natasha opens her eyes, framed by dust-laden lashes.
“Says you.” She reaches up and brushes the warm pad of her thumb across his cheek. “You’ve got dirt stuck to you, with what? Grease?”
“I was fixing the truck. Don’t change the subject.”
Natasha lets her hand fall.
“I’ve never seen a man in a storm and I didn’t see one today,” she says, her eyes fixed on his. “But I know that storm was trying to kill me.”
Clint moves until his back is against the door, putting some space between them, but he doesn’t look away.
She sits up facing him.
“I know that storm was trying to kill me,” she says, “because hail storms and thunder storms have tried to kill me, because waves and wind have tried to kill me, because rocks, snow, floods, and the earth dropping away beneath my feet have all tried to kill me.”
“Nature has it in for you?” Clint asks, but he believes her. He believes her as surely as she seemed to believe Bobbi when Bobbi told her that she could hear the truth, and now Clint thinks he knows why Natasha believed Bobbi.
“My full name is Natasha Romanova,” Natasha tells him, “and when I left it was a bad time to be a Romanov in Russia. The Romanovs were the last ruling family, no relation as far as I know or perhaps distant relatives. It didn’t matter; the association by name was bad enough. Not just because of the revolution.”
She takes a deep breath and her eyes dare him not to take her next words seriously.
“Here is what I’ve been told, that there was a man called Rasputin and he was a healer for the Tsar’s only son. He was very close to the Tsarina and her daughters, but when he was murdered, by poison, drowning, bullets, and blades, they didn’t raise a finger to help.”
Natasha pauses, her lips parted, searching for words.
“I’m guessing someone really wanted him dead,” says Clint. “Or more than one someone.”
The corners of her mouth curve up into a small smile that quickly fades.
“You don’t have to tell me,” he says when she still doesn’t continue. “I believe you. That nature is trying to kill you. You don’t owe me a why.”
He’s amazed that she’s confided so much in him already. His appreciation of that though seems to be what lets her go on.
“I’m cursed,” she says. “Rasputin cursed the women of the Romanov name because they failed to repay his kindness to him. They didn’t pay their debt. He cursed them that for their unnatural act nature itself would turn on them as they had turned on him.”
“It sounds like a bedtime story to frighten children,” Clint says softly.
Natasha pulls her knees up to her chin and wraps her arms around them.
“But you said that you saw a man.”
He bows his head and scrubs his hands through his hair with a sigh, showering the floor around him with dust, before looking up at her again.
“You remember what Bobbi said? About people having abilities?”
“But you weren’t born in the circus.”
“No, I wasn’t.” Clint shrugs. “I’m still different. I see the nature of things, things with life. They can’t hide what they really are from me. Like my brother.”
“You don’t need to tell me,” she says.
It’s not just an echo; he knows that she means it. He also knows that he wants to tell her.
“I said that he left, like Pa, but he left because he got in trouble with the law. He asked me to help him. Called me a coward when I wouldn’t. But I could see what he was, the urge to hurt in him, and I wouldn’t do it. Maybe if I had he wouldn’t have got caught and with him still around Ma and me might have kept the farm going.”
“Three instead of two against the dust?” says Natasha. “This part of the world has gone to hell. One man out of jail instead of in wouldn’t have made any difference.”
Clint leans his head back against the door and shuts his eyes.
“Maybe not. But that’s why I saw a man in the storm, I guess, because that was the nature of it.”
He hears Natasha getting to her feet and moving around, then she’s kneeling between his legs and wiping at his face with a damp cloth.
“I might be cursed,” she says, “but you and Bobbi, I think what you can do is a curse too.”
“What we can do isn’t trying to kill us.”
He opens his eyes and gently touches a welt on one of her arms with two fingertips. He can feel the heat coming off it.
“Are you and Bobbi together?” she asks.
“We tried once,” he tells her, fingers checking each of her welts in turn. “You know how Bobbi likes to read mysteries, detective stories, books like that? It’s because she enjoys the element of surprise, because words written down are silent and there’s no truth for her to hear. I didn’t talk much when I first came here, and I still don’t really. She liked that. And she got that I couldn’t help but see the truth of people the same way she couldn’t help but hear it.
“We’ve got things in common, like a love of heights. I learned to shoot because I was sat on top of a caravan throwing things at one of Bobbi’s brothers with her. This archer, Trickshot, spotted us and said I had a good eye.”
Natasha braces herself with one hand on the floor as she scrubs at something stubborn by his nose and Clint, done inspecting her welts, covers her hand with his.
“The problem was… I’ve never been afraid of Bobbi knowing truths about me, but I’ve never wanted to tell her, or had to. Does that make sense? I guess I just liked knowing someone else who was different in the same way as me and didn’t mind my company. Turned out it was the same for Bobbi.”
Natasha lifts his chin slightly with the hand holding the cloth and leans in to kiss him.
It isn’t like when she kisses him at the end of the William Tell turn, fast, thorough, devouring, and with bite. This is working his lips apart, licking into his mouth, savoring, and ending with a gentle, closed mouth press of lips against his, once, and twice.
“That was because I wanted to,” she tells him, then leaves him sitting there on the floor.
Clint waits until Natasha’s arms are healed before agreeing to shoot arrows at her poi again.
Every time he feels the wind he worries that another storm might be coming. There’s nothing he can do about the weather, there never has been, but he can at least make sure Natasha is at her best before firing arrows at her while she dances.
They both warm up and then they start with the arrows with streamers, short arrows designed to stick in the colored poi without piercing them all the way through. They try Natasha using different speeds and patterns, and Clint hits the poi with arrows that have matching colored streamers. For the fire poi she uses poi on thin but sturdy chains and he hits them with arrows that are meant to burn up shortly after impact but could use some improvement.
When the modified arrows have all been used and he’s leaning against the side of the truck, watching Natasha spinning her fire poi as they burn to nothing just for the joy of it, that’s when Clint realizes that at some point, without him noticing it, she’d gone from challenging him to never miss to trusting him to never miss.
“This act is going to be a wonder all right,” she says as she places the poi on the ground to let them cool.
She’s wholly and completely herself, not hiding behind her show face like she does in the ring, or being careful the way she is around Bobbi, or mimicking the people around her as she does when at the cookhouse, or like she is at any other time. She’s herself, in tune with her nature, and that overwhelms him as much as his first sight of her did. Not only does she trust him not to miss, she trusts him enough to show him herself, willingly, not just because that’s what he sees whatever else she tries to show.
Natasha looks over at him and her face turns serious even as her eyes continue to burn.
He stays where he is as she picks up one of the ropes with a colored poi at the end, an arrow with blue streamers sticking out of it, and walks towards him. She loops the end of the rope around her hand, then wraps it around both of his wrists in a kind of figure eight pattern and pulls it tight enough to hold him but not to hurt. It’s nothing that he couldn’t get out of and he could overpower her, at least he thinks he could, but when she pushes him down with her free hand on his shoulder and raises his bound hands above his head, pressing them against the truck, he lets her.
“Do you want me to stop?” she asks him.
He looks up at her from on his knees. The view behind her is as empty of people as it is of everything else, but he’s not convinced he could tell her to stop even if it were otherwise.
“Because I’ve been told that people only have sex with each other when they both want to have sex with each other, so if you don’t want to…”
Natasha licks her lips.
“I want to,” she says, and Clint can see that she does.
He can’t look away from her, bright and blazing.
Natasha loops the poi rope around his wrists again and then lets go. She kisses his wrists just below the rope and tells him, “Stay.”
Clint keeps his hands where they are, but when she drops to her own knees in front of him and leans close enough he kisses her the way he’s wanted to since that first kiss, matching her bite for bite.
She opens his fly and takes him out, stroking him with one hand. Her other hand goes up the skirt of her dress as she spreads her knees wider and Clint groans against her mouth, remembering what she looked like when she’d started to slide her panties down and imagining her fingers now pushing them aside under her dress.
It’s hot and fast. She kisses him as she comes apart. He swallows the sounds that she makes and spills onto the ground between them.
“Bartons!” Clint hears someone yell a moment later.
Natasha tucks him back in and fastens his fly, pressing her lips to his again and again, while he drops the loop of his arms, still bound at the wrists, over her head and pulls her tight against him.
“BARTONS! Damn it, did you want to see Carson about switching up the poi act or not?”
Carson lets Natasha add the archery to her poi turn. After their first performance and word gets out they get a straw house five towns in a row.
“I’ve been thinking about the curse,” says Clint. “How we might get rid of it.”
They’re naked and drowsing in bed when he brings it up, the smell of sex on the sheets. Their truck is the only place they don’t have to act like brother and sister, and even if they do have to keep quiet for fear of being heard they’ve yet to manage being alone here without touching each other, trying to crawl inside each other’s skin. Now Natasha lies on her stomach with her head resting on her folded arms while he lies next to her, propping himself up on an elbow and running his fingers down her spine.
“You think I never have?” she says, turning her head to face him and yawning. “There’s a saying in Russia: pray to God, but row for shore.”
Clint thinks about that for a moment, drawing a sideways figure eight on her shoulder blade.
“You mean hope for help, but in the meantime help yourself.”
She makes a pleased noise as he turns his attentions to the nape of her neck.
“You know I’ve done a lot of travelling. I’ve found out some things about curses. And I heard that Rasputin had a daughter, Maria, who works as a dancer in a circus in America. I thought she might know something, if I could find her.”
“You said it only affects women with the Romanov name, right? Have you heard from any of them or heard what happened to any of them?”
Natasha closes her eyes and sighs.
“I’ve heard of a lot of them dying and people blaming nature for it.”
He glides his hand down and lets it fall still, resting on the small of her back.
“Have you heard if any of them got married?”
“Why?” asks Natasha, opening her eyes and sounding just a little alarmed.
“I just thought that if they got married, well, then they wouldn’t be a Romanov any more, would they? So would that break the curse?”
“Clint,” she says, wrapping her hand around his wrist, the one by his head, “are you asking me to marry you?”
“You’re already calling yourself Natasha Barton,” he replies.
He doesn’t think of himself as a possessive person, but he likes the thought of Natasha officially taking his name, or rather he likes the thought of her choosing to take his name, not just living with it after he made her take it like she is now.
“I don’t know if any of them got married,” says Natasha, her tone and eyes serious. “After I left Russia and with the revolution it was difficult to keep in touch with what family I had, and I doubt I’m the only one who’s gone by a different name. But what are the odds of none of them getting married, joining other families, changing their names? Some of them must have. Don’t make an offer like that just because you think it might help me. It most likely won’t.”
“But it’s worth a try, right?”
He would do anything to help Natasha, to try to keep her safe, to free her from the curse that she’s under, and this is something he wants to do anyway, curse be damned.
Clint leans down to press his lips to a mole on her shoulder and then to her lips.
“Natasha Romanova,” he asks, smiling, “would you do me the honor of marrying me?”
He’s driving, Bobbi is reading, and Natasha is leaning her head on his shoulder when Clint asks Bobbi if she’ll be one of the witnesses at their wedding. He figures the sooner they get married the better as far as trying to get rid of the curse is concerned. Bobbi is his closest and oldest friend, the only person who even knows that Clint and Natasha aren’t siblings, and Clint wants her to be there.
“Sorry?” says Bobbi and Clint tries not to laugh at how surprised she sounds, because it’s not often anyone manages to surprise her. “You mean at an official wedding? Not just taking a ride on the carousel together?”
“Officially,” he confirms.
Natasha lifts her head off Clint’s shoulder and frowns at him before turning to talk to Bobbi.
“He’s not doing this right,” she says. “What we mean is that we’d like to get married and we’d like your…blessing, I suppose.”
They haven’t tried to hide how their relationship has changed from Bobbi, but they’ve not flaunted it either. Clint knows that he can have more than one most important person in his life, but Bobbi was first and he never wants to hurt her, never wants her to feel second-best or left out, although when he brought it up Natasha had just smiled and told him that Bobbi would want him to be happy.
“You’d like to get married,” Bobbi repeats.
She puts her book down and studies them both carefully.
“I have a lot of family,” she says to Natasha, “and I consider Clint to be a part of that. I know that you make him happy, I can hear that, but if you want me to accept this I need you to tell me what you feel is the truth here, none of this ‘we’ nonsense.”
“I need to get married to Clint,” Natasha tells her solemnly.
“And I want to get married to Natasha,” says Clint. He takes a deep breath. “And Bobbi, you know I think of you as family too, right?”
“Pssh,” says Bobbi, waving a hand in the air dismissively. “You have odd ideas about family, boy-o, so you can keep that sentiment. I’m just pleased you’ve found someone else to share yourself with, not just sticking to me all the time. You don’t need anyone’s blessing, either of you, but if you want mine then you have it. Although,” she adds, “how come I didn’t know you had a girl?”
She picks up her book and leans over Natasha to bop him on the head with it.
“Didn’t tell me you had a sister, didn’t tell me you had a girl; damn silent man.”
“Hush, you, or I’ll take my waistcoat back,” he threatens.
“Wait, that purple monstrosity was yours?” says Natasha.
Clint groans as the two women gang up to tease him, but he knows his own nature as well as anyone else’s. He knows that there’s nowhere else he’d rather be.
The town is one that Carson’s Circus Of Wonders has stopped at a few times before in previous seasons and Clint knows where the courthouse is.
It’s straightforward getting married in Oklahoma. Clint and Natasha show up with identification and their two witnesses - Bobbi and Ezekiel, who Natasha has become as fond of as he is of her. They buy a marriage license, go before a judge, and are married before that night’s show.
Clint doesn’t dare to think that that’s the end of the curse, but he does hope. He hopes that for just this once the good can outweigh the bad.
Unfortunately life doesn’t work that way.
It’s a few towns later when Clint hears people yelling a blowdown warning, which means there’s a storm so large on the way that it could bring down the big top.
He’d been with Bobbi while she was practicing again, so he waits until she’s down from the high wire and heading to her own caravan, her arms full of parasols, before rushing off to find Natasha, past people securing tents and equipment.
He can feel the wind getting stronger and see the storm on the horizon like nightfall descending, a black blizzard. The dust in the air threatens to choke him and Clint pulls up the collar of his shirt, covering his mouth with it, trying not to breathe the dust in.
Natasha isn’t in their truck.
He stands on the steps trying to think where she might be and coming up with nothing.
Ezekiel waves wildly at him as he passes, yelling something and gesturing behind the back yard towards the storm. Clint can’t hear what he’s saying, the words torn away by the wind, but when he looks into the storm he can just see a woman with fiery red hair walking out to meet it.
Clint goes after her.
He has to fight against the wind every step of the way, head bowed, the grit painful on his exposed skin and working its way into his clothes. It feels like he’ll never be clean, never be free of the dust.
He finds her when he almost trips over her. She’s sat on the ground, knees pulled up and face buried in them, and she startles when he gets down in front of her, putting his back to the storm and his hands on her shoulders and asking, “Why?”
Clint leans in close to her, straining to hear her reply and watching her lips, trying to follow what she says as best as he can.
“Because you said that you wanted to marry me and I said that I needed to.”
“I don’t understand,” says Clint and he honestly doesn’t. “Is there a difference? Am I supposed to be angry or upset that you need to be with me?”
“You more than want me,” says Natasha. “You love me. I might not have your sight, but I can tell that much.”
She reaches out to clutch at his waistcoat and shirt.
“I needed to marry you,” she tries to explain, raising her voice against the wind. “Not just because changing my name and becoming part of another family might end the curse. The reason the Romanov women were cursed in the first place was for not paying their debts.”
“I told you that you don’t owe me anything,” says Clint, hurt that she can believe so much but not that.
“Not just debt. For not thinking of others. I just. I knew that doing something for someone else because of the curse probably wouldn’t end it, but that if I did something for you and it didn’t end then that would be all right.”
She looks down at her hands fisted in his clothes.
“I’m not a nice person or a good one. If I’d found Maria Rasputin, I would have done anything to get her to help me. Anything, Clint.”
“It’s okay to be desperate.”
They’re both shouting now and he doesn’t want to be doing that, but he has to make her hear, make her understand.
“But it’s not okay to give into it,” she yells back, her eyes finding his once more. “You always think the good can be more than the bad, even when it never is. You never give in. You run away and join the circus! You get someone else hired on for no real reason at all.”
“Wanting to help someone else is a real reason.”
“And I wanted to try that! To do something for someone else, one good thing, before this curse killed me, but it isn’t enough. There’s a reason I’m cursed. You wanted to marry me and it made you so happy, but I’m not good enough. I can’t just do things for other people like that!”
“It makes me happy,” Clint corrects her, squeezing her shoulders. “How can you say you’re not enough when I love you? I love you! I should have told you, I should have said.”
“But there’s nothing to love.”
Natasha drops her gaze and he lifts her chin up, refusing to let her look away from him.
“You know that? Is that what you know?”
She’s tired and worn in his eyes, but like when they first met there’s still that other side to her. She reminds him of the land around them. It’s hard to imagine that anything could grow here again, in such a desolate place that looks like a vision from the end of days, but it’s still alive, the nature of it is life, its nature just has to be seen.
“I told you, I see the nature of things. I see you.”
“You see me.” Natasha lets out a broken laugh. “I don’t even know if there is a me.”
“There is. There is.”
Clint takes her face in both hands, the same way she’s done to him at the end of every William Tell turn they’ve had together, and she lets him. She looks into his eyes and he can see her challenging him to make her believe, trusting him to make her believe.
“I see you, Natasha. I know you have faces that you hide behind, but no one can hide from me, and you didn’t, you showed yourself to me. I see you, and I see that storm, and whatever the nature of it is, be that a curse or nature itself pure and at it’s most violent, it’s nothing compared to you.”
The wind blasts his back as the storm reaches them and Clint throws his hands out, trying to stop himself from falling onto Natasha. The air around them is suddenly black with dust. He can’t see the circus anymore. He can barely see Natasha’s face in front of him.
What he can see is retribution, hate, and satisfaction as the storm swallows them. The dust burns his skin, forces its way into his mouth and up his nose, consumes him and enjoys it.
Natasha clambers to her feet and Clint grabs at her, bracing her with his arms around her waist and burying his face in her stomach, trying to hide his eyes from the horror surrounding them.
He can feel it as she yells into the storm, but he can’t hear it.
He doesn’t need to.
The curse was about balance, about a debt unpaid, but Natasha is balance and she’s blazing with it now. The good never outweighs the bad, but it balances it and this story, this curse itself, is now unbalanced. In the face of the horror, all Natasha needs is to be herself.
The wind dies down. The dust settles. Natasha’s hands are in his hair.
“If you hurt this family I will curse you,” she’s screaming still and he doesn’t need Bobbi to know that it’s a truth she’s telling. “You want debt? He has so much of me that it’s beyond debt! If you do anything to him you will owe me more than can ever be paid! And I will collect.”
“And if you hurt her,” Clint croaks when both Natasha and the world fall silent, “you hurt me.”
Natasha and Bobbi watch from the truck as Clint corners the gaffer. He knows that it’ll get around anyway, but he wants to tell Carson at least that he and Natasha aren’t actually siblings and are now married. This way, even though he won’t get to tell everyone personally, at least he’s said it, out loud, to another person. At least he’s done his own telling.
You have to tell your own truths.
For all he can see things that others can’t see though, Clint sometimes forgets how clearly others can see without having his ability, and that can get him in trouble just as much as getting caught at seeing things he shouldn’t.
“I’m not blind, Barton,” Carson snaps at him, pushing the brim of his bowler hat up so that Clint can see just how annoyed he is at Clint wanting to talk to him now when they’re almost ready for the off. “The way the pair of you kiss in the ring at the end of your William Tell turn aside, she’s a beautiful, well-travelled, Russian redhead and you’re a farm boy we picked up one time and never got shut of. Barton, no one thinks she’s your sister.”
Clint can hear Natasha and Bobbi laughing. He ducks his head to hide his own smile and fiddles with the buttons on his waistcoat.
“Well. Ah. We’re also married now. By a judge and in front of witnesses and all official.”
“Sister, wife, great-aunt from Nova Scotia, do I care?” says Carson, but he’s smiling now himself. “What I care about, Barton, is that you’re not in your truck and ready to go already. You’re holding up the line. Move it!” he adds, louder and addressing everyone within hearing.
“Let’s shake some dust!”