It’s not something in their files. Not the regular files anyway, the ones logged with medical and the roster of field supervisors.
Technically, Natasha supposes, most of the important parts happened before SHIELD got their hands on her. However, SHIELD records have been known to contain information that came as news even to the subject, so it’s still a little odd.
On the other hand, there are pages of redacted information, for all sorts of reasons, in both her and Clint’s files. The number of people with access to the missing pieces is possibly limited to only Fury and Hill. And Coulson, of course, but he doesn’t need files.
Five years ago
She thinks she’s been here for a month, but her timekeeping is being hindered by whatever they’ve been shooting into her arm since she got here. She’s been hallucinating pretty steadily for what feels like three weeks. Natasha isn’t seeing things, but she is hearing everything.
Right now, what she’s hearing is a steady, rhythmic knock on the wall. There are cells all up and down the hallway, but she never sees any of the others. They scream, sometimes, and choke, and then for a long while there is only silence.
The voice on the other end of the knocking says, “Hey? Russian chick?”
She refuses to talk to hallucinations.
Fury gives Clint a disbelieving eyebrow when he protests, “We’re not like the others.”
Avengers, Natasha thinks. Who came up with that name? It’s a name for bright colours and bloodless flash-bangs, not for spies and assassins. None of them are- they don’t have clean hands. That’s true of her and Clint more than most people. Although if she takes it literally, Natasha sees more of retributive justice in the arc of Clint’s bow than in Captain America’s sweetly earnest expression.
Fury asks, “Agent Barton, are you trying to make the argument that the three of you are too normal for this team?”
Natasha is pretty sure that even Clint can’t say that with a straight face.
Five years ago
The next time they drag her out of the cell, she turns and looks at the door beside hers. There’s a scrambling noise and then the blank rectangle of the door grille is filled by a pair of eyes. / Red-headed Russian chick / she hears. It feels like a sigh of relief.
/ Clint / she thinks. This is one of her hallucinations.
Except one of the sets of muscle pulling her along bangs on that door and grunts, “Barton.” He slams his hand against the gap and the man – Barton, Clint? – jerks backwards and falls to the floor. Natasha stumbles too and the lab-coat turns to look at her. He makes a note in his little book.
Five minutes later, they bring Clint to join her in the laboratory.
Coulson is good with secrets.
He retains trivial pieces of information and he never reveals a thing until it becomes relevant. He snatches a box of takeaway from Tony (“You’re allergic to that”) and doesn’t panic when Bruce disappears for twelve hours without telling anyone (“Anniversary. He’ll be back soon.”). He closes his eyes to think and she can see the flickering behind them. “Two thousand two? You were in Georgia. Through May anyway.”
Her calculations match his, and Natasha dutifully records that on the form.
Tony narrows his eyes. “Were you even with SHIELD then?”
“And this doesn’t concern you?”
“That he has all of that information in his head for no good reason?” Tony addresses Phil. “We have this stuff on computers now, you know.”
“I know,” Phil says calmly.
Tony points. “You see what I mean?”
Clint tips his head over the arm of the chair and grins at her. She knows what he means: if Coulson couldn’t keep these secrets, the two of them would be pretty much screwed. She doesn’t have much option but to trust him.
Five years ago
The man in the next cell is not only Clint Barton, he is Hawkeye, and in Natasha’s line of work, of course she recognises that name. He doesn’t tell her this, but he is an easy read. He knows her too. She doesn’t know if she spilled that information as he did, or if perhaps he just saw her work and put it together with red hair and Russian.
Clint is trying to keep secrets, and doing a bad job of it. He hides half of the pieces: she knows what his brother did but not the man’s name, she sees every detail of his first kill for SHIELD bar the final shot.
Natasha learns from this. She spends her time thinking of things of little consequence, and as many of them as she can. Filling her head with memories she can afford to lose, Natasha has to hope that will work to hide the rest. She hears enough of the thoughts around her that she fears it may be a lost cause, but she hears Clint more clearly than anyone else.
When the guards bring them to the lab, they take Clint first, and then bring her in and strap her beside him. They won’t leave her alone in here any more, locked in or not.
Clint brushes his fingers against hers. Even considering the time she has spent in his head, it feels like an undue intimacy. Mostly. There’s nothing in his thoughts that feels like something she would have to hurt him for. He just wanted to touch her hand. Clint smiles. / You used to dance. /
Natasha’s mind is full of things that Clint used to do, and his expression clouds at her thoughts of them. She grabs onto a stray memory and pulls the words together, clear on the ones that count. / You sing Bob Dylan in the shower. /
He laughs, out loud this time, and is still laughing when the wires are strapped on.
Phil disappears, and Clint yells, and the bottom falls out of the world.
Natasha knows Phil asleep, or unconscious, and this is something else. Clint has turned to an awful white static, all sound and no picture. Natasha catches herself before she drops there too.
These three things happen all at once, and the others don't know which to answer first.
Natasha calls out for Clint, because the alternative is too much. “Focus.” She doesn’t want to risk the other way just yet.
Clint takes a deep breath and manages, “What the fuck happened?”
Bruce answers, “He was snatched out of the universe.”
“He was- what the fuck?”
“Focus,” she says again. “Phil’s always telling you… Bruce, is he okay?”
“Well,” Bruce says, “there’s no- I don’t see why not.” That is not the same thing at all; Natasha knows it and she hears Clint know it too.
Steve coughs. “We’ll get him back. Of course we will. But are- are you two okay? You’ve been working together for a long time and he’s…” Steve doesn’t want to ask what made things so bad that Clint nearly lost his grip on his bow, that made her hand unsteady on her gun.
Natasha has it together now. One of them needs to, and she has more practice. She says, “It’s a bit more complicated than that.”
Five years ago
It’s getting worse, and she is losing track of what their captors are trying to achieve, she is so tangled with Clint. It hurts.
Natasha’s mind traces over the edges of the scientists but she cannot hold it steady. She suspects that’s what they want. They wanted a psychic assassination team. She catches glimpses of the history – this is not their first try. In the first try, they killed all of their subjects. In this try, it took longer, but they have now killed everyone but her and Clint. They filled their subjects’ heads with everything, and a person isn’t meant to hear so much. She could have told them that before they started; she knows a little bit about what the mind can take.
They had started smaller this time, though they had still meant to keep more than just two. Natasha is in a feedback loop with Clint, reaching outwards for the other minds but always holding him closest. She can’t maintain a connection to anyone else. The scientists consider this a success. Natasha bites her lip to keep from screaming, and wonders what failure would look like.
There is presumably a plan for after this – for the kinds of things two trained killers telepathically bonded to each other could do, even if the doctors cannot persuade their paired subjects to lock onto another mind. Natasha does not suppose it will matter. The two of them are not going to last much longer.
She is tied to a chair, back to back with Clint. They have bound her wrists and ankles. They learned from the last time she escaped and got through four sets of doors; she does not know how many were left, but they were scared enough. Clint’s fingers tangle with hers, holding on tight. Natasha is long past wondering at this; she stretches back as far as she can and curls her hand around his.
There is a banging noise, far away, and she remembers Clint knocking on the wall. Maybe someone else is out there still.
The banging gets closer; they send one of the guards to investigate. He doesn’t come back, and they send another. Then another. Clint leans back in the chair, pressing the back of his head against the back of hers. He feels hopeful, and she cannot detangle the why.
The door opens; Clint wrenches his shoulder trying to look around.
Natasha has never, her whole life, been so desperately relieved to see anyone as Clint feels when he catches sight of the man in the suit. More than that, she knows that Clint has never felt so relieved to see anyone else, and doesn’t know how to process this moment. The man is not over-tall, his hairline is receding, and he’s only got the one gun.
He looks around the room, fires off four shots, and is beside Clint almost before Natasha can process what is happening. He slides out a knife and cuts the rope binding Clint’s right hand. He touches Clint’s cheek and she can feel it. He says, “Barton?” and Clint hears something else.
Darling, Natasha translates absently, laughing through the ache at how Clint protests.
He passes Clint the knife. “Can you get the two of you loose?”
“Coulson,” Clint breathes. Phil.
Coulson goes to the other side of the lab. He lifts the remaining scientist by the collar. “What do I need to know?”
“My agent. What do I need to know?”
Clint has cut himself loose, and starts to work on her. She feels it when he nicks her skin and she feels his regret at causing it and then his hurt at her hurt. It’s nothing, meaningless, but it sends the two of them into a spin of reflected pain.
The doctor is saying, “It won’t do any good, they need an anchor, a control, you think we built something like this to-.”
Coulson picks up the wicked looking syringe, full of something blue, connected to all those wires that are still attached to Natasha and Clint. He takes a breath, uses the butt of his gun to knock out the scientist, and then slides up the sleeve of his shirt.
“Sir-.” Clint argues.
Coulson spreads his fingers out on his left arm, and jabs the syringe into his pale skin. He hits the ground and this is worse. Her thoughts are Clint’s thoughts are Coulson’s thoughts and it all hurts. Someone’s going to come crashing through those doors any moment and Natasha doesn’t know whose information that is. She can’t trust any of the sensory input and that is the most frightening thing that has happened so far. She doesn’t know where to shoot.
Clint has crawled over to Coulson’s side, patting at his arm. He gets the syringe out but that’s hardly their main problem. Natasha stumbles and sits beside them. She lifts the gun Coulson brought, and aims it shakily at the door. That will have to be close enough.
Coulson takes a breath. “Okay. I think we’re okay.”
“Sir,” Clint says, “that was about the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen and I’ve-.”
“Shush,” Coulson says. “Give me a minute.”
Natasha tightens her fingers around the gun. These are her fingers. Clint’s are still on Coulson’s arm and Coulson’s are tapping the floor. She can tell the difference now. Natasha asks, “What are you doing?”
Coulson opens his eyes and looks at her. “Just a little filing.”
There are reinforcements coming for the scientists, and SHIELD – which is a name she barely knows – has agents outside. They should get clear. That’s a decision which feels mutual, wherever the initial information came from. She doesn’t know where she’s running to, but away is clear enough.
Coulson stands up, and reaches his hand down to her. / With us, Ms Romanoff? /
Fury sets Doctor Foster to work on the problem.
Tony paces too. “This wasn’t relevant information?”
“It had nothing to do with you,” Clint bites out. His thoughts are voiced more strongly.
“Oh, no?” Tony demands. “When he gets taken out of the equation and you and Romanoff drop right the hell out too? That wasn’t relevant? And what happened to all of that fucking ‘we’re the only normal ones in the team of freaks’ thing? You’re goddamn telepaths?”
Clint pulls something from the mess that is his thoughts right now and says, “It doesn’t affect my shot.”
Five years ago
Natasha thinks about running the moment they clear the complex. Clint can tell, of course. Coulson may be able to tell but he seems to be putting most of his energy right now into creating some fences between their three minds. It isn’t working. She already knows almost as much about him as she knows about Clint. She can’t decide whether or not to be reassured.
/ You can sit down, Ms Romanoff. / He holds the formality even in his mind, however, which is mildly impressive.
/ What if I asked you to let me go instead? / she asks.
/ You’re not a prisoner. /
/ However? /
/ However, I would prefer if you came with us. /
/ Why? /
/ Because I think we should work this out. I think we could help each other. /
Clint watches the two of them. He is sitting down in the corner of the van, hand wrapped around the knife Coulson gave him. He pats the floor beside him. / Tasha. /
Coulson smiles at that, barely visible but she makes it out from the context and the slow warmth of his thoughts. / Sit down, Ms Romanoff. Stay a while. /
She settles down beside Clint. If they develop hostile intentions, she’ll know as soon as they do. Clint is most of the way towards sleep. He smiles at her, and curls his body against hers. It’s half-protective, half something else, the crown of his head pressed tight to the underside of her jaw.
It’s not enough: to know that he thinks he’s safe and to know that Coulson could not contemplate hurting him. Things are more complicated than that. Natasha doesn’t sleep, but she allows herself to relax just a little.
Darcy is sitting by the computer watching something move around while Jane scrawls all over most of three whiteboards. Darcy says, “I don’t get it, why does Coulson disappearing mean that you two are all hinky?”
Clint throws pencils at the ceiling and doesn’t answer her.
Natasha says, “He holds the whole thing steady. When he got us out-.”
Steve spins around. “Wait. What?”
“What?” she asks.
“Got you out of where?”
Natasha pulls Clint back before the pencils all come tumbling down on top of him. “I’m not sure they had a name.”
“Someone did this to you,” Steve says. “Not SHIELD.”
It’s quiet, a revelation, and Tony turns from the board to look too. “You didn’t mention that,” he says. That is an accusation.
“Not relevant,” Clint says. He catches the pencils as they fall, turns them back the right way up, and starts throwing again.
/ Focus / she reminds Clint. To Tony, she says, “It was an experiment.”
“One you didn’t volunteer for.”
“Coulson tried to fix it,” Clint says. “This was the best we could come up with.”
Five years ago
They have encouraged Natasha, politely, to stay in the quarters she has been given. Coulson is with the organisation’s director; Natasha has heard of Nick Fury, but what she has heard doesn’t match the quiet humour Coulson is projecting. He doesn’t seem especially worried about having to tell his boss about ‘bringing home strays’ (Clint’s expression, although he may not have intended her to hear it).
Clint opens the door. “Hi.” He sits beside her on the bed.
“If you seriously want out, I know all the exits.”
She stares at him. “Do you want me out?”
“I’m not sure it would be a good idea, what with the untested telepathic bond and everything. But I don’t believe in locking people up. At least, not just for the misfortune of having run into me.”
“You don’t think it’s your misfortune to have met me?”
He bumps her shoulder. “No.”
/ Easily pleased. / She didn’t mean to give him that, but he laughs.
“Sure. Natasha, I’ve seen what you can do.” / Might be fun to do it together. /
She could ask what kind of place this is where secret assassination is something fun to do in pairs. But she’s read enough of Clint already that she thinks she knows.
/ Don’t listen to him. / That’s Coulson. / He’s a biased observer. We also do a lot of things that don’t involve shooting people. / Coulson opens the door. “Director Fury would like to meet you, Ms Romanoff.” He looks steadily at Clint. “You are supposed to be in your own quarters.”
“I came to break Natasha out.”
“So I see. I’m sure she was very impressed with how far you got.”
Clint shrugs. “I offered her an exit, she turned me down.”
Coulson turns his gaze on her, appraising. “That’s good to hear.”
Natasha waits to see what he is going to say next, and listens for the things he isn’t saying. Nothing comes. Coulson nods at her, gives Clint a pointed stare, and ushers the two of them out of the door.
That just about sets the tone for the next five years.
“It’s not a security risk?” Steve asks.
“In what way?” Clint demands.
He is apparently not sure enough of that to answer.
Clint relents and answers anyway. It’s difficult to stay angry with Steve for any length of time. Clint says, “Not between us. We have the same clearance level. It’s worse for Phil. He knows things we’re not supposed to. They talked about knocking him down a few levels, right after.”
“Natasha and I objected,” Clint says.
“Strenuously,” she adds.
Phil still gets left out of some of the meetings, she knows. He doesn’t talk about it. He made a choice, and Phil is not the kind of man to argue with the consequences. Natasha is not always sure that it is even about clearance, and about the kind of things she and Clint could give away if they were minded to. She suspects it is more about the other things. The meetings he is excluded from tend to be the ones regarding acceptable losses and deploying agents into the field. The assumption is that he’s emotionally compromised.
“You never tried to undo it?” Tony – of course – asks.
Natasha says, “It works for us. It can be an advantage in the field.”
“Except you can only hear each other,” he says.
“It lets us plan. Gives us an edge on timing too.”
Clint is toeing the floor with his boot. “Want a demonstration, Stark?”
He hasn’t finished talking before she has her arm around his throat. Clint has rolled backwards underneath a lab bench, balancing a pencil between his two fingers like an arrow pointed across the room. Natasha hums (she checks Tony’s breathing, checks that he isn’t panicking, that he knows what they’re doing).
Tony says, “I’m pretty sure you could knock me over without that. Take me on in the armour some time and we’ll see.”
“Not aiming at you,” Clint says. “Aiming at Cap. You’re going to have to imagine the bow.”
“You can’t touch-.”
“No,” Clint says. “But I’m pretty sure he’s not going to go for me, because the moment he does, Natasha breaks your neck. And it doesn’t make any difference that she can’t see him, can’t see the first second he moves, or that I wouldn’t have picked up on the fact there’s no fucking way Cap’s going to sacrifice you to get out of the mess.”
“Of course I wouldn’t,” Steve says, “but I think that I…”
“You do realise that the re-enactment was in slow-motion?” Natasha says. “With Phil here- and at full speed… I’m not saying we could take you two on two in a straight fight. It’s just that we very rarely have to fight fair.”
Natasha wonders sometimes if that’s why Fury wanted them on the team. If you want to take down Gods and Superheroes, you either need a nuclear strike, or you need the kind of kill that no one sees coming. The only person Fury trusts implicitly is Phil, and Phil knows the worst things she and Clint have done. Phil trusts them anyway, and Fury trusts Phil. It isn’t that Fury has any immediate concerns over Iron Man or Thor, but the man has contingency plans within contingency plans.
If he had one for them, for her and Clint, it probably would have looked a lot like today. Clint’s brain is conjuring pictures, rapid-fire, of every worst-case scenario he can think of. And she is hearing things again.
Four years ago
They’ve been away for a while and she and Clint are still getting their rhythm back. They have the gym to themselves, because Phil can pull strings, and because he likes the air of mystery around them. It appeals to his peculiar sense of humour.
Natasha twists and Clint swerves to follow her movement. She’s better than him at hand-to-hand and she’s better at masking, so this is really only a contest because she is letting it be.
Clint protests that, loudly, sweeping at her leg. She cartwheels over it and gets onto her feet again.
/ Show off. /
/ Look who’s talking. /
Coulson is sitting on the benches on the other side of the gym, making notes on his paperwork. It’s an act entirely for the omnipresent security cameras. His focus is all on them. It’s a little unnerving: normally being watched means that something has gone wrong. It’s not more than a little unnerving, because Natasha had missed this while she was away. Distance only makes things more faint, but Phil’s unspoken amusement at the two of them washes everything in colour. She catches a trace of a thought, and Clint must catch the same thing because he turns his head sharply to look over at Phil. Natasha kicks Clint in the chest.
“Ow, Jesus fuck!” he yelps, all stereo.
Phil laughs, stereo again if less loud. “Focus, Clint. Distance. You need to pull back a little.”
“Sir, let’s be honest. Pulling back is only going to help if I want to take Natasha out. And even if I did, it’s not going to happen.”
“Fine, sir.” He goes back to the rhythm of their sparring. She can tell he’s going to do something before he does it. The specifics still surprise her. She’s pulled back, but not enough that Clint’s sudden mental picture doesn’t give her pause. Apparently he has extremely detailed thoughts about the sex the three of them could be having, and how sad it is that they’re not having it yet.
The thoughts aren’t detailed enough that he lands a hit on her, but still.
/ Seriously? / The pout is a little more distracting. / Telepathic threesome sex isn’t kinky enough for you? /
/ Feel free to try again. /
And it seems he was being polite, testing her reaction first. That one looks more interesting. Clint has a good mouth.
/ You started it, sir. / Clint is much more cheerful now.
/ Excuse me? /
/ Bearing in mind that we’re telepathically linked, so even your above-average poker face will be no help to you now, are you seriously trying to tell us that when Natasha flipped me over her head, your first thought wasn’t-? /
Natasha provides the pictures this time. She feels the heat in Phil’s cheeks on her own skin.
“Ten minutes more on the mats,” Phil says. “Then back to quarters.”
This was worth coming back for.
Jane says “Ah hah!”
Darcy looks at her. “Did you just say ‘ah hah’? Like out loud? You know, I’m not convinced you’re a real person.”
“I’ve found him,” Jane says. “Or I’ve found a way to find him, anyway.”
Darcy claps, because she’s not actually a more real person than Jane, and because she’s surprisingly fond of Coulson. “Good. How? Do it now.”
Jane drags Thor and Tony to her computer and they’re basically talking about putting the thing in reverse. It better be soon. Clint sits beside Natasha and bangs the back of his head against the wall. She grabs hold of his hand. / Focus. /
The thing about Clint, the thing that gets missed sometimes, is that he throws his whole heart into people. He’s more trusting than she is, though he denies it every time she brings it up.
/ You like people more than I do. /
/ Maybe. / That’s not the same thing. Natasha trusts a larger number of people to a smaller degree. She gets along better with people, because it’s her job to know how they work. Clint trusts an absolutely tiny number of people but he trusts them absolutely. He follows orders and he hides himself away and people are mostly a mystery to him. He says the wrong thing when they can get him to talk and photo-ops are a lost cause. But they haven’t found a battle he won’t throw himself into and it would be painfully easy for any of them to betray him now. He has let them in, so now he’d follow them anywhere. She knows that, because he’s done it for her.
Four and a half years ago
She runs, and for a long time no one follows her. Natasha has more hiding places than she would need in a thousand lifetimes. She was always prepared for this. She goes, and she goes singing. It’s another way to hide.
When Clint finds her, he sits beside her on a rooftop in the rain. / Tasha, you know I don’t speak Italian. /
/ Latin. /
/ That too. /
/ Where’s Coulson? /
/ Base. /
They’re ten thousand miles from base, and decades from anything that might have meant home. She tilts her head back and lets the water run down her face. / You’re here to bring me back? /
/ I still know all the exits. /
Clint means it, and that is the thing that stops her in her tracks. She can feel the tug in the back of his mind, thinking not ‘home’ but ‘Phil’. He would go with her anyway. He thinks she needs an exit more than he needs Phil.
/ Wrong. / She pushes her damp hair back out of her eyes. / And he’d never forgive me even if you weren’t. / She doesn’t know what the two of them would become, eventually, with no anchor and no one to stop them. She takes Clint back this time, because he refuses to be the one to drag her in.
They walk back onto base as though they have never been away. That is all Phil’s doing. When she reads the paperwork from this time (all but the records only he and Fury and Hill see) they will show that his team was on assignment. Phil nods at Clint and stares at her. His hands are tight-clenched on the edge of his desk and for a moment he spills enough that she can feel the ache he has been carrying. Ten thousand miles and he gave no indication; these ten paces between his desk chair and their two bodies is too much.
Phil says, “I gather you got a little farther this time.”
/ A little, / she agrees.
/ We came back, / Clint offers.
Phil’s hands unclench. He spreads his palms on the desk, and meets her eyes. She has never known if this is intended to be a signal or a warning sign: it means he wants to sort through the pieces they have left strewn. Whatever he sees, Phil nods. / Well, that’s the important thing. /
Thor reappears out of the lightning and the flash of Jane’s device. He had volunteered, feeling that he was best suited to handle possible inter-dimensional kidnappers. They still weren’t sure that it hadn’t been an unintended consequence of the original machine backfiring, but anyone who could tell them about that was either incinerated or vanished into the ether along with Phil.
The rest of the team stay ranged around the edges, prepared for anything Thor could bring back with him. Natasha is closest; Clint is farthest away.
Thor sets something down in the centre of the circle. She doesn’t need to look; she would know the sound of that mind with her eyes closed, drugged to the gills, and she sometimes has. His alarm cuts through her own thoughts like knives, and Natasha is not the one to pull those ragged edges together.
Phil coughs, on his hands and knees, and pulls himself into a crouch. His thoughts are racing and Natasha takes deep breaths. Tangled as they are, his body might fall into mimicry. This is something she can do. It works for the length of time it takes Phil to carefully draw their three selves apart again. / Okay. It’s okay. /
Clint’s hand is fisted in the back of his uniform, caught between going for an arrow and rubbing his neck.
Phil catches Clint’s eye. “Damn it, Clint, what did I say?”
Phil gets onto his feet, crosses the distance quickly. He catches Clint’s elbow. “You need not to hold on so hard. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you- you need to be able to let go.”
Clint shakes his head, just once. “Not when it’s you, sir, no.”
That’s the sort of thing they don’t say out loud. It’s the sort of thing Natasha doesn’t say out loud even when she means it.
/ We’re okay, sir. / Clint’s inflection betrays nothing; if he was speaking there would be sarcasm or a joke to cover it up. They both know better.
Natasha is able to wipe that away, wipe away the trace of a question mark. / We’re okay. / She meets Phil’s eyes and lets him see for himself. More words would be meaningless.