It is usual to think of good and evil as two poles, two opposite directions, the antithesis of one another… We must begin by doing away with this convention.
Martin Buber, On Good and Evil
The farmhouse is always the same.
Natasha doesn't care much for steadiness —the result of a life where patterns and predictability can get you killed— but a small, treacherous part of her mind finds the idea of a constant oddly comforting. She wonders when that happened, how she allowed herself that sentimentality, let alone how she allowed herself to acknowledge it. Maybe once she had stopped considering her legacy as exclusively composed of blood and chaos, once she had accepted that while she might never wipe out all the red, attempting to balance the thing might count for something... maybe then she had started allowing herself the luxury to think of something calm and serene as a constant. SHIELD psychs would probably have something to say about that, but she doesn't plan to share this information with anyone.
It had been fourteen months into their partnership when Clint had opened up about where he would mysteriously disappear during his time off, and brought her there. After the emergency extraction, the long flight back to DC, the medicals and the debriefing and Fury's rant that having the clean-up team retrieving arrows from sixty corpses is not the definition of subtle, Barton, their esteemed leader had informed them that they could choose between one month of counselling and one month of leave, whatever they preferred, as long as they did not blow up the expected steam in his Helicarrier. Natasha didn't think she had anything to steam off —almost dying was hardly a novelty in this job— but that's Americans for you. They chose the leave, if anything to avoid the whispers in the corridors and Coulson's examining eye. Four years later, they’re still avoiding Budapest.
For the first time ever, instead of the usual “OK bye, see you when I'm back”, Clint had looked her steadily in the eyes and asked her if she would like to come with him. For the first time ever, instead of asking where and why, she had just shrugged and packed a bag with layers.
Whatever she had been expecting, an old farmhouse in Iowa wasn't it. Clint's only explanation was that it had belonged to his grandparents, along with muttering that there was yet another house in the same county that also used to belong to his family, but that he was not inclined to ever revisit. It was big and spacious, with views to the cornfields and an old truck that barely functioned, but was enough for weekly trips to the small town for comestibles.
Contrary to what Coulson and everyone else might believe, it wasn't in Budapest that they had become lovers. Budapest will always be the city of almost: almost kissing in the recon; Clint almost snapping and pushing her up the wall when he saw that dress the first night she went in; Natasha almost throwing caution to the wind and giving in to her instincts when she got back in the morning. And of course, later, when everything went to hell, almost dying.
It's really very cliche to say that she had been seduced by a starry Iowan sky and a bottle of red wine, but it wasn't a seduction, not really. It was a conscious decision. Finally, she trusted someone enough to let her walls down and let go. Not in the spur of the moment, not full of adrenaline or as an affirmation of being alive, but in all calmness. She remembers that when their lips first met she’d let out a deep sigh, like getting rid of a burden she didn't know she had been carrying until then.
Of course she doesn't plan to share this information with anyone either. Not even with Clint, although a large part of why this whole thing works is because when it comes to Talking About Feelings, he doesn't need to be told anything – he just knows. And a good thing too. One sap in a relationship is enough.
Said sap is apparently awake, because the front door is open.
Natasha parks the truck at the side of the house and steps up to the porch. Clint is in the living room, lounging on the couch and looking for all the world like a carefree child. The cast in his left leg is hidden under a mountain of chocolate papers.
“How much sugar did you manage to eat in the last couple of hours?”
“Hey Nat,” he slurs drowsily without lifting his head. “I woke up and you were gone. I needed something to console myself.”
She crosses to the other end of the couch and stands above him, hands on her hips.
He opens his eyes and gives her a sleepy smile. She slowly turns around once, letting her hair swing, and raises her eyebrows.
“It's not all that different. When you said you wanted a change, I pictured something more radical.”
“Like a pixie cut?”
“Or purple highlights.”
Natasha lowers herself carefully next to the casted leg.
“Are you disappointed?”
“The curls are gone.”
“Yeah, that was the idea.”
“But I'm glad it's still red. In fact, if I wasn't confined to this damn couch like an invalid, this would be the moment where I'd lift you up and haul you upstairs.”
She starts running her fingers through his hair and he closes his eyes with a happy sigh.
“That's what you get for jumping from the third floor.”
His eyes open again in indignation.
“The building was on fire!”
It's never easy, what they do, but it's always worst when one of them bears the reminders of just how dangerous it is. Natasha sure as hell plans to find out who was responsible for that clusterfuck, starting with how an empty office complex can catch fire at three o'clock in the morning in the first place, and where the hell Rumlow was when it happened, instead of keeping watch like he was supposed to.
But not now.
“Is there anything you need?”
Clint gives her a shy smile.
“Can I take a picture?”
“That again? That box of photographs will be our downfall one day.”
“Why? You think anyone needs to see the box to realize we're together?”
“You and I are not the only people in these photographs, Clint.”
“Yeah, I bet Thor will be in grave danger up in Asgard if someone sees that snapshot from Steve's birthday.”
It's always the same argument.
“It's not about Thor. Anyone with two functioning brain cells who goes through that box will realize that the people in these photos are those you care about. You give them ammunition.”
“No one knows about this house, Nat. And if someone finds out, they'll already know what they need to know to bring us down, with or without the photographs. I think the only actual surprise will be that photo of me boozing it up with Hill.”
“I still don't like it.”
“Worst case scenario, someone breaks in to kill us, finds the photos, realizes how much we are in love and decides to let us be.”
He flashes her a winning smile and she lets out a deep sigh.
“You know, sometimes I'm amazed you're still alive, with that naive streak of yours.”
“People can always surprise you, Nat.”
“Sitwell is never going to live this down.”
Natasha is strapping weapons around her uniform like a lethal matryoshka doll.
“Since I'm being forced to interrupt my vacation in the middle of the night to go rescue his pirated ass off the Indian Ocean, trust me, he won't.”
“I can't believe Hill called you in for this. Why aren't they sending a STRIKE team again?”
“I think I'm going to brief alone and they'll involve everyone else afterwards.”
“I know. But I don't think it'll take long. I should be back the day after tomorrow.”
Clint rearranges his leg on the pillows and wiggles his toes.
“I think I can safely say you're going to find me in the same place.”
“You know, I'd really feel better if you went to Stark's. I'm meeting the quinjet in Madison. He can send his jet to pick you up from there.”
“C'me on, Nat, you said it yourself – you'll be back in a couple of days. What can happen in the next 48 hours?”
She leans in for a kiss that lasts too long. He's still warm from sleep and the bed is more inviting than ever. Damn Hill. Damn SHIELD and Sitwell, and damn that sodding ship.
“I'm off. I love you. Don't fall down the stairs.”
“Ha bloody ha!”
The farmhouse isn't what he expected. It fits alright with Barton's Midwestern image, but he can't imagine Romanoff voluntarily spending her days here instead of a high-end resort. Then again, for all the amiable sociability she displays when she puts her mind to it, the woman has always remained a mystery to all but a few.
As the drivers park the SUVs in the curb, he takes in the scene in front of him carefully. The house seems deserted, like someone left in a hurry. It had to be expected, really. What did they think, that Romanoff wouldn't find a way to warn her partner? Not that it would be actually necessary – any agent worth their salt wouldn't feel safe anywhere after the last couple of days. People have the tendency to flee in the face of danger, even when they assume they’re already in a safe place.
And this really was the safest place for Barton. No matter that a forgotten tracker had given him the location by luck years ago. At the beginning, he had withheld the information out of tact, and some regard for his sometime colleagues. Then, when things changed, he had filed it away for future use.
Now that day has come.
Of course he’d made sure to present his knowledge at the right moment, and it had been received according to its worth – another stroke of brilliance, another confirmation that he was the man with the solutions. When he’d announced that he knew where Barton might be holed up to recuperate, they’d hastened to assign a team to go get him. Proving your usefulness is always par for the course, especially after you've just spilled the beans to the only two people actually capable of stopping Pierce’s plan. Not that his superiors actually need to know about that.
Jasper gets stiffly out of the car. It's been only six hours since his close call on that DC highway. His ribs are sore, his shoulder hurts like hell and he'd rather be in the Capitol Lounge nursing a drink, but time is pressing. This has to be done now.
The STRIKE team is looking at him, waiting for instructions.
“Secure the perimeter. You two check the barn.”
If someone had told him five years ago that one day he'd step into Barton's country house, he'd have expected to be carrying a bottle of whiskey instead of a Glock.
How does anyone’s life change course so drastically? Jasper has no illusions – he knows that he's with the Bad Guys in this scenario. He also knows that the vast majority of the erstwhile SHIELD agents who changed colors to serve HYDRA didn't suddenly wake up one day with delusions of evil grandeur, nor do they all enjoy killing people they used to eat lunch with until last week.
It's the bureaucracy, he guesses. In a huge organization like SHIELD it's easy to feel lost among the masses. An S.O. with too many trainees and too many back-to-back missions to keep a proper eye on all of them; a handler who once took the wrong decision under pressure and left someone to find their way out through hell alone; young agents who’d joined, keen to save the world, and found themselves buried under mountains of paperwork instead, acting as secretaries for their senior colleagues. And the top brass’ perpetual secrets – even Level 7 agents could not but feel a bit of resentment. You try to prove yourself time and again, only to discover that there are always more levels up, always more highly classified intel, with you always remaining outside the endless layers of knowledge and secrecy.
“Sir, perimeter is clear. The barn is empty. Should we go in?”
Maybe when you start fighting for the greater good, eventually you get so exposed to evil that it doesn't take very much to get used to it. And when someone comes to offer you whatever it is you want —be it more power, more action, or a sense of belonging— you simply shrug and accept it.
And look where life takes you.
He casts his mind back to the message he received on his way here: Victoria Hand is dead. Decades of service, steadily rising to the top, and in the end all it takes to get you down is a little shit with mommy issues and a talent for deception. Garrett might not be advertising the history of his protege, but Jasper wouldn't be where he is if he couldn't learn random bits of information to use when he sees fit.
“All clear, sir.”
“Stand outside. I want two on the porch and the rest of you around the house. Shoot on sight, preferably to kill. Williams, with me.”
“He's not here, sir.”
“Then we might as well poke around a little.”
Jasper steps into the house and takes in the surroundings. The front door opens to a hall adjoined to the living room; at the other end there's a staircase leading to the second floor. He could pretend to go upstairs and search for a safe, a computer or anything else useful, but he knows that he's not going to find anything. It's obvious that this house doesn't serve as a pit stop on the way to escape.
He is willing to bet his ass that Barton and Romanoff have stashed more than a dozen weapons in this room, but it doesn't matter really. Barton wouldn't be able to retrieve any of them quickly enough in his current state; if it comes to a confrontation it certainly won't be close quarters combat. Rumlow's initiative might had seemed infuriatingly risky at the moment —what kind of an idiot sets an empty building on fire just to kill one person?— but it has turned out to have its uses.
The living room opens to the kitchen. He motions Williams to hide in there and glances around.
The furniture looks old and well taken care of. There's a large bookcase up against the wall that seems like a recent addition, but it's plain old-fashioned wood, like the rest of the living room. There's a turntable on a low table with a stack of vinyls, a huge rug on the floor in front of the fireplace, a decent collection of whiskeys in the far corner and far too many pillows. It seems like no one attempted to deprive the house of its old style, but had simply thrown whatever means of comfort they wanted into the mix.
He didn't really expect to find any pictures, but there's a frame on the mantelpiece with an old black-and-white photo. A young couple, posing in front of the camera on their wedding day.
This can't be Barton's parents. Jasper takes a step towards the fireplace and examines the frame. The photograph is too old. Grandparents, maybe?
There's a wooden box next to it and he opens it automatically.
A stack of photographs. Most of them are small polaroids, with the rest printed on cheap paper, the kind you get in small-town convenience shops or tourist markets.
Well, how about that. Two of the most private and paranoid people he knows, and they keep photographs.
The first one must date back to Romanoff's first days at SHIELD, because she seems more reserved than usual. If anything, she is looking at the camera with her trademark death glare. There's a handful of people who could take that shot and still be alive, but back then Barton was the only person on the list. Maybe that's how he finally got her: it must make a nice change to find someone who knows what you're capable of, and yet isn't scared shitless of you.
Barton is grinning in the next one, wearing a pair of antlers and clutching an oversized cup in his hands, under a huge banner reading “Dresden Weihnachtsmarkt”. That mission back in 2009, then.
More snapshots from all over the world: Romanoff eating pasta in a restaurant in San Marco square. Barton in the London Dungeon, Romanoff wielding a scythe over his head. The Pyramids. La Sagrada Familia. The Chora of Mykonos. The Meiji Shrine.
Jasper realizes, as he thumbs through them, that these are not vacation photos. He has lost count of the missions that had them posing as a couple; there's no better way to follow a mark than pretending you're on your honeymoon. Were these shots taken to capture some useful detail in the background, or had Barton and Romanoff found a way to throw in a couple of days of relaxation after a mission was taken care of? Probably both. But he's eaten in San Marco square, and he's willing to bet anything that Romanoff would never voluntarily place her dining experience into the hands of the Venetian tourist traps.
He's got to give it to them, though. If life is what you make of it, they've managed to transform a trail of exhausting missions into vacation snapshots. Perhaps it's all a matter of perspective.
As he progresses through the photos, they become more intimate and relaxed. Barton with a golden mutt, in what Jasper can only assume is his New York apartment. Romanoff holding a cupcake with a single pink candle.
Jasper snorts. Really?
Romanoff in a bikini, under a fig tree, a book in her hands.
Stark on a table, waving a chopstick as he speaks. Banner asleep on a couch, his face painted all over with tiny spiders. Rogers laughing in front of a Christmas tree. Thor posing proudly with a wrapped gift in his hands. There's a shot of Romanoff with Pepper Potts on a couple of loungers, talking relaxedly.
What do you know. Seems that when Fury pulled off that little stunt with Coulson's cards, he got a lot more than the team of heroes he bargained for.
Barton with Coulson and Melinda May, at SHIELD's annual Christmas party, back in 2011.
With a jolt, Jasper recognizes himself in the next shot. SHIELD parties were never really his cup of cake, but there's something to be said about what happens after hours. Fury is scowling next to him, wearing that fuchsia eye patch that had been inflicted upon him when he’d lost a bet.
What was the bet? Jasper wracks his brains, but he can't remember. Something about Carter's alcohol tolerance…? Sharon is smiling on Jasper's other side, her arm around his shoulders.
Clint clinking a huge beer glass with Hill.
Natasha with Bobbi Morse, laughing at someone off camera.
The general consensus between SHIELD's male population is that Barton is a lucky son of a bitch. Not only for scoring first Bobbi and then Natasha, but mainly because he still gets to hang with them both, without having to worry that they'll try to rip each other's throat.
Melinda with Andrew, back in the day when she still smiled and wasn't yet known as the Cavalry. Now she's running around the world with Phil, trying to exorcise her demons the best way she can. Phil, who came back from the dead and is still trying to work out the sordid details.
How can these people get up and function every morning after all they'd been through? What kind of compass do they have in life?
There are only two more photos.
The first is black and white. Natasha is sitting up on a bed, hair mussed and eyes still heavy from sleep. The sheet has pooled around her, arranging itself to hide her naked body. She's holding a rose and smiling at the camera in a way Jasper has never seen her smile before.
There's something so erotic in that lazy smile and these shining eyes that for a moment it takes his breath away.
You'd never guess this is the life of assassins. It makes sense, really: with the amount of ugliness they face in their job, it's only natural for someone to try and keep all the good moments stuffed together somewhere. Like a Pandora's box in reverse.
And what does Jasper Sitwell have to show for his own fifteen years at SHIELD? Apart from a shining career and a promising future —the latter depending on the developments of the next hours— he hasn't gained very much in the personal relationships department.
If he had a box, whom would he choose to keep inside?
With a jolt, he realizes that apart from for the rest of the Avengers, he would include pretty much the same people. Even Fury, the secretive son of a bitch.
All of whom are currently on the other side.
Any HYDRA people?
The thought of Rumlow sends a shiver down his spine.
He looks at the stack of photographs again. A bunch of snapshots, keeping the essence of life.
Maybe the great things do lie in the small moments after all.
One left. He brings it in front of the stack almost hesitantly.
Clint is wearing a morning suit, Natasha a simple white dress. They're smiling, fingers woven together, and standing on the steps of what he's pretty sure is the New York City Hall.
“If you're looking for the rest of the wedding photos, we keep them in a safe at Stark's.”
Jasper turns slowly, making sure to keep his hands visible.
Facing someone who is aiming an arrow at you is not really the best time to laugh, but Jasper can't help the huge grin on his face.
“Something amuses you?”
“Half of SHIELD owes me thousands of bucks right now.”
“Yeah, from what I hear half of SHIELD is either HYDRA or dead. What the fuck, Jasper?”
There's really no right way to answer this.
“I wasn't even sure you would be here.”
Clint snorts humourlessly.
“And what a nice recuperation it's been. Stranded on a couch with a ten-day-old cast, limping like an old man and watching the news. All while my wife is risking her life to undo your fucking mess.”
“I'm surprised you're not at Stark's.”
“I've been told that Stark Tower is a far more dangerous place than Waverly right now. Although, apparently, you can't be sure about anything anymore.”
“You’re probably right, although I'm sure he was warned to evacuate shortly after my last meeting with Natasha. Did she tell you that she threw me off a building?”
“Yes. And I told her it had to be a lie. That you were probably a double agent or something. And then she told me that the Winter Soldier threw you out of the car window and you landed in the fast lane in rush hour, with a truck coming at you like a giant fly swatter.”
“DC drivers have remarkable reflexes.” Jasper rolls his shoulder involuntarily in memory of the moment he hit the pavement. “I'm afraid I was responsible for a rather nasty pileup this morning.”
“You're responsible for far more than that. And now you turn up in my house with a bunch of rookies who don't even know how to cover themselves.”
“I should have warned them. No one ever looks up. Hidden rooftop, I suppose?”
Barton looks at him steadily, and doesn’t bother to answer.
“The heads wanted the great Hawkeye. Thought that we should have a bargaining chip in the event Natasha's meddling goes too far.”
“Yeah, I figured as much. What I was asking was why you positioned them in front of my porch and around my house, for me to shoot like fish in a barrel.”
“All six of them? How impressive.”
“Thanks for confirming. Now tell the seventh one to get out of my kitchen.”
Jasper hears movement on his left. Williams has appeared at the door, remaining out of Barton's field of view for the moment.
“Throw your weapon on the floor, to me, grip forward.” Barton's voice is pure steel. “Believe me when I tell you that if you throw it to him instead, he'll be dead before he catches it.”
Williams looks at Jasper, a question in his eyes.
“To your left,” Jasper responds. “He's at the top of the stairs.”
The weapon goes that way with a dull thud.
“Nice. Now step out and stand next to Mister Sitwell.”
Williams gets out slowly, hands in the air. He twists his body to face the stairs, making sure that Jasper can see the second gun still strapped to his right side, temporarily obscured from Barton's view.
It's now or never.
In a quick decision, Jasper ducks and grabs it. Barton fires an arrow that embeds itself in the mantel of the fireplace, passing right through where Jasper's head was half a second ago. He's already nocking the next and is ready to loosen it when Jasper raises the gun and fires twice.
The silence is deafening.
Jasper wipes the blood off his face with a grimace. Times like this he remembers why he'd left the field as soon as he could. He hates staining his suits.
He tucks the gun into his breast pocket and takes off his glasses to clean them. When he speaks again his voice is measured.
“I don't know how things will end up. Fury is dead, but the missiles are ready to get up in the air. This could turn either way.”
He doesn't wait for a response.
“I'm taking one car. The other is yours, if you want it. I think it's time to part ways.”
He walks slowly to the door.
“If HYDRA wins, I killed you. If SHIELD wins, you killed me.”
He steps out to the porch and turns around with an imperceptible smile.
“And Barton? Congratulations.”