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Ghost Towns

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'Cause all my life is wrapped up in today
No past or future here
If I find my name's no good
I just fall out of line


Clint makes it a rule to avoid Medical whenever possible. The place makes his skin crawl, makes the hairs stand up on the back of his neck, reminds him of all the many ways he is fragile and human and fated to die someday.

He realizes, halfway down the hall leading to the high security ward, that this is the first time he’s ever come here willingly, on a visit.

“Here to see Romanoff?” asks the young agent serving as security guard outside her door--Tom, Clint thinks, or maybe Tim. The look on his face is a mix of curiosity and incredulity, which always seem to be defining characteristics of the S.H.I.E.L.D. rumor mill.

“Yes,” Clint says simply, setting down the takeout cup he’s carrying before taking off his jacket and making a show of turning out his pockets for the security check.

Tom raises an eyebrow. “You come to rubberneck or you actually believe her story?”

“Open the damn door,” Clint says tiredly, retrieving the cup but leaving his jacket where it is for the moment. If he has one regret about bringing in the Black Widow, it’s the fact that people won’t stop asking him questions about it. “You did your job.”

Tom shrugs and turns to the security controls to the room, punching in a code before scanning his thumb print. “When she eats you, I won’t be the one cleaning up the mess.”

Clint ignores that jab, stepping in the door and catching his breath. The girl sitting in front of him is a revelation, a magic trick, the dove from the inside of a hat. She was a warrior the last time (the first time) he saw her, a wolf all in black, even her hair the color of the midnight sky, her face painted with makeup that made her ageless. Today what he recognizes is her eyes, the razor edge of her gaze taking him apart as she stares up at him. In her S.H.I.E.L.D.-issue hospital gown she looks scarcely older than a teenager, the red curls he remembers from her file spilling wildly over her shoulders and her face full of shadows.

“Where have you been?” she asks, her voice smoky velvet that stirs something dangerous in his chest, though he’s fairly certain she isn’t trying. She sits straighter on the side of the flimsy-looking hospital bed, the sight of her bare feet against the cool tile floor making him feel protective in a way that’s both irrational and probably insulting.

Clint opens his mouth to answer, gets halfway to actually telling her the location of his last mission before realizing his mistake. She isn’t even trying to get information out of him--he’s pretty sure, at least--and he’s responded this strongly. “Had a job. Classified. I’m back now.”

Her gaze is unwavering and unreadable. “And you came to see me.”

He nods, feeling strangely like he ought to be apologizing for bringing her in and then leaving. He almost laughs at that thought--as if he has some obligation to her, as if she’s anything more than his mark. And yet he knows if that were true, she wouldn’t be sitting here right now. “I wanted to see how you’re doing. And I brought you some coffee.” He moves very slowly as he holds out the styrofoam cup, feeling irrationally as though she might bolt.

Natasha takes it from him carefully, removes the top and stares into the dark surface of the coffee, her breath making little ripples there. For a moment Clint wonders if the gesture was a bad idea, if it will seem like a trap, and if he should have made the effort of tasting it first himself. But she surprises him by shrugging a little and taking a sip, the muscles of her jaw tightening as she swallows. Only then does he notice the IV in the back of her hand, her skin so pale it looks almost translucent under the harsh fluorescent lights. He thinks, not for the first time, of how certain he’d felt staring down the shaft of an arrow at her, how he’d practically been able to taste victory in being the one to finally kill her. His stomach twists a little at the memory, watching her now.

“Well,” she says, after swallowing another sip and seeming to consider carefully, “your people seem to be awfully taken with my brain.”

Clint watches her for a moment longer, doesn’t miss the way her shoulders are shaking almost imperceptibly. He makes a decision, crosses the room and sits on the chair opposite the bed, facing her. “And?”

She looks down at the cup in her hands, pinches off a little piece of the styrofoam between her nails and lets it drift to the floor between them. “When I was eight years old, I killed an entire family and both of their dogs with my hands and a hunting knife. And I never danced Giselle. Or anything at all.”

Clint sucks in a breath, torn between empathy and horror, unsure how to take what she’s telling him, how to react. “I’m--sorry.”

Natasha looks up and pins him with her gaze again, the intensity of it making his breath catch in his throat. “‘Sorry’ is not the point.”

Later, they tell Clint that they did brain scans the day they brought Natasha in. She consented to it, or at least didn’t physically resist the procedure, according to the records. The results are an aberration, unlike anything even S.H.I.E.L.D.’s best scientists have ever seen before. Clint doesn’t recognize half of the words in the report he’s given, but he knows enough to understand that there are signs of chemical tampering in her brain, of the pathways that form her memories being repeatedly wired and rewired again. The doctors aren’t sure what that means for her future, whether it’s possible for damage like this to repair itself.

“So that leaves the question,” says Fury, standing behind his desk in the posture that always gives Clint the impression that his boss is roughly four feet taller than he is. “What now?”

Clint frowns, not liking the director’s tone, the way it settles like a lead weight in the pit of his stomach, the indelible sense of responsibility that always seems to accompany Fury’s suggestions as if they were direct orders. “Why are you asking me that, sir? Shouldn’t it be a question for her?”

“Ms. Romanoff has expressed an interest in staying at S.H.I.E.L.D.,” says Fury, which surprises Clint a little, but only in the sense that they actually have asked her first. “She proposed a deal, of sorts. She works for us in exchange for amnesty on the books and the use of our resources to continue researching the Red Room program.”

Clint takes a breath, narrows his eyes and tries to take stock of the cards Fury’s holding. “So that’s good, right? You’ve wanted to take Red Room down for a long time. She could be exactly what we need.”

“If Ms. Romanoff were your typical recruit,” says Fury, “we would assign her a supervising officer and put her through the Academy.”

“But she’s not your typical recruit,” says Clint, nodding. Even with a clear motivation to cooperate, he doesn’t want to think what Natasha would be like at the Academy.

“She’s a liability,” says Fury, lacing his hands behind his back. “She’s unstable. But you’re right about one thing--with the right touch, she could be exactly what we’re looking for.”

Clint smiles slowly as the pieces fall into place. “And you’re telling me because you think I’m it.”

Natasha looks perfectly composed when he sees her again two weeks later, her hair pulled back into a bun, her newly-issued S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform hugging her body as if it’s been tailor-made. She almost could be any other recruit, save for the bruises on her wrists and neck that he knows mark injection sites, belie the experimental therapy the shrinks are still trying to design for her.

“You wanted to see me?” she asks, squaring her shoulders as he opens the door of his on-base quarters. He doesn’t stay here very often, in truth, hasn’t since he finally made enough for the security deposit on his apartment in Bed-Stuy, but he isn’t ready for her to see a more personal space than this. He’s considered doing this in an office, but that feels too conspicuous, feels like she should be afforded some small measure of privacy in confronting the truth of her own history.

Clint nods. “I have something for you.”

“Show me,” says Natasha, without further pretense.

“You want--I don’t know, coffee or something?” he asks, stepping back to let her pass. He thinks he ought to be doing something to build rapport with her, knows she’s been notified of their official partnership, though they haven’t begun training together yet.

“Just show me,” she repeats, her eyes scanning the small confines of the apartment as if it’s a minefield.

Clint sighs. “Okay.” He leads her through the cramped living room to the flimsy project table that serves as a workspace against the far wall. Laid out on the surface are the mission brief he was given two months ago, the thick manila folder with the code Black Widow on the front, and all of the notes S.H.I.E.L.D. has managed to amass on the Red Room initiative.

Natasha pauses behind the folding chair he pilfered from a conference room for her to use, one hand on the metal back of it. She looks up at him with a question in her gaze, but says nothing.

“For you,” he repeats, as if it might be a bouquet or a box of chocolates. “Rule is you can have as much time with it as you need, but I have to be here while you go through it.”

She snorts softly. “Because they’re afraid it will make me snap? Murder half the base before anyone figures it out?”

Clint swallows despite himself, instinctively calculating how long it would take him to get to his bow, which sits partly concealed behind the couch. “S.H.I.E.L.D. is excellent at paranoia.”

Natasha smiles, not nicely. “They’re not wrong.” She doesn’t wait for him to respond to that, just pulls out the chair with a scrape of metal on linoleum that turns his stomach a little.

Clint telegraphs his movements as he crosses the room back to the couch, sits back on it and switches on the little TV, flipping channels while pretending not to watch her in his peripheral vision.

“I don’t know if I regret the things I’ve done,” she says, after a moment, her fingers rustling the pages as she turns them one by one. Her tone is measured, surprisingly impartial. “Any of them. Even the ones I didn’t remember.”

Clint turns to look at her over the back of the couch, his eyes straying to his bow again. “That supposed to scare me? Because it’s not going to work.”

Natasha huffs a mirthless laugh. “That’s a lie.”

The first time Natasha wakes from one of her dreams, it’s so silent he almost misses what’s happening. They’re in the field awaiting extraction, Clint keeping watch while she sleeps.

She doesn’t cry, doesn’t call out, just sits straight upright in the dull pre-dawn light, the rickety safehouse cot impossibly quiet despite the shift of her weight. Clint is alerted by the barely perceptible outline of her silhouette reflected in the glass of the window, just a ghost of movement.

“Natasha?” he asks, flipping on the lamp on the table beside him before turning around very slowly. It’s then that he catches sight of the thin sheen of sweat on her face and the vacant look in her eyes, his heartbeat suddenly thundering in his ears as his blood goes cold. This is their third assignment together; she’s been perfectly consistent so far, so steady he’s almost allowed himself to forget the words of her psych report, the fault lines he knows are there in her mind. He wonders suddenly if this will be it, the moment when she reverts to her training and kills him.

“Her name was Klara,” she says, her voice quiet and raw around the edges. “She was three years my senior, and I was made to believe by my handlers that she was with me on the job to keep me safe. We were supposed to be companions for the children of a diplomat. Hired help to be the good family he couldn’t, right?” She laughs, and the sound of it makes Clint shudder. “Ingratiate ourselves with the family, then kill them in their sleep. Well, I did kill them. But first I stole the daughter’s favorite doll. I tore it to pieces, strung it up and framed Klara for it. Because I wanted to be the hero for a moment.”

“You remembered that?” asks Clint, scarcely daring to breathe. “In a dream?”

“I sold out my partner,” she says sharply. “Not for survival. Not for money. For affection from the family I was about to eliminate.”

Clint exhales heavily, his heart aching though he thinks it ought to be singing alarm. He wonders, again, if she means the words as a threat, or if she’s feeling some sort of twisted duty to confess her crimes to him, as if his own conscience might somehow be clean enough to grant her absolution.

“Natasha,” he says quietly, getting to his feet.

“Don’t,” she interrupts, and stretches out on the cot again, her shoulders trembling as she turns her back to him.

"I have a memory of my parents," says Natasha, pausing in front of a display of alarmingly pink clothing for little girls.

Clint stops short, the obnoxiously squeaky wheel on his shopping cart protesting loudly. They’re at the store for groceries and toilet paper and something to make his neglected Bed-Stuy apartment presentable for the long Memorial Day weekend. Clint is peering at the pre-framed art, pictures of Paris and inspirational quotes over nondescript fields of flowers. Natasha is trailing behind him like a very threatening shadow because even after six months of cooperation, S.H.I.E.L.D. still requires her to have supervision outside the walls of headquarters, and because he couldn't stand the thought of leaving her to spend yet more downtime alone in the gym.

"A new one?" asks Clint, struggling a little to find his bearings. It's strange enough having her here, like they might be the kind of people who'd spend a day off watching TV and eating hot dogs together, like they might be friends.

"No." She reaches out and runs her fingertips feather-light over the ruffles on an impossibly small skirt. "An old one. I remember--my mother waking me up on my seventh birthday and letting me eat cake for breakfast because it was a special occasion. Later she and my father drove me to the school--that's how I thought of the Red Room, when I was a girl--and told me goodbye, that they wouldn't see me for a long time but not to be sad, because they loved me, and they were doing it to make me special, make me a treasure like that cake."

There's a darkness in her face now, a tension like the air before a lightning strike, and Clint isn't sure what to say.

"My parents died in a fire when I was barely four years old," she continues after a moment. "I found the records last week. The people in the photos--I have a few years of what feel like childhood memories, but none of them happened. The people in my head aren't real, and the ones in the photos might as well be total strangers."

Clint sucks in a breath as he feels the reality of that like a blow, wills himself not to put his fist through the wall right in the middle of the freezer section.

"Fuck childhood memories," he says instead, and she lets him drape an arm across her shoulders as he leads her toward the ice cream.

It takes Natasha the better part of a year to track down the school, as she calls. It’s scarcely more than the brittle shell of a building now, huddled on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg against an ice-blue winter sky. It’s deserted--as suspected--when they arrive, the whole place eerily blackened and burned, though still standing. There’s a rustling of stale air, decayed smoke as she gets the door open for what must be the first time in years. A few dusty pieces of ceiling fall as they step inside, disintegrating on impact with the floor, as though the whole place might be on the verge of falling to ash.

The building is deceptively large on the inside, though Clint supposes that shouldn’t surprise him, on the basis of everything they’ve learned. It’s hard to tell what all the rooms might have been because of the fire and time destroying what might have been here, but he’s pretty sure they pass dormitories, some sort of infirmary or lab, and a command center with shattered computer monitors like gaping mouths full of teeth.

Natasha pauses at the end of a long hallway, a room that opens out into the largest space they’ve seen yet, the remains of a smoke-clouded mirror and other equipment making it clear that this was once a gym. Her reaction would be all but imperceptible to anyone else, he thinks, but the way she sucks in a breath and hunches her shoulders down ring every alarm bell he’s ever had.

“Tasha?” he says quietly, taking a step closer and reaching out, deciding at the last moment not to touch her. There’s a distant look to her that he recognizes now, has come to expect, in a way. “You with me?”

“I was here,” she breathes, the sound of her voice as eerie as the abandoned building, the ghosts all around them. “I was proud of it, you know. Of being the best.”

Clint knows better by now than to say anything, just stands there with her and waits for her to speak again, the acid in her voice promising him it’s going to hurt when she does.

“I knew I was the only one who passed their tests,” says Natasha, turning to face him in a motion that sends another flurry of dust to the floor. “I knew the others went away when they failed.” She swallows visibly. “I killed them, Clint. All the other girls. That’s how I bought my name.” She crosses the room abruptly, pausing in the corner. “One here, with a knife. One there, with nothing but my hands.”

She explodes into a flurry of motion, then, spinning before landing a vicious kick against the wall, then another, and a third. Her boot goes straight through the burned surface, raises a shadowy cloud around her, and it isn’t long before she’s choking on it, sinking to the ground like the lost child she’s never been.

Clint exhales slowly, willing his stomach not to turn at the horror of it all as he kneels beside her, rests his hand against the flat of her back. He wonders in the stillness, the echoes of her ragged breathing, why she’s told him at all, why she hasn’t chosen to keep this particular revelation to herself. He doesn’t ask her, though, just stays at her side as her body shakes and ash rains down around them.

It takes another three years of camping out in the snow and searching through burned-out shacks before it ends, before Natasha is confident--because Natasha is never certain--that they’ve rooted out the Black Widow program and the rest of its web.

Once he worried that Natasha would want to leave when it was over, would want to go out on her own and try to move forward from the jumbled pieces she’s reclaimed of her life. She doesn’t, though, doesn’t stop being his partner or shooting him disapproving looks at the dirty socks she invariably finds crumpled on the floor every time she visits his apartment. She doesn’t stop being the constant presence by his side, and she doesn’t stop remembering things, either. Sometimes she corners him, goes through all of the memories like a list, a catalogue of transgressions, of debts.

He knows better than to resist by now, knows to simply be quiet and let her talk, to nod and squeeze her hand when she’s finished.

It isn’t until Loki that Clint understands. It isn’t until he becomes a prisoner inside of his own mind, wakes to a gaping black void in his own memory interspersed with snatches of fighting and strategizing and killing blindly, that he grasps the full weight of her confessions, the value of the information she’s given him.

He finds her in Central Park, standing on a bridge and watching the water below. She has a piece of a fallen branch in her hands, he realizes as he gets closer, her fingers tearing away little pieces of the wood and dropping them down to be swept away by the current. She doesn’t look up when he approaches, just continues the repetitive motion as she waits for him to speak.

“You gave them to me,” says Clint, finally. “The things you remembered. You gave them to me for safekeeping, because you didn’t want them to get lost again.”

She huffs out a soft breath that feels like equal parts satisfaction and regret. Natasha lifts her chin just fraction of an inch, so that he knows she’s looking at him in her peripheral vision. “Memories are fragile things. Yours and not yours. They can be taken away, can be changed. I needed an insurance policy.”

“And I was it?” asks Clint, swallowing as he takes that in. Part of him wonders whether he ought to feel silly, for having taken so long to realize, but mostly what he feels is privileged, special in the way only Natasha affords him.

“Yes.” She turns to face him, then, searches the shadows around his eyes he knows belie the demons he’s still fighting. “You still are.”

“Why those things?” he asks, because he feels like he’s still missing a piece. “I mean, most of them are--things some people would be glad to forget.”

“They happened,” she says simply. “They’re who I was before. If I forget, who’s to say I won’t become that girl again?”

“You won’t,” he says fervently, then realizes how foolish that sounds, just as empty as all the words people have told him about control and blame. He makes a decision in that instant, looks up at her again with his own brand of certainty. “On the Helicarrier, when I drew my bow on you? That was--There I was, aiming an arrow at you, and I remembered--The first time. How you looked scared when you told me you didn’t remember kidnapping our agent. How I believed you just enough that I couldn’t kill you, and I--He couldn’t make me do it this time, either.” Clint takes a shaky breath, meets her eyes cautiously. “Can you keep that for me?”

She nods once, curtly. “It’ll be here when you need it.”

She doesn’t say anything else after that, goes back to watching the water. Her hand finds his at his side after a moment, though, lacing their fingers together. Natasha drops the last of the branch into the water under the bridge, and they turn, as one, to watch it sail back out on the other side.