She remembers very little of her actual, human, life. Only flashes and sensations. She remembers the smell of the animals, and of fur pelts; the cold of the snow and the warmth of the fire.
Long ago, when she was a young woman, she was accused of practicing magic; a child she had been tending had fallen ill and died. It was not her fault, she had tried to save the girl, but she could not and she was cast out of her village.
She died in the snow in the forest where she grew up.
The Elders of her village told stories then, about the woman in the forest who killed and ate children. The lone woman became three, who became sisters, who became old and deformed, living in a walking house and flying through the sky in a bowl, helping or waylaying travellers depending on their whim. And eventually those three sisters were given a name – Baba Yaga.
The stories were never true, not really, but they became true in a way. She shifts – changes with the telling, because she was never really dead, see? She woke up in that same snow the next day. She dug herself out of the snow knowing that she could never go back, could never again show her face in the village in the forest where she grew up, because she was dead.
But not really.
So the stories grow and she changes with the telling – she is old and young and one woman and three – until Baba Yaga becomes the tale to tell children to get them to behave. Until Baba Yaga is no longer anything much, a throwback to an older time when people were easier to cow and there were no logical explanations for the things that went bump in the night.
But in that time – days or lifetimes, she cannot tell – she learns to adapt; Baba Yaga is reputed to take children, so occasionally she does too. Though not often and, on the whole, the children she takes are happier for being stolen. From this, it is no great stretch for her to start taking others as well.
She has compassion though. She takes those who are old, who are in pain and close to death. She eases their passing until eventually, a day or a month or a lifetime comes when she realises that she no longer passes them on to anyone. In fact, there are others now – like her; old and timeless and once someone else – who occasionally pass them on to her.
She discovers she can no longer touch the living, can no longer talk to them in their dreams. She commands fear again, as she once had, though now it is a different fear. Or maybe it is the same fear, but in a different guise.
She has seen her homeland change a great deal in her time, and now she sees it change further. She is there during the wars of Frederick the Great. She watches as warring little kingdoms become warring larger kingdoms that become wars so large that almost no place escapes. She is there at the siege of Stalingrad, and the sack of Warsaw. The purge of Smyrna is on the very edge of her reach and when the centre of her homeland falls apart – those places where, in the depth of the forest, she is still Baba Yaga – she is there to see the mass graves, the senseless killing and the blood wet the earth.
She is lonely however, for she cannot touch. She cannot reach out to take or give comfort – or, not in any way other than the comfort of her position. She is only present in the last moments; a hundred different dying moments at once. Good people and bad. Young and old. Alone and together, only to be alone again.
It changes when she is in Volgograd – once Stalingrad, once Tsaritsyn and once home, many lifetimes ago, to a forest which held a little village that exiled a young woman for a crime she did not commit.
In Volgograd someone is dying, as people so often do. This time it is a man in a warehouse on the edge of the city. He has a gunshot wound to the chest. Help is on its way, but it will be too late.
He is bleeding out.
But it is all right, he did what he came to do. The blonde woman – a spy and child trafficker – is dead. She knows this because she met her; had pulled her from her body, and in the process assured her that her killer too would soon be dead. There is an indistinct blur too – a little girl she thinks, and unharmed – who deliberates, torn between helping her saviour and running. Running and running until all the horror of this moment is left in the dust.
The little girl approaches the man, and so does she. But just as she decides the time is right, that she can soon lift the man from his cooling corpse and send him on, he speaks.
“Zapustit' malysh,” he rasps, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. “Run before someone gets you too.”
And as the little girl runs, she thinks No and instead watches as the girl disappears around the corner, watches as the man’s help arrives to save his life. And briefly, just before he is laid on his back and pressure is applied to his wound, she knows he sees her; the woman with red hair in the corner of his eye. And as he loses consciousness, she wonders if he is a weakness now.
Because he was to die tonight. And yet, he lives.
Everything about that Red Star mission had been a fucking nightmare. The information was crap and there was only one girl there and Christ knows where the other ones were. And on top of that he bloody well got shot and then there was that other woman there, and intel. had said nothing about her and did he mention he got shot? Two more seconds and he would have been dead. Fuck.
And who the fuck was that other woman?
At least Belova was dead. One good thing in that whole clusterfuck. But now he was on bed rest for the foreseeable future and God, even breathing hurt.
In short, he was not a happy man right now.
Among his friends and colleagues, Clint Barton was said to be the luckiest son of a bitch around. He had the highest number of completed missions of anyone in the organisation, and also the most close calls anyone could ever remember. Sitwell joked about it – “Lady Luck sure likes you, kid” – because it was the only way he could deal with the stress, but in a way it was true.
Clint Barton should have died at least seven times over.
“It’s not like I try to jet myself killed,” he grumbled. “How the hell was I supposed to know there was that fucking extra goon swanning around with an AK-47? Sato was supposed to spot that.”
“Don’t blame Sato for your idiocy, Clint.” Bobbi was pissed. Clint could tell.
“I’m not! I’m just saying.”
“‘Just saying’ my ass.”
“Well, you would have caught him, wouldn’t you?”
Bobbi sighed. “I should bloody well have hoped so.”
“I’m still not letting you blame Sato for this. You could have just avoided –“
“What? The end that goes ‘bang’? Yeah, I tried that. Worked out fabulously, as you can see.” Clint gestured limply to the IV stands and bandages.
Bobbi sighed again. “Yeah, yeah.”
Bobbi was Clint’s… well, something. She had been his first field partner, but it turned out that he was better suited to distance kills and assassination while she was an excellent tactical planner and team leader. They were split up after about two years, and though they absolutely understood the reasoning behind it, they weren’t all that happy about it.
They also slept together when the mood struck them. He didn’t know what she thought of the arrangement, but it worked out pretty damn well for him, considering he got sex and an awesome friendship out of it.
“And what about the woman? Did you find her?”
Bobbi looks up at Clint. “There was no other woman, Clint. We looked.”
“Well, you missed the AK-47 guy, and the woman was a lot smaller.”
“I didn’t miss anything, Barton.”
“No,” grumbled Clint. “Sato did.”
“What!?” cried Clint indignantly, “I have a fucking chest wound thanks to him! I’m allowed to be pissed!”
Bobbi glared but didn’t contradict him this time, and Clint felt a little rush of satisfaction under the pain of his little outburst. Sato, while not a bad agent in the slightest, would be getting a severe dressing down for this, if not worse. Clint couldn’t find it in him to feel the least bit sorry for him. Not under all the pain he was feeling.
“There was another woman there,” Clint grumbled, his eyes getting heavy as his morphine drip kicked in.
“Yeah, yeah, Clint. Whatever you say,” replied Bobbi, condescension colouring her tone. “It’s sleepy time for idiotic snipers.”
Clint was almost completely under when she patted his arm and left.
She wonders what happened to him, sometimes.
Sometimes too, she thinks of the little girl.
Seven months later, Clint saw the woman again, twice. Both times were during surgery to extract shrapnel kindly given to him by a roadside bomb in Nigeria. The surgeon was staggeringly incompetent for a man in his position, and Clint flat-lined twice. Both times he saw a red-haired woman standing over him, looking conflicted.
The first time he tried to open his mouth to tell her that she really shouldn’t be in an operating theatre wearing those clothes. Didn’t she know she was breaking about a hundred health codes?
The second time he just tried to tell her that, as angels go, she was the prettiest he’d ever seen.
Both times she faded before he could say anything. But the second time it looked like she was smiling a little.
So that was something.
The next time she sees him is not in Volgograd but somewhere else, somewhere she has never been before. She can feel him entering the In Between, and she rushes to his side before another one of her kind can, though she cannot quite grasp why that is so important.
She is incredibly curious about him, and she does not quite know if she wants to touch him so she can touch him – though she does not quite understand that impulse – or if she wants to leave him to live.
She does not remember much of her human life, but what she remembers is so sweet. She feels she has no right to take that from him, though she has more right than most.
He tries to speak to her, she can tell. He is pulled away from her though and she thinks it amusing. He would not have been able to speak anyway, with those tubes in his mouth.
Clint woke up in the ICU unit of the Agency’s preferred hospital (though it won’t be their preferred hospital for much longer) to find two cards by his bed – one from Bulawayo and Hussain, and one from Sato – and Bobbi asleep in a chair next to him. He felt groggy and disorientated, but that was to be expected.
He tried to get Bobbi’s attention but found he couldn’t speak, his mouth was so dry. She heard him anyway, and jerked awake.
“Hey! Sleeping beauty is awake! How are you feeling?”
“Shitty,” Clint croaked. Then, “Water.”
Bobbi passed him a cup with slivers of ice in it and helped him swallow. Clint motioned for her to raise the bed but she shook her head.
“You’re to stay horizontal, Barton,” she said. “Doctor’s orders.” She pulled a face then. “Not that I trust these doctors overly much.”
Clint pulled an enquiring face in return, and Bobbi’s expression did something Clint had never seen before. She looked away.
“You flat-lined,” she said, looking back up at him. “Twice. The Agency is pitching a fit. The surgeon is probably going to get his ass reamed.” Her tone suggested she was highly in favour of this.
Clint thought about this, about flat-lining twice, and suddenly he remembered the red-haired woman.
“Oh,” he said. And then, “Well, I’m not dead yet,” with a crooked grin up at Bobbi.
Bobbi made a strangled sound and somehow looked more upset than Clint had ever seen. “You’re the most fucking idiotic man I’ve ever met, Clint. And I can’t ask you not to do that again because it’s not within yours or anyone’s power but,” and she looked at him, her expression broken open. “Don’t do that again.”
“It’s happened before, Bobbi,” he said, as gentle as he could muster. “It’s never bothered you too much before.”
Bobbi huffed and looked away. “Yes, well.”
Clint could sense what she meant on the edge of his consciousness, but there was too much pain and he couldn’t think straight, so he kept quiet.
They sat together for a while, making idle conversation until Clint’s morphine drip kicked in and he fell asleep. He woke up some hours later by a nurse – Oyelowo, one of the nicest nurses Clint has ever had – bustling through his room. Bobbi was nowhere in sight.
“Hello Mr Barton,” she said, hitting the exact line between chirpy and aware that his head hurt like hell.
“Hello, Nurse Oyelowo,” Clint replied, his voice scratchy.
“Please, I have told you before, it is Elizabeth,” she said with a smile.
Clint grinned crookedly up at her. “And, as I’ve told you before, it’s Clint.”
They shared a smile, both aware that to each other they would always be Mr Barton and Nurse Oyelowo.
“Well,” she continued. “You’re looking as good as can be expected.” She flipped through his chart. “You’re in here for one more night and then you’ll be moved out of ICU. How are you feeling?”
Clint tried to shrug but couldn’t. “Nothing much of anything really,” he replied. “I’m on the good drugs.” He grinned at her again.
“Would you like some water?”
“Yeah, that would be great. Say, do you know where Bobbi – um, Ms Morse – is?”
Nurse Oyelowo fussed around his head before coming back into his field of vision with a cup full of ice. “She was called away by that man in the suit. And she’s been banned from ICU until she’s slept at least seven hours in a bed. Doctor’s orders.” Nurse Oyelowo grinned. “Or at least, nurse’s.”
“Oh, OK.” He let his eyes drift across to the window.
Nurse Oyelowo patted him on the knee. “Now, I have rounds to do so I can’t spend all my time chit-chatting with you. Do you want another boost of ‘the good drugs’?” Clint could hear the quotation marks.
“Nah,” he croaked, before clearing his throat and trying again. “No, I’m fine. Thank you.”
Clint watched as she nodded and left the room before letting let his eyes drift back over to the window.
After the Red Star mission in Volgograd, Clint had pestered anyone and everyone for information on the red-haired woman. Sato swears he never saw her – but he never saw the AK-47 guy either so Clint disregards him. His backup and the EMTs also say they saw no one other than the bodies of Belova and several guards – which means, at least, that the little girl got away before anyone could get their hands on her, Clint hoped she was alright. Then Bobbi, as part of the mission review, had gone over any and all available recordings from the warehouse and surrounding area and said there was no red-haired woman anywhere on those either.
But there had been. Clint was sure.
And now he’d seen her again, while unconscious during a surgery where he had flat-lined twice.
Clint searched his memory, trying to see if there were any red-haired women in his life that his brain could have presented him with during times of extreme stress (almost dying definitely counted as extreme stress) but he could think of none. There was his best friend Pepper, but she was more strawberry blonde, and anyway she was now dating that showboat CEO guy who Clint grudgingly liked because he was an ass but also a good guy (“Much like you actually, Clint,” Pepper would say) and this woman was shorter and… curvier. Clint couldn’t think of anyone else.
Clint didn’t believe in God or angels or anything like that, not really. He believed in life and death and things he could see.
So what did that make her?
She can do her job automatically. She tries not to – it would be rude, and people deserve better – but she can. She does so for a while after he tries to speak to her, trying to work out why she cannot take him, why she looks instead of touches.
She cannot remember much of her human life, but there was a man, she thinks. Or maybe a woman. They had a kind smile and beautiful hands.
Maybe that is why.
Sometime later on a mission in Vilnius Clint was smashed against the clawed foot of a discarded iron bath by the muscle-bound henchman of a Ukrainian mob boss. His vision went spotty, blank spaces floated across the room and the pressure in his head was terrible. Carter and Drew were yelling and popping in and out of his line of sight, telling him things he was sure were very important, but he couldn’t hear them properly. And anyway, there was a red-haired woman behind them, in the corner of the room. She looked mildly concerned, and also as if she was about to say something. But suddenly Černý rushed in and he got IVs in his arms and drugs in his system and everything swam out of focus as he lost consciousness.
She tries to talk to him in a room with an iron bath in it but he’s pulled back from the edge too soon.
But he looks at her, and his eyes are like nothing she has ever seen before.
In Laos, Clint stood too close to an unexploded landmine left over from the Vietnam War; nothing at all to do with why he was there and triggered by the poor schmuck paid to lead him to his contact. Clint broke his leg and suffered severe internal bleeding. He was stabilised locally and then flown to Singapore where he was operated on and put into an artificial coma to help him heal.
Eighteen hours into his enforced coma Clint crashed – sending people frantic and machines beeping wildly – before stabilising again just as unexpectedly. None of the doctors could figure out how it happened, but nevertheless they informed Clint of the incident when they woke him up. He took it surprisingly well.
Clint never told Bobbi though.
She wants to talk to him.
She is in a small hospital in Kovel. There has been an outbreak of flu and her services are required. She feels him on the very edge of the In Between and, though this time he will not enter properly, she wants to talk to him.
He is in a tropical place, far away from her homeland. He is an indistinct blur amongst indistinct blurs but he is close to the In Between so all she has to do is stand close. Distantly, as if through water, she hears machines beeping frantically, but it concerns her not, because now he opens his eyes. Now he looks at her.
He looks… confused, but there is also dawning realisation in his eyes.
“It’s you,” he says.
She nods, unsure of the correct reply. Because who is she really? If he asks, she does not know how to answer.
But instead he looks around, confused, and says, “I’m supposed to be in a medical coma.”
She nods again, this time unsure as to what a ‘medical coma’ might be. She only collects, she does not find out more about those she collects unless they offer it.
“Am I… Am I dead?”
She shakes her head. “No,” she says, “you are dying.”
“Fuck.” He runs his hands over his face. “Always knew this job wold kill me.” Then, quieter, “Bobbi’s going to murder me.”
“I said you were dying. I did not say you were dead.”
“Yeah well, it’s only a matter of time, right?” He sits up in his hospital bed, but she can also see his body lying still, behind him.
“You will not die from this,” she says.
He snorts out a laugh. “Yeah? And how would you know?”
She does not answer, and he seems to understand then something of who she is.
“Fuck,” he says again, quietly this time, his tone coloured with dawning realisation. “I only see you when I’m dying.”
“Are you… are you an angel?”
She has been asked this question many times before; has had the concept explained to her by a martyred Orthodox priest when this idea was first slowly making its way across her homeland. It was the beginning of her second change; as a rule, people who believe in angels do not believe in old women who steal children.
“In a manner of speaking.”
He looks apprehensive then. “Are you… Death?”
“In a manner of speaking,” she says again.
There is silence for a while, and she can see him sorting through her words, see him figuring out the puzzle and working up the courage to ask the only question that matters in this moment.
“If you’re death,” he says slowly, and then he looks up at her with the barest spark of amusement in his eyes, “in a manner of speaking.” He pauses, and the amusement in his eyes dims. She finds she wants it back as soon as she notices it gone.
“Why is it I’m not going to die today?”
She shrugs and looks away, because in all honesty, she does not fully understand the reason herself. Instead she concentrates on their surroundings. She can still hear the beeping, but she knows that for those on the other side – where this man’s body lies warm and alive – no time has passed. She can, if she wants, keep them here in this moment; a lifetime lived in the blink of an eye. But she knows that it would be an unbearable form of torture for her, for she cannot touch.
And she still does not know why, but she wants to touch.
“People once believed in an old woman who stole children,” she says suddenly, and he looks up at her, confused. “They believed so much that the old woman became real. But then, after a time, they did not believe any longer. But those that people believe into being do not disappear; they cannot, because someone somewhere still believes, though it may not be enough belief. So instead they must adapt.
“You cannot kill belief,” she says. “But it does not last forever.”
He just looks at her, looks and looks and looks. And his eyes are so sad and she aches to touch so much she tucks her hands under her arms.
“How old are you?” he says, and his voice is so soft. Soft enough for her to lean forward, soft enough that she forgets she should not stand closer, should not lean too far in.
“I do not know, anymore,” she says quietly, not meeting his eyes. And she knows she sounds young, knows she sounds lost. She knows because eons stretch out in front of her, and behind her – lonely eons with no warmth and only stolen moments with those who cannot stay.
Maybe, she thinks, that is why.
When Clint finally got back from Singapore, he decided not to mention the red headed woman to anyone. Not to Bobbi or to Pepper, and definitely not to Psych. It would just complicate matters; he had shit to do and Psych wouldn’t take kindly to hallucinations of lonely attractive women who only appear when he’s dying.
So he took missions, like usual. He went out with Bobbi, Carter, Drew and Hussain to drink ridiculous cocktails because why not? He sparred with Litvinenko and coached new recruits, went to mission reviews and kept an eye out for potential new snipers. Everything was normal.
Apart from every now and again, he got an odd sense of vertigo when he saw a red-haired woman passing on the street.
And he was ever so slightly less careful.
She tries to put him out of her mind.
It does not do to dwell on the living and hers is a lonely existence.
She carries out her duties diligently, covering her homeland as needed. Along the edges of her reach she meets others like her, as she has always done. The one to the west has changed. Who was once an old white man with rheumy eyes and gnarled hands is now a young man with skin like freshly turned earth. She briefly thinks of asking if this new one knows how it is that the old one moved on, but she sees no reason why he should. After all, she does not know how it is that her predecessor came to move on.
She is in a bar on the outskirts of Odessa. There has been a brawl and two men have died; one from a stab wound and one from a bottle to the neck. The man with the stab wound tries to punch her as she reaches to pull him out of his body, but the movement is rendered futile as soon as they touch.
It is the man with the neck injury who nearly renders her motionless – he is so familiar that for a moment she entertains the very real fear that she somehow missed him passing into the In Between. But it is not the same man, and the relief she feels in that moment makes her acknowledge that she has not managed to forget him, not at all.
“Do you think you can want something so much, believe in it so much, that it becomes true?”
Clint and Bobbi were in Malibu for his best friend’s wedding. However, as his best friend was Pepper Potts, it would follow that this wedding would be slightly more impressive than any other he was likely to attend.
Pepper Potts was marrying Mr Anthony Edward ‘Tony’ Stark, CEO of Stark Industries. Clint would say he was surprised, but he’d known Pepper all his life. If there was anyone he knew who would really make something of themselves, it would be Pepper. Granted, Clint never thought she’d marry the owner of a Fortune 500 company, but then again he never thought he’d work for a shady government agency, so what did he know? And despite his tabloid reputation, Tony Stark was actually a decent guy and clearly adored Pepper, and really that was all Clint cared about.
He was just slightly wary about bringing Bobbi. Not for any personal reasons, but mainly because Pepper was the kind of person who kept in touch with her second grade Bio lab partner (Sam Wilson, invited, great guy, likes pigeons). Clint was just wary of swamping Bobbi with every friend he’d ever had.
But thankfully Bobbi had hit it off with Maria Hill, Pepper’s old roommate from Culver, so Clint could let Maria half take over the task of introducing Bobbi to everyone important. It also allowed Clint to spend a little time catching up with Pepper’s brother Sam and his wife Danya, whose wedding he’d missed by virtue of being bedridden after the Volgograd mission.
However, it also meant that instead of being told what sounded like some pretty hilarious anecdotes by Jane and her partner Thor, which is what Bobbi enjoyed, Clint somehow spent a great deal of time with Tony’s friends, all of whom were stupidly intelligent people who did incomprehensible things with molecules (Dr Betty Ross), radiation (Dr Bruce Banner) and weapons systems (Lt. Col. James Rhodes). To be honest, Clint felt a little out of his depth.
But tonight was the night before the wedding, and for some reason Clint had decided that tonight was an excellent time to have a quasi-philosophical debate; questions on the nature of belief were not in his usual repertoire.
Bobbi looked up from the bed they were sharing to where he was standing in the doorway to the en suite bathroom.
“I don’t know.”
There was silence then, as Clint stared off into the middle distance lost in thought, and Bobbi slowly lowered her book to her lap. Eventually, she spoke again.
“Yes,” she said, and Clint turned at the sound of her voice. “Yes, I think people can. But I think it’s certain people. Because if everyone got what they wanted, the world would be a mess. But then again, want and belief are different, aren’t they?”
“So do you think that if enough people believed in God, he’d suddenly exist?”
“He does exist.”
Clint looked surprised. “I didn’t peg you for a believer.”
“I’m not,” said Bobbi, “Not really.”
“What I’m saying is, all those people believe, right? So for them, God exists. Their belief made him exist. But he’s supposed to be mysterious and vague and intangible, so you can’t see him. So it’s faith, right? And then God speaks to someone and we either decide they’re crazy or they’re not based on how they conduct themselves. Naked guy in Central Park is crazy, Mother Theresa is not. Or whatever. The perpetuation of belief depends on the believers and not whatever is being believed in. They’re almost… superfluous. Like, like that book you make me read. With the dead wife and the Vikings.”
“It must be very lonely for them,” he said, half to himself.
“Yeah, I guess it must,” replied Bobbi quietly.
They were silent again for a while before Bobbi said, “What brought that on anyway?”
“I dunno. Was just thinking.”
“Well, this week isn’t supposed to include existential freak-outs so I suggest you get into bed because your best friend is getting married tomorrow and I’m pretty sure Pepper wants you to look less rough than you currently do.”
Clint stuck his tongue out at her, but did as she suggested, climbing to the bed beside her and lying down. Bobbi put her book on the bedside table, before switching the light off, sinking down into the mattress and turning to face him, her hand coming up to rest on his upper arm.
After a moment she said quietly, “You know, if wanting something were enough to make it happen, my life would be very different now.”
Clint froze, because he suddenly knew without a shadow of a doubt that Bobbi was talking about something else now; was talking about them. And every niggling little feeling about whatever this was that the two of them had was suddenly spot-lit and he understood.
“I – ”
“I know,” Bobbi said gently.
“But – ”
“I know,” she said again.
He wanted to say; What do you know!?
He wanted to say; Is what you know that you’re in love with me and I’m not really in love with you and the sudden irrational guilt I feel about this makes it hard to breathe right now?
And then he realised that yes, that was exactly what she knew.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“Don’t be,” she replied, though he could hear the sadness in her voice.
“I still am, though.”
There was a small beat of silence and then Bobbi said “Thank you.”
By some mutual unspoken agreement – Clint and Bobbi were very good at those – they didn’t let that night’s revelations colour Tony and Pepper’s wedding the next day. They danced and drank and celebrated and, though there was now an element of wistfulness to their interactions, the entire celebration was too fantastic to allow any sort of sadness to take hold.
Clint’s good mood even managed to last until their return to New York. And even stranger than that, it wasn’t his relationship with Bobbi that brought him crashing back to earth. No, it was the news that his estranged and idiotic good-for-nothing older brother Barney had been killed in a bar brawl in Odessa. What Barney had been doing in Odessa was beyond him and Clint wasn’t upset, not really, but Barney had still been his brother.
In amongst the personal effects he signed for which were apparently found in a lockup in Arizona, of all places, was his father’s old hunting bow that he remembered loving as a child, three photographs of his family from before it went to shit and the last of his mother’s jewellery that Barney obviously hadn’t got round to selling yet. After brief consideration, Clint gave the rings to Pepper and the last remaining necklace to Bobbi. Before the wedding and everything that happened, he would probably have done it the other way round, but now... well, rings and Bobbi.
Clint didn’t do false promises. And he wasn’t big on lying to people he cared about either.
The area to the south of where she grew up sees much unrest and though she knows little of how the living world is organised now, she assumes that people fight over much the same things now as they did when she was alive. This means that every now and again, in addition to the normal passing of people through the In Between, conflict arises in these areas again, adding more than the usual number of people to her workload.
So occasionally, she meets others like her, working the same area.
There is another woman; she has met her many times. To the best of her knowledge, she has been one of the longest serving of their kind. She hardly remembers a time when this other woman was not to the south – in those lands where belief has caused conflict for years innumerable.
But the minutiae of belief are largely irrelevant to her kind; death is believed in by all.
She is kept busy, this other woman. All places see death, but some places see more than others.
They meet again now, though she feels that this small conflict is not worth another coming to assist. She tells the woman so, but in places where death is as prevalent as it is to the south, it seems that the loneliness is also stronger.
She realises, when the other leaves, that she is lucky. Her loneliness is not as acute.
And she has him.
Things were a little awkward after the wedding, but Clint and Bobbi had known each other too long and knew each other too well for the feeling to last. It only took a couple of months before they were back to joking and trash talking like they always had, something Clint was incredibly grateful for.
There was a big mission planned, and Bobbi had been drafted in to help with the mission prep and tactical planning. All Clint knew about it was that it took place somewhere in South East Asia and his name was on the list of possible call-ups for it. So while the whole thing was getting organised Clint was put in charge of putting new recruits for the Lisbon, Caracas and Hong Kong outposts through their paces, along with Litvinenko and Sitwell.
He had also been asked to give self-defence lessons to a Dr Jean Grey, who was being reassigned from the New York HQ to a facility in Karachi, and was deemed important enough and visible enough for self-defence to be prudent, despite the fact that she was a psychologist.
These two jobs ended up being ever so slightly disquieting for Clint.
One of the recruits destined for the Caracas outpost was Agent Chavez. She was Latina, about Clint’s height and very good at punching. She also had a very nice – and somehow familiar – hourglass figure.
Dr Jean Grey was a red-head.
Clint occasionally had to do a double take when he was working with them, because from the right angle they reminded him of her.
The next time she speaks to him is because he is being ‘interrogated’. It is not a cause of passing she sees often, but it is not as unusual as people would think – she has, after all, worked through some of the worst conflicts in recent history. This time, however, the knowledge comes with a degree of conflict for her.
On the one hand, she is more pleased to see him than she is willing to admit, even to herself. Especially after what happened in Odessa.
On the other hand, she feels a powerful and overwhelming hatred towards those inflicting this pain upon him. If she could make them stop, she would – even if it means not being able to see him.
She understands that any meeting between the two of them would always entail a degree of physical pain on his part – dying is rarely pain free – but during their previous encounters the evidence of this pain has not been quite so apparent to her.
His chest is covered in burn marks, his arms are tied behind his back, and he is soaking wet.
After exchanging pleasantries and inquiries of the how-did-you-get-here-this-time variety, she finds that she does not know what to say. In many ways, she has very little in common with this man; he lives in a world she does not know, and she comes from a time she is sure even the wisest have forgotten.
So, to bridge this gap, she finds herself telling him what she remembers of her human life.
She is embarrassed at first; unsure if it is appropriate, or even wanted. But he smiles at her and asks questions and then, when she has exhausted all she can recall, he takes over and tells stories from his life.
She learns of his friends; Bobbi – who she assumed was a man and was not – and Pepper – a name she has never come across before, and who is also a woman. There are more unfamiliar sounding names; Bulawayo, Oyelowo, Sato, Carter, Sitwell, Hussain and Drew, and even a couple that sound familiar to her – Litvinenko, Černý.
But these stories are harder. She understands very few of his references, and things that are perfectly normal to him baffle her. He tries to describe ‘cars’ to her, but she cannot comprehend. She knows thousands of ways these things can harm people, but she has never seen what one actually is.
So he is at a loss. He tells as many stories as he can, but the knowledge gap between the two of them is too great, and he soon runs out of tales to tell. But then he smirks a little and says;
“I could sing for you.”
His tone suggests that he is not expecting her to acquiesce, but she has not heard music for lifetimes – the dead do not sing – and she has forgotten much of the songs she had once known. So she says ‘yes’, and he looks momentarily taken aback.
But then he ducks his head and, with an embarrassed smile, starts to sing.
She does not know the song and she never expected to, but suddenly she realises that she wants to touch this man – this fragile, beautiful, living man; with blood on his chest and water in his hair – more than she has ever wanted anything in her long years of walking the In Between.
Clint wasn’t aware he was doing it at first, but he realised after a while that he was collecting songs for her.
You can’t affect the physical world when you’re in the In Between. He found this out the first time after his medical coma. She’d met him again, a year and a half later, as he was slowly dying while being water-boarded in Russia – not her part of Russia, the other end, right on the border with North Korea.
He’d wanted to tell her a story, but it had involved a cigarette lighter and she didn’t know what that was. Clint had known his captors had one – they’d had a great deal of fun stubbing out cigarettes on his chest after all – so he had resolved to try and get one from them to show her.
He attempted to free his hands, but could not get his fingers under the rope. He attempted to get his hands into the pocket of the guard who had been waterboarding him, but his hand had gone right through them.
He stood up then, to try again, but he found he couldn’t move from where his physical body was. He couldn’t reach into his pockets, or prise the clothing from his body.
She explained that it didn’t work that way, that you couldn’t touch the living from here and that the way you died was the way you were in the In Between, unless you were like her.
“But what about where you go after?”
“I do not know,” she had said. “I do not know anything about the place after this one. I have never been.”
Apparently the reason he couldn’t move from his body was also the reason people like her were needed. Her touch severed the tie with the living world, leaving them free to go to the next. Now he understood why she always stood or sat with at least two feet between them.
But this created a problem because without the demonstration as to exactly what a cigarette lighter was, he had no way of making her understand why the incident had been so funny. And almost all of his anecdotes required some explanation in this way. How do you explain things to someone who has no frame of reference for them?
So he learnt songs. He had a good ear and passable singing voice – if Bobbi were to be believed. He started off with things he liked; Springsteen and Dylan and slow sad country. Then he branched out, he learnt some British folk songs, some Negro spirituals, songs in the other languages he knew – Spanish and French and Portuguese – and anything else that caught his attention. On a mission to Afghanistan he asked an old man to teach him Pashtun lullabies.
He also found ways to explain some of the things in his life to her, so that next time – and he was aware how… messed up that made him, that he knew there would be a next time – next time, he could explain properly. He could get her to understand. To smile.
She remembers more the longer she spends with him, his words unlocking in her mind doors long left untouched – she stretches time, so though their meetings are few, they seem to last days.
He sings for her and tells her stories. And the more she remembers, the more she has to tell him in return; a game of give and take that she looks forward to more than she should. After all, nothing can come of this. Eventually, he will pass on, and she will be alone again.
Maybe that is why.
Birthdays tended not to be marked in any significant way when you worked for the Agency. The constant international travel and injuries tended to mean that any organised celebration was at best going to be missing some people, and at worst would have to be cancelled all together. So Clint had just given up celebrating.
But this time he and Bobbi had down time, and Bobbi had invited Pepper over because she’d decided that she needed a break from helping run a company and keeping Tony Stark in line. Also because the mix of Clint, Bobbi, alcohol and birthdays wasn’t going to end well, no matter how much they tried.
There had been a vague idea of going out to a club or something, after the second bar they’d been to. But Clint had nixed that idea citing Bobbi’s terrible taste in music and Clint’s aversion to dancing with drunk people. So instead they had ended up back at Clint’s apartment, well on the way to drunk and thinking Truth or Dare was a brilliant idea.
They’d also drunk dialled a couple of people at Stark Industries that Pepper was annoyed at, so their bar of ‘brilliant ideas’ was pretty low.
But now it was nearing three in the morning and Truth or Dare had morphed into the three of them lying around in front of Clint’s sofa and telling each other secrets they’d never share sober.
Clint thought this was supposed to have stopped once Pepper left Culver, but apparently not.
“C’mon,” Pepper said quietly. “I can’t be the only one. Someone… someone say something else. I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
“I can’t,” said Bobbi.
“It’s… he’s… I can’t, OK?”
Clint was lying on his back on the rug in front of the TV and Pepper and Bobbi were sat with their backs against the sofa.
“You..?” Pepper looked over towards Clint. “Oh. Oh, um, right.”
Bobbi looked conflicted for a minute before leaning over and whispering in Pepper’s ear too quiet for Clint to hear. Pepper’s response was to look incredibly sad and draw Bobbi into her side, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and pressing her cheek to Bobbi’s hair.
The silence in the room was broken only by Clint’s iPod quietly cycling through all his soft jazz. He looked over at the two of them sitting together against the sofa, and was suddenly incredibly glad they’d become such good friends. Then he said quietly; “I think I’m the bad guy in that story.”
Pepper pressed a foot against his shoulder.
“Not the bad guy, no,” she said gently.
Then; “C’mere, Clint,” and suddenly there were two pairs of hands pulling him across so his head was in Pepper’s lap.
“Now it’s your turn,” Bobbi said after a while. “You have to have some interesting story to take our minds off our depressing life/love/work troubles.”
And Clint was just a little too drunk, and just a little too comfortable, because what came out of his mouth was;
“I see a red-haired woman when I’m dying. She’s… fuck. She’s beautiful and,” he waved his hand around vaguely. “Y’know. I think she’s Death.”
Bobbi and Pepper just stared down at him. He could feel Pepper’s muscles tighten under his head, and Bobbi’s hand, which had been in his hair, tightened as well. Clint suddenly wished he’d just kept his mouth shut, but he hadn’t been able to think of anything else, and he hadn’t wanted Bobbi to dwell on whatever she’d just told Pepper.
“Are you serious?” Bobbi asked, her voice taut.
“When did that start?”
“Volg– Volgror– Russia,” Clint managed.
And after a while; “Have you told Psych?”
Clint felt, rather than saw, Pepper and Bobbi exchange a look.
“Fuck,” Bobbi said, low and drawn out.
They were silent then for about half an hour, each of them lost in their own thoughts, and Clint was sure, probably freaking out slightly about his mental state. But eventually Pepper said, “Right, OK. I can’t feel my legs and I’m not dealing with this now. I’m going to bed.”
She untangled herself from Bobbi, gently shoved Clint off her lap and made her way, somewhat unsteadily, to Clint’s bedroom. But just before she reached the door she turned and said; “We’re talking about this tomorrow, Clint. Don’t think I won’t remember.”
Neither Clint nor Bobbi moved once the door had clicked shut. Instead they both were silent, Bobbi slumped somewhat awkwardly against the front of the sofa, and Clint lying on the floor with his head now by Bobbi’s hip.
“I’d be a terrible boyfriend,” Clint said suddenly, apropos of nothing. “Ask Pepper. She knows.”
Bobbi snorted out a little laugh – agreement, but tinged with longing and maybe a bit of regret – and rolled easily with the change in subject. “Yeah, I know. She said.”
He looked up at her from his position on the floor, the angle making her face look strange. “You deserve better than me, Bobbi,” he said quietly.
Bobbi scowled and tipped her head up to look at the ceiling. “I fucking hate that phrase.”
“‘You deserve better’. It makes it sound like I’m too stupid to realise that there are other options, so they need to be pointed out to me.”
“I’m not – ”
“I know you’re not Clint,” she interrupted, looking down at him. “If you were that kind of dick I wouldn’t like you. But I know, alright? I could totally do better than you. You’re a sad sack of shit that keeps almost dying and giving me heart attacks. I could do way better than you.”
Clint grinned up her then, because of course she could.
She looked away from him then before saying, “Maybe I just never wanted to.”
And Clint’s smile slid off his face, even though he had known.
“You know, in another life this would have worked out,” Bobbi said after a while, her eyes now fixed on the beer bottle in her hand.
Clint thought about it; thought about Bobbi, about how they had been so close to becoming a thing. Then he thought about Volgograd and the woman he sees when he’s dying.
“Yeah,” he said quietly.
They were silent for a while longer, the sound of Nina Simone quiet in the background. Then, when Clint noticed Bobbi trying to stifle a yawn, he mustered up the energy to say; “Go share with Pepper, I’ll take the sofa.”
He idly wondered if he had the energy to find a blanket, but decided he didn’t, so once Bobbi was out of the way he simply collapsed onto the sofa.
Bobbi moved to turn the music off and leave, but just before she did she turned to Clint.
“Pepper’s right, we’re talking about this tomorrow.”
Clint wished he’d kept his mouth shut.
She neglects her duties.
A girl off the coast of Costineşti was to drown but does not. A man survives a gunshot wound to the chest in Prešov. There are people with cancer who live longer than their doctors predicted, and families who get days with loved ones they did not anticipate. A rapist in Žabinka does not die at the hand of his victim, and sixty nine additional people survive a train crash outside Novorossiysk, including a crooked politician, a victim of domestic abuse and a boy who will grow up to kill three people in a drunk driving accident.
But she cares not, for he has a kind smile and beautiful hands.
True to their word, Bobbi and Pepper had interrogated him the next morning. Or at least did the best they could considering the hangovers they all had.
They believed him, or at least believed that he believed it.
Most importantly though, Bobbi had promised not to tell Psych. Eventually though, they’d succumbed to their hangovers and, after each taking turns in Clint’s temperamental shower, they decided pancakes were in order and went out to IHOP and the rest of the day was lost to trash talking, terrible films and lots of fried chicken that everyone moaned about having to work off later.
It was a good day.
They didn’t really talk about it properly after that, but Pepper and Bobbi started dropping the red-haired woman into conversation and it was only once that started that Clint realised that he talked about her a lot.
“I think you’re in love with her,” Pepper said one day, when she was visiting him in New York.
“You’re in love with her.”
Pepper rolled her eyes. “The red-haired woman you see when you’re dying.”
Clint looked at her incredulously. “How’d you figure that one out?”
Pepper looked at him then the way she probably looked at shareholders who didn’t yet realise they weren’t going to get their way. “Because the way you look when you talk about her? That’s the way Bobbi still looks sometimes when she talks about you.”
Clint stared at the door long after Pepper had left the room, his mind a jumble of puzzle pieces slowly falling into place.
The next mission Clint took was in South Africa and it went pear shaped almost immediately thanks to interference from a third party. Bulawayo was captured by a small white-supremacist group who had nothing to do with the mission but who took exception to him being black or Zimbabwean or both.
Clint and Sato launched a rescue mission and thankfully Sato succeeded in getting Bulawayo out. All Clint succeeded in doing was creating a distraction by getting the shit kicked out of him by two of the largest Afrikaans men he’d ever seen.
They beat him into unconsciousness because they could.
He let them, because he needed to speak to her.
She has not worked out if his increased presence in the In Between is because he is very accident prone, or because her association with him has marked him in some way.
“Pepper thinks I’m in love with you.”
Up to now she had not thought about the third option – that he courts death to see her – because that is so unlikely. She is a shadow, insubstantial as fog. Life is too beautiful a thing to give up for a spectre that cannot touch.
But she thinks about this word – love – and her mind stumbles across memories and feelings long buried. She feels as though a veil has been lifted from before her eyes.
“I think she might be right.” He scrubs his hands over his head. His fingers are broken and his face is swollen. “Christ, this is fucked up.”
She leaves before she does something stupid like fit her hands to the exact contours of his face.
She needs to think.
One day, before leaving for a mission, Clint asked Bobbi why it was she believed him about the red-haired woman he only saw when he was dying – because it was ridiculous really.
She replied that it was because he’d never lied to her about important things. He’d never consciously offered more than he could give, and she didn’t see why he would start now. Because he was reckless but not suicidal. Because she trusted him.
“Pepper told me,” she said, and Clint’s shoulders sagged.
“See, that’s even more mad,” he said hoarsely.
“Clint, there are people here working on serums to make honest-to-god superheroes. And someone has found an Air Force pilot whose DNA is just plain wrong. We work in an organisation that will push ‘normal’ until it snaps.”
She smiled and shook her head. “I hate to break it to you Clint,” she said, fitting her thumb to his pulse point and curling her fingers around his neck, “but this is not even close to the strangest thing I’ve come across in day-to-day life.”
Clint had to hug her then, because somehow that felt like her blessing, and he hadn’t even been aware that he’d needed that.
It wasn’t on that mission that Clint died. That would be too poetic; too dramatic and perfect. No, it was two missions later; Clint was shot through the head by another sniper during a thunderstorm in Tehran.
Clint had once been told that if people believed in something enough, it could become real.
Bobbi believed in him, and Pepper believed in him.
But more importantly, both Bobbi and Pepper had come to believe in her. And Bobbi and Pepper had come to believe in them.
So, maybe that was why.