The plastic edge of the zip ties at her throat and ankles cut into her skin as he sliced them open and the standard metal handcuffs were a matter of moments for him to pick. He squatted by her side, scratching his head as he stared at the cast iron manacles and heavy chain pulling her back against the twisted metal she’d been bound to.
“Right, okay. These are antique.”
“And your weapon isn’t?”
“My weapon is awesome and … Mmmm.” He glanced up, met her eyes. “Do you trust me?”
“No,” she answered.
He snickered as he pulled an arrow from the quiver and tapped the oddly cylindrical head with a fingertip. “Yeah, good enough. I’m going to get you out of here.”
“Why?” she blinked, as though she startled herself by asking the question.
He shrugged. “Because I don’t want to kill you.”
“You don’t – “
“You really going to argue me out of it? No, not you, I know how you feel.” He looked up again at her. “You.” She thought about raising a sarcastic eyebrow, realized doing so would pull open wounds, and tilted her head. He got the message. “Look, I’m not crazy, there’s a –“
“A comm, yes, obviously, because you are merely a hired gun, here to kill me at the behest of whom? Mossad?”
“Twice wrong. I’m a hired bow, and you know full well the Israelis would have already put two between your eyes, so stop fishing.” He shook his head sharply, then pressed the arrowhead to the manacles behind her. A sharp chemical stink filled the air as he shook the iron binding her sharply enough to re- abrade the skin and pull at her dislocated shoulder. As soon as the manacles sagged, she twisted away from him, putting the bulk of the metal between them, hiding the strain on her thigh and ribs as much as possible, but he wasn’t even looking at her. He stood with one hand out, a parody of a gentleman. She stared at his hand, then up to his face.
“Acid tipped arrows?”
He grinned, “Cool, hunh? Made ‘em myself.”
“So they, too, will fail mission objective.”
His eyes widened. “Holy shit, you guys, that was in chorus. You two have got to meet.” He paused. “Right, in twenty seconds. C’mon.” He held his hand out again, expecting her to take it like a child.
She did so anyway.
The last of the shampoo swirled at her feet, bubbles piling up on her toes, the bright red of Nina’s manicure ghosting through. She exhaled, slowly. Acetone was the next step, after shedding her costume and before refilling her hollowed out body.
She stood with the towel in her hands, considering. Nina would wind her hair in it like a turban, but it took a moment to decide that Natasha wouldn’t. She rubbed the towel roughly through her hair, then pulled it away from her face, the wet strands clinging to her jaw. It was clean, if the wrong length, the wrong color, the wrong … she sighed and pulled a cotton tee over her arms, the fabric snagging and bunching over her still damp skin.
She sat at the low table and tugged the edge of the plate within reach. Clint returned from the kitchen, his hands still damp. He patted them on his jeans, then reached down to pull her left foot into has lap. She blinked, suddenly very aware that she had, at some point, accepted his routine, or perhaps he had modified hers to include him, and for a moment the slice of ripe peach in her fingertips felt alien, foreign, the furniture beneath her garish and overpadded, the man before her a stranger again.
“Did you want me to start with your hands?” Clint asked, watching her warily. She had paused for less than a second. She shook her head, and he reached for the polish remover. “Picked up a box of Clairol, but they didn’t have the right number, so it’s the wrong shade. If you don’t want it, I can drop it off at wardrobe when we get back.” He shrugged, then bent over her toes, his tongue caught between his teeth.
“Thank you for the peaches,” she said.
He snorted, “Yeah well, didn’t want to eat them all. Tempted, though.” He glanced up with a grin, and she waved the remaining bit of her slice at him. He opened his mouth and she poked the half slice in and leaned forward to take another from the plate. He hummed as he chewed, and waited for her to settle again before rubbing at the next toenail.
The compound was steel doors and concrete floors and right angles. Easy to set up a search grid, impossible to cut across linearly. She motioned the next team to turn at the crossing corridor and tapped her comm again. Still static, and she stepped forward again and paused to listen. She could hear Clint taunting, Sitwell cursing, Coulson directing, even as she knew all three were figments of her own imagination. Two days with Sitwell muttering invective in four languages, once of which no one else knew he spoke, gave her mind plenty of material. She stepped forward again, evaded a strike from the left, pulled that man into the path of the spray of bullets from the right, then shot both men. The team of agents behind her lowered their weapons. She motioned them into the now-cleared corridor, and stepped forward again as another team of three jogged up to meet her. Woo shook his head and she nodded. They moved forward, deeper into the compound, obvious in the moisture beginning to collect along the grout between cinderblocks making up the walls.
A door before her opened and a guard came out, not on his feet, but head first to slam against the far wall and crumple on the concrete floor. The door swung, sagging on a broken hinge, and she held up one hand to stop the team behind her from approaching. They took up sentry positions as she stepped through.
Before her, Clint sprawled partially on his back, his right wrist still wrapped and attached to some sort of wire framework behind and above him. She stepped forward, then jumped back to avoid his wild swing. He mumbled something she couldn’t catch, and hissed into her comm. “Widow here, I’ve found the package, but I need a chemical analysis and a med team on standby.”
“Affirmative.” The answer was quick and professional. Only one situation needed those two support teams and she heard movement in the corridor. She threw one hand back to stop anyone from entering, keeping her face toward Clint.
“Clint, can you hear me?”
“Not buying it. Fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice, shame on me again.”
“Clint, it’s me. We’ve come to get you.”
He stopped flailing and curled into himself, the rough floor reopening old scratches along his side. “Nobody’s coming.”
She frowned. “Clint, I’m here. You’ve been drugged.”
“No shit,” he snarled. “You think I don’t know that? I’ve spent days? Hours? Weeks? Seeing every .. seeing a hell of a lot of people walk through here, promising me … shit that’s not true. So no, I don’t care what face you are wearing, I don’t care who you look like. You aren’t N-mm” he shook his head and pressed his lips together, then continued more quietly. “You aren’t who I’m seein’, and I’m not tellin’ you jack. So go back to the water hose. I’m giving you nothing.”
“I’m moving forward. I’m going to cut you loose.”
He laughed and she felt a chill. “You move within my reach, I’ll take you down, too. No matter what you look like.” He smiled at her, his eyes narrowed and his head tilted down and she remembered the force with which the guard must have been kicked to go through the door like he did.
“Fine” she said, and dropped to the concrete, just out of his reach. “We’ll sit here until you pass out and I drag your unresisting body back to Medical, and you can explain to Dr. H. why you are dehydrated and starved.” She heard a scratch of movement from the hall again, but didn’t dare signal. “And while you’re detoxing, I’ll paint your toenails pink and heaven help you if that wrist needs a cast, because I’ve got glitter glue.”
He lifted his head again, to stare at her. “Z’at you?”
“How about the thing behind you? Polka dots, but splotchy. Z’at real, too?”
“Not unless agents Menendez and Hall have taken up new fashions.”
“Hall!” he called. “Come out where I can see you.” He squinted past her. “Still splotchy. But black. Better ‘n green. Pretty sure green and red are bad. The ants aren’t a lot of fun, either.” He spun and glared into the corner of the room. “Down! Jesus, Nat, no!” He stared at her, agony on his face, then yanked at his still bound wrist, moving the frame slightly and drawing blood.
“Can you see me?” She asked when he stilled, panting, curled into himself.
“No.” His eyes were closed, tears drawing clean tracks down his cheeks.
“But you can hear me.”
“Past the buzzing, yeah. Kinda.”
“I’m going to cut you free and you are going to follow me.”
He shook his head, then nodded. “Yeah.”
“You will not attack me.”
“No,” he said, strangely docile, and she lasered through the chain holding him. His arm flopped to the floor with a wet sound and he grunted.
She slid one arm under his and pulled him to his feet. He sagged, his face in her hair, and she guided him, walking half sideways, out of the room and into the hall. Menendez waited until they had cleared, then started sweeping the scattered vials and ampules into a biohazard bag. She looked up, her eyes wide, then to Clint, and Natasha sighed. “Clint, can you hear me?”
“Sure,” he answered quietly, gently. “S’okay.”
“What’s okay, Clint?” she asked while in the back of her mind, Sitwell was cursing again and Coulson was explaining in tones sharper than he’d ever actually used with her that nothing about this situation was in any way ‘okay’, ever.
“Figured it out.” He paused, then said, “You’re dead, too. So it’s okay.”
She didn’t drop him. She didn’t stagger under his weight, even as he sank more and more onto her shoulders, and she didn’t flinch with the medics came clattering toward her and when they wrestled him onto canvas and poles. She answered Coulson’s careful questions and took the insipid coffee from Sitwell’s hands and let it cool in her own.
And when, fourteen hours later, Clint awoke with a bitten back cry, she sat by his side as he gaped at her, then shook.