Clint lies in the debrief. He sits there and he looks his handler in the eye and his pulse never shifts from its resting baseline when he says: an industrial park in Tangier three days ago. He had the kill shot and she had only one bullet left in her gun; he had the advantage of having slept in the last 72 hours and she had intel that no one else could provide. "I had to make the call," he says, folding his arms like a man nettled and keen to justify himself. "Sedatives work on her just like on anyone else."
He watches as the handler makes notes on a yellow legal pad in an even, flowing hand. "And you shot her twice because..." she says without looking up from her writing.
Clint grins, because even if the handler isn't looking, he's damned sure that Fury is. Never let it be said he doesn't know how to play to a crowd. "I said they work on her; I never said they worked quick."
He's never entirely sure if Fury buys it, but SHIELD seems to. The story fits the facts and the ends justify the means, and now SHIELD has something it can use. They get inside Natasha's head somehow—and that's as close as Clint ever lets himself think about it, somehow, because she's earned that much dignity—and they alter what's been broken.
The next time Clint sees her, her hair's been cropped short and her accent's switched continents. Her face is calm, serene as a paint-and-plaster Madonna, but when Clint looks her in the eyes all he sees is betrayal and anger and the worst kind of gratitude. It's a mixture strong enough to turn any man's stomach, but Clint doesn't flinch and Clint doesn't apologize. He did what he had to, and he did it for himself as much as he did it for her, and if his luck holds out, he'll live at least long enough to see that sense of obligation fade from her expression.
They talk about Hanoi and Hamburg, have in-jokes about Budapest and the Argentinean tango and the way Clint can never quite manage a plausible English accent; they never, ever talk about that first time. Natasha's knelt over him on a street corner in Cartagena, one hand pressed viciously against his abdomen to staunch the blood flow while she uses the other to take down their attackers with one neat, precise shot after the other. She's the best friend he's ever had, and her hands have been stained red with his blood and her own, but it's never managed to wash her clean; there's red in my ledger, she says, and Clint knows that's no careless metaphor. Natasha keeps a tally, a merciless inventory, and no matter how many times she does the math, nothing will ever outweigh that first debt.
If Clint had told the truth, he'd have made the handler look him in the eye while he said: Istanbul, four days ago. She had three bullets left and had already broken two of my ribs; I had the kill shot and she was still aiming at me but she was looking at me like she'd welcome it and that's the one way you should never go out. It's godawful to live with it, to know that your debts will never be repaid, but bankrupt is worse and I know because I've been there. I took her down and I won't explain it to you and I can't explain it to her, because no apology will ever be good enough.
Clint lies. Natasha never talks about it—and that means he owes her something, too.