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Cakewalk

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She never had nightmares.

Clint had noticed before how smoothly Natasha moved between sleep and waking. On a mission, you had to grab whatever sleep you could, whenever you got the chance and it was safe or at least safe-ish. It always took him at least a few minutes to relax enough to doze off, even when she was there to guard him. Early on, especially when she was there. Later, he realized that the Black Widow was most dangerous when her target was awake and talking.

But he’d watched her curl up under vicious thorn bushes, drape herself over jagged-edged rubble and chunks of rebar, even sit up chest-deep in icy, filthy water, tilt her head back, and instantly be asleep, breathing deep and even, completely still. Early on, he’d been surprised that she trusted him enough to sleep in front of him. Later, he realized that she simply hadn’t feared him.

If nothing disturbed her, she’d eventually wake and stretch like a cat, rested and content. If he spoke her name or touched her, or if there was a suspicious noise, she’d open her eyes, alert but not startled. If he heard a suspicious noise while he was sleeping on a mission, he’d jerk awake like he’d been jabbed with a cattle prod.

But he’d never had nightmares before.

Sure, he’d dreamed of forgetting to bring his bow, of loading his quiver with juicebox straws instead of arrows, of arriving at his destination without having bothered to ask what the mission actually was. Those, he’d wake up from, be grateful they hadn’t really happened, then picture the bendy straws and laugh.

Now, he woke up knowing that everything had really happened. He really had been responsible for all those deaths. He really had told Loki all the secrets Natasha had trusted him with. And Loki had used them against her.

He hadn’t slept for two nights when Fury had summoned him, but he splashed water on his face and tried to look rested and ready. A mission would be good. He’d get back into the swing of things, shoot some bad guys, and put some distance between himself and what had happened.

“Yosemite?” Natasha was saying incredulously, as Clint walked into the room. She smiled at him, then turned back to Fury. “Is this a mission, or a vacation?”

“It’s a mission that happens to be in one of the most magnificent locations in America,” Fury replied. “Which is also the site of a secret underground laboratory.”

“How secret can it be?” Clint asked. “Yosemite’s full of tourists.”

“Yosemite-Mariposa County,” said Fury, sliding a pair of dossiers across the table. “It’s a bit bigger than the park itself. You can assume that the lab isn’t on a hiking trail.”

Clint flipped through the dossier. “But we’re going in as hikers?”

“Very well-armed hikers,” said Fury.

Clint stuck the dossier under his arm and went with Natasha to get their supplies. She picked through the rigged walking sticks and backpacks with cunningly disguised holsters.

“When was the last time you went camping?” she asked. “And don’t say, ‘Budapest.’”

“Yellowstone,” he replied. “Six months ago. You should have come.”

“Some time,” she said, like she always did. “I had to work. Just a little thing, but it needed doing.”

“Extracting state secrets? Saving the world?”

She winked. “Something like that.”

Clint hefted a backpack that fit neatly over his quiver and bow. Fury knew Clint loved the wilderness. It was a vacation – a cakewalk mission, meant to prove to Clint that Fury trusted him again, and to get him and Natasha working smoothly together again, with no bad blood between them. Nothing so dangerous or important that it would be a disaster if Clint broke down. Nothing Natasha couldn’t easily complete by herself.

Still, it would be good to walk in the woods with Natasha, good to once again fight by her side. And he did need to prove that he could still do his job.

But he could never let her tell him any of her secrets again.

The forests that covered the Yosemite mountains were mostly evergreen, but the other trees had already lost their leaves. A chill was in the air, and morning frost iced some of the huge gray boulders and stark cliffs.

The first day’s search failed to turn up any sign of the laboratory the dossiers claimed was somewhere around there, hidden from electronic searches by the same new technology that went into the gadget they were tasked with retrieving. They made camp in a glen within a dense thicket of manzanita. The copper branches were twisted and gnarled like something from a book of fairy tales, and the sunset light filtered through in drops and spatters, burning gold.

Clint climbed a 300 foot redwood and surveyed the forest, scanning for danger or clues. Atop the towering tree, looking down into a mass of green, he felt safe and confident. From his eagle’s perch, he could see anything. Shoot anything. And nothing could touch him.

Why had he let Loki get so close to him? The scepter didn’t work from a distance. Sure, it fired energy bolts. But those could only kill. To rip out a man’s heart and soul and will, it needed to be close enough to touch.

Close was Loki's game. His fighting distance was the reach of his scepter. Sparring space. Intimate space. Clint's fighting distance was the reach of his arrows. Why had he tried to play another man's game?

A cold wind chased clouds across the darkening sky. Clint wrapped his legs around the branch, and pulled his arms tight across his chest to keep himself from shivering. A movement below caught his eye. He fired two of his lightest, smallest arrows into the eyes of a pair of rabbits, then climbed down and retrieved their dinner.

He tossed them to Natasha, who caught them both by the ears. “I shot them, you clean them.”

“You shot them, I clean them, you cook them.” She had them both neatly skinned by the time she finished her sentence, gutted by the time Clint lit the fire, and the guts buried (to avoid attracting bears) by the time he had them skewered for roasting.

He loved watching her move, even to do such simple things. He’d never seen anyone so graceful and quick. Her knife and little trowel were silver streaks in the air; he only knew what they were by the actions they performed. He’d always wondered if her extraordinary speed was one of her Red Room alterations, like her slowed-down aging, or if it, like his archery, was the product of natural skill and intense training. But he’d never felt right prying into her hellish past, and he certainly couldn’t ask now.

They ate the rabbits, buried the bones, and unrolled their sleeping bags.

“I could watch all night,” Natasha offered. “You look tired.”

He quickly shook his head. “I’m fine. I’ll take first watch.”

She snuggled into her bag and fell asleep, just like that. He envied her discipline and control. Even more, he envied her serenity. After everything she’d been through, she could still set it all aside when she needed to. He wished he could ask her how she did it.

Clint had meant to let her sleep though the night – he’d gone without sleep for longer than three nights before, three nights was nothing – but exactly four hours later, she opened her eyes.

“That one, I can do,” he said.

“What?” Natasha unzipped her sleeping bag and sat up. “Did you forget to wake me up?”

“I can time how long I sleep,” he replied. “And I didn’t forget. You’re early.”

He lay down, closed his eyes, and tried to stay awake, listening to Natasha’s even breathing, the rustling of wind in the leaves, the crackle of flames…

… Loki looked at him expectantly.

“I could tell you her deepest fear,” Clint offered.

Like everything he’d done since Loki had touched him with the scepter, it felt like the right – the only – thing to do. No more hesitations, no more doubts, no more complications. Every word and action was as pure and clean and certain as the moment when he shot an arrow, knowing it would hit the target. There was nothing he had ever loved as much as that split second between the release and the strike. That moment when nothing mattered - nothing even existed - except the target. Now every moment was that moment of icy, perfect glory.

And all the time, another part of him was looking on, trapped, horrified, screaming at himself to stop, stop, kill the bastard, kill himself, anything—

“Tell me,” said Loki.

“It’s has to do with something they did to her in the Red Room, when she was a little girl,” Clint said. Easily, calmly, without hesitation. “The cook was a civilian employee, a big strong man. One day they drugged him until everything was gone but the urge to destroy. They locked her in a room with him. She had to kill him with her bare hands, or he would have killed her.”

Loki smiled. “So her greatest fear is a mindless beast of rage? How convenient.”

Clint shook his head. Stop, stop, bite your tongue, lie— “He was kind to her. She liked him. Trusted him. She’s afraid—“

“Clint,” a voice said softly. “Clint, wake up.”

He jerked awake, gasping, heart pounding. His arms were pinned. He was still trapped.

Natasha yanked down the zipper of the sleeping bag. Clint scrambled out, flinging it aside, and fell to his knees. He was awake. It had been a dream. But it had been real, too. He really had told Loki Natasha’s secret. Loki hadn’t even had to ask. Clint had volunteered the information.

“Clint?” Natasha crouched beside him, holding out a steaming mug. “Drink this. You’ll feel better.”

He took it automatically. Coffee slopped over the rim and dripped down his fingers. He could barely feel the heat. It was like he wasn’t in his body.

“My hands are shaking. My hands never shake.” His voice sounded like it belonged to someone else.

Natasha took away the coffee mug.

“Try this.” She put his bow in his hands. The shaking stopped like she had flipped a switch. He could feel his fingers wrapped around the bow, and his knees on the ground. His face and body were covered in a film of icy sweat.

“Thanks.” He couldn’t get his breathing under control. He clenched his jaw, determined not to speak until he could sound like himself again.

She sat down beside him, shoulder to shoulder, so he could feel the even movement of her breath and the warmth of her body.

“No thanks to me, actually,” she said. “I was making coffee, and I wasn’t paying close attention. I should have noticed earlier.”

“I didn’t yell, did I?” he asked, alarmed.

“You barely made a sound. You were sweating, that’s all. It’s a cold night.” She put her arm around his shoulders. “You’re still cold.”

”She’s afraid—“

He felt as if he was going to choke on his own guilt. “I told Loki everything. I told him about the man you had to kill when you were nine. I told him your worst fear. And he used it on you.”

“No, he didn’t.”

“He sent me to kill you. Your fear is of being murdered by someone you trust.”

“That’s not it. It’s—”

“Don’t tell me!” He twisted around, his hand flying up to cover her mouth.

Natasha caught his wrist. “It isn’t anything Loki can arrange. Listen, Clint. I’m afraid of being betrayed by someone I trust, of their own free will. And you would never, ever do that.”

“Of course not,” he said, dropping his hand. “But that wasn’t what you said your fear was before.”

“You shouldn’t believe everything the Black Widow tells you.”

Clint wasn’t sure whether he felt relieved that he hadn’t given Loki her real secret or let down that she hadn’t told him the entire truth. Or had she told him the truth, but was lying now? But that was Natasha’s game. You couldn’t get too caught up in whether she might be shading the truth or manipulating your reactions or recounting some implanted memory that she believed was true. You just had to trust that beneath it all, there was something real.

“I remember killing that man,” she added. “Whether it really happened or not, I don’t know.”

“It’s a terrible thing to have in your mind, either way.”

She thrust out the coffee mug. “Here. You can hold it now.”

He kept the bow in one hand as he drank. “Didn’t you bring any creamer?”

She smiled. “I prefer it black…”

“… like my heart,” they said together.

“You should bring your own supply of that revolting chalk powder, if you like it so much.” She poured herself a mug.

“If you dump that much sugar in it, it needs something to mellow it out.”

“Vodka would be good,” she allowed.

“If you have any, I’ll take a shot.”

Her eyebrows rose in mock horror. “Drinking on the job? That’s the most shocking thing I’ve ever heard you suggest.”

The adrenaline rush had faded, leaving Clint as light-headed as if he had been drinking. “I’d hardly call this a job. I mean, I assume there really is an underground lab and it really does have some gadget that Fury wants, but it’s make-work. It doesn’t need you or me. It especially doesn’t need you. He sent me to make me feel useful, and he sent you to pick up the pieces if I fall apart.” He held up his coffee mug in a toast. “Good job picking up the pieces.”

Natasha pulled her mug away. “You didn’t fall apart. That was nothing. That’s normal.”

“Not for you.”

She took a sip of coffee, then another. By the time she spoke, Clint already knew what she was going to say.

“It is normal for me,” she said at last. “I was trained to sleep quietly, that’s all.”

“Is there any way I could tell if you were having a nightmare? I’d wake you up, if I knew.”

Natasha rested her hand on his. Her fingers were as hot as if she’d been holding them over the fire. He’d always wondered if that was another one of her Red Room modifications, to make her resistant to cold. “You can wake me up any time.”

“How do you do it?” he asked. “How do you live with everything that’s happened to you?”

“And everything I’ve done?”

“Yeah. That too.”

She shrugged. “It’s better than the alternative.”

They sat together until dawn, and then set out again in search. They found the secret lab near noon, infiltrated it, confiscated the gadget Fury wanted plus copies of every file on the main computer, and left in half an hour without any of the secret lab people ever noticing that they’d been there.

“Cakewalk,” he said, once they were outside and out of earshot.

“You can’t have invading Gods and aliens every day.”

He laughed.

She radioed Fury, “We got it.”

“Want a lift out?” he radioed back.

She glanced at Clint.

“Walk out with me,” he invited. “You never come to Yellowstone.”

“No,” she told Fury. “We’ll be back with it in a couple days. Who knows, we might find more secret installations if we poke around.”

That night, when her eyelids began to flutter as she moved into dream sleep, he said, “Tasha.”

She opened her eyes and sat up, as calm as always.

“Sorry,” he said. “I guessed wrong.”

She shook her head. “No, you didn’t.”

“Want to tell me about it?”

“No. But I’m glad you woke me up.”

He put his arms around her. She leaned her head against his shoulder, breathing steady, heartbeat steady. At that moment, he wondered if she had made up the nightmare to make him feel better, feel useful and trusted again. Later, he realized that even if she had, she’d welcomed the comfort nonetheless.