He wakes in the night with a sharp intake of breath that cuts up his insides, flinging back the covers as he launches up into a sitting position.
Natasha creeps into his room not long after, finding him bent over his knees, hands fisted in the sheets and his sweat-soaked t-shirt clinging to his skin, going clammy as it cools. She slides into the bed next to him, turns on her side facing away, and nudges his hip with her butt in an unspoken command.
He strips off his t-shirt, dropping it to the floor, and lies back down, tucking himself around her and burying his face in her hair. The feeling of the soft cotton of her own t-shirt, which he thinks may actually have belonged to him originally, and her beating heart beneath his palms calms him, as does her familiar scent.
When his breathing has finally evened out, matching hers, he forces his hands down to her waist instead, so that he’s not groping her breasts when he’s in no state to follow through. There’s a gap between her rucked up top and the waistband of her pyjama bottoms. The little finger of his left hand comes to rest on her bare skin without him meaning it to and he leaves it there.
“Tasha?” he whispers against the nape of her neck.
She shows no signs of being awake, but then she never does.
For stopping me. For being willing to kill me. For not killing me.
He doesn’t know what to say, whether it should sound more like thanks or apologies, and he knows it’s nothing that she wants to hear.
You, he taps out, gently and slowly, in Morse Code with his little finger on the warm, smooth skin of her stomach. You, over and over, until she places her hand over his and presses, holding him still.
He doesn’t need to be on the Helicarrier to destroy it, but for the purposes of this plan, the plan that he has orchestrated, he does. For the purposes of this plan he has to get onto the bridge, where of course he will be seen by Fury and Hill and they, of course, will send Natasha after him, because they know that she can beat him.
Clint’s the best sniper they have, the best eyes, the best distance worker and tactician. Natasha though, she’s the best at close-up work, at hand-to-hand, and whilst she hates coming up with strategies she’s better at those than him too. Clint will argue for changing things, will start to root for a target, but Natasha will follow through, no matter what, if that’s what’s needed. She can keep her eyes on the larger picture whilst he sees everything, all the little details.
She can beat him in close combat because she’s better at it than him. She can take him out because she knows that it needs to be done.
She takes his bow out of action first. Then his knife. She’s everywhere and nowhere at once and he knows, even as he desperately yanks on her hair, that she’s going to win. He has to fight; the part of him that belongs to Loki is splintered into two, warring over whether or not him dying is good for Loki’s cause, but both parts know that Natasha dying with certainly help Loki and so h has to fight. It doesn’t matter. He knows that she can and will beat him.
He knows that she can take him out, but will she?
“Tasha,” he pleads.
She doesn’t kill him.
He sounds so excited, like a child given the best present in the world.
Later Clint will learn that the Doctor built a failsafe into his machine, to shut it down, and he will wonder if this is the moment he began. The moment Selvig realised that science is all very well but the truth is that it’s useful to have an off-switch, or something like that.
“What did it show you, Agent Barton?” says Loki and Clint replies, easily, “My next target.”
The Asgardian doesn’t ask him who or what, just what he needs, and it should not be this easy to evade the so-called God of Lies and Mischief.
Clint has never been and never wants to be a leader or commander. When it comes to strategy, to having a long-term plan that can’t be changed, Clint is not the go-to guy. He’s gone from foster home to foster home, from town to town with a travelling circus, from crisis to crisis in the military, and from mission to mission around the globe with SHIELD. He doesn’t have an ultimate goal, but he’s gotten good at hitching himself to people and organisations that’ll provide that for him. Loki has reached into him and taken up that role; appropriated Clint for his purpose.
What Clint is good at is tactics, changing plans and coming up with new ones to meet local conditions, adapting to the situation so that the strategy can be carried out. He’s used to change and can roll with it, capable of taking a step back and viewing things with an objective eye even when he’s in the thick of the action. It’s why Coulson gives him so much leeway and why even Fury asks for his advice on occasion.
Loki has provided the purpose and he’s left Clint to handle the details.
Part of Clint applauds his decision, because Clint will see to it that the details are indeed handled so that Loki’s overall plan will be achieved. He’s wedded to Loki’s purpose and he’s the best man for the job, so this is the best way to get it done.
However, Loki also wants Clint to attack SHIELD and Clint, well, Clint is as much of an advantage to SHIELD as he is to Loki and if SHIELD manages to reclaim Clint then that will be a blow to Loki’s plans, so there’s space there, some small amount of wriggle room, where Clint being taken out would be beneficial to Loki’s strategy. It will also be unbeneficial to the strategy, destroying the logistics part by taking out the guy doing the logistics, but Loki has left the details up to Clint to decide, it’s Clint’s choice to make, and the Tesseract has shown a truth to him as well as to Doctor Selvig.
The Tesseract has shown him his next target.
“I need a distraction,” he says. “And an eyeball.”
He doesn’t feel any different, not really, just that the reason for everything now is what Loki wants instead of what Barney or SHIELD or anyone else wants; instead of what someone he chose to follow wants.
He finds that the distinction bothers him, that he can feel it bothering him, regardless of the fact that every action he takes is for Loki and every thought he has is for what Loki wants and every desire is to please Loki.
He still feels pissed off.
Hill rams head first into them whilst he’s trying to drive them clear of the base and Fury fires at them, which means other people are feeling somewhat pissed off too. That’s a little drop of comfort, even if they’re not pissed off on his behalf, that nestles next to his own anger and Loki owns neither.
He still has some small measure of self.
She’s different to all the other times he’s observed her so far, whilst he’s been tracking her down, and to what he’s gotten from the file on her that SHIELD put together. It’s just little things, like the slight slump to her shoulders and the way she lets the blood drip from her hands instead of wiping them off on the inside of her skirt like she usually does. Of course there’s also the big thing: she’s stepped into his line of sight and she’s staying there.
She’s damn good at what she does. Before now he’d only managed to graze her as she fled across his sights, and that only because her other routes to safety had been cut off. He knows that she’ll have a read a file on him, produced by the infamous Red Room, just as he’s read one on her; that she’s aware of his aim, his talents, and his flaws.
The Widow turns her head in his direction, although there’s no way that she can see him, and the corners of her mouth curl up into a small smile.
The order comes.
Later, much later, she will tell him that she knew he could take her out and that she wanted him to.
He doesn’t kill her.