Hours pass days pass time stands still
Light gets dark and darkness fills
My secret heart forbidden
I think you worried for me then
"Thoughts?" Fury asks as Natasha joins him in front of the platform.
She regards the device for a moment. "No one's been in or out without authorization. There've been no unauthorized communications, professional or private. It may not be something we've done on our end, sir."
"On our end?"
"It's designed to be a door, isn't it? Where does it go, and who's on the other side?"
Fury raises an eyebrow at that observation, but before he can say anything the floor begins to tremble and the cube itself starts emitting a high-pitched whine. There's a flash and for a second Natasha thinks someone's thrown a flash-bang onto the platform, but then she gets a look at the man uncurling himself and sees the probable weapon in his hand.
The first shot goes wide, both hers and his, because she has to change gears mid-motion to knock Fury out of the way. Her second and third shots are more covering fire than attempts to hit him as they scramble for cover. Another blast shatters the consoles above them and she's pushed off to one side as he steps between them.
Her foot connects with his leg, but it's like kicking a brick wall and all he does is look down at her and smile.
It is not a pleasant smile.
She reaches to grab the staff even as he's bringing it down to stab her and his free hand shackles her wrist hard enough she feels the bones grate against one another.
"Well, well, well. You're a mess, aren't you?" he whispers and she can feel his voice slither through her mind even before the tip of the spear touches her chest and she freezes.
She feels it moving through her body from her heart outward, creeping into everything she has, everything she is. She flashes back on ice-cold metal tables, hospital gowns that are too thin to hold any heat, and the cold prick of needles sliding into her skin. It feels like hundreds of those moments all at once, her nightmares rushing up to meet her and even as she's slipping away under the ice and into cold water, she's chanting a litany "not again not again not again" under her breath.
Then she's not the one breathing anymore, except she is.
She beats her fists against the ice as she watches the bullet pierce Fury's skull, his remaining eye gone, but now he won't miss it. She watches each time a bullet leaves her gun, finds an agent, soldier, scientist, she watches and this is much, much worse than anything that has been done before.
She is so cold.
The phone in the pocket of Clint's tac vest buzzes against his ribs and he bites back a curse. He'd finally managed to track back to Luchkov's hideout and plant a bug; right now they're reeling off information like nobody's listening, and he might actually make it out of here before the hell freezes over.
"This better be good," he starts off with, because he's been on this stakeout a week and he's only just starting to get anywhere.
He knows it's Coulson, but the use of his first name brings him up short.
"Romanov's been compromised." There's a tone in Coulson's voice Clint's never heard before. "Fury's dead, and Hill's in critical condition. I've got a meeting with the Council in five minutes, but we're at level seven."
"Where is she?"
As he waits for Coulson's answer, he's running the scenarios through his head. Two come immediately to mind, and he's not sure which is worse.
One. The Red Room found a trigger, found a way in, and are trying a take-over of SHIELD from the inside out. They've taken her back, and reprogrammed her for their purposes, maybe had her as a sleeper agent all along. SHIELD certainly tried to make sure they'd dug out all her old programming, but what do they know? No one has a complete picture of what they did to those girls. It's possible.
Two. She's been compliant all along - has been playing the lot of them. Has been playing him, and that twists in his gut with a sick burn. Maybe she never really left the Red Room, maybe everything they've done has all been an act, her ultimate performance. She's good enough she could, he knows that's true no matter how much he'd like to believe he'd be immune. He wouldn't be.
"I'll have more information for you on the way, but I need you to make a stop first."
Kolkatta is the direct opposite of the abandoned train station - there are people everywhere and it's hot as hell.
He's damning Coulson for not giving him more to go on, just that Nat's gone, the Cube's gone, and some kind of alien has them. Fury's dead, Coulson's in charge, and level seven means full-out war.
A small colorful blur darts by him through the nearby window and he brings himself back to now. Banner's not far behind, standing in the middle of the room with an annoyed twist to his mouth, muttering about payment.
"Doctor." Clint steps out of the shadows and watches the other man tense.
"So are you here to try to kill me? Because that's really not a good idea."
Clint keeps a healthy distance and shakes his head. "SHIELD doesn't want you dead, Doctor."
"SHIELD, huh? So what do they want?"
"What you know about gamma radiation."
Banner's frown deepens. "No. No way in hell."
"Not for what you're thinking, Doc." He pulls out his cell, loads the picture and sets it on the table, then backs away. "That's called the Tesseract. It's a potential energy source, but it's been stolen. The only thing we've got to go on is the gamma signature it emits. So we need your help to track it down."
"Fury doesn't want the monster?"
"Hasn't said so to me." Clint doesn't mention he's not saying anything at all, anymore. "You come in with me now, you get a free pass back - or to wherever - just as soon as we're done. We just need you to write us some equations to track down our assets."
"And if I say no?"
"I've got guys outside with guns who'd try to convince you otherwise. Which would be messy for everyone involved. I'd rather we just walked out and got on the plane, personally."
"What are we talking about, here?" Banner's voice has gone quiet, serious, and he's looking down at the screen again.
"The end of the world? Maybe. Nobody really knows what it's capable of."
Silence stretched out between them, and it wasn't comfortable or still. Finally, Banner nodded his head. "Yeah. I'll help."
He introduces Banner to Rogers, then leads them both to the bridge. Coulson is standing front and center, directing traffic and trying to coordinate getting them airborne and invisible. Clint paces back and forth in a tight line, refusing a chair when the briefing starts. He saw the footage on the plane and still hasn't managed to shake the image of that unholy light creeping across her skin.
Twice since they met, untold times before that, people have taken it upon themselves to fuck up her head with science and psychology but he thinks this might be worse.
"There's so much... it's so beautiful." Selvig babbles, something about physics again - she really couldn't care. He doesn't need impressing, or seducing, no careful manipulation - if she needed him to do something for her all it would take was a simple threat or a gun to his head. He's simple and easy, which makes him boring.
She wants a challenge, wants someone to play with that will make her blood sing. Someone who might actually be a match for her.
She knows exactly who she wants.
"And what has the Tesseract shown you, Agent Romanov?" Loki's voice is smooth, hypnotic, and draws her attention back from her musings.
But the question reinforces the direction her thoughts were already taking, through the power of the cube pulsing within her she is glimpsing moments past, present, and future. She is filled with the memories of pumping blood and racing hearts, of the thrill of the hunt, the chase, the catch and release. Of being warm again. With him it's never quite gone over that edge, never with intent to hurt or kill and she feels the lack there. She wants to rectify that situation because the Cube shows her in vivid, Technicolor detail what it could be.
A part of her thinks she shouldn't answer his question and show that much of herself, but she can't not do so when he asks, so she replies "my next target," and is gratified by Loki's smile when he asks her to explain.
She uses a sniper rifle with a silencer to get rid of the guards on the roof - it's quiet and clean and not at all interesting. Breaking into the building is a bit more difficult, but she thinks of the party and the chaos probably going on it Stuttgart and wishes she was there.
The only thing that keeps him from killing Loki on sight is that they haven't found Natasha yet, and Loki is their best lead. He's hovers around the edge of the room as Coulson locks the door on the Hulk cage, listens while Loki tries and fails to get a stronger reaction than a tilt of the head. Fury would've taunted him, but the senior agent just watches, expression blank until he gets a message through the comm and leaves without a backward glance. Clint crouches on the overlook, trying to play the angles.
This is Nat's job, not his. When it comes to interrogation tactics, he plays the brawn to her brains, but that won't work here. He knows better than to get within arms reach, because he's seen how strong this guy is and has no idea the full range of abilities he might have.
"You've been awfully quiet - Agent Barton, isn't it? The one they liken to a hawk?"
Clint uncurls from his perch and swings down into the main chamber to prowl around the cage. Loki's eyes follow him as he moves.
"That's me," he agrees.
"Like what you see?"
Lies, lies... he's supposed to be the god of lies. How do you fight a lie? Clint wonders. With the truth Natasha's voice whispers in back of his mind, and he holds her there.
"You've got something I want," he states flatly, stopping next to the control panel.
"Do I, indeed? But you're not talking about the Tesseract, are you, Agent Barton?"
"And what would your superiors think, of you coming here on your own agenda?"
"I don't particularly care. Where's Agent Romanov?"
Loki smiles, and it's a terrible thing.
"As with the Tesseract, I have no idea."
"What have you done to her?" He's all lines and tension. It's taking everything he has not to go in there and try to beat the answers out of him, but he knows, knows that's the wrong move to make.
"Expanded her mind, perhaps? I've shown her the Truth, formed her into the true essence of herself."
People have been trying to do that to her for years and hearing the words coming out of Loki's mouth makes him ill. "What'll you do with her if you win?"
Loki's face twists with renewed interest, like perhaps he wasn't expecting exactly that question but it pleases him. "Where is your sense of duty, Agent Barton? Of loyalty? You'd deal for a single woman, in the face of the loss of your whole world?"
One simple word. One simple answer.
"Oh, that is touching! Would you like to know, Agent Barton, if that love is returned? If she appreciates all you've done?"
He must have flinched or given up something on his face, because Loki latches on like striking snake.
"Oh, she's told me all about how you met. The arrow you couldn't loose? The poor, monsterous girl you took pity on and spared. Were you in love with her even then, sight unseen? Is that why you didn't kill her when you had the chance, so that you could take her and try and mold her as so many others have done, into someone 'better'? Did you want to try to fix her, Agent, make her more... human?" There is a world of scorn in his tone, but his strikes are accurate and deep.
"I thought she'd make a good asset." It's the truth, after all, just not much of it.
"And once you knew the full horror of what she was and what she'd done, after she told you all of her sins in that little Brazillian hotel room, what then?"
"She's still a good asset." He's not about to give him the satisfaction of bearing his heart - Loki has no right to the things he's never even told her.
"She is, indeed. A vicious little thing, too. Bloodthirsty. You have that in common, don't you - a taste for blood and violence. For pain." Loki's smile calms, he relaxes as he enjoys the conversation or maybe a memory. Clint's fists tighten. "She's looking forward to seeing you again, did you know that?"
His shoulder jerks, just a fraction of an inch, but Loki sees it and his eyes narrow.
"Oh, yes. I would say you're foremost on her mind, Agent Barton. Would you like to know what she's got planned for you?"
No, his mind screams, but he just arches an eyebrow.
"Barton," comes Coulson's voice over the comm, and it breaks the spell of the room. "I need you in the lab."
"Pity. I was so enjoying our conversation." Loki sits down on the bench. "Be sure to give the others my regards, won't you?"
She can remember swimming in ice-cold water as a child. Most of her memories of her childhood, as fractured as they are, involve the cold whether literal or metaphorical, but she's as certain as she can be about these things that the water was real. She remembers sliding underneath the glassy seal of ice that no pounding of her small fists could break and trying desperately to find an exit before she ran out of air. It feels like that again, only she's all grown up and the ice is so much thicker.
And there's no flaw, no crack for her to climb through.
The grenade launcher punches a nice, messy hole in the bulkhead of the ship, disabling one of the engines in the process, just like she planned. It really shouldn't take long to get on board and get what they need, and once Loki is freed from his prison it will be a simple enough thing to upload the virus from one of the access points strung throughout the ship. She's an exceptionally good hacker after all, even if that's far from her strongest skill set.
It's not violent enough to appeal to her right now, but it will get the job done.
The carrier is in chaos, and no one is entirely sure who the friendlies are anymore. The invading force is made up of people they once called allies, and they're tearing the place apart. The Hulk may finish the job, Clint thinks when he hears the screaming of tearing metal from his position on D deck. But that's Thor's problem - he's focused on just one thing.
"Romanov is on the ship, line of sight confirmation" says a voice on the comm. It's Coulson who responds and calls out for a status check of whoever is closest to her last known position. She's moving towards the labs, probably to retrieve Loki and the scepter and Clint's determined to get there first.
"This is Barton. I'm on it, headed that way." The ship lists violently to the left and Coulson doesn't respond but Clint's nearly there.
There's something almost soothing about chaos. She's always been able to hold herself above it, stay beyond the panic and control the adrenaline rush so she can use it to her advantage. Most everyone has cleared out of the containment area, running from the rampaging Hulk and that gives her a clear path to her immediate objective, but she's constantly darting glances around and behind waiting for him.
She knows he'll show up, he can't not after all.
Sure enough, there's a flash of movement at the other end of the corridor, and she grins widely as she feels her blood heat.
"I knew you'd show up," she purrs, turning.
He's holding his bow steady, an arrow nocked and pointed in her direction.
Her eyes are wrong. Tasha's eyes are green, but these are pale blue with an inhuman light and it might just be the most disturbing thing he's ever seen. He's seen her play a hundred different roles, watched her slip personalities off and on the way most people change shoes but it's never been anything like this. It makes it harder to look at her, but might be the one thing that keeps him from losing his mind if he has to kill her.
She can talk anyone into anything, so he keeps his mouth shut and lets the arrow fly. This new Tasha is even faster than his, and it catches her shoulder instead of her chest, but it's designed to taze, not pierce and that's plenty of contact for her to get the full jolt. She hits the floor and he approaches with caution.
"Tasha?" he asks softly as she's pulling herself up to her knees, arms shaking. Anyone else it would've knocked cold, but she's holding it together and trying to stand.
He reaches out a hand, and quickly finds himself pressed face first into the floor with her weight pinning him down. He hadn't even seen her leg move before she'd kicked his feet out from under him. His bow is trapped beneath him, useless.
"Did you miss me, lover?" she whispers in his ear.
The arrow stung and he would pay for that. She wrenches his arm just a little higher on his back, hears him gasp at the pain and pressure and eases off because it wouldn't be any fun to break him this early in the game. She's always wanted to know which of the two of them would win if they went all out and she might have just enough time to find out.
She doesn't think it will be a very long fight.
She pushes off of him, pulling his bow free and throwing it a far distance down the corridor behind her. This is up close and personal, she wants to feel the heat of him against her skin, not the cold metal of his arrows.
He pulls himself up and rocks back into a fighting stance, prepares for her attack. She doesn't disappoint either of them and launches into him. The first touch of his hands on her arms is so hot it burns and she revels in it. Her head cracks against the bridge of his nose and blood gushes out, painting both of them with red.
It's rough and fast, but she's still better at hand-to-hand combat than he is.
"You gonna kill me, Tasha?" he whispers, his throat moving against the hand she's got wrapped around it. There's a pulse fluttering rapidly beneath her fingers that she knows just as well as her own. Her hand has pressed there before in much less lethal circumstances.
"Do you want me to?" She's not ready for it to be over yet, because she knows as soon as he's dead she'll go back to being cold all over.
"Do it if you're gonna do it," he hisses.
Underneath the ice, she closes her eyes and tries to inhale, giving in and pulling water into her lungs.
The hand around his throat relaxes instead of tightens and slips a few inches higher, over his cheek, his lips, then slides back into his hair. The kiss is unexpected; he's grateful to still be alive but it turns his stomach and he clenches his teeth, keeping his mouth closed against hers.
His left arm is pinned beneath his body, his right is held tightly at the wrist and pinned to the floor by her other hand.
Suddenly, viciously, he bites her lower lip and draws blood. She jerks and that gives him just enough space to flip over, putting her underneath him. It won't hold her for long, but it gives him just enough time to land a right cross hard enough she'll probably see stars. Her hand scrabbles along his shoulder and he threads his fingers through her hair, pulls and slams her head back against the deck, twice for good measure.
He doesn't lift himself off of her torso until he's felt her breathing even and her pulse slow and is dead certain she's out cold. Agents come up behind him and start to reach towards her but he makes a sharp gesture telling them to back off. Gently he picks her up, cradling her close to his chest, and carries her to the detention cell.
She surfaces, imagines coughing and retching, the lingering feel of cold water burning through her lungs and her throat even though it's not really there and she forces her eyes open. Everything is altered and wrong as her vision wavers and tries to resolve itself. Her hands and legs are bound, there's a table beneath her, and she's screaming before she can stop herself.
"Hey. Hey! Tasha, calm down!"
She knows that voice. Knows that touch.
He's alive. His hands are warm on her arms and the ice is just melting shards inside her mind.
She can breathe.
"Tasha? That you in there?" He's searching her face as if he's looking far some remaining trace of Loki's magic.
"I think so."
"Your eyes. They're back. They weren't... normal, before."
She hadn't looked in a mirror while she was with Loki, hadn't realized that there'd been a physical mark of what was happening to her.
"Where's Loki? Did he get away?"
"Unfortunately. He's gone, the Hulk's gone, so's Thor. Not sure about Stark or Rogers, but they're probably still on the ship. Stark got the engine stabilized, so we're not crashing."
"That's... good. Can you-"
He reaches for the cuffs before she's finished the sentence, because he knows how much she hates them, hates hospital beds. She rubs her hands to get the circulation back and swings around on the table so that he can sit down beside her.
"I don't know. Whatever Loki's planning, he's still got the Cube, and now he's got his spear back."
"He wants to open a portal. He has some kind of invading army he wants to bring through, but I don't know where he's planning to do it."
There's a knock on the door - she looks up to see Coulson standing outside. Clint nods and he steps inside, looks the two of them over.
"Stark thinks he might be planning to use the arc reactor on the Stark Tower to power the cube. He's finishing up repairs to the suit, then he and Captain Rogers are going to go see if they can head Loki off. I have to check in with the Council. I need you to fly them back to New York."
"Get geared up, both of you. That's an order."
Other than a look from Rogers, and a scowl from Stark, no one dares to cross her path, let alone say anything about her being included on the mission or why she's out free instead of in a lab somewhere being examined and interrogated. Once she's on the ground, in the heat of the battle she can relax into it and the familiar rhythms of the fight, even if it's never been quite like his.
She reminds him about Budapest because she can, because she remembers being herself and the look he gives her as one of his arrows slices through an alien skull is nearly priceless.
They don't have time to talk until they're staggering down the street looking for whatever the hell it is Stark wants to eat - she'd rather just find a safe place to sleep, but since he saved the world she guesses he's earned some indulgence. Thor mentions something about SHIELD agents escorting Selvig from the scene and Clint takes her arm, draws her back so that they're a few paces behind the others, and leans close to her ear.
"Whatever happens, whatever we need to do, I'm not going to let them have you," he whispers and she looks up at him sharply, not surprised that he knows what she's afraid might come next, but at the intensity in his voice and eyes.
She doesn't say thank you, because he doesn't need her to.