Clint is up near the ceiling, hugging the railing and watching over the lab. You could use the rope to climb up and join him, but you use the steps instead.
He smiles at you, quiet and pleased and tired. You smile back, and keep your concern a subtlety.
“Should I ask?” he says, pitching his voice low.
“The job was a wash,” you say lightly, sitting next to him and letting your feet dangle over the edge. “So I'm visiting you. I believe agents are allowed conjugal visits?”
His smile broadens for a moment and he dips his head. “It might be in the rulebooks. Pretty sure spouses aren't supposed to crash the actual gig, though.”
“Not unless if they have the right security clearance.”
Below you, the scientists are bustling about. There is purpose to their movements as they go from computer to the Tesseract to computer to each other, and there would be a pattern if you studied it enough.
“It's interesting,” he says after a moment, and you believe him. “And it's...kinda restful.”
You hold off from saying that's the idea, and just gently knock your foot into his. “I'd go mad,” you tell him with a wry smile, and then draw your legs up. “Find me during your break?”
Clint watches you, quirks an eyebrow. “Where?”
You lean close to his ear. “Your bed. Bring yourself, clothes not required.” He's working, so you don't kiss him, but his grin warms you nonetheless.
“Yes, ma'am,” he says, and you laugh softly as you get to your feet. Brushing his shoulder with your fingers before you leave is something of an indulgence, but you've missed him.
The alarm starts at 23:17.
You roll out of bed before you are fully awake, pull on clothes and grab your gauntlets from your still mostly unpacked bag. You strap a gun to your thigh before zipping your wallet into one jacket pocket and an extra mag into the other.
Clint's shift doesn't finish until 00:00, so you take a moment to find his spare hearing aids for potential future use. Then you walk out of his room into a bustling hallway, and move to find Coulson.
What you want is to find Clint. Grab him, and run, and keep breathing. It's an instinctive reaction born from too many years on the run, and you quash it. The alarm is blaring; Clint is Barton now, because he has a job to do.
So do you.
Coulson has you take over for Barton so he can use him elsewhere. That suits you, because you are a spy, not an administrator or normal field agent. On the other hand, the Tesseract is being unpredictable, and you don't need to be as good as you are to taste the stress and fear in the room.
It's a door, Barton had said in a quick recap before he marched off to help the evacuation. And it's not our end that's the trouble.
You find a quiet spot to observe, you watch the patterns and knots, and you watch that damn door as you keep your hand loose around your holstered gun.
“Talk to me, doctor,” says Fury once he strolls into the lab like a tense lion. Despite that tension, you relax a degree – you trust Fury. You trust Coulson, as well (you've met his partner, which says a lot in your shared world), but Fury is...Fury. Fierce and calculating, with the greater good actually higher than his ambition. You trust him.
You pay some attention to the resulting conversation, but mostly you observe everyone else and the Tesseract. That is, until Selvig mentions that it is “– throwing off interference, radiation. Nothing harmful; low levels of gamma radiation.”
Your head snaps around so you can stare at him. You've seen what gamma radiation can do, and you've got a memory of the Hulk's scream loud enough that it takes you a moment to realise that Fury is calling you over.
“Helping with the evacuation,” you say. “He reports that he saw no interference, that Selvig's clean. Whatever's going on, he doesn't think it's our end, sir.”
“Our end?” Fury asks, very precisely.
“The Tesseract is a door through time and space. Maybe whoever is at the other end is trying to-”
The Tesseract starts spitting blue flares, and as the ground shakes the cube begins to whine. It shoots out a laser as the whining builds, and there is a-
It's a portal in the air, and you can see fucking stars beyond it.
The whole thing explodes.
Blue energy lances through you before crawling up the walls, and there is a person left behind. Over six feet, wearing medieval-esque armour like he's used to it, and even from where you are standing next to Fury you can see that he's wearing exactly the wrong kind of grin for some 'we come in peace' bullshit.
He's carrying a weapon, and you shift on your feet.
“Sir,” Fury says, “please put down the spear!” It's not a request.
The man? alien? glances down at it, glances up, pauses, and you can read him. He sends a bolt of energy towards Fury, and you're already knocking your boss out of the way. The alien is fast, even for trained agents. Even for you. He gets you on your knees, with your arm twisted. You could get free, but it'd involve breaking your elbow, and everything is now too still for you to court that kind of damage.
The alien-man smiles.
“Oh, I could use you,” he croons, and the spear-blade is burning ice even through your clothes.
There is nothing but
cold and blue,
blue like ice,
blue like the winter's sky,
then you can breathe again, you can see again.
You get to your feet, slide your gun back into its holster and leave your hand by it. You are both surrounded by enemies, and He is still in danger. Your boss converts Attard, but you are scanning the rest of the room. In particular, you are watching Director Fury (currently putting the Tesseract in a suitcase), because if anyone else is still a threat-
“This doesn't have to get any messier,” Director Fury says.
“Of course it does,” He says. “I've come too far for anything else. I am Loki of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious purpose.”
You listen to their talk, but your eye moves upwards to where the blue energy has gathered.
“Selvig,” you say, once the man is loyal, “how long do we have?”
“Maybe two minutes,” he replies, and you don't even nod. Fury is in the way, so you shoot him in the chest.
“Sir,” you tell Loki of Asgard as you grab the Tesseract's case, “we should get moving.” You quickly walk over to join the evacuating group. Director Fury wears Kevlar, so a hit to the centre of body mass isn't a kill shot, but it'd stun him. You would have preferred to kill him for sure, but even if he manages to stagger to his feet the likelihood of him getting out in time is slim and falling.
Without him, SHIELD loses an edge and Loki gains one. But Hill is competent, military-trained and dangerous. She will take the helm, and Loki needs all the edges he can get.
“Sir,” you say, “if You intend to conquer Earth, there is someone here I would find very useful.”
You shoot Hill the same as you shot Fury, but when she drops she's a dying weight. The way Barton is staring at you is predictable, and gives Loki just enough time to press His spear against Barton's chest.
Barton's loyal, idealistic. He's useful, and you are pleased you didn't have to shoot him. It would be annoying to have to hire someone to do what he can, particularly as the two of you work together so well.
“You drive,” you tell Barton once his eyes are right, and he nods, already moving forwards.
Loki has an army.
Loki is a shining, hurt boy with grand visions and scattered detail, and He is your brother; a brother to love and worship and protect with everything you possess. You tell Him you can lie, you tell Him you can kill, you tell Him you know the secrets of the world.
He won't tell you how many are in His army, or their exact capabilities.
You tell Him the story of the last would-be king of the world who didn't listen to advice, and Barton looks at you as if he knows what you are doing.
(He probably does, which is why he doesn't stop you.)
Still, Loki prevaricates. He spreads His hands, He shrugs, He smiles and says, “Even I need allies who don't tell me everything.”
You will build Him an army He can control, you think, and you will kill those who get in His way. For now, though, you will work with what you have.
SHIELD has enemies, both you and Barton have contacts. You pool your resources together, and the pair of you start to make calls. Barton has been infamously loyal, and you've just been infamous; still, people answer when you whisper about SHIELD coming down. To some you whisper America, but SHIELD is international and internationally hated.
And you steal. This part is yours as Barton is no hacker, and while he runs around, you just boot up your spare laptop. Money, this is what Loki needs to pay the people who do not care who they sell their guns to; far more people than just those who would answer Barton.
You don't have the time to electronically steal at the same time as destroy SHIELD's databases and systems, but you have the keys to the world in tangled cyber codes. You outsource the hacking of SHIELD to a disgruntled twenty-one year old in Ireland, and you laugh with delight.
It feels good to be off your leash.
It feels even better to have a cause (again).
There are workers building Selvig a make-shift lab and he's crooning over the Tesseract, but you are over with the other adults of this little revolution; you ignore him. “We need to take out NATO as soon as we can,” you say, taking a map and spreading it over a table. “Take out the core countries, and the rest of the world will be too busy not knowing what to do. Or,” you shrug, “sorting out their own problems, or taking advantage, depending.”
“If we hack into the US missile grid,” Barton muses, and you're already nodding.
“I don't have enough time to do that before the Chitauri arrive,” you say, and then look at Loki. “Sir? I do know who to find, though. Your spear could be very useful.”
Loki is studying you, and He smiles briefly. “Missile grid?”
“We use their own weapons against them,” you say. “Humans are very good at killing each other, particularly from a distance. It'd be a shame not to use the capability after they've so helpfully provided it, don't You think?”
Loki grins, the expression as bright and blinding as the new snow. “I like the way your mind works, Agent Romanoff.”
You've thought about this, bringing the world to its knees. You thought about it in terms of How To Bring The West Down (and who said school wasn't useful), and you thought about it as an angry twenty-something, lost and hurt and devoid of purpose, killing and stealing for money because it made you feel better. You talked about it with your sisters from the Red Room – but they weren't sisters, they were merely people you knew who had gone through the same hell.
You can't remember why you thought (Nadya) Zharkova had been important enough to go after Interpol for, and so you dismiss it.
It turns out that Barton has thought about this, too. Not with the same breadth of vision as you (of course not), not the political and international relations side, but idle contemplation of how to dismantle and disarm various military targets. Like the Helicarrier; like SHIELD. Thought-exercises, he called them, and they are brilliant.
This is why you brought him along – he is the specialist who works with the details you don't know, you are the generalist who paints the big picture he is unable to.
Between the two of you, you will ensure that Loki wins.
You are sure of it.
The Helicarrier falls; the missiles fire; the Chitauri come.
The world is on fire, and it is beautiful.
It doesn't last.
Loki and the Chitauri don't know modern tactics.
Oh, you try, and Barton tries alongside you (although his first impulse is always to nod, to say 'yessir', to not argue for a better idea but just accept his orders), but there is only so much you can do. Loki and His allies come from cultures where the main idea is to charge in and fight; to win by numbers and open battle, to rely on the civilian population surrendering when their armies do.
That hasn't worked on Earth for a very, very long time. You could list examples (Vietnam springs to mind), but you are told by Him to be quiet, and so you obey.
You can still come to heel when your master clicks His fingers.
You don't speak the Chitauri language, and can only understand it when He extends His magic to allow you to. They are alien, which means you cannot trust your instincts when it comes to reading their body language, the pitch of their words. They trouble you.
You wind up pacing in front of Barton, both because you need someone trustworthy to discuss His allies with, and because you always think better when you are moving.
“Earth doesn't interest them,” you say. “They take no supplies, they have no care. It isn't just not preserving things, but also not even destroying. It's just....”
“They're waiting,” Barton says. He is sitting on a bench, hands linked between his knees as he watches you, and he is perfectly still.
“Yes. And I don’t have enough intel to know what for.” You lack the required contexts for understanding, and fear twists within you. If you do not have enough of the facts and politics, how can you even begin to protect Loki from those who would fuck Him over?
“They've got a pretty simple command structure, at least,” Barton adds, and you glance at him sharply. He meets your gaze. “It is something I know how to pick up, Romanoff,” he says, and you nod. You know that. He's a sniper, trained to take out the officers, those whom their soldiers will follow.
You know that, it's one of the many skills that had you suggest him to Loki.
“I know. I think...I think, though, we shouldn't leave Him alone with them,” you say. “Not until we understand what they want.”
“Tell me about their command structure,” you say, because this is something concrete, this is something you can understand. This is something collaborative and useful. This is something you sometimes forget to see as you search for the interpersonal dynamics.
(You know it is something he is good at, so why did you forget?)
Oh, not Fury's Avengers – Rogers and Stark died with the Helicarrier (apparently Stark did have some self-sacrifice in him, underneath all of that recklessness), Banner is lost to the winds. Even Loki's troublesome brother, who tried to hold back the Chitauri, failed. SHIELD, the sword-arm of the World Security Council, has splintered. Between yourself and Barton, you burned up too many of their resources, and those things take time to rebuild. Time is not exactly a resource they have, either.
But those who were invaded fight back, those who managed to hold onto stability send aid, and everyone else fights each other and themselves. It's chaos, and you caused it. It'd be a power-trip if not for the fact that Loki hasn't really won, because there aren't that many kneeling.
Instead, humanity fights, and although you have trouble reading them, you can see the Chitauri grow restless.
Mostly, it's Barton out doing what needs to be done in the field – warfare is his area, not yours. You are needed as Loki's political advisor, as the handler of reports and intel.
You wish, sometimes, for the simplicity of a hit, of a gunshot or a knife, the struggle of a garrotte and the spread of poison. There is complexity and acting needed (sometimes), but there is a simple, achievable goal.
You wish for blood to wash off your hands; instead, you make yourself another cup of coffee and study a map.
(You can't remember the last time you slept. If you can't remember, it must not have been important.)
“The humansss are unruly, and thuss cannot be ruled. You are a fitting leader, Loki Odinsson.”
“Wait, what are you doing? You promised-”
“We promissed an army, and we provided. Now we are taking what iss ours.”
You open your eyes.
You remember an explosion, being thrown back as the Chitauri grabbed the Tesseract and vanished who knows where.
You remember Loki's spear touching your chest and the whole world narrowing down to him and him alone and you can't remember everyone you killed, everyone you talked to, everything you did, because you've spent the last...
You don't even know how long, but you remember, you remember, you remember, and ohgodohmygodwhathaveIdone? runs through your mind in hysterics.
You remember the look on Clint's face as you shot Hill, and your mind snaps into focus. You drag yourself up to your hands and knees.
If he is still underneath the spell, he'd be expecting 'Barton'. If he is dead, he won't be expecting anything but he can't be dead, he can't be, you forbid him from being dead.
'Til death do us part is a stupid oath, anyway.
Selvig's dead, you note absently as you search; one of the guards is not, but your eyes aren't going to be glowing anymore, so you snap his neck before he does more than groan.
You can't see Loki anywhere.
You pivot on your heel, eyes searching until you see his bow. Then you run.
“Clint, hey,” you say, falling down to one knee and reaching out to help him sit up. Your free hand goes to his neck, thumb sliding along his jaw. His eyes are blue, bloodshot and blue that edges out into grey. His eyes are his.
He's holding your wrist hard enough to leave a bruise, and you don't say anything.
“Where's Loki?” he asks, and you shake your head. “Selvig?”
“I shot Fury.”
“So did I.”
“I finished the– Ah, god.”
“Clint, don't. Don't,” you say, and your words are an order, as if he ever needed one to do as you asked. “Don't do this, we need to get out of here.”
Clint looks away first, then nods. “Yeah. Blow it up before we go?”
“If it's feasible,” you say, because the world is a mess with or without you blowing more things up, and you'd like to keep on breathing.
The way Clint's mouth twists before he nods makes you think he's not as determined as you, and you set your jaw stubbornly. You'll get him out of this, because fuck it, you promised for better or for worse after you'd already been living it for years, and you aren't going to stop now.
The resulting violence is cathartic.
It's simple, and you're angry enough that you let yourself enjoy it. People break under your hands and feet and knives, and with every free movement you are reclaiming yourself as a weapon that you choose to wield.
You are also keeping them away as Clint rigs the bombs, but no one said the Black Widow couldn't multitask.
Then both of you are running.
The only pause is to deal with Loki, and it's not a grand showdown like the bastard would like, but something simple that he didn't see coming: Clint pauses, smoothly brings up his bow, and Loki crumples with an arrow in his eye.
Neither of you know if it's killed him, but you aren't sticking around to find out.
You hotwire a vehicle and claim shotgun for your troubles. Suits him, as he's the better driver, and time is of the essence.
You're on the road when the explosions start.
Clint pulls over at a rest stop, and you wake, confused.
Rest stop? They still have rest stops?
It's only been two weeks, you think; of course the world still has rest stops. It's just that no one is using them. Except for you and Clint. The vending machines look trashed, though, so other people have used this place. Before.
He gets out of the vehicle and you scramble a bit with your seatbelt to follow. By the time you've managed to stagger around to where Clint is, he's sitting on the ground, slumped and exhausted with his head in his hands. More than exhausted, if he's not even bothering to keep his head up to keep watch.
You should inspect the vehicle, check supplies, check the gas. See how long it'll be before you two will have to start hiking, because you will need to keep moving until you find somewhere safe.
Instead, you sit down next to him and let your head rest against the door.
There are birds. Of course there are birds. Birds and sunshine, and it's very nearly June.
The birds are distant, faint song and dark shapes wheeling in the warm blue sky. It's all quiet and calm, as if you hadn't spent the past two weeks setting off a global civil war.
You can hear Clint breathing, and the sound of your own blood is loud.
“We need to check supplies,” you say at last. Maybe you dozed off again, maybe you didn't, but time is running oddly. You know you slept in the armoured vehicle, but you can't really remember it.
Clint doesn't answer, but you can see his posture shift a little as he listens.
“Not expecting that much, but there should be emergency kits, and at least a map,” you say, and you look over at him. “You all right standing up?”
He's silent for three beats too long before he nods. “Yeah,” and as he gets to his feet, you think he's moving like he's old. You aren't much better, to be honest, but he's not young. He's forty-two, and had been in the war for too long even before all of this.
You got him into this, you think, and you force yourself to swallow before you open up the vehicle.
There are more weapons than you'd need, but there are maps and a compass, emergency kits, and enough other things you are already thinking of how to convert when Clint says, “I can't.”
The pause is jagged, and then you breathe again. “Can't what?”
“Nat,” he says, and you can tell it's a second attempt. “You should just...take all of this and go.”
You are not surprised that this is how he is reacting, but as his words twist around your head unpleasantly, you choose to try and ignore. Just in case you’re wrong. So you stop what you are doing, and turn around to look at him. “It's fine, Clint. I'll drive, you need to sleep-”
“Clint, don't.” Your words are somewhere between a request and an order, and he's just looking at you. “Don't,” you repeat, and your voice is soft and splintered.
He's staring at you, frustrated and faded, and you stare back.
You've been here before. You've had everything be a lie, realised that your gods hadn't even had the decency of being honest as they used you. You've put yourself back together after your mind has been turned into a toy. You've fought with your emotions when they are all shades of despair and self-loathing and guilt, and you know how to keep moving. You know that you have to keep moving. And now he knows the start of that whole fucked up journey, because you got him into this.
You refuse to leave him behind.
“I can't do this alone,” you say, and it's a lie. It's a lie born of desperation and love and all of the skills you have at your disposal. You throw all of your fear of losing him into every muscle and twitch of expression you possess, and he still just looks at you.
“I can't,” you say then, “do this without you.”
You are a con-artist and he's an ex-carnie, but you are better than his experience can pick up right now. He folds in on himself before he nods, acquiescing to your will before he even draws the breath to say, “what do you want me to do?”
You don't waste the energy for either relief or self-reproach over your manipulation. Instead, you just say, “go to the passenger seat, and get some damn sleep.”
“Sure,” Clint says, and there is a ma'am in the air. You can take him defaulting back to soldier if it means he'll listen and live. He has to live; you can't fix the rest of your mistakes, but you can keep him breathing. If he keeps breathing, then Loki will never win. Clint hesitates, then just turns on his heel toward the front of the vehicle.
It's a start.