"Natasha! Oh god, he's here. Loki's here...!"
The vibration of Black Widow's phone had snapped her out of sleep and she was on her feet and moving as soon as she recognised Clint's voice.
"Where are you?" she whispered urgently, already out of her apartment, pistol in hand. "Clint?"
"Tasha! Nonono..." The despair in his voice froze her blood but it was the God of Mischief's delighted, malicious laugh she could hear in the background that spurred her forward.
"Clint, hold on!" She sprinted down the corridor to her friend's apartment, his last known location.
Hawkeye, too, snapped out of sleep the moment his bedroom door opened. A scant second later he was sitting up, blinking in the sudden light.
"Are you all right?" She sounded rough, nearly panicky. "I..." she blinked then, and looked squarely at him, slowly lowering her weapon. "Did you just call me?"
Clint shook his head.
"Only if it was in my sleep."
Natasha stepped in to the room, focused now and intent. She thumbed the safety on her pistol before tucking it in to the waistband of her panties. Ever sharp, Hawkeye noticed her phone tucked in to the other side. She'd certainly been in a hurry...
"Phone." She demanded, holding out her hand.
Clint pulled his mobile from beneath his pillow and passed it over. Natasha was frowning as she flicked through the menus: of course she knew his password, same as he knew hers.
"The last call you made was yesterday morning to the armoury?"
He nodded, accepting his phone back but watching his friend closely. Natasha was now examining her own mobile. Her frown deepened and then she swore.
"Last call I received was from Stark, this afternoon, being an idiot."
"What's going on?"
"I just had a call from you, saying... saying Loki was there." She sighed, massaging her forehead. "Must've been dreaming."
Clint nodded, pulling back his bed sheets. He and Nat were both subject to nightmares at times, he knew what would help.
Black Widow sighed again and nodded, not so much relaxing as slumping. Then she focused on what he was wearing, her gaze slipping down his bare chest to...
"Iron Man boxers? Seriously?"
"100% organic cotton. Very comfortable." Clint smirked. "You don't have any? Tony was handing them out to everybody."
"I must have been busy doing something worthwhile that day." She said with only the barest hint of an eye roll.
Natasha switched off the bedroom light then padded over to Clint's bed in the dark. He'd pushed over pillows for her, knew when the pistol and phone were tucked away beneath them. She lay down, her back to him, facing the door. Clint pulled the sheets up to their shoulders and moved close enough that she could feel the warmth of his body. He closed his eyes, breathing in the scent of her hair.
It wasn't a restful night for either of them. Natasha was unable to relax and her restlessness kept Clint from anything deeper than dozing. By the time dawn dragged around they'd both realised there was no more point trying to sleep. By common, unspoken consent, they headed to the gym – via Natasha's room so she could find something a little more practical to wear – then spent a couple of hours engaged in brutal sparring.
It worked, to an extent, to clear the fuzziness and unease, enough so that Steve apparently didn't notice anything amiss when he came in for his own workout...
A week on and it was a different story.
"I can handle it." Black Widow snapped through clenched teeth.
"For how much longer?" Clint snapped back, worried for his friend and frustrated at his inability to help.
The dreams had continued to plague Nat, night after night. They were worse when he wasn't there with her but sharing a bed meant they were both sleep deprived and irritable. The cracks in the facade of Natasha's public persona were clear to him, and becoming wide enough that even Stark was aware through his self-absorption that something was up.
"Come on, at least talk to Bruce, he's discreet."
And this was a large part of the problem. Natasha detested being weak, detested more having any weakness revealed. She trusted Clint with the personal stuff, but that was about it. She was wavering though, Hawkeye sensed; Natasha knew she was perilously close to becoming a liability for the team.
"Please, Nat, just talk to Bruce."
Clint hugged her, wrapped himself around her, a full-body hug that she didn't respond to, remaining stiff and distant. The fine tremors shaking through her muscles were worrying.
Clint had known talking to Bruce would be a good idea.
"Do you think there's a chance this is being imposed on you?"
"What?" Natasha had stiffened.
"That these dreams aren't coming from your subconscious." the scientist was hesitant. "But from an external source?"
"Someone's making me dream?" Black Widow looked sceptical. "How?"
"Magic and monsters." Clint ground out. "Loki."
"Thor took him back to Asgard – " Bruce began.
"I don't think we can assume anything about that prick."
"Wait." Natasha frowned. "We're jumping to conclusions. This may not have anything to do with him."
"Of course it does! Who else could it be?"
"That's hardly a definitive – " Bruce began, but subsided when Clint gave him a look.
Natasha glared in turn at Clint but reluctantly gave ground.
"All right, if it is Loki, why is he targeting me?"
"You tricked him." Hawkeye's grin was sharp and unpleasant. "You tricked the trickster. Of course he's gonna want to slap you down. He's probably been thinkin' up ways to get you back."
Bruce shrugged apologetically.
"It does make sense, Natasha."
She shook her head.
"No. Too easy a conclusion." She frowned again. "We need to talk to Thor. Is he on-planet...?"
He was, as it happened.
"Greetings, my friends!" The God of Thunder's smile was expansive over the video link.
"Hey, big guy, good to see you." Clint grinned in response. "Just a question. Is your brother still on Asgard?"
"To my knowledge."
"But you'd know, right, if he wasn't?"
"Has there been trouble?"
"We're not sure." Natasha cut in before Clint could get started.
Thor's expression darkened further as he listened to her precise, unemotional recount of the past several days.
"It... does sound like something he would do. I will investigate. Be well, my friends, I'll contact you shortly." He nodded, a courteous inclination of his head, then the link closed.
They'd dispersed, not knowing how long it would be before they heard from Thor again: Bruce back to his lab; Clint and Natasha, to see what they could scrounge up for breakfast.
They were on the point of finishing up the toast and eggs and coffee when JARVIS spoke.
"Agent Barton, Agent Romanoff. Thor is approaching the Tower."
Clint and Natasha exchanged a glance.
"That doesn't bode well." Natasha muttered, a sentiment echoed by Bruce a few seconds later when he hurried in. They turned to the windows, watching their team mate land solidly on the platform.
"It's not good news, I'm afraid." Thor said without preamble, striding towards them.
"What isn't?" Tony had materialized behind them, wiping oil-stained hands on his t-shirt. He lifted an eyebrow at their surprise. "JARVIS told me we had a visitor." He nodded at the god. "Hey, Blondie. What's not good news?"
Thor glanced at Natasha, tacitly gaining her permission before speaking.
"My brother is not where he is supposed to be, and no one can say for sure when he left."
"What happened?" Hawkeye demanded.
"He was under guard, but..." Thor almost looked betrayed. "At some point he created a simulacrum of himself and escaped."
"And your people didn't think to keep a closer check on someone who can make illusionary copies of himself?"
Clint's disgust, he could privately acknowledge, was at least partially fuelled by fear – Loki, and what he could do, still haunted him – but that didn't stop him wanting to rage about the situation.
"The All-Father had bound his power – "
"Yeah, because that'd fix everything."
"I warn you, do not be disrespectful of my father – !"
"Enough!" Natasha's command cracked out like a gunshot. "Thor. If Loki's behind these dreams, what is his purpose? How do I stop him?"
Thor visibly mastered his anger, refraining from snarling at Clint.
"It is only yourself that has been affected, Natasha?"
She nodded, arms folded across her chest.
The god of Thunder paused to think, then his lips quirked up in to a humourless smile.
"My brother does not attack directly if he can help it: he will approach slantwise." Thor's gaze flicked between the spy and the marksman. "I would wager this is about Hawkeye."