The elevator door dinged open and elegant leather boots exited onto the white industrial tile, their sharp stiletto heels clicking out a furious tattoo.
"Agent R..." The security guard never got a chance to finish another syllable of his sentence. A hand shot out, cuffing him expertly in the neck and sending him crumpling to the floor in an unconscious heap.
"Ma'am!" A second guard rounded the corner, his eyes wide with surprise. "This area is secured, you can't..."
Natasha dropped into a crouch, her leg sweeping his feet out from beneath him. His head hit the floor with a sharp crack and he let out a groan as she sprang to her feet, vaulting over him and continuing down the hall with a practiced ease.
That was when the alarms went off.
Natasha didn't care for alarms. The Red Room had given her a superior hearing range and the shrill sound that most found irritating, she found positively dreadful. It really only made her angrier and that probably wasn't in anyone's best interest. She reached out, casting the swinging double doors open with a bang against the walls.
"Stand Down Agent Romanov," The three young men at the end of the hall actually had their guns raised and trained on her. She halted, squaring her shoulders with a grim smile.
"Would you like to do this the easy way, or the hard way, gentlemen?" she inquired with a note of serenity.
"This unit is closed, ma'am," the officer in the middle stated. His tone wasn't threatening, if anything he sounded resigned. It made her feel the faintest bit of sympathy for him, unfortunately it wasn't enough sympathy to do him any actual good.
"Not to me," Natasha replied, completely unfazed. For a moment she wondered if he'd fire. If he did it would more or less erode any pity she might feel for him, it was just stupid considering whom he'd be firing at. Maybe SHIELD's grunts needed a bit more training.
"Stand down," he said finally, lowering his weapon.
"Sir?" one of the other guards asked hesitantly. But the young officer didn't repeat the order, simply stepping back from the door, pressing his underlings out of her way. Natasha strode forward, ignoring the two subordinates who were staring at her with wide eyes. She pushed through the second set of double doors behind them, continuing on.
She steeled herself as her boots clicked mercilessly down the sterile white corridor. She half expected to hear Fury's voice telling her to stand down and even though she wouldn't, not for anything now, it would still be painful.
Everyone thought she didn't feel pain.
A nurse emerged from a lab on her left, gasped and retreated back behind the door, slamming it shut in panic. Natasha could hear her frantic voice on the emergency call phone. In exactly 30 seconds either the alarms would go off or Fury would tell her to stand down. twenty-nine, twenty-eight. She debated with herself which it would be. If he told her to stand down he'd know she wouldn't comply, there would be a disciplinary hearing, she'd likely be on probation for at least a month. Which would likely hurt him more than her. Seventeen, sixteen, fifteen.
She was angry at him. She'd been angry before, she wasn't a naive child filled with hero worship. She knew what Nick Fury was. She respected that, just as he had come to respect her for what she was. It was unfair to call it trust but it was... like friendship perhaps. She wasn't sure. It would hurt to ignore his order. That wasn't likely to deter her. Three, two.
The alarm abruptly stopped.
"Agent Romanov?" The young doctor met her eye with a disapproving frown as she emerged from the door at the end of the hall, her arms folded over her crisp white lab coat. She was classically attractive and Natasha could clearly see the outlines of her East Indian decent in the sweep of her eye, though it had been at least two generations ago. She faced Natasha down now, unafraid and had she not been so blindingly angry Romanov might have smiled at that.
"I won't have you upsetting my patient," The doctor declared sternly.
"If I intended to upset him I'd have brought Fury's head with me," Natasha declared bluntly, pausing before the door and turning narrowed eyes on her. The doctor seemed to consider this before sighing in resignation.
"I've worked very hard on him," the statement wasn't delivered as a warning, nor a threat, more as if it were an unspoken request not to have that effort destroyed. Natasha gave her a resolute nod, pushing the door open.
Her step faltered.
No one would see it, she was too good, too practiced to let it be detected, but she felt it and she stopped cold, the hair rising on the nape of her neck. Until this moment, this very moment she hadn't realized that she didn't even believe it. Hadn't believed Stark when he'd told them, his jaw tight with what looked like worry and Rogers at his shoulder in parade rest, his expression pinched.
"Hello, Natasha," A soft smile pulled at the corner's of Phil Coulson's mouth, his eyes the slightest bit glazed with medication, though not so much as to compromise him. They must be in the process of dialing him back. In an instant her eyes swept the room, taking in every minute detail, The light bandaging over his chest that was barely visible beneath his hospital shirt, the slow drip of the IV line, his pillow rumpled hair. He looked paler, thinner, but his expression was clear, despite the drugs. She wouldn't let anyone see the swell of relief, not even him.
"How are you feeling?" She asked, her voice gentled as she moved across the room, settling in the chair beside his bed.
"Better," he acknowledged with a kind smile. "ready to get out of here."
"So I hear," she nodded, her expression betraying nothing. Neither of them spoke for a moment and she knew that he was reading her as well. She had never been an open book to anyone before but from that very first day, from the very moment Barton that made the call that allowed her to come in from the cold, Phil Coulson had opened her up and peered inside and though his translation was still spotty at times, like an academic pouring over the pages of some long forgotten language, he could still read her more flawlessly than anyone she had ever known.
She had so admired that about him, cherished it. She would never, ever tell him.
"Fury told us you were dead," she declared finally. There was no accusation in her tone, not of him nor of the director. No apology for their, for her absence from his bedside all these weeks, It was merely a fact. Coulson nodded slowly.
"I was," he answered simply. "six times, from what I hear." Her hand found his then and still there was no betrayal of emotion on her face. Her eyes were dry and clear and sharp.
"Will the others be along?" Phil asked, only a hint of emotion in his own expression. Natasha offered him the faintest smile.
"I think they might still be at Avengers Tower, arguing over if they should break into headquarters and try to find out where you're hiding," she confessed. Phil let out a chuckle.
"Tell them I'm fine, would you?" he asked. "I appreciate the sentiment but.." His voice trailed off and she nodded in understanding. She paused a moment, her eyes darting from his.
"Is he all right?" Coulson's tone was urgent and for the first time her breath hitched. But it was so silent that even Coulson could not have heard it. She swallowed, trying to close out the image of Clint's legs giving way, of Steve sprinting forward to catch him before he could hit the flagstone tile, of Banner checking his pulse as Clint's face turned a nasty shade of green she was more accustomed to seeing on Bruce's face.
"He's fine," she said hesitantly, because he was, considering everything he was fine. "It... you shocked him a bit. He'll need to get his feet back under him again but he'll be fine."
"Thanks for getting him out," And there was a definite choke in Phil's voice. Without thinking her hand came to rest on his cheek and he stuttered out a sigh. "I'm sorry I wasn't there to... I should have been there. I gave you both my word and I wasn't there."
"There wasn't anything you could have done," She stated, and she meant it. It had all gone off on them. What there had always been between the three of them she was sure there weren't words to describe but there had been one thing, one thing that Phil had promised her when Clint had brought her in, the same thing that he had promised Clint years before, that no matter the mission, no matter how badly things went down, regardless of the orders of the WSC or Fury or god himself if he'd have an opinion. Coulson would get them out. That promise had been her life line, had been Clint's for even longer. In a world where she had never known what it was to trust someone with her back, Coulson would have it.
"Don't you know that you and Clint," she stopped, her expression was completely blank but Coulson had heard it, she could tell he had by the way his eyes widened only slightly. The faintest lilt of a Russian accent had colored those words, almost imperceptible but Phil had heard it.
"Tasha, I'm so sorry," A single tear slipped beneath his lashes, his voice only slightly breathy as his hand gripped hers tighter. "I died. I've spent the last few months in a coma. They didn't know if I'd ever wake up. They didn't know if I would ever be me again once I did. I wouldn't want you to remember me like that. I..."
"You're selfish," The words were spoken without emotion but Natasha's own eyes glinted now.
"Yes," Phil answered simply. She drew in a long low breath, letting it out just as slowly.
"Don't do that ever again," She said finally. Phil nodded, swallowing thickly. She let her fingers run gently though his hair, smoothing it down.
"Phil?" He indicated that he was listening. "Take leave."
"Tasha," He sighed, shaking his head.
"Just for a while," she pressed gently. "You're not ready to return to duty, you shouldn't even be leaving medical." He only looked up at her with that infuriating smile of his.
"I'm out at the end of the week," Phil said softly. "I'll be in better shape by then."
"You're going to scare Clint to death if he sees you like this," She stated flatly. "It won't do the others any good either."
"I'll be fine on Friday," he insisted. She closed her eyes for a moment.
"Rest," Natasha sighed, leaning forward to bush a kiss on his forehead. "And if you do not look better on Friday."
"You'll taze me," he nodded in understanding. "I'll take it easy." She smiled then, releasing his hand and turning toward the door.
"Tasha?" She turned back at the sound of his voice. "Thanks." She nodded, slipping out the door. Phil settled back on the scratchy hospital sheets with a sigh, staring at the ceiling. He'd better get some rest.