“What is hell? Hell is oneself.
Hell is alone, the other figures in it
Merely projections. There is nothing to escape from
And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.”
- T.S. Eliot
They call her Anya. They tell her that Devi died in the fire that killed her family.
She remembers striking the match, setting the flames against a pile of old clothes, but she doesn’t tell them that.
There are other girls here, but it’s not like the Lotus House. This is Russia, and it is cold and hard and unyielding, and the scholarship here is not done for the love of learning, but for the love of death. The students, such as they are, do not dream of a better life. As far as Anya can tell they do not dream at all.
They take parts of her away. Sometimes they replace them with new parts, stories that become pictures that become reality. Sometimes they just let the emptiness yawn until the edges close up over it, and she is a little less than she once was.
They make her beautiful and clever and dangerous.
They make her believe that Mary Charlotte was right: she is special.
Then they make her forget Mary Charlotte, but the belief remains.
Clint learns the truth about Volgograd only after the fact, when enough time has passed since Natasha radioed in that Fury is legitimately concerned.
All Clint had known was that she vanished in the dead of night – like any good spy – and that none of the rank and file seemed surprised about it. ‘More than a year has passed since she came to work for SHIELD,’ their shrugs seemed to say. ‘We’re surprised she lasted this long.’
And then there was Fury, who had refused to address the issue one way or another. “Let it go, Barton,” was all he would say, although maybe he would have risked more if Agent Park hadn’t been watching their interplay with such keen interest.
The night before her disappearance, Clint and Natasha had gone to Chalet Dell'Oblio in the south of Naples, to meet with a CI with intel about the situation inside Pakistan.
The man had never showed, and rather than leave immediately after the appointed time, thereby raising the suspicions of any unnoted observers, the two of them had played up the Couple on Vacation angle. They drank their share of Italian wine – Natasha drank more than he did; she had a metabolism like an over-stoked furnace – laughed loudly, and in general were memorable as a noisy pair of annoying Americans, rather than as two furtive types who never made eye contact, who came and went like shadows into the night.
A good part of successful spy-craft was being seen – not as you were, but as you wished to be remembered.
Clint had genuinely enjoyed himself, despite the pretense. He wasn’t especially fond of wine, regardless of the vintage, but he was adept at playing the irritating American tourist… and it had given him an excuse to sit near Natasha, to put an arm around her shoulder, to lean in close, whispering observations about the other bar patrons and listening to the music of her answering giggle, as though he had said something delightfully filthy.
He was attracted to Natasha; he had stopped trying to tell himself otherwise. Of course, he wasn’t going to do anything about it. Not with a woman like her. But he could still enjoy moments like this.
They had staggered drunkenly out into the street a little before two in the morning, arms around each other as though that was all that was keeping them upright, and she had only extricated herself before turning the corner and coming in view of the safehouse. She had smiled at him, a smile that was rare but never failed to make him think that he had done something right, something honestly good when he had lowered his bow in that Frankfurt alley.
The next morning she was gone.
No note. No message of any kind. Her clothes and toiletries remained, so he knew she hadn’t been some kind of extended hallucination, but her weapons had vanished.
Too close, he’d thought, blaming himself. Too far.
Two weeks later – back in the loop, no longer feeling responsible, just deeply unhappy – he sits in the back room of a Parisian café, one that is known to both of them, pretending to drink coffee and read a newspaper. The brew tastes like battery acid, even laced with plenty of cream and sugar, and despite perusing the paper for the better part of an hour he hasn’t managed to get past the front page story of Pakistan’s president’s resignation… and wondering which of their people, if any, had been involved in that.
Not Natasha. Fury had been clear, for once. Volgograd.
When he hears her voice in the front of the café, along with the owner’s gruff growl of pleasure at seeing her again, Clint’s newspaper trembles slightly, as though a stray gust has snaked into the back room through an open window. He carefully folds the paper, setting it aside as she sits down across from him, a mug clasped between her hands.
As always, the first word to go through his mind when seeing her after a protracted absence is dangerous.
The second is beautiful, which is new.
She is beautiful – long hair tumbled over her shoulders, pale skin flawless in the light filtered through one grimy window – but she also appears unwell. Her face is thinner than he remembers from Naples. Her blouse seems to hang limply from her shoulders, rather than hugging the curves of her body, and purple-gray shadows give her eyes a deep-set, haunted look.
“Why not send me too?” he had asked Fury, barely containing his anger, and the director had said, “Because we don’t want SHIELD implicated in any way. No one’s going to have any problem believing that as soon as the Red Room resurfaced, the Black Widow would take the opportunity for vengeance.”
Now – because despite accepting Fury’s reasoning, despite believing it to be true enough, he still doesn’t like it – he says, “They shouldn’t have made you go alone.”
“I wasn’t alone,” she says softly, staring into the inky depths of her coffee cup. “There were plenty of ghosts along for the ride.”
Clint knows that Natasha was sent to gather information, plant bugs, but leave the facility intact. He also knows about the fire. It was Fury’s best guess as to why she had taken so long to return: Natasha hated screwing up.
Natasha hadn’t screwed up. If there had been ghosts, she had burned them away.
“I’m sorry,” he says, and when she looks up, bemused, he elaborates: “I’m sorry you had to go back there.”
Her reply is long in coming, the eventual words as solemn as a graveyard prayer. “I needed to. I think… I had to go back to remember why I left in the first place.”
Clint wakes from a nightmare with no recollection of the specific fear, just a bone-itching anxiety that follows him out of sleep.
He sits up in bed, really seeing the shabby little motel room for the first time. Morning sunshine gleams along the edges of each curtain panel, but the light no longer makes his eyes water. A faint ache still traces the fissures of his skull, but the pain has receded since last night.
His gaze drifts down to the woman beside him, and he catches his breath without quite knowing why.
She sleeps on her stomach, arms tucked beneath the pillow, face turned towards him but hidden behind a veil of hair. His eyes follow the shallow channel of her spine, ricocheting between her shoulder blades. The skin of her back is not flawless, but faintly marred by a constellation of minor scars, some pale and shiny-smooth, others rippled and raised. A new mark is visible between neck and shoulder, an even row of faint pink semicircles where his teeth nearly broke the skin.
Pulse racing, mouth dry, he slips from the bed. She stirs, murmurs and subsides, but he knows she is awake.
He escapes to the bathroom, taking only a change of clothes. He leaves his overnight bag by the door, within easy reach.
A strange thought, one he can’t easily explain, but one that seems as non-negotiable as breathing.
He steps into the shower stall, beneath the hot spray; unsteady hands strip the paper wrapper from a chalky bar of soap and chafe it against a washcloth, struggling to work up a decent lather. The weak and watery suds have been washed down the swirling drain before he realizes he is trying to scrub her scent away. Not because it disgusts him… because it unnerves him.
Itch, itch, itch, like tiny creatures scrabbling through his marrow, and he leans forward, tilting his face into the spray, feeling each individual stream like a needle against his skin. Steam rises around him but it feels more like fog, cool and heavy, blurring the edges, holding him, cocooning him. It would be easy to forget where he is. Who he is.
Her lips against his shoulder, her breath stirring the hairs on the back of his neck. Dammit, I love you.
He turns his face from the spray, draws a sharp and shuddering breath. Panic constricts around his heart, as solid as a fist, and the fist deals a blow that leaves him with only one word in his mind.
He tries to hold his growing anxiety away from himself, to look at it objectively, rationally, but it’s too close and too big and it consumes everything.
Natasha’s in danger—
He shakes his head to reject the words, to dislodge the notion from his mind. It’s not possible. He would have heard something, even through the closed door, even over the sound of the water. She wouldn’t go quietly, no matter the danger.
But the thought, as expansive and pervasive as the steam around him, won’t be denied. He breathes it in, takes it into himself. She needs your help—
He lets the water sluice away the last of the soap and steps out of the shower, hastily wrapping a towel around his waist as he cracks open the bathroom door.
Pale sunlight, silence, and the prone woman atop the sheets, breathing steadily: none of it does a damn thing to steady his nerves, to banish the fear. If anything it becomes more pronounced, thoughts fracturing along fault lines he never noticed, impossibilities coalescing into certainty, as he closes the door once again.
Natasha is in danger. He can feel it like he feels the swirling steam against his skin, knows it like he knows his own name.
It is reality, the only reality.
That can only mean that the woman in his bed is not Natasha.
For a moment he can’t think. His mind is the blank page preceding a new chapter, the black screen before the credits roll. Then the emptiness passes and the words reappear, but they are the words of someone else, a coldly logical consciousness more alien than anything he’s ever encountered. And it speaks with his voice.
That woman is not Natasha—
He tries to reason his way through it, blame his paranoia on the passion – the strangeness – of the night before. His actions seem like those of a different man, a man of heated words and sullen silences, a man of thoughtless cruelty and careful neglect. A man like his father.
He had pushed her down into the mattress and he had held her and he had taken her without tenderness, without consideration… almost without a single word. He’d been hurt and frustrated and angry, half-resigned to the fact that it might be their last time together, desperate to feel her skin beneath his, and too damn stubborn to let her see that he was hurting. But she hadn’t protested his rough treatment, hadn’t told him to stop, hadn’t extricated herself with the ease he knows she’s capable of. Instead she had molded herself to him, front-to-back, had slept naked and vulnerable at his side as she had so many times in Germany.
Maybe he had been different last night. She hadn’t.
So when had she changed?
When had everything changed?
The answer is a thunderclap between his ears; nausea roils like sound waves and storm clouds, and he grips the counter’s edge to steady himself.
The rain falls, streaming down from the eaves as he clambers in through the open window. She stands at the kitchen sink, bent almost double with her head in the basin, dressed only in black cotton shorts and a yellow lace-trimmed tank. He walks up behind her, washes the dye from her hair, kisses her, goes down on his knees there on the hard floor, worshipping her body with his mouth until she cries out and falls into his arms, pliant and speechless—
…he shivers, even though the steam still surrounds him, is in his eyes and his lungs…
In the hotel bed she clings to him, allowing him to cradle her against his chest, as hot tears soak into the collar of his dress shirt—
The support of the counter is not enough. Joints loose, muscles weak, he sits down hard on the closed toilet. His ears are ringing, his brain is ringing: a high-pitched warble as shrill as a dog whistle echoing between neurons, plucking notes of memory from each synapse as it passes.
A woman, blonde, beautiful, sits tied to a chair. “You’re Aten,” says Rogers, and she smiles grimly—
No. He shakes his head, trying to clear it. Pinches the bridge of his nose, struggling for clarity. Aten was a construct, a fragment of personality, a name for something that never really existed.
Nothing seems certain now except for this unassailable fear. He’s not afraid for himself, either body or mind, but for Nat. What he knows argues with what he thought he knew, everything he believed, and the present triumphs over the past.
Fisher still has her—
Replaced her with Aten—
Jesus. Why didn’t I notice—
Nothing to notice.
How could I not see—
Nothing to see.
Shut up shut up shut up!
…and he’s standing again, with no memory of jumping to his feet, staring into the mirror but the mirror is obscured by steam, and he’s suddenly convinced that if he reaches out to wipe the condensation away his hand will pass through the glass. Nothing is solid now. Nothing is real, or what it is expected to be, and he’s sick with the memory of the things he’s done with this impostor, the things he’s told her, words that were never meant for her ears. He doesn’t want to believe it, would rather declare himself mad, but the truth of it all seems evident in every corner of his fear-ridden mind.
It was a trick. A feint. Fisher still has Natasha—
He dresses quickly and with shaking hands, bile burning in his stomach. He has to get out. Away from this place. Away from her.
Oh, God, Nat, I’m so sorry.
The impostor is sitting up in bed when he opens the door again, pulling her nightshirt over her head, and now that he knows what to look for he sees it—
The wariness when their eyes briefly meet. The slight wrongness of her features.
Not a perfect copy, then, but more than a passing resemblance. A doppelganger. He’d read somewhere that everybody has one, and the effects can no doubt be enhanced by the judicious use of scalpel and suture and even mind-altering drugs.
He forces a smile, his heart knocking against his ribs, and kneels as though to tie a shoe. Reaches for his bag—
Stands with bow in hand, string to his lips, arrow aimed at her heart.
Her pistol is already pointed at his chest.
Her face is white, her lips blanching to purple-gray, but her voice is as steady as her hands. “Clint, it’s me.”
He intends to laugh, tries to laugh, but his mouth only twitches against the bowstring in a humorless grimace. “I don’t think so.”
Her eyes are wide, the whites showing all around, framed in turn by dark lashes. Every feature familiar and beautiful and loved and yet utterly alien, a lie, just a lie he let himself believe.
“Drop the weapon,” she says evenly, “and let’s talk.”
Sure, he thinks, she wants to talk. She probably wants to strap him to the bed and inject him with a hallucinogenic pharmacopeia that’ll render him docile and unsuspecting all over again. Then Sloane Fisher will walk through that door, smiling sweetly, and sandblast the memories of the past half-hour from his brain, leaving her double agent free to do… whatever it is she’s meant to do.
Or maybe the game is over and he’s simply meant to die.
“You drop it,” he tells her. “Or I’ll kill you. I swear to God I will.”
He figures his chances of shooting her are good. Of course, the possibility that she’ll hit him before she falls is also decent. Maybe they’ll both die here in this room. Maybe that would be for the best.
Three long seconds pass, measured in heartbeats, in the vibration of the string against his fingers.
The impostor stares at him. Lashes flicker. Lips part. Resolve falters.
She lowers the gun.
There is a knock at the door.
“Answer it,” says Clint.
His eyes are hard and flat but they are still his, with no tell-tale gleam of alien possession, and Natasha can only assume that the hospital tests missed something, that intracranial pressure has robbed her partner of his sense, that he’s not seeing her at all, that in her place stands a shadow, a phantasm that terrifies him.
It doesn’t matter, really. All that matters is surviving this moment.
“Drop the weapon first,” he adds.
When she’d learned that he’d been suborned by Loki she’d eventually come to accept two terrible truths.
One: she might be forced to kill him in order to survive.
Two: like it or not, nothing she felt for him could be stronger than the very human desire, in the heat of the moment, to continue living. After all, nothing went deeper than survival.
She’d been wrong on both counts.
She puts the gun on the mattress. It’s still within her reach, but he wouldn’t be able to retrieve it anyway without lowering his own weapon. And she wouldn’t be able to grab it, raise it, and fire it without taking an arrow in the throat.
He doesn’t relax. His eyes continue to track her from the far end of the fletched shaft.
Natasha opens the door.
The first thing Bruce notices, of course, is her lack of pants. The nightshirt comes down to mid-thigh, leaving nothing exposed that might not be seen in a cocktail dress or miniskirt, but he automatically turns away, apologizing, until Clint’s voice calls him back. “Banner. Get in here.”
Natasha steps away from the door and Bruce walks past her, eyes still averted. “I heard voices,” he starts to say, looking up tentatively, as though expecting to see Clint in a similar state of undress. “I thought you might want to get…”
He sees the arrow. Freezes. A tremor flutters across his face, as faint as the shadow of a moth.
Please, thinks Natasha. Please, no.
But even in his current state Clint knows better than to threaten Bruce. The weapon is still aimed at her, as it was the first time she ever saw him, the night she expected to die. The night she wanted to die. The night he did not kill her.
But this is a different man.
“Close the door,” says Clint, sweat beading on his brow, and she silently accedes. Survive the moment.
Bruce stares between the two of them, hands held out as though to prove his harmlessness. “What the hell is going on?”
Clint looks away from Natasha – although she knows she is still squarely in his sights, that she will not be able to move the smallest muscle without attracting his attention – and says tonelessly, “that’s not Natasha.”
She flinches, not meaning to, and he glares at her.
Bruce frowns, gaping like a goldfish, and scrutinizes Natasha with narrowed eyes, even pushing his glasses farther up the bridge of his nose to get a better look. The frown deepens as he turns back to Clint. “Could have fooled me,” he says slowly.
“Fooled all of us,” says Clint shortly. “She’s a… a doppelganger. I don’t know… I think… I think she might be Aten.”
The accusation, the name, makes Natasha’s breath catch in her throat.
Bruce is befuddled. He’d only been tangentially involved with her rescue, but he knows the story well enough. “Barton…” He pauses, starts again, his voice soft and reasonable, no hint of frustration or incredulity. “Clint, Aten didn’t exist, remember? Or she did but… she was Natasha.”
A bead of sweat on Clint’s temple reaches terminal mass and begins its slow slide down the terse, twitching line of his jaw. “No, Natasha’s still out there,” he says hotly. “She’s in trouble. Whoever this is, it’s not her.” He looks at her again, eyes fevered but not completely lacking in sanity. Swallowing thickly, adjusting his grip on the bow, he nods towards the tabletop lamp. “Tie her up.”
“What?” Bruce is sweating now too, and not from the heat. Whether or not Clint is actually threatening him directly, this kind of tension can’t be good.
“The cord. Tie her wrists. Ankles.”
“Do it,” says Natasha.
Across the street from the motel, at a café table in an outdoor strip mall, Kamala sips an iced coffee and listens.
A pair of earbuds trail wires down from her ears, into a jacket pocket, leading not to a phone or an iPod but to a small, powerful radio, which is diligently receiving the signal from the transmitter she’d placed on Barton’s duffle bag the previous night, after she’d finished the rest of her assignment.
Yesterday, their prospects had looked bleak. Dinner and half an hour of science prattle from Banner about bridges and bugs. A brief interlude by the Asgardian and an annoying twit called Darcy. Then boring, boring silence punctuated only by a distinctive slap-slap-slap that Kamala had eventually identified as playing cards being dealt.
Cards. Good idea. She should have brought cards.
There’d been no real way to determine how long it would take Barton’s program to kick in, or even what form it might take. Kamala was an operative, after all, not an operator, and so Fisher had decided to keep things simple and let Barton’s own mind take things from there.
After all, as the Doctor had once explained, all you can do is paint with broad strokes, seed a few notions and hope they take root. You can’t control where they go after that. With any luck Barton had some nice, deep-seated PTSD issues that his overprotective handler – overprotective dead handler – had neglected to include in his file.
Romanoff turning up out of the blue had almost ruined everything. Kamala had worried that the other woman might be able to restrain Barton when the kick came, or knock him out, or talk him through it somehow (which shouldn’t have been possible, but Kamala couldn’t put anything past these two) or maybe use her feminine wiles to distract him from the fear.
In fact, Kamala had suffered through a very uncomfortable half-hour while a chorus of moans, groans, gasps, oaths and an inordinate amount of bed-spring squeaking had dripped into her ears from the room across the street, like her own personal low-quality audio-only porno. She’d harbored some small hope that Barton might launch into a full-fledged panic attack in situ, so to speak, but eventually the two of them had finished up and seemed to spend the remainder of the night in deep and restful sleep.
All of Kamala’s patience had paid off, however, with the theatrics this morning. While she was a little irritated Barton had automatically gone into White Knight mode on Romanoff’s behalf, it was telling that he had transferred his anxiety, his sense of impending danger, onto someone else. And it was amusing when he started accusing Romanoff, the same woman he’d plowed into the mattress the night before, of being some sort of impostor.
And then there was his reference to Aten. Kamala had read about that little wrinkle in the files, although she’d been smart enough not to bring it up around Fisher. Somehow, even after Romanoff had been regressed to her pre-SHIELD days, even when all of her more recent memories were poisoned by the trigger, she’d been able to secret some part of her mind away. And that part had called itself Aten.
Kamala finishes her coffee and throws the plastic cup into a recycling bin. She tries to be a responsible citizen whenever possible.
The next part of the mission starts now. The next part of the game. To Fisher, it’s revenge with a side of morbid scientific curiosity, which is the only kind of curiosity she knows.
To Kamala, it’s life and death.