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From Fire by Fire

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PART SIX

 

“Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.”

- T.S. Eliot

 

(Before: 2004)

Anya cleans herself up, steps over the dead man, and walks back out onto the main deck.

Other passengers, those who saw her retire into the yacht’s cabin with Kutaiba half an hour ago, smile knowingly at the sight of her. One woman leans over as Anya approaches the bar and whispers, “That was fast.”

“The poor baby is tired out,” Anya says, grinning wickedly, and she orders a martini.

The legal drinking age in the UAE is 21, and Anya is only 18. Sometimes she is a bad girl.

*

They dock in Abu Dhabi just after midnight. Kutaiba has not been discovered. Security on his father’s pleasure craft is lax… after all, the young heir only invited those individuals along who could be explicitly trusted.

The fool.

Anya steps onto the dock, pretends to get an important phone call which leads to a heated argument in Hindi, and slips away just as Kutaiba’s fiancée, enraged at being left behind, storms up the gangplank. Her horrified screams follow Anya into the night.

Kutaiba the younger had not known how to access his father’s safe.

Anya hopes that Natalia has had better luck with his sister.

*

When they come for Anya, hands reaching out of the darkness, she is briefly stunned.

They are not Emirati. They do not even seem to be Arab. If anything, they appear Indian.

She kills one. Disables two others.

But there are five.

 

(Before: 2012)

Knee drawn to her chest. Breath coming in shallow gasps. Skin chilled, covered in a thin sheen of sweat.

But beneath her chest her heart is still beating, her lungs are still working, her skin is still whole. Somehow she survived the rampage. Somehow she isn’t dead.

Still, Natasha shakes.

Her mind fills with white noise that is the echo of an endless roar. She feels the deck canting beneath her. She feels the overtaxed engines groan. Words buzz in her ears like a million angry wasps.

Amidst the drone of the furious hive: his name.

“It’s Barton. He took out our systems.”

Natasha reminds herself that she’s made her peace with this moment.

“He’s headed for the detention level.”

She’s accepted it.

“Does anybody copy?”

She copies.

*

“There’s another way, you know. You don’t have to live like this.”

“There’s no other way.”

*

He walks without fear.

It’s like a game. How close can she get before he hears her, before he senses her presence?

Close. Just not close enough.

*

“I know you’re not happy.”

“Is that what you know?”

*

Bow up. Elbow back. Unflinching, unhesitating.

Survive .

She grasps the bow’s curved limbs, steps inside his range as the arrow flies, and torques the bow down.

Rather than loosen his grip he turns, jabbing an elbow at her face, kicking out at her legs until she’s forced to back off.

He drives the sharp bow notch down towards her, following close when she dances out of the way. Overextended, he is not prepared for the foot that catches him in his chest.

He staggers back, but she knows how quickly he can regain his footing. She grabs a support beam, slides beneath the grated walk, swinging up the other side even as he looks after her. Another kick, another stumble, but he never falls.

Fall, Clint. Please, just fall.

*

“I was there, once.”

 “Where?”

“Where you are. On the wrong side.”

*

The second arrow, aimed at her legs, reminds Natasha that Loki doesn’t want an easy death for her, and the venom of the bastard’s vile oaths pumps through her veins.

Another support, another swing; the arrow goes wide but she imagines she can feel its passage, the stir of air off the fletched shaft. He pursues her to the parallel walk, once again using the heft of the solid recurve bow as a weapon in its own right. He’s expecting her to get in close again, within his reach, but she hangs back. Waiting.

Waiting for something. A miracle.

She’s forgotten that she doesn’t believe in those.

*

“Right and wrong. Is that what they teach you?”

*

The string, taut beneath her gloved hands, is as strong as garroting wire. Wreck it, she thinks fiercely. Take away at least one of his weapons.

The handle raps against her skull once, twice, but she hangs on. He pushes her against the railing, cold steel against the small of her back, his hands almost covering hers as they kick and flail and struggle for possession of the bow. She yanks one hand free, pulling it back, cracking her elbow against the side of his head.

It could have knocked him out. It should have stunned him, at least. It doesn’t, but his grip loosens for the briefest instant.

It’s enough.

Now she has the bow. But he has a knife.

*

“Zhizn' prozhit' — ne pole pereyti.”

“Maybe not. But it can be better than this.”

*

The blade is in his right hand, arcing down; she blocks him, kicks, tries to knock him off his feet, but he’s too well balanced. Another slice, another block, but this time she forces his arm back, wrenching it at an unnatural angle, trying to ignore his strangled sound of pain.

Survive.

And then the knife is in his left hand, parting the air above her head as she ducks without conscious thought.

They grapple for the blade, his quiver nearly swinging into her face. No beauty in this dance now, no grace, just power, and fear pushes the blade away, away, until it is resting just below his chin.

One good thrust will part flesh and sinew. Warm blood will gush across her hands. He will fall and she will live and it will be done.

Survive.

Survive .

*

“Dolg platezhom krasen.”

“You don’t owe me anything.”

*

She hesitates and the chance is lost. His free hand snares a fistful of her hair, pulling it until her eyes water, forcing her head back and weakening her grip. She can’t see the knife but she can feel its descent, slow and inexorable, as though the steel is a living thing, straining, seeking the blood that it was denied.

Her blood.

His arm drops, drops, and the knife drops with it, but every part of her body is a weapon, so she thrusts her head forward, past the blade, and sinks her teeth into his skin.

He bellows like a wounded animal and the knife clatters from his hand, but he has the presence of mind to continue forward, his arm snaking around her waist, intending to drive her down; she hooks her hand around his shoulder and flips up and out of his grasp.

Now he is profoundly unbalanced, bent at the waist with momentum tipping him forward, and she’s afraid the knife might be down there within his sight, within his reach. The only weapons left to her are the floor and the railing, so she yanks him into a tight turn; his hands come up to soften the blow but not quickly enough, and his skull meets the handrail with a horrible, solid crack that she can feel in her teeth.

He stumbles, groaning. Falters. Tries to pull himself back up. Can’t.

She watches, expecting a trick, a feint, as he manages to rise up on one knee.

His eyes find hers; they are not full of wild fury, but they are still a shade found nowhere in nature.

“Natasha?”

His voice. His voice.

Better safe than sorry, she decides.

 

(19)

Wedged in between crates of whole and two-percent, beginning to shiver as the cold settles into his bones, Clint rocks westward.

All things considered, the back of a refrigerated truck is not the worst way to cross the high desert of western New Mexico. Riding along with a shipment of milk likely destined for Albuquerque means that the space is kept chilled but above freezing, which minimizes the chance that he’ll die of hypothermia before the truck makes its first scheduled stop. That’s a plus.

He tries to pretend that what he’s doing is the very definition of logic, but he can’t quite manage to convince himself. He is a man possessed, and possession is the bane of reason.

For a long time he simply listens to the steady thrum of rubber on asphalt, wishing his overnight bag had included his Gore-Tex parka or at least thick socks, hunkering down so that any unexpected stops or sharp turns won’t lead to injury.

He wonders what he will do if the truck suddenly halts in response to the arrival of, say, a large blond man wielding a hammer.

Clint figures chances are good that the big guys will come after him, not out of concern for his well-being or Natasha’s but because Steve will feel obligated and Stark will be eager to protect his brand, because Banner will take the confrontation personally and Thor… well, at this point he’ll be eager to do something besides planetary delousing.

Aten, on the other hand, will be long gone, glad to see the back of him. By now she’s probably escaped, putting plenty of distance between herself and Banner… or else she’s come up with some clever cover story, leaving the others unsure of who to believe.

Clint doesn’t blame them for that. Stark, Banner, Steve, Thor… none of them could have picked him out of a lineup before New York; they have no reason to trust his word, especially when his word is admittedly unbelievable. And only Stark’s known Natasha for more than a couple of months, so Clint certainly can’t fault them for not realizing the truth when he, who has been her partner for more than five years, never once suspected until this morning.

Why? How did I not see?

The truck’s cargo hold is dark; the bands of florescent overhead lights will shine only when the back doors are opened. The blackness is perfect, unrelieved, but when Clint closes his eyes, sparks and spots of transient color flash across his lids. He sees other things as well: images of the past month, vivid and wonderful and terrible.

*

Their second day in Frankfurt is spent mostly apart, as she makes herself a target and he watches from the rooftops. Her hair is a bright banner, catching fire in the sunlight. As day turns to evening, heavy and humid with the promise of another summer storm, all he can see is her.

He hears the shower running as he enters the apartment, sets a new land-speed record for undressing, and steps into the glass-paneled cubical behind her.

She leans against his chest as he trails his lips down her neck, her head falling back onto his shoulder as his hands slide up and cup her breasts. “I’ve been thinking about this all day,” he confesses.

“All… day?” Her voice catches as he moves one hand down between her legs. “Good thing no one… oh, God, Clint… no one took a shot at me.”

He grins as she bends one knee, finding a toehold on a narrow ledge meant for soap and little bottles of shampoo, and leans forward with her hands braced beneath the showerhead. The water sluices down over her back and the steam rises, filling the negative space between them. “Baby, no one gets to take a shot at you but me.”

He fits himself to her and she groans, not only in desire but – he expects – in reaction to the diminutive. “No ‘baby’?” he asks, both hands moving to grasp her hips.

“No ‘baby’,” she agrees, but she’s almost laughing, and then he begins to move and the laughter turns to something else.

*

It isn’t the memories of the sex that cause him the most grief; it’s the memories of the things he felt.

*

In the bed, atop the dampened sheets with one towel between them, cocooned in the warming scents of sex and citrus body wash, they talk. Most of it is nonsense – he thinks that neither of them have had enough nonsense in their lives – but somehow the conversation returns to pet names. And to the past.

The year he’d turned thirteen, a woman had joined Carson’s Traveling Carnival. When the gates opened, she was Madame Zelda, Fortune Teller and Prophetess, but the rest of the time she was only Oksana, a thirty-five year old immigrant from Moscow who could pull off a passable Romani accent. One of the roughies, Oleg, the son of Ukrainian ex-pats, had spent half the season attempting to court her. It had been obvious even to Clint that she had liked him, but was infuriated by his constant use of endearments: baby, honey, sugar, doll. “I am not a child, and I am not sweet,” she had exclaimed, exasperated, one night after the marks had all gone home with their wallets considerably lightened. “If you wish to compliment me, do it accurately.”

“Sunshine!” Oleg had blurted, first in Russian and then in English, flushing as some of the other men laughed derisively. “Because… because the sun’s light is bright and hot and deadly, but without it I could not live.”

Oksana and Oleg had gotten married – real-married, not just carny-married – at the end of the season. A few years later they had left the carnival life altogether. Clint had missed them.

Loose-limbed and heavy-lidded, Natasha curls against him, trailing her fingers down his jaw. “Sunshine, hmm?” she asks, chuckling drowsily. “Is that what I am?”

Her fingers move across his lips and he kisses them; because these things always sound better in Russian he says, “solnyshko moyo,” remembering the sight of her hair in the blazing sun, and she smiles as she succumbs to sleep.

*

Pain in his chest, in his head: undiminished by the cold, unrelieved by the dark.

Maybe Aten had been instructed to seduce him, or maybe that had been a little bonus, a personal mission while she completed whatever objective Fisher had set her to complete. A man might be able to excuse himself for falling into bed with a woman like her, even if she had been a stranger. Especially if she had been a stranger.

The things that he told her, though – stories of his childhood, the ghosts that haunt him, those tentative half-formed plans for the future – are more of a violation than any designs she had on his body. The way she had so easily drawn those words from him – Natasha, I love you – is a gross insult to the woman he’s loved for years, secretly, silently and without acknowledgement. It lessens everything he’s felt for her, even before he accepted that what he was feeling was real.

It makes him weak and foolish and unfaithful.

Solnyshko moyo…

The moment he finds Natasha, the real Natasha, the second he looks into her eyes, he won’t even have to tell her. She’ll look at him and she’ll know that he betrayed her, that he was lulled into complacency by this impostor’s body, that he shared with her all the things that should have never belonged to anyone else.

And she’ll never come out and say that she hates him for it. But she will. Deep down, she will.

The truck continues west. Every mile that passes beneath him holds the fear at bay, but it never leaves completely, and the gargoyles of anger and regret and self-loathing seem to leer down at him from the lightless interior of the truck. He chafes his bare arms and listens to the steady thrum of rubber on asphalt until he can no longer feel the dampness on his numb skin.

 

(20)

“Park?” asks Steve, watching both the elevator’s indicator board and Maria Hill’s face. “I don’t think I know him.”

“He’s Internal Affairs,” says Maria – as she’s dressed once more in denim and leather, her hair pulled back into a short ponytail, he can’t possibly think of her as anything as staid as Agent Hill – “and he’s after Fury. Which means that the Council – or at least a faction on the council – is after Fury.”

Steve considers this. The director will forever be tainted in Steve’s eyes by his commitment to Phase Two and his complete unwillingness to respect the power of the Tesseract, but a regime change within SHIELD is definitely not on Steve’s agenda right now.

Maria hesitates, tilting her face towards the steadily ascending numbers. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. This is Stark’s turf.”

“It’s my turf now too,” Steve replies, wishing he felt as confident as he sounds. “Besides, we need you. You know how Barton thinks.”

“You’re giving me way too much credit on that count. We’ve worked together, that’s all. Agent Romanoff…”

“Is in New Mexico,” says Steve. “And she’s…” Not thinking especially clearly. Ready to kill somebody. More so than usual. “She’s… upset.”

The elevator cab stops and the doors open. Tony Stark turns from his bank of computers, stares, and scowls. “Rogers! What the hell is she doing here?”

“She’s not the only one,” mutters Maria.

*

Steve has to give Tony credit: the guy can multitask.

At the moment he’s engaged in a heated ‘instant message’ conversation with Pepper Potts, who is in Los Angeles on some urgent business matter, bickering face-to-face with Maria, and hacking into Ashmore General’s secure server. Although, to be fair, JARVIS is doing most of the actual hacking.

“Now, Agent Hill, when you say illegal…

“I actually do mean illegal, yes.”

Tony’s pained expression is one not seen since the days of Torquemada’s torture chambers. “Cap, I thought you said you were going to help. This is not helping.”

Maria stiffens. “I’m sorry if I’m cramping your style by pointing out…”

“Nothing that I don’t already know.” A lazy flick of Stark’s wrist sends the server-hacking program sliding across the room, where a box reading 100% expands, opening like a window in midair. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m trying to possibly save a life here.”

Somehow, even when uninflected, Maria’s voice manages to convey deep and abiding scorn. “Of course you are, Mr. Stark.”

She sounds like me, thinks Steve. Or rather, I used to sound like her. Strange, to hear those sentiments coming out of another person’s mouth, and agreeing with them, but at the same time… not. And it isn’t as though he considers Tony Stark a completely reformed character, or even marginally less of an insufferable glory-hound, but underneath the pomp and bluster there is… something else. Something better, maybe, than even Tony wants to admit.

Having been charged with being a good man – seventy-plus years ago, a lifetime ago – Steve knows how difficult it can be to try to live up to high expectations.

The billionaire types a brief response to Ms. Potts on a ghostly impression of a keyboard and swivels in his chair, towards the holographic window, his back to Maria. “Brucie, you two seeing this?”

“Uh, that’s an affirmative,” replies Banner’s voice, coming from everywhere and nowhere. He and Natasha are viewing the same video on his cell phone. “Hard to see much detail, but we’ll do what we can. The ambulance brought him in a few minutes before seven-thirty… let’s start there.”

“You’re the boss,” says Tony, and the time-code flashes across the bottom of the screen, which is divided into quadrants, each with their own simultaneous black-and-white feed.

The top-right display shows a few yards of speckled linoleum that Steve guesses is the entrance to the emergency room, as well as two transparent doors and a wedge of dark-gray night beyond. Then: the monochrome flutter-flash of strobe lights, the doors sliding open, a wheeled gurney conveying a figure strapped to a backboard, head immobilized in a vise-like collar. A second later, stumbling in their fleet-footed wake is Banner, shirtless and shoeless, looking like someone surfacing from a night of heavy drinking to find the entire weekend has passed in a raucous bacchanalia.

Maria frowns, crossing her arms, sharp eyes cutting across the screen. “What exactly are we looking for?”

“Honestly… I’m not sure,” Banner replies. “Call it a hunch. Wait… who said that?”

“This is Agent Hill, Doctor.”

For the first time Steve hears Natasha’s voice, curt and clipped with frustration. “What is she doing there?”

“My question exactly,” grumbles Tony, still tracking movement across the screen. The medics and the gurney and Banner pass out of frame quickly; there is nothing remarkable about the moment, but he continues to watch.

Steve sighs. “Listen, we’re looking for a needle in a haystack.” And at the moment it’s a hay-colored needle that also happens to be made of hay. And then there is the matter of this troublesome Agent Park, but he’s not going to bring that up now. Natasha doesn’t need another reason to distrust SHIELD personnel and Tony doesn’t need another target for his acid tongue. “I thought we could use another set of eyes.”

Tony huffs. “We don’t need eyes. We have JARVIS.”

“You flatter me, sir, but in terms of search parameters, ‘a hunch’ is so vague as to be entirely useless.”

“Well, buddy, you’re definitely more useful than a—”

Stop.”

Hill’s curt tone almost makes Steve jump, and at first he thinks she’s addressing him and Tony and maybe even the AI, but her eyes are still on the screen and her brow is furrowed in concentration. She points to the bottom-left quadrant of the feed, and Tony wordlessly gestures so that it fills up the entire window, so that the colorless image is larger and clearer than before.

“Go back,” says Hill, her expression troubled. “A few seconds. I thought I saw…” She lets the sentence trail away unfinished, and her eyes find Steve’s.

This camera is aimed at a small, auxiliary entrance, perhaps one frequented by employees, because the woman who passes into the picture a moment later is dressed in shapeless nonsurgical scrubs, a large purse over one shoulder. She pauses before passing over the threshold, looks back into the darkness beyond the frame, and then continues.

She is only on camera for three, maybe five seconds.

“JARVIS…”

The AI might find Banner’s hunches insufficient as search parameters, but certainly by now it has learned to read its maker’s mind: the picture expands, clarifies, narrowing to the woman, zeroing in on her face. Short, dark hair. High cheekbones. Full lips. Tony glances questioningly at Maria. “We can run this against the SHIELD database…”

“There’s no need,” says Steve. “It’s Kamala Manesh.”

*

The Farradays still work for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, but now they do so from home, rather than the field, and home is in North Platte, Nebraska, far from the machinations of third-world dictators.

North Platte is a little far for a day trip, but a quick call to the husband reveals that the wife, providentially, is at a Commission conference in Philadelphia.

Deciding that the use of the Quinjet would cause more problems than it would solve in such a densely-populated area, loathe to waste time filing a flight plan, Steve checks the train schedule, and Maria asks if he would mind some company.

“Not at all,” he says, surprised to discover that it’s the truth.

*

He supposes that, in a corner of his mind, Paola Farraday will always be Saja: the silent, trembling Witten Institute ‘intern’ who’d had the gumption and the presence of mind to drug Ajax, lead Steve through Fisher’s house of horrors, and help him find the drug that had saved Natasha’s life.

When they spoke a few days later, after Saja had been reacquainted with her name, her memories, and her husband, she had been hesitant and a little shy, still laboring under the burden of everything that had been done to her.

The past month seems to have wrought a significant change. Paola sits in an upholstered armchair, shapely legs crossed beneath a straight black skirt, drinking coffee as she peruses a paperback novel. Her brown hair is cut and curled into stylish ringlets, and when she looks up – seeming to sense their entrance into the room – she smiles broadly, sets aside book and cup, stands and approaches them with obvious pleasure in her bright blue eyes. “Captain Rogers, it’s so good to see you again.”

“It’s ‘Steve’,” insists Steve, embarrassed and a trifle concerned; the Crowne Plaza, where Paola’s conference is being held, had put aside this smaller meeting room for their use after Maria insisted, but the door to the hallway is still open and the name Captain Rogers is more recognizable than his face. “And it’s nice to see you again, too. You…” He decides not to mention how much better she looks, having regained some weight. Even in his day, women were pretty touchy about that sort of thing. “You seem like you’re doing well.”

“This is my first big excursion since it all happened,” she says with a little flush of pleasure. “Zach wanted to come, of course, but I told him… I have to get back out in the world, without a babysitter, or I’m always going to be afraid that there are bogeymen waiting in every shadow. I have to prove to myself that I can do it. I know that sounds like bad psychotherapy, and I actually did see someone for a few weeks, but most of the time it seems that I know what I need to do to get past this… I just have to make myself do it.” She pauses to catch her breath and shrugs self-consciously. “Sorry. These days sometimes I can’t stop talking. I think maybe Zach was a little relieved to stay at home, just to have a few minutes of quiet. Agent Hill, I apologize, it’s very good to see you too.”

Maria shakes the other woman’s hand. “You’re planning on staying in the States, then?”

“Zach’s parents are in North Platte,” replies Paola. “He moved back to be close to them after I was… after I was taken. And we decided that if we… when we decide to have a family, we would want the baby to be close to his or her grandparents.” Her eyes flicker between them. “But I know this isn’t a social call.”

She leads them back to her chair and they sit across from her on a matching sofa. Maria pulls a folder from her shoulder bag and passes it to Paola. “This is a list of names mentioned in Institute files,” she says. “Some from computer files that Fisher unlocked, but mainly from documents decrypted in the past couple of weeks.”

Paola opens the folder slowly, as though worried that the manila cardstock might conceal something fanged and venomous.

“I know you told us everything you could remember,” says Steve solicitously, leaning forward. “But we’re hoping that one of these names might ring a bell.”

Paola lifts her eyes to his. “You’ve found them, haven’t you?”

“Manesh has resurfaced,” Steve admits. “Fisher is still unaccounted for. But… we think they’re up to their old tricks.”

Brows lowered, Paola studies the list of names. Many are incomplete and several are nothing more than initials, because Fisher had been cautious even in her encrypted files. “What’s happened?” she asks tentatively, running a finger down the first column.

Steve glances at Maria, who looks unhappy but resigned with this revelation of classified material. “We think Manesh might have been involved in the recent disappearance of, ah, of Agent Barton.”

Paola looks up sharply. “Barton. You think they got to him somehow. Like they got to your Agent Romanoff? In… in retaliation?”

“We’re really not sure,” says Maria, as Steve realizes that Paola’s concern might be for her own safety, and may be well-founded. North Platte is a long way from Chavez and his cronies, as is Philadelphia, but if Manesh and Fisher are acting in the US with impunity… “All we know is that Manesh was in New Mexico last night. Do any of those names look familiar?”

Paola’s eyes return to the list and she gives a small, helpless shrug. “I… I’m really not sure. She… Fisher… she’d talk in front of me sometimes because I was just always there, like part of the furniture, and obviously she wasn’t worried about me telling anyone else, but Manesh and Ajax were the only ones who were really in her confidence.” She frowns. “Have you asked Ajax? Have you shown him these names?”

“We never found an antidote for him,” says Maria sourly. “If one exists, we haven’t been able to identify it. It seemed like medications intended for the more recent operatives were all clearly marked and stored in some kind of order, but some of the originals are either missing completely or else improperly labeled. And as much as I might enjoy it, I can’t just start injecting him with everything in that room to see what works.”

Paola smiles faintly. “Dr. Witten was originally in charge of drug storage,” she said wryly, and with a sharp edge to the dead scientist’s name. “He had his own system that I don’t think anyone understood, including him. When he started spending less time at the Institute, Dr. Fisher took over. She was a lot more meticulous.”

“Ben Park,” says Maria suddenly.

Paola cocks her head. “I’m sorry… who?”

Maria looks disappointed, as though she had hoped to jar a stronger reaction from the other woman. “That name doesn’t mean anything to you? About forty, Korean, a little taller than me…”

“I don’t think so.” Paola gestures to the list of names. “All I can tell you is that several of these are names of people Fisher was interested in acquiring. Specific targets that she thought might further her own ambitions. And the list is outdated, I’m sure you noticed that,” she tells Steve.

“I noticed.” Natasha’s name is present. Barton’s is not, but it is to be expected that she would make new plans, new schemes for vengeance.

“The only one I ever saw in person who wasn’t eventually made an operative was this man,” she continues, pointing to a name halfway down the second column. “Keyes. I remember because I was never sure if that was his first name or his last. He was a big man. Quiet. South African, I believe.”

“A mercenary?”

“A… a bodyguard.”

The realization strikes her, seeming to travel outward like a sound wave, impacting Steve and Maria at the same time.

Whose bodyguard?”

 

(21)

From Albuquerque, a milk truck and a very surprised driver, to Flagstaff, Arizona as a stowaway on an Amtrak train: his headache isn’t any worse than it was when he woke this morning, but Clint remains unreasonably convinced that the instant he stops his westward trek, the pain will return in full force.

In Flagstaff he’s forced to pause, at least for a little while, to eat and consider his next move. West, west, west has echoed through his mind since New Mexico, but now that he senses his destination is drawing near, the ephemeral directions become more specific.

West. The lake. The city on the lake.

He finds it on the station map: Lake Havasu City. The lake is actually a dammed reservoir on the Colorado River, right on the border between Arizona and California. A two-page brochure on a local tourist attraction – London Bridge – tells him more than he wants to know about the city. Established in ’63 as a “self-sufficient planned community.” Population of about 50,000, situated in the desert lowlands, isolated and hotter than hell.

Is that where she is? The isolation would appeal to Fisher, he decides, studying the map, tracing the route from Flagstaff. It feels right, although he has no idea why.

He has enough cash in his bag for a bus that’ll convey him across the Mojave as far as Kingman, Arizona. “From there it’s about an hour’s drive down 40,” says the station manager, who looks like he’s spent his fair share of time in the desert sun. He could be thirty years old or sixty; it’s impossible to tell by his seamed and weathered face. “Plenty of places where you can rent a car.”

“Thanks,” says Clint, although he has no intention of doing so. Rental agencies want you to put down a credit card. They want identification. If SHIELD isn’t already helping to look for him, they will be soon, and since the only credit card he has on him is the one linked directly to Stark Industries…

He thinks longingly of his nearest cache – a well-stocked storage unit just off the Vegas strip – but it’s too far and in the wrong direction.

West, west, west.

*

On the bus, he sleeps. He dreams. He remembers.

*

Wrapped in her arms, running a careful hand through her tangled hair: “I talked to Fury. Turns out you were wrong. You told me in Paris… you said Fury wasn’t stupid enough to throw away two of his best assets.”

*

Her fingertips, soft against his mouth. His words: “Solnyshko moyo.” My sunshine. Silly, frivolous, but she smiles in her sleep.

*

She wakes in a panic, trembling and grappling at the sheets as though they’re demons that have followed her up out of her nightmare. He talks her through it, speaks of birds and rooftops and nonsense, lets his voice sink through the fear before he tries to touch her.

Then he does touch her and she abandons the sheets, clutching at him instead. “Now,” she demands, still shaking, pulling him against her, tugging away what little clothing they’ve worn to bed. “Now, Clint, please… please, I need…” and he kisses her, touches her, fills her, rocks her until she gasps and cries out, no room or time or thought left for the terror in her mind.

*

“I can’t walk away.”

His fingers trace her spine. His eyes hold hers. “Natasha… I love you. I don’t expect you to… I understand. If you can’t say it right now.”

“What if I can’t ever say it?”

“You don’t have to say anything.”

*

In the dreams, it is always indisputably Natasha. The things she knows. The way she looks at him. No one is that good of an actor. And surely an impostor would have no qualms about telling him what he so desperately wanted to hear…

And then he wakes and the pain is there again. It begins in the base of his skull and radiates out through the porous channels of his bones, across each axon linking nerve to synapse like a signal sent along a telegraph line. It is a long, piercing sound like a high-pitched train whistle; a scourge, driving the lies away.