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From Fire by Fire

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PART SEVEN

“So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good: so far as we do evil or good, we are human: and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least we exist.”

- T.S. Eliot

 

(After)

I am fifteen.

My corsage is pink and my date is sweating bullets, sitting on the sofa in our apartment in Chelsea, staring down my parents and my baby sister. My mother is relaxed and gracious as she bounces Sasha on her knee, asking politely after Justin’s family and our plans for the night, playing the part of the demure housewife with such subtlety, such attention to detail, that it’s all I can do to keep a straight face. Later she will take me aside and quiz me on what I observed: what did you notice about my posture? How might it have changed his perception of me if I had crossed my legs at the ankle, instead of the knee? What was the benefit of having Sasha there with us? What were the potential drawbacks?

It’s hard to tell if Dad is playing a part; either way, he’s fully committed. He doesn’t actually sit in his armchair and clean a rifle with menacing thoroughness, but the thing is… he doesn’t need to. His manner is outwardly easy – he even smiles now and then – but his eyes are so hard and cold that he might as well be sitting in a shadowed corner of the room, sharpening a Bowie knife against a leather strop. When he says, “Just remember her curfew,” he’s really saying I know all the best places to hide the bodies. And when he looks at me, I know he’s saying if you really like this pimply little moron, you’d better behave yourself too.

Mom takes our picture. Dad shakes Justin’s hand as we get ready to leave. It’s all so trite and clichéd and ridiculous that I think it might be the best night of my life.

 

(Before: 2008)

“I’m just trying to understand,” says Agent Park, and he’s using that voice, the one Natasha has heard from countless psychologists and psychiatrists and assorted headshrinkers since she followed Barton out of that damned alley.

Gently wheedling. Faintly condescending. Vaguely paternalistic.

There are many responses she could give, all of them sarcastic, some of them downright rude. She’s not worried about looking bad in Park’s eyes – they can take her or leave her as she is – but she doesn’t want to reflect badly on her partner. So she merely says, “I’m trying to help you understand,” when what she really wants to tell him is You’re an arrogant little prick and I’m sick of talking to you. “Someone else was there in the warehouse,” continues Natasha, patiently repeating this simple fact for the third time. “They must have been looking for the same information.”

“And you believe they planted the explosives?”

“Yes,” she lies, smoothly and without compunction.

“Did you recognize this person?”

Now she hesitates, caught between untruthful denial and unbelievable truth. “I thought I did,” she says at last. “But I must have been wrong. The woman I’m thinking of died almost four years ago.”

“Died… or disappeared?” asks Park cannily.

“Disappeared,” admits Natasha, not caring to explain that for the Red Room, disappearance was as much proof of death as a corpse, viscera, or buckets of blood.

Four years ago, in 2004, the Soviet Union had officially been more than a decade in the ground. The KGB and their satellite programs had officially been dismantled. But power, when exercised with maximum efficacy, does not operate in official channels. Power does not fret at the turning tide of politics or weep at the fall of regimes. Power sustains itself. Power endures.

*

Barton is waiting for her outside the interrogation room, and he doesn’t try to disguise his relief at her lack of security escort.

He knows, she thinks.

But he doesn’t want to talk about Volgograd anymore, which is perfect, because neither does she.

“You want to get out of here?” he asks. “I figure we’ve got a couple of days at least.”

She looks at him quizzically. “Where are we going?”

He takes half a step back, regarding her as might a tailor taking mental measurements. She knows he has boltholes, places unknown to SHIELD, all over the country: Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas…

“Ohio,” he says, pitching his voice low, smiling at some secret joke. “Let’s go to Ohio.”

*

The trailer, dusty from disuse, sits on the edge of a sprawling campground. It has been a mild autumn and the main entrance looks busy, but they don’t use the main entrance. He shows her the route overland from the access road – “Just in case you ever need to come here yourself.”

Natasha can’t imagine ever coming here on her own – she can’t imagine coming here again, period – but after a day has passed she admits that there is something to be said for outdoor living. The smells of birch and hawthorn and wet earth are an improvement over the blood and soot and smoke of Volgograd.

They flip a coin and she wins the bed while he is relegated to the sofa. The first night, with the folding door closed between them, she slits a hole in the underside of the mattress and slips the computer drive in amongst the Bonnell coils and block foam. A few quick stitches hide all evidence of this careful destruction.

Let them think that everything in Volgograd was lost. Let them blame Anya, or the ghost of Anya. Hell, let them blame Natasha; in the end, it doesn’t matter.

Power sustains itself. Power endures.

But power also burns like a son of a bitch.

 

(Before: 2012)

As he pulls against the pressure at his wrists, nonsense words dribble from his lips, his tongue, madness that washes like flotsam across the surface of his mind, as frenetic as calliope music, as crazed as the wide rolling eye of a painted horse.

“Clint. You’re going to be all right.”

She is there: quiet, steady; an impossibility of red and black. Blood and steel. Sunset and midnight.

“You know that I do.”

Every sound seems magnified in the small infirmary cell, or maybe it is his own senses that are hyperaware: the steady hum of the engines thrumming through the deck… the liquid song of water poured from carafe to cup… the creak of the restraints as she frees his arms.

“Don’t. Don’t do that to yourself, Clint.”

He wants to believe her, to let her words lay against his skin like balm, but it’s hard. It’s hard just to look at her, because behind words meant to comfort stands the shade of an old, deep pain made new again. A shade cast by the voice he knew as God’s – “Tell me everything about them” – and by the words of his own reply.

Natasha’s fears aren’t so different from other peoples’ – betrayal, loss – but they go beyond what almost anyone else has experienced. Not the betrayal of another: betrayal of oneself. Not loss to death: loss to memory.

“Now you sound like you.”

It wasn’t his choice, what happened to him – God knows it wasn’t – but through Loki’s actions he’s broken the only promise he’s ever made to her, the only promise that ever meant a damn thing: to never be her enemy.

She sits beside him, although they don’t quite touch, and the shadows in her eyes are fuel to a fire she doesn’t let anyone else see.

“I’ve been compromised.”

He looks away from the fire, down at his hands and then at hers, resting palm up in her lap. Faint red lines score the exposed flesh below her gauntlets, especially the pads of her fingers. They are lines he knows, lines he has grown calluses against, and these injuries are at most only a few hours old.

He had tried to kill her. Would have killed her. Would have happily bathed in her blood if his dark God had told him to.

She follows his gaze and turns her hands palms-down without comment, preferring – in this instance – to deflect rather than confront. “We should get that cleaned up,” she says, nodding down at his left arm.

The wound has broken the skin, but it is so small as to have escaped his notice before now. The distinctive shape teases a ghost of a smile from him as she stands, walking to the cupboard where basic first aid supplies are kept.

She bit me, he remembers, his amusement welling up, so abruptly out of proportion that he seems he must be teetering on the edge of hysteria. He finds words again – foolish words, nonsense words – spoken through parched lips, shaped with a fumbling tongue. “Coulson swears you’re going to end up breaking my neck some day, but he never mentioned…”

At the sound of the name she freezes, coming to an uneasy halt before him, antiseptic and sterile gauze in hand. He looks up at her, sees her lips parted, brows drawn down… and he knows.

He turns his head away.

The words are spoken in less than a whisper, hardly more than a breath; he doesn’t want to ask the question, doesn’t want to know the answer, but he has to know or he’ll go insane, right here, right now.

“Was it me?”

She sets down the bottle and the gauze, leaving her hands empty, strong fingers curling into impotent fists. “No.” Her own voice: a murmur, barely distinguishable from the sibilant rush of piped-in air. “Looks like it was Loki.”

If it was Loki, Clint tries to say, then it was me.

I set him free—

I did it—

It’s my fault—

Because of me—

But these accusations, these confessions, are still bottled up inside him and audible only in his own mind; the room is quiet but for his own shaky breaths, air forced out through his nose because his lips are pressed so tightly together. If he opens his mouth, he might scream.

He remembers Coulson’s voice, his face giving new meaning to the word ‘deadpan’: “Just remember, parents get the kids they deserve.”

So what did you do to deserve us, Phil?

Clint’s vision swims and he closes his eyes, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, and he feels his forehead bump against something: Natasha’s hip, solid and cool against his flushed skin.

Her hand comes up – slowly, with great hesitation – and rests tentatively on the nape of his neck, cradling the base of his skull as he leans his head against her, searching for that place where shadows become fuel and grief becomes vengeance.

They don’t touch. Except when they do.

 

(22)

After Albuquerque she loses track of Barton, but it doesn’t matter. Kamala knows where he’s going because it’s where she told him to go.

*

Dr. Fisher – duplicitous bitch that she is – has been far from idle since her liberation. The new facility on the state line is not yet up to the aesthetic standards of the old Villavicencio Institute, but they have had little time to devote to interior decorating. Most of Fisher’s time, at least, has been spent devoted to the objectives of her rescuer and patron, the man they know only as Lycaon, whose interests are represented by Ansel DeGrasse.

Ultimately, Lycaon wants his own Natasha Romanoff, a custom-made Black Widow. A subject has been procured through a reliable supplier, a man known to do business with the original Red Room project. Fisher’s talents will be bent towards the aim of programming the child to be both submissive to her handlers and deadly to her enemies… not an easy task.

The second thing Lycaon and DeGrasse want is, naturally, a quick fix. No one wants to put in the time and effort to have their enemies’ memories wiped and characters manipulated these days. No, they want a magic pill, the quick squirt of a syringe, and all of their problems solved.

Of course it isn’t that easy. Complex ideas can not be contained in a gelatin capsule. Drastic changes in personality cannot be effected by waving a needle like a magic wand. Needles and pills can help, of course, but the human brain is like a diamond that cannot be cut by any lesser stone.

Kamala was told that she had come to the Institute fragile, damaged, and maybe even a bit insane from her treatment at the hands of the Indian government. Fisher and Witten had wiped her clean and attempted to fill in the blanks, not through the labor-intensive process of building memories from the ground-up but by seeding a few ideas and letting them grow in her mind.

Some might say that the process had worked too well. The fire in Kolar, the man in Brasilia, are all self-concocted inventions to help explain why she is who she is.

Likewise, an injection into a convenient port on Barton’s IV line had given Kamala brief access to his unconscious mind, rendering him vulnerable to suggestion. The trick was making that suggestion simple enough that, conscious, he wouldn’t be able to identify it as foreign, while also making it specific enough to serve their purpose.

“Emotion,” Fisher had told her, as Kamala had prepared to leave for New Mexico. “Emotion is the key.”

Danger. There is danger. Go west. You’ll be safe in the west, in the city by the lake.

*

They’d gotten word of the trouble in Puento Antiguo only a couple of hours before Stark and his team of misfits had arrived on the scene; over the phone, Fisher had declared Barton’s injury and subsequent hospitalization “absolutely providential.”

It wasn’t providence, Kamala had wanted to tell her. Providence is just a fancy word for God, and there is no such thing. There is only the dumb clockwork movement of the universe, the way things must be according to rules governing attraction and entropy and subatomic particles, the fate that comes written on every stitch and seam of reality.

But she does not speak to Dr. Fisher of fate. She does not want the doctor to decide that she is, after all, insane, and to replace her like she replaced Ajax.

*

She reacquires Barton in Kingman just after 4 o’clock local time.

It’s a risk, having him out of her sight for so long. He might have hitchhiked or stowed away, as he had in Ashmore. He might have driven, as she had, and beaten her to Havasu. But her instincts are good and fate is cooperative, and she sees him disembark from a bus at an Amtrak station, eyes bleary and oddly haunted, jeans and jacket rumpled, his only luggage the black duffle taken off the Quinjet the night before. A greasy bag of takeout from a restaurant across the street serves as a quick early dinner, and then he walks boldly into the station’s long-term parking garage.

Fifteen minutes later he drives out behind the wheel of a newer-model Jeep Cherokee 4x4, and Kamala clucks disapprovingly at this wanton disregard for property rights.

She pulls her own Institute vehicle – a nondescript Hyundai four-door – out into traffic and then back on the freeway; she wants to make sure she’s not in sight when Barton turns off Interstate 40 onto the less-traveled Route 95.

Besides, it isn’t as though she needs to watch him, or even tap into the audio feed still broadcasting from his bugged duffle. The fact that he’s come all this way, alone and with such tenacity, is proof that he really believes in this fiction he has created. Deep inside he knows, knows, that his precious Natasha is in danger and his only possible course of action is to rescue her.

Disgusting, really, but that’s what came of letting the mind write its own script. It was inevitably drawn to emotion, and here was a man who was obviously already doing most of his thinking with an organ other than his brain.

 

(23)

The turnoff for Lake Havasu City puts him on a course more southerly than westerly, but this seems acceptable to his fevered mind. Now that he has a more focused destination, Clint is no longer compelled to simply follow the course of the sun.

And the sun is low now, less than an hour from setting. The dust-tinted sky – red and orange, shading to purple in the east – gives the landscape an eerie cast. The Mojave has a bleak, threatening sort of beauty in this light: rocky bluffs loom menacingly, casting charred shadows across the asphalt, mesquite bristles along the roadside, and Joshua trees raise their knobby limbs, like arthritic fists, into the air.

He’s been trying to think through his next steps since Kingman, but his brain stubbornly refuses to coalesce around a coherent thought. Despite his uneasy sleep on the bus he’s running on little more than adrenaline, driven by fear and self-loathing as surely as he had ever been spurred along under Loki’s control.

This idea stuns him, shakes him; he comes to a hard stop without consciously applying his foot to the brake pedal. Thankfully the road is deserted, and the Jeep Cherokee, even with its high center of gravity, fishtails dangerously but remains upright.

It’s happening all over again

That’s stupid. No Tesseract this time. No plans to help an alien megalomaniac subjugate the planet. No gang of mercenary thugs carefully culled from the dark places where he existed before Coulson came to him and said this isn’t how you want to live.

Still.

It’s happening again

Thoughts that had so recently refused to coalesce into anything useful seize hold of this new idea, clinging to it, isolating it the way calcium carbonate forms a pearl beneath a mollusk’s shell. He grips the steering wheel, wishing he could get a grip on himself so easily.

It’s happening again

No it’s not, he thinks firmly, because the woman who is my enemy now isn’t Natasha, because Natasha is in trouble, mortal danger, and I know this because… well, there’s no because, I just know it.

He’s disgusted by his own incoherence. If the Amtrak from Albuquerque to Flagstaff had followed a circuitous a route as this current train of thought, he might have wound up traveling there by way of Seattle before derailing somewhere south of the Mexican border.

The sun, sliding down on the serrated edge of a western ridge, flashes against something to his left, a road sign marking the place where a hard-packed dirt road leads into the east, down a gravel-strewn culvert and then up again, over a rise and out of sight. The sign is marked with the letters ‘PVT’, identifying it as a private lane, rather than one owned and maintained by the government.

The white-on-green text above ‘PVT’ reads NYCTIMUS WAY.

Clint isn’t an especially cultured guy. He knows languages, but only because it’s his job. He prefers Louis L’Amore westerns over Tolstoy or Dickens, the Stones over Bach, and movies where Bruce Willis blows shit up over theatrical productions where guys in skirts communicate their feelings through song and dance.

After his run-in with Fisher, however – specifically after her escape – he had looked into the tale behind Lycaon, the nickname she had given her patron. Do you know the story? It’s from Greek myth. He was a king of Arcadia who served his own slaughtered son to Zeus at the dinner table. He wanted to know if the king of the gods was really omniscient after all.

Clint’s limited internet research had seemed to confirm that this is, at least, one form of the story. Lycaon hadn’t gotten away with his little stunt, of course. He’d been turned into a wolf – lykos being Greek for wolf, hence the term lycanthropy – and the son who had been relegated to an entrée had been restored to life.

The son had been named Nyctimus.

(The word also refers to a genus of spider.)

*

He abandons the Jeep on the far side of the rise, out of sight from the road, and continues on foot. It’s a risk – he might be barking up the wrong tree entirely, or his destination might be miles across this trackless desert – but even in his current state he finds it difficult not to trust his instincts. He doesn’t want to drive around a blind corner within view of a guardhouse, like the one in Colombia.

Nyctimus Way is unpaved but well-maintained, clear of the low-growing creosote and acacia bushes that seem to be all this thirsty sand can sustain. There are no trees or screening shrubs to duck behind if a vehicle were to suddenly approach, not so much as a barrel cactus, so he walks boldly, bag slung over one shoulder, quiver across his back, bow in hand.

The last glimmers of sun fire the cloudless sky. Night descends quickly, the stored heat of the day rises up out of the ground, and Clint feels sweat begin to pool at the small of his back.

With the coming of darkness he is more at ease. His night vision is good… there will be no moonlight for hours, but ambient starlight is enough… he will be able to see the flash of approaching headlights before a driver will spot him, dressed as he is in dark-washed jeans and black shirt.

Small things rustle in the bushes as he walks by: small rodents in flight, perhaps, or reptiles hot on their trail. Things move in the air above him as well, birds or bats, swooping down to snatch a bite of breakfast. Clint can’t decide who he identifies with most: the hunter or the hunted.

*

The smudge of light pollution, obscuring the constellations Aquila, Delphinus and Sagitta – his personal favorite – is the first sign that he’s on the right track. Of course they might be the lights of a pump station or power plant… or he could be completely turned around and approaching Lake Havasu City from the north.

When the ground begins to tilt beneath his feet he proceeds with caution, scaling the rise in a crouch and dropping to his belly as he approaches the crest.

Not the city, and not a water or power plant, but a one-story building, L-shaped, with the longer wing running north to south, illuminated by banks of floodlights bright enough to sting his eyes. Sturdy concrete construction, a flat roof sheathed in insulating foam, its east-facing windows small and covered in security grating. A few Jeeps are visible beyond the shorter wing, not Cherokees like his ‘borrowed’ SUV but ‘90s-model Wranglers, boxy and rugged.

Not a big place, he thinks. Smaller than Villavicencio, assuming there aren’t underground levels. Aside from the floodlights and a flimsy chain-link fence, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of security, either. The guardhouse he was expecting doesn’t exist; Nyctimus Way winds down the side of the hill, leading to an unmanned gate.

There are no words on the building, no logo, no sign, nothing to indicate he’s in the right place. Maybe Natasha is down there, strapped to a chair, pumped full of drugs, zapped with electrodes, still being laboriously and torturously remade at Sloane Fisher’s hands. Or maybe he’s on completely the wrong track and this is a storehouse run by the nation’s leading toy manufacturers, where the products that they’ve decided will be in high demand this Christmas are squirreled away for the winter, so as not to flood the market and drive down prices.

Whether it’s Fisher’s new house of horrors or an outpost of Big Toy, it doesn’t matter. The anxiety that had eased during his walk through the desert is ramping up again, sending his heart clamoring in his chest, making his breath come quick with anticipation.

This fear is not for himself, except for a cold corner of his soul that is terrified to even contemplate what he might find.

As he eases back from the crest of the hill, a voice says, “You do realize that if you go in there, you’re never coming out again.”

He ducks down, silently cursing his complacence as he pulls an arrow from the quiver and levels it in the direction of the voice, but his night vision is ruined by the bright lights beyond the ridge. If the speaker had wanted him dead, he would have been an easy target from behind, he thinks, but he keeps tension on the string, blinking rapidly and straining for a sound.

Then a small light blooms in the darkness, the muted glow of a flashlight shining up into the face of Kamala Manesh.

He hasn’t seen her since Colombia, when she tried to sedate him and wound up on the wrong end of the tranquilizer herself. Her black hair is shorter now, her dark eyes rimmed with liner but her lips nude, and her clothes – from her leather jacket to her boots – are a testament to practicality. There’s no weapon in her free hand, but he doesn’t relax. If she’s out here there could be others. He freezes, expecting her to do something, to call to a colleague or reach for a radio, but she simply stands there, patiently waiting for him to reply.

He tells her the truth, although the words are bitter. “I don’t have a choice.”

Manesh shrugs as though bored, but her eyes are sharp. “You do, actually. It would be hard, but you could walk away.”

Her attitude, plus her lack of a visible weapon, seems significant, portentous, and he knows that she just didn’t happen to be out here. She was waiting for him. She knew he was coming, as impossible as that seems.

He remembers his moment of doubt on the highway, the voice in his mind whispering west, west and then the lake, and it all becomes so clear, so obvious, that he’s acutely embarrassed. “After all the trouble you went through to get me here?”

She raises an eyebrow, all innocence.

“I had no idea this place even existed,” says Clint, realizing it even as he speaks, his sense of manipulation – of humiliation – growing with every word. He wants to be furious but doesn’t seem to have room for even righteous anger. “I don’t know how you did it, but my coming here… that was all you.”

Manesh crosses her arms, aiming the flashlight’s beam between them, and he’s aware that if she pointed it into his eyes he would be momentarily blinded. Long enough, at least, for her to pull a gun from a hidden holster. “I wanted you to understand,” she says tartly.

“Understand what?”

“That this is how it’s supposed to be.”

He frowns. These cryptic words spark a memory of the last thing she said to him in Colombia: Why are you fighting this? I thought you knew… That this is your fate. I thought you came here because you knew you were meant to join us.

Manesh is crazy, he reminds himself. Sloane Fisher, on the other hand, while perhaps criminally insane, is also deviously calculating, and it’s Fisher who is calling the shots.“Natasha’s not down there at all, is she?”

“No.”

“Where is she?” He wants the words to sound threatening, but they come out more like a plea, like an appeal for water from a dying man.

“Right where you left her, I suppose.”

He wants to believe Manesh. He yearns to believe her with every fiber of his being, with every cell, and yet deep inside he is still positive that he needs to go down to that building, that there’s no other option than to continue this headlong rush, that something terrible – even more terrible than finding out your partner and lover is a fraud – will happen if he doesn’t.

“That woman,” he says slowly, as much to himself as to Manesh, “is not Natasha.”

A faint, sardonic smile lifts the corners of her mouth. “Really?”

The smile, the tilt of her head, and the cryptic blandness of her responses leave him confused and frustrated. He drops the bow a few inches, still watching her hands. “What do you people want?”

“You people?” she echoes, as though not sure if she should be amused or offended. She moves – he tenses – but only to walk a few feet off the road and sit down on the edge of a large, flat boulder. Clint waits for a snake or scorpion to rear out of the darkness, to strike at her, but if they exist he supposes they won’t attack out of professional courtesy. “Let me tell you something. Fisher and I? Our objectives might still overlap, but they are not the same. She wants you for mostly… professional reasons, I guess you can say. She wants to break down your mind and eventually your brain in the hope of discovering how to replicate what the alien did to you.”

These words, delivered as more promise than threat, further chill him. “That’s not what she said in Colombia,” he reminds Manesh. “She wanted to turn me into one of her operatives.”

Manesh shrugs again. “Circumstances have changed, wouldn’t you say? Thanks in part you and Captain Rogers. And her interest is only mostly professional. More than acquiring you, more than learning anything from you, I think she would get infinitely more pleasure out of watching you suffer and die.”

Vengeance, at least, is something that Clint understands. “But you want something else.”

She looks confused. “I don’t want you to die, if that’s what you mean.”

“So you’ve had a change of heart?”

This time her wide-eyed expression of innocence seems entirely genuine. “I never tried to kill you,” she reminds him. “Not directly.”

“But you wouldn’t have been that upset if—if Aten had done the job for you.”

“I was acting under orders.”

“And now?”

Obviously unhappy with the turn of the conversation, Manesh stands. “I’m acting out of self-preservation,” she snaps. “I’m an operative, the same as the rest of them. Triggered and coded and strung up like a goddamn puppet. Surprised?” she asks. “I was, when she told me.”

Absorbing this, Clint hazards a guess: “You want your freedom.”

In the backwash of the flashlight beam, Manesh’s exotic beauty is compromised by an ugly sneer. “My memories… I can’t trust any of them. I knew, before. I knew my whole life from the time I was a child. I knew everything about myself, but it was a lie. Freedom? I don’t know what that even means. I just want to live.”

Triggered and coded, thinks Clint. He knows how Fisher had kept her outside operatives on a verbal and chemical leash, as well as how some of those rescued by SHIELD eventually died for want of this pass-phrase. “How long do you have?”

“Four days, I think,” she says flatly. “I don’t know the code. I don’t even always remember when she resets me. But four days would be my guess.”

The thought that this woman might be dead in less than a week inspires no elation. She’s still a crazy bitch and he still hates her for her part, however peripheral, in what was done – is being done – to Natasha, but if she’s an operative – triggered and coded – then she’s as much a victim as Paola Farraday. If she has no control over her actions, if her choices are to obey and stay alive or rebel and die, can he actually blame her for what she’s done?

Maybe not, he thinks, perturbed at his burgeoning sympathy for the devil. But it would be easier if she didn’t seem to enjoy her work so damn much. He risks a quick look over his shoulder, thinking of the brightly-lit compound that tugs on him as surely as a magnet draws metal filings. “You’re supposed to bring me in.”

“You’re supposed to bring yourself in,” she corrects him. “I planted the seed of an idea in your head that something was wrong, that you were in trouble and safety could be found here. But yes. I was instructed to return to the facility after my task was complete.”

He suppresses a shiver at the idea of a seed being planted in his mind, at the sudden image of a dark weed spreading across the folds of his brain. He doesn’t know how, doesn’t understand, but he finds that he believes her. “If you don’t, if you disobey… does it kill you?”

She shoves her hands into her jacket pockets. “I guess that depends on how well I can convince myself that my task is incomplete.”

He looks over his shoulder again, compelled to walk towards the building as one afflicted with OCD is driven to wash his hands or count the clothes hanging in his closet, or as an arachnophobe is irrationally repelled by the sight of anything with eight legs. “You’re not still thinking of going in there,” Kamala says incredulously. “I told you. We planted this idea and your mind went off the deep end with it, but Romanoff isn’t in there. She isn’t in danger. There’s no impostor.”

She isn’t in danger. There’s no impostor. These are beautiful words, gorgeous words, words he wants to embroider on pillowcases, but they don’t feel true. “I wish I could believe you,” he says honestly, and with more than a little desperation.

“Believe this,” she says eagerly, moving to stand between him and the hill. “Come with me. Help me. There’s got to be an antidote somewhere with my name on it, something SHIELD probably took from Villavicencio, and I know you’re not exactly on speaking terms with them right now, but at least you can get me to someone who is. The drug will annul the trigger, same as it did to Romanoff, and then when the four days are up it won’t matter. You help me and then I can help you.”

Help sounds like a great idea. Help sounds wonderful. He’d had Rogers’ help the first time he’d gone looking for Natasha, and Stark and Banner’s assistance from afar, and now he’s standing out in the middle of the desert, hundreds of miles from anyone who gives a shit about him, and he realizes that he feels so alone that the offer of help from an insane person under the control of the enemy sounds really tempting. “Help me? How?”

“This idea was put in your head,” Manesh says simply. “It can be taken out. Get me out from under Fisher’s thumb and I swear… I can get you all the information you want. I’m not the operator she is, but I know what she knows.”

Clint stares at her, working this through in his mind, planning it the way he would a tactical operation. Go back to New York. Get Stark’s assistance in breaking into SHIELD’s storage, or Steve’s in pursuing more legit options… or, if they’re as convinced as Banner that he’s crazy, go to Hill or even Fury directly, albeit unofficially, and lobby for their help in freeing Manesh. They would probably agree – it was something that might have been done anyway, if she had been taken into custody in Colombia, instead of flying out to California to murder Bruno Witten – if only because she was a source of crucial information.

He can’t. He can’t.

Every time he thinks about walking away from this place the fear roars back, the anxiety, the certainty that he would be turning his back on Natasha, leaving her behind for a second time, giving up on her when she never gave up on him. It’s not fair, it’s not right, and it fills him with such red-hot hatred for his foolishness and his weakness that it makes him physically ill. Head pounding, stomach clenching, he can only shake his head. “I guess you did your job a little too well.”

 

(24)

Despite the marked difference in terrain – sand and scrub brush in place of verdant forests – the drive westward from Ashmore reminds Natasha keenly of the last trip she took through the American countryside, the week after New York.

Wow, she thinks. I’m actually kind of nostalgic for breaking gangbangers’ kneecaps.

*

She’d left town before noon. Bruce had made a few token protests – wait until we know more, no point in rushing off unprepared – but she thinks that in his heart he understands. She needs action, forward motion, more than anything else, even if that motion is in the wrong direction.

“There’s a lot of west out there, Natasha.”

“I guess if I end up in the Pacific I’ll know I’ve gone too far.”

He hadn’t offered to go with her – which she appreciated – but he had hugged her, briefly and with an expression halfway between a grimace and a wince, before handing her the phone and saying, “We’ll be in touch as soon as Tony learns something. And if you need anything, anything, you call. We’ll come Thor Express, let Darcy deal with the bugs. She’s pretty scary on her own, really.”

Natasha had wanted to laugh. She had wanted to cry. She managed to do neither. She’d still been numb over everything that happened, and numb was awkward but it was also safe.

*

She had rented a 4-wheel drive Chevy from a local Hertz, wincing as she handed over the Stark Industries credit card, in no state to come up with a convincing cover story in the face of difficult questions, but the jug-eared kid behind the counter had been too busy chatting up another employee to take note.

Now, across the desert by the most direct westerly route: Interstate 40, once a part of the historic Route 66. She knows the song thanks to Coulson, who had been a Chuck Berry fan. You'll see Amarillo and Gallup, New Mexico… Flagstaff, Arizona, don't forget Winona… Kingsman, Barstow, San Bernadino…

There’s a lot of west out there, Natasha.

*

Just after noon, with Albuquerque, New Mexico in her rearview mirror, Stark calls to share what Steve and Hill have learned from Paola Farraday. It doesn’t amount to much, but Stark tries to put a positive spin on things. “At least we have a starting point,” he says. The car has a hands-free link-up with her phone and Stark’s voice envelopes her in high-quality surround sound. “In the meantime, JARVIS and I are trying to track Manesh after she left the hospital.”

“She’ll be headed back to Fisher by now.”

“Maybe not. Maybe she was supposed to hang around, scramble a few other brains.” An awkward silence lingers. “Sorry.”

Natasha doesn’t reply. What did she do to you, Clint? The hospital staff swear they never noticed anything, there’s no evidence that Fisher was ever present… what kind of damage could Manesh have done in your room in the space of a couple minutes?

“We’re keeping an eye out for Barton, too. Car rentals, plane tickets…”

“He won’t be traveling under his own name.”

“…APBs for crazy people… we’d better hope he doesn’t end up in Vegas, we’ll never find him then…”

Natasha grits her teeth. “Stark…”

“Yeah, I heard you. Let me handle this. Barton’s not a ghost, he’ll show up.”

“The last time he was in New Mexico, he managed to get in and out of Germany without making a blip on anyone’s radar.”

Stark is silent for a moment, apparently considering this. Then: “Maybe his problem is that he really needs to stay the hell out of New Mexico.”

She wants to laugh. She wants to cry. She wants to pull a sharp u-turn, drive to New York, and punch Tony Stark in the goddamn face.

Instead she terminates the call.

*

The phone rings again as she enters Kingman some seven hours later. Night has fallen and she’s going to need to make some tough decisions soon. According to her GPS, Interstate 40 takes a steep turn southward, crossing the Colorado River before continuing on into California. She had been sarcastic with Bruce when she’d mentioned the Pacific Ocean, but now it’s no more than six hours away.

“Hello?”

“Bingo,” says Stark breathlessly.

“Manesh?” she asks, not daring to hope for more.

“Barton. JARVIS found him on camera at a bus station in Flagstaff. We indexed their records with the time… he bought a ticket for Kingman. You know, like in the song.”

Natasha’s breath catches in her throat. The coincidence seems less coincidental than portentous, although she’s never been one to believe in signs and wonders. “I’m there now.”

“Yeah, I know, I’ve been tracking you,” Stark says, as though this is normal behavior. “The thing is… that was almost two hours ago, and we’re not sure where he went after that. There’re some smaller cities to the south, and Vegas is to the north…”

“Clint has a cache in Las Vegas,” says Natasha without thinking.

“A cache?”

“You know, a stockpile,” she says impatiently. “Money, documents…” Weapons. She’s never been to the Vegas cache, but she knows where it is and what it holds. After Budapest they’d both come clean to one another… just in case.

“No kidding,” says Stark mildly. “And this is off the record, I’d guess.”

“You’d guess right.”

“Gosh, it’s like the two of you thought you might have a reason to not trust SHIELD. Maybe…” His voice trails off. “Hold on. Steve just got a call and now he’s flapping his arms at me. What? You look like a sick duck.”

Natasha frowns. “Is it Hill?”

Silence. Muffled voices. Then Stark again: “Shit, it’s Barton.”

Maybe there’s a pothole, or maybe the steering wheel slips beneath her hands, but for a moment two wheels are on the low shoulder of the road, debris crunching under the bulky tires; Natasha curses and finds the pavement again. “Where is he?”

“The call’s coming from a sat phone, I’m trying— hold on, I’m going to patch you in.”

There’s a click and a stutter, and then she can hear Steve’s voice as clearly as if he were sitting in the passenger’s seat. “…don’t know what kind of game she’s playing, but Manesh doesn’t want to help anybody but herself.”

“I know that,” says Clint firmly, and it’s him, it’s him, and she’s gripping the steering wheel so hard that her knuckles ache, biting her lip to keep from calling out. For a moment – a fleeting moment – the sound of his voice, the knowledge that he’s still alive, even if he hates her, is enough.

He continues, terse and determined: “But I think in this case we can use that to our advantage.”

“Fine, sure,” says Steve, but she can hear the tension behind the studied nonchalance. “Tell us where to meet the two of you and we’ll take it from there.”

“No. If you’re dealing with SHIELD, you’re better off without me anyway. Besides, I can’t get involved. I need to… I need to talk to Fisher. Her new facility… it’s so close...”

Steve’s voice is rough with frustration, with the exasperation of a man of action unable to act. “Clint, Manesh is fooling with you. Romanoff is fine, she’s back in New Mexico with Banner and Thor, and it’s her, it’s not Aten or anybody else.”

“You don’t know that.”

“We’re pretty damn sure. Banner ran a DNA test and we matched it against SHIELD’s database. It’s her.”

Natasha blinks in surprise.

Clint’s next words are a long time in coming. “If there’s a chance…”

“Just tell us where you are,” Steve breaks in. “We’ll go and talk to Fisher together, like last time.”

“I can’t… by the time you could get here…”

He’s wavering, she can hear it, and the words slip out before she can stop herself, before she can even consider whether Stark’s ‘patch’ goes both ways – “Clint, just listen to him” – and then she knows he can hear her because he goes instantly silent. It’s a silence with a chilling quality, as though they’re conversing across light years instead of miles. She can only hear the hum of the tires on the road and the sound of her own rapid breathing.

He speaks, not to her or even Steve. Instead she senses that the words are directed at himself, or maybe at a voice that only he can hear. “I don’t… she’s in trouble…”

“I’m not,” Natasha insists. “I’m okay. Clint, please. If you go down there… it’s not going to help me. It’s not going to help anyone. I don’t know what Manesh promised, but if you go in there Fisher’s going to take away everything. Everything that you are, it’ll be gone. Do you understand that?”

“Yeah,” he says flatly. “I know. She wants me dead.”

Natasha pushes those awful words away, focusing on modulating her own voice; it sounds strong, controlled and insistent. “You need to tell us where you are. You need to sit there and wait and then we can fix this. I don’t give a damn about Manesh. Please, Clint. We can fix this.”

The silence stretches on, as cold as the dark side of the moon; when Clint speaks it sounds as though the words are coming from some airless vacuum. “I have to do this. I can’t explain it.”

Natasha draws a breath to speak, hears the others doing the same, but a woman’s voice on the other end beats them to it. “Trust me… I’m not any happier about this than you are.”

Natasha opens her mouth to retort and finds herself struck dumb; the memory hits her an instant later and chill scrambles up the ladder of her spine.

“And what in God’s name,” says Tony, “makes you think that any of us are going to help you?”

Manesh laughs humorlessly. “Because Fisher isn’t going to permanently damage him. At least not right away. There’s too much to learn from him… he’s too valuable. And after I get what I want, I can get him back for you.”

“We’re not monsters. We’ll help you,” says Steve, and Natasha can hear the reproof directed at Stark. “You don’t need to hold Barton over our heads.”

“Maybe you’re not a monster,” says Manesh, “but I am. I have to be. It’s what she made me. Actually, if you can believe her, it’s what I always was.” She laughs again; it’s a brittle sound, like the tintinnabulation of a rusted wind chime. “There’s a rest stop on Route 95, about half an hour west of Bullhead. In three hours I’ll meet with Romanoff and no one else. If you don’t think you can abide by those terms, don’t even bother showing up.”

*

The needle is hovering around 90 miles per hour, a reckless speed on a moonless light, but the highway is empty and she doesn’t move her foot from the accelerator. She finds the meeting spot on the GPS; the computer claims that, following the posted speed limits, she’s a little more than an hour away. She should be grateful for the extra time – she could use it to collect her thoughts, gather some supplies, and attend to a few basic human needs she’s been pointedly ignoring – but a two hour margin seems like an eternity. Anything could happen in two hours.

Through the car speakers she can hear Stark and Steve holding a muffled conversation, issuing and countermanding each others’ ‘orders’, calculating flight paths and max speed if they plan to refuel the jet in Los Angeles… Natasha tunes them out until she hears Steve say, “We can be in Bullhead by—”

“No. I don’t want you there.”

“No?” echoes Stark, dumbfounded.

“Natasha,” says Steve, exasperated, “you can’t… you can’t Lone Ranger this. If it’s a trap…”

“You heard Manesh. If I don’t show up alone, she’ll panic. She’ll run. I’m going to meet with her, hear what she has to say. If something seems wrong, I’ll…” Break her legs. Break her neck. “I can take care of myself. But we can’t rely on her, can’t trust her, so I need you two in the air, looking for the new Institute. Clint was here in Kingman less than two hours ago. Unless he hijacked a plane he’s got to be within a hundred and fifty mile radius. Two hundred miles at most.”

“That’s still a lot of ground to cover,” says Stark warily. “Two hundred… that’s more than 100,000 square miles. By the time we get out there…”

“Bullhead City is to the west,” she continues doggedly. “He won’t be there… she’ll want to lead me away from him. And it wouldn’t make any sense for him to double back to the east. There, I just cut a few thousand off your search pattern. Call Thor.”

“The rift—”

“I know about the goddamn rift,” she snaps, “and I will personally hunt down and barbeque every single bug-eyed bastard that get through, after we get him back. Or am I on my own here?”

Stark is silent, but Steve’s response is prompt and heartfelt. “No,” he says. “No. You’re not alone.”