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From Fire by Fire

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PART FOURTEEN

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

- T.S. Eliot

 

(Before)

Tears spill down the girl’s bruised cheeks, but they are not tears of fear or sadness. The child weeps in anger and frustration at her own helplessness. She is young, but she is strong.

The parents argue in the other room. The father works at the railway, the mother is a teacher, but they are filled with a dark, poisonous resentment that knows no bounds of race, culture or profession. Their daughter – so strange, so proud – is the basin into which they pour their rage, their scapegoat, their sacrificial lamb.

Now the girl pulls something from her pocket. Her hands shake, but they are sure enough to strike a small blossom of flame from the head of the match. Her shoulders heave, but when she drops the match into a pile of laundry, it is not a mistake.

The girl is brilliant, said one of the mother’s coworkers, but she’s so distant. So angry. Damaged, she added, with a knowing look.

Smoke curls up out of the little heap of cloth, and the girl sucks in a sharp breath. She looks down at her handiwork as though she has only just woken from a dream, and her expression is one of horror. She smothers the small flame before it can grow, waves frantically at the air to disperse the smoke, and throws the ruined clothing away before running from the room.

Mary Charlotte, watching all this from the window, will return later. Inspired by the child’s bold act of defiance, she will set a fire. The house will burn, and the neighborhood with it. Unfortunately, she will lose track of the child for several days, but ultimately the urchin named Devi will be located and taken to the kemal ki sebhaa – the Lotus House – with all the other girls harvested by Mary Charlotte from these mean streets. The Russians are still looking for subjects, and where the Russians tread, others will follow soon enough.

The parents will die, and Devi Namasri will vanish. She will become Anya and Pavarti and Kamala, each iteration more artificial, more twisted, more desperate than the last.

It is Mary Charlotte’s first fire, but it won’t be her last.

 

(53)

The surgeon objects, but Maria insists on being in the room when Manesh is given the antidote.

It isn’t that Dr. Arnold has a problem injecting his patient with an unknown, untested substance – he is SHIELD, after all, and he’s seen a lot worse – but he dislikes that Maria is violating the sanctity of his operating room. Manesh has already been anesthetized and prepped for surgery, and Arnold resents the delay. “You could be costing her that leg.”

Maria simply hands him the vial. “If this doesn’t work, it won’t matter how many legs she has.”

So the antidote is administered… and, of course, nothing happens, seeing as how the patient is unconscious. But even if Manesh had been awake, Maria guesses that there would still have been no miraculous transformation. It will be days, or longer, before they know if Fisher’s commands have been annulled.

Park is waiting for her outside the operating room. Maria is surprised. “I thought you were going to Vegas with St- with Captain Rogers.”

He notices the slip, smiles wanly, but only says, “What could I possibly do that the Avengers couldn’t?” with a remarkable lack of irony.

“Arrest Roeske,” says Maria. “But I’m guessing you don’t want that.”

“When the South Africans realized Roeske had vanished, they kept it under wraps,” says Park obliquely. “They were frightened, or embarrassed, or they were in on it… I don’t know. By the time we found out, years had passed and he hadn’t surfaced. I hoped he was dead, but the prevailing wisdom was that, if nothing else, he had learned his lesson. That he’d live out his life quietly, unobtrusively. But if you’re right, if he’s got informers inside SHIELD… if he’s this person Fisher called Lycaon…”

“He’s too dangerous to be captured.”

Park looks pained. “I don’t want to use the term civil war,” he says quietly, “but it could cause a major split in the organization. And frankly, I don’t know what side Director Fury would be on.”

Maria frowns. “Fury would never condone what Roeske has done. I know you think I’m naive for saying that, but it’s not who he is.”

He hesitates, then shakes his head minutely. “I want to believe that. I do. But I’d rather not put it to the test.”

“You’re counting on the Avengers killing Roeske,” Maria retorts. “What if you’re wrong?”

Park laughs humorlessly. “Oh… I think you know Ms. Romanoff better than that.”

 

(54)

There’s no splatter of blood, no fountain of red gore as hot lead stitches a path across Clint’s torso, just a rust-colored smear painted on the concrete wall as he slides sideways. He lands hard on his back, hands still cuffed beneath his body, and lies still. God, so still…

Natasha’s vision is crimson-veiled; every breath comes slowly, laboriously, like she’s underwater, trapped in a blood-tinged sea with no floor and no surface.

Roeske is down, dead, not getting any deader, his skull coming apart like a melon rind, but the indisputability of his non-living state doesn’t wind back the last ten seconds, doesn’t mean she was smart enough or bold enough or fast enough. She can’t kill him again and she can’t look at Clint – can’t, can’t see the spreading pool of blood, can’t see whether his eyes are open or shut – so she spins on Bernhardt, too angry and soul-sick to wonder why she’s not already dead, too amped up to understand why he looks at her with such shock, why he lets his weapon clatter to the ground, until Stark bounds up between them, blocking her shot, gesturing behind her…

Against her better judgment, Natasha turns. Down the hall, through the blood-red film, she sees the body. Black-clad, like the other men. He’s lying prone on the floor, and the elevator door keeps trying to close on one booted foot.

Motion flickers at the edge of her vision, and she spins around. She still doesn’t want to look at Clint but she doesn’t want Stark or Bernhardt to look at him either, doesn’t want to be the last to know, to know for sure, and she’s halfway across the unit before she realizes that the flicker was the opening of the largest storage cabinet, the metal one Roeske had been trying to hide behind. The doors swing open and a girl stumbles out, her pale, pointed face streaked with sweat or tears or both.

So the kid’s alive. Natasha feels no relief at this, no triumph, feels nothing but anger so strong it makes her nauseous and horror so livid it makes her weak. She drops to her knees at Clint’s side. Yanks the two halves of his jacket apart. Stares at the mess of his t-shirt, at the fresh blood staining the cotton…

Something jostles her arm. The girl. She’s on her knees too, staring at Clint, and Natasha opens her mouth to bark at the men to come get this kid, get her out of here, but then the girl says, “He’s okay. He’s alive.”

This statement is so foolish, so patently impossible, that her anger scrambles for purchase again. She has no special reverence for children, no illusions about their innocence, because she has seen what evil the smallest person can do.

In this case, in this moment, the greatest evil of all is hope. She reaches for the girl’s arm, prepared to grab her, haul her to her feet, push her away…

But the girl is faster. She grasps the hem of Clint’s shirt and yanks it up. The fabric doesn’t rise far, but Natasha gets a glimpse of black beneath the blue cotton, rather than bloodied flesh, and her breath catches in her throat.

“The blood’s from before,” says the girl breathlessly.

Natasha hears footsteps, Stark’s question, Bernhardt’s answer, although none of it coalesces into words. She puts on her hands on Clint’s chest for the first time and feels the cool hardness of a vest… and the almost imperceptible motion of his chest as he breathes in and out.

His eyes open so suddenly that she starts, and he sucks in a sharp breath: a sound of surprise, a sound of pain. Their eyes lock and Natasha waits, flooded with relief, frozen with fear.

The last time he looked at her it was with hate and loathing, as though she were the manifestation of every enemy he’s ever faced. Now his face is oddly blank, maybe taken aback by her presence, maybe simply dazed from his injuries.

Then he blinks, and his gaze sharpens, as though really seeing her for the first time: brows drawing down, lips pressed into a straight line…

“Ribs are probably broken,” says the girl matter-of-factly, looking up from her examination of Clint’s chest. “That was stupid. What if he’d shot you in the head?”

He appears startled by her presence, her nearness, or maybe simply the impertinence of her words, but after a moment the stern expression softens. His lips part as he looks between them, and the corners twitch into what might be the beginnings of a wan smile, and she thinks she hears him murmur something about “my girls…” just before he passes out again.

She’s not going to cry in front of everyone, in front of Stark and the girl and this strange agent whose identity she’s only beginning to suspect, not going to cry out of sheer, heartbreaking, weight-lifting relief, not going to cry because she’s happy, for God’s sake, not, not, not.

 

(55)

Hospital smells and hospital sounds filter into Clint’s consciousness before he even opens his eyes, and for a second he indulges in one of those clichéd flights of fancy: maybe it was all just a dream.

Only for a second, though. His ribs are on fire, his shoulder aches, and those pains bring with them clear and incontrovertible memories. How long has it been since he was lying in that bed in New Mexico, everyone worried about the state of his brain? It seems like at least a week has passed, but in reality it’s been less than…

He opens his eyes. By the shade and angle of the light through the vertical blinds, it’s mid-afternoon. By the pain and stiffness in his arm and chest, it’s the same day. So… Less than thirty-six hours. No wonder he feels like shit.

Clint turns his head, and immediately feels a little less shitty. Stretched out on the neighboring bed, lying on top of the blankets, is Natasha. She’s on her side, one arm curled against her body, the other resting on her hip – at least one hand, he’s sure, is touching a weapon – and her eyes are closed, lips slightly parted, breathing deep and even. Exhausted sleep, he thinks, drinking in the sight of her, but the moment the words form in his mind, she stirs.

“Hi,” he says.

Her eyes open wide, and she sits up so quickly that he feels dizzy on her behalf. She’s dressed in black pants and a white shirt, and her hair is tousled into damp ringlets, and she’s gorgeous.

He says nothing more, just looking at her – the shape of her nose, the curve of her lips, the line of her jaw, the arc of each eyebrow – wondering how in the hell he could ever have seen that face and not known it instantly, abashed and exhilarated and grateful beyond deserving. Natasha returns the heavy silence, moment for moment, pound for pound, and then with a rather desperate air – and a surprisingly tremulous voice – she says, “I love you.”

Clint doesn’t wonder if he’s dreaming, because his subconscious would never dare put those words in her mouth, but it takes him a while to wrap his brain around the truth of their existence. He has a vague memory of hearing them before; not even a real memory, just a feeling: a hunch, as insubstantial as smoke, that she’s repeating herself.

“Wow,” he says finally. “I guess I should get brainwashed and shot in the chest more often.”

She slides off her bed and steps up to his, looking down at him gravely. “Since Frankfurt,” she continues, ignoring his half-assed attempt at humor. “Since before… I don’t know. Maybe before New York. I don’t… I don’t have anything to compare to.”

She hesitantly puts a hand out towards his. He reaches up and captures her fingers. Just the tips. Her skin is warm and surprisingly soft. There’s a pulse oximeter on his index finger, which makes things a little awkward, but removing it would probably just piss off the duty nurse.

“I wanted to make sure,” says Natasha firmly. “Before anything else happened, I wanted to make sure you knew.”

“I knew,” he tells her. He’s always known, since long before she told him that she might never say it. Wanting to hear it had more to do with his pride than any doubt as to her feelings. He knew it in New York and Ohio. He knew it in Colombia and California and every place they’ve ever been.

Her hand twitches beneath his. It’s not a tremble; it’s reflex, muscle memory, like the way she can pluck a knife out of the air. She pushes on resolutely. “I shouldn’t have left you. It wasn’t because I didn’t care. Seeing you like that, thinking about what could have happened… it made it seem like I must care too much. And I tried to prove to myself that I didn’t.” She closes her eyes, shakes her head vehemently. “It made sense at the time.”

“And yet here we are again,” says Clint, trying to keep his tone light. He feels like if he matches her tone for tone, declaration for declaration, it might be too heavy. Natasha doesn’t do anything halfway, he realizes. Except that’s what they’ve been trying to do since Stark fetched them back from Germany, and it’s been killing them slowly.

Natasha opens her eyes. “Don’t you dare say ‘we’ve got to stop meeting like this.’”

“Wasn’t going to.” But his grin is guilty, and she knows it, and after a moment she returns his smile. But there is still that desperate quality in her eyes, in her voice, a hunger that trembles on an uncertain edge. As much as he’s smarting from her abandonment, she’s still hurting from what he said. You need some time to yourself. To think. Maybe we both do. Her smile is that of a woman waiting for the axe to fall.

It makes him think of another hospital room, after that mission in Montreal, the first time she was hurt on a SHIELD mission. She’d suffered in silent agony, expecting that they’d both be punished for her perceived failure, and he’d tried to set her mind at ease by cataloging his own battle scars. But she knows all of his scars now. He’s laid bare before her, even when he’s not.

He manages only the smallest, weakest, most pitiful tug on her fingertips, but she gets the message; she leans over the hospital bed railing, her free hand on his cheek, his jaw held firmly between her fingers and thumb, and kisses him.

It’s a good kiss, especially considering he’s got a bullet hole in one shoulder and is probably bruised from neck to sternum, considering his lip is split and aching, considering she breaks the kiss once to make this funny half gasp-half sob, considering that pretty much anybody could walk in at any moment. In fact, maybe all of those considerations are what make the kiss so good, somehow.

And when she puts down the railing and carefully scoots in next to him on the narrow mattress, somehow managing to fill up all his senses even though they’re only just touching at shoulder, hip, and thigh… well, it’s not just good; it’s the most potent form of painkiller known to man.

*

“Steve took the girl to get something to eat about twenty minutes ago,” Natasha says, a few minutes – or an eternity – later. This close, he can smell soap and shampoo and the underlying perfume of her skin. She lowers her voice. “Is it true… Artemiev?”

Clint nods. He knows there’s both remembering seeing the bastard in Macau, and the conversation on the plane. I would have killed him, if I’d been by myself.

“Did he… hurt her?”

He closes his eyes, feeling the slow burn of fury beneath his bruised and fractured ribcage. “I don’t think so,” he says, answering the question she was really asking, letting slide the fact that there are so many ways to be hurt. She doesn’t need him to tell her that. “What’s going to happen to her?”

“Technically, she’s in SHIELD custody right now.” Natasha laces her fingers together. Her hands are pale and elegant and strong in a way he’s always known but never aesthetically appreciated. “Park’s on his way,” she says, the words carefully neutral. “I assume he’ll make sure she’s returned to her parents…”

“She thinks her parents were murdered.”

Natasha hesitates. “Well, they must have appointed a guardian.”

“What if they didn’t?” His parents hadn’t. Not anyone who’d wanted the job, anyway.

He can’t see her face, not without turning his head at a painful angle, but he can hear the worry in her voice. “Clint, what’s wrong?”

He opens his eyes. This isn’t a conversation he wants to have in this condition, in this place, but it’s a conversation that must happen. “I told her I’d take care of her.”

“And you did.”

Laughing hurts. A lot. Even a dry, humorless chuckle, which is the only possible response to her statement. All he’d done was get himself shot. If Natasha hadn’t been there… “You don’t understand.”

She’s quiet for a moment. People – he can’t see who, from this angle with the door half-shut – walk down the hallway with squeaky shoes, or pushing squeaky carts, and their voices are a low, droning counterpoint. Finally she says, carefully, “Help me understand.”

I can’t, he wants to say, because I don’t understand it either. But the memory of Julie, standing in the hallway, with her blue robe and her fierce expression, a pint-sized island of calm and stillness in the middle of the smoke and the panic, comes to his mind and helps him find the words. “You met with Manesh?”

“I… yes.”

“What she did to me… her and Fisher… there’s no antidote.” His gaze goes to the IV stuck in his back of his hand. He can only trust that the bag it’s connected to is not tainted with poison, after all. “It’s not like what they used on you. There’s no cure.”

He can feel her muscles tense. “That’s what she told me. But she must have been wrong about the effects. It must have worn off.”

Clint shakes his head. “I was so afraid,” he says, and the words are bitter in his mouth. He can remember all of it, everything he did, but the reasons why seem vague and abstract and stupid. “It was like the fear was running my body and I was just along for the ride.” Not so different than being Loki’s puppet, really. At least then he had been tied up so tightly, so full of purpose that he fully believed himself in control, except for those brief moments of terrible lucidity, when he saw what he was doing and almost begged for death.

In the thrall of Fisher’s crazy-juice, purpose was boiled down to impulse, and action was survival. Even stupid action, like walking face-first into the enemy’s lair, like blowing up the roof of a building he was inside. The first moment of sanity – or something approaching sanity – had come in that hallway.

“You were afraid of me,” says Natasha quietly.

“I was afraid for you,” he corrects her, but he stumbles a bit over the words. He’d been prepared to shoot an arrow into her heart. He’d called her Aten. “I don’t know.” He also remembers that night in Ashmore General, watching the lights flare as Natasha left him, accepting that as her final repudiation.

Maybe, deep down, he had been more willing to believe that the woman who had left him wasn’t really the woman he loved after all.

That was all psychology, of course, and psychology was crap, but Fisher and her potions had an unfortunate history of making abstract, academic discussions distressingly real. “I found Julie while I was looking for you,” he continues, almost whispering now. “I realized I had to do something. To save her. And I don’t know when it happened, but eventually I realized that the fear wasn’t in charge anymore. I was still scared, but I could think, and I could act, without feeling like one wrong step was going to make my head explode.” Was it in the stolen Jeep, fighting the sedative? In the cache? In the motel room in Vegas, watching her sleep, curled up on her side? “It was like when I found her, I found you, too. And I need to… I need to keep my promise.”

She considers this. Or she considers that he’s completely lost it, but at least she doesn’t move away. “A child isn’t a stray dog,” she says uneasily. “You can’t just… we have to think about what’s best…”

“We can’t send her home. Not by herself.”

“Fisher’s dead. So’s Roeske. Lycaon. Whatever you want to call him.”

“Too many people know about her,” insists Clint, feeling sick. He’d expected her reluctance, but her sad tone unnerves him. “He had a partner. DeGrasse. There are people in SHIELD, now, who’d know where to find her. And… there’s Artemiev.”

Natasha stirs. Now he’s really afraid she’s going to slide away from him, out of the bed, but she only pulls back so that they’re face to face. Her brows are knit, her lips pursed. “Clint, what she’s been through… she needs…”

“What did you need?” he asks softly. “What would you have needed, if you were eight years old, and you’d been rescued, and your whole life had changed?”

She stares at him, aghast, objections trembling on her tongue, but behind her eyes he sees the whirl of thought and memory and pain. Clint watches her struggle and he thinks and what would I have needed? Eight years old in the orphanage, Barney and me, and the eyes of the prospective parents that passed over us without seeing us, two boys from a screwed-up home, ready and willing to fight the world?

He answers his own question. Both of them. “She needs people who’ll understand.”

Her lips part in dismay. “You don’t even like kids,” she says thinly.

“I’m not a kid. I’m a seven-and-a-half year-old pain in the ass.”

Only thorough training and an abiding desire not to cause further pain keeps Clint from jumping straight out of bed. At his side, Natasha sits up quickly, cautious of his injuries, and looks towards the door. There’s a chair there, an uncomfortable one of the no-padding-and-straight-back variety, and Julie sits in it. She’s holding a little plastic cup of red Jell-O, and a plastic spork is tucked behind her ear. “Where’d you come from?” Clint manages, although he sounds winded to his own ears.

The girl shrugs. She’s dressed in fresh jeans and a top with green polka-dots, her hair pulled back into a ponytail. “I figured you’d wake up as soon as I left. Jerk,” she says pointedly, and peels the plastic lid off her cup of Jell-O.

Clint looks back at Natasha, who just shakes her head – maybe in disgust, or rueful amazement, or something else altogether – and now she does ease off the mattress. And that’s good, because about twenty seconds later Steve hurries into the room after his lost charge, a gaggle of admiring nurses and doctors and patients in his wake, and their false sense of privacy is well and truly dispelled. He holds on to the memory of Nat’s kiss, and her voice saying I love you, and the sight of Julie, safe and content, and everything else – the doctors, the discomfort, the uncertainty about the future – seems just a little less daunting.

 

(56)

Agent Park, when he arrives that evening, is understandably not thrilled. “The State Department…” he begins, faltering. “There are protocols…”

“You can find a way around those protocols,” says Steve shrewdly.

Natasha crosses her arms. Despite Steve and Hill’s assurances that Park was not on Roeske’s team, she still finds it difficult to trust the man. Not for the same reason as Hill – Natasha doesn’t particularly trust Fury, either – but because no matter what he says about his reasons for joining Internal Affairs, no matter how sincere he seemed in his desire to destroy the Volgograd drive, his star rises and falls at the whims of the Council.

They stand in an office down the hall from Clint’s room, abandoned by its occupant for this purpose. Park, Steve, Natasha… and Julie, who had trailed after them as though she’d been invited along, who had been admitted in because they weren’t sure what they could possibly do to stop her, short of handcuffs. And according to what Clint’s told them, even that might not be enough.

Park hesitates, looking down at the girl. “Your parents’ will left you to the care of your Aunt Grace in Highworth,” he says, trying to sound gentle and sympathetic but just coming off as aggrieved.

“I’ve never met my Aunt Grace, and I’ve never been to Highworth,” says Julie promptly. And I plan on keeping it that way, too, says her tone.

Her reaction to the confirmation of her parents’ death had been… well, nothing. Calm acceptance, maybe. Maybe even a touch of well, of course, how stupid do you think I am? Both were unnerving in so young a child… even to Natasha, who has had plenty of experience with unusual girls.

In many ways, Julie is like those girls, the Katerinas and Yelenas – and Anyas – that came and went in the dead of night, who were unnamed and unmade and remade and broken with such grim, calculated, efficient brutality. It makes a sick kind of sense that Christopher Artemiev and his colleagues have not lost their touch, their knack of finding those children brilliant enough to be dangerous and vulnerable enough to be tamed. Even after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Red Room’s dissolution and disavowal, and her own actions in Volgograd five years ago, these girls are still targets.

Park scowls and looks between Steve and Natasha. The former is here because he is the Avengers’ nominal representative to SHIELD, and the latter… well, if she’s representing anyone, it’s Clint. Which is insane, because the idea of him taking responsibility for a child – much less this child – is… well, she hasn’t quite wrapped her mind around it. But she’s here, nevertheless, because she loves him, and he still loves her, which is more insane than anything. And because his words feel caught in her heart, lodged in the tissue, digging in with every beat: It was like when I found her, I found you, too.

When she looks at Julie, she doesn’t see herself. Her reflection has changed too often, and too often it shows her things she doesn’t want to see. But maybe, some day, this girl will be who Natalia Romanova could have been. If someone had been there. If someone had cared.

Park twitches. No doubt he’s mentally reviewing Clint’s file, and all the reasons why this is probably a bad idea. “I can’t possibly just leave her with…”

“Yes, you can,” says Natasha, because as uneven as parts of that file may be, there’s no denying that, as Avengers, they have their share of resources. A lot of those resources, unfortunately, are directly tied to Stark’s bank account. But there’s also something to be said for public goodwill. It’s not political capital, exactly, but it might do in a pinch.

“Besides,” says Julie, “if you do try and drag me off to Highworth, I won’t tell you.”

Park blinks. “Won’t tell me what?”

Julie glances at Natasha and crosses her arms, all green polka-dots and gray-eyed defiance. “The name and address of Artemiev’s accomplice. The woman who kidnapped me.”

The woman who probably killed your parents, and burned down your house, and destroyed your life, Natasha thinks. She looks sideways at Steve. He knows, from what Clint told them, that Julie saw Artemiev shoot his accomplice, a woman who called herself Elizabeth and styled herself a Catholic nun.

Fortunately, Park was not around for that conversation, and Steve is smart enough to keep quiet.

*

When they return to Clint’s room, they find that the rest of the peanut gallery has arrived. Bruce is wearing another borrowed scrub top– this one has an orange and yellow flower motif – and a weary expression. Stark is engaged in a rather ferocious game of War with Jane Foster, using Natasha’s deck of cards, and Thor… well, Thor has discovered Jell-O.

“Truly,” says the Asgardian to no one in particular, not batting an eye at the room full of sophisticated medical equipment, fixated on a quivering spork-ful of red gelatin. “We have nothing like this at home.”

Clint sits up eagerly as they enter, then winces and puts a hand to his bandaged side. He looks at Julie, then Steve, then Natasha. “Well?”

Julie climbs back into her chair, looking curiously between Banner, Foster and Thor. Natasha can only assume, by their presence, that the Great Space Louse Infestation has been well and truly dealt with. “It’s only temporary…” she begins.

Clint sits back, relieved and happy. Steve picks up the narrative with considerably more enthusiasm – he seems to like the kid, even after she gave him the slip in the cafeteria – and Natasha tries to ignore the leaden sensation in her stomach. She wants to smile, wants to join in the chorus of congratulations, but her own emotions are decidedly mixed. No sooner does it seem that things might be going right for her and Clint – or at least well – but another complication rears its ugly head.

Guiltily, she looks down at Julie. The girl is using some pilfered sheet of paper – maybe something from Clint’s medical chart – to fold into an assortment of triangles and squares. It isn’t her fault. She might have become another Anya – another Natalia – and now she’s here instead, hard-headed and enormously resilient.

And when Clint sees her, he sees me.

The funny thing is, she sees him in the girl, too. She sees the orphan who, even with a brother by his side, felt so abandoned by society that running away and joining the circus seemed like a viable option. She sees the boy who, through sheer resolve, became a great marksman and soldier and agent.

And he’s right. The girl needs protection. There are others out there who idolize the former glory of the Red Room, and those sufficiently impressed with Christopher Artemiev’s reputation to take action based on his stamp of approval. Julie Banks is different… uncanny, at times, in her cleverness and her poise. And there are those who would exploit that, and destroy her, in the blink of an eye.

She needs help. It seems that they can’t possibly be the right people to do it. But who else is there?

A nurse walks in, a man with a long nose and a prematurely-receding hairline. He looks up from a chart as he enters and stops short. “It’s after visiting hours,” he says. “I’m sorry, but are you all family?”

 

(57)

“Chelsea?” says Clint doubtfully. “I couldn’t afford the rent on a cardboard box in Chelsea, much less an apartment.”

“Just go and check it out,” says Stark blithely. “I know the listing agent. We might be able to work something out.”

Clint frowns, even though Stark can’t see it over the audio-only line. “You are not going to foot the bill for this one,” he says sternly. He still has a little pride left, after all, and money that he saved up during his time with SHIELD. Not a lot, but maybe enough to get started.

“Oh, you don’t need to tell me,” says Stark. “My generosity goes completely unappreciated with you two.”

Clint doesn’t tell Stark that Natasha isn’t with him. Being that it’s Stark, he probably already knows, but Clint isn’t excited about having that particular conversation with anyone.

Is she trying to give him space? Is she freaked out – or turned off – that he’s got an overly-precocious second-grader in tow? He’s thought about calling her, even keyed in the first few digits of her number, but he can’t quite go through with it. They managed to give each other time after New York, and again after Mill Valley. Maybe this is just what they need. Maybe he just needs to trust that she’ll come back.

“I’ll check it out,” he tells Stark. “No promises.”

*

He’d known right away that they couldn’t live at the Tower. Five-star amenities aside, it was basically just a giant billboard, an advertisement to all supervillian-kind: The Avengers are here! Come and get ‘em! Clint has spent enough time doing the cloak-and-dagger thing that the whole situation rankles, but it’s more than that. It hardly seems responsible to set the girl up in a building that might as well have a target painted on its side, and it sure wouldn’t be conducive to any kind of normal life. The second the reporters and the bloggers and the fangirls see her in the company of any Avenger, even the lowliest, is the second that any kind of anonymity Julie still has goes up in smoke. And considering how many loose ends have yet to be tied up, that’s just not acceptable.

So he’d started looking for a place on the island, somewhere reasonably close to the Tower – in case of emergency – without actually being included in the bulls-eye. But even after what’s being called the Battle of New York, people still want to live in Manhattan, and rents are… well, astronomical wasn’t too strong a term. Ironic, given that the island recently had an enormous space portal parked overhead, but still apt.

There’s no way Clint can afford a place in Chelsea, that’s for sure, but he decides to follow Stark’s lead: to get him off his back… and because he wants to show Julie that her new life might involve something better than broken-down former warehouses and creepy tenements.

She hasn’t changed much in the past week. No outbursts, other than the occasional rude comment he’s come to expect. No tantrums. No apparent bouts of homesickness. He knows that she must be feeling something, she’s just not expressing it. Right?

*

When they arrive at the address, Clint almost keeps driving, Stark or no Stark. It’s a top-floor loft in a six-story brick-faced unit, across the street from a sprawling public park, up the street from a private school. He’s surprised that there isn’t blood in the streets from all the Manhattanites crawling over each other to snap up the place. But Julie looks out the window, interested, so he sighs and looks for a place to park the car.

*

Private key-locked elevator. Hardwood floors. Covered balcony. A stainless-steel kitchen. A Creston security system. Swanky furnishings. A home gym. Clint’s broken into places nicer than this, but he’s certainly never lived in any of them.

He feels like an intruder now, wandering the well-appointed rooms in Julie’s wake, despite the fact that the front door was left ajar, the realtor’s literature prominently displayed on the mahogany coffee table. Clint doesn’t bother grabbing a flyer. He figures the HOA dues alone are more than he used to pull per month as a SHIELD agent.

Julie emerges from the second bedroom. She’s not smiling, but her eyes have lost some of the sharp, hunted look he’s become so used to seeing. Their eyes meet, and before he can explain that this is a huge mistake she twitches her thin shoulders in a shrug and says, “It’s different than… than I’m used to. But it’s nice.”

A woman in a coral-pink suit, with light brown skin and dark hair, walks through the front door. She doesn’t seem surprised to see Clint. “Oh, I’m sorry… I had to take a call,” she says, holding up her cell phone, which matches her suit. “In this market we’re used to things happening quickly, but…” she shakes her head as though amazed, smiling brightly. “My name is Rhonda Emerson. How do you like the place?”

“Uh…”

“It’s pretty awesome,” says Julie, trying out her American accent. She completely oversells the perkiness, but the realtor doesn’t seem to notice.

Rhonda just beams. “It is, isn’t it?” She takes them on a tour, pointing out features and amenities and generally making Clint feel even more like an idiot for setting foot in the neighborhood. Listen, Ms. Emerson, what’s the cardboard box market like? Otherwise, they’re going to have to return to the Tower until he can figure out something, or swallow his pride and accept Stark’s help.

It’s stupid, because he doesn’t have a problem flying in the Avengers’ Quinjet, or using the new weapons tech, without feeling like he has to pay his own way. But this is different. This is a responsibility he’s taken on outside of the Avengers, independent of the other guys. He’d wanted the job. He’d argued for it. And now that he has it, he’s realizing what everyone else already knew.

Jesus, Clint, you can’t even keep a houseplant alive.

“…move ahead, if you’re happy with it?”

“Yeah… what?” He’s missed something. Something important, probably.

But Rhonda just smiles some more. It’s a big-commission smile, he realizes. “I’ll just give the bank a call back and we’ll get the ball rolling.”

She gives Julie a sprightly little wave and steps back out into the hallway, presumably so she can make an ecstatic phone call in relative privacy. Clint stares after for a moment – Julie watches him with interest – and gropes for his own phone. His face feels hot. “I distinctly remember telling Stark not to buy a…”

“He didn’t.”

Clint turns, reaching back for the handgun holstered beneath his jacket, putting himself between Julie and the doorway. A man stands there – his hands empty, held palms-up at his sides – dressed in a dove-gray suit. He’s in his late forties, and tall, with sandy brown hair graying faintly at the temples.

“Agent Bernhardt,” says Julie, peering around Clint. The fed barely glances at her, silently shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

Clint knows the name. He knows that the agent had arrived at the facility in Havasu not long after Stark and Thor, claiming to be looking for Fisher. He knows that the man later appeared in Vegas, actually beating Natasha and Stark to his storage unit, and that he was involved in the takedown of Roeske and his men. But after that, according to Natasha, he’d faded back into the woodwork, making no attempt to contact any of them after they’d departed for the SHIELD hospital.

And maybe, in the back of his mind, Clint had at least suspected the truth. But it was the kind of suspicion that could never be put into words – could barely be formulated as a thought – because of its sheer, ludicrous impossibility.

“I think your realtor’s going to be a while,” says the other man. He swallows, pulling at the cuffs of his suit jacket as though it chafes. “Is there someplace we could talk?”

*

They end up on the balcony. It runs the length of the loft, accessible through the living room as well as the master bedroom. Clint stands in a corner, where he can see both entrances… and where, through the nearest sliding glass door, he can monitor Julie. At the moment, she’s sitting cross-legged on a rug in the bedroom, looking through a book… or pretending to. The kid can probably read lips, ala Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and he makes a mental note to take care what he says.

The man calling himself Bernhardt leans against the railing, looking out over the city. From this vantage they can see the tops of the trees in the nearby park, and the rooftops of other buildings. The air, cool and crisp with the promise of winter, feels good against Clint’s skin as he breaks the silence with a question. “Are you actually an FBI agent?”

Barney looks at him sideways, the ghost of a smile playing on his lips. “I really am. Does that surprise you?”

“That’s a stupid question,” says Clint bluntly. His chest feels tight; his hands feel empty. “I’m surprised that you’re here. That we’re having this conversation. That you’re alive.” He crosses his arms, struggles briefly with the truth, and finally concedes to it. “I looked for you. In the Army.”

His brother’s gaze skitters away, towards streets and trees and distant rooftops. Does he enjoy the height the way Clint does – the freedom of it, the sense of being above the fray, separate from the mess – or is he only thinking about the horror of a fall? “I would have been gone by the time you got there. Didn’t last long. I thought it was what I wanted. Orders. Someone telling me what to do. Truth was, I couldn’t look at any of my commanding officers without seeing old Harold.” He laughs hollowly. “I was a mess.”

Clint raises his brows. “So, naturally, the FBI was happy to have you.”

“Well, that was twenty years ago,” says Barney somberly. “I was on my own after I was discharged. Spent a while… soul-searching, I guess you could say, although at the time I just thought I was trying to stay alive.” He rests his forearms on the railing, clasping his hands together. With his head slightly bowed, he almost looks like a man at prayer. “I made some friends. They helped me get a fresh start. A new name. A new life, really. Barney Barton was a mess… Charles Bernhardt is someone different. Someone better.”

“That’s nice,” says Clint flatly. Through everything that’s happened to him since Carson’s, he’d never seriously thought about taking on a new name. Aliases, sure. Stage names and code names, obviously. But he could never really be anyone other than Clint Barton, because for so long that name was the only halfway decent thing he owned.

“But it didn’t matter what I called myself… not a day went by,” continues Barney, low-voiced, eyes on the street below, “that I didn’t hate myself for what I’d done. I’m sorry, Clint.”

It still hurts to think about, the way an old wound aches when it rains. The bus pulls away from the curb, belching fumes into the street. Clint stands there, one hand holding his bow, the other waving frantically over his head. But his big brother never looks back, and then the bus turns a corner, and he’s gone.

It doesn’t make the pain any less, to know that it’s shared. It doesn’t take the sting out of the memory, and if Barney had made this apology twenty years ago, Clint wouldn’t have though twice about pitching him over the balcony. But the sting isn’t there anymore, not the way it used to be. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, but it does scab over worst of them.

Through the glass, he sees Julie look up from her book. He has no idea what she’s reading. Something left behind by the previous owners, or a piece of set decoration used by the stagers. He doesn’t like that she’s by herself in there, out of reach, even though he locked the front door of the loft, and he’s already planned out what he’ll do at the first hint of a threat. Is this how parents feel all the time? Well, not all parents. Not Harold. But Mom… had she watched her sons with this fear in her heart, this suspicion of what the world might do to them?

“How’d you find me?” he asks.

“Eve.” Barney says the name with obvious warmth, turning from the railing for the first time. “My wife. I was working during the attack in New York.” He holds his hands out away from his body, gesturing to the suit. “This isn’t my normal look. I spend a lot of time in LA, some of it undercover. But Eve and I, we still send emails, texts, back and forth. That day, the day New York happened, I was in the field. Everyone was talking about what was happening, but I didn’t want to watch. Couldn’t believe it was true. Didn’t want the distraction anyway. And then that night I get a message on my phone. Eve. She says, didn’t you tell me your brother was an archer?

Clint scratches the back of his neck, trying to reconcile old memories of his brother – big, rough, hopeless with the ladies – with the knowledge that he’s got a sister-in-law. “So… she knows? About you?”

“Yeah. I told her everything. She knew me before, anyway; she was a counselor at a… at a place I used to stay. But before we got married, I came totally clean,” he says, reaching into his jacket pocket. Clint tenses – and hates himself for doing it – but Barney only brings out his cell phone. He swipes at the screen and turns it towards Clint, so that he can see the image of an attractive woman with shiny, dark hair and a bright smile. There are two other faces in the picture: a boy and a girl, both younger than Julie, with their mother’s hair at their father’s hazel eyes.

“That’s Myra and Andrew,” says Barney.

Somewhere on that phone, thinks Clint numbly, is a picture of a golden retriever and a minivan and probably a Goddamn white picket fence. He tries to work up some anger over that, searching for the sense of being wronged by the fact that his brother has been living the American dream while Clint dealt with the burned bodies of children and Central American drug lords and fascist alien overlords with mind-controlling staffs. But those three faces smile up at him, frozen in a moment of joy, and the only thing Clint feels is… sad.

He doesn’t have any pictures of Natasha like that. He’s never seen his own eyes looking at him from a child’s face. Probably never will, because that’s not the life he chose. He’s made his peace with that. Or he thought he had, until now. Suddenly he’s wondering if his insistence on looking after Julie was some weird reverse midlife crisis, driven by a desire to ‘settle down’ and make a family, any kind of family, before the otherwise-inevitable happened and he ended up dead.

Barney puts his phone away, looking discomforted and perhaps a little sulky at Clint’s lack of appreciation for his offspring. “I have friends higher up in the Bureau,” he says; Clint assumes he’s still bragging, but no, he’s continuing his explanation. “After New York, it turned out that a number of them actually worked for SHIELD. I knew you were alive because of that stunt in Central Park, but I didn’t know… I didn’t know if I should try to find you. If you’d even want to see me. And I hated the thought of walking into that building in Manhattan like a kid looking for an autograph. Then… that night, a couple weeks ago, one of my colleagues calls, says there’s reports the Avengers are in New Mexico. Just a few hours away by air, and Eve says, if you do manage to catch up with them, then it was meant to be. If not, it wasn’t the right time.”

He thrusts his hands into his pockets and paces a few feet away, a few feet back. Clint holds his tongue. Through the glass, Julie watches both of them openly, the book lying forgotten on the rug.

“Of course,” continues Barney, “by the time I landed in Albuquerque, it was the middle of the night and you were in the hospital. I showed up the next morning – hat in hand, so to speak – but they told me you’d self-discharged. And so I spent the next couple of days chasing you and your friends across the Southwest, using Bureau resources, my contacts… whatever I could think of. Seemed like I was always a step behind.”

“I heard you beat Natasha and Stark to the self-storage.” Clint doesn’t intend to say it, only think it, but the words come out of their own volition.

Barney smiles wryly. “Found the place by going through camera footage of the night before. Probably the same way that asshole Roeske knew where to go. I’ll tell you, a couple of times that day, I thought your girlfriend was going to shoot me.”

The label girlfriend is not idly applied; it’s a transparent bid for information on who Natasha is, and Clint ignores it. Maybe one day he’ll feel comfortable talking to his big brother about his girl problems, but today is not that day, and tomorrow doesn’t look good either. “Occupational hazard, I’d think,” he says lightly.

The dangled hook having come up empty, Barney chuckles weakly and pushes on. “Next thing I know, she’s bandaging you up, the Norse guy shows up with one of Roeske’s crew in tow, and you’re all hospital-bound – again – with the girl.” He glances at Julie. “And she’s kind of the reason I’m here.”

“Fisher’s money.”

“Almost ten million. A lot of it from Roeske, as a pre-payment for her services. He had some hacker kids trying to get it back for him, after it all went to hell, but one of them squealed. The account’s impounded now… although it might be a couple million dollars lighter.”

Clint crosses his arms. “That doesn’t sound like something Charles Bernhardt would do,” he says shrewdly.

“Well, maybe it’s my Barton blood showing. The money’s supposed to be earmarked for Fisher and Witten’s surviving victims anyway, but you know how it is: by the time the bureaucrats get done, half of it will have been spent on processing fees and half the survivors will have died of old age. So Stark helped me set up an account, with you as custodian, until she’s old enough to manage it herself.” He rubs a hand against the balcony railing. “Real estate’s always a good investment.”

Clint tries to imagine waking up in this bedroom, making breakfast in this kitchen, taking Julie to the school down the street. It all feels strange, like a glove he’s yet to break in, like scenes from another person’s life. “Thanks,” he says woodenly; the gratitude is genuine, but it’s hard to express it in a way that doesn’t sound forced. Thanks for looking after me – took you long enough. Thanks for taking care of her – when you never took care of me. Thanks for doing this – now shouldn’t you get back to your perfect life?

Barney watches him, chewing silently on the inside of his cheek. It’s a startlingly familiar habit, one he didn’t break when he became Charles Bernhardt. “Maybe someday… someday I’d like you to meet them. Eve and Myra and Andy. And I’d like them to meet you.”

Inside, Julie is carefully ripping the pages out of her erstwhile reading material. Maybe she’s absorbed the fact that the loft will soon be hers, and feels ownership towards anything within its walls. Then again, maybe she doesn’t care: she’d folded his medical chart into a tiny paper frog the second the doctor’s back was turned.

He runs the images through his mind again – waking, breakfast, walking to school – but this time he dares to include Natasha. It’s still strange – stranger, even – but it gives him the same aching feeling he experienced looking at the picture of Barney’s wife and kids. He imagines it… the domesticity he’s seen in the movies but never really experienced – never expected to experience – only different because of who he is and who Nat is and who Julie is: all of them odd and abandoned and broken and together.

“I’d like that, too,” he says.

*

He takes an ‘official’ leave of absence from the Avengers. The guys make light of it. Stark says, “If we need someone shot with an arrow, we know where to find you,” but – surprisingly – they respect his time and his wishes.

Repetition turns the unimaginably strange into the routine. It’s always been that way: when he joined up with Carson’s, when he started with SHIELD, when he accepted there were aliens and monsters and super-soldiers at large on the planet. Human beings are adaptable like that. Given time, anything can start to seem… normal.

They move into the loft. He enrolls Julie in school. All of their paperwork says that they’re Frank and Juliette Bernhardt, but it’s not the names themselves that matter as much as the relationship they imply.

*

Julie goes to bed every night with her headphones on. She listens to novels, history, science, poetry, and tells him about what she’s learned the following morning. She’s frequently, fantastically creepy, although he’s careful never to use that word.

She doesn’t cry over her dead parents or her lost life. She doesn’t have nightmares about dark cells and scarred men… at least, not that she’ll admit too. But Clint’s learned to recognize origami-making as an attempt at calm and focus, like meditation. It is during these silent sessions that she seems the most intense and the most distant.

A day will come when she’ll be ready to go back to England. She’ll need to see their graves, the same way he used to need to walk by the butcher’s shop in Waverly, just to make sure that it was still closed. Some day… but not yet.

*

With Stark’s help, they upgrade the loft’s security. Steve uses SHIELD to run background checks on all of the building’s other residents, as well as the buildings on either side. Banner is conscripted to help move in new furniture; thankfully, the Other Guy is never needed. Thor and Jane take Julie shoe shopping. They compare notes on Pop-Tarts and Jell-O. Weird. Unimaginably strange. Normal.

*

One night, about a week before Christmas, Clint walks into the bedroom and finds Natasha standing on the balcony. He closes his eyes, counts silently, and opens them again. She’s still there. Her breath steams into the air, and the angles of her body radiate tension.

Before he can think about it – before he can succumb to the impulse to grin like an idiot – he joins her outside. The cold bites through his clothes with sharp little teeth. They’re predicting snow in the next couple of days.

“I couldn’t find him.” She’s wearing her combat suit, what he’s come to think of as her uniform. It’s insulated, but a normal person would be shivering. Natasha, of course, always seems impervious to the cold.

Clint doesn’t want to talk about who she could or couldn’t find. He doesn’t want to talk at all; he wants to put his arms around her, to kiss her until they’ve generated enough warmth to create a high-pressure front. He wants to peel off her uniform, inch by tantalizing inch, to taste every bit of uncovered flesh until she’s begging for him… With an effort, he throttles his baser impulses. “You went looking for Artemiev?”

She nods. Her arms are crossed beneath her breasts, and her eyes are haunted. “The son of a bitch has gone off the grid. He got out of the country before anyone started looking for him… took a commercial flight to Minsk and just disappeared… I’m sorry…”

“You don’t have anything to be sorry about.”

“I should be able to do this…”

“Nat.”

“It’s the only thing I-”

He kisses her. His fingertips graze above the suit’s high collar, imagining the bright shine of the zipper, the subtle scrape of metal fastenings, and he can feel her heartbeat fluttering there, hummingbird-quick. Now she does shiver, not against the cold but into his touch; her arms slowly unfold, wrapping around his waist, her mouth opening under his. The months of missing her are folded up into this kiss, and the weeks of heartache and anger before that.

The motel in Ashmore: the soft snap of playing cards against the other bed, his temples pounding with every beat of his heart, his mind choked with grief and resentment and Fisher’s latest mind-altering cocktail. And then she’s standing there, looking down at him like she owns him. The fact is… she does. He’s hers, body and soul, whether she wants him or not. He has no say in the matter, and they both know it. Even if it seems like he does, it’s only because she lets him. So he holds her wrists hard enough to bruise. He marks her skin with his teeth. He pushes her face-down on the bed, waiting for her to push back, waiting for her to protest, because at least then she will be reacting to him, at least she’ll be feeling some of his pain, but she only gasps in need, arcing her body against his as far as he’ll allow, until he can’t remember what he’s doing or why or even who she is anymore…

He breaks the kiss as abruptly as he began it. The heat he imagined is siphoned into the atmosphere; the cold is in his marrow now, and he half-expects her long lashes to be frosted with ice. He looks down at her, reveling in the solid familiarity of her features, wrestling with his love and his lust and his guilt. “I hurt you.”

The lashes flutter. She leans into his body, warm and strong, gaze drifting to a point somewhere over his shoulder. “We’re going to do that, you know,” she says grimly. “We’re going to hurt each other.” Her grip on his waist tightens as she meets his eyes again. “But I’m not afraid of you.”

*

His bedroom, compared to the balcony, seems almost stiflingly warm.

Clint pulls off his shirt as he checks the Creston panel by the door. The system’s still armed, with no movement detected in the rest of the apartment. When he turns around, Natasha’s toeing off the last leg of her suit. Her bra and panties are black, simple and unadorned. His mouth waters, even as he complains, “I wanted to do that.”

“You’ll have other chances,” she tells him.

*

He kneels between her legs and pulls her into his lap, drinks in the sight of her body spread out before him, lithe and lean and exquisite. Her eyes are dark, her cheeks and chest flushed with passion, but at the same time her demeanor is curiously calm. So is his. This isn’t like the last time in Germany, a frantic, desperate coupling before they returned to the vestiges of their old lives. This is the first night in a long line of nights they will share together. They both know it, and her smile flashes as she pulls herself up, wrapping her arms around his neck, finding a rhythm, a new rhythm, one that is slow and deep and drives him out of his mind.

They are mindful of the presence of a child just down the hall; despite her penchant for wearing headphones to bed, it still makes the entire experience… different. Not bad. He’s enjoyed making Natasha scream and curse before. Now he enjoys watching her swallow those screams, and the curses are even more delicious when they’re whispered into his skin.

*

Clint wakes to the side of Natasha’s back, to the pale skin marked with fine, silvery scars, to the angles of her shoulder blades and the gentle curve of her spine. She sits on the edge of the bed, holding her bra in her hands.

Drowsily, he reaches for her. She takes a breath when his fingers brush against her side, settling on the swell of her hip. “Where are you going?” he asks.

She turns her head, enough that he can make out her profile, not enough to truly see her face. “It’s okay. I just thought… it’ll be morning in a few hours…”

“Are you going to turn into a pumpkin? No, wait, that was midnight…”

She ignores his ramblings. “I thought it would be awkward, that’s all.”

“What, breakfast?”

Exasperated, she turns away again. “I just don’t know what to say to her.”

Clint is silent for a moment. He keeps his hand against her back, needing that warmth, that connection. “Is that why you went after Artemiev? Because of Julie?”

“Why else?”

“You told me a long time ago that you wanted to kill him.”

“I’ve wanted to kill plenty of people,” she says, a little sullenly. “But it seemed like the best way I could help you take care of her.”

Now it’s his turn to be annoyed. “You can help by being here. By being a part of her life.”

“Why would she want that? I don’t even know why you want that.”

He pushes himself upright. “Because you’re a part of my life. Because I can’t do this by myself. Because I love you, and no alien or mad scientist or Tony-Goddamn-Stark is ever going to change that.”

There’s a moment, a long, silent moment during which he wonders if he’s said enough, or too much, or the right words in the wrong order, and then she lets her bra fall from her hands. He pulls back the sheets and she slides back in next to him. They touch, they kiss, but she is still quiet, still pensive, and finally she says, “I’m going to screw this up.”

“We’re going to do that,” Clint tells you. “We’re going to screw things up. But then we’ll fix them. And we’ll do it together.”