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[your albatross: the things you've said and the things you've done]

Chapter Text

Natalia meets the American outside of the hotel.

Now he's wearing jeans, running shoes and a mid-weight jacket, with a scarf around his neck in a strong, vibrant red. Clever, that: it draws the eyes away from his face, is just eye-catching enough to focus the memory without being so interesting that you looked at him for any longer than you would otherwise, and so might remember him better. He's smoking, and the motion, too, is a distraction.

He sees her, and winks.

Natalia might be . . . if not impressed, as such, maybe appreciative: there aren't many reasons for a man to be meeting a girl outside this kind of place and it would be stupid to try to play a couple at this stage. Neither of them has had time enough to read the other enough to get it right, and certainly haven't had time to discuss it.

But there's still different kinds of girl who might meet different kinds of man for that obvious remaining reason, and the cache of clothes it was easiest and safest for her to get to made one the logical choice: poor, but not starving, younger than she likes to think she looks, softer than she likes to think she looks, but sure she knows what she's getting into and that she can handle it all.

And wrong, of course: this kind of girl is always wrong, always just a touch too gentle, not angry enough. Too much to prove, too weak and too sure of themselves at the same time. Exactly the kind of girl who would meet a nice-looking man who had good clothes and ready cash and still met girls at this kind of hotel. Exactly the kind of girl who thinks they can do that and end up anywhere but the gutter if they're lucky and the river if they're not.

Natalia's appreciative, because the American seems to pick all of that up. Seems to see what she's playing and slide into the role of the right kind of man without a stumble: all solicitation and attention and compliments and nearly unnoticeable drive to control. Someone watching closely would catch the way the arm around her waist leaves his hand resting near her wrist, and how easy it would be to turn that into a trap. And how unaware the girl she's playing at is of the danger. Little things like that. The things that make a cover perfect.

It's either excellent practice or remarkable natural skill. Unusually, Natalia's not sure she wants to know which.

The room is small, the bed narrow, the bedding worn and dingy, but there is a closet of a bathroom with something pretending to be a shower. Everything is clean, clean enough there probably aren't any bedbugs, and tired and desperate enough to still be cheap.

When the door closes behind them, the American lets go of Natalia like he'd never had any intention of holding on. He bolts the door.

Then he pulls two small, wedge-shaped black things out of the jacket's inner pocket and slides them into the crack between doorjamb and door. They are unfamiliar to Natalia - clearly more than just wedges to keep the door closed - and she wonders what SHIELD has managed to develop.

She wonders what SHIELD is, to begin with. Actually is. Doesn't know exactly where what she has always been told slides into lies. She knows what she's been told, but that doesn't mean anything.

It's frustrating. And terrifying.

She can't really afford to think about that right now.

The future opens up in front of her like a chasm she can't see, but the past is no better. Worse. The future is unknown, but at least she knows what she can trust. It's "nothing"; absolutely nothing. But she still knows it. She knows she can't trust a thing.

With the past . . . the past is also unknown. And worst of it, some of what's unknown is what she thought she knew.

It's not a feeling, in her head. Like being happy or sad or angry. It's just like a hole, a blank space, a pit, and all it does is make her feel sick.

She doesn't show it, just takes off her purse and puts it on the one small wobbly table, taking out what she used it to carry. Cash, jewelry, makeup, one or two very specific weapons like the smaller porcelain knives and their sheathes, the contact-charges.

Her wristlets. She wants those. Doesn't know why they matter more than other things - her throwing knives, her sidearms - but they do.

Passports, not to use (the Red Room knows them all, they made them all) but to cannibalise, hack apart and put back together if necessary. Resources.

"I stripped the cache and left the codes indicating I judged the current mission as wholly compromised and abandoned it," she says as finishes laying out what she brought on the table, breaking the silence without preamble. She speaks English, neutral American accent, and keeps her voice low enough only someone with their ear to the door could possibly hear it.

The American has gone to the bed and a black nylon bag that's sitting on top of it - reasonable size, large number of pockets. He's pulling items out and laying them on the bed, like he's mirroring her. She doesn't know what to make of that yet, but doesn't really try to make anything of it. Just . . .absorbs. She needs to know more, before she can interpret.

"Assuming we aren't already compromised," she concludes, "they will expect me to rendezvous in Samara the day after tomorrow, and will expect contact within an hour if I'm unable to make rendezvous, after which I'll be considered compromised."

She speaks in English, quietly, to see what response she'll get; it turns out, very little. Without looking up, the American asks, "How's your defensive Serbian fourteen-year-old?" in a conversational voice, also in English, also quiet enough that only someone with their ear to the door would hear.

"Perfect," Natalia replies, matter of fact, and is impressed that he doesn't question her: in her experience, outsiders have a hard time taking her at her word, especially for things like this.

Outsiders. She needs to stop thinking of them like that. She's an outsider. She left them. She isn't part of the program anymore.

"Good," is all the American says, and tosses her a small case which, when she unzips it, turns out to have a dye kit of much, much higher quality than you could take off the shelf - brunette, but not terribly dark. "The guy our best ticket out of here knows already has a fourteen-year-old cousin, so that makes it simpler."

Natalia tilts her head slightly. "Makeup, or no makeup?" she asks. It's easier just to ask, to focus on the practical details of the cover, than to let herself think about anything else. Especially what out of here means. That's too big for her to handle right now, and there's no benefit to trying.

"She's fourteen, dad's incompetent, mom left, lives with her aunt, aunt's strict and controlling, kid hates the aunt, and here - " and he tosses her a second packet wrapped in paper, "is what you've got for clothes for now: everything else, you pick."

He doesn't even add just make sure you tell me. Again, she's . . . appreciative.

Natalia makes a gesture of assent with the hand holding the dye-kit, and steps into the excuse for a bathroom.

 

The name the American gives her is Clint Barton, and it may actually be his real name - that is, it may be the name he lives most of his life under, and which is attached to a life-history that mostly resembles reality more than fiction.

Natalia feels slightly ambivalent about this being Hawkeye. On the one hand, nothing she's seen so far contradicts the idea that he really is that competent, that good at this job; but on the other something in her rebels at the idea that someone with Hawkeye's reputation would take everything so . . . casually.

That's not the word. She runs through the thought in several different languages and settles on the English breezily. It isn't casual: she watches, and everything he does is done with attention and necessary competence but it does feel like his entire presence is some kind of light breeze moving through a place. It almost feels like an affront.

Except that it disappears for one thing, and that's any discussion of what's likely to happen to her.

He also insists on rephrasing it as with her, if not rephrasing the whole thought all together. Doesn't draw attention to it, but it's still consistent as -

It's never occurred to her before that every way she thinks to finish that simile is either something that isn't really that consistent if you really think about it, or it's something she's never . . . that's never been real. Only the parts of histories of people who don't really exist. Histories that don't make sense if you look at them the way she always has, if you think the world was shaped how she was taught.

But that's why she's here, doing this.

The point is, in those moments, the American stops being breezy.

Like when they reach Teplodar after dark and he goes to find a payphone. And she asks him, "You're calling the right hand of the man whose orders you just comprehensively disobeyed."

She needs the confirmation. He'd told her earlier, and she hadn't asked then. They'd spent most of the drive this far solidifying their cover, and practicing their interactions, and she hadn't wanted to get into it. Hadn't wanted to derail herself from the familiar tracks of nailing down who she's going to be.

But now she asks.

The American - Barton - pauses in the act of shrugging on his coat and looks thoughtfully at the ceiling. "I don't know if 'right hand' really applies," he says, as if he's musing on it. "The Assistant Director probably counts as his right hand. Officially, even. Whoever that is this year. Call it 'left hand'. And yes."

"You trust him," she says, deliberately but calmly, "to also disobey the same man, for you, over a former target."

She lets the note about whoever that is this year go by: given she doesn't even know the simple realities of SHIELD's existence yet, at least to the point she can trust, she's certainly not ready to fully grasp its power struggles.

Barton zips up his coat and replies, "I trust him to sort shit out so that he doesn't have to do that, and I don't have to start killing former coworkers I actually kinda like because it's all gone to shit."

And now even though the words are the same kind as before, the tone isn't. It's the same as it was when he explained what the fuck he was doing, back in the abandoned factory. Carving each word into the world, but with a knife so sharp that it never sticks.

"You think SHIELD's director will be amenable to being sorted out," Natalia says. The words, they're not questions, or challenges, even if what he's saying would normally seem completely implausible. It's more that she's so far off the map of anything she understands that she needs to establish . . . basic parameters.

If reality and subsequent events demonstrate that Barton's just fucking crazy, that still establishes basic parameters.

So she needs to make sure what she's assuming, what she's interpreting, is correct.

Barton's smile now turns utterly humourless. "I think," he says, "that Nick Fury's not a fucking moron. Or I wouldn't work for him. I kinda have a fixed objection to working for fucking morons, and it's pretty long-standing too. And only a fucking moron would decide he'd rather kill me than trust me to know what the fuck I'm doing when I've gone through Coulson already, and that's what he'd have to do. He's not going to be happy," Barton adds. "But that's my problem, not yours. Besides I've been yelled at by scarier people, even if nobody else believes me."

Natalia stares at him. He checks his pockets and glances at himself in the mirror.

In the end, the only thing she can think of to say that she's willing to have him hear is, "Why exactly does Director Fury employ you?"

The look Barton gives her has no ready description, but it might be what you get from shoving a smirk and a grin into one expression. "If I didn't work for him," he replies, and now he is back to the same breezy tone as before, "I might work for someone else. Or myself. Pretty sure he can't decide which option's worse."

Then he gives her a sort of mock-salute and goes.

And he doesn't tell her not to follow him.

She has every reason not to trust him, still, and they both know it; that means she has every reason to want to know exactly what he says to this man he's about to drop a whole world of disaster on, and how, and to see how it lines up with what he says to her, because she's got every reason to assume it won't. She has every reason to follow him.

They both know it.

Doing so would add considerable risk of their being noticed. She is very, very good, but it also doesn't matter: the risk is always considerably more. Moreover (she knows) he also wouldn't want her to hear what he said, even if he isn't lying to her, because she doesn't know his dynamic with this Coulson, doesn't know how their relationship works, and thus doesn't know how to interpret anything he might say. Especially like this.

He must know that. She knows it. She isn't sure if he knows she knows it, but she has the suspicion he's assuming so.

And he still doesn't try to tell her to stay, or remind her of all the risks of being noticed, or anything else.

 

Back in the factory she'd told him he was a fucking idiot; she'd told him this was a good way to get killed.

He'd shrugged and replied, Everyone dies sometime.

It's the kind of thing idiots say, and young men, and people who either haven't ever really believed they would die, or who are so afraid of being afraid of death that they throw themselves at it - and, honestly, also mostly believe if they do that hard enough, somehow they'll be immortal. Like death is something you can intimidate.

Barton, though, just sounded like someone who knew it was true.

Natalia has no idea what the fuck to make of him. So she makes sure the windows are covered, and goes through her stretches.

 

Later, he comes back to the miserable little hotel room and says there'll be a helicopter waiting for them on a farm outside Salzburg. He makes coffee on the little burner. It's instant, but Natalia has drunk worse.

After a while, she asks, "Why are you doing this?"

Barton's stretched out on the lower of two narrow bunks, reading a paperback book. He puts it face-down on his stomach for a second to look at her. Now his face looks serious again.

"Believe it or not," he says, "I gave you the real reason the first time." He pauses - not a hesitation, just like he's letting the thoughts take a breath. He adds, "I know that probably sounds implausible as fuck, though."

Natalia tries to see anything in his face or his body beyond what's patently obvious (and what's less obvious but still clear to her, like how tired he is, and how tense), and fails. After another stretching moment of silence, she replies, "Anything and everything I know about the entire world could be a lie. How the fuck should I know what's plausible or not?"

"Good point," Barton admits. He shrugs, awkwardly because of how he's lying down. "But I still told you the truth the first time."

Natalia doesn't answer. When she's finished her coffee, she pulls herself up on the top bunk to try - and fail, her hand going over and over again to rub at her other wrist where what she should feel isn't there to feel - to sleep.

******

As it turns out, Natalia Alianovna doesn't try to follow him. Clint's not sure - actually, no, he is impressed. He's just not sure he's impressed with her calculated trust or her nihilism: if what he should take from that is she's making measured decisions based on risk-assessment, or if she's just one bare step away from curling up in a ball and laughing hysterically until she chokes to death.

It could really be either, at this point. Clint recognizes the wild tinge you can just, just barely see behind her eyes in still moments. From the inside. And he's learned to think of that as a really bad sign. People in the middle of realizing their whole world is really, truly a lie are not in a good place. For themselves, or for anyone around them.

To put it mildly.

Mostly he hopes she stays in one state or the other - the calculation, or the nihilism - and doesn't snap to the middle. The middle, the place where you're both sure everything's wrong and you're completely doomed, but at the same time somehow get the idea you can do fuck-all about it and you have to figure out what to do right now - that's the place where people do really, really stupid shit.

He should know. So he'd rather she not get there.

It takes Clint about an hour to wend his meandering way through enough obfuscations, misdirects and switchbacks that he's willing to drift to a pay-phone. He really hopes nobody decides to be stupid enough to try and mug him tonight, because the way things are, he'll just have to kill them and kill them as efficiently and quickly as possible, without giving them a chance to realize what a mistake they've made, let alone try to back out of it. All the other options are too risky.

The pay-phone's on the right kind of street: currently deserted, but not so completely abandoned that it's weird that anyone would be using the phone there. He's glad it's not winter, too, because it's also the kind of street that makes for a bit of a wind-tunnel effect as it is, and that would be brutal.

It takes probably less than thirty seconds after Clint's given the "operator" at the number he dials the relevant coded responses before the handset delivers Coulson's very, very tight voice, packing an awful lot of commentary into a short, sharp and explosive, "Barton."

"You know," Clint says, drawling the words slightly, "you're lucky my surname's that easy to snap - where would you be if it were something like 'Saros' or 'Amam'?"

Because frankly at this point him being a shit is actually code in and of itself, and will probably make Phil start taking full inhales faster than actually getting to the point right away. As Clint's well aware, he's featured prominently in the unofficial new SHIELD agent-analyst orientation material as an indicator: when Agent Barton stops actively giving superiors a hard time, the situation is cataclysmically serious.

He marks one point in his favour when there's a tiny pause before Coulson says, "You have never been less funny," and sounds at least slightly less like each syllable's being punched out of his ribcage by some kind of torture machine.

"Yeah well," Clint retorts, "I've had a shitty week, I'm okay with being off my best game there. But you can relax - this call does not actually indicate Sitwell's a plant or a double-agent," and this time Phil gets a point because Clint doesn't hear even a hint of the relieved exhale he knows he just got, before he adds for the sake of his own temper, "just a cowardly procedure-worshipping piece of small-minded shit, which I guess some people might think is better."

"I'm sure I don't need to tell you what he's said so far about you," Coulson replies, and hey there might even be a hint of dry humour there.

Clint snorts.

"Jasper can suck a dead camel's rotting dick," he retorts, bluntly, "because he's not getting anywhere near mine - she was born in eighty-fucking-four, Coulson," he says, over the beginning of whatever Phil's about to try to say, because it's not exactly warm out here and if he has to hash out in detail why exactly he's done this shit the way he fucking has he wants to do it somewhere his fingers aren't slowly freezing and the wind isn't getting uncomfortably personal.

There's a pause before Phil says, "I don't need to tell you the job is ugly sometimes."

It's the kind of complicated braided Shroedinger's Comment that doesn't actually pick what it's going to be - chastising, conciliatory, commiserating, whatever - until it's already been replied to, which Coulson's pretty good at. It's a neat trick, actually, and Clint keeps meaning to figure out whether he learned it in the Army or from someone who left SHIELD before Clint showed up, but he always remembers that in moments like this, when he's got other things to do.

So right now he just retorts, "Yeah and I shouldn't need to tell you I've got a better handle on fucked up kids and when I do and don't need to put them down than Jasper fucking Sitwell ever will, and I'm gonna say it, if I do have to tell you again after this time, I'm going to start taking it personally."

That might be mean. Excessively mean. He can't tell. He's kinda tired and it has been a shitty week, and it's cold out here. Maybe he'll apologize to Coulson for that one later.

As it is, he ignores the very subtle are you fucking kidding me right now Barton undertones in Coulson's flat demand, "Status?"

"Cold and short-tempered, sharing a crappy room here in paradise with my new best friend," he replies. "A ride would be nice. If you make me walk all the way back to America, you have nobody but yourself to blame for the mess."

"There'll be a bird waiting at the farm," Coulson replies, not dignifying the second half of that with a reply, which Clint supposes is pretty fair. "Standard protocol."

"See I knew you were a nicer person than me." Then, because Clint can't not right now he adds, and he's not really joking anymore, "Coulson?"

There's a second of listening silence, so Clint sighs, and says, "Don't fucking make me kill people, okay?"

They both know Coulson knows exactly what Clint means: that if SHIELD tries to make this an apprehension instead of an extraction, people are going to die. Probably a lot of them. And that they're not going to have much luck pulling wool over his eyes about which it is.

That if they do something stupid, this is going to end in blood and probably a vendetta. Maybe a few.

Clint would really, really rather they not be that stupid.

There's a second's pause where honestly is anybody's guess what Phil's face looks like. Then Coulson says, "Barton," with pained patience crystalizing on his tone. "I think we can all agree you've just definitively proven that nobody can."

He also hangs up while Clint chokes the laughter back, which is pretty fair.

 

Circling back to the hotel takes another hour or so; he takes the precaution of lurking nearby long enough to get himself flat out chilled, which is also long enough to be comfortable nobody's managed to pick him out. For a certain value of comfortable.

Then he gets a drink nearby, complains about his imaginary wife to one of the other drinkers in a companionable duet demonstrating why some people should never get married, and goes back to the hotel.

Where Natalia Alianovna has not moved, other than around the room, since he left. So that's good, anyway.

He's not really surprised when Natalia asks him why he's doing this: if anything, he's just relieved that her reply is to point out she has no idea what is or isn't plausible, and that her tone borders on the irritable. It's a minor point in favour of her being at least mostly up to making calculated choices, which is at least easier on her than nihilistic hysteria, and definitely easier on both of them than actually panicking.

He'd like to get through all of this alive. Both of them.