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Double B(l)ind

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double bind (noun): a psychological predicament in which a person receives conflicting messages that allow no appropriate response to be made.

double blind (adjective): an experimental procedure in which neither the subjects nor the experimenters know which subjects are in the test and control groups during the actual course of the experiments.

(Definitions adapted from Merriam-Webster Online, .)

He is hired through an intermediary, not an uncommon occurrence in the field of dream-based espionage. He could speculate on who his employer is, but considering his target, it could be anyone: CIA or FBI from the US, MI7 from the UK, KGB from Russia, EIA from Latveria, MSS from China, even non-governmental agencies like Oscorp, Hammer Industries, the remainders of SHIELD or Hydra, the Brotherhood of Mutants, MIB, or even (and who could really say) Stark Industries.  And that’s only listing some of the organizations and agencies and companies, and none of the individuals.  It’s not Arthur’s place to question, just to get into Natasha Romanoff’s dream and pull out everything he can find on the Winter Soldier, and whomever the Winter Soldier might actually be, and then get paid. 

Arthur has taken on targets as high profile as Romanoff before, even targets he knew to be as skilled as her, but never solo.  The money on the table for this job would be impressive if he was splitting it with a whole team, and doing it by himself even more so. A lot of people would probably consider him suicidal for taking such a risky job, but the money is good enough he’ll be more than halfway to retirement after.  And besides, you can’t grow if you don’t challenge yourself, right? Arthur ran the numbers in his head when the offer was made; he did the cost/benefit analysis. He knows the biggest risk will be getting close to the target in the first place, setting up a persona that can distract her for long enough that he can get into a position to dream share with her.  Arthur keeps double-checking the odds every hour since taking the job, and each time he does the math it still comes up as worth the risk. 

He’s already watched and rewatched every bit of footage of Romanoff that he could find, from the Battle Over New York to the Senate hearings.  He’s read every bit of her SHIELD file that she herself leaked to the internet. The targets she’s seduced, the politicians she’s killed.  Even a couple ballets she’s performed in.  The failures too, so he can see what her limits are, like that escort mission where she took a bullet for the nuclear scientist, but still failed to keep him alive. Arthur knows all of it backwards and forwards, and yet he still knows nothing about her. He doesn’t know her favorite flavor of ice cream.  He doesn’t know her natural hair color, though it’s been every human color out there and some inhuman too. He doesn’t know where she was trained, there’s no information at all about her before Clint Barton (codename: Hawkeye) brought her in. 

Information is reassuring, and Arthur knows a lot of information about how she works. He doesn’t know anything about who she is though, and that he will need to find out in person. God, he hates the grunt work. Pointman’s always been more his style: nice and clean.  Get the background info, organize the op, then provide support until it’s done. But not any more, Arthur only relies on himself now. 

He sets the PASIV on the cheap hotel bed and checks its supplies, the ritual settling his nerves as he goes through each component.  Needles, check.  IV lines, hm, he’s going to need to pick up some more of those on the drive.  Power supply, check.  Somnacin compound, check, there’s enough left over from his last job, and it was a very stable mixture so he’ll keep with it, though he’ll need some more before the next job.  Well, he’ll be able to afford a new chemist after this job since the old one’s… gone involuntarily missing.

There are reasons Arthur works alone now.  You just can’t trust anyone but yourself.  At least this way he knows that everything will be done correctly. No unexpected interrogation techniques involving shag carpet this time.  No unexplained projections of dead people.  No trips to Limbo to bring back your paycheck. 

The lid of the PASIV snaps closed with a reassuring click as Arthur stands up, swings it into his hand, and walks out of the room.  He shuts the thin hotel room door behind himself, tosses the PASIV in the trunk of his car and pulls up the GPS on his phone for directions to where the intermediary said she was holed up. 

At a rest stop in Ohio, Arthur downloads the first season of “Jersey Shore” on his phone. He hooks it into his car’s stereo system and starts practicing.  God he hates forging.  At least he won’t have to change his face until he manages to get into her dream, and based on what he knows about Romanoff, it’s going to take a while to set that up. He’s probably going to have to trade in his nice reliable car for something a bit more sporty or classic though to pull off the character he’s developing. 

And another plus: his contact told him she was posing as a typical New Yorker wannabe commuter, living in New Jersey, but working and playing in Manhattan.  Maybe he could check out a club or two while he’s there.  Arthur normally doesn’t mix work and pleasure, but solo jobs are just so much more stressful, he’ll need some way to unwind. He’ll have to establish a persona anyway, make some friends.  The worst part of working solo is that he has to deal so closely with the mark and some other patsies. God, he hates people. How’d he ever end up working alone anyway? Oh right, it’s because he hates people.  People are always messing things up. 

Why’d it have to be New Jersey? 

Natasha Romanoff dresses in her bathroom.  Well, technically the name on the lease is Barbara Sugarman, but whatever, she is Barbara Sugarman for now.  She looks at her hair critically in the mirror.  Her roots are starting to show, she’s going to have to refresh the blonde tomorrow. She’s already an hour late to meet Barbara’s girlfriends at the club, so there isn’t time now. She blow-dries her hair, curls the ends, and does her face.  Her girlfriends told her that the club’s bouncers give everyone a pat down at the door, so she tucks her garrote neatly in next to her bra’s underwire.  She straps a ceramic blade to her inner thigh because she wasn’t informed whether there’s a metal detector.  The Widow’s Bite miniaturized tasers go into her tampon applicator, her makeup compact, and of course in her curling iron. Men never check those closely. The skintight red dress slips over all snugly, showing off her curves. 

She examines the finished product in the mirror once more.  Natasha pushes down the unfortunately familiar pang of uncertainty as she looks at Barbara’s face staring back out at her.  Barbara’s face, her own face, what’s the difference really? Which one is she even? Steve Rogers and his questions. “I can be whoever you want me to be…”  It never used to bother her. 

Natasha shakes her head to clear it of her thoughts, and runs her hands over her hips and tests out a pout at the face in the mirror.  Perfect.  

All this effort because she’s trying to watch over Maria Hill, now employed in the private sector at Stark Industries.  Natasha had set herself the task of cleaning out SI of as many remaining Hydra agents as she could before she needed to move on.  There aren't that many people left whom Natasha can trust, in fact she can count them all on one hand (Barton, Rogers, Fury, Wilson, Hill), so looking out for them is important to her.  Most of the others are working undercover, and Natasha could find them if needed, but in Hill’s new position she’s like a bug under glass, and the glass is no longer bulletproof, so Natasha does what she can to protect her.

And now she has it on good authority that the recently promoted head of security at Stark Industries visits this club once a month to pick up a little action. If this is leverage Hydra could use against Happy Hogan, she needs to know it.  Natasha needs to find Hogan and interrogate him, and Natasha has convinced Barbara’s friends that it was their idea to ask her to this particular club to dance, so she hurries out the door (only an hour and half late so far) and down to the New Jersey Transit station.

Despite the added commute time, Natasha has taken up residence as a “bridge and tunnel girl,” rather than in the City proper for a reason: to slow down the time until someone recognizes her and the inevitable loss of her cover.  Too many New Yorkers still know her face from the Battle Over New York news coverage a couple years ago – sure her face hit the news again recently, but most people wouldn’t have watched the full Congressional coverage, just the short news spots bringing back her dirt-streaked face in her combat gear while fighting on the Park Ave ramp around Stark Tower.  A series of small changes reduces the chance of recognition: a little bit of distance when not working; the dye job; a slinky dress when she does cross the river at night, showing too much thigh and cleavage for anyone to think she could fight; and lastly an accent that’s so plebian that no one could ever picture Black Widow once she opens her mouth. Put those together, and once she gets to the club all that any of the guys will be able to think about is how to get into her panties, while the girls will either want to be her, want to punch her, or sometimes they too will want to get into her panties.

She’ll be more than two hours late by the time she gets there, but it’s not like she expects the other girls to be any earlier.  Lateness is expected of Barbara, so Natasha makes sure that she is always late. The one good thing about taking public transit is that Natasha doesn’t have to put on a fake face yet – everyone else on the subway also has a cold neutral expression like Natasha’s default. As she exits the subway and hurries along the street towards the club though, she puts on her game face. This one is excited, flushed from the cool night air and the hope of a fun night out.  She lets her heels begin to clack against the concrete as she approaches the club’s doors. 

The security is a joke; she played this game as a child.  The bouncers don’t catch the garrote.  She slaps away the hand trying to cop a feel up her skirt before it reaches the blade.  She titters as the man looks through her purse, and when he pulls out the tampon she exclaims, “Oh my gawd, don’t let everyone know I’m on the rag tonight, or I won’t get any action!”  The bouncer laughs broadly along with her and tucks it back into her bag. 

Two minutes later she is making her way through the press of bodies, and Natasha is as relaxed as she ever is, which is to say, not very, as she dances with her girlfriends. The tension doesn’t show in her shoulders or her back.  She looks around the club only to check out the hot guys.  She flows with the crowd to move away from the pickpocket. She sees the grab for her ass coming a mile away, but lets it connect before she shrieks and jumps. A little slight of hand lets her swap the roofies-laced drink with the clean one the perp bought for himself. Anyone observing Natasha would think she’s having an awesome night out as she laughs with the girls and flirts with the guys.  This mix of techno and hip-hop, the sweaty bodies grinding against each other, the bag search at the door, none of this is optimal for a mission though she’s dealt with worse. The mission is what Natasha cares about.

This is where she expects to find Hogan, so she’s here, and it’s Barbara Sugarman’s scene, so she dances.  

Natasha is picking up a new drink at the bar when yet another hot and horny guy approaches her. This one has an even thicker accent than the last one, and she pegs him as an Italian Jersey boy. He looks to be in his late 20s, and has the build of someone who works out but doesn’t particularly know how to use those muscles for anything more than looking good.  His eyes freely roam up and down her body, as both he and his friends have been doing for the entire night.  “A dime,” she’d lip-read them saying.  “No, just an eight.”  As she looks at him, she thinks he’s only a seven to Natalie Rushman, and he wouldn’t even be a five to the famous ballerina Natalia Shostakov, but he’s probably a nine to Barbara so she’ll talk to him, make out with him some, maybe even let him take her home. After all, it doesn’t do for Natasha to let her skills get rusty. 

But then again, if she can cultivate him as more than just a one-night stand, that will strengthen Barbara’s reality, and Natasha’s not one to pass up that sort of opportunity. There’s no sign of Hogan, but Natasha keeps one eye out for him while working the new guy. 

Arthur’s realistic about his abilities, he knows he’s never been the best forger. So he’s worried for a while that he’s overdoing the accent as he approaches the mark where she sits at the bar. He’s not sure if the sweat he feels on his back is from nerves or the heat from the press of bodies around him. Damn, he wishes he could be wearing a suit; the layers cover so many little things like damp spots in clothing, or the tension he can feel in his spine.  Give him a fine white collar with a neat bowtie, and the gentle pressure on his neck would remind Arthur to slow his heart rate.  Of course here an elevated pulse just fits the atmosphere, but it does nothing to reassure him.  And when Cobb was the extractor, Arthur could always let him do the talking, while faking calm and collected in the background. 

But no, Arthur is flying solo on the hardest target of his entire career, and he’s talking in a stupid accent that he picked up from watching too much “Jersey Shore” while driving across half the continent.  He thinks about dialing it back, but then realizes Romanoff’s already heard him order his drink, so it’s too late.  He’ll have to stick it out.  At the same time as he’s analyzing his approach to the mark, the less rational part of his mind is screaming, that’s not just a mark that’s Black Widow, hero of the Battle Over New York, Snowden to the world’s biggest spy organization, master assassin, and she can and will kill you with her thighs if she has the slightest inkling of who you are.

He pushes that aside though and looks at Romanoff again.  He’d told his “friends” that she was a dime, and he wasn’t lying. As Arthur checks her out, something clicks in his head and he realizes that his best approach is actually to continue blatantly checking her out.  He knows Romanoff uses her body as a weapon not only literally, but figuratively as well, lulling her targets into complacence.  She will be expecting any guy she interacts with to be lusting after her. 

Arthur deliberately lets his body take over, and his fears and worries about the Black Widow recede. He buys her a drink. He dances close behind her body, hand drifting over her stomach.  The pointman in him reminds him not to press so hard as to feel the tone of her muscles as that might make Romanoff suspicious, so he instead moves his hand to her hip, and guides her towards a couch.  Soon he is leaning closer to her and pressing his nose into her neck, where something faintly floral does things to his brain.  Arthur can feel the plans he has been trying to come up with begin to scramble as his mind empties of everything but her.  He closes his eyes and feels his erection pressing against his jeans, where he rubs against her hip. This is good, he really does seem like some stupid horny jock.  He couldn’t have planned better.  He licks a stripe up Natasha’s neck, and she pushes him away.  “What makes you think could do that,” she asks, and he just smiles and dives back in.  He needs to get into her bed, or more accurately to get access to her sleeping in his bed where he has the PASIV stashed underneath.  A part of his mind is whispering to him that if he gets in her pants too, there’s nothing wrong with an added bonus.  It’s the persona he’s put on, the Jon Martello, getting in her pants would help him maintain that cover.  Yeah, it’s the Don Juan saying that.  Arthur’s focusing on the job, which is to get close to Romanoff so he can enter her dreams.

She pushes him away again, and in the end she ends up fleeing in a cab, leaving him hard and wanting at the club.  Damn. He’ll have to play the long game with her.  More opportunities to mess up, but then again more opportunities to have a little fun too.

When Natasha gets home she isn’t too surprised to find an arrow resting on her bookshelf. It fits into the space in front of a row of books like it’s always been there, resting on the shelf like she put it there to display, except that she didn’t put it there, someone else must have. She didn’t see any signs of forced entry into Barbara’s apartment, but then again, Barton’s skilled enough that he wouldn’t have needed to force his way in. 

The flood of relief Natasha feels at seeing the arrow isn’t entirely unexpected – after all, she hasn’t heard from Barton since before she blew both SHIELD and Hydra wide open, and this is the first evidence she’s seen that he’s still alive.

Natasha ruthlessly suppresses her feeling of hope and starts the familiar process of extracting the message tube from inside the shaft, first prying off the target point, then gently tapping the arrow against her palm to dislodge the tube. She feels a sense of nostalgia as she unscrews the small airtight tube and slips out the tightly rolled paper to read the message, but the sentiment is inappropriate and distracting. As usual, a few seconds after reading the message, the paper dissolves after its exposure to air as Natasha watches.

Trust him,” was the typed message.  There are only five people left in the world whom Natasha trusts, and this injunction to add a sixth appears to come from the person on the top of that list.

The message can only be about that guy at the club.  This is the first time that she’s begun to string along a guy rather than giving him the cold shoulder or having a bit of fun with him in the club’s bathroom. Tonight she starts actually cultivating a guy for her cover, and then gets a message to trust some anonymous “him”. It couldn’t be about Hogan, she’s been to various clubs on many other nights with the same null outcome on that front. It would be too much of a coincidence if it weren’t about that guy, and there’s no other “him” that an observer could be talking about. 

She trusts Barton implicitly, has since he brought her in.  And yet, he wasn’t there while everything went down at the Triskelion.  She doesn’t actually know where Barton was at the time since Sitwell had sent him on a mission a few days before it, and she hasn’t seen him since. In fact, just because this message came via their usual method doesn’t necessarily mean it’s really from Barton. This message brings not only relief, but a burden as well: the burden to figure out what’s going on with Barton, even while she attempts to keep her cover intact so she can protect Hill.

Someone else could have easily replicated Barton’s modus operandi.  Or he could have told someone else.

Natasha does not want to think about the possibility that Barton is Hydra, but she does so anyway. She herself has taken orders from Sitwell on numerous occasions, so that alone isn’t evidence enough. But still, Barton was gone when everyone’s least favorite bureaucrat was exposed, and he hasn’t tried to contact her before now.  She had stopped wearing the necklace when she started this mission, didn’t want it giving her away, but now she muses about the symbolism. 

What if Barton really is part of Hydra?  It’s bad enough that she doesn’t know who she’d been working for anymore, but she also doesn’t know who Barton is still working for.  Can she trust him? 

And the message to trust this guy from the club.  Natasha doesn’t know for certain who sent the message, and even if it is from Barton, she wouldn’t know whether to do what it says or not.

There is exactly one thing she does know though: someone who is watching Natasha is also watching this guy and has some sort of interest in him.  So she will watch this guy as well, see what she can find out about him. 

Natasha takes the arrow, sans target point, finds a broadhead of the same shaft size in the stash at the back of her closet, and affixes the head to the arrow. She then places the completed arrow back into the stash of supplies and weapons she always keeps for Barton. Some habits die hard. And even if she ends up needing to use it on Barton, the extra reach the shaft gives to the broadhead can only help her if she ends up against him again. 

Arthur is more than a little surprised when she actually agrees to meet with him for lunch. He manages not to spit out his tea when he reads her Facebook message (“Sure stud.  How’s tomorrow?”), but it’s a close call. Eames had always been telling him how easy it was to get access to people, but Arthur always shrugged it off as being something about the forger’s personality that allowed him to get close to people so quickly.  You have to understand people to be a forger after all, and that’s not a skill Arthur’s ever been interested in before.  But something’s apparently working now, even though he doesn’t know for sure what. It can’t be the accent; what was he even thinking with the accent? 

He’s less surprised when Romanoff starts grilling him about how he found out that her name is Barbara Sugarman. Arthur figures that she’s probably just checking how her cover story is holding up.  Her intense stare makes him a bit nervous, so once again he stops analyzing and deliberately pulls out the more instinctual part of his nature.  He’s leaning on that side more and more to fit into the Jon personality.  It’s so awkward, it really feels like putting a square peg into a round hole.  Arthur admires how Natasha can so easily slip into a new persona.  And now that he’s looking, she’s just as fucking gorgeous as Barbara as she is in all her other roles.  It doesn’t matter what she wears for clothing, what she does to her hair, or even who she is, she’s always amazing.  She even manages to change her mannerisms, talking with her hands in a way she didn’t in that senate hearing. 

Maybe if he’s still alive after this is done, he’ll see if he can hire Natasha the next time he needs a forger.  She’s already practically a shape shifter in the real world, he can’t imagine how good she would be with the whole dream at her disposal.  She’s a virtuoso while he’s just dabbling. 

He doesn’t even know what he’s saying as she grills him, so rapid fire that he doesn’t have any time to think, just respond on instinct, and he’s in the middle of saying it before he understands how he got here. 

“You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” 

He doesn’t know which part of him says it. 

Natasha decides to play with Jon at the lunch date he sets up with her.  The arrow from Barton or whomever it was made her suspicious to start with, and then to get a Facebook message so soon after sets off all sorts of red flags for her.  He’s done a reasonable job with his Facebook page, but the tells of a fake account are still there: while he has plenty of guy friends rooting on his latest conquest and satisfied one night stands testifying to his prowess, there aren’t any bitter girls chewing him out.  This fake “Don Jon” might think a playboy would’ve deleted any bad reviews, but a real one would’ve kept them as notches on his belt, proof he could get any girl he wanted. 

This guy isn’t nearly as skilled as herself at espionage, he’s closer to the level of Barton: more skilled than the average civilian, clearly has some vested interest in the industry, but isn’t used to getting his hands dirty himself. Perhaps he specializes in some other aspect than spying, much as Barton does, maybe he’s usually a sniper or involved in ops.  Natasha doesn’t know yet if he’s on to her, or if he’s just targeting Barbara Sugarman for some obscure reason.  But it remains that he is faking who he is. 

So at lunch she tells Jon that he shouldn’t ever lie to her, just to see his reaction. He’s better at lying in person than Natasha expected from his Facebook profile.  When he admits that the “real” reason for contacting her is that he wants to fuck her brains out, she can see from the slight dilation of his pupils that this is at least part true, and his elevated respiration rate could very well be due to arousal.  Covering the truth he is not willing to reveal with a truth that he is, that’s a clever move for an amateur.  But the rate of his pulse that she can see on his neck is more consistent with nervousness than a hard on. She’s definitely on to something.

When he tells her that she’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen, Natasha doesn’t smirk at the obviousness of it, just continues to twirl her hair around her fingers. All her romance marks say that to her eventually.  On the first date though?  Jon’s faster than most. This’ll be a walk in the park.

Arthur sits in his car in the parking lot at the community college.  He doesn’t know why he let her talk him into actually taking a night class.  Logically, it’s got to be to maintain the persona of Jon Martello, it’s the sort of thing that Natasha herself would do.  But there’s also a big part of him wanting to keep Barbara happy, even though he knows that Barbara doesn’t exist.  He slams a hand into the dashboard in frustration.  Dammit, this just makes no sense.  Arthur takes a deep breath and reaches into his pocket for the totem he always carries: a weighted die.  Rubbing his fingers back and forth over the side with six spots usually calms him, but now it isn’t enough to keep the images out of his mind. 

He can still feel his body pressed up along her back, his hands around her front, one on her waist and the other on her perfect breasts, there in the hallway outside her apartment.  She drove him wild with that ass of hers, rubbing against his crotch until he blew his load in his pants.  His calm was not just shaken by her actions, but entirely shattered.  As she pulled away from him and into her apartment, he’d begun to involuntarily follow her until she shut the door in his face.  He’d had to stand in the hallway for a few minutes to recollect himself, and even then his pants were still all messed up.

Maybe he’s getting too deep into this thing.  There are reasons he usually does the setup and not the forging. Maybe he would have been better off hiring someone for that part.  Arthur shakes his head.  What’s done is done. He had planned everything he could, and now he’s in the field, it’s time to act, not think.  He’s Jon Martello now, and it’s time for Jon’s class.

Arthur releases his totem and opens the door to the car.  It’s a night Economics 101 course that he decided on.  He figures it’ll be an easy A, but there’s also a slim chance he’ll learn something.  Can’t hurt in his line of work. 

The first half of the class is so dull that Arthur nearly falls asleep.  He fidgets with his die some more, and manages to roll it a few times when no one is watching.  A single pip every time.  Not snake eyes because it’s only the one die, but Arthur still finds it fitting that snakes are a symbol of deception when his current job is to deceive the deceiver. God, forging is taking such a toll on him.  Arthur focuses on the die to keep the images out of his mind, but it can only keep his attention for so long. He shifts in the uncomfortable seat, and looks back up at the board.  Even if he doesn’t expect to learn anything, he still needs something to talk about with Natasha if she chooses to grill him on the class.

Her call during the break is a lifesaver, but even anticipating her coming over to his house afterwards for the first time isn’t enough to keep the second half of class interesting. Returning to class after the break, Arthur is even more distracted than before.  His hands are shaking enough that he nearly drops his pen three separate times. There are goosebumps along his arms – he never feels fully dressed with only a tank top and a light sweatshirt, but it’s what’s expected of Jon.  Arthur doesn’t know whether he’s more excited about finally sleeping with her, or finally dreaming with her.  Either way, he can’t wait to see what she’s really like, and just hopes he has enough energy after class gets out at 11pm. 

When he gets home, Arthur pulls out the PASIV from under his bed and checks all the supplies. Needles, Somnacin, power supply, and yes all the IV lines have been replaced.  He calls Natasha to let her know he’s home and waits. Arthur doesn’t know for sure that she’ll want to have sex, but considering her past missions it seems likely. His condom drawer is full, all the condoms separated from each other to speed things up.  He wipes his palms on his pants and resists checking the PASIV again.  He already knows everything is ready.  He’s set up everything that he can, now he just has to let things play out. 

At the knock on his door, Arthur glances under the bed one last time, then opens the door for Natasha. She’s wearing a striped skin-tight dress that leaves nothing to his imagination, not that he needs to keep imagining any longer.  He barely manages to shove the door shut before his hands are on her body, and she pushes him into the bedroom and onto the bed. 

Afterwards, Natasha sprawls naked in bed with Jon, her arm over his chest, her head pillowed against his shoulder, sheets pulled up her back, and she lets her breathing even out as though she is asleep.  It doesn’t take long until he does the same – Natasha picked tonight for this operation because even though she can always fuck any guy into oblivion, it doesn’t hurt to add the fatigue of his first night class. Also, it doesn’t hurt that she’d slipped a muscle relaxant into the water she’d offered him during cleanup. Administering the drug afterwards is always wisest so as to not impede the target’s abilities in bed, which would be remembered by a playboy like Jon was making himself out to be.

When Jon’s breathing evens out, Natasha waits a little longer, then slides her hand down his chest, under the sheets, and between his legs once more. No part of him stirs at her ministrations, and she knows that he truly does sleep.  Even so, she slips out of his bed quietly and sets up a motion detector with vibrating notification in her bracelet before she pulls on one of his sweatshirts.  This way she will immediately be alerted should he wake while she searches the living room, and wearing his sweatshirt will make it look like she just got up for a short time.

She finds nothing interesting in the living room and kitchen, but sets up a few bugs to monitor him going forward.  The bathroom too is clean, so she returns to the bedroom, deliberately stubbing her toe loudly and cursing in pain to test the depth of his sleep before she begins inspecting the room.  His browser history contains a lot of porn sites, but nothing about him personally or his goals with Barbara. She sets up a keystroke logger, as well as hacking the camera so that it will record without user notification, but only when the laptop is plugged in, Natasha doesn’t want the battery drain to alert him. 

But then when she checks under the bed she finds the crown jewel: a fully stocked military grade PASIV. 

Well.  This is unexpected. She’s been made, that’s the only reason he would want to infiltrate her dreams, and he had probably been hoping to do so tonight.  But this doesn’t tell her what information it is he wishes to extract, or for whom, or why she got that message supposedly from Barton. 

But it’s an unexpected boon actually – although it has been a while since her last dream sharing mission, the Red Room trained her in this as well as all other forms of espionage.  He is already soundly asleep and does not stir as she slips the dreamer’s IV into his arm, where the skin is marked with numerous other pinpricks and small bruises. She sets the timer on her vibrating bracelet to wake her, sets the PASIV to wake him a few minutes after herself, inserts her own IV into her vein, and then presses the button in the middle.

Natasha’s eyes drift shut, and she does not fight it. 

Arthur’s trying really hard to actually listen to the lecture tonight when the weird lady sits down next to him and starts talking to him, apologizing for making him uncomfortable by crying all over the place the previous week.  She’s older than himself or Natasha, not the sort of girl that Jon would give the time of day, and Arthur wants to stay focused on the mission. The expanded parameters of attending this night class don’t require him to be social, and Natasha’s Barbara personality is definitely the jealous type, so he tries to ignore this lady, but she just keeps on talking to him.  Arthur fingers his die to help keep calm, but does not roll it.

Week after week, it becomes a habit, a pattern.  He sees Esther crying, or doing deep breaths while reading poetry, blinking back tears from her eyes, or doing something else awkward, and she keeps trying to talk to him, during the breaks, during class itself, before class, after class. He doesn’t want to get distracted from the job, he doesn’t want to be making friends, but it’s kinda nice having someone to talk to.  Esther is just so authentic, it’s really refreshing.  She’s awkward and strange and honest, Arthur doesn’t really know what to do with it. She wears skinny jeans and billowy hippie shirts and carries a ragtag bag that doesn’t match her light brown jacket at all.  Her smile is large and takes up her whole face, and her eyes light up as she does so. On her it’s not a mask, it’s not a fake, and Arthur enjoys the authentic nature of all her emotions, yes even the crying. 

It’s just so rare that he gets to interact with someone who lays it all out there. Even chemists and architects, the most honest people you’ll meet in dream sharing, are still wary around new people, and here this Esther is, just telling him everything about herself. And to encounter this in the middle of his current mission, where not only is Arthur faking who he is, but so is his target and he knows it – it feels almost like a vacation to talk to Esther, even as he knows that he can’t actually open up to her in return. Everything else is so fake, and Arthur is frustrated once again at how tough it is to create a personality and maintain it.  He can’t wait for this damned job to be over. 

One evening while copying his notes, Esther starts probing at his motivations for taking the class. She always ties her red hair back from her face, so Arthur has no problem seeing the emotions displayed clearly on Esther’s face as she asks him things, curiosity as she talks to him, a wrinkled nose as she judges his life decisions.  This isn’t even his fucking life, and there she goes judging him for them.  For taking this class, for choosing to stay with his fucking girlfriend – with Barbara, with Natasha – who isn’t even his girlfriend but his mark. 

Aw jeez, things are so fucked up.  Arthur grabs his notebook back, swaps for his actual notebook, and leaves. He wants to reach for the die in his pocket, but he needs both hands to drive as he peels out of the parking lot, and there’s no flat surfaces in the car anyway. 

Natasha has considered making herself a totem in the past.  She’s never seen the need to follow through though because her forging skills are sufficient that she can always test whether she’s in a dream by retreating to somewhere private and making herself a new face. If she had a totem, she would have to go somewhere private to use it anyway, a totem’s no good if someone else knows how to fake it, so a physical object would offer her no advantage over her own forging skills. 

Standing in Jon’s bathroom Natasha inspects her face.  She starts with her usual blank default.  Black Widow, hero of the Battle Over Manhattan, isn’t too different with a cold determination.  For Natalie Rushman she layers professionalism over that confidence. Barbara Sugarman is a bit more of a stretch, with full pouty lips and slightly hooded eyes.  She is thinking about red hair and a face that shows all the emotions in her tormented soul when she hears a noise from Jon in the bedroom. Making a split decision, Natasha decides to move things along with him: she’ll test him, challenge him, see how he reacts. She can get away with it here, if things fail to work out to her advantage, well, it was only a dream.

Barbara storms out of the bathroom with tear-streaked eyes and tells Jon she found out he was watching porn on his computer.  The fight is glorious, she hasn’t had a fight this good with a mark in years. The way that his face falls when she explains about browser history to him; the way his eyebrows climb when she reminds him she had just one rule, to never lie to her; the way that his hands keep reaching out to her, to try and touch her arms and comfort her; the way he freezes in confusion when she shakes off his touch before he can establish it.  She almost can’t tell he’s acting.  He really seems disappointed.  Angry. Hurt.  

Arthur doesn’t know what to do.  Barbara – no, Natasha – broke up with him.  He’s lost all hope of getting into her dreams.  Fuck. The mission.  He broke up with Barbara.  With Natasha.  Fuck. There’s reasons he doesn’t do forging.  Fuck. He grips his die tightly in his hand, until the spots make impressions in the skin.  Fuck. 

He goes to class that night because he doesn’t know what else to do.  He walks with Esther back to her car afterwards and they screw in the back seat.  Dammit. He didn’t really mean to do that either. Last thing he wants is collateral damage.  But she’s just so open, so different from Natasha, from Natasha’s Barbara persona, and that’s just what he needs right now. Different. 

He thinks he was in love with Barbara, even though she never existed.  Now he thinks he might be in love with Esther. Esther who is everything neither Natasha nor Barbara could be. 

Someone calling “psst” from the shadows between two buildings interrupts Arthur’s musings. He can’t see into the darkness, so he looks around surreptitiously, then approaches the alleyway.

She does not show herself – in the real world she knows how to hide, and dreams are infinitely more malleable. Natasha scoffs at the restrictions that the mainstream dream espionage community imposes upon itself with labels such as architect or dreamer.  It’s well known that any of the participants in a dream share can accidentally bring in a projection, regardless of whether they are the dreamer or not, so it’s only a matter of training for those in another role to be able to create their own projections or alter the environment at will.  It’s always easiest of course for the dreamer to create and control projections, but Natasha has had extensive practice. 

With only a bit of focus, Natasha causes a vague form to materialize in the shadows. It is deliberately unformed so that she does not impose her own ideas upon it.  Transferring ownership of a projection to another individual is difficult, requiring a deliberate relinquishment of control. But Jon is the dreamer so things more naturally tend to fall into his control, even if he doesn’t realize enough to be able to do anything about it. 

As Jon walks past, the projection goes “psst.”  He freezes instantly, then looks everywhere but into the alley between the two buildings, searching for potential witnesses.  Natasha does not let herself be seen.  Satisfied, she watches as Jon walks towards the projection.  As he approaches, Natasha at first reflexively tries to hold on tighter, but her mission requires that she lets go, and Natasha reminds herself how little control she has truly ever had over anything.  The Triskelion showed her that.  With a puff of exhaled air, she can feel her ownership of the projection slip away.  Good, now Jon will unconsciously form it into his expectation, and she’ll be able to get something out of their interaction. 

“Report,” the projection says softly, putting enough voice into it that the plosives of “P” and “T” do not carry as far as they would have had it whispered instead. Natasha can tell it is male, but he is hidden by a shadow so she cannot make out the face or build Jon’s subconscious would have stamped onto it by now. 

Jon glances over his shoulder again, then approaches the side of the street.  “I’m calling it off,” he says.  His posture is stiff, in a way that conveys wariness, not guilt.

“Oh really,” the voice says, and now that he puts a little more volume into it, he sounds familiar. Natasha suppresses the shiver that wants to run along her spine, instead becoming even more still. If her suspicion is correct, the projection’s eyesight is good enough to catch her slightest movement, and upon doing so it would likely attack her, possibly shattering the illusion of the dream for Jon. The projection takes a single step forward into the light and Natasha’s concern is vindicated. He wears a black vest over a dark purple T-shirt, exposing his toned arms.  His black cargo pants have pockets bulging with assorted small pieces of equipment, and he wears well-worn combat boots.  He has a ski mask on, but Natasha would recognize his build anywhere: compact, with upper arm strength vying against lean muscles in the rest of his body indicating agility.  His bow is nowhere in sight, but in truth this is now entirely a projection of Jon’s subconscious and it is possible that he never saw Barton’s bow.

Natasha waits until the projection is facing away from her, then slips back around the corner of the building she had been watching from.  She has learned what she came for, and then some.  Jon no longer wishes to perform his mission to extract information from her, and Clint Barton was his contact. 

It is time to reveal herself to Jon. 

Arthur blinks slowly to bring the world into focus.  The first thing he sees is Barbara – Natasha – sitting on his bed next to his leg. But hadn’t they broken up? She is wearing one of his old sweatshirts, and her hair is tied back in a ponytail.  Then he realizes that she is retracting an IV line back into his PASIV where it rests on the desk at the head of his bed.

He sits up abruptly and needs to bring a hand to his head for the splitting headache that results.

She holds out a glass of water.  “Here, drink this.” He looks at her suspiciously, still too woozy to be able to speak, and does not take the glass. She patiently continues holding it. “The headache is from the combination of the muscle relaxant and Somnacin.  If I had expected to dream share, I would have used a different sedative.” She says nothing further, just keeps holding out the glass, and after a few moments Arthur’s cottony mouth prompts him to take it.  Besides, if she had wanted to kill him she would have done so already. 

After a few swallows, he clears his throat and asks, “So what do you want me to call you? Barbara?  Natasha?”  She smiles at each name as he watches her face, and for a moment she grins a wide open smile at him, and then ducks her head slightly, and something clicks in his head. “Esther?”  Her nostrils flare slightly at this last one, and suddenly it’s as if a mask has slipped down over her face as she closes everything off to him once again. 

Arthur’s heart falls at her response.  He’s guessed right. Not only was Barbara the fake he’d known from the start, but when Natasha had infiltrated his dream she had created another persona, Esther, and won him over again that way.

This is why Arthur hates getting his hands dirty.  This is why he prefers doing the support work and not the grunt work himself. He always put on a cold indifferent face during the job, because that’s what protects him from becoming too involved. And here, when he has to do the entire job himself, even the forging, he hasn’t been able to distance himself, he hasn’t been able to prevent getting involved.  He’s known from the start that working with the target isn’t his strength.  Dammit, he really does need to put a team back together, he hates working solo, even if he does have to trust people.  He can get used to the quirks of a team if he has to, just so long as they buffer him from everyone else.

Which brings him back to his earlier thought, that if he survives this mission, he wants to hire on Natasha as a forger.  Which makes him wonder…

“Why am I still alive?” he asks right out.  No reason to beat around the bush. 

She smiles a small deliberate smile, the corners of her lips moving out but not up. “Two reasons: I still haven’t figured out your name, and I need your help to set up your contact.”

“Arthur. And what’s in it for me?”

This time her smile widens, and Arthur suspects it might actually be genuine. Or at least it’s a good facsimile of it.

“You help me, and I let you walk away at the end.” 

Arthur raises his eyebrows.  A reasonable deal all considered, but being a businessman is part of the skillset of pointman, and even before the Economics 101 class he knew it was always worth bargaining for a little more. 

“I live and you give me a way to contact you so I can hire you as the forger on a future job.”

At this, she puts on a smirk that is all Barbara Sugarman.  It does things to his heart and his groin that he ruthlessly stomps down. He’s not going down that road again.

“You know, Arthur,” she says, “you’re cute when you bargain.  It’s a deal.” 

When Clint gets the call from Arthur, he resists the urge to ask the former pointman what took him so long and instead picks a location on the Upper West side with tall buildings around, and an hour of the night with few joggers. Clint arrives two hours early, personally scouts out everything from above, grumbles over the coms about how much he hates being on the ground, and goes back down to the ground level where Arthur now waits in a crisp brown suit, holding the suitcase that Clint gave Arthur at their original meeting. 

Wordlessly, Arthur hands the suitcase back over and clearly waits for Clint’s reaction. Clint blinks slowly. Considering how the dream espionage business usually works, Arthur is probably expecting Clint to try and kill him now that he’s refused to complete the job, or possibly later. Which means that Arthur has backup somewhere, someone covering his ass.  Backup that Clint himself hasn’t spotted, and that he hasn’t gotten any heads-up about through his earpiece.  Arthur’s backup is good. 

It has to be Natasha.  There’s no one else whom could evade detection by Clint and all the people they’d put together for this mission. Arthur can’t be so stupid to have not brought backup.  It’s Natasha, and that’s why Arthur’s bailing on his job, they’ve allied themselves. 

That means that there’s no way Clint can take Arthur out right now and survive. He could almost definitely take Arthur out, but if he did so Nat wouldn’t let Clint walk away. Damn.  He knows she’ll be as cold hearted as she needs to be. Conceal, don’t feel motherfuckers.  She could’ve shown that Elsa how it’s done. 

Clint’s attention is drawn back to the situation at hand by Arthur shifting slightly. The archer nods once without speaking, turns his back to Arthur, and begins walking away.  Arthur won’t take the shot, Clint knows from his history, and even if he did Clint’s people would take him out.  Nat won’t take the shot either: she’ll follow.

Clint remains at the street level while walking to the subway.  He never catches even a glance of Nat as he blends in with the straphangers, but he knows she follows.  Like Orpheus and Eurydice, Clint knows that if he looks too closely Nat will disappear. The crowd makes him nervous, but he knows it is necessary for his safety, for the plan.  He continues to scan the crowd, searching, knowing he won’t see her if she doesn’t want to be seen.  The ride to Brooklyn is 45 minutes, and he gets more nervous the further he goes. He manages to resist the urge to begin chanting “be cool, be cool,” aloud to himself, but only because he suspects Nat might actually start laughing at him from wherever she’s following, and he doesn’t want to give away the game too soon.  His palms remain dry because he is used to high-pressure situations like this, because he knows Nat won’t take him out until she learns more, and because he continually wipes them on his pants. 

At the other end of his ride Clint goes to the surface again, and walks the three blocks to the warehouse quickly.  He does not climb up into the rafters like he wants but instead walks into the open space in the middle and waits.  Two minutes later he sees one of the skylights darken, then slowly inch open.

“Come on down, Natasha,” Clint calls up to her as she slips in through the opening and swings hand-over-hand towards a catwalk.  She wears her black mission suit, skin tight but flexible so as to not interfere with any motions she might make.  Her hair is tied back; Clint knows that with another target she would have her hair down as a distraction, trying to cloud his judgment with her body, confuse his vision with the extraneous motion.  But Clint’s focus is extreme.  Somewhere in their years of sparring against each other Nat transitioned to putting her hair up and out of the way for efficiency, and she has tied it into a low bun for this mission. 

“Why should I?” she replies, not the least out of breath, hopping over the railing.

“Because we want you to bring him in.”  Clint watches Nat cock her head at this as she strolls down the catwalk towards a ladder, a gesture he knows she deliberately makes to indicate thought. Every motion Nat makes all the time is deliberate.  In the field, when not working a mark, Nat limits her motions to the barest minimum, economical and efficient. 

Finally she asks, “We?”

A creaking door draws both their eyes to a back room, Clint turning around entirely, Nat’s head whipping around and down.  Nick Fury’s entrance isn’t quite as dramatic without the sweeping black cloak and all the power of SHIELD behind him, but even in blue jeans, a brown leather jacket, shades, and all by himself, he still makes an imposing figure.

“We,” Fury says. “We put you both in a situation where he would be as on guard against you as possible, and where you would be as suspicious of him as possible.  We need someone with his skills, and he’s passed your tests, so he’s sufficiently trustworthy.  Bring him in.”

Clint blinks slowly to bring the world into focus.  He’s well rested; he can’t remember feeling this well rested since before New Mexico. But wait, if he’s well rested, that means he’s been sleeping, and there was no time to sleep with the current mission, pitting two of the world’s best masters of espionage against each other, all to make sure he and Fury got the truest read possible on the one they did not yet trust. 

Fury. Fury told her to bring Arthur in. No wait, that was a dream…

Finally Clint opens his eyes all the way and sees that he lies in a bed, in a small apartment bedroom, Natasha sitting up by his side, packing away the PASIV. She wears normal street clothes, but he can see her black mission suit in a bag on the floor and it begins to come back to him.  He hears a noise from the next room and his eyes dart nervously towards the open door.

“Arthur’s making breakfast,” she says.  

Clint winces, squeezing his eyes shut tightly.  It was a dream.  He hasn’t yet reported to Fury. Nat and Arthur had teamed up and tricked him right back.  In the dream Clint had taken the money back from Arthur and then lead her to the warehouse where they had met with Fury.  In this reality he had met with Arthur but Nat must have taken him down on the way from the meeting site.  “Goddammit Nat,” he says without any heat.  “You know I already have enough issues with reality without you adding a whole ’nother bag of cats to them.  You know I never wanted to dream share.  Ever.

She smirks slightly, but her eyes are soft.  “Yeah, I know. Better that than risk killing you when I still didn’t know if I could trust you.”  She’s talking more than she usually would with a stranger in just the next room over, without even a closed door between them. Clint isn’t sure if it’s for his benefit, or if she’s still coming down off of being Barbara Sugarman, or maybe even that she really trusts Arthur that much.  The fact that he’s wondering about this means it’s probably not another layer of dream.  Probably. He smells bacon. He needs to make one of those thingits the frequent dreamers use, what do they call them?  A totem, that’s it.  The bacon smells good.  He doesn’t ever smell things in a dream.  Maybe he can just carry raw bacon and a frying pan around with him all the time. The bacon can fit in the outer pocket of his quiver, probably even with a miniaturized refrigeration system, but a pan would be a bit unwieldy. 

Clint grumbles deep in his throat and shifts himself up the bed slightly, trying to get more comfortable, and rubs at the inside of his left elbow where it stings from the needle.  He’ll have to shoot leftie for a couple days, avoid hitting the site with the bowstring. “Bring me some of that food and I’ll think about forgiving you.”

She smiles, a small, economic, deliberate twitching of the muscles and rises gracefully from the bed.  When she gets to the door she throws a look at him over her shoulder. 

“It’s good to have you back, Clint.” 

Arthur has already rolled his die fifteen times while cooking the bacon, and another eight while frying the omelets in the bacon grease.  A single snake eye every time.  He’s pretty sure he never rolled it in front of Natasha – or Barbara, or Esther – but he resolves to make a new totem later just in case. Arthur wears a gray button-down shirt, blue slacks, and an apron to protect them from splattering grease, and he feels more like himself than he can remember feeling for ages. The coffee machine is nearly done percolating a large pot; coffee always helps him to restore his equilibrium after dream sharing.  Even though Natasha didn’t say anything specifically about Barton, when Arthur saw how tenderly she laid his body out on the bed before inserting the IV, he realized how much she cared for the other man. 

Why he decides to make coffee for the two former SHIELD agents, one of whom stole his heart twice, the other of whom set the whole thing up in the first place, Arthur doesn’t know.  But the coffee is percolating, and he flips the omelets. 

He stuffs the die in his pocket as he hears Natasha come out of the bedroom, and thinks that she must be deliberately making noise for his benefit.  She sets the table then takes the finished pot and pours two mugs of coffee and places them at her and Arthur’s usual places at the table. For a moment Arthur blinks rapidly in confusion – in the real world, this is only the second time she has been to his place – but then he remembers the weeks they spent shared between their two apartments in the dream.  Just because they spent more of their relationship together in the dream does not make that time, those experiences, any less real.  He should know: this is one of the few things that Dom did share with him after Mal’s death, the many years they spent together in Limbo.

“Clint, breakfast! Come on out, you can’t sleep in someone else’s bed all day unless you actually put out for them,” Natasha calls to her partner in Arthur’s bedroom as he transfers the food into plates. Or maybe it’s really Jon’s bedroom. He’s not too sure he knows anymore. God, how does Natasha manage it, balancing so many different personalities and life stories.  At the start of all this Arthur had mused to himself that he needed to learn more about who the Black Widow really was. And now, at the end of it, Arthur realizes he knows no more about the real Natasha Romanoff than he knew at the start.

As Barton gingerly lowers himself into the third chair, moving for all the world as if he’s getting over the flu, Arthur puts the plates of cheese omelets with bacon at their places and Natasha places the entire remaining coffeepot in front of Barton. The other man’s eyes light up, and he eagerly grabs the pot by the handle and brings it to his lips. He flinches at the heat of it, but still chugs down half the pot before stopping for air. When he lowers the pot again, he catches Arthur’s eye and barks out “What’re you looking at?” Arthur squints slightly, then looks away. 

The rest of the meal is conducted in a silence that Arthur feels is uncomfortable, but the other two at the table do not show any tension in their bodies, their shoulders down, one of Natasha’s legs tucked under the other on her chair, Barton occasionally scratching his ass.  Arthur isn’t sure whether they’re really this relaxed with him intruding on them, or if they’re just faking it, but either way he does not break the silence. When all their plates are empty, Barton clears his throat and Arthur looks up at him.  The other man is looking at Natasha, who is looking at Arthur.

“We would like to hire you,” she says. 

Huh. His mind clicks over into negotiating mode.  He’ll need data on the job before he can even decide, and without a break after the last one he’ll want to charge extra.  Especially since he didn’t get paid for that last job.  “I don’t do forging myself,” he replies slowly, watching his potential employer, “but I know someone excellent who does.” 

Barton snorts, but Arthur doesn’t take his eyes from Natasha as she lets herself smile slightly and nods her head in acknowledgement of his compliment.  Then her face smoothes out again.  “Not for a job.  Permanently. We’re rebuilding SHIELD, or perhaps building a new organization.  We need someone with your skills, and now we know we can trust you.” 

Arthur checks out at the word “permanently.”  He knows he hasn’t hidden it from his face despite the fact that Natasha continues her pitch. He doesn’t even blink at the reveal that this was all a set up to determine his limits, to find out how reliable he is. When Natasha stops speaking, Arthur resists the urge to shoot back, “but I don’t know that I can trust either of you,” and instead stands up with his plate in his hand. 

“Thank you for your generous offer,” he says politically, regardless of whether he actually feels the offer to be a good one.  He flicks a glance over to Barton as well to include him in the statement and continues, “but I am not interested in a permanent position at this time. I am only available for individual contracts.”  He meets both of their blank eyes for a moment, then reaches out to take their plates and begins clearing the table. 

Arthur is relieved that Natasha does not attempt to persuade him. He does not know himself whether he would be able to resist, but he suspects the answer is no.

Natasha is not surprised at Arthur’s response to her offer to bring him in to whatever they’re rebuilding out of the ashes of SHIELD.  She could have told Fury how he would react, but he would not have listened so she had not bothered.  She chooses not to attempt to persuade him for Clint’s sake – based on his reaction to the dream share earlier, Natasha suspects the archer would rather put as much distance between himself and the pointman as possible. The three of them make small talk while cleaning up the dishes, and then Natasha and Clint grab their things and turn to leave.  He opens the door and checks the hall before giving her the all-clear signal. While this is their normal routine on joint missions due to his better eyesight, Natasha does not reveal her surprise that he would do so while they’re off-duty.  He’s on edge.  Natasha turns to bid her goodbyes to Arthur. 

“Could I have a moment?” he asks before she can speak, and he manages to not flick his eyes towards Clint, but she knows that is what he means.  She casts a quick glance at her partner.  She hurt Clint, she knows she did.  His grasp on reality has been tenuous at best since New York, his non-stop missions being the main thing that helped ground him, and now she’s forced him into a dream. Of everyone out there in the world, she did this to him. Out of everyone in the world, she did this to him. This is more than just another red mark in her ledger, this is Clint. He deserves her time. Clint’s face is impassive. She turns back to Arthur. She has hurt him too. While she doesn’t know his full history yet, and may never learn it in fact, she knows that he is not used to being the forger, he’s certainly not used to others tricking him, and her layers of deception have struck him deep. 

Behind her Clint sniffs, and when she turns to him again, his head dips barely enough for her to see it. She gives a more solid nod back, and Clint says “I’m gonna go find some coffee.  I’ll text you where to find me, Nat.” 

Natasha watches the door close behind Clint and does not turn to Arthur after, keeping her back towards him, her head drooping slightly.  It’s his show. 

Softly, he asks, “Who are you really?”  Natasha hears the other question behind his words: “Which of them are you really?”  

She lets the flinch show, her shoulders tensing up, then raising her head she turns to face him. His eyes are narrow as they watch her, his lips tight.  In his dress clothes Arthur stands straighter than she has ever seen when he was in jeans and a T-shirt. More confidence, more self-assurance, throughout his entire body.  And yet with furrowed eyebrows and a slight tremble in his lower lip, Arthur shows confusion and uncertainty that he does not attempt to hide. This Arthur is almost a different man from Don Jon, yet she knows he does not see his successes in his impossible mission, only his failures.  

Natasha shrugs, keeps her face impassive.  “All of them. None of them.” Arthur’s face falls slightly, his expression blank.  He deserves more of an answer than that.  She breaks eye contact, looking down at the carpet.  Softly she says, “I don’t really know.  There was a time I thought I knew who I was, but then my trainers took me and broke me of that.”  She looks up again, meets his eyes.  “And then I thought I knew again on my first mission, but my husband died and then tried to kill me.” She notes how Arthur suppresses a wince on the word “husband,” but she goes on.  “I thought I knew when I came to the US for a mission, but then Barton brought me in.  And,” with a wry grin, “I thought I knew when I was working for SHIELD, but you saw what happened in DC. So now, I just don’t know.” She shrugs again.

Arthur takes a deep breath.  “Well I have to admit I wasn’t expecting an honest answer.”  He looks down for a moment, clasps his hands behind his back, and from the tension alternating in his legs Natasha can see that he wants to scuff his feet but doesn’t.  Arthur frowns at the floor, and she can tell he’s trying to make a decision.  She takes a quick step forward and places a finger across his lips as he looks up. 

“You’re thinking about asking me to find out who I am with you,” she says. “Don’t.  You won’t like yourself if you ask me, and you won’t like my answer.” Just as Arthur would not accept Natasha’s offer to join SHIELD, to come to her on her terms, she will not come to Arthur on his terms. 

He nods and she removes her finger.  He licks his lips and opens them to say something, but she continues before he can. “What happened to you was…collateral damage…” she pauses, looks away, takes a breath, and looks back. “I try to minimize other damage, but the main mission has to take priority.”  She doesn’t say that she was even more ignorant of their circumstances than him at the start.  She doesn’t say that he wasn’t her mission originally.  She doesn’t say that he’s the one who put himself into her line of fire. He can’t help but be thinking those things already, and repeating them would just be twisting the dagger. She also doesn’t apologize, but makes another mark in the little black book in her head, that’s the closest she’ll get to saying she’s sorry. 

Arthur seems to understand what she means, as he slowly nods at her. They remain quiet for a while, his brown eyes meeting her currently hazel ones, then he looks away. “Well, I’m looking forward to working with you in the future, whoever you are.”  He looks back at her again, and holds out his right hand to shake hers. “No hard feelings,” he says, half a statement of his own intent, half a question about hers. 

She reaches out for his hand and shakes.  His hand is dry and warmer than hers, and his grip is firm and professional. “No hard feelings, Arthur. It will be a pleasure to work with you in the future.  I look forward to your call.” She considers whether to say the next thing, or if it is revealing too much to him.  But he deserves it after what she did to him. “And not just for a job, call me any time you need my help.”  Is that enough to say?  No, that book with his name in red ink stares at her.  She needs him to know that.  “I owe you one.”

His eyebrows rise and his grip loosens slightly.  She squeezes again gently, and then lets go.  With a little smile at him, Natasha reaches down for her bag and turns for the door.  She is halfway down the hallway when he calls her name.  She turns back to where Arthur stands in the doorway, one hand on the lintel, face looking lost.  He’s too far for her to be able to stop him from saying something stupid, so she only hopes he doesn’t choose to do so.  She raises an eyebrow at him, and he nods his head up at her. 


She smiles a large genuine smile, turns again, and leaves the building in search of Clint.

For the first time in a long time, Natasha’s heart feels light.