In the old days, before everything went to hell, I would have been expected to exercise restraint.
I would have gone to Fury, hat in hand, to beg for a few crumbs of information. I would have called him sir and nodded as he explained that he couldn't explain, and I would have accepted that I couldn't be told, even though I didn't really believe it. I would have done all this, not because I was trained to obedience (I was) and not because I thought Fury was always right (he wasn't) but because I had come to believe, through examples set by Coulson and others, that this was simply how an agent of SHIELD acted.
But Coulson's dead now. Fury is too, at least in the eyes of the world, and in those same eyes SHIELD is worse than dead: it's mutated, metastasized, become something too large to be controlled; it has ripped apart buildings and run down good people and let chaos loose on the world.
I tend to think that Dr. Banner would understand.
The air is clogged with dust and gunpowder and something he should be able to identify but can't quite put his finger on. Something almost-chemical, something pungently astringent, that wafts in the air when the door down the hall is opened.
Most of the time the door is closed, and the cells are dark. There are voices, sometimes, but they are only murmurs, frustratingly-brief snatches of conversation beneath a deep, rumbling, oceanic roar.
He tries to take stock of his situation, his environment. His arms are cuffed behind his back; his feet are hobbled. His mouth is desert-dry; his face feels stiff with dried blood. Everything hurts. Shoulders, back, ribs, head. Everything. But he's alive. Alive is good.
He barely has time to appreciate this before consciousness folds back on itself.
For a while, after New York, things were normal again. And by normal I mean that everything changed, completely and irrevocably, and then the change became normalcy, and homeostasis was reached.
Aliens. Supermen. Flying space-monsters and buildings reduced to dust and thousands dead or missing. I expected riots, at the very least. I anticipated everything up to and including the complete collapse of society. I guess I had forgotten - or maybe underappreciated - the human capacity to cope. Especially in the US... people seemed so wrapped up in sharing invasion footage on YouTube and conspiracy theories on message boards and taking selfies in the rubble that they just forgot to be as terrified as they probably should have been.
Admiration for Stark and morbid interest in the Hulk morphed into something approaching, then exceeding, veneration. Hundreds of new temples to Thor and the rest of the Norse gods sprang up almost overnight, and thousands of young men and women flooded military recruitment centers with the name Steve Rogers on their lips. The four of them were humanity's saviors, and if they were truly worthy of the praise heaped on them, well, then they were invulnerable, omniscient, and incorruptible. They would save us from whatever came next, no matter how terrible.
These attitudes were never spoken aloud, but they were known all the same.
For Clint and me, it was different. We'd been down there, but lost among the flight and flash and lightning. We were okay with being part of the larger unveiling of SHIELD as an official entity (and after all, what other choice did we have?), just another quasi-governmental organization with timecards and pensions and a motorpool, only, you know, with a giant flying aircraft carrier. Eventually the facts of SHIELD's existence would make people nervous, and even angry, but in those early days I think that most people were relieved we existed. They loved the guys, of course, but SHIELD was something recognizably human which, they believed, could stand up against any threat.
Needless to say, they gave us way too much credit.
Someone brings him water in a shallow metal bowl. His hands are still bound so he has to roll over and slurp it out like a dog. Once he would have been too proud, but he's older now - and humbler, if not wiser - and he knows that water is life. Whoever they are, they don't want him dead. At least not yet.
The more time he spends conscious, the more he comes to realize that the roar of the ocean is only in his head. He leans back and taps his cuffs against the hard ground, trying to decide if his hearing loss is in both ears, or only one. It's better than obsessing over whether or not it's permanent. He remembers bits and pieces: Jackson... stopping for gas... and then the sudden, overwhelming brightness-noise that he only had an instant to recognize as a flash-bang...
He's not stone deaf, at least, but it might be easier if he was. He can't hear anything useful, just the indistinct murmur of unintelligible words, and the rhythmic stomp of booted feet as shadowy figures pass by his cell. Only once does he hear the sound - or maybe just feel the vibration - of a different pair of shoes. The staccato tap-tap-tap of a woman's heels. He feigns unconsciousness and pushes against the ocean, straining to catch the merest word.
She's talking to someone else, he thinks. Her voice is soft but the diction precise. She says "surgery," and then "subject."
A few seconds later, he hears/feels her leave. A door opens. A door closes.
The smell is in the air again, faint and elusive. He found it almost pleasant the first time, a clean, bracing scent so different from the dark griminess of his new reality. Now he only feels vaguely nauseous.
He realizes it is the smell of aftershave.
Timecards and pensions and motorpools and red tape. We dealt with a lot of that, once the dust settled in New York. Someone was put in charge of revising the standard forms to refer to nonhuman combatants and extraterrestrial airborne conveyances. I remember sitting in the Helicarrier's mess, across the table from Clint, each of us with a cup of coffee and our own leviathan-sized stack of paperwork. There were so many times that I'd look up from what I was writing and see him sitting there... not reading, just staring at the paper, lost in thought.
Lost in memory.
I think he half-expected Fury to discharge him, when all was said and done. Looking back, I think that there was a time he would have welcomed a reason to leave.
He did leave, of course. We all did, for a little while. Fury's orders. He said we needed some time to get our heads on straight, but I always felt that he was trying to protect us from something. From the media, or the bureaucracy, or each other.
I dropped Clint off at the airport myself. He told me that he was going to go visit family, although he wouldn't specify who or say where he was headed, and all I knew about were his parents (dead) and his brother (missing).
I passed him his duffle. He took it, tried to turn away, but I held on to the strap. He looked at it, looked at me, yanked on the strap, looked annoyed when I didn't let go.
"You're coming back," I told him.
The annoyance changed to something else. Was it guilt? He saw me looking and raised his free hand to pull down his sunglasses. "Of course," he said flatly.
I was the one who felt guilty. I was leaving him at the airport but I might as well be leaving him in the middle of the Sahara. He probably thought I didn't care, when the truth was that I cared so much that it bothered me. I cared so much that I was trying to prove to myself I didn't. "If you don't," I said, "Fury'll send me to find you."
He pulled again, harder. "Obviously."
"And if he doesn't," I said, "I find you anyway."
I meant to sound tough, like it was a threat, but something funny happens when you've known someone for years. Clint and I had been in a lot of bad spots together... physically, geographically... mentally. He'd heard me threaten a time or two. He knew what it sounded like. This wasn't a threat.
"I'm coming back," he said, and I believed him this time. At least I wanted to.
I let the strap go and tried to ignore the Sahara-like feel of it all. I wanted to hug him or hit him but instead I just smiled my sweetest, flirtiest, emptiest smile and told him to travel safe, or something equally stupid, when what I really wanted to say was don't be a liar. Don't make a liar out of me.
Three months later he walked into a strike team briefing at the new Triskelion. He was ten minutes late and Hill paused in her presentation just long enough to let him know that she was offended by his tardiness. That was it. He sat down, and she went on to the next slide.
I met his eye. I'd fully intended to reprise the empty smile from the airport, but it wouldn't come. It almost felt like I was too full to give a smile like that. "How's the family?" I asked.
"Right where I left them," he said.
He remembers Pennsylvania, tracking an asset. A possible candidate for the Index was all the Director had said. Observe and report. Then Fury's text: Sending Agent Schulz to relieve you. Need you to look into something at the Cube.
He knows about the Cube - at least he's heard of it - but he's never been there. He thinks that few agents have. It's a prison, like the Fridge and the Raft, specializing in criminals who've taken to irradiating themselves as a hobby. Not exactly high on anyone's travel itinerary.
He flashes his SHIELD ID at the front gate; after a palm swipe and retinal scan, they grudgingly let him in. The Cube has a full complement of medical staff, he sees, but also a good number of SHIELD personnel acting as guards and technicians. He wonders who they'd pissed off to get this duty. Then he wonders who HE'S pissed off.
The 'something' Fury wants him to investigate is unclear. Unauthorized communications, or evidence that such communications have been erased from the logs. Strange - stranger than normal - behavior from some of the prisoners. "It's like they know something's coming," says Dr. Jacobs, nervously tapping her pen against her clipboard.
"A jailbreak?" he asks her.
She flinches at the word, glancing over at Agent Kaminsky. The young man answers for her. "Absolutely not. Nothing's getting out of here, sir."
Clint thinks, doors open in both directions.
Kaminsky seems eager to talk, though. Maybe he's just happy for some variety in the company. He talks about the prisoners, their crimes, their quirks, their mutations. He talks about the Hulk maybe ending up in the Cube some day, and laughs, but the laugh peters out when Clint declines to join in. He talks until Clint starts simply tuning him out. The kid seems entirely too energetic for someone locked up with several dozen radiation-soaked psychopaths.
Clint thinks, maybe I'm just getting old.
He sends his report to Fury, not that there's much to report on. He waits for the Director to acknowledge receipt. And waits. And waits.
Then the signal begins. Everywhere, incessant, encoded, and he tasks Kaminsky with decrypting it.
OUT OF THE SHADOWS, says the computer, INTO THE LIGHT.
I confronted Clint the night before he went to Pennsylvania. It didn't exactly go the way I had planned.
I admit that I was a little pissed off. Maybe more than a little, really, because not only was he avoiding me, he was trying to be sneaky about it. Blaming the unusual spate of solo missions on Fury, on Hill, on the weather, on schedule conflicts.
Sneaky was my thing. He could do it okay, if he had to, but he couldn't do it with me.
That day he walked into the mission briefing ten minutes late, risking Hill's eternal displeasure, I'd congratulated myself on a victory... on being bold enough, or convincing enough, to bring him back from his self-imposed exile. But it had been almost two years since New York, since Loki and everything that son of a bitch had brought with him, and I could count the number of missions we'd done together on one hand.. with a couple of fingers left over. If that was a victory, then it was an awfully hollow one from my perspective.
"Is this partnership thing just not working for you?" I asked. "Because I think if you want a new one, there's a form you have to fill out first."
I'd found him at the range. It was after midnight and we were alone, and for several long seconds he continued to line up his shot, acting like he hadn't even heard me, like I wasn't even there. That just pissed me off more, so I hopped the counter - ignored the computerized voice warning me that I was going to get my ass shot off - and stood between his arrow and the target. "Come on," I said, trying to get a rise of out him. "Ask me what I'm talking about."
He didn't put the bow down. The arrow wasn't anything special - not a smoker or stunner or icer, just the regular old pointy-at-the-end kind that humans have been using to poke holes in each other since the beginning of time - but at this range it probably would have killed me before I could get out of its way. The fact that he held it on me wasn't a threat, the same way my standing there wasn't a suicidal impulse. It was just how we talked to each other. One of the only ways we knew how, it seemed.
He let the arrow fly. The fletching whispered past my right ear and I heard the distinctive ka-thunk of it striking the target at the far end of the range. I didn't need to look to know he's hit the bull's-eye dead on. He wouldn't have taken the shot if he couldn't do it right.
"I know what you're talking about," he said.
I'll admit, it wasn't the answer I'd been expecting, and it threw me off my game for a second. Only a second. "We were both scheduled for a mission, but you told Hill you could do it on your own."
He notched another arrow. A tracker this time, with a small but powerful beacon embedded in the arrowhead. "I can. I won't be engaging anyone. It's just observation."
"New Mexico was just observation," I pointed out.
The tracker arrow zipped past my left ear. I felt the air move against my cheek in its wake. Ka-thunk.
"Yeah," said Clint, forcing a chuckle. "I remember that much."
I narrowed my eyes. "You need to prove that you can do it on your own, is that it? Fine. We all believe you. But there's a reason that we do it this way. It's always better to have someone watching your back."
I should mention that, on some level, it was hard to believe that those words were actually coming out of my mouth. Me. The Black Widow. I wasn't known for playing well with others. My old masters had instilled in all of us the idea that there was no backup, no extraction plan, and to expect or require one was a sign of weakness, and now here I was giving a fellow agent a pep talk on teamwork. I guess it just shows how completely Fury had gotten into my head with his whole 'be a part of something bigger' mantra.
When Clint didn't answer, just stared downrange towards his target, I continued. "If I'd been there in New Mexico-"
"You had your own op. Besides. Fury was in New Mexico." Calmly, he reached for the last arrow on the counter. It was an incendiary, which must have been a mistake, since I was pretty sure Clint didn't intend to blow up a SHIELD facility. Still, after a second of contemplation, he set it to the string. "So was Hill." Pulled the string back. "If you'd been there..."
I snorted and folded my arms across my chest. "Please. You think I'm easier to kill than Maria?"
He released. The arrow passed over my head, tugging on a flyaway strand of hair as it flew. Ka-thunk. I didn't flinch - I know I didn't - but it's possible that a muscle near my left eye twitched a few millimeters as I waited for the explosion to follow.
It didn't follow.
Clint smirked, although the expression didn't quite reach his eyes. "It's a dud."
You're a dud, I wanted to tell him, but that wasn't up to my usual standards of witty repartee. I had to settle for a withering look.
He sighed. "I appreciate it, Natasha. This. The... heart to heart." He smirked again. I remained stone-faced. He had a tendency to act like a wry, cynical, oh-isn't-this-funny jackass whenever he thought he could get away with it, whenever he was afraid of being honest with me, and I wasn't going to play along. "I guess after... everything... I didn't want to be around a lot of people. Not that you're a lot of people," he amended, as though I had started to object. I hadn't. "I just started thinking like a specialist again." He looked down at his bow, and I wondered if he was seeing the weapon in his hands or... something else. Whatever it was, it sobered him; I felt that his next words were, if nothing else, honest. "It's an easy habit to get into. I... I didn't think it would bother you."
I decided to offer up some honesty of my own. "You know what would bother me?" I asked, putting my hands on my hips. "You going on one of these solo ops and not coming back."
He leaned his hip against the empty counter, eyes on his bow, expression flat and yet somehow still thoughtful. I liked him so much better like this... without either the forced levity or the bravado. "I guess I'll tell Fury to put Delta back on the board."
We both knew better, of course. If Fury - and by extension, Hill - had needed the both of us on any given op, they wouldn't have cut me out to protect Clint's delicate feelings. No one told the Director to do anything, except maybe Alexander Pierce. But it was good to hear the words, anyway, and I allowed myself to smile. "So, where are we going to be observing?"
He smiled back. This time the expression almost reached his eyes. Almost. "Come on, Natasha. You know the walls here have ears."
But early the next morning I received my own orders, the first of which directed me to drive down to DC and pick up Steve Rogers. A few hours later, we were in flight over the Indian Ocean, en route to the Lemurian Star.
Kaminsky's first shot almost takes his head off. The second hits one of the computer monitors with a sharp crack and the third would have caught Dr. Jacobs in the chest. Clint doesn't have the time or the elbow room to reach for his bow, and his hand is halfway to his sidearm before he realizes that he doesn't have time for that either, and that there are other SHIELD personnel in the room and he can't tell who's firing at who...
He knocks Jacobs to the ground, shouting at her to get down, get down, and the bullet that would have killed her lodges in one of the access terminals instead. Sparks flare, spurt, shower down from the panels, illuminating the doctor as she pulls herself into the leg space beneath one of the computer stations, her eyes wide and terrified.
Those eyes, and Kaminsky's fleeing back, are among the last things he sees before the lights go off.
The absolute last thing he sees is the final decoded word on the computer screen.
For the most part, the Lemurian op went as expected, up to and including the rescue of the hostages, the recovery of Fury's data, and Cap's resentment about not being clued in. And while I didn't have anything against Rumlow's strike team - not yet, anyway - it did occur to me that it would have been pretty nice to have Clint watching my back at a time like that. At least I would have been able to tell him the truth about my mission.
When we got back to the States - before Fury's "death," before the Winter Soldier came crawling out of my nightmares - I took a trip back up to New York. To Clint's apartment.
I don't know exactly what drew me there, or what I expected to find. I did know, from what little Fury had said upon our return, that Clint wouldn't be back yet... and yeah, not having any idea where he was made me a little uncomfortable. It made me remember how long we'd spent tracking him using all of SHIELD's considerable resources, how he'd gotten out of the US - and in and out of Germany - without making the slightest blip on the radar. If he ever decided to fall off the grid, there wasn't a whole lot I could do about it.
I saw the map first. It was taped to the wall in his dining room... or what would have been the dining room in a normal person's apartment. We'd used the room - and its counterpart in my place - for mission prep on those rare occasions when we were given more than a couple hours at HQ to get ready. We'd packed bags here, cleaned weapons, memorized dossiers, spit-balled possible exit strategies... and yes, spent a fair amount of time going over maps. But the one on the wall now wasn't SHIELD-grade, and it certainly wasn't classified information. It was just a road map of the United States, of the kind that had once - and I assumed still were - sold at gas stations from sea to shining sea, despite the profligacy of GPS and digital navigation programs.
The second thing I saw was the thumbtack. It had been pushed into the wall at the very top of the map, in northern Quebec.
I'm lying. I saw the necklace first; how could I not? And I'll admit that my guts clenched up momentarily, an oily, uncomfortable sensation perilously close to jealousy, as though I'd found a pair of women's underwear stuck between the couch cushions. A silvery arrow pendant on a thin chain. Obviously it wasn't Clint's... it had to be someone's...
Then I noticed the thumbtack, where the necklace had been hung, and finally I registered the map on the wall. And the fact that the point of the arrow was aimed at Pennsylvania.
Clint remembers the darkness of the Cube. He thought it was dark before, but that had just been mood lighting. This is real darkness. The darkness of rooms without windows, the darkness that even night-vision can't penetrate because there's no faintest hint of light to be magnified, the darkness so absolute that it has weight and depth and texture.
Jacobs sobs quietly, and across the room someone groans, and then the emergency power comes on. The dim red light has a disturbingly bloody quality to it, but it's enough to see by. Barely.
What follows is the one of the longest days of his life.
By the time he catches up with Kaminsky, the young agent has joined up with several others. Their interest at the moment doesn't seem to be releasing the prisoners - small mercies - but on killing the rest of the Cube's personnel, agents and medical staff alike.
There are too many in the rogue group for him to deal with by himself, so for the first few hours he's forced to tail a pair at a time and wait for them to try and take someone out, thereby identifying that someone as a potential ally. It's a difficult way to do business, in the dim red light, in the chaos and confusion and distrust. More than once he expects to be shot dead by someone he's rescued, knowing that civilians and paranoia and itchy trigger fingers all make for a very bad mix.
He feels a little like Bruce Willis in Die Hard, but with shoes, and surrounded by radioactive monsters.
I could have left the necklace there. Should have. There was no good reason for me to be standing in my partner's dining room, clasping a piece of jewelry around my neck, as though it belonged to me. But he'd left it for me - he must have - and that counted for something, didn't it? Maybe I thought it would be funny if Steve mentioned it. Maybe I thought about what Clint's reaction might be when he got back and saw me wearing it. Maybe I'm as good at lying to myself as everybody else.
Then I got the call from the hospital.
What can I possibly say about that day? Fury dead, the Lemurian Star drive in Steve's hands, the Winter Soldier rampaging across DC, and all of SHIELD trying to kill us. I must have told myself a hundred times that I didn't need to be a part of this, that I could disappear, that I didn't owe Rogers or Hill or any of them a damn thing, that all that mattered was saving my own skin.
Even I didn't believe those lies.
By a little after oh-three-hundred on the second day, it's over.
Clint hasn't slept since Pennsylvania. He can't remember the last time he ate. Truth is, he doesn't have much of an appetite. He's killed people today. He's killed SHIELD agents. He doesn't know what's going on, doesn't know enough to justify what's happened, and it reminds him far too strongly of the last time he took up arms against fellow agents. Several times he finds himself wondering, 'What if they don't know what they're doing? What if they're just under someone else's control?'
Then he thinks, 'What if I am?'
It's literally too horrible to contemplate. He had decided after New York that if he couldn't trust his own eyes and ears, he might as well turn in his credentials, curl up in a ball, and start sucking his thumb.
When he finds Dr. Jacobs again, tears have left streaks through makeup and dirt on her cheeks, but she is armed, and in the company of several other gun-toting members of the medical staff. "The prisoners are still secure," she says breathlessly. "One of... one of those people tried to cut power to Cell Block B, but... I shot him." She blinks. One of the other doctors squeezes her arm. "But... HYDRA... Agent Barton, I don't understand what's happening."
"Neither do I," says Clint grimly. "But I'm going to find out. Have you seen Kaminsky?"
Dazedly, Jacobs shakes her head, but another woman - a nurse, he thinks - steps forward with her hand raised. "I did. About ten minutes ago. He was with a few others on the second floor, but then there was an explosion from the east wing..."
Clint nods. Three of the rogue agents - or whatever they were - had barricaded themselves in a hallway adjacent to the main weapons locker. That hallway no longer exists.
"...and they took off up the stairs. I think they were headed for the roof."
"The helicopter," says a man.
Clint is tired and hungry and heartsick. He's called the Director to no avail. He doesn't understand what's happening. But he's already been up to the roof once tonight, just long enough to shoot a tracker onto the helicopter fuselage. Wherever Kaminsky and his goons go, Clint can follow them.
And he will.
"Have you heard from Clint?"
Fury had been trying to shrug into his trench coat one-armed, without grimacing against the pain, but my question made him pause. I'd gotten used to that reaction; it was automatic with him, as he weighed my need to know against my desire to understand.
It was hours before the end, and I'll admit that I still thought of him as the Director. Otherwise I might have had a stronger reaction to his measured reply. "He's safe."
I'd tucked the necklace beneath my new blue blazer and ostentatious Councilwoman jewelry, otherwise I might have been tempted to touch it then. "Safe where? Pennsylvania?"
Fury grunted and settled the coat into place. "I see compartmentalization doesn't mean a whole lot to you two, either."
That grated on me, considering how recently I'd defended Fury's tactics to Rogers. "It's a brave new world, sir."
He shifted his arm in its harness. "There was a change of plans. I needed him at the Cube."
I blinked. "Guard duty?"
"Watching the watchers. There'd been some unusual communication-"
He didn't like being interrupted any more than Hill liked latecomers to briefings. "In retrospect, I'd say that's a safe guess. Barton messaged in about five hours ago. Said the place was secure. That's all I know, Agent."
The thing that you learn real quick about Fury is that when he says that's all I know, he's completely and absolutely full of crap. But I was still Agent Romanoff at that precise moment, regardless of the blue blazer and the wig and the old-lady jewelry around my throat, and I was expected to exercise restraint. Throttling the director of SHIELD after he'd only just returned from the dead was definitely not on the agenda. I could either accept what he said as truth, or not.
For all I knew, I might be dead in an hour. I decided to believe him.
"We were outnumbered," Jeffery tells the boss. "SHIELD pressed the advantage."
Garrett frowns. Jeffery Kaminsky doesn't like the look of that frown. He prefers the boss smiling, laughing, telling stories... not looking like he's ready to shoot someone in the head. The boss doesn't do excuses. He doesn't do failure. "You managed to make it out with the chopper," he says. It's not a question.
"No worries, then. The Cube's small potatoes. Once we hit the Fridge and grab all the fun toys tucked away inside, we'll be able to take any base we want."
Jeffery feels his knees go weak and watery with relief. He's been in near mortal-terror the whole flight south, wondering if Garrett was going to blame him for losing the Cube when so many other teams were successful. In fact, if not for the little bonus they'd picked up in Jackson, he might have considered just not continuing on to base. He's so grateful for this mercy and so stirred by Garrett's confidence that he, well, kind of bursts out in honest-to-God HYDRA pride.
"All right, all right, put your arms down, Kaminsky," says the boss disgustedly. "You look like a West Texas cheerleader at a pep rally."
Jeffery feels his heart sink again as Garrett walks past him, taking one of the guns that Porter's team's brought in and beginning a demonstration. Jeffery knows that a demo will lead to a story, and there's not a whole lot of time left. It's now or never. He clears his throat.
Garrett turns, weapon in hand, eyebrows raised. Irritated.
Jeffery coughs. "The chopper's not all we brought, sir."
"Yeah, I heard you the first time," says the boss sourly. "Wasn't lesson number one in the HYDRA handbook something about not taking prisoners just for the hell of it?"
"We can hand him over to Cybertek," pipes up Wayne, as though this had all been his idea. Jeffery bristles. He had been the one to find the tracker when they'd put down to refuel near Lincoln, and to recognize whose handiwork it must be. It had been Jeffery's idea to linger in Jackson long enough to set up an ambush. Wayne had wanted to take Barton out then and there; the stun grenade had been all Jeffery's idea.
Not that any of that means he won't throw Wayne under the bus in a heartbeat.
"Cybertek's not going to have any shortage of volunteers," says Garrett, sounding bored.
"Understood," says Wayne, shrugging, "We were just thinking of the possibilities, sir."
"The possibilities of what the Centipede program could do with the-" Wayne raises his hands to sketch finger quotes in the air, "-World's Greatest Archer."
Garrett stares at him for a moment, unnervingly quiet, and then scratches his chin. "Phil Coulson was his SO, wasn't he?"
"And Romanoff's his partner," adds Jeffery, suddenly eager to be a part of this conversation. Garrett ignores him.
"Talk about adding insult to injury," the boss muses. "That'd be even more of a punch in the gut than old Peterson." He laughs aloud, and everyone within earshot seems to relax. "Fine. Stick him in the back, run it by Flowers over there. But her priorities are the hard drive and the drug. Now..." he turns back to the others, "Where was I?"
The first sign that something was wrong was Nick Fury standing by my car, across the street from the cemetery.
We'd made our peace with the end of SHIELD, counting it better at least than the end of the world, and planned to go our separate ways. He said he was headed to Europe, which made Europe the last place I would ever look for him. I'd used my last good alias to book a ticket for Fargo, North Dakota, where I could continue on foot to the Cube. After that... well, who knew. I'd told Steve I needed to figure out who I was without SHIELD. I knew I wasn't the only one.
But the look on Fury's face changed everything.
In the past I would have been expected to exercise restraint. To accept what I was told like a good little soldier. But I'd had a hell of a couple of days, and I was tired and pissed and sore and now, on top of all of all of that, I was scared.
"What's wrong?" I demanded. "The Cube is secure... I talked to Hill this morning..."
The list of SHIELD bases still standing was disturbingly short, consisting of only the Sandbox, the Fridge and the Hub. And the rumors I was hearing about the latter - through a handful of sources who hadn't vanished or thrown me under the bus - was... strange. They were saying that Agent Hand had gone to evaluate the situation at the Fridge and that she had left behind... well, there was a mistake, obviously. Wishful thinking if nothing else.
"I received a report from the Cube medical staff before we flew them out of Fargo," said Fury. "According to Dr. Jacobs, Barton was instrumental in retaking the facility."
My throat tightened. "And then?"
"And then he left. In the doctor's car. He told her he was planning to pursue a group of HYDRA agents who'd escaped in a SHIELD chopper."
I digested this. Yes, it sounded like my partner, or at least the person he'd become - reverted to - since New York. Shut up inside the Cube, he might not have known the depth or the scope of SHIELD's fall, but even if he had, Clint would have considered it his duty to track down this erstwhile group of traitors. On the other hand, it had been almost a week since what the intelligentsia was calling the "SHIELD Civil War." And - on that same hand - the very fact that Fury was standing here, telling me this, meant... well, something.
Then I registered the subtle emphasis in his words: 'He told her...' "You think that he was lying?"
Fury spread his hands. "I don't know what to think, Agent Romanoff."
"It's Natasha," I said tersely. Agent Romanoff didn't exist anymore, and he knew it. He was just trying to manipulate me, the same as he always did, with everybody, probably without consciously realizing it. "And of course you do. Just tell me what you know."
He raised a brow. "Exactly what I just told you, Natasha. No message. No answer on his phone. No GPS in the doctor's car."
I could feel myself getting angry. Ordinarily, I would have squashed the emotion without a second thought, but no... that was something the non-existent Agent Romanoff would have to do. Natasha was allowed to get pissed at Nick, and to show it. "And you're telling me this now... why? Why not five or six days ago when there still might have been a trail to follow? Even if Clint was HYDRA..." The very sound of the words made me laugh aloud. It was a wry, cynical laugh that Clint himself would have appreciated. I shook my head. "Coulson was his SO, and Coulson would have d-- would have done anything for SHIELD. Anything. And if it was true... if it was... don't you think he would have tried to turn me?"
Fury's expression remained as damnably impassive as ever. "I understand you have loyalty to Agent Barton."
"Clint," I snapped. "His name is Clint and you let me go on thinking he was safe. I guess you wanted to make sure I stuck around until you were on your feet?"
"I wanted to make sure you testified."
"What?" I shook my head again. Maybe if I shook it enough these ideas, these words, would start making sense. "Maria could have told that panel to go to hell just as well as me. As I recall, she did."
"I don't care about the panel." Was that an edge of frustration in his voice? I could only hope. "I care about the people. The people don't know Hill, but they'll recognize you from New York, and they'll remember."
I didn't understand at the time. It was only later, when events began to unfold, that I started seeing the bigger picture. The longer game. Fury was trying to use me to rehab SHIELD's reputation. After all, I'd sat there in front of Congress and essentially claimed that we were going to undo the damage we'd done, that we were going to take on HYDRA whether they liked it or not, and that no one else could do the job. And, because of New York, people - all those selfie-taking, Instagramming zombies whose votes and money meant so much to the people on Capitol Hill - would associate me with the Avengers. Who they still adored.
But at the moment, I didn't give a damn about any of that. All I knew was that my partner was missing, and that information had been kept from me so I could be a part of Fury's latest dog-and-pony show.
I said a few things then. Things I'm not especially proud of, but nothing I regret. Eventually Fury just shook his head and walked away, and I was left alone in the cemetery, furious and afraid and without options. Every resource I'd become accustomed to - clothes, weapons and transportation on demand - was gone. Most of my contacts had gone silent. I wasn't even pulling a paycheck any longer, since naturally all of SHIELD's accounts had been frozen.
I almost turned around and went looking for Steve. I knew he would help me if I asked... and I also knew that he had his own trail to follow, and how hard it would be to turn away from the person who had been his best friend so many years ago.
In the end, I got in the car and left the cemetery. After all, Steve wasn't the only Avenger on the eastern seaboard.
Clint has no way of marking time, other than tracking when someone comes to see if he's still breathing. No one seems to take much interest in him for the first few days, although they finally send someone - a dour, silent man dressed in camo - to recuff his hands in front of him. The bonds are still tight, but at least now he can relieve himself in the thoughtfully-provided bucket without ending up covered in piss.
They also start bringing him food - beans and rice, mostly, and spices that remind him of trips to the Caribbean - but it's maybe the third or fourth day that he starts having trouble keeping it down. Poison doesn't make sense. Then the cold sweats begin, and the aching muscles, and the diagnosis is pretty obvious: he's got the flu, or something similar enough as makes no difference. Fantastic.
It's either the fifth or sixth day when he hears the tap-tap-tap of heels again. He's leaning against one of the cool rock walls, sweating, imagining the fever burning through him like wildfire, and he closes his eyes as she approaches.
The footsteps stop. He knows the woman is watching him, studying him, and her scrutiny is like an itch beneath his skin. He senses that they are in a battle of wills, that she is merely waiting for him to open his eyes, and then, somehow, he will belong to her.
Delirious. He's delirious.
Her voice is rose-petal soft. "Do you have a gift, Mr. Barton?"
For a moment he considers ignoring her, feigning sleep, or just telling her to go to hell. But the isolation and the sickness and the need to know something have made him weak. "Sure," he says, and his tongue feels thick; his voice cracks. "Absolutely. A gift. This is actually all a part of my master plan."
"It's true that a gift can sometimes feel like a curse," says the woman, in a tone of mild disapproval. "But I think you know you're special. I've seen video of you in action."
"You and half the planet, sweetheart."
"Oh, I'm not talking about the videos from New York. I mean the video files from SHIELD's records. Abidjan... São Paulo..."
He opens his eyes without meaning to. Her own eyes are large and lustrous in the dimly-lit hall beyond the bars. "I don't remember seeing you at the SHIELD company picnic."
Her smile is slow, enigmatic, inviting. "I was never SHIELD," she says, almost coyly. "I'm not HYDRA, either, if that's what you're wondering. More of an... interested third party."
"Interested in what, exactly?"
"I told you. Special people." She crouches down, peering at him through the gloom. "I can see you're not well. I'm sorry. I'd expected to begin the procedure tomorrow, but the situation is... fluid... at the moment. This thing they're calling a civil war... everyone assumed that Captain Rogers ended it. But it's really only just begun." She cocks her head. "This could be good for you, you know. Garrett says that former SHIELD agents are getting - I think his term was 'crossed out' - all over the world. And not just by HYDRA. Men in your line of work tend to make enemies, and now... there's nothing to hide behind. It's all out in the open. Chances are, you never would have survived on your own."
Clint closes his eyes again. He should try to keep her talking, but so much of what she's already said makes no damned sense. Rogers... Garrett... all out in the open... And God, he's so tired. "Go to hell," he says wearily.
He hears the rustle of fabric as she stands. "I understand. We'll have someone talk to you later about our incentives program."
I called ahead and was directed to the hidden underground entrance to the Tower, so that I could avoid the paparazzi and protestors and fanboys camped out on the sidewalk in front of the building. I couldn't decide if Stark was actually prescient, or if he had just watched way too many spy flicks growing up.
Pepper met me as I stepped out of the elevator, her expression pinched with worry. "I've been talking to Maria," she said by way of greeting, "and this is all insane. Completely crazy. Tony's not here, he's actually out of the country, but just tell me what I can do. I want to help."
I wasn't certain what exactly Hill had been telling her, but I wasn't going to turn down any offer of assistance. I shared what little I knew, ending with, "The doctor's car doesn't have GPS, but I have the license plate number. I was hoping you might have... satellite access..." At that point, whether or not that access was legal was really the least of my concerns.
Before Pepper could respond, another voice entered the conversation. A man's voice, everywhere and nowhere, and I tensed for a moment before remembering Stark's AI. "Excuse me, Ms. Romanoff."
I reflexively glanced up towards the ceiling, where I figured the cameras and speakers must be tucked away. Pepper looked up too, which made me feel a little less foolish. "Yes..?"
"Are you aware that you are currently receiving an encrypted communication?"
My hand went to the cell phone in my pocket, but I'd turned it off - had actually taken out the battery, just to be sure - before even leaving DC. It was just a burner, but there was no such thing as being too careful any more.
"Not your phone," said the AI, "but in this room I am unable to determine-"
"Come on," said Pepper, and she grabbed my hand and pulled me back into the elevator.
Has it been an hour since the woman's visit? A day? A week?
There's more movement now, more action; voices raised in command, thumps and rattles as equipment is moved. Men walk past his cell; their laughter is caustic, and scrapes against his skin.
"...should just put him out of his misery, John..."
"...Flowers still wants to take him... Miami... not... priority... tell Kaminsky to bring him... rest of the equipment..."
"...if Coulson's team shows up?"
"...should have tied up those loose ends already, eh, Romeo?"
Later I would learn much more - more than I wanted, or needed, really - about Stark's toys, about what he was turning the Tower into, about... well, a lot of things. At the time all I knew was that the room, which I supposed was some kind of lab, looked like it had been ransacked. Drawers half-open, bits of armor on the floor, wires draped across tables... But as all of this went unremarked-upon by Pepper, I assumed that this was how the place always looked.
Holograms sprang to life over a long table; data scrolled in the air faster than the human eye could read, and then an image appeared: translucent, larger-than-life, hovering in front of us. A silver arrow.
I touched the necklace. "That son of a bitch..."
All Jeffery knows, all he's told, is that they're moving operations back to the States. He hears something about files stolen from Cybertek, and that SHIELD might be en route to the barbershop.
"But there is no SHIELD anymore," he says aloud, only realizing after the fact how dumb that sounds.
Ward gives him a cold look. "Coulson's a hard man to keep down." A muscle twitches in his jaw.
"Well, what about Barton?" He's still trying to decide if he should be taking credit for their prisoner, or blaming Wayne for his existence.
Ward gives a dismissive shrug. "Trucks are full, but Garrett wants you to bring him to the plane when you're done here. Don't leave anything behind that Coulson's people could use to track us."
One of the Centipede soldiers looks over. It's Marquett, one of the volunteers. "And if they show up before we're finished?"
"You heard me," says Ward, pulling on his jacket. "Don't leave them anything."
In the weeks to come, I would touch the pendant and ask Clint, "So, how did you know?"
"How did I know what?"
"That should microchip yourself before going to Pennsylvania, of all places."
He grins briefly. We both know that the transmitter was in the SHIELD badge he carried while on official business. "That's not exactly how it happened."
"Did Stark make it for you?"
He rolls his eyes, as though to say not everything with a circuit comes from him, and shakes his head. "Buddy of mine from... back home."
The word home throws me for a moment. The last time he mentioned home was... "Wait. After New York?"
For the first time, he looks embarrassed.
"Two years?" I ask.
Clint looks down at his hands, turning them over as though surprised to find them empty. "I was just thinking that if... if I went AWOL again, at least you'd have a way to find me."
"The transmitter was in your ID," I point out. "All you would have had to do is toss it, if you didn't want me to find you."
He looks up again. "I'd always want you to find me."
That was later, though. At the time all I had to go on was a fairly unspecific set of coordinates gleaned by the AI. "23 North, 82 West," read Pepper, squinting at the display.
I knew even before JARVIS brought up the map. I'd memorized all of SHIELD's bases - past and present - before I'd taken my first steps into the field as an agent. "Cuba," I said. "Havana."
Pepper nodded. "I'll get you a flight."
I'd pocketed Hill's handy little Mouse Hole gizmo after DC. I hoped that, once she noticed, she wouldn't mind too much.
There was a van across the street, watching the barbershop, and even I wasn't crazy enough to walk up to the front door. But the restaurant half a block down had a poker game going on in the basement - which, I'm sorry to say, I rather rudely interrupted - and that, plus the hand-held laser-cutter, gave me access to further subterranean levels.
It wasn't my first time in a Cuban sewer. It wasn't even my last.
I came up in what turned out to be an empty storage room. At that point - hot and dusty and reeking as I was - I wouldn't have cared if it turned out to be HYDRA high command. The quiet and the stillness of the world beyond the door was actually more unnerving than a hundred goose-stepping jackboots would have been.
The hallway was empty. No people, no equipment, just the disquieting feeling that something wasn't right. Bare floors. Doors closed, unmarked. A camera at the far end.
Before I could decide whether or not to take it out, the nearest door opened. The man who walked through was looking at his watch, and that gave me the time I needed I run down a list of scenarios. Then he looked up, saw me, recognized me - and the feeling was mutual; I knew his face, although not his name - and drew his weapon.
I kicked the gun out of his hand, punched him in the throat before he could call for help. He staggered back through the open door, into another, longer hallway with metal bars along one side, holding his neck with one hand but reaching for his ankle holster with the other.
I won't say that I didn't want to kill him. I'd spent the last six years with SHIELD exercising restraint, following orders, doing my mission with minimum loss of life. I wanted to kill this man. I could have killed him. I could have shot him a dozen times over. Could have at least stung him and left him drooling on the floor. But I needed him conscious, needed information, so I kicked at the groping hand but only managed to connect with his gut; he was still staggering back and I was following him into the room but the pistol was in his hand now and I had no choice-
The man's body jerked suddenly, his head slamming into the row of iron bars behind him, and for a moment I thought this has to be the clumsiest HYDRA agent I've ever met, thought that he had tripped. Then I saw the hands holding his collar from behind, holding them from the other side of the bars, pinning my enemy in place, and I might have smiled then. In fact, I probably did.
Just like my last kick probably snapped the traitor's neck.
I didn't stop to look. Just grabbed the keys off his belt, yanking the cell door open and squinting into the gloom.
Clint had already fallen back to his knees. He looked horrible... dirty and bloody, his face gray with an oily sheen of sweat, his uniform torn, his hands bound, his eyes only half open. He was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.
I think I muttered something along the lines of Holy shit.
"Oh," he said, words slurred, tone almost pleasant. "Hi."
There was shouting from beyond the open door. "Hold on," I whispered, not even sure he could hear me, and returned to the hall. Still empty. Whatever was happening, maybe it didn't concern me. Maybe the van across the street had been Cuba's Dirección de Inteligencia and they were raiding the place. I didn't know. Didn't care, except as far as it provided a welcome distraction. I returned to Clint, uncuffed his hands and slapped his cheek. When he starred dully at me, I threw his arm across my shoulders and forced him to his feet. "Come on, Barton. We're getting the hell out of here."
For a long time, nothing makes any sense. The air is like sandpaper. Sounds flow like molasses in winter. He sees Barney and Phil and faces he remembers but can't place.
He sees Natasha. She's wearing the necklace, so he knows that this is a dream too. He'd left it out for her, like he'd done on every solo op since New York. He'd been too embarrassed, too much of a damned chickenshit, to actually give it to her. It was the kind of thing that had once made sense once, after too many beers and too much time thinking about how she was the only person in the world he gave a damn about anymore...
He drinks water that's not from a metal bowl. Someone peels his ruined clothes away. It's the woman. The one with the heels. He doesn't know what she's going to do to him but he's pretty sure he won't like it. He tries to fight her, but he's too weak. Something in the water. She's drugged him. Something sharp pricks at his arm.
He's been in Arctic waters before. The cold was so deep that it burned. He is burning now, burning from the ice. His muscles ache. The woman leans over him, her smile slow and enigmatic; her teeth are sharp and set back in many rows, like a shark's. "Are you like me?" she asks. "Are you becoming?"
Something touches his arm, and he knows why she's here. She's going to cut him to pieces, mount each limb to a board, study it, and from each piece of him she's going to grow something new, something else, something terrible...
Cool hands touch his forehead. "Clint, you need to drink something." She's a dream, a phantasm, and the lukewarm water in his mouth tastes like nectar. If she was real, he thinks, as the shivers start again, oh God... if I ever see her again. If I ever see her again, I'm going to tell her. I'm going to tell her.
He doesn't know what he's going to tell her, but he knows that it's important.
A hundred years later, he opens his eyes.
The light makes them water, although it is only a cool, blue twilight, and only around the edges of the curtains. He's in a room he's never seen before. The walls are thin; he can hear a baby crying, a woman cursing, a man's voice filtered through static calling out the plays of a soccer match.
He sits up in the unfamiliar bed. The room smells of sweat and sickness, and it swims before his eyes while he grips the edge of the mattress, breathing deeply. There's a half-full water bottle on the floor, and he drains it. There's a sink on the other side of the room. It seems unspeakably far away.
Keys jingle. A doorknob turns. He's half-naked and about as dangerous as a kitten.
Natasha walks in. Her arms are full of paper bags, her mouth is set in a thin line, and then she sees him and-
Nat doesn't cry. Her eyes do not well with tears. She does not take a deep and shuddering breath as she sets down her bags. None of this is possible. It's just another hallucination.
She does not cross the room in slow, almost wondering steps. She does not place her hand against his forehead, his cheek. She does not whisper a prayer in a language he doesn't know, doesn't sit down beside him on the bed, doesn't touch his cheek again.
He doesn't put his arms around her, doesn't hold her with all the strength he has left. Doesn't, doesn't, doesn't.
We left Cuba a few days later. Pepper arranged it, although she would have preferred that we return to the States. "Tony's back," she said, "and he wants to see both of you."
"Not everyone's Goddamned life revolves around Tony Stark," I said. I was actually in a wonderful mood.
"I keep trying to tell him that," Pepper sighed. "He doesn't believe me."
We spent the next month in Saint Lucia, in the Lesser Antilles. "We're both overdue for a vacation, anyway," I told Clint. He smiled but said nothing. I never admitted to him how sick he'd been, how scared it had made me, but I think he knew. On both counts.
Our cabin was on the water a few miles south of the main resorts. The beach was narrower here, hemmed close with trees, but it was private, and the sea was a turquoise gem fading off into the distance. We sat in the sand as I told him about DC, and Fury, and SHIELD.
"So, that's it," said Clint softly. He leaned forward, resting his arms atop his knees. He'd gained back the weight and muscle he'd lost during his captivity and sickness, but there was still a quietness, a tentativeness about him that I didn't like. "It's just... over."
"It's over." I hesitated. "If you want it to be."
He looked at me, squinting against the sun.
"HYDRA's still out there, Clint. Hill told me that Garrett's team has been neutralized, but that's all she would tell me. She's going to work for Stark. But... somebody's got to stand up to them."
"You think Fury's going to... rebuild SHIELD?"
"I don't know," I admitted. "Maybe not Fury, but... somebody." The breeze blew my hair into my eyes. I pushed it back. "Somebody hit the barbershop that day. Otherwise we might have never have made it out."
He nodded slowly. I knew his memories of that day were sketchy, to put it mildly. "So you think... we could be somebody, too?"
"I don't know," I said again, watching the waves slide up the beach, watching the clouds play along that incredible horizon. "Maybe."
I turned to him, opening my mouth to ask-
He kissed me. His hand was on my cheek, cupping my jaw; his lips were soft, his calluses rough, and I leaned into him, feeling his body, his skin warmed by the Caribbean sun, tasting on his tongue everything that he hadn't said.
His heart is racing when she pulls away, pulse pounding with fear and lust and excitement and a hundred other feelings he can't properly describe, his senses so totally consumed by Natasha - the silken texture of her hair, the salty warmth of her skin - that he's mildly surprised that the tide hasn't come in and carried them away when he wasn't looking.
Her hand is on the back of his neck, forehead resting against his own, eyes closed and lips parted.
"I've been wanting to do that," says Clint, "for a long time."
She gives his neck a squeeze. "And you waited... why?"
He resists the urge to grin like an idiot, not to mention the urge to pull her down right here on the beach and get sand in all sorts of unmentionable places. "I didn't want to screw things up," he confesses. "I kind of have a gift for it, if you didn't notice."
Her lips curl into a smile as she raises her head and looks at him. He could swear that the whole ocean is reflected in her eyes. "Well, the world's already pretty screwed up, if you didn't notice."
"To hell with the world," he says, before pulling her close again.