She couldn’t remember. It was all like some sort of shadow in the back of her mind that she just couldn’t reach. Like she was trailing someone down a dark alleyway, but they were a hundred turns ahead of her, and she’d never catch up in time.
The thing about Budapest was that it had been a holding location. The two of them waiting out a target in the nearest large city. Nothing was actually supposed to go down there. But then, on their way out, they’d been jumped, and she’d tried to play the fucking hero and ended up in an underground cell with an IV and a concussion.
It’d taken Clint four days to find her. They hadn’t been gentle with her, really laying on the psychosis-inducing drugs. That, combined with the rough physical treatment, meant she’d lost all memory of the last month. Which, in turn, meant that she absolutely couldn’t remember what had happened in Budapest.
She knew something must have happened. He’d stopped looking away when she caught him staring. He brought her coffee and didn’t joke about why he knew how she liked it. He’d been hanging around to run into her after meetings, and he hadn’t even tried to offer an excuse. If she actually asked why he was there, he just smiled like he was king of the fucking world.
She went through the case files, his reports and her reports (pre-attack) and anything she could get her hands on. She even took personal time and flew back to Budapest, talking to the hotel staff and risking everything by letting them see her face again.
It was all a complete waste. They’d made an effort to be the kind of people who were forgotten, and it came with a price. She ended up renting out the same room the reports told her they’d stayed in.
It was a small concrete thing, and she could smell all the lifetimes that had come before her in it. She laid herself down on the bed, screwing up her face at the squeaking even her careful weight elicited. She’d slept here? For more than one night?
The almost-white of the ceiling didn’t give her any answers.
Well, if she couldn’t get it from the evidence, then she’d have to get it from a witness. People had always been her specialty anyway.
“So, I’ve been thinking,” she greeted Clint one morning. She perched herself on his desk and watched his eyes track the motion as she crossed her legs.
“Yeah? What about?”
She took a careful sip of coffee and smiled down at him over the edge of the mug. “Budapest.”
He frowned, though he was obviously trying to keep the expression hidden. It threw her off a little. Honestly, she’d thought whatever had happened had been a positive thing. At least, from his point-of-view.
She dropped the flirtatious approach (no good if it wasn’t a pleasant memory) and put the cup down next to her. “What did you think about it?”
“Do we have to talk about it?”
Oh great. If he didn’t want to talk about it then this could be difficult. She’d honestly been counting on winding him up and letting him go. She should have put more thought into it.
“If you don’t want to talk about it, then I guess we don’t have to.”
He stood up, and there was nothing flirtatious in the way he put his face right in front of hers.
“I don’t ever want to talk about it.”
After that, she made the rounds. Talked to anyone and everyone who’d debriefed them, been nearby after she’d been extracted, or had so much as spoken to Clint in a hallway over the last month.
Four trips to bars, one pseudo-date, and one trip to a bowling alley (wtf?) and she had nothing to show for her trouble. Well, nothing except one post-pseudo-date Agent who took surprisingly long to get a clue.
She compromised a little after that. Started risking more and pushing more. He didn’t want to talk about it? Fine. She’d talk around it. Which would make the whole thing a long-term op, but she could deal with that.
Two weeks later they were on a mission, posing as a married couple looking to buy some ridiculously expensive art collection. As he zipped her up, hands making far more contact with her skin than necessary, she smiled back over her shoulder at him. It made him pause, once he’d finished, still holding the zipper between his fingers.
“Reminds me of Budapest.” She laughed softly afterward, to mask how closely she was watching him.
“Why the fuck would this remind you of that?” He pulled back from her sharply and practically stalked back across the room.
Ok, strike one.
She tried again on their next op. They were out at an open-air market in Guatemala when some pick-pocket chose her as a target. She let him get close enough to find out that her inner pocket (the one he could see) was nothing more than a convenient weapon holster.
“You scared him,” Clint chastised, holding back laughter.
“Yeah? Like Budapest, then.”
He rolled his eyes, no longer having to press his lips together to keep from laughing. “Of course. Of course that would make you think of fucking Budapest.”
Which was a start.
She let it lie low for a while after that. Playing it out in the open too many times in a row would raise too much suspicion. She managed to wait a whole three months before she mentioned it again.
They were both in South America and had just taken down their target after a spectacular rooftop chase that Natasha was actually quite proud of. Plus, they were taking a motorcycle back, and that was just icing on the cake. They’d recently stopped making up excuses for touching other, and it was such a relief.
She placed one foot on the back of their newly-taken-down target and smile at him like it was a photo op.
“You know what this makes me think of?”
He drew his head back and screwed up his face. Didn’t say anything at all. Just gave her that look and then walked away to secure their extraction.
The whole thing was becoming frustrating as hell.
She grew more desperate after that. It had all devolved well out of her control, but she couldn’t get it back. She kept wondering why she didn’t just ask him what had happened, but the whole thing had gone too far.
That, and something about it felt sacred. Before Budapest, they’d complimented each other’s work and trusted each other in a fight. Now they made fun of each other’s work and trusted each other to interrupt their nightmares.
How fragile was the whole thing? Would it shatter if he realized she didn’t remember?
The fear kept her from asking, but her curiosity kept her pushing. She started waiting less and less time between prompts for information, and it started to reach the point of neurotic.
She learned that the memory was negative, had something to do with pickpocket knives, probably didn’t involve chasing a target, had happened indoors, and probably hadn’t been between just the two of them.
He, on the other hand, had learned that she was trying to play him for something.
“Ha! You know what this is kinda like?” she laughed.
She almost jumped when he threw the knife across the room hard enough that it imbedded in the wall. “Let me guess,” he spat. “Fucking Budapest.”
The next day, the alert she had on the SHIELD computers didn’t go off all day. She’d long ago set it up to ping her when anyone tried to track her location, and it stayed silent all the way from when she woke up to when she put her head down on the pillow and stared at her phone.
She’d grown used to his checking in on her. When had she changed her mind from thinking the constant concern was annoying to thinking it was necessary? What if he was in trouble and that was why he hadn’t been able to check on her?
She tried to push away the paranoia, but lost the battle. She sat up and pulled her laptop off the nightstand. A few keystrokes later and she could see he’d entered his all-clear security password into the alarm system at his apartment not more than ten minutes ago.
She closed the laptop slowly. The whole thing was getting ridiculous.
The next day he showed up with coffee-for-one and caught her eye in the hallway. “Look, Natasha. I don’t need you checking in on my whereabouts, ok? Just leave it be.”
She wanted to scream and call him a hypocrite and a liar and her whole world, but her throat closed up and she couldn’t remember what to say. She settled for pushing him roughly into the conference room behind him.
She flipped on the lights and turned to glare at him. He’d switched his coffee cup to the other hand and was sucking the spilled drops off his skin.
“I don’t remember,” she snapped. If this whole thing was going to fall apart then at least she’d make it fall apart in front of her. That way she could maybe salvage something.
“Don’t remember what?”
“Budapest! Ok? I don’t remember Budapest, and I’m sorry, and I tried everything, and I can’t figure it out. Can you tell me?” She was whispering now, as the confusion grew on his face. “Just tell me. Maybe I’ll remember then.”
“Nat,” he said carefully. “You were taken hostage by a group of misguided and deeply violent insurgents. They had you for four days and fucked up your mind pretty good. Obviously.” She watched his hands reach forward toward her and then stutter to a stop when he remembered he was holding coffee.
“I know that already. That was in the reports. And I get flashes of it if I think hard enough.”
“Then I don’t understand.”
“I don’t remember what wasn’t in the report. What changed us. Something happened. Just tell me. I can’t keep this up.”
He watched her carefully and she counted the ticks of the wall clock over her head.
“Nat.” Like she was some baby animal, ready to startle off at any moment. “Nothing happened. Nothing actually happened in Budapest. We stayed in a tiny hotel room for over a week, alternating between starving and stuffing our faces with Skittles. Then we got the signal and headed out. We got attacked, you got picked up, and I got left behind.”
“No.” She was physically shaking her head back and forth, her view of the room swinging from side to side. “No, something had to have happened. When I woke up, everything was different. We were different. We became something different. Budapest started everything, so just tell me what the fuck happened there!”
“You wanna know what happened?! I just fucking told you!” He threw the coffee cup and it burst against the white wall. Brown liquid and foam slid down like modern art.
“All you told me was-”
“I got left behind! They packed you up, half-dead, and left me on the ground and I didn’t know where the hell you were and everything changed. Like when you’re free-falling and then the cord catches you and the entire focus of your momentum shifts hard and gravity doesn’t have a say anymore. I felt my life shift around you while you were being dragged away and there was nothing I could do.”
He stopped suddenly, watching her stare at the running coffee.
“Natasha.” The single word made her shiver, but she still refused to meet his eye. Even when he stepped forward and ran his hands down her arms. “There are no words for the moment I found you. Drugged out of your mind and covered in vomit and blood. I couldn’t tell if you were breathing, and I didn’t know if your mind would ever be the same. It’s a feeling I wouldn’t wish on the evilest of men. Like a high-frequency shriek you can’t place. Shallow nausea eating at you and it gets worse if you move and it gets worse if you stay still and there’s just nothing to be done but suffer.”
He leaned into her forehead, breathing her scent. “That’s what happened in Budapest.”
The whole thing didn’t come up again until eight months later. What had started out as a routine check-in on some local up-and-coming talent had devolved to them being stuck in an AI house with a developing self-awareness being run by a pissed off teenager whose parents were in France for the weekend.
The stupid house had picked up Natasha’s name, probably from listening in on their conversation, but it had started out calling Clint “Carol” and it hadn’t stopped. Even when Clint had given up and screamed at it. They were still unsure if it was a psychological play or a glitch.
Fortunately, Natasha had overloaded the system by plugging in some high-tech thing that someone had given her. Not that she remembered what it was or what it did. She should probably clean out her pockets more often.
“This is hands down the weirdest shit I’ve ever gotten involved with,” Clint muttered angrily into the dark of the basement.
“Oh, I don’t know. This actually reminds me of something.”
“What the fuck could this possibly remind you of?”
She leaned in close so he could feel the heat of her whisper against his neck and the turn of her lips as she grinned.