Her hands are pierced, pinned to the metal grate of the catwalk by two of her own knives.
He'd done that after the arrow had found its mark, slit her suit, and nicked her femoral artery. She is dying. Even if medical help arrives now, survival wouldn't be a sure thing. And no help is coming.
He is Clint Barton and he is Hawkeye and he is Loki and he is a rime of blue ice. He is not a puppet, not an automaton; he is a wind-up toy, chattering and clacking across the tabletop; he is an arrow loosed from a madman's bow.
The mission, he reminds his handler, the voice in his head, the hand at his reins. The mission is more important right now, he says, even as his hands reach down to unbuckle his own belt.
The mission will wait, his handler insists. I promised her this, and I keep my promises.
She is pale, sweating, bleeding her life out onto the grating and the floor below. She'd be better off if she didn't move around so much; she's going to tear that wound open, but maybe that's what she wants. A quick end.
I keep my promises.
So he takes her, there on the grating in the blood, her blood, one arm braced on the railing just above the hand that is punctured palm-up, as though in supplication. He takes her, counting down her life in thrusts and heartbeats. She is stoic, eyes closed and lips bloodless. Only the occasional small sound of pain-fear-anguish-shame tells him she's still alive.
He's hard and she's perfect and he realizes how long he's wanted this, wanted her, and the coppery scent of blood in the air just makes it so much more, but no matter how hard he drives up into her he can't finish; he's a wind-up toy, hips pistoning but unable to come. He closes his eyes, pushing harder, faster, hears her cry out in pain and it's almost enough--
And then he feels cold steel against his neck.
He looks down at her, wan and shaking but eyes as hard and sharp as the knife she's - somehow, improbably - holding against his jugular. Her mortality is in her eyes, but there is no weakness. Just the waiting.
And the waiting.
She does not cut him. He cannot bring himself to care. He cannot stop. His lust won't let him, the bit in his mouth won't let him, and his free hand finds an arrow, discarded, and drives it up beneath her ribs, and then he's finally able to--
Nat had been in the room with him the last time he woke from a bad dream. She'd been perched by the window holding a pair of infrared goggles, and she had looked over at him as he jerked awake, writhing at the feel of sweat running down beneath his vest.
"Did I..." Did I thrash around? Did I give away our position? Did I say anything embarrassing?
She shook her head, went back to watching the building across the street. They hadn't mentioned it again. What's there to mention? Just a nightmare. Everyone has them. Especially people like us.
Except there are no people like them.
This time he barely makes it to the bathroom, and the singular, acrid scent of vomit mixes with the smells that have followed him up out of sleep, smells of blood and steel and sex.
It's three in the morning but he showers, brushes his teeth, gargles. He makes coffee in the little machine on the bathroom counter and it tastes like battery acid. He shaves, just to prove to himself that his hands aren't shaking, but when he lifts his chin and scrapes the razor across his neck all he can think is why didn't she just kill me?
She didn't kill you because it didn't happen, he tells his hollow-eyed reflection. She's better than you up close, thank god, and she knocked the goddamn bastard out of your head.
He had thought, for a while, about falling off the grid.
But for SHIELD there is no grid, there is only an ever-shrinking world. There is no leaving, no disappearing; hadn't they proved that with Banner? There is only the illusion of freedom and anonymity, and that would be worse than the watching.
They do watch him, Fury and Hill and the others. There's no outright malice in their eyes - they all know he had no choice in what he did - but he still feels the weight of the tally in the way they watch him. The faces. The men, names known and unknown. The faces will fade in time, but he knows he'll always remember the names.
He walks through the pre-dawn darkness to the safehouse. The homeless man swaddled in crumpled newspapers proclaiming OTHERWORLDLY ATTACK IN NEW YORK (Times) and STARK PRESS CONFERENCE SCHEDULED (USA Today) and WHO ARE THEY? (Post) is obviously an agent. Clint passes the guy a crumpled twenty in some weird gesture of solidarity. Does he know who I am? What I did?
What I would have done?
Rogers is staying at the safehouse for now. They had offered Clint a room too - offered being an understatement, 'strongly insisted' being much more accurate - but he had told Hill "Either you trust me or you don't" and they had let him go his own way. She didn't trust him, obviously, but she couldn't come right out and stay so.
Besides, places like this are where SHEILD puts its heroes when it's done playing with them, and Clint doesn’t qualify.
Rogers is in the gym. He's stopped killing punching bags lately, has moved on to ruining the motors of treadmills and warping the bars of free weights. He's doing sit-ups when Clint walks in, pauses and nods when he notices he has company, and continues.
Rogers doesn't need the workout, really; a weekend on the couch with a box of Twinkies and a bag of Cheetos isn't going to do anything that decades under the ice didn't. But Clint knows there's comfort in the routine, in the adrenaline, the endorphins, the reps and the rhythm. There's simplicity to it, and Rogers is still clinging to being a simple guy in a maddeningly complex world.
Clint warms up, and then the two of them spar a little, just to change things up, but he keeps getting the feeling that Rogers is holding back, pulling his punches, afraid to break bones or put him through a wall. They don't talk, not about the Chitauri or SHIELD or Stark's press conference or all those people you killed, Barton, and after a while it's almost comfortable: the mindless physicality of it, the ducks and dodges, the half-hearted blows. Then Rogers' eyes flicker up, and it's all Clint needs to know. He looks anyway. Natasha.
Sneakers, yoga pants and matching jacket, long-sleeved and zippered, hair pulled back except for a little bit falling forward, framing her face. She looks back at him, ignoring Rogers' uneasy "morning,” her eyes appraising, evaluating, peeling back his layers. He turns away before she can get too deep.
"I'll take it from here, Steve," she says lightly, and they exchange a few seconds of inane banter before Rogers, with an apologetic shrug towards Clint, mutters something about breakfast and leaves the room.
"Sparring with Wonder Boy?" she asks dryly, coming to stand in front of him on the mat. "Really? Are you trying to get your neck broken?"
He doesn't let himself make eye contact again. He didn't have this problem during the battle in New York; the awkwardness, the shame, hadn't really set in yet. The dreams hadn't started. They're Loki's parting gift, something to remember him by, something to carry with himself along with the faces, the names, the mounting tallies.
I keep my promises.
She comes at him without warning and it's either block her high strike or spend the next couple of days snacking on aspirin, so he blocks it, then the low strike, grunts when the kick he didn't see coming finds his midsection. Her fists and feet are a flurry of movement and he manages to fend most of them off, absorbing the rest but unwilling to go on the offensive, and he's close to congratulating himself on handling this so well when she's suddenly there, inside his guard, elbow to the solar plexus, driving him down to the mat with a snarling, "What the hell, Barton?"
She straddles him; he knows he's about to be on the wrong end of a Natasha Romanoff interrogation and moves without thinking. It's instinct, just instinct or maybe something close to terror, when he brings his right knee up and tosses her off to his left. She hits the mat adroitly and aims a knee at his groin, so he lets his momentum carry him forward, on top of her, one leg across her thighs in case she gets any more smart ideas about crushing his balls--
He can smell blood, see blood-slick steel piercing flesh, feel his own arousal as he ruthlessly pounds into a dying woman, fucks her like a robot, drives the arrow up into her guts even as he groans his relief...
With a feral grin she throws him off and he lets her; she moves to continue her attack and he lets her, suddenly too weak to offer even token resistance, shaken by the way the memory of the dream simultaneously sickens and inflames him. He's had bad dreams like this, had those thoughts that pop into your mind and won't go away, but never anything like this before. Nothing so slick and vivid.
I could have had a knife. She might not have realized until it was too late. Sliced the artery when she was on top of me. Dead in five minutes or thirty seconds, depending. Would Rogers have even heard?
He's cold and sweating, and realizes he's shaking like the Natasha of his dreams when the real one pulls up short and stares down at him, perplexed. "Are you hurt?" she asks, at first incredulously, and then when he doesn't answer, with concern, "Clint?"
"I'm fine." That voice isn't his; it's too hoarse, too rusted. He gets up and she watches him like he's a wounded animal, and she wants to help but she's not sure the help is welcome. It isn't. "Just – just stay away, alright?"
The sky is lighter now, and the 'homeless man' in the newspaper nest is drinking Starbucks. He raises the white and green paper cup to Clint as he exits the safehouse, as though in a toast, but Clint just keeps moving, his exhalations coming in great misty gusts, which should be impossible because inside he's as cold as the morning air, cold as anything, colder, freezing.
Back in the hotel room, thinking that was a bad idea, he takes another shower. Cold, at first, but that doesn't seem to help matters much so he switches to hot, as hot as it gets, just stands under the scalding spray and waits to feel something besides the twisting in his stomach and the pressure in his cock.
He needs to take care of it but he's afraid be won't be able to do it without thinking of her. Not the old fallback fantasies - Tasha's mouth, those red lips sliding around him as she watches him come apart; Tasha, topless, skirt hiked up around her hips, nails scraping along his back and neck as he pushes her up against a wall - but the Natasha of the dream. Dying beneath him, pale and shaking, the blade in her bloodied grasp resting so lightly against his bare throat.
I keep my promises. I gave her fair warning. She came looking for you. This is no less than what she deserves.
The shower curtain is ripped open.
It could be anything, really. Could be Loki out for revenge, a second wave of Chiaturi, someone he's pissed off without even knowing it. It could be a whole army in his fucking bathroom and he's wet, naked, painfully erect and there's nothing within reach more deadly than a bar of soap. Could be anything, but of course it's Natasha.
"This is the problem?" she demands over the susurration and the hiss of steam, glancing down at his groin with something horrifyingly close to scorn. "This why you can't even look at me straight?"
"Tasha..." He tries to pull the curtain back but she won't let him, just stares at him with that mixture of anger and disappointment that should in a fair universe be deflating his problem, at the very least, but it isn't. Nothing’s fair about any of this. "You don't under-"
"Fine," she says crisply, releasing the curtain and reaching for her jacket's zipper. Underneath she's only wearing a white sports bra, the sturdy kind that latches in the front. "If that's all this is, let's take care of it," she continues, all business as she shrugs out of the bra and toes off her sneakers. "Come on, Barton."
She leaves the bathroom as she reaches for the elastic waistband of her pants, leaving him standing, shocked and almost panting, under a spray of water that is suddenly hot enough to parboil him where he stands.
He shuts off the water and stares at the empty doorway, considers just living in this bathroom for the rest of his life, but ultimately wraps a towel around his waist - wincing, careful - and steps carefully out into the bedroom.
She's standing beside the bed in just her underwear. The curtains are closed and the glow around their edges is still dim; the only real light comes from the bathroom, so he can't see the scars he knows are there, just the pale perfection of her limbs and back and, when she turns, her breasts. "What are you waiting for?" she asks brusquely, but there is sadness in her voice as well, something that says I thought you were different.
He's not really different. He's a man, isn't he? He's had the same thoughts as any straight man who's ever set eyes on her. The difference is, of course, that he knows her and they don't. He doesn't know the whole of her, the core, but he thinks he knows a lot more than any man still alive.
He's always been perversely proud of that. He may think about her when it's not strictly appropriate - the red lips, the skirt up around her hips - but he's always been able to control his affection, his lust, his whatever-you-want-to-call-it, because it was pretty obvious that wasn't part of the package. There were plenty of men in the world who just wanted to fuck Natasha Romanoff, and a lot of them ended up dead or dickless. "You don't want this," he says, trying not to sigh.
She narrows her eyes. "You know what I don't want? I don't want to lose my partner because suddenly Clint Junior is doing all the thinking. Do you think Fury just isn't going to notice if you can't even look at me? They rubber-stamped our psych evals because we saved the damn world, and now you're going to throw it all away." She steps towards him, shaking her head. "Let's just screw and get back to work, Barton."
Maybe that's all it is to her, he thinks: just an impulse, something to get out of the system, a biological imperative with nothing else at its center, and then he can't think because she's grabbed him by the front of his towel, is pulling him towards the bed, pulling him down on top of her and hell yes it's a biological imperative. Her lips are rough against his, more scraping and tugging and biting than kissing, and then one of his hands is on her breast and one of hers is between their bodies, pulling away the towel as she arches up, only those thin white panties between them--
And suddenly all he can think is did I put a knife on the nightstand? Under the pillow? Heart palpitating, he grabs the slim hand that's still at work between their bodies and pins it to the mattress, but that only makes it worse. He smells metal as she writhes beneath him but doesn't pull her hand free, why doesn't she, doesn't she realize the danger she's in?
He pushes himself off her, rolling onto the other side of the bed, as far from the half-remembered knife as he can get. He wants to reach for the towel, cover himself up, but he's so hard and so close right now he's afraid the slightest touch will set him off and he doesn't want her to see that. So he lays there for a few moments, naked and breathless, shivering and staring at the ceiling.
When her face appears in his field of vision the anger-sadness-disgust is gone. There's only uncertainty and concern, which is almost worse. "Clint?"
He closes his eyes. Speaks slowly. Deliberately. "I think… he's still… in my head."
She is silent, and then he feels the mattress shift, hears the creak of springs as she rises. Rises from the bed but doesn't leave, and a few seconds later the mattress dips again with her return.
He opens one eye and sees she's tugging one of his t-shirts over her head. She drops something into his lap - a clean pair of boxers from his duffle - and he sits up, turns his back on her to pull them over his hips. The arousal isn't gone but at least now he's not so close that the touch of fabric will set him off.
The springs creak as she slides across the bed towards him, and he braces himself for a pitying touch that does not come. "He's not still in your head, Clint."
"You said yourself that our psych evals were a joke," he says dully. "The medical ones were worse. How many experts on alien mind control do you think they have? What do you think they actually know?"
Silence, and then she settles beside him on the edge of the bed, their bare legs almost-but-not-quite touching. It's like after he woke up in the Helicarrier and she was there, his wounds so fresh and raw he couldn't even feel them yet, her absolutions falling on deaf ears. "Thor would have known," she says finally, firmly. "You know he wouldn't have left if it wasn’t over."
"Thor's a great guy," Clint says evenly, "but I suspect that everything he knows about Loki's tactics would make for a fairly short book." He looks at her, straight-on, for the first time since their eyes met in the safehouse and she started peeling him down to his core. Those eyes are softer now but their gaze no less direct, her lips just parted, still slightly reddened. "It feels like a virus,” he tells her. “Like a worm, something he planted inside my brain, and it all comes back to you because that's the kind of asshole he is. He wants it to matter. He wants it to hurt."
She doesn’t answer, just keeps looking at him evenly, and he keeps talking, because in the quiet all he can hear are those small sounds of distress she made as Clint-Hawkeye-Loki cut her and raped her and killed her in the depths of the Helicarrier. "You know what I did," he says. It isn't a question. "You know what he wanted me to do." Neither is that.
Her eyes flicker away from his face and it's all the acknowledgment he needs, even more than when she says, too lightly, "I got the general idea." And then she continues, demands, "So that's it? This is just... over? You want me to call Fury and tell him you're still compromised?" Her mouth twists. "You know there are men who wouldn't ask twice. They'd be happy to agree you were a threat, to lock you up and study you, and they'd do the same to Selvig. Is that what you want?"
The thought of being restrained and sedated is briefly tantalizing, but only briefly. In truth he doesn't want any of that. He wants the impossible; he wants things the way they were before, wants Lhasa and La Paz and Damascus and even Budapest, before gods and robots and monsters and relics from the past.
He wants Coulson alive and Fury's pet project from hell still on the shelf and nothing worse in the world than what human beings do to one another, because damn, that's bad enough. He’s as bad as Rogers in this way; he wants things to be simple because simple is all he feels capable of handling right now.
“Is that what you want?” Natasha asks again.
"No,” he says tiredly, “I just don't want to hurt anyone else."
She gives a soft snort of derision, bumps his shoulder with her own. "You're in the wrong line of work then, Barton."
He shakes his head, bows it. She can't know what 'anyone' really means to him, not when he's only starting to understand it himself, how without her the rest of the world is just something seen at a distance, an objective, a target, ideals without beating hearts, names without faces. "I don't want to hurt you." Not more than I already have.
A smile touches her lips, but it's the saddest smile he's ever seen. "You're not going to hurt me," she says with surprising gentleness. "I won't let you."
So he tells her about the dream. He can't do anything else, and at the same time he can't believe the words that are coming out of him, these things he swore he'd never say out loud to anyone, much less to her. The sad smile fades and her expression goes serious, then solemn as she tips her head to one side. She listens to his description, his confession, as though it’s just another sobering mission report, because no one sees what's happening inside unless she wants them to.
"I know what you're going to tell me," he says at last, looking towards the light-limned window, no longer able to watch that stoic mask and wonder. "That they're his thoughts, not mine, and that it's not real, it's just a dream... but they're in my head and they feel pretty damn real to me.” He catches his breath, finds it rattling in his chest like some caged thing. “I can't keep going on like nothing's happened, Tasha, not if I don't trust myself, if I can't stop thinking that this thing he left might take over again..."
"No, you can't," she says softly, and then she's touching his face, fingertips grazing his cheek, turning him back to her.
And she kisses him, which is absofuckinglutely the last thing he expected. Leaving him to his self-pity, maybe. Berating him over his self-pity, almost certainly. But this he doesn't know how to absorb: the lightness of her touch, the softness of the kiss, so unlike the biting, bruising thing they just shared.
He leans into her for a moment, just a moment, before pulling back, confused. "You don't want--" he begins.
"Do me a favor and stop telling me what I want," she says shortly, which is so authentically Natasha that he immediately feels more at ease, because maybe not everything has changed, so when she kisses him again he is a willing participant. And when she pivots, one knee on each side of his hips and her t-shirt clad breasts firm against his chest, he circles her waist with his hands, groaning into her mouth as she begins to rock against him--
The panic is there; he knows she can feel it though his skin, in his heartbeat, and her lips move quickly from his mouth to his ear. "We're going to do a little experiment," she whispers. "Very scientific. If he's in there, if I'm your trigger, we're going to root the bastard out."
Clint thinks of Bruce, the Other Guy, always lurking there a hair's breadth beneath the surface. Is that what he's afraid of? It's not the same; he wasn't mindless, enraged, a force of destruction. He was a wind-up toy, but a focused one, calculating and cold, so cold; no green skin and bulging frame to warn the unwary, just a rime of blue frost so cold it burns him up from the inside out. What she's proposing is something between an exorcism and a team-building exercise, like that time Coulson made them build a tower out of furniture...
"If you need to," he says hoarsely, fiercely, fingertips twitching against the hem of her shirt, his shirt, which falls down to her thighs. "If you need to, you take me down." He thinks of a knife held against his throat but never used; in the dream he didn't care but now he does. "You do whatever you have to do," he insists, "but you don't let me hurt you."
He waits for her to dismiss him again with assurances that he couldn't hurt her, that she wouldn't let him, so confident in her abilities, which is something he's always loved about her but now kind of scares the hell out of him. Instead she tilts his face up towards hers, looking down into his eyes, searching for the blue rime, maybe, or any hint that he isn't serious. Then she nods. "Deal," she says, and then brings her lips down on his again.
When they are skin to skin he can feel the fear again, the panic filling his mind like an expanding balloon, pushing everything else out. Almost everything. She is beneath him, red hair against white pillow, naked thighs cradling his hips, and suddenly he isn’t sure if there’s a weapon in his hands – a knife; an arrow, discarded.
She puts a hand on his chest, lightly, looks up with him without concern and without doubt. “If I told you to stop right now,” she asks, “what would you do?”
The notion of stopping literally makes his balls hurt, and it’s the pain that edges around the balloon in his brain. “What?” he wheezes.
“I told you… this is an experiment.” Her voice is cool, her lips curved into a faint smile, but her skin, he notices, is flushed. “I didn’t say I wanted to stop… I asked what you would do.”
“I’d stop,” he pants, because it’s the truth, the only answer he could ever give, the only one she would ever believe, and then he groans as she smiles and tilts her hips against him. For Natasha this is not about sex, he realizes, or not only about sex; it’s about confidence and control. Not even her control. His.
And somehow, at the same time, it belongs to both of them.
Like a man looking over his shoulder he sees that the panic has faded; he is no longer worried about what is in his hands because she is in his hands and he is in hers.
At first they are slow and they are careful and nothing like what he ever imagined. Three more times he feels the spur of doubt, the crowding dread, the certainty that at any moment his handler’s voice will echo in his mind: I keep my promises. Each time she seems to feel it coming, like she knows his fear better than he does, and she talks him through it.
Her calm encouragement is a little embarrassing, like this is his first time and he doesn’t really know what he’s doing, and he’s pitifully sure that her small sounds of pleasure are just for his benefit. But he knows that his life will forever be marked by what he did and what he was under Loki’s hand, that everything will be divided into Before and After, and in a way this is the first time all over again.
He’s surprised; it is artless.
There is no pretense, no harshness, no sexual acrobatics, nothing particularly exotic or athletic in the way they come together. No bright lipstick or short skirt, just a motel room with a noisy mattress and light brightening around the margins of the curtains. There are the familiar juxtapositions of sex: hardness and softness, lines and curves, pain and pleasure, and she is Tasha and he is just Clint.
Eventually their bodies fall out of rhythm, because he’s close, finally, so close, but he’s afraid she’s not and tries to pull back. She draws her legs up even further, drops her hands to his hips, moving him closer, pulling his thrusts deeper, and it’s all he can do to lean down and slant his mouth against hers in breathless, needy kisses. “Tasha… Tash…”
Her body tenses unexpectedly around his and words come spilling from her mouth, words with whispered intensity, words in English and Russian, and his name, which on her lips sounds good in any language. She turns her cheek to the pillow, breath coming in ragged gasps, and he trails his mouth down her neck for as long as he can, until the urge to move overcomes him. Then it’s hard and fast and not careful, not at all, only a rush of sensation that should be too much for him to process; even as he’s coming he can feel the warmth of her hand on the nape of his neck, fingers threading through his hair, and her lips on his shoulder, and the flutter of her lashes against his jaw, and everything is suddenly bright.
When he gently levers himself off of her, rolling onto his back, onto sheets that are still slightly damp, he expects her to glance at him and say, “I told you so, Barton,” he expects a familiar pat on the shoulder before she starts looking for her far-flung clothing, but in his post-coital haze he has forgotten that the only thing he can expect from Natasha is the last thing he expects.
She rolls onto her side, curls herself around him, her tousled head nestled under his chin, arms drawn up between their bodies. He hesitates, then settles his arm around her; she sighs, nestles against him and falls asleep, and he knows that he isn’t the only one who’s been having nightmares.
His dreams don’t stop. Not completely. Neither do hers, judging by the way she wakes sometimes, shuddering with clenched fists and clenched jaw, but so far she hasn’t decked him in her sleep.
The dreams won’t ever really stop, Clint knows; they’ll only get more distant, less slick and vivid, fading like the faces of the men he killed.
The fear is never gone completely, either, and it’s a while before he feels confident about going back out into the field, but Tasha tells Fury that “It’ll take however long it takes and you’re just going to have to deal with that.”
Eventually he goes, with her at his side, and it’s not so bad because Stark is along this time, too, and Rogers. He knows he’s no match for all three of them; if something happened, if he snapped like a broken shaft, they’d be able to take him out. It’s a strange kind of confidence, but it’ll work for now.
It is not always artless.
As they learn each other’s bodies they begin to feel the freedom in each touch, in the strain of muscle and the thrill of whispered words. Sometimes she wears bright lipstick and a short skirt. Sometimes he’s bone-tired after, and more than a little sore. But afterward they curl around each other and if she’s murmured, “Told you so, Barton,” well, it’s only been once or twice.
There are the times she looks down on him, her eyes appraising, evaluating, peeling back his layers, and runs her hands down his chest and belly until he squirms. There is the time she smiles faintly, as though realizing something amusing, and says quietly, “I was wrong. You could hurt me.” And then she kisses him until he can’t think anymore.
There are the familiar juxtapositions of sex, hardness and softness, lines and curves, pain and pleasure, only they are more because she is more, and against her and above her and within her he finds that he is less… less.