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PART ONE

(Before)

They rendezvous at SHIELD’s Paris HQ the day before Clint’s supposed to leave for Nairobi.

He finds Natasha in her quarters, packing for her own mission. He’s brought the new uniform – well, part of it, anyway, the detachable cowl and half-mask – and when he pulls it on she has to work hard not to laugh aloud.

She comes very, very close to failing.

“What… is that?” she chokes. “It’s purple.”

Clint sighs. “Let’s get some coffee.”

*

The café is on Rue de la Roquette. Clint won’t go so far as to call it their ‘usual place’, because anything approaching predictability is an invitation to an ambush, but they’ve been there a handful of times over the years and there’s comfort in the familiarity. He knows Nat appreciates that it has two back exits (one is properly marked and the other is disguised as a janitor’s closet), and it helps that the proprietor is former French Special Forces and paranoid enough to scan the place for electronic surveillance once a week.

They sit in the back amidst the faded prints and dusty baubles; she curls up in the corner of a shabby oversized armchair and drinks her coffee black, looking askance at his café crème. “So?” she asks once they’re alone, one side of her mouth twitching in a suppressed smile. “What’s with the purple spandex?”

He grimaces. “Fury’s worried that I’m too recognizable now. Or that the bow is. Tried to convince me to stick to small arms for a couple of months.”

She raises her eyebrows. It’s shorthand for ‘that must have gone over well’. Clint just shrugs.

He knows more than a couple of people at SHIELD think that the bow is an affectation or pretension or that he has something against guns. Natasha knows better, but even she can’t really understand the adaptability, the control, the finesse. A bullet really only has one purpose, one use, but an arrow has a dozen; he has trained with almost every weapon known to man, up to and including nun-chucks, but nothing besides the bow has ever felt as much an extension of his arm, his eye, his brain.

Still, it’s always made him unique, and uniqueness is as much a liability for someone like him as predictability. It was one thing when he was only a figure in the shadows, black on black, an arrow found at the scene hours later, mysterious and untraceable; now, with footage from New York being blasted on television sets and computer screens from one side of the globe to the other, he can’t really blame Fury for being nervous. (He suspects, however, that the director is overestimating how much interest the public has taken in the two of them compared to the blond god, the big green guy, the flying robot, and the man in the spangled leotard.)

The official story, he tells Nat, will be that the bow is so in vogue now that theatrical vigilantes and mercenaries the world over are picking it up – which might be true, as far as he knows – so that in the future, anyone paying attention won’t be able to automatically equate the guy with the bow and arrow (Robin Hood, Legolas, Cupid, Katniss… he’s heard them all) with an agent of SHIELD. For once, he’s going on a mission to be seen.

Natasha looks skeptical. “And what’s to keep someone from figuring out it’s the same guy in a new costume?”

He winces at the word ‘costume’; it reminds him too much of things he’d rather forget. “Apparently my doppelganger’s going to make an appearance in Belfast around the same time, leap around some rooftops, that kind of thing.”

“Wouldn’t it be easier—“

“To put him in the Barney suit? Probably.” He figures this is Fury’s revenge for not backing down on the small arms thing. “I guess I should count myself lucky,” he snorts, propping up one leg on a dilapidated ottoman. “They could have cut me loose after New York. Fury would have been well within his rights.”

Natasha takes another sip of coffee, eyeing him over the rim of the mug. “He’s not stupid,” she says coolly. “At least not stupid enough to throw away two of his best assets.”

The comment, so calmly delivered, the implication that he seems meant to take, causes a strange ache in the middle of Clint’s stomach. It’s not entirely unpleasant.

Then again, it’s not exactly a comfortable feeling, either. The way she’s looking at him makes him think about New York in a different way, about the night after Loki’s ‘deportation’, as she likes to call it, about a suite at the Carlyle and two glasses of Blanc de Noire that went untouched.

He looks away first. It’s always him.

“What about you?” he asks, draining his cup in a show of studied nonchalance.

“Officially, I’m taking a few days off to attend to some personal business,” she says quietly, seemingly unaffected. “Unofficially I’m on loan to the State Department. I’m supposed to ‘recover and destroy all copies of a leaked document which, if made public, would lead to a serious security threat’,” she quotes in an affected, formal tone.

“Would that be national security or job security?” he asks, which is shorthand for ‘I highly doubt you’re going to destroy every copy’, and she just smiles, which makes him wonder if she’s acting on Fury’s orders or simply on her own common sense.

*

They pay the check and walk for a while down the Rue de la Roquette. It is still early but the tourists are already out in full force, pouring from their hotel rooms and into the streets, pointing and taking pictures, frantically paging through French dictionaries and travel guides.

He is dressed in a black T-shirt, jeans and jacket, with the collapsible bow tucked into his waistband, snug against the small of his back, and a basic complement of arrows in the messenger bag that’s slung over one shoulder. She is wearing black as well: ridiculously tight pants, ankle boots, and a sheer top with fluttering sleeves, accented with a zebra-patterned scarf loosely draped around her neck. Her hair is dyed a rich honey-blonde, falling straight and sleek just past her jawline.

No one approaches them. They’re not quite Parisians, but they’re definitely not tourists either. They don’t seem to fit into any category. Clint likes that, and he knows she does too.

A few blocks from headquarters, which they’ll return to separately, she turns to him, goes up onto her toes, and kisses him lightly on the corner of his mouth. It’s over before he can even process it, and she’s stepping back with that not-quite-smile playing on her lips, and all he can say is, “Be careful, Nat.”

She raises her eyebrows, which is shorthand for a great many things, so he just shrugs and says, “Be careful anyway.”

 

(1)

An unmarked chopper picks him up south of the Kibera slums.

Clint's been in-country almost three weeks, twice as long as he intended, and he’s attracted too much attention for SHIELD to risk sending in a Quinjet. In fact, no fewer than two Nairobian cops, three agents of NSIS – Kenya’s national security service – and a dozen soldiers are watching him at this very moment from various rooftops and grassy depressions. He resists the urge to wave as the chopper lifts off.

He’s not looking forward to the debrief on this one. The mission was to be seen but, despite the costume, he’s pretty sure Fury never meant to do it in such a colorful way.

Not that he’s planning to apologize for it. He wasn’t going to ignore an armed carjacking going on right in front of him, even if it was happening on a fairly busy street where passersby could be expected to have their camera phones handy. How was he supposed to know that the victim was a member of Parliament, and that the carjacking was actually an assassination attempt, and that it would turn out to have been orchestrated by a leading member of the opposing party?

It’s kind of a big story now; the local media has started referring to him as mzingi, which is the Swahili word for a local species of bird (and not, as he had first suspected, a Swahili word for ‘large purple idiot’). Right now the global media is so hyper-aware of ‘superheroes’ – or ‘masked vigilantes’, depending on who you talk to – that it’s just a matter of time until the footage is being played all over the world.

The chopper takes him over the border into Tanzania, setting down after midnight along the banks of a meandering, rust-red river. The Quinjet is waiting, silent and dark except for the vague bluish glow from its open rear hatch. Clint thanks the chopper pilot; the young man smiles broadly, chirrups, “You come back soon, mzingi!” and gives him an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

Clint jumps down on to the ground, ducking instinctively beneath the whirring blades and jogging towards the Quinjet, thinking, Clint Barton, Mzingi, Guardian of Nairobi, Purple Protector of Politicians. Remind me not to add that to my resume.

*

He pulls off the cowl and mask as he steps up the ramp into the Quinjet, only belatedly noticing that the hold is already occupied. He recognizes Agent Isaiah Santiago, because they have a brief albeit interesting history, but also because the guy is huge, thick-necked and broad-shouldered, downright elephantine, and Clint should know because he’s seen his share of elephants these past few weeks.

He looks into the cockpit as the hatch closes. The pilot is Jeffers, who Clint actually has interacted with a few times, but when he tries to start a conversation Jeffers just says, “That’s for you,” gesturing at a duffle in the vacant copilot’s seat, and focuses on prepping for takeoff. Yeah, I wouldn’t want to talk to me either, looking like this.

Clint’s never been so happy to see plain black gear. Even before the Quinjet is off the ground he’s peeled off what will forever be known as the Mzingi Suit, unceremoniously wadding it into a ball and pulling on the infinitely more practical clothes that someone – perhaps Fury, feeling uncharacteristically charitable – thought to send along with his ride.

As he’s lacing up his boots he suddenly wonders if maybe this little care package is compliments of Nat, even though she was expected to be gone a month or more. He glances over at Santiago sitting on the other side of the hold, arms crossed and expression stony, or maybe just a little airsick. If he’s been on assignment in the area he wouldn’t know if Natasha’s made it back to the carrier yet. Besides, some agents are a little leery of talking about the Widow, even when she’s not around, lest something be said that smacks of unprofessionalism. Ever since Agent Neuman… well. The less said about that, the better, really.

Clint looks in towards Jeffers, who’s usually a lot chattier than this, but the guy seems unusually focused on guiding them out over the Indian Ocean. Sighing, Clint settles back against the bulkhead, resting his bow across his knees and closing his eyes. Either way, he thinks, he’ll find out soon enough.

*

It’s mid-afternoon, local time, when they catch up with the Helicarrier over southwestern India, but Clint’s brain is still pretty much set on breakfast. The items on his agenda are as follows: Food. Shower. Burn Mzingi Suit and dance upon the ashes. Avoid Fury. Find out if Tasha’s back. Enlist her help in avoiding Fury.

He steps off the Quinjet’s ramp, duffle bag in one hand and bow in the other, Santiago’s lumbering footsteps not far behind. The wind is blowing straight across the deck, chilly at this altitude despite the equatorial heat, and it smells of metal and exhaust and jet fuel.

He ducks through the nearest open hatch, still shadowed by the silent Santiago. It’s warmer inside but the smell of metal is stronger. Food, he reminds himself. Shower.

Rogers ?

Steve Rogers, who was definitely not on Clint’s agenda, is suddenly standing in the hallway looking like one of his trading cards, big and blond and righteous. He’s not in his suit – his costume, Clint thinks uncharitably – but Clint wouldn’t be surprised to find out he regularly wears it under his civilian clothes.

“Agent Barton,” he begins, but then his eyes flicker up to Santiago, who’s stopped as well. When Rogers looks back at Clint there’s a hint of uncertainty in his expression. “I need to talk to you.”

Clint sighs. Food. Shower. Should have put ‘avoid pesky supersoldier’ on the list, too, although he hadn’t known Rogers was still on board. “Is this about Stark?” he asks wearily.

As of three weeks ago, Tony Stark had been complaining to anyone who would listen about some outfit out of Oslo that was manufacturing weapons and slapping a Stark Industries sticker on the back. Fury wasn’t concerned about a handful of rockets and RPGs; they hadn’t fallen into the hands of any terrorist groups, and even if they did, they were so poorly made that they seemed most likely to blow up in their operators’ faces. In fact, Stark had seemed less worried about the chances of death and destruction and more offended that someone would put his name on substandard goods. “SHIELD isn’t in the business of enforcing trademark infringement laws,” Fury had reminded him on one highly memorable occasion.

But Rogers shakes his head. “No,” he says, with another glance at Santiago. “It’s about Agent Romanoff.”

(2)

The mission is an easy one, according to the woman who calls herself Aten. Avoiding attention is important, she says, but most of the time will be spent waiting for the target to arrive. When he does, however, it needs to be done cleanly.

Natasha isn’t sure what to think of the woman. They’re about the same age, they even look a little similar with blonde hair and slim builds, but Aten somehow reads as being younger and less confident. Not to mention much less experienced. Natasha hasn’t worked with a partner in a long time and she’s legitimately concerned that this mission, easy or not, will be compromised if she has to babysit on the side.

But Aten is adamant. She’s the only one who knows what the target looks like now, after his plastic surgery. There aren’t even any recent pictures, there’s just her, which is why the Institute sent her along on this assignment. She promises that she won’t get in the way, and Natasha believes her.

Believes her intentions, anyway. Reality is often far different.

*

They board a red-eye in Lima. Natasha takes her assigned window seat without thinking, but during takeoff sits back so that Aten can lean forward and get a good look outside. Not that there’s much to see in the middle of the night, just the receding lights of the airport, then the city, then the coast, embraced by the inky blankness of the Pacific.

Meanwhile, the passenger on Aten’s other side, a lanky man in a rumpled business suit, takes the opportunity to get a good look down her top. Natasha gives him an aggressive smile and suggests, “No me jodas.” Whether or not he’s a Spanish speaker, he seems to get the gist. A few minutes later he’s jammed in a pair of earbuds and taken out a laptop, pointedly ignoring the both of them.

“I don’t think I’ve ever flown before,” says Aten wonderingly, oblivious of this byplay. “When we went into Caracas we drove overland.”

“That’s where you got a look at our guy’s new face?” asks Natasha, eager to get down to specifics, and Aten’s eyes go wide as she glances around the cabin. It’s a packed flight, and she’s obviously worried about being overheard, so Natasha pulls out a pen and steno pad she’d picked up at the airport for just such a purpose. Aten grins briefly and starts to write.

Yes, after he escaped from Villavicencio. He has powerful friends. The rest of my team was killed. She hesitates. It was my first assignment since they put me back together. It’s just luck that I survived.

Natasha takes the steno pad back. I don’t believe in luck, she writes. She knows so little about Aten’s past; it’s obviously a sore subject, but it’s important to understand as much as she can before they touch back down. Why did you stay with the Institute after what they did to you?

Aten bites her lip. They did me a favor, she writes. I would have spent the rest of my life in jail. Instead I’m a free woman.

With no memories, Natasha points out. It hits a little too close to home for her to be so blasé about someone having their personality erased. The eggheads at the Institute referred to as a “comprehensive engramatic expunction”. Aten just calls it a ‘wipe’. Natasha has heard other names for it, in the past.

Aten shrugs and writes back, I don’t really think I’m missing anything. In fact I’m glad not to have those images in my head anymore. The things I did.

You killed people.

This time Aten doesn’t write anything; she just nods, looking away.

Bad people?

According to my files, Aten replies, her handwriting a little uneven now, some of them were. Not all of them.

Natasha sits back and stares out the window. She can see the faint pulse of light from the tips of the wings, but everything else is darkness.

She’s known that darkness before, known the emptiness of being erased and rewritten. It scares her to think that the technology has spread, that it has progressed to this point, even if it’s being used for rehabilitation. The possibilities for abuse are endless. Absolute power and all that.

Thankfully, none of that is her problem. She’s not doing this because of loyalty to the Institute, like Aten. She’s not doing this because someone told her to, because someone wrote the directive in her mind like words on a chalkboard. She’s doing this on behalf of her own bank account, nothing else. She doesn’t report to anyone anymore.

 

(3)

Steve suggests that they try to find out more before confronting Director Fury – after all, he only knows what he’s overheard – but Barton is not in the mood to listen.

“’Missing’?” Barton echoes the director. The agent’s voice is even, almost calm – Steve’s rarely heard it otherwise – but from his spot in the office doorway Steve notices how tense Barton’s shoulders are, how his hands keep tightening into fists before consciously relaxing. “You mean she’s gone radio silent?”

Fury sits behind his desk, fingers steepled, expression impassive. He swivels around to fix his one good eye on Steve. “I’m not even sure why I’m having this conversation right now, Agent, except that Captain Rogers has developed a penchant for being damn sneaky.”

“I don’t like secrets, sir.” The implication hangs in the air between them – if it’s that much of a problem, I can take my talents elsewhere – but neither of them wants to say it out loud. If it wasn’t for SHIELD Steve guessed he’d still be locked in the ice; he does feel indebted to them because of that. And really, where else would he go? What would he do outside the chain of command? Join up with Stark and Banner and whatever other misfits they’ve been able to recruit? There’s a recipe for disaster.

“You’ve been spending too much time with Tony Stark,” Fury retorts, as though reading Steve’s mind. Then he sighs, putting one hand to the temple above his eye-patch. “Take a seat,” he says after a moment of silence.

Barton sits, but stiffly, perched on the edge of the chair. Steve stands at his side, hands behind his back, feet slightly apart. Fury sighs again.

“Agent Romanoff’s mission was completed,” he begins, lacing his fingers together. “Three days ago we sent in a chopper to extract her, same as you, to avoid unwanted attention. The chopper went down around the Honduras-El Salvador border after sustaining damage from an unknown source.”

Barton sucks in a breath, leaning forward. “You said missing…”

“Everyone survived the initial crash, but according to the pilot someone was waiting for them on the ground. Two members of the State Department also on the chopper were killed, the pilot was left for dead… and Agent Romanoff left willingly with the assailants.”

Barton shakes his head stubbornly. “That’s not possible.”

“We’re talking about Natasha Romanoff,” intones Fury. “I’d say it’s very possible.”

Steve can tell that Barton’s getting close to saying or doing something he might regret later, so he intervenes. “Director, you really think she would just take off like that? Leave SHIELD because… what? A better offer came along?”

Fury is still looking at Barton. “It’s happened before.”

Barton’s hands tighten on the straight metal armrests of his chair; his head falls forward and he shakes it disbelievingly. “That’s why you had Santiago on the jet,” he says with a hollow, humorless laugh. “You thought I was it on it, too, that we’d cooked up some scheme to… do what exactly?”

“Sometimes precautions need to be taken,” says Fury.

Barton narrows his eyes. “Against your own people?”

Fury leans forward now, his expression hardening. There’s a computer screen on his desk, opaque rather than transparent, and Steve sees the director glance towards it. “Agent Barton, you need to calm down.”

Barton stands. “What I need to do is talk to that chopper pilot.”

Another surreptitious look towards the computer, and Steve wonders if Fury’s sent for security to take Barton into custody, wonders if he’s going to end up having to intervene in a different way, wonders exactly what he’ll do. (“Stay who you are… a good man,” Abraham Erskine had once told him, and it had seemed simple enough at the time.)

“Mr. Bradach isn’t here at the moment,” says Fury in the terse, clipped tone of a man rapidly reaching the end of his rope. “He’s still in a hospital in San Salvador thanks to your former partner. Trust me, he’s been fully debriefed.”

Barton makes a rude sound, looks up at Steve as though to say do you believe this guy, and turns his back on them both. Fury is on his feet in a second. “Barton! You need to let this go.” His voice drops. “Romanoff was a risk from the beginning. Some people would say that this was just a matter of time.”

“Is that a fact?” Barton asks dryly, reaching for the door.

“If you can’t follow my orders, agent,” Fury adds, his voice still quiet, still dangerous, “just tell me right now and I will have no problem putting you off this ship.”

“Director…” starts Steve, taken aback by the swiftness of the ultimatum, but Barton shoots him a dark look as he turns and regards Fury with something like contempt.

“Don’t I even get time to pack?” he asks coldly.

Fury sits. One side of his mouth seems to lift, as though he’s developing a facial tic. “You have ten minutes,” is all he says.

 

(4)

Several agents and ship’s crew are loitering in the hallway, staring or trying not to stare, as Clint leaves Fury’s office. After a moment Rogers comes jogging after him. “Did you just get fired?”

Clint wants to laugh. He has to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all: at the last three weeks, at the way people move away from him instinctively as he hurries down the hall, at the inanity of the captain’s question. But he’s afraid if he starts to laugh he won’t be able to stop.

“Come on,” he tells Rogers. “You heard Fury. Ten minutes.”

*

They don’t go to his quarters – he’s still holding onto the duffle containing his bow and quiver, which is all he really needs – but to hers.

His code still works; Rogers doesn’t seem to realize where they are until the door opens. The tiny space is a mess: mattress ripped open, a few small personal effects – although not too personal, knowing Nat – thrown asunder. “I think SHIELD’s already been here,” says Rogers slowly.

“I’d say so,” agrees Clint, trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice because he’s not sure they had sarcasm in the ‘40s, and he starts searching.

The room is small but the possibilities are endless: not just the narrow desk’s two drawers but the legs of the desk as well; the bed frame; even the slight seams between wall plates are suspect. There are two spare uniforms hanging in the sliver of a closet, but nothing tucked into their pockets or sewn into a lining. Rogers stands and watches him for a moment, seemingly dumbfounded, before joining in. He isn’t exactly a lot of help, mostly just moves things around, but Clint appreciates the moral support.

He realizes, as he gets down on the floor to look at the undersides of the furniture, that his hands are shaking slightly. He feels slightly possessed; not Loki-possessed, thank God, but like he’s controlling his own body from a great distance and the interface he’s using isn’t very good.

“What are we looking for?” asks Rogers, pulling apart some discarded mattress fluff.

“No idea,” admits Clint, squeezing into the coffin-sized bathroom, running his hands across walls, ceiling, fixtures. His mind is racing. Someone was waiting for them on the ground… the pilot was left for dead… Agent Romanoff left willingly with the assailants.

He knows what he wants to find: a note, a message, something telling him that this is all a misunderstanding, that it’s a mission, that she’s going deep undercover like in Volgograd. But she hadn’t left him anything in Volgograd, either, he’d just had to trust her, trust that she knew what she was doing, trust that she would come back.

But this is different. Something in him, some deep-seated instinct, tells him that trust isn’t enough, that just waiting won’t work. He feels time ticking down, and its not just Fury’s ten minute deadline. It’s already been three days. She could be anywhere by now.

“Agent Barton,” Rogers calls out, “I know… you may not want to accept the possibility…”

“Oh, I’ve accepted it,” Clint says, giving up on the bathroom. It’s the truth; he has known since the first time he saw her in a SHIELD-issued uniform, staring unblinkingly across the table at him, that there might come a time when she would run again. “But she wouldn’t do it without a damned good reason.”

Rogers looks frustrated and a little disheveled from their frantic, unproductive search. “Two men are dead. Is there a good enough reason for that?”

Clint ignores the question, choosing to examine the inside of the closet door again. Two members of the State Department also on the chopper were killed… A dozen scenarios run through his mind, each as likely and impossible to confirm as the next: She made a copy of those leaked documents and someone found out… She was attacked and defended herself… Someone was trying to get the documents back and those two people were just in the wrong place at the wrong time…

But the pilot says she went with the people who brought down the chopper. Voluntarily.

Ergo, the pilot is a lying son of a bitch.

“What about that?” asks Rogers.

Clint blinks; he hadn’t even been looking anymore, he’d just been staring, visualizing the metal debris and human wreckage and Natasha walking away flanked by two faceless thugs. Rogers is standing in the middle of the room, pointing up at a narrow vent grille screwed into the ceiling.

“Can you reach?” Clint asks, glancing at his watch. Two minutes. Fury will be punctual.

“Sure.” The ceilings are low and Rogers is a big guy. He reaches up, hesitates as he seems to realize that he’s not carrying a screwdriver in his pocket, and then just pulls the entire grille free. Clint is ready; he catches the USB drive in one hand and holds it up for Rogers to see. “What is that?” the captain asks.

“What Fury wanted me to find,” says Clint, taking one last look around the room.

Now it’s Rogers’ turn to blink. “What…” He glances out through the open doorway. The hall is empty. “That was all an act?” he hisses. “Why on Earth…?”

“Somebody else was listening,” says Clint. He piles the ruined mattress on top of what’s left of the bed frame, pushes in the drawers, tosses the twisted vent grille onto the desk. Natasha would laugh if she could see him tidying up, but he needs to do something while he waits. One minute. “You heard what he said. ‘Some people would say this was just a matter of time.’”

“He kept looking at the computer screen,” Rogers murmurs, brow furrowing.

“Chain of command, Captain. You know how that works.” Whoever was here before them had taken apart the small desk lamp. He scoops the parts into the middle of the desk, next to the grille.

“Fury’s superiors,” says Rogers, lowering his voice. “The same people who were willing to bomb Manhattan?”

“At the very least, some bastard who has a vested interest in framing Natasha.” He tucks the flash drive into his pocket. It seems unlikely that whoever ransacked the room – no doubt on Fury’s orders – would have missed checking the vent, and he hopes that justifies the sudden flicker of hope that warms his chest, steadies his hands. Fury wouldn’t have let me find this if he didn’t think there was a chance.

“You think there will be answers on… that?” Rogers asks, nodding at Clint’s pocket, then looking up at the sounds of approaching footsteps.

“I’m hoping,” Clint says, recovering his duffle and hoisting it onto his shoulder.

A moment later the agents are there, three of them lead by the pachydermal Santiago. Clint spreads his hands to demonstrate just how unarmed and unthreatening he is. “So, someone’s giving me a ride back down, right?” he asks loudly. “You’re not planning on just chucking me out of the nearest hatch?”

Santiago glowers as if he’s seriously considering exactly that. Nothing the man has seen or heard in the last twenty minutes has made him any more of a Hawkeye fan than before. “Fury says we’re to take you where you want to go,” he says with obvious reluctance. “One-way trip.”

Clint shrugs, nods his thanks to Rogers, and gestures for Santiago and his friends to lead the way back to the top deck. The other agents take the hint, but the man-beast makes Clint walk in front of him, and “hands where I can see them.” Clint tries to take this as a compliment.

*

An anxious-looking Jeffers is waiting for them inside the jet. So is Rogers. He’s wearing a jacket and has a bag of his own slung across his back. Clint raises his eyebrows and says, “I got the impression you were on your way to Oslo.”

Rogers shrugs. “Stark has Ms. Potts, half his legal department and a suit of armor with him already,” he says wryly. “I thought maybe you could use the company.”

Chapter Text

PART TWO

 

(Before)

Twenty minutes after leaving Central Park, Clint realizes he’s been driving in circles and that they’re right back where they started. He takes the next left at East 72nd and tramps on the accelerator, causing Natasha to open her eyes.

“You want to stop and ask for directions?” she wonders drowsily, although he’s pretty sure it’s a just show. Barring unconsciousness, concussion or extreme blood loss, he’s never seen her anything other than wide awake.

He doesn’t rise to the bait. “Where am I dropping you off?”

She sits up and brushes the hair out of her eyes. “Who says you’re dropping me off anywhere?”

“You’re not coming with me,” he tells her curtly. He hasn’t had a moment to himself since New Mexico. He hasn’t had a moment alone, really alone, since well before that. He needs quiet, and darkness, and whiskey. A lot of whiskey.

“That depends on where you’re going,” says Natasha. “I might happen to be going to the same place.”

Braking at a stoplight behind a long line of yellow cabs, he takes the opportunity to give her his blankest, most ‘you have got to be shitting me’ stare. She is unimpressed. It doesn’t matter than he’s still wearing his sunglasses; she can see right through them.

The light turns green and he looks away, focuses on the bumper ahead of him and the buildings they pass: a ballet school, a doctor’s office, a place promising ‘same day sofa removal’. “Fury tell you to keep an eye on me?” he asks, trying to squelch the rising, irrational anger.

He can hear the irritation in her voice. “Nobody needs to tell me to do my job.”

Clint slows for a garbage truck, nodding deliberately. “So. Now I’m a job.”

She hesitates, sighs. “Clint. That… came out wrong.”

“I don’t think it did,” says Clint.

“Shut up and listen to me,” says Natasha.

“Hey kids,” says Tony Stark.

Clint almost rear-ends the garbage truck. Natasha actually turns around as she’s being thrown forward against her seat belt, as though expecting to find Stark hiding in the backseat, but the voice came through the car’s speakers.

“Yoo-hoo,” Stark says after a moment of stunned silence that rapidly transforms into incredulously-pissed-off silence. “Is this thing on?”

Nat is breathing heavily, either because of the close call with the garbage truck or because she wants to kill someone. “Stark,” she spits out. “Have you been listening to us this whole time?”

“No!” he says, sounding offended. “Bruce and I have been listening to you the whole time. We’re stuck in traffic midtown. Something about a $160 billion dollar clean-up project, I dunno. Next time we’re taking the helicopter.”

“You’re bugging SHIELD cars now?” Clint asks through clenched teeth. He thinks his fingers have made permanent indentations in the steering wheel.

“Not bugging, hacking. I disabled SHIELD’s tracking device too, so, you know, don’t say I never did anything for you.”

Natasha just shakes her head, eyes closed.

“Oh, speaking of…” and there’s a sound in the background that sounds suspiciously like Banner trying not to laugh, “look in the glove compartment.”

Nat opens her eyes, staring fixedly at the little door by her knees. “Stark, if a rubber snake jumps out at me, I will find you and I will hurt you.”

“I find your lack of faith disturbing, Agent Romanoff.” Yes, that’s definitely Banner laughing now.

Natasha glances at Clint and he pulls the car over at the earliest opportunity, just in case, but nothing happens when she opens the glove compartment. In fact, it’s empty except for a small bit of plastic the size and shape of a credit card.

“Key card for the Central Park Suite at the Carlyle on East 76th,” says Stark smugly. “33rd floor. Fully-stocked mini-bar, cable TV and as much room service as you can possibly order. I’ve already settled it with the manager.”

Clint pulls off his sunglasses and pinches the bridge of his nose, stuck between trying to figure out how and when Stark got the key card into their car and what exactly his game is. “That’s… awfully generous of you,” he says, exchanging a skeptical look with Natasha.

“Generous is my middle name, Agent Barton. I… okay, Bruce, it’s not that funny.”

Natasha turns the key card over between her fingers. “What is this, some kind of power struggle between you and Fury?”

“What? Who? Me? No, no, no, this is just a little token of my appreciation. And, you know, a reminder. That I’m a billionaire. With awesome toys.”

There’s a click, and silence, but Clint knows better than to assume he’s really gone. Natasha reaches under the dash, pulls out a few wires, killing the lights on the center console, and sits back with a sigh. Their eyes meet again and he wishes he’d left the shades on. She frowns. “Clint, when’s the last time you slept?”

“Does unconsciousness count?”

The frown deepens. Fine. He’s never claimed to be a comedian.

The real answer is ‘New Mexico’. Loki hadn’t let him or Selvig sleep – at least, at the time it hadn’t seemed important – and then the doctors said he shouldn’t because of the concussion, and since then he’s been too keyed up, too afraid. Afraid of waking up to find he’s still under the bastard’s control, afraid of losing his hold on himself. He shakes his head in resignation and pulls back out into traffic. “Where’d he say this place was?”

“East 76th,” says Stark. “Make a left on 3rd.”

They park the car and walk the rest of the way.

 

(Now)

Every major metropolitan area in the world, and a few not so major, can be boiled down to a pretty postcard snapshot and a landmark or two. Giza has the pyramids, Paris its Tower. There’s the Roman Coliseum, the Taj Mahal in Uttar Pradesh and the Statue of Liberty at the mouth of the Hudson.

I have seen them all.

San Francisco has the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, cable cars, and fog, but as always the truth of the city lives in the places where tourists don’t go, or at least where they don’t look.

We buy clothes – jeans and sweatshirts and shoes that will render us nearly invisible among the crush of humanity – although Natasha’s eye lingers appreciatively on a Donna Karan dress in a Bloomingdale’s display. It’s long-sleeved, with a ruched waist and a low scoop back. The cloth is a bold, piercing violet, and I hurry her along. The color makes me nervous.

Natasha buys a laptop in one bad alley and a gun in another. The men she deals with watch us both, their eyes bright with malice, but what Natasha does to the one who puts a hand on her ass makes the rest reconsider at least a couple of their life decisions.

That evening we rent a tiny studio apartment in the Tenderloin above a Vietnamese restaurant, across the street from a bedraggled park. Natasha would have been just as happy to break into one of the many foreclosed units closer to Market Street, but we have the cash and there’s no reason not to use it. Besides, I don’t need the added worry of whether or not a property manager or bank agent is going to drop by unannounced.

I place the laptop on the kitchen counter, hack into a neighbor’s ‘secure’ wireless connection, and set up a proxy while Natasha watches. When I’m done she nods her approval. “You’re not bad,” sounding a little surprised.

“After they wiped me, they had to fill me up with something,” I say. “I like computers. They’re easier than people.”

Her mouth quirks in a half-smile. “What’s it for?” she asks, nodding at the computer. “Are you expecting the Institute to contact us?”

“Only if they get new information,” I lie. “Doctor Fisher seemed certain that Witten will need to come to the city to meet with his contacts. They bought him a new face. They’re expecting to be compensated.”

“With the Institute’s research.”

I nod. “Enough of it to start their own program, at least.”

Natasha walks to the window. She doesn’t stand in full view, of course, but off to the side where she can see a sliver of the park across the street. A figure of indeterminable age or sex pushes a heavily-laden shopping cart into the street with no regard for his or her safety; cars continue to rush by without concern. “It’s a big city,” she remarks. “Are you sure you know where to look?”

“I’m sure.” I have a clear image of Dr. Bruno Witten in my mind, but I push it away. That image is more than five years old. It came from another time, another life, back when I had another name – many names, really – and perfectly-honed skills and absolutely no hope.

Back then it had never occurred to me that I would live to see my twenty-fifth birthday. I was good, but I needed to be perfect every time. My enemies only needed to be perfect once.

Natasha leans against the wall and pinches the bridge of her nose. “I have a headache.”

I close the laptop. “Get some rest,” I tell her. “I know you were awake for the whole flight. I’ll keep an eye out.”

The studio has no furnishings, only a stained and sagging mattress in the middle of the room, but Natasha lays down on it without comment or complaint. She’s seen worse.

We both have.

 

(5)

Only the largest agent, Santiago, gets on the Quinjet with them, and he keeps looking at Steve as though he can’t quite figure out why either one of them is here. Eventually he tires of glaring at Barton and goes up front to sit with the pilot, although every few minutes he’ll twist around in his seat and frown suspiciously at the two of them.

Steve pulls the phone out of his bag. It’s small and shiny and he tried to demur when Stark gave it to him because he was pretty sure he would break it or lose it. Now he’s thankful that Tony Stark is such a pushy son of a gun. Well, mostly thankful.

Steve sits on the bench next to Barton, as far to the rear as possible. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” the agent – ex-agent – asks warily.

“No,” sighs Steve, but he makes the call anyway, pushing the ‘speaker’ button and holding the phone out so they both can hear.

He’s expecting Ms. Potts or maybe one of the lawyers to answer, but he’s forgotten that these days you can tell who’s calling without even having to pick up the line. The phone rings twice, three times, and Santiago glares but doesn’t say anything, four times, and then he hears Stark’s exasperated voice. “Really? I’m just about to start putting the screws to these bastards, now you call?”

Since he can’t hear any screaming in the background, only Ms. Potts’s muffled voice saying, “Tony, knock it off, they do speak English,” Steve decides that ‘the screws’ are metaphorical and that Stark is actually working on a solution to his problem that doesn’t involve Iron Man. This is surprising, but welcome. “I need some information.”

“Well, hello to you too,” replies Stark testily. “If you’re asking on behalf of SHIELD, you can tell Fury to go to—“

“I’m not,” says Steve quickly. “Actually, I think Age- Mr. Barton and I are pretty much persona non grata with them right now.”

“Barton?” asks Stark, sounding more cheerful now. “Are we getting the band back together? Because I’ve got to tell you… your timing still kind of sucks.”

“Agent Romanoff is missing,” Steve says quietly. “Director Fury, or someone he reports to, thinks she may have… gone rogue.”

“Well, yeah. Have you read her file?”

A muscle twitches in Barton’s jaw, but he remains silent, so Steve says, “Barton believes otherwise.”

“And what do you believe, Captain?”

Steve hesitates. He looks down at the floor, avoiding Barton’s sharp eyes, and thinks about the woman he fought alongside in New York. She isn’t a soldier, but she reminds him of some of the men who had once been his comrades in arms. That day she had been brave and tough and resourceful. She had followed orders and showed initiative. She had helped to save the world.

Does any of that mean she can’t be a traitor? No. Of course not. Steve has read her file, or at least the parts that haven’t been redacted, and he’s been able to guess a little of the rest. Natasha Romanoff is a beautiful, intelligent woman, but mentally she is at least as screwed up as the rest of them. Who knows what she really thinks about allegiance or loyalty or friendship?

A good commander has to be willing to rely on experts when dealing with matters outside his direct range of experience. He’d read that before, in another time, another life. He’s not sure an expert on Natasha Romanoff exists on this planet, but if it does then Barton is most decidedly it.

“I believe,” he says at last, “that she deserves the benefit of the doubt.”

“Swell,” replies Stark. “So, I suppose you’re looking for one Mr. Timothy Bradach?”

“How did you—"

“Please. I’m an excellent multitasker. Also, Pepper has been listening in. So… we’re supposed to believe that this guy survives a helicopter crash and an enemy ambush and the Black Widow? Come on.”

Barton leans towards the phone. “Fury said Bradach is in a Salvadoran hospital.”

“Barton, welcome to the private sector. As it turns out, Fury was telling the truth. I didn’t think that was possible.”

There’s a small scuffle and the voice changes. “Hi, gentlemen? This is Pepper. We’re about to go into a meeting, just give me a sec… hmm, okay, Mr. Bradach was admitted to Hospital Bautista in San Salvador with a concussion, contusions, and a broken fibula. He’s actually due to be released in about… oh. Three hours.”

Barton shakes his head. “We can’t be there in three hours.” The rest remains unsaid: If Bradach is involved in something crooked, he’ll be gone long before we get near him. Steve is sure that SHIELD has agents in the area, but that’s not really an option anymore. If Barton is right, if Fury does want them to figure this out, they’re essentially on their own.

“Well,” says Stark, speaking over a flurry of annoyed voices speaking in foreign tongues, “if you ask nicely, I could give my friend Bruce a call. He’s already in Miami. That’s… what, Pepper? An hour away by jet?”

“Banner?” Steve blinks away a sudden image of the Hulk in Bermuda shorts, strolling along the beach, sipping a fruity beverage. “Why is he in Miami?”

“What, the guy needs a reason to take a vacation? He’s checking out a company I’m thinking of investing in. They’ve come up with some new kind of gamma-ray shielding and I figured Bruce is kind of the go-to guy for that sort of thing. Besides, he needs to work on his tan. Say the word; I can have him back on the plane in half an hour.”

Steve winces as the image of the Hulk on the beach dissolves into the Hulk in a hospital, surrounded by the elderly, sick and injured, not to mention doctors with X-ray machines and wickedly long needles. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“Oh, absolutely,” says Stark, sounding more pleased with himself than usual. “You know how Bruce is. Loves people. Loves to help. I’ll bet he’ll be, ah, tickled pink.”

He hangs up before Steve can formulate a response.

Barton sits back and shakes his head. “I don’t know that we have any other choice,” he says quietly, and then he stands and calls out to the pilot, “Change of plans. We’re not going to El Salvador.”

Santiago turns in his chair. “This isn’t a taxi, Barton.”

Steve stands as well, fixing Santiago with his most intimidating look. It’s the kind of look that got him beat up a lot as a kid – and a teen, and an adult – but it seems to work a lot better now that he’s pushing six feet and looks like… well, like he looks. He could take Santiago with one hand literally tied behind his back, and they both know it. “The Director said you’d take us where we needed to go,” he says firmly.

Santiago’s anger stare falters, fades, and he turns his back on them again. After an uncomfortable moment, the pilot speaks up. “So…. Where to, boss?”

Barton steps forward. He’s holding the little computer drive in his hand again, looking thoughtful. “Belgium,” he tells the pilot. “Brussels.”

 

(6)

Brussels is damp and windy.

Then again, Brussels is usually damp and windy, so Clint tries not to take it personally.

He and Steve walk into the city, shoulders hunched against the cold air and rain just heavy enough to be irritating. They stop at a little red-roofed pavilion for a sandwich and coffee – Clint hasn’t eaten an actual meal since Nairobi, and Steve always seems hungry – and he’s relieved that his SHIELD-issued credit still works. For now, at least.

“Thanks,” he tells Rogers shortly, mainly to get it out of the way.

“For what?” asks the captain between bites, absently eyeing the pavilion’s menu.

Clint resists the urge to hit him. What would be the point? “For coming along,” he elaborates, gritting his teeth. “For telling me in the first place. You didn’t have to do that.”

Rogers looks away from the menu. “Thanks for assuming I’m not here as a SHIELD stooge.”

Clint smiles wanly. “Just because I didn’t say it out loud…”

Despite the rain and the cold the streets are busy. Clint takes them into the Marolles neighborhood, past a flea market in full swing, beneath the shadow of the Palais de Justice. The variety of languages that surrounds them is a little numbing; he hears French and Dutch mostly, but also the local Brusselair dialect, plus Turkish, Italian, German, and a few words of English. (Sometimes he and Natasha would make a game of seeing who could follow the most conversations at once. She always won, but she never totally ran away with it, so he didn’t mind very much.)

As they turn off the main road onto a less-traveled side-street, Clint checks his watch. Two and a half hours have passed since they spoke to Stark. He hopes that Banner is in San Salvador by now. And that he doesn’t accidentally kill anyone.

The apartment building hasn’t changed in the two years since his last visit, when he and Natasha had dropped in after the Antwerp assignment to patch themselves up, sleep, and wait for extraction. It’s modern and more than a little ugly, three stories tall, faced with crumbling brickwork and festooned with windows that don’t seem to quite line up with each other.

He leads Rogers to the side of the building and points straight up. There’s no proper fire escape, just a ladder bolted to the side of the building that ends ten feet above the pavement. “Do you have something against going through the front door?” Rogers asks, kneeling to give Clint a boost.

Clint jumps, grabbing the bottom rung of the ladder with one hand and pulling himself up the rest of the way. “This place has twenty-seven apartments,” he says over his shoulder, climbing up far enough that Rogers has a place to land. He hopes the ladder doesn’t break; it would be extremely embarrassing to snap his neck in a fifteen-foot fall with his bow and arrow still in the bag across his back.

Rogers jumps up after him; the ladder shakes alarmingly but holds. “So?”

“So,” says Clint, continuing to climb. “We want apartment twenty-eight.”

*

They squeeze in through a window as thin as the arrow-slit in a medieval tower. The room itself is narrow as well, but it’s fairly clean and Clint decides Natasha must have been here since Antwerp, although not recently.

Rogers prowls around. It doesn’t take long before he’s prowled right back to the window; the apartment is only about 200 square feet, with a bed in one corner and the ‘kitchen’ in another. A door leads to a bathroom smaller than the ones on the Helicarrier, and it’s the only door to be seen. Rogers looks around, puzzled and a bit impressed. Clint just smiles.

The laptop is in a case under a loose floorboard – sometimes the old tricks are the best – and once it’s done booting up he holds his breath and plugs in the USB drive. If he’s right, if it’s Natasha’s, it’ll only work on one of her machines anyway. If he’s wrong… well, he’s not going to think about being wrong.

Rogers watches over his shoulder as the computer whirrs loudly, and then the screen goes black. “Is it supposed to…?”

A window opens, a file menu, and Clint lets out his breath. Scanning the list, he sees fourteen files, all images, but there’s no reason one couldn’t be what he’s looking for.

He starts clicking. His fingers feel fat and clumsy on the touchpad.

The first picture is grainy, possibly a screen capture from an online video. In the foreground is one of the Chitauri soldiers, armed and disgusting, frozen in motion, but it’s the background that catches his attention: Natasha, gun in hand, face turned in profile, eyes focused on something outside of the camera’s range. The image is pixilated, however, so it’s not immediately obvious who she is.

The next picture is clearer, although the video was taken from further away. It’s from a news report – there’s a ticker on the bottom and a local station logo in the corner – and she’s standing, surrounded by rubble and flame, looking skyward. He can see himself just behind her, or at least his arm, and a flash of red fabric that’s probably Thor’s cape.

Next: the same frame, enhanced. The SHIELD logo on her shoulder, black on black, is just visible.

Next: Natasha, back pressed up against the flank of a yellow cab; it’s earlier in the fight because her face isn’t yet bloodied. He’s present again, a shoulder and his quiver and one side of his face there at the edge of the frame.

The rest of the pictures are all variations on the same theme: Nat, there on the street in the middle of the chaos, holding a gun, holding a Chitauri weapon, alone, with him, with Rogers. Then there’s a break – when she was catching a ride back to the Tower, when she was closing the portal – and then there she is again, there they all are, walking towards a Quinjet with Loki in tow. Clint is especially visible in this one, bow in hand, an arrow trained on the back of the bastard’s head.

He had wanted very much to let it fly.

“Someone was… doing surveillance on Agent Romanoff,” says Rogers slowly.

“Yeah,” agrees Clint, surreptitiously wiping his sweaty palms against his pants. “Agent Romanoff was.”

“What?”

“This is her work.” He taps the USB drive and shakes his head. “She was worried. Worried that someone else might have seen the same footage and recognized her.”

“So? We didn’t do anything wrong,” says Rogers defensively, and Clint thinks of the congressional hearings he pretended he didn’t watch. He thinks of men who have never seen a day of battle, who have never been in a fight that wasn’t won by polls and commercials, who supported SHIELD back when it was just another black program they didn’t have to admit to supporting.

Men who later sat behind a desk and blamed SHIELD for the destruction in New York. Frothed over property damage. Went into hysterics over the local economy. Railed against secrecy in all its forms. All the while ignoring the simple truth: doing nothing would have been worse. Much, much worse.

“Natasha’s MO,” he says slowly, clicking through the images again, searching for some slight detail he might have missed, “is… different. It’s never been general knowledge that she works for SHIELD. Most intelligence agencies, they know she’s out there, but they think she just works contracts. Otherwise she’d never be able to get some of the places she needs to go.

“People,” he continues, his eye lingering on a shot of Natasha putting a spear through an alien’s chest, “especially men… they look at her, and most of the time they just see this young woman, five-foot-four, beautiful. Desirable. Someone they can control. Someone they can own. And they don’t find out they’re wrong until it’s too late.” He’s watched her work, watched her smile disarmingly and use words like conversate and irregardless and adjust her dress so no man in a five-mile radius can miss her cleavage. Her body is a weapon in more ways than one. “Even if they do know who she is… the Black Widow… they’ve heard her reputation but they don’t really believe it, not after they see her, because she’s just this pretty woman, young, unarmed. They think it doesn’t matter what they say or do because she’s in their power. She’s on her own. If they knew what kind of resources she has access to, what kind of backup, it would be a different story.”

Rogers takes a few steps back and sits on the edge of the bed, looking troubled. “And if the wrong people did see this…”

“They’d have a much better idea of where to find her,” Clint finishes, swallowing past the fear that tightens his throat. “This State Department assignment… if someone leaked her code name, if it even got out that they were bringing in a female SHIELD agent for infiltration…”

“Who would go to that kind of trouble?”

Clint shrugs, closing the file menu. If there’s a message in these pictures he’s too angry and tired to see it. “You make a lot of enemies in this line of work. It could be someone SHIELD sent her after, someone who never realized until now that she was the reason they were taken down. It could be a family member, a colleague. It could be someone up the chain of command who thinks she’s a liability, or someone who wanted to hire her and didn’t like getting no for an answer.” He mentally ticks off a score of names that would be meaningless to Rogers: Mathew Coll, Nita and Fernando Grieb, Sires, Stroupe, Bova, Avery, Cruise… “Hell, it could be someone from before we met, someone I’ve never even heard of.”

He stands, goes to the window and watches the rain. He checks his watch, thinks that Banner or Stark or someone should have called by now. Bradach will be in the wind soon.

“She didn’t tell you, did she?” asks Rogers carefully. “That she was afraid.”

Clint snorts. He thinks about sitting in a grubby Parisian café across from Nat, telling her about Fury’s issues and not realizing that she was in more danger than he was. He had thought that because her signature weapon wasn’t as obvious as his bow, that because her hands and feet were often the only weapons she needed, she was home free. “She dyed her hair, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. Maybe she’s been spending less time in public… I’m not sure. If she’d told me…” – and he tries to imagine Natasha walking up to him, saying ‘Clint, I’m worried,’ coming to him for help, help for herself, and it makes his throat tighten again – “…I don’t know. Maybe I’m kidding myself. Maybe it wouldn’t have made one damn bit of difference. But the thing is… I don’t know what to do next.”

 

(7)

The doctor doesn’t speak much English, and what Spanish Timothy Bradach knows comes from the Taco Bell menu, but he’s picked up on one word: afortunado. Lucky. He’s a lucky man, to be alive, to have one broken bone and a bump on his head and a little infection when two other men are worm food.

Timothy doesn’t feel lucky. He waits to be released, eager to get out but without any idea of what to do next. He once had a wife back in Chicago, but she left him three years ago. He has two kids, but now they’re with his wife. Now what he has is a crippling alimony payment and mountains of debt to go with his broken leg and his concussion.

I should have asked for more money.

A nurse comes in, the pretty young one named Ofelia who speaks the best English. “Mr. Bradach, I’m sorry for the wait,” she tells him, smiling brightly. “We just need you to fill out some paperwork and then you’ll be on your way.”

“Insurance?” asks Timothy nervously. “The agent who was here Tuesday should have taken care of all that…”

Ofelia smiles again. “Not insurance, Mr. Bradach. That’s been resolved. This is just some personal information, for hospital records. You understand.”

Timothy doesn’t understand, but he sighs and lets Ofelia put him in a chair and wheel him down the hall to a little room with a desk and a pen and a stack of forms. He doesn’t want to be in the hospital records. He’s starting to regret that he even used his own name when he was brought in, although if he hadn’t it would have led to some uncomfortable questions when that SHIELD agent came to debrief him.

He frowns over the forms; they’re all in Spanish, of course, and he has no idea what he’s supposed to write under familiar directo. He hears the door open again and turns around in the chair, saying, “Ofelia, what is…”

It’s not Ofelia.

It’s a man. He’s small of stature, with dark hair fading to gray in places, eyes hidden behind the glare of light on his wire-framed glasses. He steps inside with small, furtive movements, closes the door, and looks down at Timothy with an expression that very clearly states I don’t want to be here right now.

The feeling is mutual.

“Mr. Bradach,” says the man, leaning against the closed door and removing his glasses. He folds them carefully, slips them into his shirt pocket. “I need to ask you a couple questions.”

“Are you a doctor?” Timothy asks, gripping his pen tightly.

“A doctor?” the man echoes. “Yes. Not in the way you mean, though.” He smiles. It’s a sad, derisive, slightly twisted smile. “My name is Bruce Banner. Maybe you’ve seen some of my work.”

Chapter Text

PART THREE

 

(Before)

She stands in the open doorway of the helicopter and looks down at the trees below. They’re a blur of green shot through with brown and the occasional meandering creek bed. Behind her, Lake clears his throat and shouts over the wind and the rotors: “Miss… I wish you’d be more careful.”

Natasha sighs and steps back. Her skirts whip wildly around her ankles as she sits down across from Lake and his partner, Nguyen, who’s been grinning stupidly at her since they picked her up.

The white skirt with the embroidered hem, the blue blouse, and the sensible shoes all once belonged to Emilia Flores, a maid in the home of Rafael Calderón Lopez, who had recently made the very bad decision to traffic in stolen documents. Lopez is now in custody and the documents are gone, except for the copy folded into a pocket of Natasha’s skirt.

Emilia had been a quiet, easily-intimidated little thing, someone who might have been receptive to Nguyen’s advances, might have smiled back. Unfortunately for him, Emilia doesn’t exist anymore, and Natasha Romanoff, who hasn’t had good vodka in more than two weeks, is close to justifying Lake’s fears by pushing his partner out the chopper door.

She’s irritable. She might say that she’s homesick, but that’s stupid. You need a home to be homesick for. You can’t be homesick for a feeling. You can’t be homesick for a person.

Lake tries to make conversation over the roar of the wind, Natasha ignores him, and suddenly the chopper drops. Natasha grabs at a hanging safety strap as they tilt wildly to the left, and Nguyen almost does fall out, except Natasha catches him by the back of his jacket and Lake grabs his arm and they pull him back in. She twists in her seat and shouts at the pilot, “What happened?”

“I don’t know!” the guy yells back, and the trees are still a blur of green and brown but not nearly as far away as they were a moment ago, and then they hit.

*

She wakes to the sound of gunshots.

 

(Now)

Natasha sleeps. I watch out the window for a few minutes, the gun in my hand, and then move back to the computer. The Institute seems very far away right now, but their existence presses against my mind like a physical weight, like gravity doubled and then tripled.

This would be easier if it weren’t for the trigger. The fail-safe. The threat of a complete dump, of nothingness, of – essentially – brain death. She’s an asset and the Institute doesn’t want to lose her, but they’d rather she be lost than fall into enemy hands.

The trust between us is a fragile thing, easily fractured. My lies are mounting, and time is simultaneously ticking down and spooling out in front of us like an endless road. She doesn’t understand who I am, what I am, and she can’t. Not if she wants to go home.

 

(8)

Steve has been waiting for the next clue, another breadcrumb that will lead them to a second exotic location (although how they’re going to get there, he hasn’t quite figured out). He’s out of his depth, and he thinks this is exactly why I didn’t really want to get out in the world in the first place, but in a strange way he feels more useful here than he could have been in Oslo or as Fury’s errand boy.

“I don’t know what to do next,” says Barton, which is worrisome because this is his thing: secret apartments and tiny computer drives and unspoken orders. He slouches against the wall next to the narrow window, posture defeated, expression blank but somehow also as open and raw as Steve has ever seen it.

Steve takes out the phone, wills it to ring. It refuses. There’s still about ten minutes until Bradach is released; when that time is up, he tells himself, he’s going to call Stark back, angry Norwegians or no.

He finds himself talking just to take up time, just to fill up space. “Is it true, what Agent Romanoff said? About how you met?” Barton looks up, still with that same exhausted disconsolation, so he prompts, “What… what she told Loki.”

The shutters come down with an almost audible snap. “I don’t know what she said to him,” Barton says shortly.

“Oh.” Steve squirms. “I’m sorry… I thought you might have seen the footage...”

“Can’t say I felt the need to watch that.”

Steve thinks that maybe this is for the best. He decides to push his luck. “She said that SHIELD sent you to kill her, but you… disobeyed orders.” Silence. “That true?”

Barton doesn’t answer right away. Instead he crosses the small room, sits back at the computer, and opens its lid. When the monitor flickers on he begins to type; boxes open and text scrolls across the screen too fast for Steve to follow. Just as he decides he’s been forgotten or dismissed Barton says, a little bitterly, “More or less. She couldn’t get too creative, could she? For all she knew I’d already told Loki every scandalous detail.”

“Did you?” Sometimes words just come out of his mouth without his permission.

Barton just chuckles bleakly. “No. But only because he didn’t ask. He asked about other things, though,” he adds quietly. “About her. Her fears. Her weaknesses.”

“I didn’t know she had any weaknesses,” Steve admits. He stands, looking down over Barton’s shoulder. “Should I even ask what that is?”

“A dropbox,” says Barton, leaning back in the chair. The sudden energy is gone; he looks drained again. “We’ve used it before to exchange information if radio communication isn’t possible. I just remembered, but…” He gestures at the empty screen.

Steve checks the phone again. Five minutes.

“Germany,” says Barton unexpectedly, swiveling his wrist to read his watch. “Frankfurt. Her target was a doctor and his fiancé. Her bosses at the time wanted him to work for them. They were into biological weapons, psychological warfare and manipulation… all the fun stuff. Illegal, of course, at least after people started dying during their experiments. They’d already approached the doctor and he’d told them to go to hell.”

“So she was supposed to kill him,” Steve guesses.

“No. He was still too valuable. She was supposed to kidnap the fiancé,” Barton says, staring at the computer screen. “Her name was Sloane. Young, pretty, very smart. Nat was supposed to make it messy… lots of blood at the scene, that kind of thing. And then the bosses were going to come out of the woodwork and tell the good doctor that he could either take them up on their job offer, or the Black Widow would send Sloane back to him, one piece at a time.”

Steve flinches. “Would she have done it?”

Barton shrugs. “Luckily the doctor was already on SHIELD’s radar by then. So was Natasha. Fury had actually wanted to recruit her for a couple of years at that point. All the profilers said she was obviously psychotic, but she was also good. Very good. You don’t just wipe out a potential asset like that unless it’s your only option. Unfortunately, every time someone got close…” He shakes his head minutely. “Well, Fury’d run out of patience, and he knew I didn’t need to get close.”

“And?”

“And…” Barton rubs a hand across his mouth. “I’m a man, aren’t I? I got her in my sights and I saw this pretty young woman –a girl, really – and it didn’t seem like she could possibly be as dangerous as everyone said. I underestimated her. I thought I would be different, the one to bring her in, so I went in close and it almost killed me. She could have killed me, but she hesitated and… well, you’ve seen her. She doesn’t hesitate.” He smiles faintly. “She told me later than the ‘bow and arrow thing’ threw her off. Said she thought she was hallucinating.”

Steve smiles as well, despite himself. He wonders if these are the kinds of stories SHIELD agents tell, retell, laugh over, when they get older. If they get older. Remember the time I almost killed you?

He glances at the phone – time’s up – and looks up at the computer screen, and freezes.

Something is there that wasn’t before.

The phone rings.

 

(9)

Rogers answers the phone; Clint clicks the link. His heart is pounding, his hands are shaking again with the expectation of discovery, and if this is just junk mail he’s going to have a coronary.

The link sends him to a website. His heart sinks until he realizes it’s a forum for birdwatchers and he almost laughs out loud. There’s a chat room with one anonymous visitor, and he forces himself to breathe steadily as he logs in as a guest.

*

He remembers Natasha the way he first saw her, close up, in a Frankfurt alleyway. She had been young and gorgeous and, ultimately, terrifying. He’d put an arrow against the string but he hadn’t pulled it; she’d raised her gun and he had waited to die but he didn’t.

He’d said, “There’s another way, you know. You don’t have to live like this,” because he’d been following her for the last six hours and he’d seen the way she looked at people like they were aliens, or maybe museum mannequins behind glass. She had watched a pub full of sports fans cheer for their soccer team, watched a woman run out in front of a car to grab a stranger’s child, watched a man propose to his girlfriend in the middle of Nizza Park, and he had watched her. He had recognized the contempt that masked confusion, the envy behind her cool disdain, because he had felt those same feelings himself, once.

*

The cursor blinks.

Where are you now? asks Guest534.

He hesitates. Is this her? Is it a test? Best to stick with the truth, as she had with Loki. Apartment twenty-eight.

He waits. Rogers is still talking on the phone but it’s as though the sound is coming through water. Clint can’t make out a word of the conversation.

Guest534: Agent Romanoff is alive and safe.

Clint feels a sharp pain in his chest, wonders if he really is having a heart attack, and types back as quickly as his unsteady hands can manage. Where is she?

Guest534: I can’t tell you that. She has been compromised.

The last word stares up at him like a beacon, like a warning. He remembers Tasha’s leg, warm against his own, and her voice. ‘I’ve been compromised.’ He’d never asked her what she meant. He hadn’t really wanted to know.

Guest534: You need to follow my instructions.

Who are you? Clint sends back immediately.

Blink. Blink. Blink.

Guest534: A friend. If you were to try and retrieve Agent Romanoff now, she would die. This is not a threat. It is simply a fact. In order to safely recover her, you must be in possession of a particular drug.

Clint closes his eyes briefly. A hostage situation? What did they always say about hostage situations? They said, ‘don’t make deals, don’t get sucked into their game’, that’s what they say, Clint. Behind him, Rogers says, “Thanks, good-bye,” and hangs up the phone.

Clint types his reply slowly, waiting for something brilliant to pop into his mind. Nothing pops. And then we make a swap.

No, replies Guest534. You will need to inject Agent Romanoff with the drug.

Clint laughs out loud, a harsh and frightened sound. Rogers comes up behind him, asking, “What’s going on?” but Clint ignores him. He types back, almost pounding down on the keys. You have got to be kidding me.

There is a long wait this time, the longest yet, but Rogers doesn’t speak and Clint doesn’t move. Maybe he doesn’t even breathe. He expects Guest534 to leave, and then he expects he’s going to quietly freak out, but he doesn’t expect what happens next.

Guest534: Agent Barton, she does not remember you. She has been wiped and reset with no memory of joining SHIELD. Any sustained attempt to restore these memories by either of us will trip a programmed trigger and lead to total memory loss. Perhaps brain death. I doubt that you want to risk that any more than I do. You’ll need the drug to dissolve the trigger. It is located in a facility south of Bogota, Colombia known as the Institute for Rehabilitative Therapy. I will send the coordinates to your dropbox.

Clint rereads the message, than reads it once more for good measure. Lost memories. Possible brain death. It’s insane and ridiculous but it makes more sense than the idea of Natasha betraying him, walking off with their enemies and not looking back.

He meets Rogers’ eyes. “It’s your call,” the captain says quietly, and Clint isn’t sure if he’s thankful for the trust or annoyed that Rogers and Fury and the universe in general are leaving all of this – Natasha’s mind, maybe her life – in his hands. Just his.

He breathes slowly and carefully types his reply. You’re asking for a lot on faith. I don’t even know who you are.

The cursor blinks for a moment. Then: I told you. I’m a friend. You can call me Aten.

And then he is alone in the chat room, Rogers is still staring at him, and Clint thinks he might have that freak-out right now after all, but Rogers says, “That was Banner on the phone. Bradach talked. Said that he lied about everything. Someone paid him to put the chopper down where he did. Two men came out of the trees and killed the State Department men, and when they left they took Agent Romanoff with them.” He takes a deep breath. “She was unconscious.”

A weak, watery feeling of relief goes through Clint’s muscles, and he thinks how strange it is that he’s actually happy to hear this news, although happy is the wrong word for it. He’s just glad that he’s already sitting down. “Unconscious,” he echoes.

“We can go back to Fury with this, can’t we?” Rogers presses. “Is this what he wanted you to find?”

Clint shakes his head. The motion makes him a little dizzy. “Nothing’s really changed. All somebody would need to say is that Bradach lied because he was terrified of Banner… Hulking out. No one’s going to blame him for that. And all we have are some pictures and a chat room conversation with someone named Aten. It’s not enough.” He blinks his vision clear; for a moment, everything had appeared to swim before his eyes. “Did Banner tell you anything else?”

“Yeah,” Rogers says, his expression severe. “Bradach says he was first approached about this by someone who already knew he worked for SHIELD. At the time he was on an assignment. In Colombia.”

 

(10)

Natasha opens her eyes to discover it is early morning. Her headache is gone but she feels unrested (or maybe too rested) and she tells Aten, “You should have woken me before now. You need to sleep too.”

Aten smiles. She has a pretty smile; Natasha wonders if she used to smile at people before she killed them. “I rested on the plane. But I’ll take a nap now if you don’t mind.”

Natasha nods at the computer. “Any news?”

“Yes. The Institute has confirmed that Witten will be in the area tomorrow night. There was a delay on his flight, some kind of mechanical issue, but he’s rescheduled the meeting with his contact.”

“Two days,” says Natasha unhappily. “What are we supposed to do until then? Go sight-seeing?”

Aten shrugs. She doesn’t seem particularly put-out by this development, but then she’s with the Institute for the long haul. A couple of days won’t matter to her; she’ll get paid all the same. Natasha already feels claustrophobic in this densely-packed city, however; she wants to be somewhere else, alone, untracked and untraceable. Two days feels like an eternity.

*

The moment Aten is asleep, Natasha is out the door. It’s early and the streets are full of crazed commuters behind the wheel and pedestrians walking in a sort of fugue and bicyclists weaving heedlessly between men and machines.

She heads south towards Market, the busy thoroughfare that cuts diagonally across the city. Monstrous glass skyscrapers stand side-by-side with smaller, ornate structures from the turn of the century, interspersed with the odd fountain, statue, or piece of modern art.

The trademarks of American capitalism are everywhere, from the lurid storefronts to the towering advertisements splashed across billboards and concrete walls alike. There are movie posters on buses and clothing ads on the backs of defunct payphones. There are ‘bargain stores’ and seedy ’gentlemen’s parlors’ and also many closed and shuttered storefronts, dark windows staring out into traffic like blinded eyes.

One shop doing brisk business caters to the mania surrounding ‘the Avengers’, and Natasha pauses for a moment, peering in through the windows at the plastic shields and foam hammers and cheaply-painted action figures. She can’t remember where she was when she had heard about the attack in New York, about this weird little group popping up out of nowhere drive the aggressors back, but she knows she’s seen the footage. Everyone’s seen it. It was an alien invasion, for Christ’s sake.

Children run around the inside of the shop, knocking over merchandise and firing pretend lasers at each other. They grin. We were invaded by aliens, isn’t it awesome?

A television just visible through the window shows video from that day, mostly-blurry mayhem shot through with concrete dust and lasers, interspersed with pictures of Tony Stark waving at cameras and brief flashes of the others: a tall blond man and… 

Natasha looks away, feeling a little nauseous, but the sensation fades quickly and she decides that she’s only hungry. She decides to get breakfast for herself and Aten and take it back to the apartment.

It’s going to be a long couple of days.

 

(11)

Steve gets back on the phone as Barton hails a taxi. “We need transport to Bogota, Colombia.”

“Yeah? And I need some better lawyers.” Stark sounds tired and frustrated; Steve figures that dealing with problems the legal way is far less satisfying than settling them as Iron Man. “You know, I feel like I only hear from you guys when you want something.”

“And that makes us different than you how?”

“Yeah, fine. Touché.”

A cab rolls to a stop, the driver looking on with a bored expression as Steve and Barton climb into the back seat. “Aeroport Bruxelles,” says Barton, handing up his SHIELD credit. They’re both reluctant to use it (Steve’s already learned from TV that credit cards are frequently used to track someone’s location and activity and they don’t know who might be keeping tabs on them) but all he has in his wallet are American dollars, no euros.

The driver takes the card with a skeptical sniff and muttered “Merde,” and swipes it through a slot on his dashboard. It must meet with his approval, though, because he hands it back to Barton and pulls away from the curb.

“What’s in Colombia?” asks Stark. “Did you find Romanoff?”

“No,” says Steve, holding the phone out so Barton can follow the conversation. “But we may have found the people responsible.” He glances up at the driver, who is ignoring them. “We got a message from someone calling themselves Aten--”

“What’s that, Egyptian?”

“--claiming Agent Romanoff has had her memory modified.”

“Modified? Well. Wouldn’t be the first time for her, right?” quips Stark, causing Barton to look away in disgust. “How modified are we talking about?”

“According to this informant?” asks Steve. “Pre-SHIELD.”

“Hmm.” Stark digests this as the taxi picks up speed, merging onto the highway. “So… you figure Witten’s Institute has got to be involved, right?”

Barton’s head whips back around. “What?”

“They’re based out of this little town southeast of Bogota. Right now they’re a big name in ‘rehabilitative therapy’… and I’m using air quotes, by the way. Basically it’s chemically-enhanced behavior modification. Fury’s even sent them some of SHIELD’s most wanted over the years – you know, the ones he doesn’t want to study – to see if Witten can reprogram their twisted little minds. But being in Colombia, I’m sure they get plenty of, ah, ‘volunteers’. Air quotes, again, if you couldn’t tell.”

Steve frowns. He could ask how Stark knows all this, but… nope. No point, really.

“Witten,” says Barton, staring intently at the phone. “Bruno Witten?”

“Yeah, he’s the big cheese.”

Steve looks at Barton. “What is it?”

Barton sits back, running a hand over his face. He looks dog-tired but also strangely rejuvenated. “Bruno Witten was the doctor in Frankfurt.” He leans back towards the phone. “Stark, what about his fiancé? Sloane Fisher?”

“Yeah, let me Google that for you, champ,” says Stark. “Gimme a sec.”

There’s a clatter of silverware in the background and Steve raises his eyebrows, even though Stark can’t see him. “Are you at… lunch?” He’s not even sure what time it is.

“Dinner. Multitasking,” Stark reminds them. “Okay, Dr. Sloane Fisher, Witten’s wife. She works at the Institute too.”

“That’s got to be the connection,” says Barton, almost smiling, and then his expression sharpens as he looks up and sees the driver watching them in the rearview mirror. “Hey!” He thumps a hand against the back of the empty passenger’s seat. “Eyes on the road.”

The driver grunts and looks forward.

“Do you think Agent Romanoff’s going to go after Fisher again?” asks Steve softly. “If this Aten person is right, if everything since she joined SHIELD has been erased…”

“I don’t know,” says Barton. “If Witten’s people did this to her in the first place… where is Witten now?”

“At this very moment? Not sure,” says Stark around a mouthful of something. “But in two days he’s supposed to be at a conference for mad scientists in the San Francisco area.”

“And Fisher?”

“Well, he’s down for a plus-one, but I doubt it’s her. I’m reading some of his emails right now and… the guy’s kind of a horn dog.”

“Yeah,” Barton snorts, elaborating when Steve raise his eyebrows questioningly. “The night Natasha was supposed to grab Fisher, Witten was out drinking and picking up prostitutes.”

“German prostitutes,” Stark says dryly, as though this is only additional proof of the man’s depravity. “I… no, Pepper, that wasn’t a suggestion…”

Steve rubs his neck. “If Witten’s going to be back in the U.S., isn’t that where we should be headed? Even if he’s not directly involved, he still has access to this drug.”

“And if he is involved?” Barton asks. “He’s going to tell us to go to hell, probably move Natasha from wherever he’s got her stashed, and in the meantime what we need is still in Colombia.”

All three of them fall silent. The taxi driver is watching them in the mirror again with open curiosity and almost misses the highway exit.

Steve can see the conflict in Barton’s face as he struggles with what he wants to do versus what he knows he needs to do. “I’ll go to Colombia,” Steve offers at last. “You go to San Francisco.”

There’s a flicker of appreciation in Barton’s shadowed eyes – maybe because he wants to get his hands on Witten, maybe because he suspects, as Steve does, that Romanoff could be the doctor’s plus-one – but it’s quickly replaced by grim pragmatism. “And do what? Sit on my ass, waiting for him to show up? And what are you going to do in Colombia, knock on the door and ask for a cup of sugar?”

“Barton’s right,” says Stark before Steve can decide if he should be insulted or not. “We’re going to need to be sneaky about this. The Institute’s security is too good. Not as good as mine, but good enough, and it’s not networked which leaves out hacking in remotely. What kind of drugs are we talking about here, anyway? Nothing fun, I’m assuming.”

Barton gives Stark the abridged version while Steve hides a smile, wondering if Stark even noticed when ‘you’ first became ‘we’. The guy means well; Steve knows that, even if he makes cracks about Stark being a money-hungry, attention-seeking reprobate. Stark is a money-hungry, attention-seeking reprobate, but his heart, pardon the pun, is generally in the right place.

“Okay, so here’s what I’m thinking,” says Stark when Barton is done, and then there’s an enormous rush of sound from the phone, more sound than Steve ever thought could come out of such tiny speakers. The noise seems to fill up the whole cab; the taxi driver yells something in incomprehensible French and almost drives them into a ditch. The wheels stutter, something knocks against the undercarriage; Steve drops the phone but Barton grabs it.

“That was an explosion,” he says breathlessly, bracing one arm against the side of the cab and glaring at the driver. “Stark, what happened?”

There’s a clanging, clattering sound on the other end of the line, Steve pictures falling rubble and licking flames, and then somebody groans.

“Stark?” demands Barton again.

Static answers, and far-away voices raised in alarm, and Stark’s voice from a distance: “Pepper? Pepper?” Something makes a disturbing thud - Steve meets Barton’s eyes in mounting horror - but then they can hear Stark again: “Jesus, Pepper, you scared me.” More static, scrabbling, heavy breathing. “Guys… I think… someone… just shot a rocket at me.”

“Are you…”

“While I was at dinner!”

“Stark…”

He makes a variety of coughing, grunting sounds. “I’m fine. Gotta get Pepper out of here. Listen, I bought you a jet, okay? Pier B, Gate 39.”

Steve stares. “Tony…”

“Yeah, I’m your sugar daddy.” Stark coughs again. “Go get ‘em, tiger. Try not to get yourself killed.”

Chapter Text

PART FOUR

 

(Before)

They check into the Carlyle a little after noon. The place is huge, every room bigger than most of the places he’s lived, and everywhere he looks he sees designer furniture, shimmering cloth, shining surfaces: glass, brass, marble and tile.

The walls are bright and white and shining, topped by crown molding, accented by opulent drapes. No one’s bolted the phone to the nightstand or put the television remote on a chain. Fresh flowers bloom on side tables below framed art that looks like it belongs in a museum instead of a neighborhood garage sale. Clint has seen places like this before, but usually only from across the street or through a skylight.

Natasha is less fazed, of course; she glances around, checks the windows and doors and, because after all this Tony Stark they’re talking about, they do a quick sweep for surveillance devices. Nothing comes up. Not that that really means anything.

“Clint, go get some sleep,” Natasha says the third time she catches him yawning, and he’s surprised to discover that for the first time since this all started he wants to sleep, thinks maybe he even can sleep. When she adds, gently, “I’m not going anywhere,” he feels relieved  (even though half an hour ago he was telling himself that he just wanted to be alone) and suddenly so exhausted that it’s all he can do to drag himself to the bedroom, kick off his boots, and collapse face-first atop the lilac-scented sheets.

*

When he wakes he’s briefly confused by the smell, the smooth cloth beneath his cheek, the darkness. But then he hears music coming from the other room, soft and unobtrusive: Mumford & Sons, since indie-folk is one of the few genres they see eye-to-eye on.

Clint rolls onto his back and listens for a while, to the music, the familiar lyrics (‘…lend me your hand and we'll conquer them all…’) and to the sounds of Natasha moving through the suite. She can move silently when she wants to, and sometimes she does so without conscious thought, so these little noises are for his benefit alone.

Eventually he rises and stumbles into the adjoining bathroom. There is complimentary shampoo and conditioner, complimentary toothbrush and paste, complimentary soap and deodorant. There is no complimentary aspirin, but he’d be surprised if Natasha hadn’t put some in the bag she packed on the Helicarrier.

After cleaning up he feels a little more human, although various parts of his body remind him that he is only human, protesting against their recent rough treatment: his head, his shoulders, his right side, his left leg. It’s only pain, though. He can deal with pain.

She pretends not to notice when he opens the bedroom door and stands in the threshold for a moment, just looking. The living room is still grand and sparkling, but somehow Natasha’s been able to make it a little less intimidating: there is a half-unwrapped chocolate bar on a lacquered side table, her jacket is thrown over a piece of abstract art on the sideboard, and the glass and marble surfaces don’t shine so glaringly with most of the lights turned off.

At first he can’t see much of Nat herself – she’s sitting on the sofa which has its high back to his doorway – but then she stands and turns to him with a smile that makes all of his aches and pains stop hurting, at least for a second, because damn it, he’s never seen her smile at anyone like that before. Unguardedly, unironically, not because she’s trying to look foolish or flirty or seductive but because she’s genuinely pleased. She’s wearing black sweatpants and a black tank top and no makeup and she’s probably the most gorgeous thing he’s ever seen.

Little warning bells start going off in the back of his head.

“You look better,” she tells him.

“I do?” asks Clint, feeling suddenly awkward. “’Cause I feel like death warmed over, to be honest.”

Her lips curve into another smile, this one holding the promise of mischief. “Well, you do look like death warmed over, but earlier you looked like room-temperature death, so this is actually an improvement.”

He joins her on the sofa and she hands him the hotel’s room-service menu. They debate for a while what to order and finally decide on everything. Natasha calls the front desk and has to swear several times that no, she’s not kidding, bring it all. The food arrives shockingly quickly on a series of silver carts pushed by men in stiff hotel uniforms who look exhausted and a little shocked to see it’s only the two of them in the suite.

They eat a little of everything. There are Waygu beef burgers with black truffles and brie, a spicy chicken salad with ginger and cashews, pepperoni pizza, chicken fettuccini, Atlantic salmon in a basil tomato sauce, a turkey and cranberry sandwich on sourdough… She drinks a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon and he has Sam Adams.  Then afterward there’s freshly brewed coffee and chocolate cake, peanut butter cheesecake, a roasted apple crisp with vanilla bean ice cream… If this is how Stark lives all the time, Clint doesn’t know how the guy still fits in his fancy suit.

Even after only taking a mouthful of this, a forkful of that, it’s not long before they’re sated, not stuffed but pleasantly full. Clint leans back against the cushions and Natasha gives a contented sigh, sliding down until her head is on his shoulder. He can’t hear the warning bells anymore, between the haze of an impending food coma and the music, which has cycled through the entire album during their hedonistic feast (‘…sigh no more, no more… one foot in sea, one on shore…’)

His mind wanders. How do you go back to living your life after something like this? After an alien god opens a door from another world and then opens a door in your mind and makes you his bitch? After he forces you to kill and maim and destroy, after he whispers without voice the things he’ll do to you, the things he’ll make you do, because fear is his lifeblood and he craves power like a dying man craves water?

How do you pick up where you left off when you’ve helped reduce half of Manhattan to rubble in saving the other half, when you’ve gone up against creatures from another world that look like something out of a movie, except that any self-respecting Hollywood director would have taken one look at the Chitauri and said ‘no way audiences are going to believe that, too weird, come up with something else.’

Clint doesn’t know how. He doesn’t know anything. But he thinks that maybe a nap and a good meal and nodding off in the middle of an exquisite hotel suite with Natasha Romanoff’s cheek warm against your shoulder is a pretty good start.

 

(Now)

I wake as Natasha enters the studio. I’m scared and my fear makes me angry. “You didn’t tell me you were going to leave!”

She raises an eyebrow and holds up a plastic bag that smells of warm bread and cinnamon. “We need to eat,” she says placidly. “I can take care of myself. I suspect you can too. I left you the gun.”

I laugh at this, but it’s a hollow sound. “You could have been seen.”

“Seen by whom?” she asks doubtfully. “Witten isn’t in the city yet.”

“His contacts could be,” I point out, stifling a growing sense of panic. I should have known better than to think I could keep her hidden away until help arrived, but I thought I could manage for longer than a few damn hours.

It’s taxing, though. I hadn’t expected that. It feels like if I push too hard I’ll lose my grip completely. That’s not acceptable.

Natasha sits on the edge of the mattress and rummages through the plastic bag, pulling out some sourdough bagels, a tub of fruit spread, a carton of orange juice. “Who are his contacts? The Institute must have some idea of who’s trying to replicate their research.”

“That’s need-to-know.”

She frowns. “I need to know if I’m going to do my job. You’re here to identify Witten, you’re not my handler. Tell me what you know or I’ll get on the phone and contact the Institute myself.”

There is a place beyond panic, beyond fear, a place of calm and calculation. I find my mind settling into the old ruts of subterfuge and deceit, and I realize I need to give her more truth or she’ll start picking apart the lies. “They’re not positive, but they think it’s someone who once worked for the Institute. You know that he used to be in charge, right? It was his money and his ideas that created the Institute in the first place.”

Natasha hesitates, opens the orange juice, and nods. I can’t tell if this is new information or not. I’m not sure how much she was told – truthfully or otherwise – before I returned.

“But then he screwed up,” I tell her. “He’s a classic megalomaniac. He didn’t think he could do anything wrong so he just did whatever he wanted without consulting his partners. No business sense, no business ethics… he made deals with other organizations that hurt the company, limited what they could accomplish. No medical ethics either,” I add shortly. “He has a habit of… coming on to his female patients post-wipe, when they’re still empty and confused and don’t know how to say no.”

Natasha freezes with the bagel halfway to her lips. “Did he…”

“He hurt women,” I interrupt her, eager to avoid this line of questioning, to delve into the lies with the momentum of the truth behind me. “The Institute realized that he was out of control, that he couldn’t be trusted anymore. He did some… very bad things that I’m not at liberty to go into. When he realized that his money couldn’t solve all of his problems anymore, that the authorities were onto him, he ran. The police in Bogota caught up to him but…” I shrug.

“He paid them off,” Natasha guesses.

“We’re not sure when he was formally approached by his new friends, but it must’ve been before he had his surgery done in Caracas. We intercepted an email where he told them that he wouldn’t give them any information until they gave him a new life and got him back into the U.S.”

She eats silently for a few minutes and I wait, thinking back through the obvious holes in my story and trying to ignore the pain in my stomach. But all she does is nod once, apparently accepting what I’ve told her, and I’m just beginning to relax when she asks me, “What do you know about the attack in New York?”

“W-what?” I stammer.

“You know,” she says, gesturing with her bagel. “A few months ago. Big hole in the sky. Aliens on flying mopeds. Some weirdoes in costumes calling themselves ‘the Avengers’. I was walking down Market and I saw a video… and I know I’ve seen it before but I can’t remember where.”

I feel a chill. “I… I think it happened right after I was wiped… I don’t really remember. You said you saw a video. You saw their faces?”

If my question seems odd she doesn’t comment, but stares a little vacantly at her breakfast and finally nods. “Stark. Tony Stark. And the one in the blue leotard. Rogers, right? I can’t… I can’t really think of who the others were…”

“Right,” I say a little weakly, searching for any sign of distress, but Natasha seems fine, only a little confused. It’s possible that the trigger isn’t as strong as I assumed, either because Fisher suspected she might come across references to the Avengers during the mission or because she’s tougher than they expected. “I think I remember… reading something about those two.”

She goes back to eating. “It’s strange. The last thing I heard Stark was still making a fortune helping third-world peasants blow the shit out of each other. Now he’s risking his life trying to save people? I find that hard to believe. What would make someone change like that?”

It’s a good question, I think; she shrugs, dusting off her hands as she walks to the bathroom. I’m left simultaneously shaken and relieved, counting down the time, and wondering where Clint Barton is right now.

 

(12)

Barton finally gets some sleep after they’re in the air, and Steve goes to the other end of the cabin to make a few calls.

He doesn’t call Stark back, figuring the man doesn’t need any extra distractions right now. He does get in touch with Banner on his way back to Miami, to catch him up on what little he knows about the Oslo situation. “Do you think I should head out there?” Banner asks nervously.

“If Stark needs help he’ll ask for it,” Steve says, without any idea of whether that’s true or not. He glances at Barton, sprawled comatose in a reclining chair, and thinks about what die-hard individualists these people are, used to solving their own problems their own way, resisting anything that smacks of dependency on another human being. They’ll need to get over that if they’re ever going to work together. “Thanks again for San Salvador,” he adds.

“Oh, that? That was nothing,” says Banner, sounding embarrassed. “I mean, Bradach was a pretty easy nut to crack, as nuts go. Didn’t have to knock down the hospital or anything. He just needed the money. He didn’t even know anyone was going to die. It’s… wrong, you know, but it’s still… understandable.”

“I suppose so,” says Steve doubtfully. “Listen, I don’t want to say too much, in case someone’s listening…”

“Of course someone’s listening. Someone’s always listening.”

“I… yeah.” Steve sighs, looking out a window at the piercingly blue sky. He’s done the math, knows that it’ll be nighttime when they arrive in Colombia. They’ll need to wait until morning to approach the Institute, and that means cutting things very close. “Look after yourself, Doctor Banner.”

“Same to you, Captain."

Steve hangs up the phone and walks around the cabin for a few minutes. He can’t get over how quiet the jet is, how smooth the flight. Barton hasn’t stirred but Steve has the feeling that the archer could sleep through an artillery barrage if he needed to.

Steve eats some shrink-wrapped sandwiches that had been laid out for the previous owner of the jet. He keeps an eye on his phone – he’s supposed to get an alert if another message shows up in Barton’s ‘dropbox’ – but mostly he just sits and chews and thinks.

He thinks about some of the usual things: Erskine asking him to promise to stay who you are, a good man. Bucky falling. The sound of Peggy’s voice over the crackling radio. But he also thinks about Fury asking him to help save the world, about Phil – people might just need a little old-fashioned – and about the things he’s seen since being defrosted. He thinks, although he doesn’t come to any conclusions.

When he’s done eating, he calls Fury.

 

(13)

Natasha wants to do recon, but Aten convinces her to wait until the morning of the following day. “They won’t even have the event space set up,” the other woman says. “Sight lines and exits could be completely different tomorrow.” Natasha has to admit that she has a point.

They stay in most of the morning and afternoon, going over information that the Institute has sent along. Witten is supposed to be meeting with his contacts during a medical conference across the bridge in Marin County. Natasha figures that this will be good cover, since his conspirators no doubt dabble in the same field. The conference itself will be on Sunday; tomorrow night will be a dinner reception. They’re on the guest list. They have the gun.

“We need something to wear,” Aten reminds her.

So they go out and Natasha buys the violet Donna Karan cocktail dress that had caught her eye the day before. Aten is doubtful, afraid that it will attract too much attention, but Natasha waves aside her concerns. “It’s not the amount of attention that matters, it’s the kind of attention,” she explains, leading the way to the shoe department.

They have dinner in the mall food court and Natasha watches the people move around her in chattering, careless waves. She watches a woman cut up a small boy’s hamburger into quarters; she watches an old man shamble along with the help of a walker.

People. She can pretend to be one of them, she can put on a dress or a pair of jeans like a wolf in sheepskin and move around among them, but it’s a lie. People like her don’t have little boys. They don’t live long enough to need walkers. She’s not even certain that she’ll be alive a decade or a year or a month from now.

She needs to be perfect every time. Her enemies only need to be perfect once.

 

(14)

Sloane Fisher is a patient woman.

She’d been patient when she’d met Bruno Witten and decided that she was going to marry him. He hadn’t had any intention of getting married at the time: too young, too handsome, too rich. But she’d played her cards right, and she’d molded herself into the perfect girlfriend, and she’d waited. He’d gone down on one knee, ring in hand, three years later and it had felt like a victory until she realized that it was just another way of putting her off.

The attempted hit in Germany had actually helped. She’d never been in any real danger, but the idea that someone had been hired to kidnap her, mutilate her, maybe even murder her… it had made Bruno angry. Protective. Possessive. He didn’t like the idea of someone taking something that belonged to him. They had wed three months later, and she’d been able to savor that victory at last.

She’d been patient about starting the Institute. Bruno had resisted the idea at first; he was a narcissist and a snob but not particularly ambitious. He didn’t want to administrate, he didn’t want to become a bureaucrat or an entrepreneur. He worked for other men for a long time, until she was able to convince him that his superiors were all stealing his ideas and passing them off as their own, shutting him down so he wouldn’t get the credit he deserved. Half a year later, the Institute for Rehabilitative Therapy was born.

She’d been patient when Bruno made the deal with SHIELD without consulting her. He hadn’t realized – he still didn’t – how much having someone looking over their shoulder would hamper them when it came time to push the envelope with new treatments, new methods.

Yes, at first it had been an advantage, legitimizing what they did in the eyes of many world leaders, giving them access to information that otherwise would have been far beyond their reach, but now the drawbacks outweigh the benefits. Certain prospective clients – unpopular but well-connected clients –refuse to do business with them because of their link to the largest intelligence organization on the globe. They know, even if Bruno refuses to admit it, that information flows both ways.

Sloane has especially been patient with Bruno himself. She’s known from the first that he isn’t like other men. He is intelligent (although not nearly as smart as he thinks he is) and although he’s no longer young he is still handsome and rich and obsessed with control. He once told Sloane that of course he loved her but that no one woman could ever be enough for him, and she’d accepted that.

Maybe he does love her; the feeling isn’t mutual. She’d never wanted him because she was in love with him. She’d never even been that interested in his money. She’d wanted what she’d known he’d able to able to do for her.

And she’d been right. He’d done it. The Institute is her project, not his, even if no one else knows it. In the past year he’s surrendered to his narcissism completely, putting himself on the conference circuit where he can be lauded by his peers and entertained by gorgeous bimbos, returning to Colombia only for a particularly risky or exciting treatment, or when the patient in question is a particularly beautiful woman.

He still thinks that Romanoff was his idea. Even after more than five years he is still annoyed about Frankfurt; more than that, however, he is fascinated with the old Soviet ‘Red Room’ project and their last great success, the Black Widow.

He’d wanted to study her. He’d wanted to improve her. He’d wanted to own her, because Bruno Witten enjoys owning beautiful things.

He has honed his own murder weapon, and he won’t know it until the end.

*

Sloane arrives late Saturday morning. Most of the staff has the weekend off, but there are certain ongoing projects that require careful monitoring. This will be an important weekend for the Institute. The Fisher Institute, she thinks, smiling.

Kamala is already in the office, and Ajax walks in a few minutes after ten because Sloane doesn’t want anyone to see them arriving together.

On the books Kamala Manesh is a secretary; in reality she is much more. Initially Bruno hadn’t wanted to hire her, going on about her personality profile indicating a likelihood of ‘a fatalistic worldview, plus manipulative and sadistic tendencies.’ As in all things Sloane had been patient, and she had eventually gotten her way. (Besides, sadism and the work done at the Institute are not mutually exclusive.)

Ajax is just a lab rat, but he’s one of Sloane’s favorites. ‘Ajax’ is not his birth name, or even the moniker he gave himself when he was working as an enforcer for the cartels, but it is the only name he knows now. He was her first solo project, the first patient to undergo a Modified Engramatic Expunction as opposed to Bruno’s comprehensive treatment.

Ajax doesn’t know much about his past, but he remembers how to hurt people. He remembers that he likes it. But because of the trigger, who he can hurt – and when – is completely up to her. If he doesn’t do what she wants his neurons will fry like the filaments in a light bulb, something she reminds him often when they’re in bed.

Luckily for him, she’s not yet told him to do anything he didn’t already want to do.

Sloane sits at the head of the table and waits while Saja brings them breakfast. The young woman, a former political dissident, one of their first test subjects with the trigger protocol, has an injunction that prevents her from speaking. Despite this – or maybe because of it – she’s also one of Bruno’s favorites when he’s in residence, but Sloane tries not to resent her for this. He’ll be gone soon, she wants to tell Saja. He’ll never hurt you again.

“Have we heard back from Romanoff?” Sloane asks Kamala once coffee and pastries have arrived.

“No, Dr. Fisher, but she’s received our communiqués, and yesterday she used the credit card in San Francisco.” Kamala is sleek and sloe-eyed with a dark, predatory watchfulness that Sloane can’t help but admire. “But I’m concerned about the delay. This all should have been over by now. If you don’t mind my saying so, we should have sent somebody with her. To make sure she stays on-mission.”

“You could have sent me,” says Ajax, his mouth full of bear claw. “Except that I might’ve accidently killed the bitch.”

Sloane hides a smile behind her coffee mug. She may have mentioned to Ajax that Natasha Romanoff was the one to take him down when SHIELD raided his employer’s headquarters last year, that she is the reason he has that big ugly scar that bisects his face, puckering his lip. It’s not the truth, but it’s close enough.

“She wouldn’t have tolerated a babysitter,” Sloane reminds Kamala. “I left large portions of her memory and her personality intact for a reason. Bruno cancelling the luncheon… well, we should have foreseen that, all things considered. But Romanoff knows how to adapt. And she’s controllable.”

“She’s a variable,” insists Kamala peevishly. “There are other operatives who could have handled this job, Doctor.”

“None that work for SHIELD,” says Sloane, selecting a blueberry muffin from the platter. “Imagine the scandal, SHIELD taking out one of their own contractors. They’ll disavow her, of course, if they haven’t already, but the damage will be done. No one will believe she made the hit on her own. We’ll be well within our rights to cut all ties to their organization, and our prospective clients will be that much more impressed with our capabilities.”

“And what then?” sneers Ajax, selecting a croissant. “You decide what you’re going to do with her after?”

Sloane smiles indulgently at him. “Ajax, dear, I’m going to do the same thing to her that I am to you. I’m going to use her until she isn’t useful anymore, and then I’m going to open up her brain and see what’s left.”

Ajax chokes on his croissant.

Kamala smirks at him. “You have that much faith in her, Doctor?”

“No,” says Sloane. “I have faith in the process. Romanoff will kill Bruno, and we’ll be free of both him and SHIELD. Then, if we decide to utilize her in her current state, or reprogram her completely…” She shrugs. “Now,” she continues, nodding at the tablet in Kamala’s hands. “The other matter. Bradach.”

“He was released from the hospital yesterday,” says Kamala. “Sadly, about an hour later he was readmitted with severe head trauma and a fractured spine. The police are calling it a mugging gone wrong.” She shrugs. “It’s doubtful he’ll survive.”

“Good. Have you located Barton?”

“He’s back on the surface…”

“In a cell, I hope.”

Kamala shakes her head and Ajax, still coughing up bits of croissant, says angrily, “Fury was supposed to arrest him.”

Kamala shrugs. “Barton made a scene and Director Fury had him kicked off their flying clubhouse,” she says dryly. “I told you he wouldn’t play ball, Doctor.”

I told Lycaon the same thing, thinks Sloane. “Did Fury at least put a tail on him?”

“According to our sources, he arrived in Belgium a few hours later in the company of one Steven Rogers,” says Kamala, her voice dripping scorn.

“Rogers?” Sloane raises an eyebrow. “I have to give Fury credit… Captain America is an unlikely mole. What’s in Belgium?”

“Waffles,” offers Ajax.

Kamala shakes her head. “We don’t know.”

“Barton won’t let this go,” Sloane reminds them both. “We need to keep tabs on him or he’s likely to cause trouble, with or without Fury’s help. Where is he now?”

Before Kamala can respond there is a chime from her tablet. The woman taps it, reads the message that appears, and then a slow smile spreads across her crimson lips. “He’s here.”

“Here in Colombia?” asks Ajax, surprised.

Kamala raises her eyes to Sloane’s. “Here,” she says again, the smile widening. “In our lobby.”

Chapter Text

PART FIVE

 

(Before)

In New York City, in a suite that probably costs per night what the average SHIELD agent makes in a month, they doze for a while, or at least Clint does – he’s warm and full and slightly intoxicated – until he feels Natasha shift and hears her mumble against his t-shirt, “I got dinner. You have to clean up.”

He smiles sleepily and rubs his eyes without opening them. “I think clean-up is just putting the carts outside the door.”

“Mmhmm, you do that,” she agrees, stretching against him in a way that wakes him extremely effectively, though he tells himself that it wasn’t intentional. She stands, with one hand on his chest to push herself upright – he ignores the twinge in his ribs, the flutter in his gut – and heads into the kitchen for some reason he can’t fathom. She can’t possibly still be hungry.

He pushes the little silver carts out into the hall, laden with china and silverware and the scraps of their banquet, and follows her. She’s standing at the marble counter, pouring champagne into two elegant crystal flutes, and he’s not exactly an expert on the subject but he’s pretty sure the champagne bottle – to say nothing of what’s actually inside it – cost more than his first car. “You’re going to make Stark regret this, aren’t you?”

“He can afford it,” she says breezily, turning to him and leaning back against the counter. “You’re sure you’re feeling all right?”

“Warm death, remember?” He forces a smile. “I’d probably feel better if you’d just let me kill him.”

A little of the mellow post-meal atmosphere ebbs at his words, despite the sedate music still trickling in from the next room (‘…lead me to the truth and I... will follow you with my whole life…’) and she puts down the bottle, looks at him with a critical eye. “You saw the pounding Thor took. I’m not sure it’s even possible to kill people like them.”

Clint shrugs. “I would have enjoyed trying.”

“He’s still alive,” Natasha says resolutely, reaching back for the champagne flutes, “but so are we. That’s something to celebrate, isn’t it?”

“Is that what we’re doing?” he asks, taking the proffered drink, but when she turns back he frowns at a wet glimmer of red near her hairline that he hadn’t noticed before. “You’re bleeding again,” he says, putting the champagne down and picking up a towel she must have used to open the bottle; it’s a bit damp on one end but seems clean enough on the other, so he reaches up and presses it against the cut. He knows how head wounds can bleed. “You should have had the doc stitch this up.”

“I’ll be fine,” she says impatiently. “How are your ribs?” she asks, a devious glint in her eye as she touches the spot on his right side where she knows he’s sore. He tries to arch away from her hands while still keeping the towel against her forehead, but it’s pretty much a one-or-the-other proposition and also suddenly a competition, so he stands his ground.

“Still bruised?” Tasha continues, and now she’s tugging up his shirt and tsking at the mottled greenish-yellow skin; he expects her hands to be cold but they’re surprisingly warm, and the alarm bells are back but he ignores them.

“Trying to take advantage of me, Agent Romanoff?” he asks, trying to sound as ridiculously cornball as possible. He’s actually pretty ticklish just above the worst of the bruising, and if she figures that out and starts working on him, well, there go whatever lingering vestiges of masculinity he might still have.

“Yeah,” she admits – he can’t see her lips because their faces are so close but he can see the smile crinkling in the corners of her eyes – “but you’re making it too easy for me… I haven’t even gotten you really drunk yet.”

“I know you like a challenge,” he retorts, and he would say something else just to keep distracting her from that ticklish spot, but then her hand does move, sliding around his tender ribs to the small of his back; he would still say something but then her lips are on his, or his are on hers, he’s not sure who made the first move but it doesn’t really matter. Her mouth is apple-chocolate-cheesecake sweet, and the kiss is sweet too, sweet and slow and lingering.

He’s still holding the champagne-scented towel against her forehead, but he brings his other hand up to the nape of her neck, then forward to cup her jaw, and as though responding to an agreed-upon signal she tilts her head and opens her mouth. The kiss deepens; his tongue moves against her lips and then between them as her free hand slips beneath his shirt on his left side, and the bells in his mind sound more like miniature firecrackers going off behind his closed eyes.

He’s not sure how long they stand like that, her arms around his waist, his hands cradling her face; the world has narrowed to their lips and tongues and their slow, warm slide. There’s no room left for fear or regret or guilt, just the smell of champagne and cold tile beneath his feet and the woman in front of him.

A tingling in his fingers reminds him that oxygen is important to his brain, even if he isn’t using it at the moment, and he pulls away just long enough to catch his breath. Her teeth tug gently on his bottom lip and he groans, dropping the towel because he’s pretty sure she’s not going to bleed to death or anything, and he knows that hand can find far better places to be.

The air sparks a thought, or maybe another firecracker, and he hears his voice mumbling against her mouth, interspersed with light kisses, “They say that after… something like this… you shouldn’t make any big decisions… for a while.”

Tasha sucks in a breath as his left hand skims up her side, brushing her breast through the fabric of her tank top. “Something like this?” she echoes, an appealing tremor in her voice.

The fingers of his right hand thread through her hair. “Something traumatic.”

“Are you… quoting your shrink at me?”

 “I don’t have a shrink.”

“Maybe you should,” she says, so he gives her breast a gentle squeeze.

Her body spasms against his and he realizes that she’s pinned between his torso and the kitchen counter, or at least as pinned as Natasha could possibly be, which is exactly as much as she wants to be. She gives her hips a slow, experimental roll against his and he knows she can feel his hard-on as surely as he can feel the heat coming off her skin.

Clint gasps and tries to think of… something. Baseball scores? He doesn’t follow sports. Arrows… specs for new arrows… but arrows are phallic in a way he’s never considered before now, so that doesn’t really help. Tasha moves again, languid and deliberate, and a joint groan escapes their mouths, vibrating in his tongue. “Not… not the best time,” he says, the words coming out so rough and needy that he hardly recognizes his own voice.

“When would be a good time?” she asks, her hands dropping lower, moving over his ass, pulling his pelvis more firmly against hers – you know, just in case he had any doubts about her intentions. “After one of us is dead?”

“That’s when I do some of my best work,” Clint says breathlessly.

His fingers in her hair tighten into a loose fist, pulling gently at her scalp, and then less gently as she growls in approval.  “That doesn’t even make any sense.”

She slips her tongue into his mouth. One of her legs slides between his thighs, bringing their bodies even closer together; she rocks her hips again, almost grinding against him, her hands urging his own hips to match her rhythm.

The small part of his brain still dedicated to higher functions thinks Jesus, this is happening, this is actually happening; he wants to lift her onto the counter, wants to peel off her tank, wants to taste her and maybe see if he can make her come using just his mouth because he’s pretty damn sure he could, and then out of nowhere his shitty, useless brain presents him with the worst possible memory, worse than sports scores or arrow specs.

He thinks of her sitting across from him in the car earlier today saying mulishly, ‘Nobody needs to tell me to do my job’.

He tries to push the thought away, to push all thoughts away except the ones involving Natasha naked and writhing, but the memory is like a punch in his stomach and he breaks the kiss with a gasp. “I can’t…”

“Sure you can.” Her voice is husky, her breasts heaving in a way that’s meant to distract; he knows because he’s watched her do it with a mark when she didn’t want him to notice the hypodermic needle in her hand. “We’ll take it slow.”

He gives a bleak laugh. Slow, fast… that’s not the problem. The problem is him. The problem is everything. She’s never given him any reason to think that she wants this, wants him, and he’s confused as hell.

She’s his partner and the closest thing he has to a best friend, and to be honest he’s wanted her for years, but he’s been good, he’s been diligent about channeling that desire into other things. He doesn’t want to be the one who messes things up, and he doesn’t want to be just someone Natasha sleeps with from time to time. Standing in this kitchen in his socks with two glasses of champagne fizzing on the counter he knows he also doesn’t want her to screw him out of pity, or because she thinks its what he needs, or because she feels like it’s her job.

Her hands move to unbutton his fly and he grabs her wrists, fighting to maintain composure, fighting to ignore the hormones that are thrumming through his veins and demanding to know what the hell he thinks he’s doing. “Tash… no.”

She looks bemused, a faint crease appearing between her eyes as she presses one palm against his groin, stroking him through the denim. “What’s wrong? You want this.”

Oh Jesus. Jesus Christ. “Yeah, just… not like this.” Clint feels dizzy, no blood left in his brain as he pulls her hand away. “I’m still so… I’m not even thinking straight…”

She swallows hard and quirks an eyebrow. “So… ‘it’s not you, it’s me’? That’s what you’re going with?”

“I’m sorry,” he pants, and it’s true. He is sorry: sorry that he let it go this far and sorry he’s the one putting a stop to it, sorry he can’t just turn off his thoughts and his fears and his compunctions. Too much time alone, he decides. Too much time sitting and waiting and thinking. Too much time watching her when they sleep in shifts and when she leads on their marks. His body is literally aching for her but he lets go of her wrists and steps back. The small kitchen feels cold and inhospitable. “I’m sorry,” he says again, and it sounds just as foolish the second time.

She doesn’t move right away, just stares at him with that same puzzled expression, as though no man has ever rejected her before. Maybe they haven’t, maybe he’s just a special breed of stupid. Finally she blinks and her face goes blank, coolly unruffled, except that her lips are still swollen, her cheeks still faintly flushed with desire or embarrassment or anger. “Me too,” she says without affect, and then she walks away.

 

(Now)

We drive across the bridge in a stolen convertible. The sky is low, choked with morning fog. The bay spreads out to the left, flat and slate gray, and to the left is a series of rolling hills in shades of yellow and green.

I’d suggested a taxi, but Natasha had ignored me. She dislikes being a passenger; it’s too easy for the person you’ve paid to drive you where you want to go take you somewhere else instead. I know there is a very short list of people she’ll allow behind the wheel; as far as she knows, there’s no one at all.

The dinner reception is in the ritzy suburb of Mill Valley, in some millionaire’s private park, under a canopy of huge white tents that are being set up when we drive by around seven-thirty. The area is full of workmen and decorators and the millionaire’s own staff, and no one looks at us twice when we walk through the unguarded gate pushing a cart of folding chairs.

She has what she needs in fifteen minutes, noting the exits to the streets and blind spots from the brick-faced hall where the conference will be held tomorrow, wrapping the gun in a black napkin and hiding it in an easily-accessible planter, and appropriating a guest list on her way out. She shows it to me once we’re back in the car. “Recognize any names?” she says acerbically.

I scan the page. The names are listed alphabetically by last name, so it takes a moment before I find the one that has caught her eye. Witten, Dr. Bruno E., Institute for Rehabilitative Therapy, and guest.

“I understand using the reception as cover,” continues Natasha, starting the engine. In the rearview mirror I see her eyes narrowed in thought, in suspicion. “But to show up using his real name, when he supposedly went to all this trouble to change his face? That’s sloppy.”

“He’s a narcissist,” I say weakly.

“He’s also apparently a genius,” Natasha retorts, pulling into traffic. “I don’t care how much money he has, what he thinks he can get away with… this doesn’t make sense.”

“What do you want to do?” I ask, afraid of the answer. If she decides to call the Institute I don’t know how I’ll be able to stop her. And I can’t imagine a scenario in which the conversation with Fisher doesn’t include my name. Fisher will have another in-country operative here before I can convince Natasha to run, or else she’ll do something to trip the trigger.

Natasha says nothing.

We drive to the Valley Suites Hotel, about fifteen minutes from the reception. Dinner isn’t until eight and we need a base of operations on this side of the bridge. I still have cash, but it doesn’t make any difference now. In fact, it’s better to use the credit card and let Fisher see that we’re in position. Besides, places like this tend to look at you a bit askance if you try and pay for a two-hundred dollar a night suite from a roll of twenties.

“Sometimes geniuses are stupid,” Natasha says, once we’re inside the room. She sets down her bag, hangs up her dress, and walks around checking exits. “We’ll go ahead with the plan. For now.”

 

(15)

The waiting room of the Institute for Rehabilitative Therapy in Villavicencio, Colombia is surprisingly unpretentious. It’s more of a nook than a room, shoved off to the side of the receptionist’s desk; there are a couple dinged-up mahogany chairs, a faux-marble table from the ‘80s, and some magazines that look like they date from the same era. Through a barred window Clint can see the city’s skyline, such as it is: a few multistory buildings painted in pastels and grays against the shadowy Andes foothills.

“This isn’t going to work,” he mutters.

Rogers stares down at the Time magazine he’s allegedly reading. “It’ll be fine,” he says out of the corner of his mouth. “I don’t know what you’re worried about.”

“I’m worried about them figuring out that we’re not official SHIELD representatives,” Clint says, muffling the words behind one hand. He’s watching the receptionist, a lanky young man who’s been playing Minesweeper since they came in. Clint doubts he’ll be much of an impediment, unless he manages to alert the guardhouse at the end of the gravel driveway.

“We’re not?” asks Rogers with an impressive act of confused naïveté, flipping randomly through the magazine. “I’m pretty sure I didn’t get an armed escort off the Helicarrier.” He looks up, blinks guilelessly. “I’m here to look in on some of the prisoners SHIELD has sent the Institute, to make sure they’re being treated humanely. I’m not really sure who you are, Agent, other than a pain in my neck.”

Clint had left his bow on the jet (damn Fury, he was right; it was too distinctive) and he feels completely exposed without it. Literally, if he had to choose between fighting the Chitauri naked and fighting them with someone else’s weapon, he’d choose naked every time. But he’s not Clint Barton or Hawkeye today; he’s just some nameless SHIELD agent who’s been sent along with Captain Steve Rogers because, come on, you just don’t let your super-soldier go wandering around Colombia by himself.

Clint sighs. It even sounds stupid in his head.

“If this was a SHIELD operation,” says Rogers, lowering his voice even more, “what would you be doing differently?”

Everything, thinks Clint. We’d have aerial support. We’d have actual schematics instead of what we were able to scrounge off the Internet. We’d have a tactical team ready to drop in and take over in case everything goes to hell. I wouldn’t be in here, I’d be watching through a window, with binoculars and IR goggles and my goddamn bow. “I don’t know,” he lies, because it’s bad enough mentally enumerating all the ways they’re screwed without saying it out loud. “If Natasha was here… it would probably involve a very short skirt.”

She’s going to hit him if she ever finds out he said that; it’s not that far off from the comment that got Agent Neuman in trouble. At this point, of course, Clint would welcome the pain.

Rogers flips another page. “This is our best bet then. You don’t want to see my legs in a skirt.”

Clint presses his lips together to hide a smile, just in case anyone is watching. Scary-ass SHIELD agents don’t smile. “Did you just make a joke?”

“We had jokes in the ‘40s,” Rogers deadpans, pretending to be very interested in a story about homeopathic allergy cures. Then he glances up, looking a little self-conscious. “Sorry.”

“No problem,” says Clint honestly. Nothing breaks the tension like focusing on not picturing Steve Rogers in a miniskirt.

He hears the faint clip-clip-clip of heels on tile coming from the hall. Rogers drops the magazine; Clint eases his hand a bit closer to the gun holstered on his thigh, but the woman who approaches them appears unthreatening, dressed in a white blouse and long navy skirt slit so far up the side that Rogers looks uncomfortable. She smiles, all white teeth and scarlet lips and long black hair. “I’m sorry for the wait, gentlemen,” she says with the faintest hint of a local accent. “My name is Kamala Manesh. Dr. Fisher is ready for you now.”

They both stand, and Rogers gives Clint an openly hostile look. “Fisher? Dr. Witten isn’t in?”

“Doctor Witten is unfortunately out of the country at the moment,” says the woman, and Clint thinks San Francisco.

“That’s unfortunate,” says Rogers. He’s puffing out his chest a little, speaking more deeply than usual. Clint’s not sure if it’s part of his act or just a reaction to a beautiful woman. “Is Dr. Fisher qualified to discuss SHIELD business?”

“More than qualified,” says Manesh smoothly. She has a voice that would be perfect for one of those phone-tree recordings, where you’re asked to press one for English and nine for more menu options. “If you gentlemen will follow me…”

“Actually…” Manesh turns back to Rogers as he gives Clint another dark glare. Ah, yes, Agent Santiago would be so proud. “Actually, I’d prefer to speak to her in private, if that’s all right with you.”

Manesh raises one elegant eyebrow, glancing between the two of them. Clint doesn’t want to lay it on too thick, but he juts out his chin and asks Rogers, “I’m sorry, Captain, is there something you don’t want Director Fury to know about?” in the most belligerent tone he can manage.

For the life of him he has no idea why Captain America would want to have some kind of secret conversation with Fisher, but they hadn’t bothered spending too long on the back story. Rogers can bullshit Fisher with whatever pops into his head; what’s important is that the attention is all on the illustrious Steve Rogers and not on the surly, anonymous SHIELD agent sulking in the waiting room. Because he doesn’t intend to stay in the waiting room.

Manesh says nothing, her expression a bit too blank to be considered merely thoughtful, and Clint realizes that he knows that look. She’s listening to something. Or someone.

A second later she smiles that white-red smile again. “Dr. Fisher would enjoy speaking to both of you,” she says, a little aggressively, and walks back down the hall without waiting for a reply.  

*

“…at such short notice,” Manesh is telling Rogers as they walk side-by-side a few paces ahead. “In the past SHIELD representatives have contacted the office before arriving. But I suppose you realized that an unannounced inspection would be far more thorough and authentic.”

“Um, yes,” says Rogers. “Exactly.”

They pass another woman in the hall, a petite brunette carrying an empty coffee carafe in one hand and balancing a large silver tray on the other. “Saja,” says Manesh harshly. “We’ll need refreshments in Dr. Fisher’s office for Captain Rogers and his friend.”

Manesh doesn’t wait for a reply, simply sweeps by the younger woman with Rogers in her wake, but Clint is dawdling, hoping to notice when they pass a sign reading psychotropic drugs this way. When Saja walks by him their elbows bump and she drops the tray; Clint catches it before it hits the ground. “Hey… here you go…”

Saja is staring at him. Her eyes are blue, very wide and very full of… something. Fear? Urgency? She stares at him as though trying to beam a message into his mind, and then glances sharply at Manesh and Rogers’ retreating backs. When she looks back at Clint she’s biting her anxiously bottom lip.

She wants to tell me something. The thought makes him catch his breath. “Natasha Romanoff… is she here?” he whispers.

Saja shakes her head, glances back down the hall towards the lobby and the front door. Her eyes seem to be telling him to leave, to get out.

“I can’t,” hisses Clint. “I need a drug. 13A-10R.” The informant had sent him the name along with the Institute’s address. He’s sure it won’t mean anything to someone whose duties involve making coffee, but it’s worth a shot…

“Saja?” Manesh has stopped fifteen yards away, looking at the young woman through narrowed eyes. “Is there a problem?”

Clint is still holding the tray; he hastily pushes it into Saja’s hands. “Be more careful,” he tells her brusquely; she nods, grabs the tray, and scampers away without a word.

“Interns,” Manesh says with a little laugh, as she and Rogers wait for Clint to catch up. “Sometimes I don’t even know how we manage at all.” She raises one hand, gesturing to a large gray door. “This way, gentlemen.”

 

(16)

Steve thinks no plan survives first contact with the enemy.

So maybe it had been a little overly optimistic to think that Barton would be left to go sneaking around the facility unsupervised. Steve had been holding out hope anyway; the stealthy approach would have been infinitely easier. Now they were two men against who-knew-how-many Institute employees… although judging by who had driven into the parking lot this morning it seems as though they might work with a skeleton staff on the weekend.

Don’t assume anything.

They step through the large gray door into a small antechamber decorated in the same fashion as the lobby: dark wood, floral prints, a few faded prints and knick-knacks gathering dust.

Waiting for them is one of the largest men Steve has ever seen. He’s easily six and a half feet, maybe taller, with a thick neck and thicker arms. A nasty scar slashes across his face, starting at his chin and terminating halfway up his bald scalp. Incongruous with his fearsome appearance and bodybuilder physique, the man is wearing a rather nice gray suit that’s well-tailored to his frame.

He hands Ms. Manesh a computer tablet; she glances down at the screen and then hugs it to her chest. “This is Ajax Telamon, our head of security,” she says pleasantly. “He’ll need to hold on to any weapons that you may have brought with you.”

Danger, thinks Steve, but Barton hands over his firearm without comment and submits to a brief – although rather rough – pat-down. Mr. Telamon repeats the process with Steve, who is unarmed. Everything is back on the jet, including the phone. It had seemed safer that way.

“This is standard procedure,” Ms. Manesh explains. “You’ll be touring some of the treatment rooms, and a few of our patients are… still making progress.” She laughs lightly. “Let’s just say they would be quite excited by the sight of a gun.”

“We wouldn’t want that,” says Steve. Barton is silent.

She pushes open a smaller door and cheerfully chivies them through. Mr. Telamon remains in the antechamber, but Steve notices Barton glancing over his shoulder at the big man with a thoughtful frown.

Fisher’s office is bright and clean. There is no wood, no florals, only metal and glass and a touch of red fabric here and there. There are several plaques on the walls, and official-looking documents that must be medical degrees; the only piece of artwork is a large framed print of a painting Steve has actually seen before. “Dali, isn’t it?” he asks Ms. Manesh.

“The Face of War,” she says, nodding agreeably. The painting is fascinating but grotesque: a shriveled, shrunken corpse’s head, floating, disembodied, mouth and empty eye sockets filled with more terrible staring faces, surrounded by a halo of angry serpents. Steve can’t imagine wanting that face staring down at him day after day. Then Dr. Fisher enters, and he has no more time to contemplate her taste in artwork.

She is younger than he had imagined - perhaps thirty-five, certainly no older than forty - small and blonde with a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose. A pair of wire-rimmed glasses is perched atop her head and she wears a shapeless white lab coat over a plain black dress.

“I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting,” she says, bustling into the office from a second door with the air of someone whose time is very much in high demand, slipping into a straight-backed chair behind a steel-and-glass desk. “Please, take a seat.”

Steve and Barton sit. Their chairs are identical to Dr. Fisher’s and, Steve discovers, extremely uncomfortable. He leans forward, extending a hand across her desk. “Doctor, I’m…”

“Steve Rogers,” she interrupts him, shaking his hand with a smile. “Captain America himself. I’ve seen the videos. It’s quite an honor.” She glances at Ms. Manesh, who has taken up position to her employer’s left, just beside The Face of War. “You didn’t ask him for his autograph or anything, did you Kamala?” she asks impishly.

“I didn’t think it was appropriate, Doctor.”

Dr. Fisher gives a high, girlish laugh. “Maybe not.” She looks back at Steve, smiling. “At least not until we’ve conducted our business. Kamala says you’re here on behalf of SHIELD. And your associate is…”

“Clint Barton,” says Barton, very unexpectedly, and Steve struggles not to show his surprise. So much for anonymity…

Fisher doesn’t bat an eye. “Agent Barton. It’s nice to meet you.”

“We’ve actually met before,” says Barton. “Well, maybe not met, but we were there at the same time. In Frankfurt, about five years ago.”

Steve closes his eyes briefly. Barton, what are you doing?

“Frankfurt.” Fisher’s smile becomes brittle. “I was there on a vacation.”

“I was working a security detail,” says Barton, poker-faced.

Fisher takes a breath and waits, as though expecting Barton to continue, but he offers nothing more. She turns her eyes back to Steve, her manner cooler than a moment ago. “So, Captain. I understand you’d like to look in on some of our patients.”

“Not all of them,” says Barton before Steve can answer. “Just one.”

Fisher’s easy affability is gone now, replaced by a sly self-possession that Steve finds more than a little unnerving. “Just one?” she repeats, a note of mockery in her voice.

“Yeah,” says Barton. “Natasha Romanoff.”

There’s a short but horrible pause in which even the inscrutable Ms. Manesh looks apprehensive, and in which Steve becomes hyperaware of the fact that their escape route is blocked by a man who, apart from being monstrously huge, is also armed. “Mr. Barton, I’m afraid you’re rather confused,” says Fisher at last. “SHIELD sends their criminals to us. Not their own agents.”

“SHIELD didn’t send her,” Barton says stiffly.

Glancing sideways at Ms. Manesh, Fisher smiles again. It’s a smile with no friendliness in it, only defiance. “You’re right,” she says with the resigned air of someone caught in a little white lie. “Ms. Romanoff approached us herself about a month ago. She felt that her skills and talents were not being put to their full use working for your organization. She said she was looking for new employment.”

“That’s a lie.”

“Really?” Fisher’s voice is full of scorn. “Would you like to ask her yourself?”

Barton looks tense enough to sprain something. “Yes.”

I should have asked Banner to come along after all, Steve thinks.

Fisher stands; so does Barton. Steve moves to rise as well but Fisher casts a withering look at him and says, “I’m sorry, Captain. This will only take a moment.”

“I want to see Agent Romanoff too,” says Steve stubbornly.

“I’m afraid that’s not possible.” The words have a flat, rehearsed sound to them, the familiar cadence of a practiced falsehood. “When I informed Ms. Romanoff that you had arrived, she said that she would only speak to Agent Barton.”

Steve turns to Barton. The archer’s expression is as cool, as impassive as Dr. Fisher’s, but his eyes are full of barely-restrained anger, a fierce, determined loathing that until now Steve has only seen directed at Loki. She’s lying and he knows it. But he’s going to do this whether I like it or not. “Fine,” he says, not bothering to hide his own irritation.

Fisher smiles thinly. “We’ll be right back, Captain. Mr. Telamon is just in the next room if you need anything while we’re gone.”

Chapter Text

PART SIX

(Before)

Clint hears the shower running and the sound of water is like an invitation. He ignores it, or tries to, along with the image of Natasha standing under the spray. His blood is still racing and he can still feel the pressure of her lips against his, the texture of her hair between his fingers. His earlier headache is back in full force as his frustrated libido smashes against the inside of his skull with every heartbeat.

There’s a blanket and some extra pillows in the hall closet; he’s carrying them into the living room when she comes out wearing one of the hotel robes and frowning like she’s caught him in the middle of some shameful act. “What are you doing?”

He forces himself to meet her eyes. “What does it look like?”

“You’re not going to sleep on the couch,” she informs him.

“I’ve slept on worse.”

“You know what your ribs will feel like in the morning?” She shakes her head, and he’s a little too mesmerized by the damp red tendrils swinging around her face to respond with the obvious ‘why do you care?’ “Don’t be an idiot, Clint.”

He almost says ‘too late’, but she walks back into the bedroom and after a long moment of indecision he follows her.

*

They’ve shared beds before, of course. Plenty of times. Bed, air mattress, egg carton foam, patch of dry ground… sometimes you can’t afford to be picky. He stopped feeling awkward about it a long time ago.

They never touch, though, because touching, even platonically, can sometimes lead to other, less-platonic bodily reactions, and they’re professionals. She takes one side of the bed-mattress-ground and he takes the other, always with some space between their bodies, because if he ever gave her some ‘we should sleep together for warmth’ bullshit she’d kick him in the balls and he’d deserve it.

Still, sleeping beside her has always felt intimate. He remembers lying in her bed in apartment twenty-eight the day after their close call in Antwerp, his head pounding, a stabbing pain in his leg from a sprained ankle, listening to her breathing a few inches away and trying to figure out if she was actually asleep. Just when he’d decided that she’d finally nodded off, she had whispered, “I can hear you thinking,” and he would have laughed if he hadn’t been in so much pain.

*

She’s already tucked between the lilac-scented sheets when he comes out of the bathroom in sweatpants and a clean shirt. Her back is to him and for a moment he just stands there, reconsidering the sofa, wondering what Stark was thinking, putting them in a suite with a single bed. He and Banner probably had a good long laugh over the whole thing.

“Are you still pissed?” he asks her back.

“I wasn’t pissed to begin with,” she says, her voice slightly muffled.

He lies down on top of the covers, staring at the ceiling, listening to the pounding in his head. He resists the urge to say ‘I’m sorry’ again; the third time is definitely not the charm. “I think you’re pissed,” he says instead.

She sighs. “Go to sleep, Clint.”

So he turns off the bedside lamp, plunging the room into darkness. And he lies there, listening to her breathing, and she’s only a few inches away but it feels more like a mile.

*

In the morning things will be better. She’ll be up and dressed before he’s awake and the whole scene in the kitchen will seem like a dream, an interrupted fantasy; she’ll be easy with him as they order one of everything from the room service breakfast menu and she’ll even poke him in the ribs a couple of times. He’ll check the scabbed cut on her forehead and their eyes will meet and she’ll raise her eyebrows as though to say, ‘well buddy, you had your chance.’ And he’ll feel almost normal until he walks into the kitchen and sees the damn bottle of thousand-dollar champagne still sitting on the counter next to two crystal flutes because neither of them have had the heart to throw it out.

 

(Now)

I convince Natasha to sleep only by promising that I will lie down as well. We’re both exhausted; this trade-off is taking its toll, and I know that I should heed my own advice. But there’s something I have to do first.

I get on the computer and send another message to the dropbox. He must be in Colombia by now, I realize, checking the time, and it scares me. If he was in Brussels when we spoke before, in one of Natasha’s bolt-holes, it’s an indication that he’s on his own. I’ve sent him on a mission that will be difficult – if not impossible – without SHIELD resources.

He could die. Or worse.

 

(17)

Kamala Manesh believes in fate.

She knows that not many other people in this world can say that. Not the way she can. They say things like what will be will be and I’ll leave it in God’s hands but that is only acceptance, resignation, not belief. Kamala embraces fate with her entire being.

She has felt fate alongside her every step of her life.

She had known as a child that she was meant for great things, so when her father beat her – and her mother watched – Kamala did not cry. When the fire came roaring through their neighborhood in Kolar, killing her parents but leaving her untouched, she was pleased but not surprised.

When she was reduced to thievery and prostitution in the streets of Bangalore she was never afraid because she knew it was only another step on a long road leading to her destiny. And when she was sold by one man from Dhaka and bought by another in Brasilia, and this man taught her everything she had ever wanted to know about being beautiful and clever and dangerous, she had known that all of the decisions she had made had been the right ones.

She’s not vain enough to believe that her desires control her future any more than a second hand controls the inner functions of a clock. The universe is deep and many-layered, unimaginable in its complexity, and she is nothing but a hand on its face, sweeping from hour to hour. But because of her experiences she knows that she has a particular sensitivity to fate’s workings. She cannot only see it; she can smell it on the air.

The man in Brasilia is dead now. He taught her too well. But he couldn’t do otherwise. It was necessary. It was fate.

Kamala Manesh sees the recognition of fate in Clint Barton’s eyes. He knows in his heart where he is meant to be. Kamala knew it too, the moment she saw him. There is something that links them, something that has brought them together, and she thinks it is because they both recognize that there is no use in fighting what has been preordained. That is why he walks with them – alone, unarmed and unresisting – down the corridors of the Institute to the place where his life will truly begin.

Kamala has not undergone any engramatic treatments. She doesn’t need them. She is perfect the way she is. She is Dr. Fisher’s model for what a good operative should be.

True to her word, Dr. Fisher gives Barton a tour first. She shows him the long-term habitations, nicknamed CEE-cells: brightly-lit rooms where three walls are cinder block and the fourth is a piece of half-silvered glass, transparent from the dim hallway but reflective within. For men and women who have been wiped clean, it has proven beneficial for them to become reacquainted with the sight of their own faces.

Those faces tend to be haggard and sad and pained. The comprehensive expunctions take several treatments to complete.

“So,” says Barton quietly, his first word since leaving the office. “That’s what someone looks like after they’ve been brainwashed.”

Dr. Fisher pouts prettily. “Brainwashed is a nasty, archaic term, Mr. Barton. Would you call it brainwashing, what the alien did to you?”

Barton’s shoulders tighten and Kamala drops one hand to the gun strapped to her thigh, beneath her skirt, but he only says, “You know a lot.”

The doctor smiles. “I have a lot of friends. One of them is on the World Security Council, or at least I believe he is. He’s never said for sure.” She shrugs. “I call him Lycaon. Do you know the story? It’s from Greek myth. He was a king of Arcadia who served his own slaughtered son to Zeus at the dinner table. He wanted to know if the king of the gods was really omniscient after all.” Her eyes glitter in appreciation of this barbarous cheek. “Of course, things didn’t end well for him. My Lycaon understands the potential of this company. He has vision. He sees that what we do is crucial.”

She shows him the MEE-cells, for the handful of patients who have undergone targeted expunction. These rooms are more conventional and, consequently, more secure. It’s not always obvious until the patient awakes whether or not the treatment has been successful. Sometimes these patients are violent, lashing out in confusion and anger.

“And what do you do, exactly?” Barton asks.

“We save lives,” says the doctor. “Better than that. We transform lives. Killing… it’s wasteful. When you think about it, it takes so much time and effort to build a person from scratch. To start with, say, a child.” She glances at Kamala, who nods silently. She doesn’t agree entirely about the wastefulness of killing – death is just another tool of fate, in the form of fire or poison or a knife to the throat of a foolish man in Brasilia – but becoming the person she is today has not been easy.

The doctor continues, unlocking another set of doors with a swipe of her key card. “It’s much more efficient to take a person who could be useful to society and simply… edit out the undesirable parts.”

Barton walks over the threshold without comment, without apprehension. He has embraced fate. “Is that what you did with Alonzo Salinas?”

Dr. Fisher chuckles. “Oh, you recognized Ajax, did you?”

“I recognized the scar.”

She shakes her head as though scolding a naughty child. “Just think… you came so close to killing a human being…”

“He was going to set off a bomb.”

“Yes, I know,” says the doctor placidly, stopping in front of the treatment room. It is empty now, of course. It won’t be for much longer. “He told me about it. People tend to get talkative, you know, during the procedure. But he doesn’t want to kill children anymore. He only wants to do what I want, and he’s much happier that way.”

“And Agent Romanoff?” His voice catches a little on her name. “Is she happier?”

“Happy…” echoes Dr. Fisher. “You tell me, Agent Barton. You knew her better. Was she ever really happy?”

The doctor gestures to Kamala, who steps forward and passes Barton the tablet, making certain that their hands brush during the exchange. She already has the pertinent footage available, the video taken from the room in front of them.

“You wanted to see Natasha Romanoff,” says Dr. Fisher, nodding at the screen. “Well… here she is.”

 

(18)

Saja knows that she is still physically capable of speech.

She has a working voice box. She has a tongue. She can even use them together, after a fashion, although anything beyond a few unintelligible sounds gives her the type of blinding headache that serves as an excellent warning.

It’s terrifying, really. She used to be afraid to go to bed; she was certain that she would talk in her sleep and never wake up. They gave her sleeping pills but she never used them. She kept them, though, just in case.

She’s started thinking that maybe it wouldn’t be so terrible to fade away peacefully in her sleep. Certainly it would be easier than living. She carries that knowledge with her every day, along with her carafe of coffee and big silver tray of snacks. When the fear and the silence and the emptiness get to be too much, it’s nice to know that relief is not that far away.

She’s never been able to do it, though. Death is scarier than the Institute. Not by much, but by enough.

Saja doesn’t know anything about herself. She knows her reflection and the name they gave her. She knows that she underwent the full CEE procedure. She thinks that she must have done something very bad, before, because Dr. Witten always expects her to be thankful whenever he visits.

She is not thankful, not in the least. She wants him to die as much as Dr. Fisher does. Maybe more.

Saja knows what Fisher is planning. People think that because she can’t speak she can’t hear. They don’t care what they say in front of her because they know she’ll never be able to repeat it to anybody. She’s the little mouse who brings them food and sweeps up and acts the ‘intern’ when she’s really nothing more or less than their slave.

Saja knows that she has the trigger protocol. It was Dr. Fisher’s invention, something that was necessary to keep the MEE patients under control. Saja is not in that group; she was just a guinea pig. Fisher and her cronies experimented with several kinds of injunctions until they came up with this one and decided to keep it.

13A-10R, said the SHIELD agent, Barton. Saja knows that the 13 is a series number given to all the trigger-related drugs. 10 is a code designating MEE patients.

A stands for annul: to void, to end, to remove.

She’s pretty sure the R stands for Romanoff.

*

As directed, she brings refreshments.

She goes in through the antechamber with a hot pot of coffee and a fresh selection of breakfast pastries. As expected, Ajax demands that she serve him first, so she pours him a cup and watches while he paws through the muffins and scones. Oddly enough, Ajax has never frightened her. In fact she’s always felt a little sorry for him. He’s a victim too, although he seems to enjoy it more.

When he’s made his choice, when he’s slouched in a chair drinking coffee with his beady little eyes on the door (probably calculating what his chances really are against Captain America, even unarmed and alone) Saja continues on into the office.

Rogers is on the far side of the room, quietly testing the lock on the other door. He spins around when she enters, his expression somewhere between surprise and combat readiness and embarrassment at being caught. “I don’t…” he begins, gesturing at the food, but when she puts her fingers to her lips and gives him a hard look he falls silent.

Saja touches the key card that hangs on a lanyard around her neck. It won’t get Rogers where he needs to go. Ajax, on the other hand, has complete access to the entire facility. She points emphatically at the door to the antechamber, then draws her finger across her face in the approximate placement of Ajax’s scar.

Rogers’ frown vanishes and he nods determinedly, putting up his fists like a boxer and raising his brows questioningly.

Saja shakes her head and taps her right ear. Rogers could take Ajax in a fight, she’s sure, but not without a commotion. Someone would hear, someone would raise the alarm, and then guards would come. Even a powerful man will eventually fall when the odds are overwhelming and his opponents without scruples.

She taps her wrist, where a watch would be if she owned a watch, holds up three fingers, and nods at the door again. Wait.

He looks uneasy he acquiesces, and they stand there in the office with Dr. Fisher’s horrible painting leering down at them for three long, terrible minutes. At any moment she’s sure that Ajax will come through, looking for her. Rogers might have the same thought, because he carefully dumps the food off her serving tray and onto Fisher’s desk before holding it awkwardly in front of them. She almost smiles at the sight; he gives a little shrug.

When Saja’s mentally counted to sixty three times over she nods, and Rogers opens the anteroom door, pushing her behind him. She winces and waits for voices, violence, gunshots.

But there is only silence.

Rogers lowers his makeshift shield and Saja peeks around his arm. Ajax is slumped in a ratty chintz armchair, limbs akimbo, snoring slightly. The empty mug of coffee dangles from the tips of his insensate fingers, and Saja thinks those must have been some very powerful sleeping pills.

Rogers darts forward, grabs the keycard from where it’s clipped onto Ajax’s pocket. Saja waves him back into the office, pointing to the locked door. Rogers slides the keycard through the reader and the bolt disengages with a click.

Saja sighs in relief, and Rogers turns to her with the barest hint of a smile. “Where to now?” he whispers.

The realization that this isn’t over, that he still needs her help, is briefly overwhelming. She hadn’t thought beyond this point, beyond drugging Ajax and setting Rogers free. He’s Captain America – even she’s seen the videos – and she is only Saja: Saja with no past, who brings food and sweeps up and entertains Dr. Witten when she must. She’s never been given real responsibility before. It makes her feel dizzy and a little sick.

Then Rogers leans down and takes her by the shoulders. His grip is firm but not painful, and his eyes are very earnest. “Saja, right?” he whispers, and she nods slowly; she knows that much. “Saja, it’ll be okay. You can do this.”

She swallows, gasps, and nods again. She still feels ill but no longer like she’s about to pass out, so she gestures to the unlocked door and then points to the left.

“Okay,” Rogers whispers. He reaches for her hand, gives it a squeeze. “Stay behind me,” he adds, and she gives him her most determined nod. They slip through the door and turn left, and even if Saja was allowed to talk she couldn’t right now because she’s shocked all the words out of herself with her own daring.

 

(19)

Clint looks at the tablet but doesn’t really see it, doesn’t let himself see it, instead focusing his attention on his surroundings.

It’s not a large space, maybe twenty feet on a side, with four doors leading off in four different directions. The walls are beige, the floor covered in yellowing laminate. There are a few long tables, a couple of computers, several filing cabinets and large metal cupboards, and the only window is the one directly in front of him, its glass laced through with metal mesh, which looks into a small, bleak chamber currently furnished by a single chair. It looks a little like a dentist’s chair, except that Clint is fairly sure that most dentists’ offices haven’t resorted to strapping down their patients. The most modern thing in the room is a small Creston touch panel mounted beside the window which might, if it’s like others he’s seen, give the user access to the building’s security and surveillance systems.

Is the drug in this room? Aten hadn’t been able or willing to give him many details, just the name and the assertion that it would be located in the Institute’s secure area.

He’s still emphatically not watching the video in front of him; he knows what Fisher wants him to see even if he doesn’t know why. Although his eyes are on the screen he shifts his vision to long-range, so everything close-up becomes blurry and indistinct, because he doesn’t want to see this any more than he wanted to see the footage from the Helicarrier. He’s already witnessed enough horror to fill several lifetimes’ worth of nightmares.

He can’t block out the sound, though. He hears Fisher’s voice through the speakers, clipped and clinical, ‘we’re going to talk her back through… up the dosage, but not too much…’ and then a man’s deep baritone, ‘if we regress her back to the Red Room we could find out more…’ and Fisher again, impatient, ‘I don’t want to lose any of her training, Bruno.’

“It’s an art, really,” says the Fisher standing in front of him. Her voice is soft, breathy; she is watching the video, enthralled with the sight of her own power. “More than a science. It’s not exact… it requires a delicate touch. The comprehensive wipe… it’s crude, really. It’s like reformatting a hard drive when all you really need to do is get rid of a little virus.”

And then Clint hears Natasha’s voice, a feeble but furious ‘screw you’, and he can’t not look any longer.

She’s in the chair, that dentist’s chair from hell, restraints at her wrists and ankles, across her hips and chest and forehead. Dressed in a thin hospital gown, an IV line in protruding from one upturned wrist, EKG leads sprouting from her chest, electrodes on her temples. She is awake and cogent, eyes fixed on the camera as people in white coats bustle around her – there’s Fisher, and a tall, severe looking man Clint recognizes as Witten – and in her eyes Clint sees anger and violence and the promise of vengeance.

And fear. He also sees the fear.

She is alone and helpless, really helpless, not acting a part, not putting on a show for a mark. Clint tastes bile at the back of his throat. He swallows thickly and says, “She’s not here anymore, is she?”

Manesh answers this time, her tone strangely petulant. “Did you really think she was?”

Fisher touches the screen; the time code in the corner flashes ahead a couple of hours. Natasha is still awake but her eyes are unfocused, and the straps are not restraining her as much as holding her in place.

The Fisher in the video asks ‘where are you now?’ and Nat whispers ‘Abidjan and Fisher nods and adjusts a control on a large unfamiliar machine. Natasha’s body convulses and the EKG stutters and Clint thinks it can’t be that easy, it can’t, but then Fisher asks the question againand Nat answers ‘safehouse in Anyama’ which was where they spent the night before going into Abidjan. He imagines Fisher backing her way through Natasha’s life as a hypnotherapist might, only erasing as she goes, smudging out the details of the person Nat has become, leaving only the harsh lines of her childhood.

In the video Fisher is still talking, but Clint can’t hear her questions any longer; he can only hear the rush of blood in his head and the heavy, furious beating of his heart. He feels certain he must be visibly shaking but the tablet in his hands is steady.

“Why are you showing me this?” he asks, sensing Manesh retreat a few steps away.

“I wanted you to see that it doesn’t hurt,” Fisher replies, her voice sweet and almost girlish again. “It’s a very humane process, Mr. Barton, and after it’s over, and when she’s done with her mission, you’ll be able to see her again. You won’t know each other, of course, but in time you’ll learn. I think you’ll be a very effective team, and--”

The rest of Fisher’s sentence is lost as Clint kicks her legs out from under her. She lands hard on her hip and cries out, but all that matters is that she’s out of reach of the Creston screen, so he turns to Manesh.

He’s almost too late; the gun is in her hand and he sees her finger tighten on the trigger, and he brings the tablet up just in time. There’s a hiss and then a crack of plastic as the bullet lodges, only it’s not a bullet, it’s a tranq dart, its tip protruding from the dark and shattered screen. So they do want you alive. Well, that’s good to know…

He swings the broken tablet at Manesh’s hand, knocking the gun away before she can get off a second shot. The tablet snaps in half and the gun goes clattering across the room. She turns as though to pursue it so he kicks her in the side, and this is something he might have felt a little guilty about when he was younger – beating up on two women he probably outweighs by a good hundred pounds – except that by now he knows from experience that small stature is no promise of weakness.

In fact the kick doesn’t do as much as he’d thought it would; Manesh toes off her pumps and is back on her feet so quickly that Clint barely has time to shove Fisher away from the touch screen before Manesh right there in his face, throwing one punch that he dodges and another that he doesn’t. Her fist hits him in the gut and he grunts, doubling over instinctively, straightening in time to avoid the knee she had aimed at his face. He grabs her wrist, pulls her forward, swings his other elbow up against her skull.

Bone meets bone with a satisfying crack and Manesh stumbles back, dazed, but Clint’s arm is numbed by the impact as well. He looks back, sees Fisher rising unsteadily to her feet. He grabs her by the arm, pushes her into the little room and thumbs the deadbolt. Hopefully she can’t do any damage from inside—

A sharp pain in the back of one calf drops him to a knee. Manesh’s next blow lands hard against his neck; he rolls away from it to limit the damage, blinking against a gray haze at the edges of his vision, kicking out at her ankles as they come into view. She falls back with a curse, a seam ripping in her skirt; he uses a nearby table to pull himself up and they stand there for a moment, glaring at each other, breathing heavily.

“Why are you fighting this?” Manesh spits. “I thought you knew.”

“Knew what?” Clint asks, flexing his hand, which prickles uncomfortably with pins and needles, and thinking where the hell are you, Rogers?

“That this is your fate.” Manesh is still gorgeous, even with her sleek hair mussed and her lipstick smeared, but there is an undeniably crazy glint in her dark eyes that he hadn’t noticed before. “I thought you came here because you knew you were meant to join us.”

“I came here because of Agent Romanoff,” Clint says, watching her hands and feet, trying to ignore Fisher’s furious pounding against the wire-mesh window.

Whatever Manesh was hoping to hear, it wasn’t that. She snarls and comes at him again, but anger makes her sloppy; she telegraphs her punch and he brings his half-numb arm down, blocking it, yanking her forward and kneeing her in the solar plexus.

She lets out an oof that sounds pretty genuine so he does it again, thinking of the first time he sparred with Natasha and held back because he was a moron and ended up face-first on the mat in about eight seconds. He remembers Coulson laughing from the sidelines, and Natasha scowling at him (‘you’re not being chivalrous, you’re being chauvinistic, and I’m surprised it hasn’t gotten you killed yet’) so he punches Manesh in the face.

She falls back… but too far back, and now she’s on her stomach, reaching for something and he realizes it must be the gun. So he grabs the only thing within reach: one half of the broken tablet, the half with the tranq dart still embedded, and as Manesh’s hand closes on the gun he jams the dart into her exposed calf.

She collapses.

 

(20)

Steve keeps close to the wall with the young lady, Saja, at his heels. He’s still holding her tray. It’s rectangular and unwieldy and definitely not vibranium, but it feels good to have something in his hand as they scurry down the corridor like two rats in a maze. When they reach an intersection she touches his shoulder and points to the right, around a blind corner.  

It’s quiet. Steve keeps looking over his shoulder, half-expecting to see the chief of security lumbering after them with murder in his eyes, despite the fact that the big guy would no doubt make plenty of noise. No sooner has that thought passed through his mind then he hears a door opening, and footsteps against linoleum, but it’s coming from somewhere in front of them, not behind.

Saja edges around him before he can stop her, and he can’t say anything once she’s in the intersection in full view of whoever’s there. He hears a man’s voice – “Saja? What are you doing back here?” – and she retreats a few steps, hugging her arms to her chest and looking confused. The footsteps get closer, closer, and a man dressed in dark blue fatigues appears, reaching out to take Saja in hand. He sees Steve only a split second before the silver tray comes down on his head.

But the guy is quick; even as he’s falling he’s pulling a handgun from his holster, firing a shot. It lodges in the wall behind Saja with a solid thwack and she drops to a crouch, hands over her ears. Steve grabs the guard’s gun hand, squeezes it until the grip loosens, pulls him up and punches him hard in the jaw. This time when he falls it’s for good.

“Come on,” says Steve, switching the gun to his other hand and pulling Saja to her feet. He leaves the dented tray on the floor. “Someone must’ve heard that… we need to hurry.”

*

She leads him through another set of doors into another hallway, where men and women in various stages of dress and lucidity sit in cells that appear to have no doors, until he realizes that the whole fourth wall – including the door – is some kind of transparent material. The prisoners don’t seem to notice their new visitors, though, and Saja is still urging him on, so he ignores the macabre scene as best as he can and follows her.

Another door, another swipe of the card, every moment expecting to hear an alarm and the rhythmic stomp of booted feet, and suddenly he’s looking at Ms. Manesh, sprawled facedown on the floor with a dart sticking out of her leg.

Barton is across the room, a bulky-looking gun jammed into his thigh holster, rifling through a file cabinet. “Took you long enough,” he says without looking up, slamming one drawer shut and reaching for another. “I’ve got Fisher but she’s not talking.”

Steve looks around, expecting to see Dr. Fisher with a dart of her own, or perhaps tied to a chair, but instead her pale face glowers at him from behind glass. No… not at him, at Saja, who stares back unflinchingly.

“Don’t just stand there,” says Barton shortly, turning from the file cabinet with a disgusted look and noticing Saja for the first time. “Do you know where it is?”

Saja blinks. There are three doors, all unmarked, aside from the one that leads to the doctor’s room, and she considers them all in mute speculation. Finally she points a little hesitantly at a door between two tall wall-mounted cupboards.

Barton starts towards it but Steve beats him there; he doesn’t see a place for the card and they don’t have a physical key, so a little brute force might be in order. He wordlessly passes Barton the guard’s gun and the other man doesn’t argue, simply stands back where he can see Fisher, Manesh and Steve at the same time.

Steve pulls the door free, splintering the jam and sending Fisher into a fresh stream of glass-muffled profanity. It opens not into another room but a much smaller space, like a closet or maybe a pantry, lined with shelves full of metal boxes. It’s cold, too, so he thinks refrigerator, and he starts scanning the labels on the boxes for some kind of pattern.

Behind him he hears Barton’s voice. “She’s in San Francisco, isn’t she? Why?”

7A-18C… 7A-18F…

Saja remains silent; Fisher only laughs bitterly. “It’s poetic justice, isn’t it?” she calls through the glass. “After what happened in Frankfurt. He was really the target to begin with… I was just a side job.”

Barton is incredulous. “Your husband? You… you sent her to kill Witten?”

11T-10N…

Fisher laughs again, this time with a maniacal edge in her voice. “It’s a kindness, Mr. Barton, believe me. There are other things I could have done to him. Things I could have slipped in his coffee. Games I could have played with his mind. But she gave me the idea. Romanoff. I was going to show you something else, you know. Something that happened later. Saja could tell you. Well, not tell you. But she knows. What he does to all the girls.”

17A-18M… damn…

“He deserves it,” Fisher continues coldly. “He deserves all of it and more.”

13A-10R.

“Got it!” Steve exclaims. He pulls out the box carefully, opening the lid to see several vials of a colorless liquid set into a foam mold. They’re all labeled with the same code, and below them is a reassuring bit of confirmation: Romanoff, N. He turns, holding the box close to his body.

Barton doesn’t move. His face is set in a rictus of loathing as he stares at Fisher through the glass. Steve shakes his shoulder. “Hey, I’ve got it. We need to get out of here.”

Barton swallows, nods, tears his eyes away. They land on Saja. “Is there something in there that’ll help you?”

She presses her lips together, nods tersely, and then glances at Steve and shakes her head vehemently.

“She’s right,” says Steve, feeling guilt settle into the pit of his stomach. “One of the guards fired at us… if someone heard or if Telamon wakes up, we’re stuck in here.”

Barton hesitates, looks at Saja again, and says, “Alright. Let’s go. But she’s coming too.”

Chapter Text

PART SEVEN

(Before)

There is a place beyond panic, beyond fear, and Natasha goes there as Witten and Fisher move around her, checking readouts and measurements and talking about her as though she’s just another machine: something they can reprogram, or turn on and off with the flick of a switch.

The room is cold. Her bare feet feel like ice, and the straps are like bands of metal across her body. She focuses on the camera in the corner of the room, knowing that they will likely watch this later. She wants them to see that she was not afraid.

But she is.

She is not afraid of pain or even death. She is afraid of the unmaking.

“Well, Ms. Romanoff, are we ready to get started?” Fisher asks, perched on a stool by her knees, and Natasha says, “Screw you.”

*

She holds on as well as she can, but she can feel it slipping away. Replaced by… nothing. She feels herself becoming less than who she is. She knows they want to make her who she was before.

That was a nightmare of hers for a while after she came to work for SHIELD. She would dream and in the dream she would wake up and she would be alone. Alone, except for the contracts she took. Alone, except for the marks that were chosen for her. She wasn’t happy or sad, she wasn’t satisfied or discontent, she simply moved through life one job at a time, trying to reclaim her own existence, trying to build something that belonged to her and leaving nothing but destruction in her wake.

Then she would wake, really wake, and she would be at a SHIELD facility and she would hear voices thrumming through the walls, or footsteps vibrating through the floors, and the knowledge that she was surrounded by metal and stone and armed men would make her skin crawl. At times like those she would get up and dress and walk outside, just to breathe the cold night air, just to prove she could, just to show that she was free.

Sometimes Clint would join her – although he was still Hawkeye to her then, or maybe Barton if she was feeling friendly – and she would know that he’d already been awake, that he’d watched her from some aerial perch and come down to walk beside her. They’d play cards or drink coffee, and sometimes they would talk but mostly they were silent, and the silence was comfortable with him because he was at home in it.

Fisher’s face floats before her now and she thinks ‘you sorry bitch, he’s going to come looking for me’ because he will, she knows he will, because she went looking for him even when people said ‘we’re focusing on Loki’ and ‘a handful of loses are considered acceptable’ and ‘he could be anywhere in the world, we don’t have time.’ She knows because she knows him. She knows because she loves him.

The realization should surprise her. It doesn’t.

She thinks she feels his name on her lips, at the end.

 

(Now)

I felt his name on my lips, at the beginning.

 

(21)

Clint can’t quite believe it.

A Quinjet is in the Institute’s parking lot and Maria Hill is in the lobby, hands on her hips as she watches one agent cuff the receptionist and a few more jog down the hall. Clint stares at her, briefly frozen to the spot, and she stares back, looking about as pleased with the situation as he is.

“Oh,” says Rogers, flushing guiltily. “I… might have called Director Fury.”

“You did what?”

Hill strides forward, arms crossed and eyes fixed determinedly on Rogers. “Captain,” she says tersely, ignoring Clint. “The Director’s taking your word on this one. We’re both hoping it doesn’t end up being some kind of wild goose chase. That would be… embarrassing.”

“No geese, ma’am,” says Rogers. “Dr. Fisher’s running a scam here, taking SHIELD criminals and turning them into her own private brainwashed army.” Clint starts at the exaggeration (or is it an exaggeration? He has few doubts that this was exactly Fisher’s aim) but says nothing.

“Fisher?” asks Hill. “The wife? Where’s Witten?”

“Back in the U.S.,” says Rogers vaguely. “Fisher and two of her people attacked us. The doctor is locked up in a room in a back lab. The other two should be unconscious, I don’t know for how much longer. This young woman gave us a tremendous amount of help, at great risk to herself,” he adds, reaching over and ushering Saja towards Hill. The younger woman looks apprehensive but lets herself be pulled forward. “Her name is Saja. We have reason to believe that Fisher was experimenting on her, as well as on other patients.”

Hill frowns at Saja. “Is that true?”

Saja nods, meeting Hill’s eyes boldly.

“She… she can’t talk,” Rogers explains. “But there’s a closet full of drugs in a back room and I think one of them could help her…”

Hill’s eyes flicker to the metal box in Rogers’ hands, and then she looks directly at Clint. “I’m supposed to pretend that you don’t exist,” she says dryly. “Off the record… do you know where Romanoff is?”

“Yes.”

“And you can bring her back in?”

“Yes.”

Hill hesitates, perhaps wrestling with the spirit of her orders against the letter of them, or perhaps with what she knows is right, and then she turns away from him with a frustrated sigh. “We’ll take custody of the patients, including Saja here…” Rogers opens his mouth to speak but Hill cuts him off. “I promise, Captain, we’ll do everything we can for her,” adding, pragmatically, “She can’t tell us much about the operation if she can’t talk.”

Rogers looks at Saja and she nods, even smiles slightly, making a shooing motion with her hands and then pointing to her wrist. Clint knows what she means.

Time is running out.

*

Once they’re back in the jet, while the pilot files his flight plans, Clint checks the dropbox via Rogers’ phone. He’s not surprised to see a new message there, he’s even relieved, but he still grits his teeth as he opens it, expecting another directive, another thinly-veiled threat.

She will be at a dinner reception for The Association for Transformative Neuroscience tonight at 8pm. It will take place on Eucalyptus Drive in Mill Valley, just north of Marin. Bruno Witten is her target. As near as I can tell it will be safe for you to approach her, as her memories of you appear to be completely wiped. She may recognize others, however, so it would be wise for you to come alone. If possible, isolate her before injecting the 13A-10R, as I’m not certain what reaction it may cause. Remember that the drug will not restore her memory. It will only annul the fail-safe trigger. After that, SHIELD may have some idea of how her memories can be recovered, if it is possible.

Clint presses the back of his hand against his mouth, stifling what he’s sure would be a slightly hysterical laugh. No demands, no threats, not in so many words, but it feels as though Aten has given him another impossible task. Go alone. Get her by herself. Inject her with some unknown substance without her killing you. And, by the way, even then she won’t know who you are.

As for going to SHIELD… right. Because they’ve been so helpful so far.

Little bits and pieces come back to him, buffering against him like the tide. I have a lot of friends… one of them is on the World Security Council… the sight of Natasha, strapped down and staring bleakly into the camera… I’m supposed to pretend that you don’t existHer memories of you appear to be completely wiped… I was going to show you something else… what he does to all the girls…

He drops his forehead into the palm of his hand and closes his eyes, swallowing past the tightness in his throat and the panic in his chest, listening as Steve talks with the pilot, listening as the door closes and the wheels begin to move.

He’s as close as he ever has been to finding Natasha, saving her the way she saved him, and at the same time he feels as though she’s still impossibly far away.

 

(22)

Things in the cabin are very quiet after takeoff. Quiet and more than a little uncomfortable.

Barton is in his chair trying to dismantle one of the tranquilizer darts he’d taken off Manesh, in the hope that it can be used as a delivery system for the Institute’s drug. Steve comes back from putting the metal box in the cabin’s tiny refrigerator and sits across from him, feeling awkward and empty-handed.

Finally the silence gets to be too much. Maybe Barton can tune it out, sink into his own little world, but Steve can’t. “I wasn’t being a SHIELD stooge,” he says, and he can hear the defensiveness in his voice. “I thought that backup might come in handy.”

Barton just shakes his head mulishly, focusing on the dart. “If that Quinjet had shown up before we’d neutralized Fisher and Manesh, they might have had time to destroy all the evidence. We might not have gotten into that lab until it was too late. If we’d been in communication with Hill the whole time, maybe…”

“And what if I hadn’t?” asks Steve, his hands tightening on the box. “What about Saja--”

“She would have come with us.”

“—And the other people in those rooms? Fisher might still have decided to destroy the evidence. All of the evidence. She could have killed her patients and been gone before the local authorities showed up. Assuming the local authorities would even want to touch the Institute with a ten-foot pole.”

Barton fumbles with the dart, cursing under his breath. Steve hopes he doesn’t stick himself with it, since there’s no telling how long that sedative is supposed to last. He waits for Barton to argue, but the archer lapses back into sullen silence instead.

Eventually Steve stands, walking to the other end of the cabin with his cell phone in hand. He waits for Barton to lob an insult, an accusation, but he now appears obsessively fixated on the dart.

Steve dials Stark’s number.

The other line picks up almost immediately, but at first all Steve can hear is static, heavy breathing, some grunting, a muttered ‘shit’, and he almost hangs up. Then Stark’s voice barks out, “Kinda busy here, Cap.”

Steve presses the phone more closely to his ear. “What’s going on?”

“Some Serbians are trying to knock me out of the sky, that’s what’s going on.”

He must have misheard. “Serbians? I thought you were in Oslo.”

Stark curses again. “I was. Am. Or nearby.” He gives a long-suffering sigh. “The Serbians bought weapons. Weapons with my name on them. Weapons that blew up in their faces. Now they’re a little miffed. They heard I was in the area. Is that enough of a Cliffnotes version for you? JARVIS, divert power to the thrusters. Well, more power.”

Steve doesn’t even know what to say. “I… okay. Sorry. I just…”

“No, it’s fine…” Stark sighs. “I think I’m out of range. For now. Pepper, you still there? I’m going to go in low, circle back around to the city. Make sure your bags are packed. No, I don’t care about the lawyers, we’ll leave them here if they’re not ready. There’s always more where they came from. Steve?”

“Still here,” says Steve dumbly.

“You survived Colombia?”

He decides the question is rhetorical. “We’re headed for San Francisco. Apparently… Fisher programmed Agent Romanoff to kill Dr. Witten.”

Stark makes a humphing sound. “Makes as much sense as anything, I guess. The guy was cheating on her when they were engaged… no reason to think he would have stopped since. Women have tried to off their husbands for far less than that, let me tell you.”

Steve shakes his head even though he knows Stark can’t see him. “I don’t think it’s just that. She even said she could have killed him some other way. I think she wanted Agent Romanoff, particularly. I think… she may have wanted to implicate SHIELD.”

Stark is quiet for so long that Steve starts to worry that maybe he wasn’t out of the Serbians’ range after all, but it’s a thinking-quiet, not a blown up-quiet, so he waits and eventually Stark says, “Okay. Okay. That fits. She gets rid of her slimeball husband and makes SHIELD take the fall. If she’s been up to no good she might want Fury’s monkey off her back anyway.”

“Fisher’s in SHIELD custody,” Steve says, “But Witten’s still in danger. We need to get to him before Romanoff does.”

“Are you sure about that?”

Steve narrows his eyes. “What does that mean?”

“What it means is that it kind of sounds like this guy had it coming. He’s up to his neck in the whole brainwashing scheme as much as Fisher. Who knows where he’s been getting his ‘volunteers’ from. Maybe they’re all kidnappees. Besides, you save him, you might be pushing him right into SHIELD’s arms. Is that really what we want? Is that even what Agent Romanoff would want? SHIELD with the ability to custom-order their very own Black Widows?”

Steve sits heavily in the nearest chair. Barton looks up, brow furrowed. “We can’t just let her kill him,” Steve hisses.

“Yeah. I guess,” says Stark regretfully. “What’s the plan then?”

Steve takes a deep breath. “We need to get into that dinner, get Witten out of there, grab Agent Romanoff and administer this… antidote our informant told us about. Otherwise even trying to shake some memories loose could kill her.”

“So… let me get this straight. You called me, while I was being shot at ten thousand feet above Norway, for party tickets?”

Steve considers this. “Essentially… yes.”

Stark sighs.

“Genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, remember?” Steve says dryly.

Stark sighs again, but now it almost sounds like a laugh. “You buy a guy one private jet… fine. Anything else, since no one’s actively trying to kill me at the moment?”

“Well…”

*

He sits back down across from Barton. “Stark got us into the dinner.”

Barton doesn’t look at him. “Just like that?”

Steve shrugs, leaning back. “He’s Tony Stark. He owns part of a company that makes brain implants… something about hormones…” He shrugs. “They agreed to keep their guys at home, and we’ll go in under their names.”

“Aten’s message said Natasha might recognize you,” says Barton, hissing between his teeth as the dart finally comes apart in his hands, the ampul of sedative snapping free from its plastic housing. “Fisher must’ve figured she might run into your pictures at some point, what with you being celebrities and all. She sees you, she’s going to guess something’s up.”

Steve grunts, acknowledging this; he doesn’t exactly have a well-known affinity for transformative neuroscience that would explain his presence, and even out of uniform… well, he’s more recognizable, even in this century, than he ever thought he would be. “I’m not letting you go in there on your own.”

“She’ll be there early,” Barton continues. He puts the sedative aside, examining the dart’s housing more closely. “She’ll stake out a spot, wait for him to come to her. I’ll go in. You wait outside and grab Witten when he shows up. Big man like him, he’ll want to come in late, make an entrance.”

“And then what?”

Barton snorts. “Captain, I’m surprised I’ve gotten this far. I’ll figure out the next part when we get there.” He glances up. “Should I plan on SHIELD crashing this party?” he asks, an edge in his voice.

“No,” says Steve honestly. “My guess is that if anything was going to set off the trigger it would be the sight of a bunch of SHIELD agents arriving on the premises. The whole point of it seems to be keeping them from reacquiring her.” He pauses. “But I still think I did the right thing in Bogota.”

Barton finally puts the dart aside. “I think you did, too,” he admits, and Steve sits back, surprised. “I just wish you would have told me. I can’t…” A shadow passes over his face. “I can’t do this if I don’t have someone I can trust. For a long time that person’s been Natasha, and now…”

A long moment passes while Steve struggles to find the right words and finally realizes that maybe the right words just don’t exist. “I know what it’s like to lose someone,” he says at last, looking down at his hands.

“I understand.” Barton rolls the sedative ampul between his fingers. A muscle twitches him his jaw. “But I haven’t lost her yet.”

 

(23)

Bruno Witten watches in the mirror as Christiane daubs some concealer onto his cheekbone, using her fingertips to blend it in. The ugly yellowish remnant of the bruise fades away and she smiles encouragingly at his reflection. “See? You can’t even tell.”

He grunts acknowledgement and walks back into the bathroom, leaving the woman to finish her own preparations.

His face is still tender where Romanoff hit him, although more than three days has passed. The swelling had forced him to skip a symposium – Humane Alternatives to Imprisonment in the 21st Century – that had been held in the city earlier in the week, something he is still rather bitter about. It would have been poor optics, however, to give a speech lauding his patients’ newfound commitments to nonviolence and altruism while sporting a contusion the side of a golf ball.

Of course, Bruno could have gone and taken the opportunity to throw Sloane under the bus. It was her fault anyway, her ridiculous Modified Expunction experiments, and what would the academic community say if they learned what, precisely, she’s been wasting her time on? It would be almost worth it to hear the condemnations from bastards like Hunsinger and Sanzone (men who were not at his level, intellectually, but still influential voices in the field of neurotherapy) after spending so much time and effort spent pointing out the foolishness of her pursuit.

But Bruno knows how things work in the scientific community. They’re backstabbers and thieves, the lot of them, and they would hold up Sloane’s imprudent trials as evidence of his failings, his inability to control his company and his wife. It has taken so long for the CEE procedure to be even tacitly accepted by smaller minds; Sloane’s work would be labeled overzealous, manipulative, even power-hungry, and then it would be laid squarely at his feet.

Bruno won’t take the fall for Sloane. But he has decided that things will change after this weekend. He is done delaying, done explaining himself, done waiting for Sloane to realize that the Modified procedure’s risks outweigh its potential rewards. There is too little known about the efficacy of the trigger or the pass-phrase, too many opportunities for bits and pieces of memory and personality to squirrel themselves away.

He will return to Colombia. He will put an end to Sloane’s project. He will thoroughly wipe all of her little lab rats, including the brute Ajax.

Then he will deal with Romanoff.

She is a special case; Bruno can’t deny that. He will do what he should have insisted on in the first place: regress her back to the days under her original creators.

Pharmaceuticals may have improved since the days when the KGB operated with impunity, and medical technology in general has come a long way, but the Red Room had been about so much more than simple physiology. Bruno already knows how to change a brain from the inside out, but they were masters of altering minds from the outside in. The combined knowledge would put him head and shoulders above even his most enterprising colleagues.

The only comparable prize, in his estimation, would be one of the SHIELD employees who’d been reprogrammed by the man called Loki. MRIs and EEGs are all well and good, and he’s prouder of his CEE medications than anything he’s ever done, but to be able to direct a mind, a will, through touch alone… well, if neurotherapy could be said to have a Holy Grail, that would be it.

Some day, he promises himself. Some day.

But one thing at a time. He will go to the dinner tonight and the conference this weekend. He will make sure Christiane earns her pay. Then he will go home and deal with the problems waiting for him there.

*

The limousine comes to a stop on Eucalyptus Drive just after eight-thirty. The fragrant trees along the road are festooned with twinkling white lights, but the gate to Meckland’s property is pushed back a good twenty yards from the street. This means no other guests are loitering around, waiting to be admitted and therefore available to witness his arrival.

Bruno sighs discontentedly as he exits the limo, straightening the cuffs of his jacket and looking around as the driver helps Christiane alight. He can just glimpse the bright lights and large white tents beyond the gate at the end of the path, where a passel of brusque looking men in suits seem to be checking names and chivying guests through a metal detector.

Christiane takes his proffered arm as the limo drives away, and they silently start down the path between the spangled trees. He has explicitly told her not to speak unless absolutely necessary; he has chosen her for her beauty, not her intelligence, although of course if asked he will explain that she is a colleague from Colombia who was gracious enough to join him when Sloane was unable to get away.

Many of Bruno’s colleagues are aware of the arrangement he has with his wife, although he knows not all of them understand it, and it’s best not to parade his polyamory in front of them.

They’ve just reached the gate, forced to wait as a woman in a ridiculous studded dress holds up things at the metal detector, when another man approaches them from the direction of the woods. Bruno raises an eyebrow, wondering if perhaps the man’s limo let him off on the wrong end of Eucalyptus, leaving him to wander through acres of those same trees. Meckland’s property is surrounded by a good deal of public land, and Bruno thinks it would be easy for someone to become disoriented and lost, especially in the darkness.

But this man does not look lost. He approaches Bruno with confidence, actually sketching a little bow to Christiane before addressing him. “Dr. Witten?”

“Yes?” Bruno squints up at the gentleman: he is large, blond, dressed in a light gray Valentino suit and also somehow familiar. Possibly they’ve met at another function.

“I need to speak to you,” says the man rather urgently.

Bruno’s gaze falls to the fellow’s right shoulder seam. It isn’t tailored quite right for his rather muscular physique. Bought off the rack? Bruno represses a shudder and pastes a bland smile on his face. “I’ll be happy to, once we’re inside,” he lies, gesturing to the gate where the path to the metal detector has finally been cleared.

“That’s the problem,” says the stranger. “There’s someone inside the party who’s waiting to kill you.”

Bruno feels Christiane start and drop his arm. “Kill me?” he echoes, trying to laugh and not quite succeeding. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Not what, who: Natasha Romanoff,” says the man, and it clicks into place where Bruno’s seen him before. He should have realized… it’s just that you never expect to see Steven Rogers – Captain America –standing in the middle of a eucalyptus grove in an ill-fitting Valentino suit. “Your wife sent her to kill you.”

Christiane gives a little shriek, clasping one hand over her mouth, and a guard at the gate calls out, “Is everything all right over there?”

Bruno waves him away impatiently, grabbing Christiane’s wrist and giving it a warning squeeze. “This is madness,” he hisses, remembering every piece of footage on Rogers that he has ever seen. The man could probably pick him up and toss him bodily into the nearest tree.

“It’s the truth,” says Rogers frankly. “I was in Villavicencio this morning. I know what the two of you have been up to. I heard Dr. Fisher say that she wants you dead.” He nods towards the gate. “And I’m pretty sure Agent Romanoff already in there, waiting for you to arrive.”

Bruno swallows thickly, peeking at the tents. He can hear voices and soft music and suddenly it doesn’t seem like madness at all that Sloane’s new pet could be lurking in there amidst the sparkling lights and fine clothes. It seems perfectly reasonable, in fact, that his wife would arrange to have him murdered. Hadn’t he just been thinking about shutting her down? He’s always known that Sloane is fantastically ambitious, and rather clever to boot. “You’re here to rescue me, then?” he asks shakily. “You know about Romanoff and you don’t want me dead yourself?”

Christiane cries out again and he realizes that he’s been squeezing her wrist more tightly than he had intended. A second later there’s a sharp pain in his own wrist and he lets her go, wincing, massaging his hand and glaring dolefully at Christiane as she sidles up next to her rescuer. “Honestly?” asks Rogers darkly. “I don’t know that you deserve to live. But that’s not my decision to make. Come on.”

He strides off the path without another word. Christiane is hot on his heels, and after a moment Bruno plunges into the woods in their wake.

Only the trees just along the road and path have been draped with lights; the park is much darker past this perimeter and he stumbles a little, grimacing as he thinks of the damage being done to his Allen Edmonds wingtips. “Where are we going?”

“We need to get you out of sight,” Rogers calls back; Bruno can just make out his broad-shouldered form, a large splotch of darkness against the twilight. Christiane is stumbling in her high heels. “When you don’t arrive she might come looking for you.”

“But you could stop her,” Bruno insists, shouldering past Christiane who has paused against a tree to kick off her pumps. “I’ve seen you… well, I’ve seen videos.”

“I don’t want to hurt her if I don’t have to,” Rogers says curtly. He reaches out for Christiane’s hand, helps her over a heap of deadwood, notices her bare feet and simply swings her up into his arms. “I parked on the access road just through here. I thought it would be less conspicuous than--”

But Bruno never learns what it would be less conspicuous than. He doesn’t hear the shot that takes him in the chest, doesn’t even feel the pain. There is only a strange, warm sensation spreading across his middle, and the scent of earth beneath his cheek, and the disquieting thought that on top of the Allen Edmonds shoes he has now ruined a thousand-dollar Armani suit besides.

Chapter Text

PART EIGHT

 

(Before)

He jumps down into the alley, swathed in the shadows but still visible, and she knows that he is the one.

She has felt eyes on her all day, and now she realizes they must have been his eyes. Her brain processes what she is seeing even as she raises her gun, spins, prepares for the headshot: a distinctive shape in his hands: a bow, an arrow. He is a sniper then, albeit an unconventional one. Her finger prepares to tighten on the trigger but it does not; she thinks about shooting but she does not shoot.

And neither does he.

Of course not: he could have shot her from the roof if that was really what he wanted. He’d had five separate opportunities today to take her out, by her count. She had wandered through Frankfurt, trailing the target, waiting for the go-ahead, feeling the itch between her shoulder blades that told her she was being tailed.

Not just tailed. Watched.

She had wandered through Frankfurt, trailing the target, knowing that eventually he would take his shot. Maybe he was waiting for his own orders. Maybe he wanted her alone, where her sudden, violent death wouldn’t cause an outright panic. But time passed, and chances passed, and she didn’t die.

Now she raises the gun. Her finger twitches against the trigger. But she does not fire.

Every sense is heightened in anticipation. She hears the murmur of a television from the target’s room, faint strains of music from the other side of the alley. She smells baking sweetbread from one apartment and honeysuckle spilling from the window box of another and the faint ozone scent of an approaching storm.

He holds the arrow to the bowstring but does not pull it back. He steps forward, into a rectangle of light cast by the target’s window, and she understands who he is. His employers have sent others to sweet-talk her. She hasn’t killed any of them because she doesn’t want to put an even bigger target on herself, but there’s a first time for everything.

He says, “There’s another way, you know. You don’t have to live like this,” and lowers his arms, the arrow now pointing at the ground between them. His voice is pitched low; the target sits, watching television, only a few feet away.

“There’s no other way,” she says, surprised to hear herself speak.

The man moves closer, and does not die.

“I know you’re not happy,” he says.

She smiles thinly. “Is that what you know?”

He doesn’t react to the scorn in her voice. “Yes,” he says simply. He is unmasked, unhelmeted, the same as she. He is not handsome in the conventional sense, but there is something about his face that is striking. “I was there, once.”

The painted-on smile becomes a genuine frown. “Where?”

He nods at her, at the gun in her hand, at the ugliness in her head. “Where you are. On the wrong side.”

“Right and wrong,” she snorts. “Is that what they teach you?”

He shakes his head minutely. “I don’t think it’s something that can be taught.”

Her arms are burning from the strain of holding the gun steady, but she ignores the pain as wholly as he seems to be ignoring the barrel pointed at his head. Words slip from her mouth again, unbidden, unplanned. “Zhizn' prozhit' — ne pole pereyti.” Living life is not like crossing a meadow. An old proverb. She can’t remember where she learned it.

“Maybe not,” says the archer. “But it can be better than this.”

Before she can react the phone tucked into her back pocket vibrates. There is no need to check for a message; it is a prearranged signal with her employers. Her sign to move. ‘Grab the woman. Not quietly. Not bloodlessly. We want Witten shaken when he comes back. We want it to be a taste of what is to come.’

She still has the headshot lined up. His bow is held loosely in one gloved hand, the arrow dangling between his fingers. She wonders if he has a death wish.

Like she does.

She had wandered through Frankfurt, trailing the target, waiting to die, and she had been angry when she had lived. But she knows she can stand here all night, breathing in bread and honeysuckle and ozone, and he will not kill her. Not unless he must.

She could force his hand. She could end this.

Instead, she lowers the gun.

“Dolg platezhom krasen,” she says caustically, hoping he will not notice the way her arm shakes, not with fatigue but with fear. She has never not completed a mission before. Debt is beautiful only after it has been repaid.

“We’ll call it even,” says the archer, a wry smile finally touching his lips. “You don’t owe me anything.”

But she does.

 

(Now)

Natasha perches on the edge of the fountain, nursing a glass of white wine and watching as guests join the reception. They come around a corner from the guarded gate on a flagstone path, usually in pairs but sometimes in small, chattering groups, and there is the occasional unaccompanied man. These are the most likely to notice Natasha immediately, and I watch as one older fellow in a pinstriped suit actually takes three eager steps in her direction before seeing something in her expression that turns him aside.

The only man she’s interested in tonight is the one I’m supposed to be identifying.

It’s impossible for her to escape notice. The Donna Karan dress, with its long sleeves and knee-length hem, is not particularly provocative, but the violet fabric is eye-catching, both in its color and the way it hugs her body. Her blonde hair pulled back in a loose chignon, her legs crossed demurely, and the fingers of her free hand trailing through the water in the fountain’s basin, she looks relaxed, even bored, and unapproachable.

And then I see him, coming in on the fringes of a group that seems not to be giving him much notice, his charcoal gray suit and black shirt stark against the brilliantly white tents, and my stomach gives a funny lurch.

“What is it?” Natasha asks brusquely.

I raise the wine glass to my mouth, not to drink but to mask the movement of my lips. “I just overheard one of the servers talking to Meckland,” I lie, strangely breathless. “She said that Witten isn’t coming, that he’s ill.”

Natasha scowls. She’s retrieved her weapon from the planter, strapping it into her thigh holster; she’s ready, in the right place at the right time, and Witten is still making things difficult. I feel a rush of anger and frustration, as though her emotions are bleeding into mine, and then a flicker of alarm as she murmurs, “Fine, we’ll abort and…”

“No.” I stand and begin walking around the far side of the fountain. It’s circular, with a granite plinth in the center supporting a representation of Narcissus. The abstracted figure, also in granite, leans out over the edge of the plinth as though to admire his reflection in the basin; water pours from his eye sockets and open mouth, trickling musically over his outstretched hands. We’re far enough removed from the main tents that I doubt our conversation will be overheard, but I feel better here in the shadows of the large brick-and-ivy conference hall. “Someone just came in, someone I recognized.”

“Witten?”

“No.” I clutch my wine glass, hoping I’m not making a terrible mistake. “The man in the gray suit, next to the agapanthus…” The group he entered with has wandered off towards the tents, laughing and gesticulating, but he has loitered in the garden and I’m sure that he has noticed Natasha, even if his eyes have yet to glance in our direction. “I think… he works at the Institute.”

She seems puzzled by my excitement. “So?”

“Fisher would have told us if someone else from the Institute was coming,” I insist. “What if she didn’t send him? What if Witten did? He might be here to meet with Witten’s contact…”

“Or to take the contact to Witten,” Natasha finishes thoughtfully.

She sets her wine glass on the lip of the fountain, picks up her black handbag, and begins to walk towards the man, who is now in conversation with one of the white-suited servers. I wait for the moment when he notices her approach, when their eyes will meet…

But before she can cross the garden the music stops, and a man’s voice rings out announcing that dinner is about to be served and won’t everyone please find their seats? Natasha smoothly changes tack, walking into the main tent as though that had been her destination all along, and the man in the charcoal suit follows close behind.

 

(24)

Two sharp metallic snaps punctuate the night, each with its own soft pop, the kind that Steve associates with a bullet leaving the barrel of a suppressed gun.

Witten’s companion, a woman with short black hair wearing a short black dress, slithers out of Steve’s grasp and drops instantly to the loamy ground, cursing fluently in a fervent whisper more suited to prayer. Steve flattens himself against the nearest tree, hoping it’s wide enough to block him from sight, hoping he was right in his guess about where the shots came from. His right arm is stinging, burning, and the woman hisses, “Jesus… oh Goddamn it,” and he thinks she must be frightened by the sight of blood even though he was only grazed, and then he sees where she’s looking.

Witten is lying on the ground, white dress shirt stained red, eyes open and sightless. He’s only a few feet away; Steve goes into a squat, still peering around the tree for the source of the shots, and feels for a pulse at Witten’s carotid artery. Nothing.

Steve feels a sudden flush of relief swallowed swiftly by shame, decides that he can work all that out later, and pulls the handgun from his waistband. It’s the one he’d taken off the Institute guard, a Glock G17, and its weight in his hand is reassuring – he’s spent time with this model on the range – although his wounded shoulder aches and he’s still regretting leaving his shield on the Carrier. If he’d had any idea he was going to be involved in a pitched gun battle…

He looks towards the woman, whose manicured nails are dug into the underbrush. “Move to your left,” he says quietly. “Stay low. There’s a fallen tree… get behind that.”

She nods silently and begins to wriggle in that direction. Steve remains in his squat, looking around the trunk of his own tree, eyes straining through the darkness and ears pricked for any small clue: a misplaced footstep, the crisp sound of a full magazine being snapped into place. There’s no noise, no movement, only the sense that someone else is still out there, engaged in their own waiting game.

Is it Romanoff? Steve feels ill at the thought, not just because it would mean they’d been fed lies by their informant, or because it means Barton is back there at the party waiting for a guest who will never arrive, or even because their miscalculation led to Witten’s death. No, what really makes him sick is the thought that he might be forced to use this gun against Romanoff.

Not to save himself. He would take his chances if it were just the two of them. But Witten’s companion introduces an entirely new element.

His right arm is starting to go a bit numb so he switches the G17 to his left. The Glock doesn’t have a sound suppresser, like his adversary’s weapon must. If it is Romanoff, if he’s forced to fire on her, Barton and the other guests will hear the shots.

If I kill her, Steve realizes, he’s going to kill me.

He waits. Witten’s companion is hunkered down against the fallen tree, no longer cursing; the only sound from her direction is the occasional sniffle. He listens, his nose full of the menthol scent of eucalyptus, and hears only the rustle of wind-stirred branches far overheard and the faint, almost imperceptible strains of music from the reception.

And then he hears a voice, a woman’s voice, far too close for comfort.

“Hello, Captain.”

 

(25)

Clint is discovering whole new levels of self-restraint. Levels he didn’t even know he possessed.

He’s run through a whole gamut of emotions in the last fifteen minutes, beginning, of course, with a dull sense of impending doom as he’d given his name and title – Doctor Gabe Bishop from the Atlanta Clinic for Neurologic Restoration - to the guards at the front gate, who’d walked him through a metal detector and given him a perfunctory pat-down. He’d expected one of the men to denounce him as a fraud, maybe declare I know Gabe Bishop and you, sir, are no Gabe Bishop – but he’d been let through without comment just in front of a large, ebullient group. None of them paid him the slightest bit of attention.

Then he’d walked around the corner and glimpsed Natasha.

The urge to drop all pretense and go to her immediately had been almost overwhelming. The sight of her sitting alone on the edge of a dark stone fountain, a glass of wine cradled in her hands, looking safe and healthy and deceptively normal had made him momentarily lightheaded and also slightly bewildered, as an overpowering flood of relief had pushed every other thought and feeling from his mind.

The group he had come in with had wandered off towards the tents, but Clint had remained in the garden as though he’d taken root in the well-manicured lawn, pretending to admire the plants while straining every sense towards the woman at the fountain. She was quiet, watchful, gorgeous: blonde hair pulled back, makeup immaculate, wearing a long-sleeved dress (rather similar in color to the mizingi suit, oddly enough) and he had thought suddenly of walking with her in Paris, half a world away and, seemingly, part of someone else’s life.

She was waiting, he had realized.

Then a server had sidled up, informing him that dinner would be served soon, and then a man’s voice rang out announcing the same thing, and he had watched Natasha walk past him, into the main tent, as though he was a stranger.

*

The circular tables are arranged throughout the tent, covered in white linen, delicate china, sparkling silver and spotless glass, and each place is marked with a nametag. An officious-looking young man leads him to Gabe Bishop’s seat before hurrying away to usher another guest, but Clint only has eyes for the blonde woman in the violet dress. She is about three tables away, her face turned in profile; one of her neighbors, a thin-faced man with a neat goatee, is already chatting her up quite animatedly. She smiles politely and says something that makes him laugh.

Clint’s tablemates take their seats and he looks away from Natasha long enough to feel vaguely panicked. He has never been at ease in these formal settings, doesn’t even like wearing a suit, and isn’t sure what he’s going to say if someone starts talking to him about brain implants and hormone treatments. But the other guests – five men, three women – are too eager to talk about themselves to give him more than the most fleeting glance.

In fact, as drinks are poured and salads presented, only his right-hand neighbor, a florid-faced gentleman in his seventies, attempts to engage him in conversation. “I see we’re missing someone else,” he says, nodding to the empty chair on Clint’s left. The little card reads Dr. Hugh Crinchlow, which is Rogers’ alias.

“Someone else?” Clint forces a smile, palming his own card, worried that the name Gabe Bishop might mean something to his peers. According to Rogers, who’d been quoting Stark, the Atlanta Clinic for Neurologic Restoration is new and mostly unknown, but he doesn’t want to take any chances.

“Well, Witten’s a no-show again, isn’t he?” says the man with a caustic laugh. The laugh becomes a stifled cough and his face flushes even more brilliantly.

 “Was he supposed to be one of the speakers?” Clint asks.

The man laughs again. “Oh, I’m sure he’d planned on doing more than his fair share of speaking,” he says wryly, then turns to the woman on his right and begins complaining about the vintage of wine they’ve been served.

Clint looks back at Natasha’s table and has the strange impression that he has quite nearly just caught her looking at him.

She isn’t going to wait forever for Witten to show up, Clint thinks, trusting that Rogers’ and Witten’s continued absence is a good sign. Either I follow her when she leaves, or…

As salads are whisked away and main courses brought out, guests begin to take turns behind the little podium at the front of the tent. They speak eloquently of helping those who can no longer help themselves, and finding the humanity that resides in even the lowliest of creatures, and of course of making a difference, but they are all most eager to laud their own work, their own labs and theories and therapies. This is all just a commercial, one big session of verbal one-upmanship. Clint’s never been to a high school reunion but he imagines that they’re a little something like this, with each attendee trying to outdo the others behind a poor mask of simpering modesty.

He wonders what Witten might have planned on saying and decides that the doctor probably would have left out the whole bit about strapping down unwilling victims and erasing any inconvenient memories…

The red-faced man nudges his elbow. “You all right, son? You’re looking a bit peaked.”

There is a flash of violet at the edge of his vision. Clint hastily wipes his mouth, although he’s hardly touched any of the food put before him, mutters something about needing some air, and follows Natasha back out into the garden.

 

(26)

“Hello, Captain.”

Kamala is pleased but not surprised by how easily Bruno Witten had died.

She knows that he has been a marked man for almost a week now; he was destined to fall the moment Dr. Fisher gave the order. The method was not important, nor the hand that held the gun, only the outcome. It should have been me all along, she thinks with a satisfied smile.

She is also pleased by Rogers’ shock at the sound of her voice. She cannot see his face, or indeed any part of him, but she can feel the surprise and confusion emanating from his direction, as sharp and distinct as the pungent scent of the trees around them, as familiar as the smell of hot metal and blood. Kolar to Bangalore to Brasilia; these are smells that she knows.

Kamala doesn’t particularly want to kill Rogers, or the unknown woman behind the tree. The only murder she intended has already been carried out. But if Rogers is here then Barton is most likely at the reception, and she still hasn’t forgiven him for toying with her emotions, turning his back on fate, this morning in Villavicencio.

“How did you know?” she asks, once she’s sure the fact of her existence has penetrated Rogers’ thick skull. “About the Institute? The A-10 protocol? How did you know to come here? Saja couldn’t have told you.”

There is a long stretch of silence and she worries, momentarily, that he has been able to move, to flank her position. But when he speaks his voice comes from where she expected. “You tell me something first.”

“Of course,” Kamala says pleasantly. She suspects he’s still armed, and the sound of gunfire will alert the guests at the reception that something is wrong. She’s just stalling, happy to give Barton all the time he needs to get his hands on Romanoff.

Even with the drug in hand, Kamala suspects that Barton won’t be able to restrain himself. He’ll be wary of injecting Romanoff with some unknown substance and loath to get in close against someone who’s an expert in hand-to-hand. He’ll try to jog her memory first, and while Kamala doesn’t think his face or even his name will be enough to trigger a full wipe, any sustained attempt should do the trick quite nicely.

She wants him to see her die. She wants him to know that this is the way it has to be. Maybe then he’ll be more willing to listen.

“How are you here?” Rogers’ words are clipped and angry.

Blaming himself for Witten’s death? It was inevitable, but Kamala doesn’t expect someone like him to understand that. She’s happy for him to wallow in guilt or regret. “I flew, the same as you,” Kamala says, night-adjusted eyes roving over the unknown woman’s hiding place. If she can get her hands on a hostage, she can hold Rogers off indefinitely. “Did you think I was going to wait around for SHIELD to arrest me?”

Truth be told, the effects of the sedative had taken a good part of the flight to shake off. Even after finding a stimulant in the cabinet – ignoring Fisher’s muffled encouragement, then her pleas, then her shouted invective – it had still taken most of the mile-long walk to the airfield before she’d even felt close to normal.

She’d been relieved to discover that Barton and Rogers’ plane was no longer on the premises, and almost thankful that the Institute’s Gulfstream had not been impounded by SHIELD agents, before reminding herself that emotions such as relief and thankfulness were unbecoming in one who had embraced the certainty of fate.

She’d called the Institute’s pilot – a former CEE-patient who had taken to flying almost as though he remembered his previous life as an aviator for the cartels – and although it had taken him almost half an hour to arrive, what with SHIELD’s roadblocks and roving patrols, they had made good time on the flight north, into the States.

They’d landed at a private airport up the coast from Mill Valley, money had passed through the appropriate hands, and by seven-thirty local time she had secured a car, a weapon, and a suitable outfit.

Still, she’d cut it close. It had taken time to locate the right stretch of road, and then there had been too many onlookers as guests arrived for the party – many arriving in limos but a good number simply parking along the unpaved shoulder – so she’d been forced to leave her car on a narrow access road.

But once again fate had intervened; she had arrived just behind Rogers in his rented sedan, looking patently ridiculous in an off-the-rack suit and tie, and it had been easy enough to tail him through the eucalyptus grove.

Ultimately he had brought Witten right to her. Fate.

“Why kill him?” Rogers asks. “The Institute… it was finished anyway.”

“Maybe,” says Kamala placidly, for even with Fisher arrested and Witten dead, there will always be those who wish to continue their research… some, in fact, existing within SHIELD itself. The call of power, of control, is too great, its lure too strong for many to resist.

And why bother resisting at all? Kolar to Bangalore to Brasillia to Villavicencio; she has always known that they were only stops along a path. “Even if they’re finished,” she adds, “I’m not.”

 

(27)

It’s something of a risk, leaving her target in a tent peppered with beautiful women, any one who might catch his eye, but Natasha trusts her instincts. She knows how to read a mark.

He follows her.

He is not handsome in the conventional sense, but there is something about his face that is striking, and his body beneath the gray suit is solid and trim. She stands by the fountain, which with the onset of full darkness is now cleverly illuminated by well lights set into the well-kept grass, and he approaches her openly, without affecting surprise or shyness, as though this is a planned meeting.

She flashes a wry smile, sitting on the fountain’s edge. “There’s only so much of that you can take before it starts to ruin your appetite,” she notes, nodding towards the main tent, where another round of sanctimonious speechifying has begun.

He sits beside her – close, but not inappropriately so – and smiles back, although the expression is odd, a little tremulous, as if he’s not sure what to make of her. “Should I take it you’re not in the neurological trade, then?”

Natasha opens her mouth to reply and then hesitates, distracted by a strange confluence of scents on the air. She smells honeysuckle (not strange, considering she’s in a garden, only she hadn’t noticed any of the trailing vines in daylight) but also the distinctive aroma of baking sweetbread… It makes her think of a little German café where she once met an informant, but also of a dark alley, and her temples begin to pound…

“Miss?”

She blinks and smiles automatically, rattled by how completely an odd smell has ruined her focus. “No, I’m not,” she says quickly, in answer to his question, and she extends her hand. The headache fades almost immediately. “Hanna Karpenka.”

His grip is strong, his skin warm, his fingers callused in an unfamiliar way, and she’s disappointed when he doesn’t linger over the handshake. “Russian?” he asks.

“The name?” She shakes her head. “Ukrainian. Well, my parents were. I’m from Denver.” She raises her eyebrows expectantly.

“Oh, me? Gabe Bishop. Atlanta.”

“Atlanta?” she echoes, feigning puzzlement. “I thought… well, a friend of mine said she recognized you, but she thought you worked out of some place in South America…”

“Villavicencio?” he asks, quietly and with some reluctance. When she nods, he shrugs and looks towards the center of the fountain. “I used to. Hanna?”

“Yes?” She glances around for Aten, eager to give some subtle signal that their suspicion is confirmed, but the other woman must still be in the tent.

“Why is this person vomiting?”

Surprised, she glances back at the dark granite figure and laughs in genuine amusement. “He isn’t vomiting. It’s Narcissus, staring at his reflection.”

Bishop looks skeptical; Natasha takes the opportunity to move closer and point at the sculpture’s face: the gaping mouth, the tortured eyes. “You know the story, right? He was a hunter in ancient Greek legend. There are a few different versions, of course, but in all of them he was incredibly vain. Men and women threw themselves at him and he broke all of their hearts.” The granite figure is an abstraction, impossibly thin with long, curving joints, its skull narrow and its face gaunt. “The first time he saw his own reflection he couldn’t look away, he just lay there on the rocks, staring at himself, in love for the first time in his life. He couldn’t do anything about it, though. He couldn’t touch his reflection, but he couldn’t leave it either. He just lay there, staring, wasting away until he died...”

She looks away from the figure and finds Bishop staring, not at Narcissus but at her, his eyes – startlingly blue up close – flickering over her face. She feels his breath light against her skin, smelling of honeysuckle and sweetbread, as she leans in and presses her lips against his.

Chapter Text

PART NINE

 

(Before)

Clint’s not surprised to discover that Fury has partnered him with Romanoff; it’s surely meant as some kind of punishment, although if he’d been Ellis or Judson or Sims – who’d all been sent to bring in the Black Widow and had gotten their asses handed to them by her instead – he probably would have received a Goddamned medal.

He’s not counting his chickens, though. The woman has a perpetually cagey look in her eye; even when she’s acting relaxed (because he’s sure it’s all an act) her eyes are in constant motion, watching exits, counting heads, like she’s behind enemy lines.

On their first mission they travel with three other agents to Hat Yai and prevent a terrorist bombing at the Merridian Hotel. Clint takes out a half dozen separatists from the roof of a hospital across the street, and watches as his new partner intercepts the would-be bombers and beats them into submission with little apparent regard for her own safety. Sanchez disarms the bomb, Coulson tells them to rendezvous in a park behind the Natural History Museum, and Clint pretends not to be surprised when Romanoff shows up, uninjured and unruffled.

Second mission: Pristina, Kosovo. Just the two of them this time, running surveillance on a meeting between a SHIELD CI named Zsanett and the head of one of the local crime families. They’re supposed to make sure Zsanett isn’t ‘oversharing’, and take him into custody if he is. Romanoff gets into the back room of the restaurant – with a little help from a pair of four-inch heels and a flawless Albanian dialect – and plants the bugs. Zsanett behaves himself, orders proja with yogurt, and everyone goes home happy.

They have a layover across the Adriatic in San Marino. Romanoff leaves the safehouse a little after midnight but doesn’t seem to have a destination in mind; he follows her from the rooftops as she wanders around the city for a while, finally circling back to the house, and Clint pretends to have been waiting for her. He teaches her gin rummy and tells her a little about the circus life. She smiles twice; one of those times she means it.

Third: Buenos Aires. A wealthy antiquities collector named Morneau is claiming that he has discovered a century-old map to an ‘ancient power source of unimaginable magnitude’, and SHIELD wants to get a look at it. He’s a stubborn son of a bitch, though, and arranging things through official channels hasn’t worked. Natasha – he’s started thinking of her as ‘Natasha’ in his mind, although never out loud – assumes Coulson wants her to sleep with Morneau in order to get access to the innermost sanctum of his mansion. Coulson gives her a look that is half confusion and half pained sympathy and introduces her to a special little cocktail of drugs that will have Morneau happily blabbing every secret he’s ever held.

Natasha ‘meets’ Morneau at a club, gets invited back to his place, and slips him the mickey as instructed. Coulson shows up and manages the interrogation; the map points to some place in Norway, Clint thinks, and Coulson seems disappointed.

They spend some time at SHIELD’s HQ in Cordoba. It’s nice being around other agents again, but when Natasha asks him to spar with her he agrees, even though hand-to-hand isn’t really his thing. He thinks she’s probably going pretty easy on him until he makes the mistake of bringing up Buenos Aires. He tells her ‘you don’t have to do that kind of stuff anymore’ and wakes up an hour later in the infirmary.

Fourth: Veracruz. (No hard feelings about Cordoba; he needs to learn to keep his mouth shut and she’s still claiming it was an accident anyway.) It’s a protection detail with two other agents, looking after a couple in SHIELD’s witness protection after their identity has been leaked to the wrong people. Natasha is inserted as a nanny for the couple’s six-month old son and Clint talks her through a diaper change over comms.

The family is relocated to Orizaba three days later without incident. Afterwards he buys her a beer and they laugh about the whole thing, and she admits that Cordoba wasn’t an accident, and he tells her, “Yeah, I know.”

Fifth: Montreal. Natasha’s meeting with a potential asset who wants to turn himself over to SHIELD’s custody – and protection – but it turns out to be a set-up. There are five guys with guns and Clint kills two of them before they can get off a shot but then he loses track of both his partner and the asset for fifteen excruciating minutes. When the smoke clears – literally, because she set fire to the bar – the remaining gunmen are dead, the asset is secured… and Natasha has a contusion on her temple, two burned fingers, and a gunshot wound in her side.

Clint patches her up as best as he can while they wait for extraction; he slips up, calls her ‘Natasha’, and she lets it pass.

They’re flown back across the border and Natasha ends up spending five days in a SHIELD-controlled hospital in upstate New York. The doctors are more worried about the head injury than the burns, which are minor, and the gunshot wound, which was only a graze.

Clint visits her (he hates hospitals but he thinks it’s his duty as her partner) and she spends the whole time looking puzzled and uncomfortable, as though she’s confused about why he’s there and wishing he weren’t. Every time he starts coming up with a reason to leave, though, she starts talking again. She apologizes for getting hurt and he laughs but she’s serious, and she tells him – in slow, halting sentences – how working with a partner in ‘the old days’ had meant taking responsibility for the other person’s mistakes. If one screwed up, the other would be disciplined. It was supposed to encourage accountability, she says. Clint points out that she completed the mission – the asset is under SHIELD security now whether he likes it or not – but she seems to take her injuries as evidence of personal weakness.

He tries to set her mind at ease by showing off the various scars he’s picked up over the years, beginning with the innocuous ones on hands and feet and then legs and arms and he’s fully prepared to take off his shirt to show her the ugly one just below his collarbone when a nurse walks by and gives him an incredulous look. Natasha stifles a laugh and says, reprovingly, “Clint,” so he keeps the shirt on. It’s the first time she’s ever called him anything except ‘Agent’ or, if she was feeling particularly friendly, ‘Barton’, but he doesn’t make a big deal about it and she doesn’t seem to have even noticed the slip.

It’s a couple of weeks before she’s deemed well enough to go back out into the field. Coulson asks if he’d like to work with someone else in the meantime. Clint hates downtime, but he says he’ll wait. SHIELD rarely makes their partnership assignments exclusive, but the idea of running an op with anyone else somehow feels like a betrayal. Coulson admits that Clint has been due for some time off anyway, and leaves it at that.

Sixth: Macau. They’re impersonating a husband and wife team who are representing a potential buyer of some nasty AIM tech. The ‘husband’ was supposed to be Coulson, while Clint hacked into the hotel’s closed circuit system and served as their eyes in the sky, but at the last moment Fury had sent Coulson somewhere urgent and unspecified. Agent Morse is now their computer person and spends most of the flight to China whispering about how she doesn’t think Agent Romanoff likes her. Clint mutters that he doesn’t think Agent Romanoff really likes anyone.

They walk the floor of the Casino Lisboa arm in arm, although Natasha is frostier than usual and Clint thinks she might have overheard what he said to Morse. They’re approaching the entrance to the private room where the meeting is to be held when her grip suddenly tightens, and Clint sees a grizzled man at the door giving Natasha a curious look.

“That’s Christopher Artemiev,” warns Morse over their comms. The name doesn’t mean anything to Clint but it obviously does to Natasha, because she tugs him slightly to the left so that they walk past the room instead of into it, slipping into a current of casino floor traffic: suited gamblers and half-dressed waitresses and dissipated men with blank expressions and empty pockets.

“He’s following you,” says Morse.

Natasha’s grip tightens again, almost painfully. “Are we made?” Clint whispers into her ear.

“I don’t know,” she whispers back. “He… I haven’t seen him since I was a girl.”

They pass the slot machines, pass the card tables, pass a young couple locked in a celebratory clinch, and Clint gets an idea that is possibly the worst idea he’s ever had: he pulls Natasha into the shadowy area behind a rather ostentatious marble statue of Lady Luck, pressing her up against the wall, hiding her face and most of her form behind his own body, hoping that his dark suit will blend into the dark walls and that Artemiev will pass them unaware. Natasha seems to think he has something else in mind, though, and before he can protest her arms are wrapped around his neck, her lips pressed hard against his, and he notices – dully, as though he’s having some kind of out of body experience – that while her technique is excellent there is no passion in the kiss, no heat.

Then she pulls back and whispers, “I think he’s gone.”

There’s complete silence from Morse’s end of the comm as she waits to see exactly how Clint is about to die, and he opens his mouth to explain, but Natasha shakes her head and pulls him from the shadows, all business. “Come on, we need to get out of here before he comes back.”

Morse spends most of the flight back from Asia staring at Clint as though she’s just watched him put his head into a lion’s mouth while wearing a meat helmet. (Clint knew a guy in the circus who did that as part of his act, but now’s not the time to be reminiscing about the old days.)

Natasha sits at the other end of the cabin, reading a book, although sometimes she looks up at him and their eyes meet, and her expression is challenging.

All things considered, he’d prefer the lion.

 

(Now)

Hanna Karpenka kisses Gabe Bishop and I hover somewhere in the shadows, eager to be overlooked but not willing to fade away completely.

I am worried that the kiss will awaken some memory, either of Macau or New York, but I have underestimated Natasha’s ability to divorce her mind from her body.

“Listen,” says the man calling himself Gabe Bishop – I’m wary of identifying him, even to myself – “do you want to go somewhere else?” He smirks and nods at the dinner tent. “I think I’m pretty much over this.”

Natasha smiles. It’s a coy, seductive smile that masks her genuine pleasure; it’s always nice when a mark does the hard work for you. Not that it’s ever been very difficult for her to get men to play her game. Still, some require more leading by the nose than others. “I’ve got a room at the Valley Suites,” she whispers, leaning in close to be heard over the sound of the fountain.

Bishop doesn’t hesitate. “I’m at the Muir, just up the road. It’s got one hell of a mini-bar,” he adds, flashing a brief grin.

Natasha doesn’t care where they go; she just needs to get him alone to interrogate him about Witten. “Ooh, big spender,” she teases, resting her hand on his thigh. “No one else is going to be dropping by… expecting you to share, are they? The mini-bar, I mean,” she adds saucily.

He seems momentarily nonplussed by the placement of her hand, but replies with a nervous little chuckle that sounds positively genuine. “Definitely not. We may need to call a cab, though. I came with a friend and…”

“That’s no problem,” says Natasha. “We can take my car.”

 

(28)

They leave through the gate beneath the knowing glances of the security guards. They aren’t expected to go through the metal detector on the way out, so Clint doesn’t know for sure whether Natasha is armed, but if he had to guess he’d go with definitely.

The awkwardness of the dinner has nothing on this moment. The walk from the gate to the street seems miles long, and he is painfully aware of how close Natasha is, of the smell of her perfume and the way her hand sometimes brushes lightly against his suited back. He’s anxious about what’s to come, aroused even though he knows he shouldn’t be, and uncertain as to why she’s so willing to leave with him. Natasha doesn’t do anything without a reason.

She thinks I worked for the Institute. He’d taken a risk, confirming that, but it seemed like it had been the correct answer. Witten never showed up. Now she’s looking for someone who might know where he is. It’s a reasonable assumption as any, even if making assumptions might just get him killed.

The street is quiet, lined on both sides with BMWs and Hummers and muscle cars, another way for the dinner guests to proclaim their superiority over one another. The eucalyptus trees, trimmed with their strands of twinkling white lights, are the only illumination, aside from a couple of sodium vapor street lamps half a block away.

“Down here,” says Natasha – Hanna, don’t even think of her anything except Hanna – and she leads him down the row of cars, away from the nearest lamp, and he figures that if she’s planning on killing him she’s going to have a pretty easy time of it, but when she digs into her little black handbag she comes up with nothing more dangerous than a set of keys. She hits a button on the fob and two headlights give an answering flash.

Clint looks up, momentarily distracted by the sight of the candy apple-red Camero convertible. “Wow, that’s… nice.” He moves automatically towards the driver’s door and then steps back, remembering his manners, remembering how long it took before she trusted him enough to let him get behind the wheel.

She gives him a funny look, and he’s worried that he’s done or said something that strikes her as odd or suspicious, or – God forbid – something idiosyncratic enough that it will trip the trigger. But then she’s smiling again, walking towards him, holding out the keys, and before he can reach for them – or even think whether or not reaching for them is a good idea – her arms are around his neck and she’s kissing him again, more forcefully than before. He brings his hands up without conscious thought; the back of her dress is cut low and he can feel the bare skin beneath his palms.

Her lips taste like wine and he’s reminded, not of New York, but of Macau. Her technique is still excellent and the kiss itself is enthusiastic, but there’s still no heat in it. There’s still no passion. Maybe it’s only because he knows what to look for, maybe it’s just because he has something to compare to, maybe no other red-blooded man would spare a moment’s consideration, but he knows; this is the kiss of a woman doing her job.

New York, he realizes, had been different. She had been flushed and gasping; she had embraced him not just with desire but with longing, with affection. She had teased him and writhed against him… and she had been hurt when he walked away. That had been Natasha; his Natasha.

And what was she now?

Hanna Karpenka? No, that woman was just makeup and a pretty dress. Natalia Romanova? That name had headed Fury’s dossier on the Black Widow once, just one name among many, before she had decided – she gave him a different reason every time he asked why, so he had stopped asking – to Americanize her surname, to become Agent Romanoff, agent of SHIELD, and eventually Natasha, and Nat, and sometimes just Tasha.

But now she is none of these people, none of these things, just the shell that managed to survive Fisher’s ministrations, and suddenly it’s difficult to kiss her, hard to act like he’d be happy to pull up her skirt and screw her against the side of the Camero, because he knows to her he’s just a stranger and, to him, she’s worse than that.

He wants to cry in relief when she finally pulls away, pressing the keys into his hand. “Why don’t you drive?” She doesn’t wait for his answer, just gives his ass a squeeze and then slides into the passenger’s seat, and then he’s standing in the spangled darkness with maybe ten, fifteen seconds to compose himself before he gets behind the wheel.

 

(29)

Christiane Jacobs, huddled face-down on the cold ground, tries to remain positive. Her night isn’t going very well, but so far it’s going better than Bruno Witten’s.

It’s pitch black here amongst the trees and she can’t see her watch, but it seems like they’ve already been here for hours. Her, and the lady assassin, and the man called ‘Captain’… who is either Steve Rogers, the Captain America, or else his twin brother.

She thinks ‘it’s a Mexican standoff’, even though she’s not Mexican and she’s not even sure what the phrase means; it’s just one of the things Morris used to say – like ‘in like Flynn’ and ‘all show and no go’ – and it just sort of stuck with her. She hasn’t seen Morris for years (he and Mom had split when Chris was still in high school) but he’s still about the closest thing she’s known to a father and he creeps into her thoughts at the strangest times.

Like when she’s lying in the middle of a eucalyptus grove with a superhero and a murderer and the dead body of a client.

There’s a scuffle and something bumps against her and she almost screams, realizing at the last moment that it’s only the captain. He’s left his hiding spot behind the big tree to join her here on the ground, and she wonders what it means that the assassin didn’t even bother trying to shoot at him. “I want you to get back to the gate,” he whispers. “Stay low, stay quiet. See if one of the guards has a phone.”

“I have a phone,” Chris whispers back. It’s a little one, tucked into her bra, but she doesn’t mention that. Wasn’t he from, like, a hundred years ago? Back then women didn’t talk about their bras, she’s pretty sure. “Do you want me to call the cops?” She’s not thrilled about the idea, really; there are a lot of cops in Mill Valley who know her by sight. Most of them are pretty live and let live – they like that she’s not out walking the streets at all hours and that she stays away from the crack heads – but then there’s the ones who don’t care, who don’t see the difference between prostitute and escort.

The captain hesitates. Even without seeing his face Chris can tell he’s not in love with the idea of cops, either. “No,” he says finally. “Have the operator connect you to Stark Industries in New York. Give them my name. Steve Rogers. They can put you through to SHIELD. Tell them where we are. Tell them we need support. Do you have all that?”

“Stark Industries, Steve Rogers, SHIELD,” says Chris breathlessly. In the back of her mind she’s already composing a really epic tweet about all of this.

Rogers scoots back towards her feet, giving her a clear path towards the gate and the party. She can still hear music and voices, very faintly, but it all sounds like it’s a million miles away. “Remember, stay low,” says Captain Rogers.

“What if she follows me?” Chris whispers, really scared for the first time. She doesn’t like the idea of being alone in the dark woods, with so many things to trip over or run into, with the assassin somewhere behind her and maybe out to kill all of them. She doesn’t want to end up like Bruno Witten.

“I’ll make sure she doesn’t,” the captain replies, and he sounds so confident, so steady, that she nods even though he knows he can’t see her and pushes herself up onto her hands and knees. No one tries to shoot her, and she thinks Stark Industries, Steve Rogers, SHIELD, moving slowly back towards civilization, and still thinking, even without really meaning to, of how to fit all of this into 144 characters.

 

(30)

Kamala hears movement, hears voices as whispers pass between Rogers and the unnamed woman. He’s the gallant type, she suspects, and is trying to get the noncombatant to safety before taking on his enemy. Kamala is tempted to pop off a couple shots in their direction, just for fun –the noise of her sound-suppressed handgun won’t carry all the way to the party – but there’s too much chance that Rogers will feel obligated to return fire.

She’s already made her plans, if it comes to that. He’s big but she’s fast, and she has a good memory for the layout of trees and stones and undergrowth between her position and the access road. Once she’s made it to the cars she can either wait for him to emerge from the woods and pick him off, or she can slash his tires and drive away.

Right now, she’s thinking of opting for the latter. She’s tired, it’s been a long day, and besides, it doesn’t seem right that a man like Rogers should live through World War Two, survive decades in the Arctic ice, and come through an alien invasion unscathed only to die on a lonely little road in California, all because he harbors some misplaced notion of responsibility.

She isn’t precisely sure what fate would have to say on the matter, but if she doesn’t have to kill him, she won’t.

She’s listening very hard for any clue that Rogers is on the move, straining her senses into the darkness, and maybe because of that the sudden, tremendous crash that comes from behind her – between her position and the access road – makes her jump half out of her skin. The trees around her seem to shudder with the impact and she drops, looking frantically in all directions and seeing nothing but the black-on-black of trunks and bows and quivering leaves.

“What, you didn’t bring backup?” yells Rogers, and then she hears something else: a hydraulic hiss, a metallic clatter, and another laughing voice that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. She thinks Stark even though it doesn’t seem possible; she’d done her homework on the Gulfstream, concerned about the other so-called Avengers lending Rogers and Barton a hand, but everything had pointed to Stark still being in Europe and Banner in Miami.

“I’m gonna guess that’s a no,” says that other voice, Stark’s voice, echoing weirdly through his suit speakers, and Kamala decides that this is more than even the most devoted scholar of fate can be expected to deal with. She turns and runs, not back towards the access road – it seems that Stark must be blocking her way – but to her right, towards the main street. Unfortunately this is all unfamiliar terrain, and she stumbles and trips, rebounding off trees and scratching her face on low-hanging limbs.

She’s making such a racket that she doesn’t even hear her pursuer until it’s too late; she turns, gun raised, expecting to see red metal and bright lights, but the figure that takes her to the ground is dressed in a gray suit. They hit hard and the air is knocked from her lungs even as the gun is torn from her grip, and she doesn’t understand, not at all. Kolar to Bangalore to Brasillia to Villavicencio; it was never meant to end like this.

 

(31)

True to his word, Bishop’s hotel is only about five minutes away. It would have been less if he drove like her.

She’s surprised, because most men presented with a sports car and enticed with the promise of sex would drive like a bat out of hell, but he scrupulously follows the posted speed limit and slows at yellow lights instead of bombing through them.

The only time he breaks the law is when he takes out his cell phone at a red light. It’s a cheap little thing, one of the older prepaid models that are frequently used as disposable lines. Not the kind of phone she would expect a successful doctor to have.

He sees her watching as he sends a one-handed text. “Figured I should let my buddy know I found my own ride,” he smiles, slipping the phone back into his jacket pocket as the light turns green.

Natasha feels a sudden flush of guilt for leaving Aten at the party, especially since she doesn’t seem like the kind of girl who could coax a drive home out of a complete stranger. It feels a little strange, too, not having a way to communicate with her when they’ve been so close the past few days. But Aten has done her job, she’s identified the target (or at least a reasonable alternative) and Natasha will handle the rest. They can meet up back at the Valley Suites when the job is done.

They drive, of course, with the top down. The wind tugs at Natasha’s chignon; she smells the sea and the early summer warmth radiating off the pavement and also the acrid tang of ozone, as though from an approaching storm, although the sky is clear.

They don’t speak. Natasha has far from exhausted her own supply of small-talk, and she considers whispering a few choice thoughts in Bishop’s ear to see if that translates to the speedometer, but she knows how to read a mark and she thinks that he’ll get more out of her silence than her speech. He glances at her a couple of times and she pretends not to notice.

The Muir is a big, rambling turn-of-the-century place set back from the road and surrounded by close-growing horse chestnuts. Bishop’s room is on the first of three floors, with a tiled patio in place of an upper-story balcony, and a private entrance through a side gate. He unlocks the door with an old-fashioned key – obviously this place is more into nostalgia than security – and ushers her inside, his hand warm against her bare back.

The room is not much larger than her suite but more richly appointed. Natasha catalogs her surroundings in the blink of an eye: sofa, coffee table, TV cabinet, writing desk and chair. Phone on the desk, mirror on one wall, pastel print on another. Across the room: a shallow kitchen nook, with sink, microwave and mini-fridge. A door stands ajar and she catches a glimpse of a bed, a nightstand, a lamp. Every item, every detail, every piece of furniture is a potential weapon or a potential impediment.

Bishop walks to the kitchen, shrugging out of his suit jacket as he goes, and begins rummaging through the fridge with single-minded purpose. Natasha perches on the sofa and watches him carefully, but all he brings out are a couple small bottles stamped with a familiar logo. He holds them up with a questioning look; she nods and smiles.

When he looks away she takes the opportunity to unstrap the holster from her leg and tuck the gun deep between the cushions; if he puts his hand up her skirt, she doesn’t want him to find anything that might ruin the moment.

The fact is, Natasha realizes, watching Bishop pour the vodka into two cheap glass tumblers, that she wants him to put his hand up her skirt. And she doesn’t want him to stop there.

She could have knocked him out the moment they were inside the room, the second he turned his back to flip the light switch. He would have awoken tied to the straight-backed armchair and, eventually, would have told her everything she needed to know about Witten.

The mission is the mission and the mark is just a mark, and sex is just a tool that she uses when she has to, only when she has to, because generally speaking there’s nothing she enjoys about having a sweaty stranger on top of her, groaning and groping. Each part of her body is a weapon and there is a time and a place for the use of every blade; the Red Room taught her that.

But something about Bishop has the blood thrumming in her veins, and as he joins her on the sofa she finds that she’s silently reasoning with herself: it’s not necessary but it won’t compromise the mission, she can knock him out afterwards…

He hands Natasha the tumbler and she drinks deep, heedless of the risk; she heard the seal break on both bottles but he could have spiked the vokda with something afterwards. He drinks as well, watching her over the top of his own glass, wincing just slightly as he swallows, silent and attentive. It’s as though he’s anticipating something as surely as she is; only she’s certain they’re not waiting for the same thing.

She expects his hands on her body, eager against the zipper of her dress, his vodka-flavored lips on hers, but even though she can see the tale-tell signs of arousal broadcast by his body he makes no move to touch her.

So she touches him.

She finishes her drink, puts it down, and slides wordlessly into his lap, plucking the tumbler from his hand and leaning back to set it on the table. His breath quickens and she can feel him hard against her thigh, although not as hard as she wants him to be, needs him to be, so she goes up on her knees long enough to hike her skirt up around her waist.

Then she kisses him, and this time there is no reluctance on his part, just wanton desire as he thrusts his tongue between her parted lips, one hand pulling her hair free from its loosened chignon, the other stroking her bare leg just below the hip, callused fingers skimming beneath the rucked-up skirt.

Natasha gasps into his open mouth, grinding down on him, and she feels the hand on her leg drift up to brush against her breasts instead.

She’s lost in the moment – completely, uncharacteristically lost – her focus on his mouth and the stubborn clasp of his belt buckle and the sudden, impossible memory of his hands on her wrists and his voice – not like this – so it takes her a second before she realizes that he’s not fondling her, he’s reaching into his jacket, his hand closing on something that she’s certain isn’t his phone…

Natasha breaks the kiss and tries to lunge to her left, towards the hidden gun, but her body suddenly locks up, stiff and unresponsive; she thinks that Bishop must have done something to her but somehow she knows he’s as surprised as she is. She can’t feel anything, not the cushions beneath her knees or his body between her thighs; she sucks in a rattling breath and hears a voice, a woman’s voice; Aten’s voice. “Do it now, Clint."

And as sensation rushes back like a sucking tide he moves, wide-eyed, producing something small and sharp from his jacket pocket. She tries to fight him but her movements are slow, sluggish, and she can only watch as the tip of the needle slides beneath her skin.

 

(32)

Clint’s stomach is full of a nauseous, twisting heat. He can’t blame the vodka.

He carries the unconscious Natasha to the metal-framed chair at the writing desk, pulls down her skirt, and carefully arranges her limbs. There are some plastic zip ties in his duffle (they’ve come all the way from Kenya, where he used a couple to truss up the carjacker) and he uses these to secure her wrists and ankles to the chair. He forces himself to pull each one as tight as he would if she was anybody else, because he can hear Natasha’s voice, a memory in the back of his mind – you’re not being chivalrous, you’re being chauvinistic, and I’m surprised it hasn’t gotten you killed yet – and Coulson’s shoulders shaking in silent laughter.

Her head lolls forward, blonde hair hanging over her closed eyes.

Clint tosses the used tranq dart on the table and sits down heavily on the sofa, burying his face in his hands. He is now – briefly – in sympathy with some of the marks he’s watched Natasha take in over the years, when at the time he had felt only contempt and a little disgust for how willingly, how freely, they walked into her web.

Now he knows from first-hand experience how persuasive she can be. He had known that she was playing him, had known the whole time, and still he had been intensely tantalized… he can still feel her weight on his lap, taste the warmth of her mouth…

And then the nausea rears up again, because how can he be so turned on when he knows full well that she wasn’t herself, she wasn’t in control, was doing this because she was told to do it…?

The ampuls of 13A-10R still sit in their little metal box, inside the mini-fridge. He hadn’t brought any of the drug with him to the party, only the two remaining darts from Manesh’s gun, which were made mostly of a hard plastic resin that hadn’t tripped the metal detectors. They can use one of the deconstructed darts to deliver the drug, in the absence of a syringe, but not yet. Not yet.

He takes out his prepaid phone and dials Rogers’ number, simultaneously pulling the laptop out from under the sofa and checking the dropbox. It’s empty; somehow, he isn’t surprised.

Rogers answers on the fifth ring, sounding worried and a little breathless, and Clint when demands, “Where are you?” he’s surprised by the anger in his voice.

“We had a little… problem,” says Rogers.

Clint’s watching Natasha closely for any sign that she’s beginning to stir; intoxicants have never seemed to work on her quite like other people and there’s no reason not to think the same of sedatives. At her full strength he’s sure that she could escape his restraints in a manner of moments. “I waited as long as I could…”

“Witten’s dead.”

“What?” He can’t pretend to feel very badly about this, but a terrible idea presents itself. “Was it… Aten?” Was all of this some kind of elaborate distraction? It seems ridiculous, but…

“It was Manesh,” says Rogers wearily. “She must have evaded SHIELD… followed us from Colombia. I… I thought I was getting Witten to safety, like we discussed, but… she was waiting for us.”

“But how…”

“I’ll tell you later. Do you have Agent Romanoff?”

Clint grabs the tranq gun from the top of the television cabinet and loads the remaining regular dart. The last time he saw Manesh she had been face-down on the floor of the lab, unconscious; when SHIELD arrived he had assumed she would be taken into custody along with Fisher and her other goons. Her ability to escape seems to indicate that the sedative is not terribly strong. “Yeah. We’re back at the Muir. She’s secure, but… I haven’t used the drug yet.”

Rogers is silent for a long moment. “So she didn’t…”

“Recognize me? No.” Except for just now. ‘Do it now, Clint.’ He doesn’t know how to explain that, even to himself, so he doesn’t bring it up. “Just… get back here, okay? If she wakes up… I’m going to need your help.”

Rogers is quiet again, as though maybe he realizes what it’s cost Clint to say those words, to admit that he can’t do this alone. And it’s not just about keeping Natasha physically contained, which Rogers can do far better than he if the sedative isn’t effective.

Clint has got to administer the drug, not because he’s put all his trust in this mysterious Aten but because he’s now seen the evidence with his own eyes. He’s seen what they’ve turned Natasha into. He’s got to make her remember, he’s desperate to do it, but if there’s even an outside chance that the informant is right, that it could trip the trigger, that it could kill her…

He’s got to do it, but he can’t, not by himself.

“I’ll be right there,” says Rogers quietly.

Chapter Text

PART TEN

(Before)

The director informs Natasha that she will be working with Agent Barton for the foreseeable future.

It’s not explicitly a threat, but she takes it as one anyway. Fury knows she’s in Barton’s debt; Fury knows that she’ll behave herself for Barton’s sake, if not her own.

Dolg platezhom krasen.  Debt is beautiful only after it has been repaid.

They go to Hat Yai on a tip: revolutionaries, bombs, the hotel. Natasha sees half a dozen things they could do better but she keeps her opinions to herself. There are three other agents and she can feel their eyes on her. She feels Barton’s eyes, as well, but somehow his gaze has a different touch. When the mission is successful, when she walks into the clearing behind the museum to join the others, he does his level best to hide his shock.

Kosovo is next. Barton sets the parameters but lets her take the lead. She walks away from him, towards the restaurant, and she knows that she could just keep going: past the building, into the heart of Pristina, into darkness. But she can’t. She can’t. She doesn’t.

In San Marino the walls of the safehouse seem to loom above her and around her, constricting, constraining, and she walks out into the night to escape them for a time. No one tries to stop her; they don’t need to, not when they can hold her debt hostage. She walks and walks but eventually she comes back, as she’s always known she must, and Barton is waiting for her by the door to her room. She freezes when she sees him, wondering what he expects, but he’s come bearing only playing cards and an attempt at camaraderie. He makes her smile and she hates herself for it.

When Agent Coulson tells them about Morneau and his map Natasha knows her time has come. She’s proven herself twice now – proven that she’ll take orders, proven that she’ll come back – and now they want to see what else she can do. But she’s wrong, or at least that’s what they tell her; all they want is for her to get close enough to spike his drink. She’s forgotten that she’s not a lone operative any longer, expected to do what must be done without complaint, without compunction; there are other people, now, and resources she has barely even imagined. Still, Natasha is faintly embarrassed by their obvious pity and, somehow, a little disgruntled. Every part of her body is a tool.

She makes sure to remind Barton of that, in Cordoba, but she hits him harder than she had intended – too distracted by her confusion and a sense of powerlessness – and he’s taken to the infirmary, unconscious. When people ask she tells them that it was all an accident, which is only partly the truth, but Barton must back her up because she is never disciplined.

In Veracruz she goes in undercover for the first time with SHIELD, really undercover, with a fake name and a real mission. The people that they’re protecting know who she is, of course, and are thankful their son will be safe in her care, but the whole matter is so far outside her realm of experience that she hardly knows what to say to them. It’s Barton’s voice, over their comm, that keeps her calm and focused.

After the family is moved safely to Orizaba he takes her to Cantina La Escondida. She tells him that Cordoba wasn’t an accident and he says “Yeah, I know” and buys her a beer. She doesn’t really like beer but she drinks it anyway, and they talk about Veracruz and laugh a few times and she realizes with a start that she must look like one of those people she used to watch with such envy, such loathing. A woman sharing a drink with a friend, happy and carefree.

It scares the hell out of her.

The chaos in Montreal is almost a relief. She doesn’t realize how badly she’s hurt until she drags the asset back to Barton’s position in the warehouse; the look in his eyes when he sees her just makes the pain worse. He radios in, handcuffs the howling asset to a pipe, and makes her lay on the ground while he looks over her injuries. Her head is killing her but the blood gushing from her side can’t be good either, and she watches him numbly as he tears through their first aid kit, rips open a packet of gauze and holds it to the wound. She wants so badly to close her eyes, to drift away from everything, but he says “Stay with me, Natasha,” and the sound of her name on his lips brings her back to herself.

She apologizes in New York and he pretends not to understand. She tries to explain and sees that pity in his eyes again, that pity that she hates, as if he’s the one who knows how the world really works and not her. She knows, knows, that an operative who allows herself to get hurt is not an operative who can be trusted, but he claims a score of injuries on a dozen different missions; he shows her the scars, white lines and rough flesh, and each one somehow makes his body more compelling. When he goes to continue the demonstration beneath his shirt and is interrupted by an annoyed nurse, she’s so busy trying not to laugh aloud that she calls him by his first name. It’s an accident, a slip, but she sees the grin flash across his face.

In Macau she kisses him, and it’s just because of Artemiev (who sometimes brought girls in, new recruits, and more often than not liked to sample the wares) but she can tell he’s unhappy about it. Is he thinking of other men she’s kissed? Is the pity she hates in his eyes only masking contempt, disgust?

When they return to New York, Coulson comes to see her. He asks if she’s ready for a change, if she’d like to work with someone else. She feels a stabbing sensation in the vicinity of her heart and manages, “Is that what he wants?”

“Barton?” asks Coulson, looking surprised. “No, of course not. It’s just that Agent Morse’s report…”

“Then no,” says Natasha curtly; relief has made her brusque. “Agent Barton and I work well together. I have an… understanding with him.”

A smile ghosts across Coulson’s face. “I’m glad someone does,” he says, as though that should mean something to her.

 

(Now)

The sound of a door closing brings me up out of the darkness, as though a door has been closed in my mind as well. The feel of restraints at my wrists and ankles is almost enough to make me want to cry: from relief, and also from fear at the impending end.

I open my eyes, raise my head. It hurts. I get a glimpse of my reflection, her reflection, in a nearby mirror, but even that can’t hold my attention for long.

Clint is sitting on the edge of the table, staring at me with hungry desperation, and Steve is nearby, arms crossed and expression guarded.

The sight of Rogers nearly undoes me completely. He had help, I think, bowing my head as I’m briefly overcome with gratitude. It’s a sort of balm, an answered prayer, a comfort to know that the task I set him wasn’t one he had to undertake alone.

So many of us think we have to be alone.

“Natasha…”

I smile wanly, looking up again. I’m exhausted, a combination of the sedative coursing through my veins, lack of rest, and my recent exertion. We took a terrible risk; I’m certain she would have shot Clint if I hadn’t intervened. “Not exactly,” I tell him, my voice hoarse and trembling.

Steve speaks. Names me. “You’re Aten.”

I try to smile again but I’m afraid that this time it is more of a grimace.

Clint is aghast. “What?”

“Something Manesh said made it click,” says the captain gravely. “She asked how we knew about the ‘A-10 protocol’.”

I nod slowly; the movement makes me dizzy. “It was one of the first things… I ever heard. When she asked who I was… it was the first thing I thought of.”

“When who asked?” demands Clint, his brow creasing.

“Natasha,” says Steve softly, and I nod again.

Clint stares between the two of us. “I don’t understand…”

“They thought it would be easy,” I say as the room revolves crazily, as Clint’s perplexed, anguished face swims before me. “Witten. Fisher. They thought it would be easy… to break her down… cut out what they didn’t want, throw in the trigger for good measure. They knew how often she had been… unmade and remade as a child… they thought it had softened her up. But they were wrong.” I grip the armrests beneath my hands. “The human brain… is an amazingly resilient thing. And the mind… it learns. They tried to erase those years, wipe out those memories, but they couldn’t. Instead… they went into hiding. Or… safekeeping. Behind a wall, a mental block. And they might have come back on their own… naturally, eventually… except…”

“The trigger,” says Clint, dawning horror twisting his expression.

I bob my head, half in acknowledgement, half in mounting fatigue. “If those memories had come back… they would have broken the injunction. Killed her. The human brain… it’s very resilient. It’s also very determined to survive. At all costs.”

Clint scrubs a hand over his face. He looks tired as well, overwhelmed by the impossible truth. “You… Natasha doesn’t know…” He squints, trying to see me as someone else.

“That I don’t exist outside of her own head?” I chuckle weakly. “No. We can communicate, sometimes, and I can use her body when she’s asleep.”

Steve’s brow furrows. “Is that what’s happening now?”

“To a degree. The tranquilizer is… disorienting. But I’m also keeping her down.” I look at Clint. I want him to understand why I didn’t do more. “I’ve never been able to take control before… not unless she let me. I didn’t even know that I could…”

The three of us lapse into silence. I can feel Natasha’s consciousness stirring, frustrated and bewildered, still blind and deaf. She is behind the wall now, although I don’t know how much longer I can keep her there.

“What happens next?” asks Steve.

“You know,” I tell him, closing my eyes. My temples are pounding with the strain, and the room seems too bright. “You need to administer the drug before she wakes up. Things have already started to leak back in. Certain memories… of Frankfurt… other things.” When I open my eyes there is an awful, fragile hope stirring in Clint’s face. “Too much and it’ll trip the trigger,” I snap. “Brain death would be a best case scenario, then. You need to believe me.”

But he does not seem inclined to disbelief. “And then what happens?” he asks, a touch eager, although I see how his hands are fisted on his knees. There is anger as well. “What happens to everything ‘behind the wall’? Will it keep… leaking back?”

“It might,” I say slowly. “Or it might be trapped back there. I don’t know, Clint.”

He flinches at the sound of his name, sitting back.

“What happens to you?” asks Steve.

For the first time I feel tears prickling behind my eyes. “I imagine I’ll die,” I reply, in the steadiest voice I can manage, forcing a hard laugh when Clint jumps to his feet. “Not this body. Just… me. Don’t feel too bad,” I tell them. “I’ve only been alive for about a week… and I never was a whole person to begin with. I have her memories - most of them - but everything else… There are gaps. There always will be.”

I take a shuddering breath; she is stirring again, more desperately this time, like a snared animal instinctively prepared to maim itself in order to escape the trap. “If I wanted to live - really wanted to - I never would have sent you the message in the first place.” I feel myself shaking, shuddering. “Clint, you’ve got to do it.”

He flinches again but sits, hands still clenched, tone pleading. “You’re talking about you… about leaving her like she is now. About possibly losing the last five years of her life.”

“I’m talking about saving her life,” I correct him, wincing at the pain in my head. I don’t mind the pain. I welcome it. I think maybe it’ll be easier to let go if letting go is the way to peace. “It’ll be quick. Fisher… she told Witten it was almost instantaneous. And then it’ll be safe. To help her remember."

There’s another minute of aching silence, and then Clint turns his head towards Steve without really looking at him. “I… I can’t…”

“I’ll do it,” says the captain quietly, and he walks away.

For a moment it’s just us. Hawkeye and… well, not the Black Widow. Not all of her. I still feel that I can claim a piece of that title, though. I remember the honeysuckle and sweetbread and the smell of the approaching storm in Frankfurt. I remember his laughter in Orizaba and his slow breathing in Brussels and the feel of his chest beneath my cheek in New York.

I’m not the strongest part of her or the best, but at the moment maybe I’m the most honest.

“Witten’s dead, isn’t he?” I ask.

Clint nods, sliding forward, off the edge of the table and onto his knees in front of me. His eyes are etched with pain and he asks his question as a man afraid to hear the answer. “Did he ever… ever hurt you? Either of you?”

I wonder what Fisher might have showed him, what Manesh might have said, and anger briefly strengthens my resolve. “No,” I reply, watching some of the anguish drain from his face. “He wanted to. He tried. He came in the room when I… she was still groggy, confused. But I was waking up.” I manage a faint smile, savoring the memory, one that only belongs to me. “I punched him in the face… slammed him into a wall. He decided he wasn’t feeling that amorous… after all.”

Another tremor, stronger this time, runs through my limbs, and the breath feels forced from my lungs. She’s fighting me, fighting hard; she can feel that she’s bound, is sure that she’s in danger. “Natasha doesn’t even remember. Fisher saw, though. I might even be… what gave her the idea…”

The words trail away as I cry out – in pain, in fear, even though I wanted to be stronger than this – and Clint’s hands cover mine on the armrests as he calls for Steve to hurry…

“Clint?” And my voice is little more than a whisper now, but he’s close enough to hear it, to see the tears that fall onto the violet fabric. Are they only my tears? I can’t even tell any more. “She loved you. She could never say it, not even to herself, but… remember that. Remember it. It happened before. Just… just give her time.”

He squeezes my hands, his throat working soundlessly, and then Steve appears on the edges of my narrowing vision. And the last thing I feel, ever, is Clint’s breath against my ear, and I hear his voice, low and rough.

 

(33)

Steve steps back, the empty ampul in his hand, and watches Romanoff’s body go limp.

She’s still breathing, thank God; her heart’s still beating. Is it only his overactive imagination, then, that makes her seem diminished, somehow less than she was a minute ago?

Barton abruptly stands, backing away from his partner with the jerky, marionette-like movements of a man at war with himself. He pushes into the bedroom; a moment later the bathroom door closes, and there comes the sound of water pouring from the sink tap. If there are other sounds half-hidden behind the rush of water, they’re possible to ignore.

Steve looks down at Romanoff. At Natasha.

He doesn’t know her well. He doesn’t know her at all, compared to Barton. But whereas Barton had only seen what he was desperate to see, Steve had glimpsed the flicker of a stranger’s thoughts behind her eyes. Aten might have only been alive for a week, but she had still lived.

Steve is more anxious now than he had been in the eucalyptus grove half an hour ago, maybe because armed psychopaths and endangered civilians are things he has, unfortunately, become accustomed to, while this is different. He’s known sacrifice and pain and loss, as he told Barton once, seemingly a million years ago.

But not like this.

When Barton emerges from the bathroom a few moments later – collar wet, sleeves rolled up, eyes dry but suspiciously reddened – it’s to find Steve lowering Natasha onto the bed, her limbs limp and unrestrained.

“What are you doing?” Barton asks in a thick voice. “When she wakes up… she’s still not going to know…”

“You weren’t going to leave her like that,” Steve interjects, jerking his head towards the other room. “She could be out for hours,” he adds, and the truth hangs on the air, unspoken by either of them: or she might not wake up at all. They are meddling in the fantastic and the bizarre, after all. Nothing is certain.

There are red marks on Natasha’s wrists and ankles from the plastic zip ties that had secured her to the chair; there are more of those in Barton’s bag, but instead Steve pulls the silk tie from around his own neck and uses that to bind her hands. His knots are good, the fabric strong, but even Steve knows that they won’t foil the woman for long, not if she’s really determined to free herself.

Barton watches him blankly, exhaustion evident in every line of his body, and Steve says, “When she wakes up, if she still doesn’t… I’ll be able to stop her. You trust me, right?” he asks, suddenly hesitant.

Barton simply nods. “Did you check her for weapons?” he asks numbly. “I’d be shocked if she doesn’t have a gun.”

Steve feels himself flush. “I don’t know her that well… I thought maybe you…”

So Barton kneels on the edge of the bed and runs his hands across Natasha’s body – briskly, impersonally – and comes up with nothing. “Which means it’s in the other room somewhere,” he concludes, sitting back and rubbing his eyes. “Probably in the couch cushions, come to think of it.”

But neither of them moves to leave the room.

“SHIELD’s in town, aren’t they?” Barton asks in that same deadened tone.

Steve colors again. “I had to, after Witten… I didn’t know if the local authorities could handle Manesh.” Not that SHIELD had been able to handle Manesh in Colombia. “I left before they arrived, though. They don’t know where we are.”

“No,” says Barton softly, still watching Natasha sleep. “It’s okay. It’s just… I’m wondering if maybe we should call them.”

Steve frowns, surprised. “You know what they’ll do. They’ll cart her away for ‘observation’ and if it suits their purposes we’ll never see her again.”

“But if they can help her…”

“Do you really think they can? Even if they have Fisher in custody, would you trust her if she said she could help?”

Hope wars with common sense, and loses. “No,” sighs Barton.

“She needs rest,” Steve says heavily. “So do we. We’ll take watches in turn,” he adds when it looks like Barton is about to argue. “And we’ll give it until morning. If she hasn’t woken up by then… we’ll make a decision.”

Barton deliberates for a moment before nodding. “I’ll take the first watch.”

Steve is primed to disagree – if looks are any indication, Barton needs the sleep a lot more than he does – but he restrains himself. Barton’s a grown man. Besides, maybe there’s something he needs more than sleep.

Steve gestures to the front room “I’ll just… Call if you need me,” he says with a smile that dies halfway to his lips, and he leaves the bedroom, although he doesn’t close the door completely.

There’s a loaded handgun tucked down into the cushions on the left side of the sofa. Steve isn’t surprised in the slightest.

 

(34)

Clint sits there, listening to her breathing, and she’s only a few inches away but it feels more like a mile.

No. More than that. It feels like they’re separated by an ocean, (an ocean of time, as maudlin as that sounds) and on one shore there is everything they have been through together, everything they have been to each other; trust and debt and friendship and pain and –

- she loved you -

- and on the other shore there is nothing, just cold stone and barren sand, an alien landscape, bleak and inhospitable.

He moves back against the pillows and watches her sleep. It doesn’t feel strange or invasive; he’s done it before, on assignments. She doesn’t look innocent when she sleeps, she doesn’t look like she could be anyone but who she is, but she does look different. There’s a veil that comes down when she closes her eyelids, and over the course of their partnership he’s spent long, silent hours trying to determine the specifics.

He’s yet to come to any conclusions, but tonight certain questions ring in his head for the first time in more than five years.

Who are you? What do you really want? Why didn’t you kill me? Why couldn’t I kill you?

It’s quiet, much too quiet; he can hear the wind through the horse chestnuts and the faint sounds of passing traffic from the road below. He can hear Natasha’s breathing, even and regular, and the heavy, deep thud of his own heartbeats counting down the hours until morning.

He’s always liked silence, the hallmark of solitude – or what others unkindly call ‘isolation’ – but now, cast adrift, alone on his side of the ocean, that silence is a smothering blanket, oppressive and thick against his skin.

So he talks.

He speaks softly, although he doesn’t care if Rogers overhears. He doesn’t care about anything, suddenly, not about Witten’s murder or SHIELD’s presence or Manesh’s escape from Colombia. His career, his future, the lives and deaths of other people, are laughably trivial in his narrowed world. Is it really possible that a few days ago he was disgruntled about something as trifling, as foolish, as selfish, as being shunted off to Africa in purple spandex?

He talks.

He starts with Paris, with the last time he saw her, honey-haired and zebra-scarved, watching him over the top of her coffee cup. Fury’s not stupid enough to throw away two of his best assets. A light, Parisian kiss on the corner of his mouth. Be careful, Nat.

He works backwards. Milagro, Ecuador: deposed warlord with a foot fetish. Doha, Qatar: weapons traffickers holed up beneath a mosque. La Paz: rumors of smuggled Chitauri tech.

He rewinds the past, hop-scotching the globe in reverse.

Of course, it’s not just the missions, not anymore. It’s the time he taught her how to rock climb in Denver – he figured the skill might come in handy – and the time he got food poisoning in Singapore – not his favorite memory but somehow when she recounts the story it always seems kind of funny – and that twelve hour layover in Wadi Halfa they spent trying to distract each other from the oppressive heat by cataloging all the swear words they knew in all the languages they spoke.

It’s the bad haircut he got in Orlando and the song on the radio that made her cry and how he acted like he hadn’t seen and the way they’ve become intertwined in each other’s habits and hearts and lives.

And then he’s back in New York, and he doesn’t speak of the battle or Loki or his own hijacking, but of coming back to himself and finding her at his side, his gratefulness that she, at least, had been willing to do what needed doing. He speaks of the drive away from Central Park and the way she wouldn’t leave him to his own dark thoughts and whisky schemes, and the way it felt to put his arms around her, really around her, for the first time.

He knows the words aren’t eloquent but he doesn’t even hear them anymore, just the hum of his voice over the vacuum of silence. He feels it all pour out of him like water from a hose, like blood from a severed vein.

He is burdened by regrets and haunted by the things he doesn’t know.

But what he does know, he shares with her. Cities and names and details; he thinks Fury would be shocked by what he’s retained, and he’s a little surprised himself. He speaks to block the silence and to resurrect the fallen, to break through the barrier that ‘Aten’ had spoken of and make those memories exist somewhere in the world again, even if only in this room at this moment.

Maybe she can hear him. Maybe not.

It doesn’t matter, not now. Momentum carries him through. Two years back. Three. Vegas and Budapest and Saint George… sunburns and fast cars and three nights spent in a miserable swamp. Four. Tel Aviv and Bissau and Aleppo. (Their chopper went down in the middle of the desert.) Antwerp and Baghdad and Ulaanbaatar; they started an avalanche to slow down their pursuers and were almost snow blind by the time they made it to the evac point. Five. Kuala Lumpur and Abidjan and the night she vanished for Volgograd.

Back and back and back, racing in reverse through memories and milestones, holidays they didn’t bother observing and a couple they did; her birthday is guesswork but she’d picked a day and they’d celebrated her twenty-fifth, and she told him she’d never expected to live so long.

Macau and Montreal. Veracruz and Buenos Aires. Pristina and Hat Yai and Frankfurt. And his throat is dry and the words are gone, and the silence swells into the hours that have passed.

Rogers comes in, then; Clint wonders what he’s heard but still can’t make himself care. The captain says nothing, just sits in a little chair by the door, under a reading lamp, paging through the hotel Bible.

*

Clint sleeps, crumpled against the pillows and the wicker headboard an arm’s length from his partner, or whatever is left of her.

He dreams of mirrored cells, of disembodied heads bourn forward on an ocean of serpents, of making the shot that he was ordered to make. He dreams of funerals and a blonde woman who is Natasha and is also a stranger. He dreams of Narcissus purging his life into his reflection.

He wakes a few hours before dawn. The reading lamp is dark but Rogers’ form still occupies the chair by the door. He might be sleeping; it’s hard to tell in the grayish, watery light coming from the nearby window.

Clint lies on his back, listening to the predawn hush, wondering exactly what has pried him from his nightmares.

Then he hears it, subtle but undeniable: a change in her breathing. How many times have they slept side by side? How often has he tried to pinpoint the exact moment that she goes from wakefulness to sleep or back again?

She stirs beside him, getting her bearings, perhaps testing her bonds. He tenses, prepared to shout out Rogers’ name.

The mattress dips, creaking once, as a familiar weight leans across the space between them. He readies himself for her attack but does not cry out, not yet, and the silence is as fragile as glass, as thin as an eggshell, until she presses her palm against his own and whispers.

Clint?”

The voice is tremulous, dazed, but it is her voice and his name on her lips brings him back to himself. He reaches out for her, fingertips sliding across the fabric of her dress and into her hair, down to her bound wrists but they are already free, the tie discarded between them. Her arms go around his back, knuckles digging into his vertebrae, and she clings to him, or he clings to her, equally fierce, equally desperate.

Natasha is real and warm and shaking against him, breath coming in short puffs against his neck as she curls around a sudden pain – physical or mental or both – and he knows that no wall falls neatly, no barrier breaks without some violence. All he can do is hold her; all he can do is thank the darkness for hiding the tears on his face because he wants so badly to be strong.

Something moves by the door; there is the rustle of fabric and the squeak of a floorboard. Clint does not look, but he knows that Rogers has stepped from the room.

*

The sky, seen through sheer curtain panels, is the color of iron. Her body relaxes, her labored breathing slows, and reluctantly he loosens his grip.

She doesn’t leave his arms, though, only slides back a little so that he can see her face, and suddenly he can’t get enough of seeing her face, seeing the way her eyes meet his with an ocean behind them. He’s seeing her for the first time since Paris, touching her and being touched, and he brushes the hair back from her cheek with a reverent hand.

“How much do you remember?” he asks.

Tears rim her lashes but do not fall. “Everything, I think,” she whispers back. One hand is fisted in his dress shirt, and she rubs the dark fabric beneath her thumb and fingers as though reassuring herself of his solidity. “The chopper crash… that room…” She shudders, bowing her head against his collarbone.

“Aten?”

She looks up at him, brows drawn together in dismay, confusion, loss. “I thought… she seemed so real.” Her gaze slides into a middle distance, intent on something visible only to her eyes. “I could see her, I could… I must have looked like such an idiot, having conversations with myself.”

“She saved you.”

Her fingers toy with one of his shirt buttons. “You saved me,” she says softly, and he can hear the trace of bitterness in her voice, the echo of dolg platezhom krasen. Debt is beautiful only after it has been repaid.

This is how she was raised to think, in terms of red and black, ledgers and claims, credits and tallies, and it doesn’t matter how many times he shows her the scars on his body – the ones she gave him, the ones received on her behalf – she will always struggle with the fact that there is no debt between them, and if there is, that it is always beautiful.

She is beautiful: her face pale, her blonde hair silvered in the morning light; she is Natasha and she is also Aten, at least as much as she’s ever been anyone else. Aten was a fragment of personality, a tether across the wall, a link to a maelstrom of memories too dangerous to be allowed. She was separate but still joined, and she is dead even as the substance of her has somehow survived. Her information, smuggled out from behind enemy lines while the hostage Natasha slept, has brought them to this place. Her messages, delivered at such great risk to herself, were what gave him direction, gave him purpose, and saved him from hopelessness.

He covers Natasha’s hand with his own, warming the cold fingers, stilling their ceaseless motion. “You saved yourself,” he tells her, and she leans into him again. He feels the tears he does not see as they fall at last: briefly, softly, silently.

Chapter Text

PART ELEVEN

(Before)

She feels his name on her lips, at the beginning. A mantra, a talisman. Eager voices speak over her, enthused by their own cruelty: “Make sure we have the A-10 on hand...” “… if you weren’t thorough enough… hate to lose her to one of your experiments, Sloane…”

The woman is a butcher who fancies herself a sculptor of flesh. The man is a collector, a vain and selfish sybarite.

He comes to her room afterward, thinking himself shielded by darkness and concealed from her senses by pharmaceuticals, expecting her addled and dazed and yearning for touch, for approval. But his hot breath and his pawing hands are like a brand to her skin, and she lashes out with every instinct. Every part of her body is a weapon.

He howls, he bleeds, and he leaves her alone.

When Natasha wakes she knows nothing of it. She feels the presence of another, though, and demands a name. “Aten,” says Aten, who until that moment was nameless. It was one of the first things she ever heard (aside from the feel of a certain name on her lips). She thinks it has another meaning, as well, steeped in mysticism and mythology. She pictures the bright disc of the sun rising above the desert sands, hard and hot and godlike.

The butcher comes to both of them, although to her eyes there is only one. Aten sits back, letting Natasha slip into the woman she was: accepting orders, plotting violence.

They fly over the dark Pacific. There is one ticket, one seat. They hold a silent conversation over a steno pad: one pen, one hand, two styles of handwriting on a single page.

She uses Natasha’s body when the other woman is asleep – although it’s not physical rest, only mental – and justifies it by the pureness of her motives. She is trying to save a life, even if by doing so she forfeits her own. It is hard to fathom dying when one has only just been born.

*

Natasha Romanoff follows a sliver thread across a shattered landscape.

In some places it is as thick as a steel cable, faintly luminescent, leading her through a path free of sinkholes and landmines. But in some places the metallic sheen has begun to corrode; in others nothing remains but glittering dust, and the longer she walks the more these ephemeral breadcrumbs seem to fade.

It is during these times, when she is not certain of the next safe step, that she relies most on the sound of his voice. The words themselves are irrelevant now, although she files them away to take out and examine at some other time, when she’s sure they will bring equal parts pleasure and pain. It is only the sound that matters, acting as an umbilical, a bridge through the rocky places until she is up and over the final bulwark.

Someone stands there, waiting for her, but no… it is only her reflection. Not being Narcissus, she has no desire to dwell over it, but steps forward beneath an arch, into shadow, into darkness.

The wind is subdued before the coming of dawn; the room is quiet enough, and just bright enough, that she can discern two forms and hear the workings of two sets of lungs. Both are known to her, but the closest is the most familiar.

He lies on his back, one hand palm-up on the sheets between them. If circumstances were different it would be wrapped around the molded grip of his recurve bow, but now it cups only the thin morning light.

His breathing changes as he wakes but he makes no movement, no other sound. She pulls her wrists free of their bonds, and when that elicits no response she dares to move closer to him, to touch his upturned hand, to say his name.

A mantra, a talisman.

 

(35)

The sun rises, insistent, over the top of the patio wall, slanting through the window, between the curtains, and into Natasha’s eyes. The bedside clock insists that it is half-past nine, but chronological time has no bearing on her exhausted mind.

Clint’s chest rises and falls against her back, his breath stirring the hairs on her neck; his right arm, bared to the elbow, is wrapped around her middle.

She has rarely slept beside him, and never like this. On overnight missions one of them is always awake while the other rests, and they are never close enough to touch; even after Antwerp, when they had fallen into a profound and simultaneous slumber, they had been wise enough to maintain a respectable distance.

Natasha would do as much with any agent, albeit not for the same reason.

It would be easy, so easy, to turn in his arms, to wake him with a kiss. The woman she was last night had wanted Gabe Bishop despite knowing better, and the woman she is again can still feel the tingle of anticipation in her limbs, the heat in her belly. She wants his body to press hers into this mattress; she wants to bury all the horror under a layer of sensation and the smell of sex. She wants to make him cry her name, wants to mark his body and be marked in return.

But her failure in New York, that strange and surreal evening in the Carlyle, is still too fresh and raw a memory for her to take that leap.

Natasha cannot blame her actions then on a surfeit of food and drink, or weariness, or the strain of the preceding days; she had kissed him then with the full knowledge of the potential consequences, and afterward she was only thankful that those consequences were not more dire, that he was still able to look at her in the morning and smile that crooked smile.

She remembers walking away from him, remembers standing in the shower, letting the spray cascade down over her bare back, feeling the heat wash her face, struggling against an insistent desire that she refused to assuage. Instead she had lain in the lilac-scented bed that she insisted (in a moment of perverse self-punishment) that he share with her, taut as one of his bowstrings, tortured by his nearness.

Natasha never blamed him for rebuffing her, never thought for a moment that the things he told her were anything but truth. But she wonders if he has any idea how seldom she’s chosen, how rarely in her life she’s made an advance based on nothing darker or more complicated than honest affection and desire.

It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t.

And at the same time it matters more than anything.

*

When he rises from the bed about half an hour later she feigns sleep. His lips graze her temple – it seems he must be able to see the way her pulse leaps, throbbing in her exposed throat – but he only pulls up the quilt, folded neatly at the foot of the bed, and settles it around her shoulders.

 

(36)

Steve sits on the patio, folded up in an Adirondack chair, drinking a weak cup of coffee he’d brewed in the kitchenette and eating a shrink-wrapped simulated-fruit pie that he’d found in a vending machine around the corner. He hadn’t wanted to stray too far from the room, on the off-chance that Barton needed his help.

Although going by what he saw earlier that morning, Barton’s pretty much got things covered.

A car door slams in the parking lot and footsteps approach the patio door, which Steve opens before the visitor has a chance to knock.

He almost doesn’t recognize her. She’s shorter without her heels and appears younger without the provocative dress and heavy makeup. In fact, he’s surprised and a little disturbed by how young she looks.

Christiane holds up two bags: gray plastic in one hand, colorful paper in the other. “So, I picked up some of the essentials,” she chirrups without preamble, still standing on the threshold. “Pants and a top and some flip-flops and, you know, underwear and stuff.” She glances up at him through her long lashes, as though not certain how he’ll react to the mention of underwear. “You said your friend was about my size, so…” she shrugs.

“Thank you,” says Steve, taking the plastic bag and stepping back. She hesitates and then walks onto the patio, letting the door swing shut behind her.

“I’ve got to tell you,” Christiane says, glancing around with undisguised curiosity, “I was really surprised to get your call.”

“I hope I didn’t wake you up.”

She snorts, running her free hand through her close-cropped hair. “Like I was going to sleep after a night like last night? It was after one before your friends let me go. I guess they finally decided I hadn’t stolen any state secrets from you or anything.”

Steve feels a pang of guilt. Bits of the previous evening are still a blur after a mostly-sleepless night. Until this morning, after making a few calls, he hadn’t even known the name of Bruno Witten’s dinner date.

Steve had known that she’d followed his instructions to contact SHIELD, who had dispatched their closest assets. He’d been long gone by the time they got there, of course, having received Barton’s phone call and being relatively sure that Ms. Manesh would not be regaining her freedom any time soon.

Apparently Christiane had done the civic-minded thing and remained at the garden party, or what was left of it, until those reinforcements had arrived. Steve is a little shamefaced to think of her dealing with irascible agents and flummoxed dinner guests – and Witten’s killer – while he had blithely driven away to babysit Agents Barton and Romanoff.

Christiane appears none the worse for wear, despite the lack of sleep. She seems vibrant and energetic, as though what happened to her was something of a lucky strike.

Which, considering that she isn’t dead, is perhaps a perfectly healthy attitude to have.

“Oh!” She thrusts the paper sack towards him. “I almost forgot. I didn’t think they bring you breakfast in a place like this and you said you couldn’t leave your friends, so I got you guys McDonalds. I figured everybody likes sausage and egg McMuffins, right?” She looks curious. “Did they even have McMuffins when you were my age?”

Steve tries not to laugh as he takes the fragrant bag and sets it down on the seat of his chair. “I don’t think so,” he says seriously. “But I appreciate it.”

Hands empty, the young woman looks awkward for the first time. She crosses her arms, wandering across the sparsely-furnished patio. “I never saw anyone get shot before,” she says finally, giving a one-armed shrug. “The places I grew up… you know, you heard about it happening a lot, and you could always hear the sirens, but I never actually saw it. And then living in a place like this…” She waves a hand to indicate the hotel, the towering horse chestnuts, the whole of the affluent suburb “…you kind of figure you’re never going to.” She shakes her head as though she can’t quite believe she was ever so naive. “Who was she, anyway? The woman in the woods, I mean. The people who came to arrest her wouldn’t tell me anything.”

Steve only hesitates for a second. After being dragged through the dark woods, shot at, and subjected to the untender mercies of a phalanx of SHIELD agents, she deserves to know, if not the truth, than at least a reasonable facsimile. “She worked for Witten’s wife who… put out a hit on him.”

Christiane blanches. “Because of me?”

“No,” says Steve quickly. “Because… he was a bad man. He did a lot of terrible things… including kidnapping my friend, the one I told you about.”

Her brow furrows. “But you got her back okay, right?”

“Yes,” Steve replies, hoping it’s true. “I don’t want you to think that it’s your fault, because it’s not. Not any of it. Some people are just… evil.”

She gives him a small, sad smile. “You know, it’s really not PC anymore to say that anyone is evil. You’re supposed to say that they had a bad childhood or they watched a lot of scary movies growing up and it warped their brains. They’re not evil, they’re just crazy, so we just have to wait for someone to invent a magic pill to cure them.”

And maybe, thinks Steve, ideas like that are the reason that people like Witten and Fisher flourish, not only in the cracks and crevices of civilization but among the lettered and the intellectual. Everyone is waiting for a quick fix, a ‘magic pill’ that will solve their problems and, more importantly, absolve humanity of any responsibility for its own actions.

Perhaps the Institute’s mysterious benefactor on the Security Council thinks in terms of bad childhoods and violent media, external influences that can be wiped away with the flip of a switch, the plunge of a needle.

“I think,” he says slowly, wondering if his views are too archaic, too out of touch, for a young woman to accept, “the moment good people accept that there’s no such thing as good or evil… is the moment that evil wins.”

Christiane gives him a tight-lipped smile, not agreeing… but also not disagreeing. Maybe what he’s said is something she’ll remember some day, when she has to decide between making the easy choice and making the right one. Or maybe she’ll walk out that door and never think about it again.

When he pulls out his wallet her smile fades altogether. “How much do I owe you?” he asks, but she just shakes her head.

“No, you don’t…” She waves a hand at the bags. “This is a thank-you. You know. For keeping an eye out for me and everything. You don’t let someone pay for a thank-you.”

Steve closes his wallet but doesn’t put it away. “Did Witten pay for last night?”

She sucks in a sharp breath, as though he’s slapped her, and her face falls. Suddenly she finds the travertine tiles beneath her feet to be of great interest. “I figured maybe you just thought I was his girlfriend,” she mutters, dusky color rising in her cheeks.

Steve considers trying to explain that Bruno Witten was not the kind of man to have a ‘girlfriend’. He was a connoisseur of control; he wouldn’t have seen it as embarrassing or degrading to pay for companionship. Instead it would have been another measure of his power, a way to ensure that the woman in question belonged to him for as long as he wanted her.

He holds out the money – most of what’s left in his wallet – and she takes it without looking at him.

“I’m going to get out of it, though,” she says quietly. “The business. I decided last night. It’s just too dangerous, even in a place like this. I called Morris - my dad, sort of - he’s up in Oregon, he says he can get me a job. It’ll mean leaving my mom, but…” She shakes her head, jamming the cash into the back pocket of her jeans, and Steve’s sure that she’s revealed much more than she ever intended to someone who is essentially a total stranger.

All he can say is, “Good luck.”

She looks up at him once again, meeting his eyes with another smile, this one too ironic for such a young face. “Thanks,” she says. “You too.”

 

(37)

Clint comes out of the bathroom, dressed in his last clean change of clothes (jeans and a well-worn t-shirt, which are a kind of heaven after spending the night in a suit) in time to hear Rogers’ “Good luck” and the woman’s answering “Thanks, you too” through the window that opens onto the patio.

He wads the expensive dress shirt and pants into a ball with savage glee, cramming them down into his duffle bag where they can rest in peace alongside the crumpled Mizingi suit.

Natasha is still sleeping – or pretending to – and he leaves her to it. It’s possible she’s not quite ready to face him after everything that’s happened in the last twelve hours. God knows he has no idea what he’s going to say to her, although sorry for groping you should probably be pretty high on the list. I’m never letting you out of my sight again is pretty much a non-starter.

Rogers is back inside, sitting on the sofa and dissecting an egg McMuffin as though he’s performing an alien autopsy.

“Who was that?” Clint asks.

“Hmm? Oh. Christiane. Witten’s… date. From last night.” Rogers wipes his greasy hands on a napkin and passes him a plastic bag. Clint takes it – sees a pair of gray yoga pants, a blue t-shirt, underwear, all more or less in Natasha’s size – and sets it just inside the bedroom door.  

He consumes his own McMuffin in about five seconds – it’s been a long time since the fancy dinner he didn’t really eat – and thinking about the dinner brings back the memory of other things about the previous night that he hadn’t much cared about until now. “What happened with Manesh?”

Rogers sighs, either at the question or the sandwich, which doesn’t appear to be tempting his appetite. “You mean after I walked right into an ambush and got Witten killed?”

“It’s no great loss,” says Clint, with feeling.

“That’s not the point,” insists Rogers. He sighs. “Witten got shot, I got grazed.” He lifts his arm, which looks like it’s working perfectly fine to Clint. Must be nice. “Christiane was there and I thought Fisher might have given orders to take them both out.”

Guilt by association. He hears the sound of the shower in the other room and all at once it’s harder to focus on the conversation at hand.  “You really think Fisher’s the jealous type?” he asks, baldly sarcastic.

Rogers doesn’t dignify that with a response. “So we were in a stalemate for a while. I didn’t want to start a shootout and… I don’t know what she was thinking.”

Clint shrugs. “Probably that if you were there with her, I was on my own, and Natasha’d have a better chance of killing me.” Or vice versa. “That one is definitely the vindictive type. What’d you do?”

Rogers smirks. “What we’ve been doing this entire time. I called Stark.”

Glancing around, half-expecting to see Tony Stark lurking in the kitchenette or perhaps hiding behind the sofa, Clint laughs. It feels good to laugh. Strange, but good. “He’s here?”

“No,” says Rogers, looking a little alarmed at the notion. “No, he was somewhere over Croatia when I called. I threw a tree behind Manesh so it would seem like someone had just landed there, had cut off her escape route, and then we used the speaker on the phone to make it sound like Stark had arrived.” He grins at the memory. “If she’d had time to think about it I’m sure she would have figured it out, but instead she ran.”

“Wait. You threw a tree?”

“Just a little one.”

Clint raises his eyebrows.

Rogers’ voice goes up an octave. “It was already lying on the ground. I just, you know…” and he pantomimes scooping something up and tossing it lightly aside, like a normal person might do with a bothersome cat, and Clint laughs again.

The shower shuts off.

Rogers, still smiling faintly, continues picking at his breakfast. “I disarmed her, dragged her over to the party, handcuffed her to the gate and told the guards she was a terrorist,” he says in the rather bored tone of someone describing their weekend errands. “By that point she was spitting and cursing me out in several different languages, which made it more convincing. SHIELD had already been contacted, so…” He shrugs. “When you called, I left.”

They lapse into silence.

In Clint’s experience, there’s a specific kind of silence that follows the completion of any assignment, a cooling-off period, a combat hangover, when your blood is still up but in the process of coming down, when you’re simultaneously hyperaware and apathetic, when you are the mental and emotional equivalent of an Egg McMuffin. Sometimes it happens at the evac point when you’re waiting to be picked up, or in the train car on the way out of the country, or in the Quinjet’s hold. Sometimes it follows you home, lingers a few hours or a few days, and the really bad ones can take weeks to fade completely.

This is different, somehow. They won’t be sauntering back into SHIELD later today, ready to file reports and pick up their next assignment. For all their success, part of the regular way of things has broken, and he doesn’t know what will be necessary to fix it. This is a pause, a lull, an indrawn breath.

And then the door to the bedroom swings open and there is Natasha, and the breath leaves him in a rush.

She has the wan, hollow-eyed look of someone recovering from a long illness, but even so, even dressed in shapeless clothes, her hair damp and not a stitch of makeup on her face, she’s ten times as beautiful as last night, when he’d first seen her seated on the fountain’s edge.

She looks at him and smiles, not with her mouth but with her eyes, and for a brief moment he’s so happy that it’s actually kind of painful.

Pathetic.

Rogers, being Rogers, immediately gets up and moves to the less-comfortable armchair, so Natasha sits down on the sofa next to Clint. She moves slowly and without all of her usual grace, as though she’s becoming reacquainted with the way her body works. He passes her the last sandwich and then busies himself with cleaning up the scattered wrappers and napkins, since she might have an issue with him just staring at her while she eats.

The typical, inane greeting in this kind of situation, of course, would be something along the lines of how are you feeling? Clint waits, but the words never come out of Rogers’ mouth. He knows the other guy was sick a lot as a kid, and maybe he’s heard that question so many times growing up (and then again after they defrosted him) that he realizes how flat and insipid it really sounds. And maybe by now he knows Natasha well enough – if not through first-hand experience than by what Clint has told him – to know that she’s not the kind of woman who needs or even wants to be fussed over at a time like this.

Natasha prefers to do things in her own way, at her own time.

When she’s done eating she looks over at Rogers, who is nursing a mug of coffee, and says simply, “Thanks.”

The captain doesn’t demur, doesn’t hem or haw, just reaches over and grasps her hand.

*

Twenty-four hours later they’re back in New York.

Clint is a Midwestern boy; he didn’t grow up with any special affinity for the Big Apple, and at times he has even felt contempt for the kind of excess and extravagance it represents. As an agent he’s spent more than a little time in the city, because its size and scope makes it both the natural habitat of the wealthy and the hunting ground of the dispossessed.

Things have changed somewhat since the Chitauri attack. He doesn’t like the city any more than he did, but he feels an odd kind of concern for it, a vigilance that might be what a parent feels for a child. He can look around Manhattan and see ‘his’ rooftop, or remember where he was when Natasha closed the portal, and the canyon-like streets feature as often in his pleasant dreams as his nightmares. He’s never been able to so much as look at New Mexico on a map without feeling a sickening twinge in his gut, yet he doesn’t mind returning to New York, which was the scene of horror but also his first chance to reclaim some of what had been taken from him.

Stark is still in Europe, dealing with the apple cart he upset during his trip to Oslo, but Pepper Potts is at the Tower when they arrive. She’s charming and solicitous, and when Rogers compliments her new, shorter haircut she explains that it’s because her hair caught fire when the Serbians attacked over dinner, all in the tone of one relaying a mildly amusing anecdote. Clint thinks that she and Rogers have more in common than either of them might realize.

Clint hasn’t been in the building since the day of the attack, despite Stark’s many and varied invitations. (Honestly, sometimes the guy kind of gives him the creeps; it feels like he’s trying to collect them, like a kid collects action figures or baseball cards, and that once he got them through the doors he might be tempted to encase them in carbonite and display them in the lobby.) Pepper proposes to give them the full tour, and Rogers takes her up on the offer, and they share an obnoxiously knowing glance when Clint and Natasha both beg off.

Whatever those two might think, Clint and Natasha’s brief time in the elevator is as platonic as it is uncomfortable. She gets off at her floor without any expectation that he will follow, which is good because he seems to be glued to the spot. She does glance back just before the doors close and he manages to nod at her without having any earthly idea why.

He passes a restless first night in Stark Tower, sleeping lightly, waking often. He thinks that he would sleep better with her back warm against his chest, but not through layers of polyester and cotton; he imagines his bare arm around her bare waist, and it is thoughts like these that eventually force him to give up on sleep entirely and hit the gym instead.

Afterwards, he considers the fully stocked kitchen on his floor (he has a floor in a Manhattan skyscraper. Maybe being collected isn’t so bad) but eventually decides to eat in what Pepper had described as the ‘communal dining room’.

It’s on the top floor. Clint has been here before, although that was before the substantial remodeling job. He likes that Stark retained the tall wrap-around windows and the marble flooring, although, for strictly sentimental reasons, Clint wishes that the contractor had also been able to preserve that Loki-shaped hole in the ground.

A woman is sitting at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of cereal. She looks as surprised to see him as he is to see her, and she’s a stranger but also vaguely familiar. Foster, he realizes after a moment. Jane Foster. Thor’s… whatever she is. Way to go, Stark. Collect the whole set.

He introduces himself; she passes him the cereal and points him towards the bowls, explaining that she’s in the city for a conference about something-or-other and that Pepper had invited her to stay the night. Clint wonders aloud if astrophysicists also dress up in suits and cocktail dresses at their conferences, and hold private receptions with three course meals, and she laughs at him… not in a mean way, but like she assumes he’s making a joke.

“Have you seen Agent Romanoff?” he asks when she’s done snickering. He wonders if Natasha had as much trouble sleeping as he did. She’s got her own gym, of course, and her own kitchen if she prefers a solitary meal, but he suspects that she might be up to some company. And even if he doesn’t know what to say to her, he’s still eager to see her.

“The blonde, right?” Foster asks, and he nods. “You just missed her.”

Clint pours milk over his cereal, trying not to let the disappointment show. “Did she say where she was going?” He’d rather not venture onto her floor without her permission, tacit or otherwise; he doesn’t want to feel like an intruder.

Foster shrugs. “Wherever Director Fury is, I suppose,” she says, a touch of acid in her voice.

Clint drops his spoon; it ricochets off the bowl, sending bits of cereal flying. “What?”

“She was going up to the roof,” says Foster, eying the spread of cornflakes across the table as though picking out constellations in them. “Just a couple of minutes ago. She said SHIELD was sending a jet for her.”

Clint leaves the spoon on the floor and the cornflakes on the table. He takes the stairs two at a time, his heart thumping less from the exertion and more from anger, betrayal, fear…

The rooftop helipad is empty, the area deserted, but he’s not deluded enough to think that he’s beaten Natasha here. The Quinjet is a dark speck against the cobalt sky, rapidly shrinking as it carries her away.

Chapter Text

PART TWELVE

(Before)

They walk into the building together, mostly side-by-side although she keeps trying to hang back, to let him take the lead – as would have been expected of her in the old days – and he keeps slowing down, waiting for her to catch up, so they’re awkward and constantly out of sync.

Men and women pass them in the halls, watching her with the full knowledge of her past in their eyes, and then they look at Barton as though wondering why he doesn’t have her collared and leashed.

Natasha tries to think of what would happen if, back then, she’d been tasked to kill a man and had, instead, brought him back to headquarters.

The answer is easy, obvious: she would be denounced as a traitor or a lunatic and shot on sight.

But Barton, though he still carries his quiver and bow slung across his back, does not seem concerned about the possibility of being shot. He even greets a few passersby, ignoring the puzzled, anxious or hostile looks directed at the woman at his side.

“You’re a celebrity,” is all he says.

He shows her to a certain door, which opens at their approach as though the man inside sensed them coming. He’s in his forties, with a receding hairline and a studiously blank expression. Natasha is certain that he’s going to pull the gun from the shoulder holster beneath his jacket and shoot Barton in the chest, but all he does is give a resigned sigh and ask, “What is this?”

Barton grins. “Just paying it forward.”

“I think you mean ‘paying me back’.” The stranger looks at Natasha appraisingly. “You’re going to be difficult, aren’t you?”

She tenses. How is she supposed to answer a question like that? Not truthfully, she decides. “I’m not difficult.”

“Director Fury sent three agents into the field on three separate occasions to try to recruit you, and they came back to us all requiring two or more days in the hospital. He sends Barton here to take you out, and you surrender. That sounds difficult.”

Natasha can’t quite believe that they’re having this conversation in the hallway, in full view of anybody who might be walking past. “Was there a question there, sir?” she asks curtly.

He rubs his chin. “I was going to ask what the attraction was,” he says mildly, glancing at Barton, “But I think I figured it out. Just remember, parents get the kids they deserve.”

“Ouch,” says Barton, although he still seems pleased with himself.

*

A few months later, after Macau, she overhears Coulson talking to Barton. (To Clint, although she’s only reluctantly begun to acknowledge that he has a first name. First names imply uniqueness, individuality, and she’s not entirely comfortable with that idea yet.)

Coulson says, “You know, she’s either going to break your neck or your heart. Possibly both, although not necessarily in that order.”

Natasha leaves before she can hear her partner’s reply. She isn’t hurt by the statement, and she doesn’t think badly of Coulson for making it.

She guesses that he’s probably right.

 

(38)

125 nautical miles off the coast of Nova Scotia, the Helicarrier sits low in the water, the eastern light gleaming off its flanks. From far away it looks strangely organic, like a 300-meter whale suspended in mid-breach.

Natasha Romanoff, budding poet, she thinks, turning away from the forward windows.

The Quinjet lands and she steps out onto the deck as soon as the ramp is down, silently tailed by the two beefy agents who had identified themselves as her ‘escorts’ to her meeting with Fury.

A meeting she’d never scheduled, but which had been inevitable.

She’s not sure why they don’t simply take her into custody. It’s possible that Fury thinks he’s being sly, that he doesn’t want to spook her, that he knows even unarmed, dressed only in the casual clothing provided for her at Stark Tower, she could lead them on a hell of a merry chase if she were so inclined.

Maybe, if God exists, He knows how Nick Fury’s mind works.

Natasha doubts it.

The carrier’s main deck is busy, and she thinks that the crew must be servicing the engines. Most other repairs could be affected in the sky, which is where SHIELD likes to keep the behemoth whenever possible, since it can’t properly cloak in the water and its sheer size makes it a visible and highly tempting target for passing miscreants. There will be jets and choppers and drones patrolling the area, of course, and she visualizes the entire area as a large, blue beehive.

And she’s right in the middle of it all.

It reminds her of her first trip into SHIELD-controlled territory, although she’d been on land (in Madrid, specifically) and initially she’d only met with Phil Coulson.

And, of course, she’d been with Clint at the time.

As she steps through a hatch and into the outermost of the craft’s corridors, she wonders if he’ll hate her when he realizes she’s gone. Gone without a word of warning or explanation, much less a goodbye. Gone after everything he has done for her, everything he has risked. She would be furious if the situation were reversed.

It couldn’t be helped. If she’d told him that she’d been contacted by Hill, that a jet was coming to pick her up, that Nick Fury was expecting her ASAP, he never would have let her go on her own. The two ‘escorts’ would have had to hogtie him and leave him on the landing pad, or else he might be expected to shoot one of his grappling arrows into the belly of the Quinjet and hitch a ride, swinging by a line like the tail of a kite, for the entire 400-mile trip.

She knows how his mind works, at least some of the time.

She knows he’s stubborn and he’s steady, reserved and charming and sharp-tongued by turns, and she’s heard people who’ve known him longest say he’s become increasingly sarcastic over the years. That’s probably her fault; she doesn’t respond well to sarcasm, and he enjoys getting a rise out of her.

It would have been comforting, even fitting, to walk into the unknown beside him one more time. And it would have been impossible. She owes him too much to let him risk himself on her behalf. Not again. It’s bad enough that he and Steve have been so completely entangled in the whole mess, but she’s not worried about Steve. He’s Captain Rogers, Captain America; he’s a million-dollar science project – probably in the billions if you adjusted for inflation – and potentially as good a propaganda tool now as he’d been in his heyday, not to mention an object of worldwide adoration and curiosity.

As much as she loves Clint (and it’s scary, how easy that phrase comes to mind now, like the thought is an especially pernicious piece of Stark’s software, burrowing into her brain until it comes without being called) he’s mostly just Clint Barton, Hawkeye, Agent of SHIELD, and she’s afraid that won’t offer him much protection in what’s to come.

The corridors are not as busy as the deck, and the people she does pass don’t pay her much mind. Maybe it’s just because she looks so different, in jeans and a lightweight zippered jacket, blonde hair scraped back from her face, but she detects a studious intensity in the way they ignore her. It’s as though a memo went out before her arrival: Attn all agents: give Romanoff the cold shoulder.

Sometimes she thinks she glimpses someone walking alongside her, another blonde woman in jeans and jacket, but no matter how quickly she turns her head she can never see her straight-on. She’s sensing a shadow, an echo, just as she’d be experiencing phantom pain after the loss of a limb.

She’d dismissed Aten as young, in skill if not in years, but now she recognizes her mistake. The woman (if you can call a figment of your imagination a woman, and she is for the sake of her sanity) had been through the precisely same experiences as Natasha, after all. But she had also been changed – not softened, but rather tempered – by the memories and the grounding weight of the last five-plus years, which Fisher’s version of Natasha had been denied.

*

Fury isn’t in his usual room off the bridge, but in a smaller, more private office that’s said to be near his quarters. Natasha has a hard time imagining him in normal quarters, on a regular berth. Does he sleep in the eye-patch or take it off first? She’d ask Clint, if he were here, and enjoy the sound of his laughter.

She steps through the open door and it closes behind her, leaving her escorts on the other side.

The director stands at what she first thinks is a window and then identifies as a computer screen mounted on the bulkhead. At the moment, though, it is doubling as a window very convincingly, showing a broad expanse of ocean as seen from several stories above the surface. As Fury turns to face her he touches the corner of the screen and the vista fades, replaced by blackness and the slowly-rotating SHIELD logo.

His hand lingers, drawing her attention, but it’s not necessary. They agreed upon this signal years ago.

She doesn’t sit. He doesn’t ask her to.

“Ms. Romanoff,” he says instead, retreating behind his desk, hands on the back of his chair. “This is an unexpected pleasure.”

“You asked so nicely,” Natasha replies, omitting the fact that Hill had done the asking and, well, she hadn’t really asked. “Did you think you’d have to hunt me down all over again?”

“I expected I’d have to try.”

She favors him with a frozen smile. The rotating logo, as opposed to a stationary one, means that they are being monitored. She’s not sure if it is only their voices being sent out, or if the surveillance device that exists somewhere in the room is broadcasting video as well, but it’s best to assume the latter. No scribbled missives, then. No knowing looks. “That might be fun, under different circumstances. But I don’t have any reason to hide.”

Fury frowns. It’s hard to identify his frowns, sometimes, as his face is usually locked into some unpleasant expression or another, but she’s had plenty of practice. “There are conflicting reports regarding the events in South America,” he says, words chosen with painstaking care.

“Fisher’s talking, then.” Even at his best Natasha isn’t sure she trusts Fury to handle Fisher correctly. This is the man who devoted crucial resources to Phase Two tech, after all, and allowed Selvig to play mad scientist with the Tesseract without any real appreciation for what it could be capable of. He’s not ambitious in the conventional sense, but he is still hungry for any advantage in an increasingly dangerous and complex universe.

“In fact, Dr. Fisher has been exceedingly cooperative,” the director agrees. “Her associates… not so much.”

“How many of them are dead?”

He looks surprised, and in fact she’s rather surprised herself, but the words keep coming and she lets them. “Part of Fisher’s injunction on most of her in-house assets was that she needed to give them a code phrase every few days, or they’d trigger by default. It was a contingency plan, just in case Witten or anybody else tried to shut her down. Her biggest fear was her operatives falling into other hands.” She has no conscious memory of learning this, but she knows it all the same. She must have been Aten at the time. “For assets in the field it would have been longer. Weeks, maybe even months. Has Fisher surrendered their records?”

“She has,” says Fury, recovering smoothly. “Our focus in the coming weeks will be to recover those personnel and administer the antidote, which Dr. Fisher has agreed to provide.”

Fisher hasn’t agreed to anything; the drugs were all kept in the refrigerated vestibule off what they’d called the ‘therapy room’. Fury is trying to make the woman sound more cooperative, more laudable. Natasha isn’t surprised. “I’m guessing that my name wasn’t anywhere in those records.”

“Sloane Fisher is maintaining that you were never altered in any way. That you voluntarily offered her your services.”

Steve and Clint had removed the 13A-10R from the Institute, but Natasha knows that other records exist of her captivity and treatment, or at least they existed once. Witten had wanted to study her, after all. These records have either been locked down, walled up behind security clearance, or they have been conveniently lost.

Both of these possibilities should be beyond the capabilities of Fisher’s patron on the Security Council, the man Clint says she referred to as ‘Lycaon.’ Which means that Lycaon, whichever one he is, has his own operatives inside SHIELD. People who report to him before Fury. People who may even be working against Fury, to subvert or even replace him as director.

“That’s not true,” says Natasha calmly. “I was abducted.”

“Tim Bradach’s statement appears to corroborate her testimony.”

“Bradach recanted those statements,” she retorts.

“Bradach was subjected to an unauthorized interrogation by non-SHIELD personnel, and a few hours later he was dead.”

Natasha feels a chill. She had known about Bruce’s trip to San Salvador, of course, but not that Bradach had subsequently died. Was that Fisher’s work, or Lycaon’s? “An unfortunate accident, I suppose.”

“Accidents do happen,” says Fury, his low voice quite nearly a growl.

To an outside observer it must sound like a threat, but Natasha recognizes a warning when she hears one. Lycaon will be looking to tie up any other loose ends, and as Fisher’s last surviving experiment, as someone who had almost unconsciously absorbed intelligence about the Institute’s operations – thanks to Aten’s vigilance – Natasha is the biggest loose end there is.

Accidents do happen. How easy would it be, on her next mission, for something to go wrong? Her position compromised… an ambush laid… an incident of friendly fire. Unfortunate, everyone would say. A real mess.

And what about Clint? Lycaon will know that he was in Colombia, although Fury may be able to minimize his role in the official reports. Will that be enough, or will he be considered a ‘loose end’ too? Will he simply be collateral damage in whatever ‘accident’ befalls her?

She can’t think about that right now. She needs to focus on Fury.

His options must be limited if he is being watched as closely as she suspects. She understands his frown now: he is annoyed that she didn’t run, because then he could have had control over the intensity of the pursuit. He’d been forced to demand her presence, but he hadn’t really wanted it. And now she’s here (doing the honest thing, the right thing, the foolish thing, which he hadn’t suspected) and he’s going to have to deal with it.

Well then, she thinks, deal with it already. “If you don’t believe me, why aren’t I in custody yet?”

Fury takes his time in answering. He turns the seat around, lowers himself into it with great deliberation, steeples his fingers and gives her a malevolent look that would do any self-respecting Cyclops proud. “You would be, if you hadn’t been vouched for.”

Natasha blinks in unfeigned surprise. “What?”

“By Stark,” Fury continues, almost spitting out the name. “Although Rogers has put in his two cents as well. They’re foolish enough to believe your story. But then, they don’t know you like we do, Natalia.”

“Since when do you take Tony Stark’s word for anything?” Natasha asks, her mind racing. Stark is still in Europe. Steve doesn’t even know she’s here, as far as she knows. Is Fury bluffing, or did he start feverishly making calls once he learned she had actually boarded the Quinjet?

“We’re trying to maintain an amicable relationship,” says the director, and while his words are diplomatic his tone is biting. “He has technology we need, and he knows things he shouldn’t. Personally… I’m looking forward to seeing him screw up. As long as none of my agents are involved, of course.”

Once again the implications are clear, or at least as clear as they can be with the SHIELD logo spinning, spinning on the bulkhead.

By ‘none of my agents’ he means ‘Clint’.

 

(39)

Steve is sitting in his suite, bored with television, bored with books, wondering if he should check up on Barton or go give Stark some backup even if he insists he doesn’t need it, when there is a pleasant chime followed by a disembodied male voice: “Excuse me for the interruption, Captain Rogers, but you have visitors.”

Standing, looking towards the speakers cleverly hidden in the ceiling, it takes Steve a moment to find his own voice. “Visitors?”

“Yes,” says JARVIS. “They have identified themselves as Zachary and Paola Farraday. I realize they have no appointment, but they insist on speaking with you.”

The names mean nothing to Steve. Are they reporters? Enemies? Admirers? He’s not sure which is worse. “If I knew what they looked like…” he says, mostly to himself.

The television screen on the wall flickers to life, and JARVIS obligingly displays the desired footage. A man and woman, both in their late twenties, stand in the first floor lobby. The man, a stranger with short blond hair and a neat goatee, looks uncomfortable, perhaps overawed by his surroundings. The woman is more composed. And much more familiar.

“Tell them I’ll be right there,” he says to JARVIS, and heads for the elevator at a jog.

*

At first, it is only Steve and Zachary Farraday who speak. The woman, Paola, sits on the richly upholstered loveseat beside her husband, alternately pressing her lips together into a flat line and parting them, drawing breath as though to speak and then letting that breath slip away as a soundless sigh.

“She just went missing,” says Farraday. His blue eyes are as glassy as marbles, slightly dampened with emotion, not so much overwhelmed by the expansive lobby as by the memory of his wife’s disappearance. “We were living in northern Colombia, working with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, investigating abuses in Venezuela, where Paola’s from, and one night she just… just disappeared. No witnesses. No trace. The police wouldn’t help me. That was almost two years ago.”

He swallows hard, reaching over and taking his wife’s hand in his own. She stiffens but does not pull away.

“Witten?” asks Steve.

Paola’s mouth trembles; she closes her eyes and forces out the words. Her voice is soft, lyrical, lightly accented. “Not directly. But the Institute had dealings with Chavez. I heard them discussing it from time to time.”

Steve nods, appreciating the strength of will it has taken Saja – Paola – to find her voice again.

Agent Hill, Zachary tells him – pausing now and then to give Paola time to muster the courage to join the conversation – had found the antidote trigger and administered it on site, after a brief and seemingly effective interrogation of Sloane Fisher. The injunction broken, the trigger defused, she had been able to speak… although it had taken some time before she’d been convinced of that, and even now it is hard for her to work past the fear that she has lived with for so long.

“They found her by her fingerprints,” says Zachary, squeezing Paola’s hand; after a moment, she squeezes back. “They called and told me…” He shakes his head wonderingly. “I didn’t even know what to say. I still don’t. I always believed that she was still alive, somewhere, but I never thought…”

Steve nods his understanding. “How much do you remember?” he asks Paola. “Of… before?”

She looks a little nervously at her husband, biting her lip before answering. “A little more all the time. Not everything. But I feel like… it’s all there. I just can’t get to it quite yet.”

Steve hesitates, weighing truth against comfort – his own comfort – and decides on the truth. “Witten is dead. Manesh evaded custody long enough to track him to California and kill him.”

“Good.” Zachary sounds pleased but not rancorously so, and seems confused by his wife’s reaction: the sharp, indrawn breath, the flush of color across her cheeks, the vengeful snap in her eyes. She hasn’t yet told her husband, it seems, about the specifics of her captivity, the depths to which her tormenter had sunk. The facts will come out eventually, Steve thinks, melancholy at the thought. And if they don’t… well, it’s not really any of his business, is it?

Justice, in this case, has been served. It may have been served at the hands of a deluded psychopath, rather than by courts and juries (and Steve still faults himself for the man’s death), but it has also been served without the intervention of other deluded psychopaths – they call themselves entertainers or pundits or sometimes journalists – who would have seen Witten as a hero or a martyr, or a visionary.

There exist in this world – there have always existed; this is no phenomenon of the twenty-first century – those who have elevated themselves to a lofty state of amorality, who would have made of Bruno Witten a celebrity, someone deserving of attention if not adoration.

Evil is evil. He had said as much to Christiane Jacobs, and even if no one else believes it, he still does.

 

(40)

Clint spends most of the day in a kind of hell.

He paces his floor, leaving messages with Fury and Hill’s secretaries that are never returned. Eventually they just block his number altogether.

Potts must know that Natasha’s gone – the AI keeps pretty close tabs on everyone, it seems – but she doesn’t seek him out. Foster takes off for her conference around noon.

Rogers is still in the building, according to JARVIS, but Clint can’t bring himself to leave his suite. The idea of telling the other man I lost her again, of facing another impossible search, is more than he can take right now.

Even Stark’s resources seem insufficient. Yes, the industrialist could provide transport. He might even be able to hack SHIELD’s systems and determine Nat’s destination. But he can’t get clearance to land if they don’t want to give it, and no one can force Fury to give up her position if he’s not so inclined.

All he can do is make his calls, and curse into empty rooms, and fight down the panic, and wait.

A few hours before sundown, JARVIS tells him that there is a SHIELD helicopter on the roof, and that they’re asking for him.

*

They travel north and east, landing on the sea-bound carrier after sunset. Crews are hurrying across the floodlight-brightened deck in a familiar pattern; they’re preparing to take to the sky.

Clint shoulders his bag and jumps down out of the chopper, ducking instinctively as the rotors slice the air above him. He looks around, hesitates for a second, and then walks towards the edge.

The wind off the sea chills Clint’s bare arms (he forgot a jacket in his haste to leave the Tower),distorts the sounds of men and woman at work, and tears at Fury’s long coat so that it resembles a fluttering cape. Hands clasped behind his back, he turns as Clint approaches.

Clint doesn’t wait for the director to make whatever wry comment or snide remark he’s been standing here rehearsing. He’s too angry for that, too fully marinated in desperation. “Where is she?”

“Not here.”

The sea beckons below, a great black abyss stretching away to a darkening horizon. Clint represses the very real urge to throw Fury into it and bites back his second question, which would have been a more vehement, explicit version of the first. “Why not?” he asks instead, through gritted teeth.

“Ms. Romanoff is no longer affiliated with this organization,” says Fury, looking down towards the place where the engines will soon emerge.

Clint stares. If he was expecting anything, it wasn’t that. “What?”

Fury sighs. “Do you really think Bradach was the only one?”

Silence stretches between them, punctuated by the clanking of machinery, the wind-muffled voices of the crew at their backs. The only one, thinks Clint. The only one who’s been paid off, bought, corrupted, not by Fisher but by the anonymous man who gave her power and knowledge and influence.

Fury may be SHIELD’s director, but there have always been forces – such as the pilot who’d been willing to nuke New York last summer – who’ve answered to a different, if not higher, authority.

“So,” Clint says, marveling at the calmness of his voice, at the tinge of irony that is so well controlled. “You fired her to protect her.”

“Not just her.”

Clint laughs, or tries to, but the sound comes out almost indistinguishable from the grinding of gears beneath their feet. “I didn’t ask you to run interference for me.”

“We’re going to need you, Agent, if we’re going to discover who was pulling Sloane Fisher’s strings.”

Oh, so I’m ‘Agent’ again. That’s nice. “And what about Natasha?” he demands, the urge to send Fury into the drink rising up afresh. “You think they’re just going to forget about her now that she’s not pulling a SHIELD paycheck? If they think she knows something – something she doesn’t know – they’re going to go after her, and now she’s not going to have anybody to back her up.”

He thinks of Natasha as he first saw her: powerful, deadly, and lost… cut off from humanity, set adrift by her past and her nature, and it kills him.

Fury tilts his head, maddeningly calm. “Romanoff is a very capable woman.”

“Capable, not invincible!” He’s nearly yelling now, not to be heard over the wind and the machinery but simply to give an outlet to his rage, one that won’t get him shot by the snipers he suspects are monitoring this conference from afar. “How long do you think she’s going to last on her own?”

“I don’t believe I said anything about her being alone.”

Clint is breathing hard, his hands balled up at his sides. He forces them to unclench before he loses it and tries to take a swing at the director. “What the hell are you talking about?” he spits.

Fury’s brow lifts, Clint’s first indication that he’s dangerously close to outright insubordination. He doesn’t give a damn. “What I’m talking about, Agent, are the Avengers. Or at least what’s left of them. Dr. Foster is working on a possible way to open the bridge to Asgard from our side, but for… obvious reasons, we want to make sure we know what’s there before we open the door.”

Right now, a magic rainbow road to another planet is the least of Clint’s concerns. “Natasha’s going to work for Stark?” he asks, incredulous.

“That was his proposal,” says Fury dryly. “She’s yet to accept, officially. She may be waiting until he returns from his overseas jaunt and is able to threaten him in person.”

The anger hasn’t abated, but some of the fear that fueled it burns away. Natasha operating under the aegis of the Avengers – Stark, Rogers, Banner, maybe some day even Thor – is strange but far more comforting than the idea of her returning to the days of contracts and solitude, the life that she’d been living when he’d met her, the life she’d been plunged back into thanks to Fisher’s machinations.

It’ll take her some getting used to, he knows, but things were going to have to change anyway. If the Institute was able to connect the Black Widow to SHIELD, other miscreants won’t be far behind. It’ll be harder for her to work in the shadows, to be the flighty young heiress or flirty cocktail waitress that leads unsuspecting men so willingly to their fates. She’ll be more exposed, but at least she’ll have backup.

It still doesn’t make her invincible, but it puts her further beyond the grasp of Lycaon and his cronies.

“And what about me?” he asks, already able to guess the answer.

“As far as anyone else knows, you came to your senses and agreed to help me track down Romanoff and her new employers. She unwittingly led you and Captain Rogers to Colombia where you discovered Fisher’s illegal operations. You tailed her to California, where you captured her, although not before she murdered Dr. Witten.”

Clint feels sick. The duffle bag on his shoulder, full of the detritus of the past week along with his quiver and his bow, seems to weigh a hundred pounds. “You’d let people think that about her?” he asks, the words coming so soft that he’s not sure they’re even audible.

He knows Natasha doesn’t care what other people think. She uses misconceptions; she isn’t a victim of them. It doesn’t matter. He cares.

“If it means keeping her alive?” asks Fury. “Yes.”

Clint supposes he should feel grateful. He guesses he’s meant to be impressed by this plan Fury and Stark have cooked up, but all he feels is a roiling nausea that has nothing to do with seasickness.

These are supposed to be his people. They’re supposed to be the good guys. And yes, they’ve made mistakes – everyone makes their share – but even after New York, even after learning about the plans for Phase Two, even after being told his uniqueness was a liability, Clint still believed in the cause.

He’s not a guy who believes often, or easily. Still, he had believed.

But what’s the point? SHIELD can’t protect the whole world… they can’t even protect their agents from actors within their own organization. One of their people is kidnapped and brainwashed; they act like it was an inevitable betrayal, attributing false motives, blaming her for crimes she never would have committed in her right mind, crimes she hasn’t committed.

What’s the point, when the people you trust to have your back throw you to the wolves instead, and then claim it’s because they have no other choice, insist that they’re just trying to do what’s best for you?

We’re going to need you if we’re going to discover who was pulling Sloane Fisher’s strings, Fury had said. Clint knows what that means. No contact with Natasha or the others, nothing to raise suspicions that his role was anything but what Fury has claimed. Working from the inside to discover the identity of Lycaon while she works from the outside. Secrets and solitude.

“It’s going to be a couple weeks before the doctors will certify her. They’re worried about that head injury,” says Coulson. “You’re due for some time off yourself, but if you want me to set you up with someone else, we can get you back in the field before then. Your call.”

It had felt like a betrayal after Montreal. It still does.

He sets his duffle bag on the deck, kneels and unzips it. Fury tenses almost imperceptibly, but Clint doesn’t reach for a weapon. Instead he roots around in the depths of the bag for a moment before pulling out a crumpled ball of shiny purple fabric. He stands and holds it out to Fury, who takes it, looking nonplussed.

“I think this is yours,” says Clint, shouldering his bag again.

Fury stares at him, one eye glittering, the patch over the other so dark that it might as well be an empty socket. “You’re making a mistake,” he says quietly.

“No, I’m not,” says Clint. He forces a smile. “Ten minutes, right?”

“Eight,” says Fury. “You need to be gone before we launch.”

“Eight it is.”

*

He passes Morse in the corridors, and she stares after him. He wonders if she was watching their whole conversation, and how many other people were doing the same. It’d be hard not to guess the significance of the handing-over of the mizingi-suit, even to someone who doesn’t know what it is.

“Did you just get fired?” she asks, her voice rising to a squeak.

Clint just laughs. It’s the second time in a week that he’s been asked that question. “No,” he says, leaving her behind. “I quit.”

*

He actually goes to his quarters this time, not hers. There are a couple books he likes, mostly L’Amour, London and Grisham, some clothes that actually belong to him (he’s going to need a coat, anyway) and he stuffs them into his bag. Vibrations thrum through the metal walls and he realizes that he’s going to miss that sound. But it’s a small price to pay.

“It’s a lie.”

Clint turns. Agent Santiago, as elephantine as ever, stands in the doorway.

“I was with Hill in Villavicenio,” the man says mulishly. “I know what happened there… the freak show Witten and Fisher were running. If Romanoff killed anybody, it wasn’t her fault.”

Clint raises his eyebrows. “She didn’t,” he says evenly. “But you might want to keep that to yourself.”

Santiago shrugs. “I don’t like you, remember?” he asks, fingers drumming a spot just above his right knee. “But I find anything out…” And he scowls, but behind the scowl there is something that Clint has never seen from the burly agent before, something that looks suspiciously like a smile. “…You have some way I could get in touch with you?”

Well, Clint thinks. It looks like the Avengers will have their man on the inside after all.

*

They walk back up to the main deck and the waiting chopper, Clint ahead, Santiago trailing, acting as an impromptu escort. Just before they step out of the corridor, the big guy speaks again. “Dolg platezhom krasen.

Clint’s breath catches in his throat as he turns. “Didn’t know you spoke Russian,” he says carefully.

Santiago grunts. “I don’t. But I saw Romanoff before she left. She said when you showed up, I should tell you that. She said you’d know what it meant.”

Clint knows. He remembers the first time she said it to him.

Debt is beautiful only after it has been repaid.

Chapter Text

PART THIRTEEN

(Before)

“I still can’t believe she didn’t shoot you,” says Coulson, leaning back in his chair as he pages through the Macau report.

“Why does everyone assume I deserved to get shot?” wonders Clint. “She kissed me.”

Coulson smirks. “Well, it wasn’t an unqualified success,” he says obliquely, signing off on the bottom of the document. “But at least we know more than we did about the kind of people AIM is dealing with. I’ve got to tell you, Barton, I’m still a little mystified.”

Sometimes Coulson’s mind works on a different wavelength than other peoples’. It can be a challenge to keep up. “By AIM?”

“By you. And her.”

“Still?”

Coulson shrugs. “I told the director it was the thrill of the chase, the challenge, but I’m not sure I believe that any more.”

Clint sighs. If he’s honest with himself, it was the challenge… at least at first. He’d watched Ellis come back with a broken collarbone, and then Judson with his concussion, and finally Sims with that knife wound perilously close to his groin. Each time Clint had grilled the men in their hospital beds, adding their half-bitter, half-admiring observations to what he knew about Natalia Alianova Romanova from the official file, initially with the respect one professional holds for another, and then with… something more.

When Fury had announced that he was ‘suspending efforts to recruit’ her, it had been hard not to take it personally.

“I told you,” he reminds Coulson. “I was just paying it forward.”

Clint had rebuffed his recruiters, too, mostly because he hadn’t trusted that they were for real. He was an orphaned ex-carny with just enough military training to be dangerous and a predilection for archaic weaponry. Why would a global intelligence agency have any interest in him?

The first cold approach had been by a tall, rangy guy named Yoshiaki Doi; a trick arrow tipped with a smoke grenade had provided the distraction Clint needed to get away. The second man, a week later, hadn’t identified himself, but he’d been big and burly – elephantine, Clint had thought at the time – and considerably more persistent. Clint had put an arrow in his right leg, just above the knee.

The next person to approach him had been Coulson. He hadn’t been what Clint was expecting, dressed in a suit and wingtips instead of fatigues and combat boots. “I know you’re not happy, living this way,” he had told Clint, voice bland, expression neutral, and Clint had put down the bow because it was true, as true as it had been when he’d used almost those exact words to appeal to Natasha.

Coulson sighs, filing the Macau report into a desk drawer. “You know, she’s either going to break your neck or your heart. Possibly both, although not necessarily in that order.”

Clint considers this for a moment. “Yeah, maybe,” he says at last. He raises his eyebrows. “Do you think we should turn her loose?”

Coulson smiles. “Not on your life.”

 

(41)

It’s just after midnight when they finally come to fetch her: two SHIELD agents dressed in black. One cuffs her hands behind her back while the other watches from what he figures is a safe distance, weapon drawn.

They bring her up out of the prison, put her in the back of a truck, and drive her to a lonely, moonlit airfield. One of their jets is waiting on the tarmac. The two agents follow her inside, pushing her down onto a bench that runs the length of the craft. The hatch closes, the interior lights flicker on, and she can see Dr. Fisher sitting across from her. She’s dressed in the same bright blue jumpsuit, but her hands are cuffed in front, clasped in her lap.

One agent joins the pilot in the front of the craft. The other remains in the back, watching them warily.

“I haven’t told them anything,” insists Kamala, testing her cuffs. The agent takes half a step forward; she meets his gaze boldly, unintimidated, and settles back on the bench as best as she can manage.

Dr. Fisher smiles, swaying slightly as the jet launches into the air. Her hair is pulled back into an unkempt braid, and the interior lights give her complexion a grayish cast. “I know,” she says, smiling thinly. “The injunction wouldn’t have let you.”

Kamala frowns. “What are you…?”

A shot goes off in the cockpit. Kamala jumps up without conscious thought, although the jet is still rising and the deck beneath her feet still tilted towards the sky. The agent by the hatch pulls his gun and starts forward; Kamala plants her feet, lowers her shoulder, and shoves it into his back.

The man doesn’t fall, but he’s momentarily thrown off balance, and sufficiently distracted that the pilot has time to take three steps down the aisle and shoot him twice in the chest.

The SHIELD agents are dead in a matter of seconds.

Dr. Fisher and the pilot regard each other. He’s small and wiry, with a long face terminating in a patchy beard. “You’re not one of ours,” the doctor says, slipping off her unlocked handcuffs.

“No,” says the pilot flatly, not looking at the body in the center of the aisle. “But we work for the same people.”

Fisher nods. “That’s good enough for me,” she says evenly.

The man returns to the cockpit. A few seconds later the autopilot is disengaged and the jet banks hard to the right. Fisher stands carefully, stepping over the dead man on the ground.

Kamala stares at her. “What injunction?”

Fisher sighs. “We tried something different with you, Kamala. Replacing, rather than simply erasing. Not just with skills… with history. With parents and a childhood and a past. Imagine the possibilities, if an agent didn’t have to worry about remembering her cover story… if she actually believed that it was true.”

Kamala shakes her head. “It would never work,” she says stubbornly. “The ideas are too complex.”

The doctor nods, taking a key from her jumpsuit pocket. “That’s true. All you can do is paint with broad strokes, seed a few notions and hope they take root. You can’t control where they go after that. That was the problem with you. We… overlooked the fact that the human brain is hungry for information. For patterns, details. The generalities weren’t enough for your mind, so you invented specifics. Some may have a basis in truth… I don’t know. I was never told exactly who you were, before.”

I’m not one of your operatives,” Kamala insists, as Fisher circles around behind her. She has memories, dammit, memories that are too clear and vivid to ever have been planted in her head. She remembers the way her father’s belt stung where it landed on her flesh, and the smell of ashes after the fire. She remembers squalid Bangalore and the long voyage from Dhaka to Brasilia.

Dr. Fisher unlocks Kamala’s handcuffs, tossing them onto the bench as she steps away. “Bruno believed that India made their own attempt at a Red Room program years ago, after certain particulars came to light following the fall of the Soviet Union. They scrapped it last year, however, claiming that the training rendered the subjects too unstable, and you were sent to us.” Her eyes are full of pity. “You were a mess. We did what we could, but I’m worried that some of the old you has started to leak back in. I don’t know…”

“Don’t know what?” asks Kamala. Her legs are trembling, as though she has carried a heavy weight over a long distance. She tries to picture the streets of Bangalore, and she cannot. She tries to remember the name of the man in Brasilia, the man who molded her into what she is, the man she had killed, but there is only a damning blankness where that information should be.

Recollections that she has repressed, because they are so painful? Or details that her mind simply never had a reason to invent?

“I don’t know if I should give you the code phrase,” says Fisher sadly, crouching to retrieve the dead agent’s gun. “You’re on a five-day schedule, meaning you have a couple of hours left.”

A mortal chill steals through Kamala’s bones. She knows about the code phrase, which is tied to the trigger that can wipe a patient’s mind. She’s seen what happens to an operative from whom it is withheld. Fisher could murder her through simple silence; she doesn’t even need the gun in her hands. “I’m not insane.”

“You’re close,” says Fisher matter-of-factly. “Even fresh out of the chair, your evaluations were worrying. Bruno told me you had ‘a fatalistic worldview, plus manipulative and sadistic tendencies.’ He didn’t think we should take you on.”

Kamala thinks of her close relationship with fate, her instinctive understanding of the fabric of the universe, the workings of the clock, the way things are supposed to be.

Is that insanity? If so, maybe dying would be a kindness. She doesn’t want to live in a world where that certainty doesn’t exist… or, worse, where it does exist, but only as evidence of her own frailty, of the chaos rampant in the human brain.

“On the other hand,” says Fisher slowly, “you did take the initiative. Romanoff was a failure, but you saw the mission through.”

Kamala lifts her chin, trying to bury her terror behind a mask of pride. “Of course I did,” she says stiffly. “And… and I think you’ll need me. In what’s to come.”

She glances towards the cockpit. The pilot is openly following their conversation, his eyes narrowed.

Fisher hesitates, and then she gives a grudging nod. Kamala knows that the doctor has little to lose from acquiescing. Five days from now, Kamala will be at her mercy again.

Fisher speaks, but Kamala does not hear the words. Her skull seems to fill with a white noise, echoes ricocheting between the folds of her brain and then swiftly fading. Soon, she knows, she will forget even this bit of strangeness. After all, Fisher has been saying this unknown phrase to her every five days for the past year.

Still, it seems unfair that she is not even permitted to hear the words that rule her life.

Escape is not impossible, and standing there in the jet’s hold Kamala – or whoever she is – decides that she is fated to slip from Sloane Fisher’s grasp.

Not tonight. Not any time soon. But the Institute’s work is not infallible, and she can only trust in the understanding she has possessed since childhood… even if that childhood only exists in her mind.

Kamala Manesh believes in fate.

 

(42)

Three days after arriving in Frankfurt she feels his eyes on her. His gaze has solidity, weight, as obvious and familiar as the touch of a hand.

Natasha finishes her drink, pays the tab, and walks outside. The other patrons are engrossed in the soccer game. No one follows her, or even seems to register her departure.

The day is mild, although weather reports have been warning of rain. Clouds are just beginning to coalesce, but at this stage they are only a bit of meteorological decoration with no real harm in them.

Natasha strolls through Nizza Park, following the banks of the River Main, and then east along the Museumsufer, a stately street lined with museums and government buildings. Most of these structures are only two and three stories tall, with roofs flat enough for a sure-footed man to negotiate now in the hours before sunset.

The fifteen-minute walk to her apartment feels like much longer. She resists the urge to check over her shoulder or scan rooftops or peer into likely alleys every few seconds. Eventually it becomes a challenge to see how slowly she can walk, how nonchalant she can appear. There is something about feeling his eyes on her but betraying no outward sign that makes her blood run faster, that lights a steady torch of anticipation in her belly.

*

The apartment is modest. She’s squirreled away plenty of money over the years, preparing for the day when she might be on her own again, but Frankfurt is an expensive city and there’s no point in being wasteful.

Five hundred square feet gives her all the space she needs (and compared to some places she’s lived is almost palatial) with a bedroom and bathroom, and a serviceable kitchenette separated from the sitting room by a half-wall. The décor is mostly done in creams and blue-grays with cheerful pops of red and orange – the lampshades, the patterned tiles behind the oven – and the windows are large and plentiful, admitting torrents of silvery light as premature dusk falls, ushered in with the thickening clouds. Perhaps she should feel nervous about all that glass, but she’s on the fifth floor while neighboring buildings only reach three stories at the most.

Besides, there is a sense of freedom when she releases the latch and slides the window frame up, letting in the cooling air and the smell of the approaching storm.

Natasha puts on some music and heads into the kitchen, where the bag from the drugstore is right where she left it last night. She’d picked up a few cosmetics, some other toiletries, but her main goal had been the carton of hair dye. She’s never used this particular brand before, but after reading over the ingredients and instructions on the side of the box she decides it’s not likely to make all of her hair fall out.

In the bedroom she steps out of her jeans and blouse and into an inexpensive tank top and cotton shorts, which won’t be a great loss if they’re ruined by errant dye. She moves by rote, every sense straining throughout the five hundred square feet and beyond, waiting for a knock at the door or stealthy feet along a windowsill, but the only sound is that of a new song playing in the other room.

Just after true sunset, the rain begins to fall.

She mixes the dye, applies it there in the kitchen with a practiced hand, and passes the time while the color sets by paging through a magazine, washing her breakfast dishes, and opening a bottle of wine. She pours herself a glass, considers pouring a second, but abstains.

The apartment has a shower, of course, but she decides to rinse out the dye in the kitchen sink, using the little spray attachment mounted beside the faucet, telling herself that she prefers to remain where she can hear the sound of rain rather than retreating to the windowless bathroom. She turns on the water, adjusts the temperature, pulls out the attachment on its springy coil of hose, and flips her hair forward into the basin. Even through her closed eyelids she can see the red-stained water streaming down over her scalp, swirling down the drain… as vivid as blood, except it’s not morbid at all. It’s her color, part of who she is.

She senses his presence an instant before his hand slides over hers; she lets him pull the spray attachment from her grasp and braces her arms on either side of the sink instead.

He is close behind her, hips brushing against her bottom as she’s bent at the waist, as he leans forward and runs the fingers of his free hand up the nape of her neck, through her hair, washing away what’s left of the dye. He works without words, guiding her with the gentle pressure of his fingers when he needs her to tilt or turn her head. Stray rivulets of warm water trickle down over her face and back between her shoulder blades, tracing a liquid path down her vertebrae.

The silence and his rough, steady hands are more intoxicating than the wine.

When he reaches forward and turns off the tap, his body briefly presses against hers in a way that wrings a small gasp from her lips. Natasha lifts her dripping head from the basin, groping for and locating the towel she’d left on the countertop, wiping her face and squeezing the moisture from her hair even as she turns.

Natasha only gets the barest glimpse of Clint’s face – cheeks flushed, eyes dark – before his arms go around her waist and hers wind around his neck, pulling his lips down to hers with almost bruising force. The kiss is hard and hungry, laced with the desperation of the last week and a half and the anticipation of the last hour, his tongue tracing the seam of her lips and then moving between them.

She clutches at his shoulders, pressing her curves to his planes as her hair drips over her shoulders; his t-shirt is dampened from the rain, sticking to his skin in places (skin she’s desperate to see, to feel against her own) and she wonders how long he lingerd in the gathering storm.

His hands slide up her body – palms rucking up the hem of her tank top, thumbs teasing her breasts through the fabric – as his body presses hers more firmly against the kitchen counter. And oh God this is familiar, familiar but better, because she’s not worried about his state of mind or her own, and neither of them is bloody and bruised (or at least no more than usual) and she knows he’s not going to give her any well-meaning bullshit excuses.

After everything that’s happened, he wouldn’t dare.

He does break the kiss at last; she lets out a moan of dismay before realizing that maybe he has the right idea, because she’s breathless to the point of lightheadedness, her heart racing, thudding against her breastbone in equal parts eagerness and feverish anxiety. He kisses her neck, the shell of her ear; she slides her hands into his hair, writhes against him, enjoying the way his body reacts, predictable biology that is also as unique as a fingerprint.

As a girl, sex was something that was done to her; when she was older, it was something she did to other people: a tactic, an infliction, always a verb, never a noun, and always wrapped up in pain and violence and death. Years later, on her own at last, it wasn’t a tactic she actively sought to employ, but it was another weapon in her arsenal; every part of her body was a tool, and every tool had its time and place. The promise of her body could make even the most suspicious bastard a compliant fool, and in the heat of the moment an armed man became as vulnerable as a child.

SHIELD had changed that. There’s always another way, Phil Coulson had told her firmly, and she had resented him for it, for the implication that she was doing something wrong all these years, something immoral and worthy of pity, for the assertion that some tools are better than others.

She’s found partners since then, of course… one night stands, men with no connection to either enemies – because she’s nothing if not careful – or her allies – because it’s surprisingly hard to be intimate with someone who knows you can snap their neck with your thighs – but it has never been an easy, organic process.

She started going to bars and clubs during her off-time, and scanning the room the moment she entered, identifying likely marks, her gaze inevitably drawn to the figures who radiated trouble. Natasha doesn’t particularly like trouble, but she knows how to deal with it, with the sly remarks that are often veiled insults from men – boys – too insecure in their own bodies to approach women with honesty, with the amateurish attempts to get her drunk or, now and then, to spike her drink.

She loathed these boys, didn’t enjoy their company any more than she’d enjoyed the company of drug lords and crime bosses, but they’d been a kind of tool themselves. At least with them, her wariness, her habitual inclinations towards violence, had been well-deserved.

Clint is trouble of a different kind. He’s not always a nice man but he is a good one, she’s known that from the night they met, when he smiled wryly and her and insisted you don’t owe me anything. And maybe she’s been a little fascinated by him ever since then because a weaker man, a smaller man, would never have relinquished a debt like that.

By now she understands that most of the men she’s known, for all their wealth and power, have been weak and small indeed.

Tasha,” he whispers, the first word either of them have spoken, and she kisses him again, kisses him hard until neither of them have any breath left for speaking. His fingers seem to be everywhere at once: buried in her wet hair, trailing across her jaw, tracing the low, lace-edged neckline of her tank and teasing the flesh beneath.

When those hands skim down her ribs to her waist, her hips, she covers them with her own, flatting them against the exposed skin, urging his fingertips beneath the elastic waistband of her cotton shorts and the stretchy fabric of her panties, and he groans a wordless appeal into her mouth.

“Yes,” she gasps.

He sinks to his knees as she peels off her shirt; he kisses a path between her breasts, down her stomach as he tugs both remaining items of clothing to the floor. She steps out of them and he catches her left ankle, guides it up to his right shoulder. His stubble-roughened cheek brushes her inner thigh, followed closely by his lips; she gasps again, this time as much in surprise as arousal.

She knows this position, of course; she just hasn’t known it from this side, because even if someone in her old life had offered – and they hadn’t, too devoted to their own pleasure to concern themselves with hers – she would have demurred, because… because. Even with Clint she finds it a little frightening, being so vulnerable, so exposed.

He hears the gasp, feels her tense, and looks up at her with concerns and questions in his eyes. He doesn’t ask aloud; she simply nods, because physical vulnerability is nothing compared to what they’ve already been through.

She trusts him. She trusts him with everything.

As he moves his tongue and lips against her, into her, she grips the counter at her back, grips it so hard she half expects the tile to crumble, her knees trembling with the strain of remaining upright. She leans back, surprised at the sounds that escape her lips; her head thumps against the upper cabinets, and her eyes are squeezed tight as she’s taken over by the clever pressure, the gliding warmth, the gentleness and intensity of his touch.

Yes, she whispers, and there and Clint and once even please, like a prayer, like a hymn, fighting to remain standing, her voice just audible over the music and the rainfall and the eager keening coming from his own throat. She wants to tell him that it’s too much, that he should stop, but of course she doesn’t want him to stop, not now, not ever, and because she could never have too much of this feeling, not just the physical pleasure but everything that comes with it.

When she comes it’s with a strangled cry and a rush of heat that briefly overwhelms her senses. Her back arches, her knees tremble; she almost loses her footing, catches herself a second before he does, and decides to lose it after all, folding in on him as her vision clears and the tempo of her heart slows.

He holds her. He will hold her as long as she needs him to; she doesn’t even have to ask.

When she finds her feet and raises her head, he kisses her again, more slowly than before but also somehow more deeply, his hands framing her face as they lean into one another. Arousal flares up again, more insistently than seems possible. Every stitch and seam and button of Clint’s clothing that scrapes against her sensitized flesh is a reminder that he is frustratingly well-covered, something that seems to occur to him as well, because he yanks his shirt over his head while Natasha makes quick work of his belt buckle and fly.

She thinks that the tiled kitchen floor couldn’t have been kind to his knees, and that if they’re not careful they’re going both going to end up down there again, so as he steps out of his jeans she pulls him towards the bedroom. He grins briefly and follows her.

*

Rain splatters against the window above the bed like a hundred drumming fingers. Real dusk has settled now and the room is lit only in grey, storm-washed light.

Natasha slides back over the sheets, towards the tufted headboard, and Clint is little more than a silhouette against the open doorway as he follows her. His boxers are gone in a flash of fabric, his lips find hers and their bodies orient themselves accordingly.

He’s just moving to settle between her thighs when he suddenly pulls back, and even in the bad light she can see his brow crease with frustration. “Shit, condom… in my bag,” he mutters, pushing himself off of her, but she catches his arm.

“You’re not going to get me pregnant.” She wonders if he already knew that, or guessed, wonders if he can hear the acid in her voice. (She’s never much liked children, not even when she was one – they tell her she was one, once – and she’d never given much thought to having any of her own. Even now, if she could, she probably wouldn’t. The world is too scary. Losing hurts too much. But… it’s the fact she has no choice in the matter that makes her bitter.)

He hesitates, comprehension flickering across his face – damn him for understanding – and carefully sinks back down on her. He doesn’t ask about anything else and she doesn’t need to offer; they both got full check-ups in Paris and she trusts him to tell her if there was further need for protection. At least, thanks to Aten, she hasn’t been with anybody since.

“You brought condoms?” she asks, trying to lighten the mood as he shifts against her, sliding a hand between their bodies, as if he doesn’t know that she’s ready – ridiculously ready. “Little presumptuous… aren’t you?”

“You know me,” he grunts, “Always prepared.”

“Yeah, you’re a goddamn Boy Scout,” she gasps, writhing against the intimate touch. His fingers are amazing, almost as good as his mouth, but right now they’re just not enough. “Barton, dammit, what are you waiting for?”

He chuckles as he grips her hips and finally, inch by delicious inch, sinks into her, so agonizingly slow that she’s pretty sure he’s doing it on purpose, trying to drive her insane; her head falls back against the dampened pillows and she eases her legs up, knees hooked above his waist—

Panic strikes her, sudden and inexplicable; her breath catches and Clint goes very still, maybe afraid that he’s hurt her, but it’s not that at all. Natasha clutches the sheets beneath her sweaty palms, wondering if somehow the trigger has only lain dormant until now, if the code phrase requirement hadn’t been eradicated with the rest of the injunction, if this is the moment when she loses everything…

But then the moment passes, counted down in hummingbird-quick heartbeats, and she realizes that it’s only an artifact from the old days. When her body was a tool, when this tool was pressed into use, this was when she would force her mind away from the present and instead catalog improved weapons within reach, and easily accessible pressure points, and nearby exits. When she would mentally review next steps and contingency plans and mission objectives. She has reached for these things out of habit and has, naturally, come up empty.

No orders. No weapons. No escape.

No need to escape. She’s safe, maybe safer in this moment than she’s ever been, despite everything that’s happened, despite the uncertainty of the future hanging over them. “It’s okay,” she whispers, speaking to herself as much as Clint. “I’m okay.”

He still seems worried, so Natasha dries her palms and brings her hands to his face, kissing him fiercely – with her lips and tongue and teeth – and moving, maneuvering her body so that his can find a closer, deeper fit. She bites at his bottom lip, murmurs a few choice words in Russian, and he seems to like that; at least his thrusts go from considerate and controlled to downright enthusiastic without any further urging on her part. She grasps the edge of the headboard with one hand, uses the other to guide his hips to the right angle, the perfect rhythm, unabashedly moaning her approval when his mouth drops to her breasts.

There are other things she could do, things he would enjoy – things he would curse her for and enjoy anyway – but now isn’t the time.

Despite the moment of panic, despite having the edge taken off in the kitchen, so to speak, she knows that she is close; the torch has been burning bright and hot for too long to draw this out much longer. She tells him as much, panting the words into his ear, and hears a relieved sigh pass between his lips, as though she’s taken off some of the pressure. Or maybe it’s because she puts it like this: I’ll let you off easy this time. This time – implying, of course, that there will be a next time.

Of course there will be a next time. She can’t imagine there not being a next time. Screw Fury and his schemes and his plans, forget playing it safe. She needs this. She didn’t even realize how much until now.

Clint’s callused fingers move blindly between them, reading her body like Braille, and even his slightly clumsy touch is enough to tip her over the edge. His arms slip beneath her waist and up her back, holding her close as she shudders in release, unalloyed pleasure coursing through every nerve and synapse, and then without warning he is there as well, burying his face against her neck as he climaxes, his voice rough with raw pleasure.

*

The morning dawns clear, and aggressively bright. Natasha wakes when Clint reaches up to twitch the curtains across the windows, then wriggles back beneath the blankets.

Feigning sleep, she rolls towards him; he shifts accommodatingly and she ends up sprawled across his chest, one bent leg sliding up and over his knees, just in case he gets any bright ideas about slipping out early again. And if he decides that, despite whatever assumptions he might have made, that she’s a cuddler… well, she can live with that.

Until he pulls her hair.

“Ow,” she says distinctly, not opening her eyes.

He laughs softly, his chest rumbling beneath her ear, an undertone to the timpani beat of his heart. “Sorry,” he says, in an easy tone that rather indicates he isn’t sorry at all. She realizes that he must have been trying to run his fingers through her hair which, left to dry of its own accord, has done so in a wild snarl of curls and tangles.

She lifts her head from his chest, a vivid red halo just visible on the edge of her vision. His eyes are heavy-lidded from lack of (or, more accurately, interrupted) sleep, a half-contented, half-smug smile hovering at the corners of his mouth. “If I’d known you’d be that happy to see me, I would have driven a lot faster,” he confides.

Natasha frowns, closing her eyes as she tries to force her own muddled mind to function. “Drive? Didn’t you get my message?” She didn’t know Agent Santiago all that well, but she’d known her other escort even less. Fury had hustled her off the Carrier too quickly to arrange anything else.

“Sure, but I didn’t want to telegraph where you were. Where I thought you were.” He pushes a few curls out of her face and she winces in anticipation, but he’s more careful this time. “I told them to put me down in Brussels.”

It hurts, holding her neck at this angle, so she props her head up on one hand. “That’s only a four hour drive.”

“Six. I changed cars in Karlsruhe and came in from the south,” he says, not looking at her, which raises her hackles. “Plus, you know, there’s always traffic… and you did have a twelve-hour head start on me…”

“Clint.”

He shuts up immediately, as though expecting the reproof, but he continues to pretend fascination with the intricate whorls of her pillow-dried hair.

“What aren’t you telling me?”

He finally meets her eyes. “I talked to Fury.”

She waits, her only response a cocked eyebrow.

“Turns out you were wrong,” he says vaguely.

Natasha knows he’s goading her – to his great peril, considering where her knee is right now – but she sighs and prompts him with, “Wrong about what?”

“You told me in Paris… you said Fury wasn’t stupid enough to throw away two of his best assets.”

It takes her a moment to absorb what he means. He waits it out in resigned silence, as though expecting her to push him out of bed or at least insult his intelligence in several different languages.

In truth she doesn’t know how to react, because she’s known from the first that Fury’s plan would mean not only the end of her association with SHIELD but also the end of her partnership with Clint. She had understood that they would need to communicate in secret to avoid tainting him with her supposed treason, to keep him from being a target for Lycaon’s minions, that publically he would be expected to scorn and distrust her as he never had, not even in the days when they were still strangers.

And she’d hated it. Hated the idea of losing him so soon after finding him again – finding herself again, finding the part of her strong enough to admit what he is to her. Mourned at the thought of this new distance between them.

But she never could have come out and asked him to leave SHIELD. He found a home there more surely than she had; he made friends, became comfortable in the role he was assigned. Now he’s tainted, too.

But it doesn’t matter. ‘Relief’ is a poor word to describe what she’s feeling, for the fact that she won’t have to let him go and the knowledge of what he’s done for her. For them.

No words are enough, so she shows him instead.

 

(43)

 

For Clint, the next few days are a blur, a miasma of spycraft, sex and something else he has no proper word for, something tissue-paper thin and papier-mâché fragile that might be called happiness or wholeness if they were two different people. As it is… he doesn’t need a name to know what it means.

He feels increasingly foolish for the lingering doubts that had landed with him in Brussels, tailed him to Karlsruhe, loitered in the passenger’s seat on the way into Frankfurt. At the time, of course, he’d only had his guess, his memory of the first time Natasha shared her opinion on debt, the recollection of that night when he didn’t shoot her and she didn’t shoot him, the night everything changed. But he still hadn’t been sure that she wanted to see him.

The first sight of her – sitting in a pub, watching the people around her with a vague half-smile hovering on her lips – had stripped those concerns away, evicting the doubt from his heart.

Now he knows for sure. She wants him. She wants him.

It’s going to take some getting used to.

*

At first Natasha is wary of being seen in public together. For all his assurances that he wasn’t tailed – that Fury, despite having the capability of finding them, has no real interest in doing so – she is who she is. The intentions and resources of Fisher’s patron on the Council are still a mystery, and even though Clint’s defection must be known by now, there’s no way of knowing how big of a target he’s made of himself.

Besides, if their position has been compromised, it’s better to know now, before they’re tempted to become complacent.

So the next few days are spent largely apart, as Natasha wanders through Frankfurt in full view of God and everyone, and he watches. He watches her, of course, but mainly he watches to see if she’s being followed. He watches the other rooftops for snipers. He watches the cops to see if they show any undue interest in a certain redheaded woman, because Lycaon’s influence may extend to suborning the local authorities. But he sees nothing suspicious, nothing that triggers his instincts; by the end of the day Natasha is all he can see, all he cares about, and she must also get something out of being the object of his focus because by the time they return – separately – to the apartment each night, they can’t keep their hands off each other.

Every part of her is endlessly fascinating to him, a combination of lithe youthfulness, hard-earned experience and athletic grace, and she knows how to use her body but she’s still learning what it means not to be used.

She hovers in a grey area between absolute carnal self-confidence and self-conscious uncertainty, and at first Clint really feels like the pressure is on, especially since he doubts his performance their first time together was anything to write home about. The next few times aren’t perfect either, but they’re still good, and eventually as he becomes more attuned to her body and her moods he’s able to tell when she wants to make love… and when she just wants him.

Which, frankly, does amazing things for his ego.

It’s not all roses, of course. He’s more content now than he’s been in a long time, and contentedness has a way of making him realize how much he has to lose. There are nights when, even physically exhausted, with Natasha pressed against his side, warm and sated, he has a hard time finding his way to sleep. The darkness is full of traps and pits and cruel laughter.

She struggles, as well. Clint’s never known her to suffer from nightmares or anxiety – which is truly remarkable when he considers the trauma she’s experienced in her short life – but now and then she’ll wake in the night, clammy and shivering, silent tears drying on her cheeks. He learns quickly that at times like this she doesn’t want to be touched, but she does want to know that he’s there, so he talks to her.

He talks about what he saw from his vantage above the city that day: the tourists, the traffic, the species of birds that shared his perch. He talks, sometimes without even listening to himself, because he knows the sound of his voice is more important than the words.

Eventually her breathing slows and her skin warms; sometimes she rolls over and goes back to sleep, and sometimes she pulls him against her and they bury the pain beneath the thrill of flesh and the rush of endorphins.

*

On the third day he thinks to check the dropbox and is dismayed but not surprised to learn of Fisher and Manesh’s escape. Two agents, Keve and Wright, and the pilot, Jeffers, are missing as well.

Natasha’s face goes very still and stern when he tells her; there is anger at SHIELD’s incompetence (or Lycaon’s influence) and frustration at justice delayed and denied, but also a glimpse of fear that scares the hell out of him.

That night she takes a long bath, returning to the bedroom only after he’s finished a chapter of L’Amour’s The Walking Drum and turned off the light. She pulls back the sheets and climbs in next to him, turned away and not quite touching. When he settles against her, back to front, hand resting chastely below the crook of her elbow, she doesn’t relax into his arms… but she doesn’t push him away, either.

*

When they begin to talk about the future, at first it’s only in the most general of terms. Their combined savings, stashed away over the years, won’t last forever. They’re both reluctant to leave Frankfurt, which has become a sort of haven from their many worldly concerns, but their options here are limited. There are few job openings relevant to their experience, after all, and any return to their old ways will make them an immediate focus of attention.

Clint knows he has an open invitation to set up shop in Nairobi, even without the mizingi suit, but Natasha’s expression clouds at his suggestion. This is not an indictment of Kenya; he knows she is still thinking of Fisher and Manesh, out there somewhere, rebuilding the Institute from the ashes with the help of their patron.

Certain names remain unspoken. Clint’s still not sure if Stark actually ‘vouched for’ Natasha, or if that was just an invention of Fury’s, to give him a reason for not arresting her. Even if he did there’s no guarantee that he meant it. As for the others, Clint is willing to take Steve Rogers at his word (how could he do otherwise, after everything that’s happened?) but he hardly knows Banner at all.

He hates the idea of showing up on Stark’s doorstep after going to such great lengths to avoid being collected, metaphoric hat in hand, asking if the Avengers have any use for an outed spy-assassin and an ex-SHIELD archer, slightly used.

*

On the fifth night they lie together on the sofa, ostensibly watching a bad German dub of The French Connection, although he’s had his hand up her shirt since Hackman’s first scene and she’s been toying with the fly of his jeans for about as long. It’s become an unspoken game to see what ends first: the movie or their self-control.

Clint’s not sure if it’s the repeated shots of New York or just the endless cycling of their unspoken thoughts that finally breaks the stalemate, but halfway through the car chase sequence she sits up, throwing one leg over his hips, pushing him down into the cushions as she straddles him. “I can’t…” she begins, brow furrowed as she pulls her t-shirt over her head, grinding down on his lap until his eyes are practically rolling back into his skull. “I can’t,” she says again, and he’s not exactly sure what she means, only what she doesn’t mean, because over the next half-hour she proves herself very capable of a multitude of things, all of which meet with his approval.

It’s only afterwards, when she’s collapsed against his chest, damp tendrils of hair hanging into her eyes, that she’s able to complete the thought. “I can’t walk away.” She says it with obvious reluctance, as though sharing with him some bleak prognosis, anticipating his objections, the way he reminded her that day in the Helicarrier: you’re a spy, not a soldier. Now you want to wade into a war.

His arms are around her, fingers mapping a path down her vertebrae, stroking the sweat-slick skin. They’ve been partners for more than five years; they’ve been together for only five days. He should have reservations about the next words to come out of his mouth, uncertainty of their suitability or her reception. But there’s no other way to say what he’s feeling, which is ‘I trust you’ and ‘you can walk anywhere as long as I can come too’ and ‘I’d never ask you to be anyone but who you are.’ He shrugs one shoulder. “Natasha… I love you.”

She looks down at him, not aghast at this admission, not dismissive or even discomfited, just… melancholy. Almost sorrowful. “I don’t expect you to…” he begins, and then changes his mind. “I understand. If you can’t say it right now.”

She lays one hand on his chest, fingers splayed across the muscle. “What if it takes me a long time?” she asks softly, lowering her eyes. “What if I can’t ever say it?”

He can’t say you will, because he doesn’t know that for sure. He can’t say you already have because that’s not quite true either, even if those words still echo in the chambers of his heart.

“You don’t have to say anything,” he tells her instead, covering her hand with his own, and that much is the truth… or at least as much truth as he can find words for right now.

*

On the seventh day, their last day in Frankfurt, they throw caution to the wind and decide to go out to dinner.

Together. In public.

It’s a little weird.

They’re armed, of course. Handguns, mostly, but also an assortment of knives, tasers and other sundry items that seem warranted for a night on the town when someone could, at any given moment, take a shot at them. (His bow is back at the apartment; it may be unparalleled in terms of control, finesse, and adaptability, but in close quarters it has its drawbacks.)

With no particular destination in mind, they spend some time simply wandering the streets in one of the posh neighborhoods north of the Main. There are businessmen and tourists and gangs of disaffected teenagers, but mostly there are couples. The sight of so many pairs walking, hands clasped and with such obvious affection for each other, makes Clint feel as though he’s been initiated into some exclusive club. He and Natasha may be less demonstrative in public, but he sees in the faces of the men around him the same bewildered cheerfulness that he encountered in the mirror this morning.

An hour or so after sunset they pass by one bustling establishment, obviously one of the hottest tickets in town. Fantastic aromas waft into the avenue, along with the buzz of conversation and the gentle plinking of piano keys; feeling spontaneous, Clint grabs Natasha’s hand and pulls her through the door.

She rolls her eyes at him, leaning close to be heard above the din of chatter and the rattle of silver on china as they step inside. “I bet this place has been booked for months. You should have brought the bow,” she says dryly, leaving the rest unsaid: if you want special treatment, be prepared to be Hawkeye.

He shrugs and grins as they approach the maître d's table. It’s manned by a young brunette woman who looks up with a studiously bland expression, taking in their clothes (even his slacks and her silk blouse mean they’re underdressed for a place like this) with a tiny wince.

When she registers their faces, however, everything changes. Her lipsticked mouth makes a crimson ‘o’ of surprise and she glances down at her ledger with a nervous flutter. “Good evening! We’ve prepared a private room… just this way…” she says, first in German and then, blushing, again in English, motioning for them to follow her across the parquet floor. A handful of exquisitely-garbed patrons, who probably had the good sense to make reservations weeks ago, watch them through slitted eyes.

Natasha looks at Clint suspiciously as they walk in the young woman’s wake, but he shakes his head in honest confusion and she grimly snaps open the fastenings of her purse. It seems unlikely that, not only has Lycaon discovered them, he intends to take them out in the middle of a crowded restaurant… but he still feels better knowing that she has one of her weapons within easy reach.

The hostess leads them to a set of engraved panel doors, opens them, and steps back. Clint sucks in a quick breath, prepared to drop to the ground at the first sight of danger (he’s never been too proud to scramble when his life’s on the line, and anyway, Natasha’s the better shot with a handgun) but the only figure to jump out at them is familiar, enthusiastic and, as far as Clint knows, impervious to bullets.

“My friends!”

Thor scoops Clint into a one-armed hug, actually lifting him several inches off the floor – which is humiliating – and then does the same to Natasha before she can retreat out of his range. Back on her feet she stares openmouthed, first at the Asgardian and then at the other men who rise from their table in the center of the room as the hostess closes the doors behind her.

Rogers extends his hand; after a brief hesitation Clint accepts it, shakes it, finds himself returning the other man’s smile. Then he’s looking at Banner and shaking his hand, too, and saying something – he’s not even sure what, exactly – that Bruce shrugs off with a vaguely embarrassed, “Don’t mention it.”

And finally there’s Tony Stark. While the others, even Thor, are dressed respectably enough in button-down shirts and sports coats – although Banner’s looks just slightly rumpled – Stark wears dark jeans and a t-shirt thin enough to allow the light from his arc reactor to shine through. Definitely not on the restaurant’s dress code, Clint thinks… but then again, when you’re Tony Stark, maybe nobody really cares what you wear.

They look at each other for a moment – two strange cats sizing each other up – and then Stark grins aggressively. “Glad you made it. We just ordered appetizers.”

Thor, who’s already in conversation with Natasha – he’s gesticulating wildly and saying the words Jane and amazing a lot – looks up long enough to voice his unvarnished approval of appetizers.

Questions cycle through Clint’s mind with dizzying speed; he finally decides on the most pertinent: “How did you find us?”

Stark raises his eyebrows. “You have a cell phone.”

“Not your phone,” says Clint stubbornly. He’d left that thing in Rogers’ custody.

“So? It’s a phone,” says Stark slowly, as though he’s talking to a kindergartener. Clint must look worried – Natasha walks over, her brow furrowed – and Stark rolls his eyes. “Calm down. As far as anyone else is concerned, you two are off the grid.”

Natasha looks as doubtful as Clint feels, but at that moment a trio of servers arrives through a back door, weighed down with trays of silver platters and crystal goblets, and they take their seats.

The others were already settled at a rectangular table for six – three on each side – and when they reclaim their places there are only two empty chairs remaining. Clint ends up sitting on the end of one side, next to Banner, with Natasha across from him, to Rogers’ left.

Drinks are distributed, and the plates of appetizers – little pastries with spinach and cream cheese, shrimp dipped in something spicy and yellow, crispy crackers topped with mozzarella and basil – are almost empty before the startled servers can reach the door. “Just keep it coming, boys,” Stark tells them with a grandiose gesture.

Natasha curls her fingers around the stem of a wine glass but does not drink. “You couldn’t have known we would come here,” she insists.

“No,” agrees Banner, examining a cracker.

“We were going to call you…” Rogers begins.

Thor laughs around a mouthful of pastry. “Tony was unsure whether you would even care to leave the apartment,” he says, with a look in Clint’s direction that must be the Asgardian equivalent of a wink and a thumbs-up.

Clint glances at Natasha, surprised at the flush on her cheeks. Well, they have been spending a lot of time indoors the past couple of days, he allows, once they decided they hadn’t been followed. Of course, they had been followed, just not by whom they had expected, and he decides not to ask how long the others have been in town. Somehow the idea of Stark and the others tracking their movements, albeit remotely, while they’ve been… enjoying each other’s company… is a little off-putting.

Or maybe not. Maybe the color on Natasha’s face is less embarrassment and more the echo of desire. Their eyes meet and her smile is hidden behind the curve of her wineglass as she takes her first sip, and for a moment he’s captured by the memory of her mouth, fixated by the idea of tasting the wine on her lips…

“Hey!” Stark slaps his palm down on the tabletop, rattling dinnerware, making everyone jump and lean instinctively away from Banner. “No eye sex at the dinner table,” he admonishes them, and Rogers sputters into his water glass.

“Lets just say,” Stark continues, with a brief glower at Thor, who sits across from him, “that great minds think alike, and we’re all here, and we all more or less know who we are.” He raises his glass in an ironic toast. “Huzzah.”

Natasha tilts her head speculatively. “You helped us,” she says, her eyes flickering towards Clint and Rogers before returning to Stark.

“Yes…” acknowledges Stark, snagging the last shrimp with his fork, almost skewering Thor’s fingers in the process. Despite his studied nonchalance, he sounds slightly wary.

“Why?” Natasha asks, as brash as ever, and Clint suppresses a grin. God, I love her.

Now the others are looking at Stark too, as though as they’re as curious to hear the answer as Clint is. The man just shrugs, obviously uncomfortable, as though he’s not used to having his largess questioned – and he probably isn’t – and certainly not in that quiet, penetrating way Natasha has perfected.

The easiest, most acceptable answer, of course, would be ‘it was the right thing to do.’ That’s the answer Rogers and Banner would give, if Clint cared to press them, and he knows that Thor, had he been on Earth a week ago, would have been at their side as well, motivated by nothing more complicated than basic decency, or honor, or whatever they call it where he’s from.

But Tony Stark is a different animal altogether. He shrugs again, scowls as he realizes they’re still waiting for him to answer, and says in an offhand way, “I just figured us Avengers have to stick together.”

And suddenly he reminds Clint less of an avid collector and more of a pampered but unpopular schoolboy, eager to buy the friends he can’t seem to make, bribing his peers with Twinkies and baseball cards or whatever the hell schoolboys use as social currency these days.

Natasha nods, but she does not break eye contact with Stark. Her foot bumps against Clint’s beneath the table.

The look on her face at this moment is one he can’t quite identify. Maybe he’s never seen it before. It reminds him a little of how she looks when she’s asleep, after that veil has come down and subtlety changed her expression. He’s had ample opportunities this past week to watch her sleeping, but he still hasn’t come to any hard and fast conclusions.

Maybe he’s seeing the face of the woman she might have been, if her life had gone differently. Or maybe he’s getting a glimpse of who she’s becoming, instead.

“The Avengers,” says Stark again, and he is the first to look away, to look around the table at the rest of them. “All six of us.”

Banner smiles faintly. Thor beams.

Steve lifts his wineglass in a far less ironic toast. “To knowing who we are,” he says. “More or less.”

 

fin