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Right Into the Great Unknown

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Clint stops counting the days after the first month in the Raft.

At first, the wait is easy. Clint is good at waiting, might have even said great before all of this. He’s a sniper, after all, the sort of secret weapon that's most powerful when held in reserve, in the shadows, until the moment is exactly right.

For the first week or so, it all just seems surreal--not being in prison; he expected that part from the moment the real destruction at the airport began--but the fact that it’s the fucking Raft. That there are miles of open ocean between him and the nearest safe place. That this doesn’t seem to be blowing over or working out like so many of the predicaments he’s found himself in before. That a few scant days ago he’d been feeling restless over the prospect of a summer filled with nothing but sunny days on the farm, and now he’s in a cell for the foreseeable future without so much as a window connecting him to the outside world. He doesn’t want to even think about what might be happening out there, all the worst case scenarios he’d be able to do jack-shit about.

By the time Steve arrives, he’s lost track of the days, but he knows that his dreams are getting worse--turning back into nightmares, equal parts vivid and bizarre, the kind that have him waking drenched in sweat, a scream lodged in the back of his throat. The kind of dreams he hasn’t had since the months after New York. He had too much time to think then, too.

He also knows they’ve been given exactly two scant, tasteless meals per day, that there are exactly eighteen guards--the same ones, every day, and don’t they ever get a break from this place?--who patrol this detention level, and that when he gets out of line, allows even a fraction of his anger to show through, the electrodes embedded in the fabric of his jumpsuit deliver a shock that’s at least a seven on the pain scale. That’s a thought that makes him smile bitterly--the dour guards holding up the ridiculously cheery pain scale he always hated in S.H.I.E.L.D. Medical. ‘Which are you now, Mr. Barton? The frowny face or the one that’s screaming for mercy?’

Maybe he really is cracking up in here.

When the power goes out, Clint knows immediately that it’s a harbinger of Steve’s arrival--or someone’s arrival, anyway, though it’s not like he really thought it would be Tony. For a moment the sudden darkness sends an overwhelming wave of claustrophobia through him, gives him visions of this floating shit show sinking straight to the bottom of the ocean, all of them suffocating slowly with the life support systems dead. Then the emergency lights kick on inside the cells and Clint reminds himself that Steve wouldn’t actually be that careless with the lives of everyone on this thing--he hopes, at least. He’s run enough missions with Steve to be familiar with his total lack of regard for safety precautions under the best of circumstances, and the past few months have been anything but.

“What are you waiting for?” comes Steve’s voice out of the god damned shadows, that not-quite-glib tone he always seems to develop in the thick of the action. “Door’s open.”

Sam is the first one out, of course, then Scott, both them looking nothing short of thrilled, as though popping the locks has instantly solved all of their problems.

“Clint?” Steve prompts, and it suddenly occurs to him that he’s still just sitting dumbly on his bunk, as if this whole thing’s just for the purpose of his entertainment.

He gets to his feet and shoves the door, which does, in fact, swing open. “You got weapons for us? Somehow I don’t think Ross is gonna let us just waltz our way out.”

Steve, he notices, is carrying a gun instead of his shield. But Clint isn’t about to start poking that particular can of worms right now.

“Better,” says Steve. “I’ve got a jet. And as long as we get to it in the next six minutes, we won’t need to fight anyone.”

“Oh,” Clint scoffs, anger bubbling to the surface again. “Six minutes. Is that all? Well, that’s just perfect.”

“This way,” says Steve, ignoring the sarcasm, and starting towards the door. The others follow, apparently still satisfied enough with this scenario to trust it blindly. Or at least quietly.

“What exactly is your plan?” Clint presses, as they file out into the dark hallway at a pace that’s not quite a jog. “Because the last time we followed you without asking that, it didn’t go so hot.”

“Security systems are out of our way,” says Steve, pushing open another door, which leads to stairs. “We get to the jet, fly out, slip into stealth mode before Ross discovers that Raft Control missed its last check in.”

“You just opened all the doors?” asks Clint, though some part of him is vaguely aware of the risk he’s taking by having this conversation at all, particularly here and now. “You are aware that some of the inmates here aren’t just misunderstood, right?”

Steve sighs, irritation beginning to show. “It’s taken care of. Just keep moving, Barton.”

This time Clint does fall silent, mainly because of the looks Scott and Sam shoot in his direction. They move as a unit through the darkness for what feels like a breathless eternity, but is probably closer to two minutes. Clint stops short again when they reach the end of the final detention level and he realizes that the hangar is their next stop, that they won’t be going anywhere else before the jet.

“Wait,” he breathes sharply, a mix of alarm and incredulity. “Wanda’s not with us. They took her to maximum security, I think, but I didn’t see--”

“It’s taken care of,” Steve repeats, more urgency coloring his tone now. “But we have to get to the jet, or things will get messy.”

Clint has an additional moment of apprehension as they step into the hangar, the jet coming into view, because it’s clear now that Steve isn’t working this job alone. Clint might not want to see Barnes tried as a war criminal for actions that weren’t his own, but that doesn’t mean he likes the idea of an unstable Soviet assassin taking responsibility for Wanda in her present condition--whatever that is.

Then the jet’s ramp swings down and Natasha steps out, grinning at Steve. “Told you I’d beat you back here.”

“Time?” asks Steve, motioning for the others to get onboard. He’s all laser focus now, ignoring Natasha’s competitive jab.

“Three minutes,” says Natasha, stepping aside so that Clint can pass her, Sam close behind. “It’s going to be tight.”

“Then let’s get on with it,” says Steve, heading straight for the cockpit as the ramp closes again.

Natasha nods once, curtly, but doesn’t join him in the copilot’s chair. Instead she gestures to a small pile of duffel bags sitting on the floor like they might have fallen out of the lockers during a particularly turbulent flight. “Strip. Put on something else from here or fly naked, I don’t care. But your uniforms have to stay behind, they’ve got trackers embedded in the fabric.”

The others glance around for a moment, struck either by some reflexive sense of modesty or by the sheer absurdity of the situation. Clint knows better, doesn’t think, just pulls off the Raft’s uniform in two quick motions before digging through the pile of bags for an alternative. Almost immediately, he realizes that this isn’t just any jet, it’s the one Tony upgraded for the old team, back when they were a team, abandoned in storage since Ultron changed everything. That means that one of these bags is his, and he finds it after a couple of tries, dressing again clumsily. By the time he’s finished with that, Natasha has gathered everyone’s uniforms up, dropping the whole mess back down the ramp and into the hangar before sliding into the co-pilot’s seat.

“Buckle in,” she instructs, not waiting for a response or much of anything else before she and Steve take the jet into the air, away from the water and the darkness.

Wanda is so quiet that Clint has another moment of alarm after the chaos of getting the jet airborne has faded, thinking she might not be onboard after all. She isn’t strapped into any of the various plush seats scattered around the jet, isn’t on any of the pull-out cots, though Scott is already making use of one of those, fingers laced over his stomach, staring up at the ceiling as though he might be on some sort of scenic tour.

When Clint finally locates her, Wanda is curled up on the floor at the very back of the jet, knees pulled up to her chest and arms wrapped around them. She looks smaller and younger than he thinks he’s ever seen before, which makes his stomach twist. He hasn’t seen her since they were all taken into custody, didn’t even get a moment to talk to her after the fight, though he isn’t sure what he might have said, had the opportunity presented itself. It feels as though he should have shared some kind of wisdom about getting by in prison, or at least apologized for his part in this clusterfuck. But there wasn’t a chance, and he probably would have been too shell-shocked at the sight of the goddamn Raft to say anything useful anyway.

Now, he takes a deep breath, tries to scrape up a few functioning brain cells, and sinks down onto the floor beside her, muscles sore from weeks of tension protesting at the movement.

“Hi,” Clint says quietly, when she makes no move to acknowledge him.

Wanda jumps visibly at the sound of his voice, tendrils of red crackling to life around her fingertips before the embers die again. She glances up at him reproachfully, but says nothing.

“You’re safe here,” Clint tries again, wondering suddenly what exactly she’s been through while out of his sight, what the inner levels of the Raft might hold. Given his experience in the lowest level of security, he doesn’t think he wants to know. “You know that, right? Nobody’s going to hurt you for talking.”

The dark circles rimming her eyes might as well be bruises, and Clint recognizes the spidery pink lines on her neck as the healing aftermath of electrical burns. Someone certainly wanted to make sure she hadn’t so much as thought about getting out of line.

“I know that,” she says finally, bitterly. “Maybe I just don’t want to talk to you.”

Clint takes a breath, guilt rising in the back of his throat for what feels like the thousandth time. “You’re angry. I don’t blame you. We’re all sorry for what--”

I blame you,” Wanda interrupts. She doesn’t say anything more, doesn’t elaborate, and Clint wonders whether she’s waiting to be questioned further, or just inviting him to go away.

“This was a tough break,” says Clint, deciding to make one more attempt despite his better judgment. Nothing he’s done lately has exactly been a good decision, after all. “But it doesn’t have to be the end. We can still find a way to--”

“Stop,” Wanda says sharply. It isn’t the sort of command you ignore, at least not if you want to remain in one piece. She lets the silence hang between them for a couple of breaths, makes it perfectly clear who’s in charge of this conversation before she continues. “I was fine where I was, at the Compound. I was doing the right thing, staying out of this mess. Then you came along, talking to me about amends. Now I’m a criminal and there are men from the government hunting me. Again. Because of you.”

“I’m sorry,” Clint repeats, his stomach suddenly feeling like it’s trying to turn itself inside out. “I didn’t think--”

“Yes, you did,” says Wanda. “You did think. You just didn’t think it was possible for any of this to turn out like it did. You thought you were too good for that, and you were wrong. Now leave me alone. I can take care of myself.”

“I can’t do that,” he insists, because the idea of Wanda on her own right now, after everything she’s been through, makes him feel downright ill. “You know I can’t.”

“And you know,” she says coldly, red sparks dancing across her fingertips again, “that I will make you, if necessary.”

“Here’s the drill,” says Steve, when they’ve been in the air for what Clint thinks must be at least twelve hours. He’s spent the time on a cot of his own, though it’s not like he’s found anything resembling rest. There are half a dozen urgent questions rattling around in his mind, the need for information crawling hot just beneath the surface of his skin. But none of them are things he thinks he can afford to ask in front of the others aboard the jet. Not now, when a hard lesson in misplaced trust is what’s gotten him here to begin with.

“In a few minutes,” Steve continues, “we’ll be coming in over the Canadian border. We’ve got a field lined up--not an airfield, just a field. They’ll be searching for us, I’m sure, but with Stark’s stealth tech, they won’t be able to see us--at least, not as long as we’re on the jet.”

“And after that?” asks Scott, sitting up, apparently paying attention now.

“After that, it’s our job to avoid detection,” says Steve, and Clint can’t be sure whether there’s a shadow of guilt on his face, or if he’s just hoping to see one there.

“Is that smart, then?” asks Scott. “Getting off the plane? I mean, why not just live on it if we can’t be found here?”

“We don’t have the supplies for long term survival,” says Natasha, speaking up for the first time since they left the Raft. She’s spent the rest of the flight glued to her controls, or at least that’s how it’s looked from the outside. Her mind could be a million miles away and nobody would know unless she wanted them to. “And our odds are better, statistically speaking, if we split up.”

“So we split up,” Steve takes over, seamlessly. “We stay low, stay quiet. Try not to attract attention. Anyone who wants to come with me is welcome to it, but you should know that right now, I don’t have any more answers than you do. I don’t have a plan beyond staying off the grid.”

“What do you have?” asks Clint, sliding off the cot and getting to his feet, anger a hot snarl of brambles between his ribs again. “We went to prison for you. We’re fugitives because of you. And yeah, you broke us out, but for what? So we can spend the rest of our lives on the run, waiting to go back there?”

“Like I said,” Steve begins, “I don’t have--”

“I know,” Clint interrupts again. “I know, all you’ve got is more of your same old idealistic bullshit. Well that’s not gonna help us now.”

“Clint--” says Natasha.

“Save it.” Clint turns and walks away to the back of the plane, focused on collecting as much gear as might prove useful.

The air outside is cooler and damper than Clint’s been expecting, when the jet’s ramp is lowered again. The foliage surrounding the field--an actual field, in what looks pretty fittingly to be the middle of nowhere--is full and green, telling him that it’s still summer, despite the weeks that have slipped by underwater.

Clint is the first one decisively off the plane, though he does spare a moment to consider how completely bizarre this would appear to any outside observer--a ramp, apparently descending from the sky, releasing the world’s fallen heroes. Almost like bad poetry.

But the area is deserted, as promised, and utterly disorienting at that. It’s been a long time since Clint last found himself on the side of the road without so much as a compass or a clue.

“You’re with me,” says Natasha, appearing at Clint’s elbow before he’s managed to figure out his basic directions from the sun’s position.

“Why?” he asks irritably, though he’s aware of his response’s absolute absurdity the moment it’s out of his mouth. Steve might still be green enough at this whole game to leave his partners stranded indefinitely, but Natasha never would. For a moment he thinks she might be hurt, starts to gather an apology.

But she just rolls her eyes. “Because the first thing you’re going to want is a phone. And I happen to have one you can use.”

He nods once, curtly.

Natasha cocks her head toward the beginning of a narrow path leading off into the trees. “Come on. Town’s eight miles this way.”

Clint stifles a groan, exhaustion beginning to catch up now that he’s back standing on solid ground. “Great. A workout’s just what I wanted right now.”

The phone is a tiny black burner unit that fits into the palm of his hand, and they stop in the middle of the woods to use it. He doesn’t ask why none of the others seem to be on this particular path, assumes that they are perfectly capable of making their own damn decisions. He’s more concerned with whether the phone will have service, but it does and he thinks, as usual, that he ought to know better than to doubt one of Natasha’s plans.

Laura sounds perfectly calm when she answers, which is surprising, though it probably also shouldn’t be. “I was wondering when you’d be calling. Nat said it would be sometime today.”

Clint blinks, taken aback. “Well, she’s in charge.”

Laura snorts, but there’s hardly any humor in it. “As she should be.”

“Listen,” says Clint, choosing to ignore the dig because the sound of her voice has brought all of his worries, all of the past few weeks’ nightmares flooding back. “Ross knows. Not where you are, not your names--although he might know that by now, too. He knows, Laur.”

“I know,” she interrupts, still sounding far too calm. “Nat told me last month.”

Clint has the absurd mental image of himself, sprinting with everything he has away from a coming avalanche, while everyone else in his life is taking a leisurely stroll in the path of the rocks.

“Then why are you still at home?” he snaps, realizing belatedly that he doesn’t actually know where she’s answered from. This number belongs to an encrypted phone they keep around just for times like this. “Are you still at home?”

“Yes,” says Laura, “and we are going to stay here, because we haven’t done anything wrong. Ross might find us, or he might not. I’m not moving to contingencies until I know there’s a problem.”

“There is a problem,” Clint insists, glancing at Natasha. He finds that he can’t quite read the look she’s giving him, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be alarm. “He put us in prison. You don’t think he’ll do the same to you? You don’t think he’ll try to use you and the kids as leverage if he finds you?”

Laura sighs, the sound evident even over the tinny connection of the phone. “I think he’s a bureaucrat, Clint. A politician. He’s not--He’s not a god, or an Enhanced psychopath, or some kind of murderbot. He’s not going to come kill us to get to you. He might show up here, might create some red tape, but I haven’t done anything wrong, and neither have the kids. And god knows, they’re having a tough enough time with all this without us pulling up stakes and going on the run.”

Clint swallows, the edge of anger and disappointment in her voice hitting him straight in the gut. He’s been so concerned for their safety, for the possibility that they might already be in custody--or worse--that he’s failed to think about the other, lesser possibilities. All the smaller ways this will undoubtedly be painful even if Ross never finds them. “What do you mean, having a tough time?”

“You’re all over the news,” says Laura. “Not just you, all of the Avengers. You’re the world’s favorite scapegoats at the moment, the most convenient people to hate. Think about it, Clint. You go from seeing your dad as a hero to having the whole world tell you he’s a terrorist.”

“You told them that’s not true,” says Clint, his heart pounding in a whole new way. He feels vaguely sick, realizes absurdly that he can’t actually remember the last time he’s eaten anything.

“Yes,” she answers, just sounding tired now. “But you know it’s me against the rest of the world.”

“What can I do?” he asks, all thoughts of convincing her to follow a plan of his design vanished.

“Stay low,” says Laura, sounding every bit as helpless as Steve did on the plane, what feels like a lifetime ago now. “Stay with Nat. Just--don’t end up on the news again.”

“Okay,” Clint agrees, thinking he’d do anything in this moment if it could erase the past few months. Not for himself, but for them. For everyone, he thinks, who’s been counting on having heroes. “I’m--I love you.”

“I know,” she says sadly, and Clint thinks he can practically see her, suddenly trying to hide the fact that she’s blinking back tears. “We’ll be in touch. Just--not often.”

The call ends before the world stops spinning.

“We’re not staying here,” says Natasha, when the trees end and they emerge into the town, which is scarcely big enough to warrant that title.

There’s a single road running through it, with signs for the interstate visible a few hundred yards away in the distance. A few houses are scattered on either side, looking like they’ve seen better days, along with a dilapidated motel and a single gas station.

“Oh, really?” Clint says sourly. “Because I was expecting that we would, you know? Settle down and start a new life here. White picket fence with three and a half kids, our own little paradise just off the interstate.”

Natasha rolls her eyes. “I meant tonight. Or at all, really. The further we get from Steve, the safer we’ll be. So this is just a pit stop for a vehicle and maybe a few necessities.”

“You got a teleporter?” asks Clint, following as she starts toward the gas station.

“No,” she says coolly, “but I do have a car secured for us. You’re welcome, by the way.”

“Why?” he shoots back, resentment still sitting queasily in the pit of his stomach. “You think I couldn’t do this on my own?”

“No,” she says again. “But you don’t have to. Because you’re my partner. Because I’m putting that before the rest of my team.”

“Your team?” asks Clint, aware that he’s ignoring the rest. “Not anyone’s team anymore.”

She doesn’t answer, just cocks her head toward a dusty sedan. “Here’s our ride. Let’s go.”

Natasha drives for close to three hours before taking another exit. They’re in Montana, he’s managed to figure out after a few miles of interstate, and heading west by the looks of the mile markers and the sun. He hasn’t bothered to ask what the plan is, if there’s a plan, because the look of determination on her face tells him all that he really needs to know: Natasha knows where she’s going, at least for the moment, and doesn’t need any of his help to get them there.

Besides which, exhaustion’s begun creeping in as the adrenaline fades yet again, the number of hours since he last slept piling on. Still, he can’t quite manage any kind of genuine relaxation, instead finds himself jumpy and irritable, wishing he had a phone with encrypted internet access. The breach at the Raft must be all over the world news by now, and it seems a small miracle to Clint each time a car passes theirs without turning out to be police or Ross’s Task Force agents there to reel him in again.

The sign for the exit Natasha chooses doesn’t have the name of a town, which is never promising in Clint’s experience. It does boast the logos of three different gas stations, though, and several fast food restaurants. And there’s a Walmart, he realizes, as she eases their stolen car down the ramp as if she’s been driving it her entire life. That must be why she’s chosen this place to be their first official pit stop, though how she’s known it was there is a mystery.

“We’re stopping at Wally World, right?” he asks, stretching gingerly and wincing when his knuckles rap against the roof of the car. “Need to pick up some caffeine.”

“You need to eat first,” says Natasha, but she pulls into the parking lot without further comment.

Inside, Natasha splits off, with instructions to meet just behind the checkout in ten minutes. It’s scarcely past dinnertime, still plenty of daylight outside and a time that might be considered rush hour in other parts of the country. But the store is practically deserted, which sends an eerie feeling crawling along the back of Clint’s neck. For a moment he thinks of the empty airport in Leipzig, evacuated in preparation for a fight. The possibility crosses his mind that this place might also be empty because someone’s anticipated their location, cleared out all of the civilians before sending in the brass. He forces that thought down, though, decides it won’t be helpful if it slows them down or causes him to forget necessary supplies.

He’s already lost track of Natasha--or really hasn’t been paying any attention to her path through the store, if he’s being honest with himself, too busy tracking everyone else in his immediate vicinity. Stupid.

Clint grabs a basket off the stack just past the checkout counters, tries not to think about the reasons why the handle might be suspiciously sticky as he heads toward the grocery section. He wastes a good couple of minutes dithering around among the dubious selection of produce, and then the less dubious selection of chips and soda. Nothing appeals, though, so he finally settles on two boxes of protein bars and a six pack of energy shots.

He doesn’t strictly need anything else here, probably ought to head back up to the front to meet Natasha, but he finds himself drawn toward cosmetics instead. What he wants is his own shield, of sorts, not exactly a mask--because that would be ridiculous--but something to make him feel less exposed, to provide some sort of buffer against all of the curious eyes. He zigzags up and down three aisles of makeup, briefly wishing for something to construct the sort of prosthetics he’s been given for previous jobs, back when he still had handlers and still fancied himself something resembling a spy. There’s no way he’s going to be creating that kind of dramatically new look with lipstick or eyeshadow, though, and he probably sticks out like a sore thumb just being in the same vicinity as these products.

Clint winds his way through lotions and the endless variety of anti-aging serums without pause, the vague sense of frustration, of sheer helplessness, like an itch he can’t quite manage to scratch. He hasn’t consciously come to this part of the store to look at hair dye--at least, he doesn’t think--but that’s what finally manages to grab his attention and stop his journey deeper into the bowels of the Walmart. At once it seems like the perfect compromise between the nuanced, complete disguise he might have had from S.H.I.E.L.D. and the caricature of a Halloween mask he’s been picturing as the only option he might be able to come up with on his own.

He pauses at the very end of the aisle, where the boldest boxes of color are kept. Nothing here looks natural, dyes boasting jewel tones in just a single color session--platinum blond, emerald green, fire engine red.

“Seriously?” comes Natasha’s voice from somewhere over his shoulder, and Clint jumps, heart pounding and adrenaline blooming in the pit of his stomach.

“Jesus,” he breathes, turning to glare at her. “Was that necessary?”

She shrugs, offering him a smile. “Sure, if you were considering--” She pauses, reads off a box. “Lusty Lavender.”

“I wasn’t,” Clint says sourly. “I was just--thinking I should do something.”

“To be more incognito?” she asks. “Like dye your hair?”

“I don’t know,” Clint snaps. “I bet they sell clown noses here, want me to go get one of those?”

“Sure,” says Natasha, dryly. “We could use some entertainment for the road.” She turns back to the display of dye without waiting for his response, selects her own box of basic black.

“Right,” says Clint. “When I think about dyeing my hair, it’s a clown show, but if you think about doing it, it’s smart.”

Natasha sighs for what seems like the umpteenth time since the Raft. “The idea isn’t to look different, it’s to look unremarkable. Your natural hair color is already fairly nondescript.”

“Gee thanks,” he breathes, though he knows she’s right. “And I’ve had Espionage 101 too, you know. You used to even trust me with this stuff. Or did you forget?”

“If you want me to trust you, then stop making emotional decisions and start making smart ones,” she says evenly. “Because yes, I do know you’re capable of that. You just aren’t right now.”

Clint pauses, runs a hand through his hair, feeling restless. They’ve been standing in this aisle too long, making too much of a scene for his liking. “Fine. Then what does your master plan say I should do, if not dye my hair?”

“Keep that beard going,” says Natasha, gesturing to the stubble already beginning to shadow his jaw. “Much as I hate to admit it.” She smiles, a half-spoken olive branch.

“Well,” says Clint, deciding to meet her halfway, “if one of us has to grow a beard, I guess it would look better on me.”

She snorts. “Come on. Let’s go get you some clothes to go with it.”

“Camo shorts,” says Clint, feeling the tension in his shoulders ease ever so slightly. “Nobody will ever see me coming.”

It’s nearly midnight by the time they stop again, and Clint’s head is thrumming with desperate exhaustion despite the energy shots he’s been knocking back all evening, hands shaking so badly that he thinks it’s probably a good thing he doesn’t have a bow with him right now, couldn’t take a shot at anyone if he needed or wanted to. Still, sleep isn’t at the forefront of his mind as Natasha swipes her card key and opens the door of their motel room, which opens directly to the outside. Not the best security feature, but also their best bet for anonymity and the possibility of a quick escape.

He lets her open the door, knows far better than to attempt anything resembling chivalry with Natasha in a situation like this. Plus, he doesn’t entirely trust his senses or his reaction speed right now, should either one be necessary. Instead he stands restlessly, just inside the entry, watching as she sweeps the room for bugs, the movements so practiced that they almost look natural despite the strangeness of the entire situation.

“Clean,” she says after a moment, and Clint blows out a breath he hasn’t realized he’s been holding, vision swimming from the oxygen deprivation.

“Not even any bed bugs?” he asks, throwing his Walmart bags down on the side of the bed closer to the door and toeing off his shoes.

“Maybe some of those,” Natasha allows, coming over and nudging him out of the way. “That’s mine.”

Clint frowns, more confused than irritated, for the moment. “Since when?”

“Now,” she says simply, moving his bags over and sitting down on the edge of the mattress without further explanation.

“You always want the right,” says Clint, watching her, not missing the way her movements are too deliberate to be natural. “Are you--protecting me?”

“Never,” she deadpans. “You’ve uncovered my cunning plan. I helped Steve break you out because I have absolutely no interest in your well being. I became your partner way back when specifically so I could throw you to the wolves.”

Natasha,” he says exasperatedly, moving around the bed so that he can see her face. “What aren’t you telling me?”

She looks up, meets his eyes, and gives him her most earnest look, which is exactly how Clint knows that a load of bullshit evasion is coming. “I’ve secretly been a dog person all along.”

“Fine,” he snaps, throwing up his hands. “Fine. Keep your secrets. Keep pretending they aren’t what landed us here in the first place. I’m going to take a shower.”

The bathroom is cramped and old, with terrible water pressure, but it’s still the nicest facilities he’s had in months. He spends longer than he probably ought to standing under the spray, trying to unwind the knots of tension that seem to have settled permanently between his shoulderblades, only giving up when apprehension over the possibility of being discovered here, defenseless and exposed, by Ross’s men refuses to be ignored.

When he emerges from the bathroom, Natasha is at the tiny exterior sink, meticulously applying black dye to her hair, somehow having managed not to spill a drop.

“You didn’t tell me you were going to do that tonight,” he says absently, pausing behind her to watch for a moment. He’s intimately familiar with any number of her elaborate routines, for both beauty and espionage, but there’s something striking, almost perverse about watching the inky black coat her head, as if it’s somehow erasing a fundamental part of her.

She shrugs without turning away from the mirror. “You caught me. Another secret.”

“That’s not--” Clint breaks off, blows out a breath, and tries to swallow down the sudden sadness that’s settled in his gut. One more familiar thing this fight’s cost them, trivial though it may be. “Forget it.”

“I got things for peanut butter and jelly,” she says over her shoulder, ignoring his outburst. “If you want a sandwich. You know, the age-old adage of ‘you can’t actually live on protein bars.’”

Clint ignores her, flops down on his newly-appointed side of the bed and sets his jaw as he turns on the television. He’s fully expecting the Raft to be all over the news, maybe even interrupting regular programming for round-the-clock coverage. They are escaped terrorists, after all, at least as far as Ross is concerned.

But all he finds is an assortment of the usual inane late-night talk shows, reality reruns and cable ratings bait. Even the news-only channels are devoid of the information he’s looking for, instead covering the global stock market outlook and a cheating scandal at a local college. He frowns, scanning through the channels a second time and catching himself holding his breath again.

“Anything good on?” asks Natasha, coming over to the bed to hunt through her bags for a fresh set of clothes. Her hair is wet now, and dark as the night outside.

Clint studies her for another long moment, can’t shake the feeling that she’s somehow become a stranger to him, or maybe has been for much longer than he’s realized. “Sure, if you’re into the Housewives.”

“Oh, good,” she says dryly, pulling on a plain black t-shirt and shorts she purchased earlier. Good for sleeping or a quick getaway, he thinks.

“Where’s Barnes?” asks Clint, crossing his arms behind his head and shifting to stare up at the ceiling. The lack of news, of urgency, feels wrong. Surely Ross’s team must be on Red Alert, must be scrambling for containment with all the resources they’ve got. That ought to include the national media--or at least it did before.

Natasha pauses for a beat too long before answering. “Wakanda.”

Alive?” He sits up, surprised.

“Yes.” She sighs. “It’s--complicated. Steve was right about Barnes being framed. T’Challa had a change of heart when he learned about it. Ross didn’t.”

He sucks in a breath, trying to accept that. “So where’s Ross now? Why isn’t his face all over the news, calling us out?”

Natasha shrugs. “Multiple possibilities. Doesn’t change our strategy, though.”

“You’re not at least a little concerned?” asks Clint, searching the lines of her body, her movements as she spreads supplies on the flimsy hotel desk to make herself one of the aforementioned sandwiches. “You don’t want to know his play?”

She shrugs, spreading a thick layer of peanut butter onto a slice of bread. “You really think he’s coming for you? When he’s got Steve and Wanda and Barnes still out there somewhere in the ether? He might get to us later, but it’ll be way down the list.”

Clint opens his mouth to protest, closes it again, and tries to figure out why that particular response stings. It isn’t like he wants to be the world’s most sought-after fugitive, but the thought of simply being extraneous, of having given up his status as a member of society to be written off is somehow worse.

“I think you’re getting cocky,” he says sourly. “And I think it’s an even worse look on you than the new hair.”

“Thanks,” Natasha answers tartly, taking a bite of her sandwich and switching the television off.

Clint can feel eyes on him.

It’s a sense that started during his time in the army, as a sniper trying to blend in with the vast emptiness of the desert. It isn’t a tingling along the back of his neck, isn’t quite an itch--It’s more like a shift in the atmosphere, the air thickening, weighing him down just a bit more.

He’s had eyes on him almost nonstop since arriving at the Raft, either by way of camera or the direct stares of the guards who patrol constantly.

It’s the persistence that makes this time different. He’s lying in his bunk, his own gaze fixed on the ceiling, but he knows without question that someone has been staring at him for the last several minutes, scarcely blinking.

Clint plays a game of chicken, willing the other person--whoever it is--to look away before he decides to turn around and catch them in the act. They don’t seem to be getting his silent message, though, and eventually the anger that’s been welling up hotly in the pit of his stomach drives him into motion.

He turns in one fluid movement, ready for a confrontation, for another round of shocks from his jumpsuit, and promptly freezes. Standing outside the cell, dressed in the now-familiar guard’s uniform, is Pietro, blue eyes steely as the freezing ocean outside.

Clint feels his gut clench, thinks at once that he’s going vomit, but all he actually manages is several useless heaving breaths that do nothing to lessen the pain in his chest.

“I didn’t die for this,” says Pietro, impossibly close to the glass that separates them, almost as though he might be able to move right through.

Clint shakes his head frantically. “No. No, you’re not here. I’m not here. I’m dreaming.”

Pietro laughs. “Does it matter?”

And then Clint sees that Pietro’s body is riddled with bullet holes again, thick dark arterial blood spreading in rapid stains. He looks down in horror, finds a gun in his own hands, the barrel smoking and the metal hot.

Clint wakes with a jolt to a hand on his shoulder, scrambles away instinctively, nearly falling out of the bed. It’s a bed with a real mattress, not the hard plastic foam of his prison bunk, so he knows on some level that this isn’t the Raft, though for one terrifyingly long moment, he has absolutely no idea where he actually is.

“Hey,” comes Natasha’s voice, then the click of her switching on a lamp, followed by light that sends searing pain through his pupils.

She’s saying something else too, but he ignores it, stumbling out of bed and over to the sink, running the water as cold as it will go and splashing whole handfuls on his face. It feels as though his skin is on fire, his mind is on fire, and when the water from the sink isn’t enough, he rushes into the bathroom and kneels inside the tub, getting his whole head into the stream from the tap.

He isn’t sure how long he stays like that, letting the cold shock of the water fight the monsters in his head, but by the time Natasha sits down beside him, the pressure in his chest has begun to lessen and his heartbeat’s slowed enough that he doesn’t jump out of his skin when she rests a hand against his back.

“Hey,” she says again, louder this time, and he can hear in her tone all the questions she wants to ask right now. She doesn’t, though. “Just breathe. You’re safe.”

“Right,” Clint scoffs, finally switching the water off and sitting back on his heels.

Natasha hands him a towel. “I’m not letting anyone take you back there.”

He sighs, feeling suddenly and utterly exhausted, as though he might have just nearly drowned. “I’m not hurting anyone to prevent that. I’m not killing. I’m not.”

She nods, says nothing, but wraps an arm around his shoulders all the same. Clint decides to let her.

The thing about Natasha’s new hair is that it actually does make her look different.

It takes Clint a couple of days to figure out exactly how, watching her in his peripheral vision. The darkness of the color does nothing to diminish her beauty--if anything, it makes her even more striking, all pale skin and green eyes against the oppressive heat and light of the summer days. But there’s a subtle change all the same. He can’t pick her out from across the room as easily, has to pause for a moment to locate her in the store when they split up on supply runs, finds his gaze passing right over her without recognition on several disconcerting occasions. That’s what she’s wanted, of course, but he still doesn’t like it.

Now, watching her examine hunting knives at Sportsman’s Warehouse from several hundred yards away, he thinks that he knows. Natasha has worn many disguises over the years--hundreds of different hair colors, facial prosthetics, even full masks. But this is different, because it isn’t for a cover. Isn’t for a character she’s playing. This time she’s given up an actual part of herself, of the identity she’s worked so damn hard to win back from the world that tried to steal it away. For a moment he’s struck again by the unfathomable sadness that seems constantly on the brink of breaking over him like a wave, and he silently curses both Tony and Steve as he swallows it back down.

“Fancy meeting you here,” says Natasha, having made her selection and crossed the room to him.

Clint shakes his head, tries to shake off the reverie. It takes him a moment to realize that she isn’t just playing off the fact that they’ve come here together, but is referring to the fact that he’s managed to wander into the archery section while waiting for her to choose a knife.

He shrugs. “Water, water, everywhere…”

Natasha wrinkles her nose. “Poetic.”

“Fitting,” he counters. His hands are practically itching to hold a bow again. This is the longest he’s gone without shooting since the summer after New York, and pretty soon he’ll be breaking that record as well. The tiny rude voices of doubt at the back of his mind are starting to whisper things about getting rusty.

“Too conspicuous?” she asks, and he nods.

There was a bow on the Quinjet, which he’d elected to leave behind, and he has several others stashed in various boltholes around the country. But they’re avoiding those now, because there’s really no telling what else Tony--or one of the others--might have inadvertently let slip to Ross’s people, what intel might have even been collected from old S.H.I.E.L.D. files or the Compound’s systems. There are plenty of bows here now, too. But getting a bow isn’t the problem. It’s the fact that, were he to actually use one, any anonymity the thin beard and nondescript clothes might be lending him would be gone in an instant. Plus, he might be a little apprehensive about how much damage he could cause with a bow, without even thinking too much. That’s if he’s being honest with himself.

“Let’s get going,” he says finally.

Natasha hesitates. “You should choose something. If not a bow, then something else.”

But Clint just shakes his head, stubborn streak rearing up again. “I don’t want something else. I’ll make do.”

During his time as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, Clint was part of exactly three runs involving Waffle House. On the first, they’d tailed a mark into one in the middle of the night, and caught the guy in the middle of a rendezvous over raisin toast, which probably ought to have been enough of a sign that they were dealing with someone seriously twisted. The second time, he’d been undercover in the kitchen, which was more than enough to put him off his appetite for a few days. The third time, they’d found an entire restaurant acting as a front for a designer drug lab.

Which is to say that sitting at a Waffle House table tonight is about the last place he wants to be. The fact that it’s been more than a week without any sign of action from Ross, or any contact with the others, isn’t doing anything to help his state of mind. In fact, this feels like the exact place you’d expect to find the country’s most wanted fugitives.

“Ready, sugar?” prompts the waitress, and Clint realizes that he’s been holding onto his menu in silence for more than a moment too long.

Natasha’s already made her order, looking maddeningly calm as ever.

“Two eggs breakfast,” he decides finally, though nothing on the menu looks even remotely appetizing. “Scrambled, with plain hash browns.”

The waitress nods, collects his menu and disappears.

Natasha quirks an eyebrow. “You’re gonna come to a Waffle House and not order any waffles, sugar?”

“Hilarious,” he sighs, focused on the fact that their waitress hasn’t reappeared yet, seems to be gone for longer than it ought to take to put in their orders. “This is a bad idea.”

“Nutritionally, sure,” she agrees. “But we can’t live on peanut butter and jelly and protein bars forever.”

“I’m not,” says Clint, scanning again for the waitress. “I have coffee, too.”

Natasha snorts at that, raising her water glass in a salute. “Point.”

He’s about to make a half-hearted attempt at gloating when movement in the vicinity of the kitchen catches his attention again. It’s their waitress, finally, but she isn’t moving on with regular service as Clint’s expected, isn’t going to take orders from any of the other customers who have come in during the time he spent deliberating over the menu. Instead, she’s carrying two plates of food in their direction.

It isn’t possible, he thinks -- there hasn’t been enough time for their food to be prepared to order. He can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong here, his skin crawling as the waitress approaches with her hundred-watt smile, and it only gets worse when he sees the plates. There are the two eggs he’s ordered, the sausage and the hashbrowns, but the potatoes are slathered in thick gravy, and suddenly all he can think is that this is a trap.

It would be so simple to place a few of Ross’s men in the kitchen, put a wire on the waitress, or maybe she’s an agent too. It would be easier still to drug the food, maybe even poison it, ensure that there wouldn’t have to be a struggle, that they would be neutral targets by the time the catch was sprung.

Clint doesn’t think about what he’s doing, just moves reflexively, as if he might have woken from one of his nightmares. As if he might still be in one. He stands in a rush, nearly knocking his chair over backward and earning an incredulous look from Natasha. He doesn’t have time to signal to her, has to trust that she’ll figure out what’s happening all on her own, because the waitress is almost back to their table with her load of food and misplaced endearments. He makes his way toward the front, as though heading for the bathroom, then turns sharply and slips out the door of the restaurant, walking briskly until he reaches the parking lot. Natasha has the only keys to their current vehicle, he realizes, and he curses silently as he starts off again on foot, walking back in the direction of the interstate.

He’s been walking for close to ten minutes, is approaching the on ramp when Natasha catches up, pulling up alongside him.

“What the hell?” she hisses, clearly furious. She gestures for him to get into the car, and he follows through without protest.

“The food,” says Clint, only now realizing that he’s both breathless and shivering violently, having left his jacket behind in the restaurant. “You eat any of it?”

“No,” says Natasha, “because somebody caused a scene by running away from his hash browns. Congratulations, by the way, you just became incredibly memorable to everyone on that dinner shift.”

“Drive,” he says in reply, letting her hear the urgency in his voice.

Natasha blinks. She’s been headed toward the freeway, but now she shakes her head, pulls over to the shoulder and kills the engine. “No. Not until you tell me what’s going on here. You’re being rash.”

“And you’re being complacent!” He throws up his hands. “Do I really have to tell you all the reasons why that was bad news? They were waiting for us, Nat. They knew.”

She sighs. “No they didn’t.”

Drive,” he repeats, narrowly resisting the urge to slam his palm against the dashboard for emphasis, or maybe just in the desperate need to take some kind of action. “Or do you want us to get caught?”

“I want you to stop giving me orders,” says Natasha, “and take a second to calm down. Because I get that you’ve been through hell recently, but the way that you’re acting right now does not even approach okay.”

Clint moves in a rush, because the car still isn’t and he can’t take sitting here any longer. He throws the door open, planting his feet firmly before slamming it behind him again. The night air is cold and damp, though adrenaline and anger are still crawling hot over his skin, and suddenly he’s aware of how tired he is, and hungry, and altogether desperate for any kind of comfort.

“Dammit!” he shouts into the darkness, strikes the car’s roof with the flat of his hand before realizing that it’s exactly the way his father’s anger used to manifest, that the voice he’s just used might as well not even be his own.

Clint freezes, anger draining away in an instant, until all that’s left is cold horror that turns his stomach to acid. He’s acutely aware of Natasha watching him through the car window, her face a mask of impassivity, though he knows better than to think she’s unaffected by his outburst, by the way he’s been treating her all night. Forcing himself to stillness, he takes three long breaths, waits until his heartbeat’s slowed to something less than a gallop before opening the door and folding himself back into the passenger seat.

“Sorry,” he says quietly, not quite able to take his gaze off his hands, folded trembling in his lap now. “That was--I don’t know what that was.”

Natasha is silent for a long moment, doesn’t tell him that it’s all right or offer any sort of reassurance. That’s her way of letting him know that she agrees with the seriousness of this particular mistake, and it’s not like he can blame her.

“Don’t let it happen again,” she says finally, and starts the car at last.

“Lila got a good part in the play at school,” says Laura, her voice tinny and thin through the phone’s cheap speaker. Still, it’s the most information he’s had about the kids in months, and it feels like coming up for air.

Natasha is driving again, southwest this time, through what feels like an endless stretch of green, farmland that seems somehow to be beautifully maintained despite the fact that it’s been at least two hours since they last saw another human being. It’s eerie, if he really allows himself to think about it. Then again, it’s not lost on him that if he ignored the road signs, these fields could almost be the ones surrounding home. If only they weren’t several hundred miles away, in the wrong state entirely.

“Peter Rabbit.” Clint can hear the gentle laughter in her voice, pictures her smile as she cradles the phone against her ear, almost like it might be a living being all its own, like she might be able to send her love through it, somehow.

Clint blinks. “Peter Rabbit. They--Lila is going to be Peter? Isn’t Peter a boy rabbit?”

In the driver’s seat, Natasha snorts softly.

“Well,” says Laura, “as our daughter pointed out to me when she auditioned, Peter is a rabbit. So if they’re not going to cast an actual rabbit, why does it matter if Peter is played by a boy or a girl?”

“Good for her,” says Natasha, apparently able to hear both sides of the conversation, though the call isn’t on speaker.

“Yeah,” says Clint, still trying to picture it, aching to see Lila’s excitement for himself, to be there in the audience at her big show. “I’m glad she’s happy.” Another thought follows in his next breath, no longer envisioning himself in the audience, but everyone else who will be watching. Everyone else he won’t be able to see, either. “Just--You really think that’s a good idea? Having the kids get up on stage, you know, now?”

Laura sighs heavily, and there’s something in the sound that makes Clint suspect she’s been expecting this, maybe even waiting for it. His mental image of her shifts again; now he sees her bracing herself for this part of the conversation, the pained furrow of her brow as she wishes, as always, that they could avoid the darker bits of life and focus on the positives instead.

“I think,” she says carefully, “that if Ross wants something on you--on us--then he’s got better places to find it than sneaking into the middle of a children’s play. I also think it’s been months since I’ve seen the kids this excited about anything, and I’m not going to take that away from them because there’s a remote possibility that something might go wrong.”

Clint swallows, feeling vaguely sick with equal parts guilt and apprehension. “I don’t like that I can’t be there. I don’t like that we can’t be sure.”

“I don’t like it either,” says Laura, the hard edge in her voice going straight to the knot of shame in the pit of his stomach.

He knows exactly what it is that she’s not saying: If he’d played his cards differently--even just a bit differently--they might not be in this position at all. He takes a breath, blows it out again, still can’t find words that will make any of this right, or even marginally better.

“Look,” says Laura, when he still hasn’t responded. Her tone is softer now, but there’s something like pity in it, which actually might be worse. “It’s a balancing act, right? Just like it always has been. Being exposed could hurt us, but spending our whole lives just hiding definitely will.”

“I know,” Clint whispers, watching Natasha in his peripheral vision, wondering if she’s still listening in, what she’d be saying to Laura about his current mental state, given the opportunity for a private conversation. Then he wonders if they might actually be in private communication without his knowledge. It wouldn’t exactly be surprising, given all of the circumstances.

“I need you to trust me,” Laura says sadly. “Please trust me to keep all of us safe.”

“I do,” Clint promises, sensing that this call is about to end, that it’s time to let go of this lifeline for another while. “I--I’m trying.”

“I’ll take pictures for you,” says Laura. “Of the play.”

It takes a moment before he manages to swallow past the ball of emotions in his throat, finds a way to speak. “Tell Lila I love her. And that I’m the proudest.”

“Proudest ever,” says Laura. “Got it.”

The carnival springs up on the horizon of their third straight day of driving.

They’ve backtracked into South Dakota, still moving without plan or purpose beyond avoiding any sort of easily-traced attachments. It’s been nothing but farmland for miles, the rolling acres of green feeling like a cruel trick, blending together until Clint finds himself expecting to find the familiar old turn-off to his house, to his former life, around every bend in the road. It would be easy for a person to go crazy out here, he thinks, and suddenly he understands the skepticism most people have regarding the sort of isolated home he finds himself longing for now.

The sharp cliffs of the Badlands emerge just as the sun begins to set, casting long, reaching shadows across the road. They’re still miles from the next major city, and though Natasha has been driving for hours without a break, she makes no mention of stopping yet.

It’s fully dark by the time they round a bend and the lights of the midway nearly blind him. There’s a ferris wheel, too, all lit up and spinning emptily into the sky, along with a few other rides that seem to be a shiny exercise in futility. They must be near a freeway exit, or a small town of some sort, Clint thinks, or else it would make absolutely no sense to set up the show here. But he can’t see any signs of civilization as he struggles to make out their surroundings in the night, or anyone at all besides the ride jocks, shadowy silhouettes against the lights of their respective attractions. As the scene whizzes by the passenger-side window, Clint also catches sight of two skinny kids, looking far too young for life on the road, holding signs that advertise corn dogs and funnel cake.

He leans back against his head rest and swallows down a shiver, feeling like the chilly night air might be sliding over his skin, like he might be the one standing out under the emptiness of the cloudless Badlands sky, despite the protective shell of the car around him.

“Anything you want to share?” asks Natasha, as the lights fade into darkness again, all but disappearing as the car descends another dip in the road.

Clint shrugs, thinks she probably already knows everything he’s thinking, has shared enough life with him to be half inside his head at any given moment. Still, they’ve been riding in silence for too long, and now he finds himself grateful for the sound of her voice, for the reminder that he isn’t completely alone out here, no matter how it might feel.

“Just--spent a big chunk of my life on the road, you know?” He sits up straighter again, runs a hand over the beard that still feels itchy and unfamiliar. “Well. Was a big chunk, then. Not so much now, by comparison. Anyway, I made a promise to myself, back when I joined S.H.I.E.L.D., that I’d never be homeless again. Didn’t expect to find myself back here so soon.”

“Yeah,” says Natasha, uncharacteristically noncommittal. “Well.”

Clint frowns, unsure of how to read her response, jealous as always that she can still do this to him, can still manage inscrutable with as large a place as she holds in his heart. “You ever think you’d end up back here?”

She smiles sadly, and there’s something in the way it makes his heart break that tells him she’s being absolutely honest now. “Yes. All the time.”

“I’m going for a run,” Natasha announces, as soon as they’ve checked into their latest hotel room. This one, ironically, is in Moscow--Idaho, not her former homeland, and though he knows it’s also pronounced differently, that hasn’t stopped Clint from making a half-hearted attempt at hassling her about this particular decision.

“Okay,” Clint shrugs, rooting through his bag and deciding that he’d better make use of the coin laundry at this hotel, overpriced though it may be. Natasha seems to have an endless supply of cash, though he hasn’t asked where it’s coming from. “You don’t want to wait until the morning?” They’ve been up since before dawn, but he thinks he understands where she’s coming from, can see the tension in the lines of her body. He can’t blame her for finding sleep unappealing right now.

“No,” she says decisively. “And you’re coming with me.”

Clint blinks, surprised, suddenly trying to figure out what strategy she’s trying to play. “Why? You my personal trainer now?”

“You haven’t been sleeping.” She holds up a hand for silence when he opens his mouth to protest. “Don’t even try to lie to me. I can tell when you’re awake. You’re a beacon of tension, you might as well be screaming all night long.”

“Yeah,” Clint says sourly, “well you’ve seen me try that too.”

“My point,” she agrees. “So we’re going to go burn off some steam before bed tonight. It’ll help. I’m told this place has a fancy fitness center and everything.”

Clint rolls his eyes. “It’s a Motel 6.”

“It has a pool.” She reaches into his open bag, pulls out a pair of sweats, and thrusts them at him.

“Oh, you want to do some aquatic jogging?” He does as he’s told, though, changing quickly, trying to ignore the frustration bubbling under his skin. She’s right that he needs the activity, needs to do something for the stiff muscles and sharp anxiety that have been stealing his sleep, sending him diving headlong into nightmares when he does manage to slip away from wakefulness for a bit. What he wants to do is shoot, pick up his bow and send arrows into a target until his hands are numb and there’s nothing in his mind but laser focus, the curve of the trajectory and the tiny center point of the bullseye.

That isn’t an option now, though, so instead he dutifully follows Natasha onto the elevator, back down to the lobby, where he vaguely remembers seeing the sign for the fitness center in the side hallway.

He’s resigned himself to running on an overused treadmill--his personal least favorite form of exercise--and has moved on to resenting the fact that the burner phone currently residing in his pocket doesn’t have any music on it when the sound of boisterous laughter catches his attention.

It’s late, but the small swimming pool adjacent to the fitness center is still open, he realizes, the comparatively bright lights giving him a clear view through the big observation window that’s obviously meant to entice guests to use these facilities. A tired-looking young man--probably no older than thirty--is shivering in the shallow end, dutifully tossing a beach ball back and forth with his sons, though it’s clear he would probably prefer to be in bed at this hour. The boys are twins, older than Lila but younger than Cooper, and Clint bites down on the inside of his lip as he catches himself using that particular metric. They look positively gleeful, blissfully unaware of unpleasant things like bedtime, or their own mortality, or danger in the world. As he watches, their father turns and offers him a knowing smile.

In that instant, Clint feels something akin to grief stabbing at the pit of his stomach, but it blooms just as quickly into rage, into blind hatred for Stark, and Rogers, and Barnes. The whole damned group of them, and the rest of the world as well.

Natasha lays a gentle hand on his shoulder, and he pulls away roughly, practically shoving her back out of reflex.

“Come on,” she says softly, apparently unfazed.

Fuck this,” Clint spits, and pushes past her into the other room.

A week later, Natasha is in the shower when the phone rings. At first Clint thinks it’s the one she’s been carrying, because he knows she’s been making contacts he’s not privy to, maybe with the others, or maybe as part of some future strategy she hasn’t made clear yet. It isn’t hers, though--it’s the one he’s left in the pocket of his pants from the night before, and his heart drops and he scrambles to answer it.

“Clint?” It’s Laura’s voice, just like he knew it would be.

For a moment he’s absolutely certain that this is it, that the disaster he’s been praying they’d all outrun for just a few months longer has finally caught up.

“What is it?” he breathes, pulse thundering in his temples.

“It’s--” Laura hesitates, strangely. “You forget what day it is?”

Clint swallows, pauses, because that response doesn’t make any sort of sense. He wonders if it’s supposed to be a code, if she’s compromised and trying to get a message across. He can’t place it, though, feels utterly helpless. “What day is it?”

She exhales heavily, is quiet for another moment before speaking. “It’s Nate’s birthday. His first birthday? I thought--I don’t know, I thought you’d call. When you didn’t, I got worried.”

He glances at the date on the face of the watch he’s been wearing, heart in his throat as hot fingers of shame close around his stomach. Laura is right, and he has managed to forget entirely.

“I’m--” He takes a breath. “I did forget. Shit. I’m sorry, it’s--Time is--Nothing exactly feels real right now.”

He can practically hear Laura’s frown. “How do you mean?”

“It doesn’t feel real,” he repeats. “It’s like--Like I’m someone else, like I’m on an op and I’m pretending to live someone else’s life. I wake up every morning and for a minute I don’t know where I am, all I can think is how good it will be to get home, and then it just--It all comes back.” The words come out in a rush, the sort of weakness he never allows himself, knows, in some dim corner of his mind, that he’ll be punishing himself over for weeks to come. But now that he’s started, he can’t seem to stop, and Natasha isn’t here to ground him, to make him think better of it. “It’s been months, Laur. I don’t even know what Nate looks like these days. I want to see him. I want to see you.”

She takes an audible breath. “What are you saying?”

Clint swallows, painfully. “I want to come home. Or I want--I can’t have that, I know I can’t. I can’t have that home. But maybe--maybe we could still have something. Maybe we could make something new.”

“You want us to leave?” asks Laura, though she doesn’t sound quite as incredulous as Clint’s expected. “You want us to just--pick up stakes and--I don’t know, start over somewhere new?”

It sounds impossible, when she puts it that way--not just that he might be able to find a way, might be able to come up with the resources and opportunities necessary to keep them off the grid but not miserable, not deprived--but the idea that Laura would want it, that having him present in their lives again might be worth that to her.

“What if I do?” he asks, finally, his voice scarcely above a whisper.

“I don’t know,” she says softly, her voice rough. “I’m--It would mean the world, to me and the kids, but--But you’d have to be sure. You’d have to have a plan, and you’d have to be able to promise that it would last, this time. That you’d just be with us. I want to believe you, babe, but there have just--there have been so many times.”

Clint winces, just in time to see Natasha emerge from the bathroom. He has the sense that she’s managed to hear somehow, that she knows all about the blow Laura’s just landed--though it’s not like he can even protest it, because she’s absolutely right.

“I have to go,” he breathes, because he doesn’t think he can stand to be having this conversation anymore, to be hearing the disappointment through the thousands of miles between them. “I’m--Tell Nate happy birthday for me. I know he won’t--Just tell him, okay? Tell him I’m sorry, too.”

“I know,” says Laura, tiredly. “I know you always are.”

Word comes early on a Tuesday morning, before the sun’s even up outside.

Clint’s just gotten back from the lobby of their hotel, a still-steaming cup of coffee in one hand, hot water in the other for Natasha. She’s sitting cross-legged on the bed, one of the maps they’ve picked up along the way spread out in front of her. The scene is deceptive, feels routine, but he can tell immediately that something’s changed. She’s too still, too focused to actually be reading the map. She’s waiting for him, he thinks, and not for anything mundane.

“What’s up?” he asks, too lightly, because he doesn’t know what else to do in situations like this, when dread’s already crawling over the back of his neck, sending a wave of traitorous goosebumps erupting all over his skin. His nerves are beyond frayed, sniper’s patience shot to hell weeks ago. Today he feels desperate, unhinged.

“Message from Steve,” says Natasha, her voice carefully measured.

Clint sets the drinks down, doesn’t quite trust his hands right now. “He all right?”

She nods, slowly. Clint suddenly gets the sense that she might be talking to a frightened animal--no sudden movements--though it’s not exactly like he can blame her. He’s not acting much better, doesn’t feel any more stable than one in this moment.

“He’s outside Portland,” says Natasha. “Wanda and Sam are with him. He wants us there too.”

“Why?” Clint takes a few steps closer to her, glances around, reflexively checking the room for bugs, for any way that they might be overheard. The deadbolt on the door is closed behind him, the Do Not Disturb sign hung, yet he still feels exposed. “Thought the whole point of this was for us to be split up, stay off the grid.”

“Well.” She sits up straighter, shifts her legs over the side of the bed, like she might be preparing to stand. She doesn’t make any further moves, though. “It was. But--As he put it, ‘the world didn’t stop needing us, just because they tried to put us away.’ He’s got resources now. A base.”

“And how did that happen?” asks Clint, instantly suspicious. There’s so much he doesn’t know, didn’t know, going into this fight, and he’s damn well past tired of making a leap only to find someone else’s secrets biting him in the ass. “Six weeks ago, he was playing Captain Helpless. Telling us he was shit out of luck, just like we were. And now--What? He expects to just--be in charge all over again? Yell ‘assemble’ and we’ll just roll over like the good dogs we’re supposed to be?”

Natasha looks at the floor, then back up at Clint. “Fury is with him. And Hill.”

Clint throws up his hands incredulously, sees immediately where this is going, though he still has to ask, mostly for the sake of hearing her say it. “And how did that happen, Nat? Magic? They were off the grid. As far off as you can get, and they wanted to stay that way. How did Steve--How did Captain Conspicuous, the actual worst spy I’ve ever met, just happen to get in touch with them?”

“I might have put them in touch,” she admits, avoiding his eyes again. “Because, as you pointed out, Steve on the run on his own is a horror show.”

“Right.” His jaw is painfully tight, and it takes an actual effort to get his next set of words out. “And now, let me guess, you’re going to tell me that you’ve already got our route all planned out to go join him? Just--be a happy family team again?”

“I know it’s not that simple,” says Natasha, though she doesn’t actually deny any of the rest. “There’s still a lot to work through.”

“But you do expect us to go. You expect me to go along with you.” He realizes he’s been balling his left hand into a fist when his nails bite into the flesh of his palm, makes a conscious effort to uncurl his hand again. All he wants in this moment is to hit something, break something, and that impulse scares him more than he’d like to admit.

“Yes,” she says simply, as if he’d be an idiot to so much as consider anything else. “That’s the point, isn’t it?”

“No,” Clint grits, both hands clenching down again, and this time he doesn’t make any effort to stop them. He’s in freefall, he realizes, or perhaps has been this entire time, plummeting toward a safety net that’s turned out to be nothing more than a ruse, a pretty lie designed to draw him in, entrap him. “No, I am finished playing your games, Natasha. Everyone’s games.”

She frowns. “There’s no game here. Just--What did you want, to stay on the run forever?”

“I want to go home,” Clint growls. “I want to be done working for people with agendas they don’t tell me about. Fury and the Tesseract, then S.H.I.E.L.D.--or Hydra, fuck--now Rogers. And you, Nat. You’ve been working an angle this whole damn time. Of course you have. You ask me to share intel, help you with damage control? You promise you’ve got everything under control, then and now too? Your people arrested me. Your people are the reason we landed in the fucking Raft to begin with, and you expect me to just--turn around and trust you again now? The funny part is that I actually did. I actually did think you might see our partnership as--I don’t know, sacred. Some bullshit thing like that. But you’ve just been working your own fucking angle too. On me.”

“No angle,” says Natasha, getting to her feet. She looks impossibly calm, though he’s pretty sure it’s an act. “No agenda. I want all the same things you do.”

“Really?” he sneers, anger fully in control now. “Because what I want is to protect my family. And I’m pretty damn sure you’ve got no fucking clue what that means at this point.”

“Are you done?” she asks finally, when he’s gone silent. Her voice is flat, downright icy.

We are,” Clint snaps. He grabs his bag and flees the room without time for another word.

Clint walks straight out of the hotel and onto the street, makes it a couple of miles down the road before the adrenaline fades, before regret settles heavy in the pit of his stomach. He has a right to be angry, he thinks, even objectively--a right to be angry at Steve and Tony, at Fury and Hill, too. He doesn’t think it’s wrong, exactly, to feel betrayed by Natasha’s failure to keep the team together, in the face of her unwavering certainty. By the fact that he’s the one who’s been arrested, spent time in prison, while she’s been laying low on her own terms. The fact that she’s been keeping secrets from him, playing a long game of her own, despite everything.

But it’s not as though anyone forced his hand in coming back to the fight in the first place, not like anyone made up his mind for him when he’d decided to intervene, to pick up Wanda. It’s not like he was a zombie at the airport, when he’d stopped pulling his punches, and not like he’s done much of anything to help himself since the bottom fell out and they all ended up twenty thousand leagues under. If he’s honest with himself, he’s been sulking more than anything else, been struggling to pick up the pieces of his sanity for the third time in as many years. A large part of him isn’t sure if they really fit together anymore.

He doesn’t have a vehicle now, or a plan, or a direction. Or much left of his dignity, when he thinks about it. There’s a McDonald’s a couple of blocks up on his right, and he makes his way inside, ordering the coffee he never managed to drink at the hotel and paying in cash. He probably ought to be concerned about the possibility of being recognized, but right now he’s just too tired, the fear that’s been eating away at him for the past few months finally burned out into nothing but numbness and ashes. He sits in a booth and stares up at the television in the corner, which is broadcasting the usual depressing morning news. Still no sign of Ross, no mention of any sort of manhunt.

The coffee burns as he takes a sip and Clint sets it down, plays idly with the phone in his pocket. It’s the last of the unused burner units he has, and he ought to save it, he thinks. Yet he can’t quite bring himself to care about the future at this point, is suddenly beyond sick of worrying about the next disaster to come along. All he knows is that right now, in this moment, he needs the sound of a familiar voice more than he needs air, and there’s really only one bridge left that he hasn’t burned.

Clint dials, holds his breath as he listens to it ring. It takes too long, and for a moment he’s certain that he’s calling too early, time difference and all, that he won’t get through and the call will be wasted. But then there’s a click, the sound of scuffling movement before a voice that’s decidedly not Laura’s.


“Lila?” Clint whispers, heart in his throat, the room suddenly swimming a little as the immensity of longing to see her, to be there with her, slams into him. “Are you--You’re not--”

“Don’t tell Mom,” she says in a rush. “I know it’s bad, but I found the phone and I--I wanted to talk to you.”

“So you took it?” he asks, smiling despite himself. It’s absolutely wrong, it’s a liability, the exact sort of trouble he’s been worrying about this entire time, but right now he can’t bring himself to feel anything at all except grateful. “Where did you put it?”

“Under my pillow.” She pauses. “Dad, are you in jail? That’s what everybody else says. Jail. Like, for bad guys.”

“I’m--” Clint breaks off, his attention suddenly drawn back to the television by the sight of the word Super-Powered in one of the headlines.

”I’m here with the latest reports of incidents around the world,” the well-manicured anchor is saying, ”Of Enhanced individuals apparently unable to control their powers. So far, the government has refused to comment on these ongoing phenomena, aside from telling us that the recently-adopted Sokovia Accords include provisions for a specialized task force put together to contain the threat. That begs the question--Are ordinary humans cut out to intervene in situations where superhuman abilities are at play?”

“Dad?” Lila prompts, and Clint shakes himself, trying to focus on the conversation, on what he’s going to tell her. Still, he can’t help thinking of Wanda, of what might have happened if she’d been confronted by a SWAT team of civilian police while still learning how to control her abilities.

“I’m--safe,” he says, lamely. “I heard somebody gets to be the star of her play.”

“Yes,” says Lila. “But you can’t come, can you?”

”While the president has neither confirmed nor denied these rumors, sources tell us that it’s believed the appearance of these Enhanced individuals might be the result of ongoing experimentation by Hydra splinter cells, though the terrorist organization was supposedly eradicated last year,” the report continues.

“No,” says Clint, because that much is still true, he’s relatively certain. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay.” It’s too easy, and clearly there’s another question coming, the real thing she’s wanted to know. “Promise me something?”

”Meanwhile,” says the voice from the TV, ”most of the Avengers remain in custody at an undisclosed correctional facility. So--and I’m sure my bosses would want me to tell you that this statement in no way reflects the official position of the network or its affiliates--we’d better hope we don’t turn out to need them to save us anytime soon.”

“What’s that?” Clint asks, turning away from the TV.

“Everyone says you’re bad now,” says Lila, her voice pained. “That you’re not a hero anymore. Promise--promise me that if you can’t come home, it’s because you’re still being a hero. Even if nobody knows but me.”

Clint swallows, silently curses the universe for the message it’s apparently trying to send him. He thinks of Wanda again, of Natasha all those years ago, of the world he wants his daughter to grow up in. Of what will happen if he stops fighting, just sits back and lets fate run its course.

“Promise,” he murmurs, his own voice sounding alien, surreal in his ears. “I promise.”

It feels as if he doesn’t breathe between leaving the McDonald’s and arriving back at the motel parking lot. It’s been just over two hours since he stormed out, but by some small miracle, Natasha’s car is still in the parking lot. It’s not a guarantee, he knows, but it spurs him forward, and he feels a dangerous flare of hope when he gets back to their room and finds the Do Not Disturb sign still stuck in the card slot.

When he gets the door open, she’s waiting for him by the far bed, one hand casually cocked on her hip, where he guesses she has a knife concealed. A contingency, just in case.

Clint offers her his hands, palms-up in surrender. “I’m an ass.”

“Yes,” she agrees quietly, letting her hand fall to her side. “You are.”

He swallows hard, realizes that he’s spent the entirety of the walk back worried about whether or not he’d still find her here, hasn’t put much thought into what he’d actually say if he did. “Look. I’m--What I said to you? That was awful. It’s our family, and I--I believe you’re trying to protect it too. Not just Laura and the kids. The Avengers. All of us. That’s what you do, even when we’re too fucking dumb to see it.”

Natasha laughs bitterly. “That’s me. Black Widow: group mom.”

“Yes,” Clint insists. “You are. You are. You’ve been taking care of me, the past few weeks. Before that, Rogers. And Stark.”

She shrugs. “Seems like it’s been going great.”

“I thought I was going to die in the Raft,” says Clint, the words coming quickly now, tumbling out, though they’re no longer driven by anger. “I was--I think I had accepted it, that I was just going to rot there. Before that, I thought I was going to die in Sokovia. Before that, with Loki in my head. By this go-around, I was almost okay with it. Because then I’d be done. I’d get what I deserved. Only I didn’t.”

“That is not what you deserve,” Natasha growls, but she lets him continue, seems to sense that she isn’t going to win that particular fight with his demons today.

“The point is, I didn’t,” he insists. “I’m not dead, and I’m not rotting in jail, and--And you’re right. There are still people who need us, even if the world doesn’t want that to be true. I don’t want to become the kind of person who turns their back on that.”

“So what are you saying?” she asks, not quite meeting his eyes.

“I’m saying that I want--” He breaks off, thinks of the hope in Laura’s voice when he’d suggested making a new home, starting over. He thinks of her doubts, her quietly resigned certainty that a clean slate wouldn’t last. “I need to come with you. If there’s a team, I need to be a part of it.”

“Are you sure?” asks Natasha, looking at him then.

Clint meets her gaze, holds it resolutely. “Yes. I’m sorry it took--all of this--for me to realize it. But I’m not going anywhere.”

She nods once, crosses the room and wraps her arms around him, just holding on for a long moment. When she pulls away, he doesn’t miss the subtle glint of unshed tears in her eyes, though he chooses not to comment.

“Still partners?” he asks softly, catching and holding her hand.

“Yes,” she agrees, though he knows--as he always has--that it means so much more.

“I know you’re the navigator,” says Clint, gesturing to the map, still spread open on the bed, “but maybe I could drive?”

Natasha studies him, then smiles. “I was hoping you’d ask.”