I hadn't intended to write more in this, and then I saw the movie again, and I got some pretty hardcore Natasha feels, so this happened.
Natasha goes to see one person before she heads out.
"Stark Industries," she says as Hill approaches. They're meeting at the coffee shop that sits in the shadow of the enormous tower; it's warm enough out that the sidewalk tables are uncovered. Hill gives Natasha a wry smile as she slips into the seat opposite her.
"He made me take a lie detector test."
Natasha doesn't laugh, but it's a near thing. "That's probably my fault."
"It definitely was."
She would apologize, except she decided not to apologize for doing her job a long time ago, so instead she pushes a slice of coffee cake over to Hill. Hill pulls off a corner and tries it.
"Not bad," she says, and has another piece. "So. How about you?"
"Not sure yet. I have to come up with some new covers."
"I might be able to get you something here."
Natasha arches an eyebrow at her, and Hill says, "Potts is the CEO, not Stark. It's her say-so."
"I don't know that she remembers me all that fondly either."
Hill shakes her head. "You were involved in keeping him alive when he was being an idiot about finding help for his condition. She figures you're at least even."
Interesting, and useful, but not what she's interested in right now. "Good to know."
"...but you have other plans."
Natasha can hear in Hill's voice and see in her expression that she already knows what Natasha is going to do. Natasha confirms it by looking away, and Hill grimaces.
"You know he might be HYDRA."
Natasha meets Hill's eyes for a second, then glances down at her coffee. "He's not."
"You don't know that."
Hill settles back in her chair. "How can you be so sure?"
She thinks of when she first joined, and of Budapest, and of a hundred other times from then to now, and says, "I just can."
Hill watches her for a almost a full minute, cool gaze assessing. The reality is, Hill has known Barton longer, but Natasha has never been more certain in her life that she knows him better. Presently, Hill nods.
"Okay. But just so it's clear, if you bring him back around here, I'm considering him an unknown quantity."
"Fair enough." Natasha thinks of the files she kept for herself. "I've got some things I wanted to look into. I figured I could use his help."
"Are these the kinds of things I'm going to have to answer questions about?"
Natasha shakes her head. "Though I'll update you on how they turn out, if you want."
Natasha nods. "Here." She pushes a jump drive at Hill. "This is everything HYDRA had on Jane Foster."
Hill frowns. "They had her under surveillance? Separate from SHIELD?"
"Ever since New Mexico."
Hill palms the drive and tucks it away. "Do you think we need to do anything?"
"She has the best protection available on the planet." She sees Hill take her meaning. "But it might not be a bad idea to entice her closer to Stark."
Hill looks thoughtful. "There's some projects we have that might work. We'll see what Potts thinks."
Thor and Tony Stark under the same roof ought to make for some grand theater. Natasha sips from her coffee. "So. A lie detector test. What all did he ask?"
He's not in Kabul.
The mission was aborted by someone from SHIELD high enough in the op command structure to be listened to, so there's almost no one lingering. She manages to track down one of the local contacts, who is barely willing to make eye contact less speak to her, but eventually she gets confirmation that Clint received the word to get out of town.
She knows he has safehouses he hasn't shared with her, not because he doesn't trust her but because he's never been able to bring himself to rely on the apparatus they worked for (with good reason, as it turns out). He's probably in one of them now, waiting for the dust to settle, and there's no telling when he'll move to one she's familiar with, or which one it will be. Sydney? Madrid? Copenhagen?
She decides to try Montenegro first, because she can get there with a minimum of effort while staying under the radar, and she finds him waiting for her, drinking beer and eating day-old pizza.
He takes the news about Coulson about as well as she could have expected, though at least he doesn't break anything. Naturally he wants to go after him, which means getting to the States, and that means getting some good covers. He suggests they go in through Canada, and they get to work exercising their European contacts. In a couple of days they're on their way to Montreal, and it's almost like old times; they fall into their habits and patterns, with the not insignificant change that now they're hiding from everyone, even their own.
They're on their drive to the border when Clint finally asks her, "How do you know I'm not HYDRA?"
Despite how well they know one another and what she told Hill, it's not outside the realm of possibility. He's a fair bit older than her, and was in SHIELD for some time before he brought her in. Anything could have happened in that time. He's never told her everything, after all.
But still she says, "I just do."
He looks askance at her—only for a moment, since he's driving—and raises his eyebrows. "You're not the kind of person to roll with gut instinct."
"I also didn't see anything incriminating in their files." Which is true, but it's not the reason, and his posture says he knows it.
"You wouldn't, if they really wanted it kept secret. Especially if it was someone like me."
Very true. And still. "You're not HYDRA, Clint."
He huffs a laugh. That's one of the best things about him; he knows how to read her moods, like when she isn't going to give a straight answer no matter how many times she's asked. She says, "What about you?"
"How do you know I'm not HYDRA."
He's a long time in replying. "I don't." That gives her pause, and when he glances at her there's a tired fatalism in his expression she's only seen once before (just after she'd freed him from Loki). "I figure, if you are, I'd rather be close by so I can put an arrow in your eye before you do anything. And if you're not, then the safest place to be is wherever you are. And let's face it—you were working with Rogers and Hill. If you're HYDRA and they didn't figure it out, I'm pretty fucked, and if all three of you are HYDRA, I'm seriously fucked." He lets that sit for a second, then sighs. "I'd rather have someone to trust than go around suspecting everyone. I'm too old for that. If that's going to be anyone, it's you."
Everything from the last two weeks is a little too raw for her to formulate a proper response to that, so she just nods. They pass a few more miles before he says, "What about Coulson?"
She shakes her head. "Not sure."
"That file says he has a couple of Level Seven Ops people with him."
She knows what he means: even if Coulson isn't, any of his people might be, and they won't be push-overs. It's a delicate and deadly situation they're heading into. "We'll have to shadow them for a while. See if we can get an idea."
He seems to agree, but then says, "And if he's not HYDRA, how do we convince him we're not?"
"Still working on that one," she admits, "but I was thinking if you give him a black eye for being alive that might work."
He laughs, and says, "Maybe."
They're sitting in line at the border when he says, "This is what they want." She gives him a puzzled look, and he explains, "HYDRA. They want us second guessing one another. Turning on one another. That way we're separated, alone, and vulnerable."
She gazes out over the traffic. They're almost to the booth. "Joke's on them."
He gives her a grim smile. "Damn straight." He gets out his passport, and she hands hers over as they pull up to the window.
Once they're on the other side of the border, she says, "Maybe we can have Thor check him out for us. Level Seven or not, they're wouldn't be a match for him."
"I thought he would've gone back to wherever after that craziness in London."
"Still here as of the last set of HYDRA surveillance photos on the astrophysicist."
Clint frowns. "HYDRA was monitoring Selvig?"
"Probably, but he's not who I meant." Natasha can't help her amused smile. "Selvig's sweet and all, but I don't think he's Thor's type."
Clint looks lost for a moment, then blinks and says, "Oh. Right." Natasha manages to hold back a laugh.
While they're refueling in Ohio he says, "Even if we do find him and he's not HYDRA and we convince him we're not, and we figure out who among his people are clean—what comes after that?"
"I guess we'll have to see what he's doing and take it from there."
"You said they have some sort of transport?"
She nods. "Or they did. I'm not sure if they still do. Their refueling options are going to be limited now, which should male it pretty easy to find."
Clint says, "Which is why he'd be smart to ditch it at the first opportunity."
The pump clicks off, and Clint finishes up. When he's back in the driver's seat she adds, "But you know Coulson."
"What, that he loves long shots?"
"He likes having something to work on."
"Same difference," Clint says, and she rolls her eyes at him.
Another few miles down the road he says, "I really hope he's not HYDRA."
She's afraid he will be, because it seems too much to hope that he's not. Still, what Clint said earlier remains with her as a reminder of why she came to find him in the first place, and it gives her a sort of resigned hope.
They want us to turn on one another.
She says, "Me too."