A/N 1: Because I had so much fun with Oxycodone Days, I decided to continue it. It isn't essential that you read it first, but some of the characterizations and motifs will make more sense if you do. This story was heavily influenced by the "Hurt Locker," because I really liked Jeremy Renner in it

A/N 2: One thing I love about writing Clint/Natasha is that they are both just so screwed up that there is no way in hell their relationship could be even remotely healthy, yet in my mind it works. I really want to play with how someone like Tony, that comes from another form of dysfunction (neglect vs. abuse) tries to relate to them. I don't know if it was RDJ's portrayal of Stark or what but he often reads as a bit of whiner to me and I want to see him start to understand that his problems aren't the be all and end all of the world. But at the same time I want to see how Romanov and Barton deal with learning how relationships don't have to be the co-dependent, all or nothing type they have.

Disclaimer: Not my characters and even if I made money at it, I wouldn't quit my day job.

Anyway on with the prologue.

Into the Fire – Prologue:

Thursday April 21, 12:03 am

"You win, Fury, we'll take it," Barton gruffly stated before abruptly ending the call, hoping he and his partner hadn't just made another in a series of truly stupid decisions.

Wednesday April 20, 8:16 pm

Agents Barton and Romanov quickly read through the files Hill had set in front of them. Tony, already drunk, was doing his best to try and read over their shoulders, no doubt annoyed that they had higher security clearance. Pepper clung to him like a life line, while the Captain and Bruce took turns pacing and using the last available seat at the table. Fury simply stared on at first confusing Barton with his presence, until he started to read through the mission details, which then made perfect sense. Clint couldn't really be bothered by any of it; he was far more concerned with the mission their new handler had given them. It immediately set his hackles up. Everything about it played opposite to his and Natasha's strengths, not to mention it was in the Middle East, a place he could die happy if he never saw again.

Not that he could fault the prep work, it was flawless along with their covers. He would be expected to deploy to an army unit that was to be placed in Syria. He would go in as a Captain, a slight demotion but he would be his alter ego, Pierce, not Barton anyway. His teams would be comprised of Rangers, EOD, and regular Army. Once there, he was to try and infiltrate to determine who was bootlegging Stark's weapon designs and rebuilding them on the cheap. Fury, along with DOD was convinced that someone in the Army had to be helping, because only DOD still had access to the weapons. Natasha would be his support, posing as a logistics Lieutenant and interfacing with SHIELD. Cap would stay behind to guard Stark. Though, Stark would initially go with them, in hopes of drawing the ring leader out.

No, there was nothing he could inherently fault about it. Conceptually it was perfect, but once his head got past the concept, his heart ran cold at the prospect of going back into that situation again. It would be like Faluja, Iraq, Afghanistan, and all the unspoken about raids into Iran again. No support, no cover, no hope. Watching women scream, children cry, and good men make bad decision in the name of their country and their god. The smell of the spices and the ozone after an explosion, ears still ringing as he stood exposed in the middle of a kill box, scanning buildings for snipers. Most of the time they were kids, stupid fucking kids that thought they were doing good but weren't. He never paid much attention to the fact that he had basically been just a kid too. Seventeen, he had been seventeen; though the army had thought he was 18, when he had shot his first person in the head. All of it came back in one ugly rush that almost had him bolting for the bathroom.

Natasha seemed to understand though and he felt her knee press against his. She snapped her screen closed and looked Fury dead in the eye. "We're not taking it. Give it to someone else."

"What?" Hill squeaked, she still wasn't used to dealing with them. "You aren't allowed to say no."

"We can and we just did," Natasha glared at the other woman, her eyes never wavering. Hill was tough but Tash was tougher.

"Barton," Hill snapped.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, I'm inclined to agree with my partner, this isn't a good fit for us. Find someone else."

"You do realize that is actually a perfect fit for you two," Fury started, "Stark's life is in danger not to mention the secrets they are stealing are costing him millions of dollars. I figured you two would be willing to swap places to protect him."

"I understand that, sir, but Gunnarson and Lee can pull this off just as easily and we can stay and guard Stark personally."

"Gunnarson is shit at investigating and has no poker face. No one will ever trust him enough for him to track down who is leaking the plans," Maria added, ever practical.

"Well, then you better think of another team because Barton and I aren't doing," Natasha folded her arms against her chest and he leaned over slightly towards her the same time she leaned towards him, their shoulders nearly touching.

"What is wrong with you people?" Tony nearly shouted. "I almost got blown to kingdom come, in this very tower, and am losing $4 million a week because of this and you two can't bother to get off your asses and do something about it?"

"Apparently not," she shot back at him. In these situations, it was best to just let her handle it. She was, sadly, the more politic of the two.

"Barton, Natasha, I don't understand, why won't you help Tony?" Steve tried, and instantly made Clint feel guilty. His inherent dislike of disappointing his CO already making him second guess himself. Tony, Bruce, even Thor when he was around, could be ignored but Steve was respected and he would do whatever it took to keep off of his radar in a negative way. The Psych Team's confidential report to Coulson had said it was probably from growing up with an abusive father. He had been too conditioned for too long to hide from authority figures. He didn't know if he agreed with it but he did know he didn't like getting yelled at. In fact Coulson had blown a gasket when he found out Barton had read those reports, yelling about locks and boundaries; locks smocks. That was like saying hand cuffs actually confined people.

"It's not that we don't want to help him. We'll make sure Stark is safe, it's just," he started, trying to find a way to answer that didn't make him sound like a selfish asshole. They were turning down the mission because he was afraid to go back into that type of situation, afraid of turning back into the person he had been before SHIELD. A person that was so burnt out and so dead inside that he didn't care if his body caught up with the dead feeling or not. All he did was kill and survive. He didn't feel, joy, pity, remorse, fear, love, or anything other than a numb desire to follow orders.

All soldiers, snipers in particular, had to have some degree of depersonalization to do their jobs; otherwise they wouldn't be able to look someone in the eyes and kill them. But apparently Clint's level of emotional numbing and detachment went beyond a healthy, short term coping mechanism to making him functionally mentally ill. At least it had until Coulson had tamed the Hawk to his hand by coaxed, prodded, and occasionally kicked him in the ass to break out of that mindset. That has been the scariest part of Loki's control, not that Loki had taken away his free will, but that Loki had turned him back into what he used to be; an emotionless killer. He knew Tony and Bruce even, made fun of him for being cold blooded but they didn't know the half of it.

"It's just what?" Tony snapped, clearly agitated. He kept spinning his bracelets, no doubt itching to put on his Iron Man suite. But Iron Man couldn't fix this. This required subtlety, which was his and Natasha's bread and butter.

He saw tears in Pepper's eyes; they had been so close to the surface, ever since yesterday and the attempt on Tony's life. He fought his knee jerk reaction to give in to anything she wanted, just to get her to stop. "Tasha, maybe," he started. He was being selfish; he should suck it up and do the damn job. He was a soldier, he followed orders and this was an order so he should follow it.

"No!" she snapped clearly angry. "It's not worth it." She looked him in the eyes and he dropped his first, embarrassed at how glad he was that she was standing up for him. He'd never been all that good at standing up for himself. When it came to non battle confrontations, especially ones that dealt with emotions, his fight or flight response was stuck in flight mode. And not just normal flight, more like running away and hiding as far away as humanly possible until the problem went away. Nat was the only person left that would fight for him.

"How can you say that," Pepper gasped, tears finally working down her cheeks. "How could you think Tony isn't worth it?" Tony had his arm around her in a heartbeat, holding her close. He had been much more affectionate the last day or so. He guessed that nearly getting blown up tended to shift a man's priorities. Or so he thought, it had been so long since he hadn't had to worry about being blown up that he forgot what it was like.

"I didn't say that," Natasha turned to the other woman, disgust evident on her face. Tasha had little patience for helpless woman and though Pepper was far from helpless, she wasn't anywhere near on par with the Black Widow. But then again, who was. She was the only woman Clint had ever met that could wake screaming and shaking from a nightmare and cling to him, sobbing into his chest, yet never come across as even remotely weak. She could let herself selectively fall apart in private but always be strong in public. He really admired that about her.

"But you said," Pepper started before Romanov cut her off.

"I never said we wouldn't protect him. I said this hackneyed mission wasn't worth it," she turned back to Clint. "We save Stark a few million dollars and you spend 2 months not sleeping?" he kept eye contact with her, letting her know he agreed. "That is what's not worth it." She rose, ghosting her fingers over his shoulder, letting him know that she would fight for him even if he weren't willing to fight for himself. "This discussion is over," she stated and walked off as he followed her.

Wednesday April 20, 11:31 pm

Natasha shimmied her way up to Clint's highest perch, settling herself down beside him, legs hanging over the edge. Over the years of working with and being his partner, she had learned to accept suicidaly high hiding places, though she didn't adore them the way he did. She traced his line of sight, as he watched some 30 feet below, where Pepper wept into Tony's shoulder; her slight body shaking in fear for Tony's life. This type of threat wasn't something Stark could charm, pay, or think his way out of. This was their world and the only way out was to still be the one standing at the end. The Avengers, with their shiny uniforms and high profile lives didn't understand their world; a world of darkness, lies, and death. You were only the best until someone was better and then you were just dead. Tony dreamed of clean energy and world peace. Steve dreamed of integration and a return of righteous America, while Bruce wanted nothing more than absolution. All she and Clint wanted was to get to die together.

Because they were alone, she indulged herself and put her chilled hand on his thigh, the muscles hard and tense under her. They were silent and she thought through her talk track with him. There were so many things about this that she did like. Clint being the one in deep cover, for example. Oh she knew he was more than capable of it, in fact he was one of the best but she knew he didn't like it. The problem was that he hated being the center of attention. While she was a discerning about who she kept company with, he was the definition of a lone wolf. Once you got past his glacial "keep out" walls, and managed to ignore his defense mechanism of grumpy monosyllabic responses interspersed with vitriolic cynicism that could even shut Tony up, you realized that deep down he really was very shy. Of course there had only been three people in all of recorded history that had actually managed that task, herself, Phil Coulson, and Barney Barton, his brother; who she frequently imagined the joy of herniating his brain stem if she ever met him. All that being said, she knew he was capable of the assignment but that it would tear him up to do it.

That lack of joy extended beyond having to be the point to what he was actually being asked to do. No one other than her would realize how hard this would be for him. She only knew because they were so close, flip sides of the same coin really. She had spent too many years staring at Complex PTSD in the mirror every morning to not recognize it with him. She hadn't known it had had name until she had broken into Phil's office and read their confidential Pysch reports, like locks would keep her out. Oh their triggers and reactions were different. She couldn't handle confinement or loss of control. Fires or anything that reminded her of Red Room set her off. She would lash out and rave, attacking anyone that came within 500 meters of her. She turned it all outward, a need to protect herself in the most primal way took over and she became an animal. His were more subtle, like the smell of cotton candy or the sound of leather snapping together. However there was one very obvious one, and that was being sent back into pure, Army combat. He, on the other hand, defensively turned himself inward when stressed. He withdrew and isolated himself till it was like dealing with a cipher. He actually wigged out much more frequently than she did but it was harder to spot. It scared the shit out of her when he did that too, because there was nothing more disconcerting that standing next to someone and having a conversation with them, but knowing that they weren't really there with you. That was why Loki's control had been so frightening, because she had seen him like that before but with Loki, she didn't know if she could coax him out of it.

"Pepper cornered me," she started, because she knew he wouldn't say anything. It was a common misconception that she didn't get along with other women and didn't get along with Pepper in particular. It wasn't true, she didn't mind her. She just didn't like when that skinny, duck faced bitch touch Clint. She had only done it once, hugged Barton and kissed him on the cheek like she did to Rogers and Banner when they returned from a mission, a simple gesture of friendship but Natasha did not find it acceptable. NO ONE but her got to touch him. She realized that her jealousy was childish and selfish but in that one thing she indulged herself and he didn't seem to mind.

She waited but he didn't respond, most people assumed that she wore the pants in their relationship because she was the most vocal but it wasn't true. They both had equal input and there were situations where he would completely take over and she would follow without question. But times like this, where they had to talk, she always took the lead. "She's worried about Tony," she continued. "She begged me to talk you into taking the job."

"I figured," he answered, covering her hand with his own. That one gesture more caring and intimate than all of the groping and weeping going on below them.

"I told her no," she added, watching Tony kiss his girlfriend.

"I'm being selfish about this, aren't I?" he asked, his voice flat. He was already withdrawing, thickening his walls and clearing out mental compartments to separate his thoughts and emotions from what he was going to do.

"We've done enough and earned the right to be selfish," she snapped, hating that they were even discussing this.

"Then why did you bring up Pepper?" he knew her too well, could spot her attempts to manipulate him too easily.

"It's hard to ignore that it's Tony, a friend that is in danger."

"Your friend. I don't really like him," he grinned and bumped her shoulder. He was trying to lighten the mood, trying to remove her guilt at allowing him to do this. She could pick out his manipulations just as easily.

"True, but a teammate none the less, even though he probably wouldn't do the same for us." And it was them, not just him that would suffer. She would hurt for him and cry for him because she knew he wouldn't do it for himself. Somewhere along the way, he seemed to have forgotten how to cry.

They were silent for a while, just watching the world below them. They were both just processing how to handle this. Running different scenarios on what could and should happen. None of it made her happy. "I have a bad feeling about this," he spoke in low voice, almost a bedroom voice that no one but her ever heard. It was devoid of edge or sarcasm, this was honesty.

"I do too," she responded in kind.

"Great, last time we both had a bad feeling about a job, we ended up almost bleeding to death on a roof in Berlin," he looked up at the stars, dulled by the pollution and lights of New York. She often thought of how much happier he would be in the country. Hawks weren't made for urban sprawl. "And no Coulson to save us, this time," he almost whispered. Only with her would he admit how much he still missed Phil "Squawks" Coulson.

"No Coulson to rescue us but we have a new team now," she tried but knew it wasn't the same, not for him and not for her.

"You trust them that much?" it was a casual question to anyone listening but to them it had layers of meaning.

"No yet," she answered truthfully, because Coulson and Barton were the only two people she ever trusted that much and she missed their old handler too. But strangely she had made more progress with the new team than he had. His natural introversion always made it difficult for him to bond with people plus he was deployed away from them much more frequently than her so he had less time to connection. Not to mention in battle, she tended to be near the Captain, while he was separated from them; high up in a bird's nest somewhere. She wasn't surprised that he was still standoffish to them. She just hoped Tony made good on his promise and continued to try and befriend him. "But we never will if we don't give them a chance to prove themselves off the battle field," she finished as he ran his callused thumb over the backs of her knuckles. It was a familiar, comforting gesture he had been doing for years.

"I guess we should call Fury then," he sighed and she swallowed the urge to tell him to forget it. She was afraid this was a horrible decision. Because if something happened to Clint there would be no Natasha and she liked Natasha. There would still be Agent Romanov and Black Widow but Natasha only existed because Clint had decided to give her a chance. Because she was him and he was her and without that other half of herself, she knew that she wouldn't exist not in the same way and that scared the hell out of her. But she trusted him to make it through this mission and if he didn't he trusted her to bring him back.

"I guess so," she breathed and he reached for his phone.

Thursday April 21, 12:03 am

"You win, Fury, we'll take it," Barton gruffly stated before abruptly ending the call, hoping he and his partner hadn't just made another in a series of truly stupid decisions.