All characters (c) Marvel Comics

Summary: Schubert's "Rosamunde"quartet No. 13 in a minor is a control trigger for Clint. Loki finds out and contemplates whether or not to do something about it.


The Spinning Wheel

If Natasha Romanoff had known that the evening's undercover op would end with a torn Vera Wang, two major sprains and a twenty-four hundred-Euro debt to the Austrian Embassy she would have charged Nick Fury for overtime.

But she does not discover this until later. It is close to 20:00 and she is sitting in the plush seats of the Musikverein's Golden Hall, curling a ticket in the palm of one hand. Barton has his legs crossed beside her; his hand rests on his thigh where a small quiver lies strapped beneath his tailored Zanieri. Natasha is better at looking relaxed than he is. His eyes keep darting to their mark, seated in row V, and he pulls at his tie unconsciously. The mark, a truly feculent dealer and abuser of mutant orphans, is next on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s list of disposable pests. Apparently, the fine arts and black market rendezvouses go hand-in-hand.

Natasha spares Barton a glance and begins to methodically apply some lipstick that she has stowed away in her night purse. The lipstick is but an accoutrement of the upper class—utterly superfluous, yet necessary for discretion because it is what all the ladies in this place do while they wait for the concert to begin. Natasha fails to see the point of freshening up when no one is going to notice you in the dark anyway, but she continues until her lips are colored rosy pink. She would have much preferred chapstick.

She remembers when Ivan used to take her to the Maryinsky to see the ballets and opera like Boris Godunov and Prince Igor. For that purpose her tastes in classical music are purely Russian, and Natasha mildly regrets not acquainting herself with the styles of the Germans or the French.

The concert tonight is a gala celebration in the name of some esteemed musician or anniversary of the sorts. The Vienna Phil is on tour with Mehta, so the program consists of various chamber works in lieu of the orchestra. Natasha and Barton do not bother with the details, as the music falls second to their mission.

Barton seems to relax some as the concert begins and the ensembles enter in their tuxedos and gowns. Natasha knows his tastes lie in more of the Beatles-Cream-Billy Joel area than in classical waters, but he listens as attentively as she does. After all, multitasking is but a mere prerequisite for their skill sets.

It is not until the second half of the concert that things take an unforeseen and disastrous turn. Their mark, Reznik, has not acted up and is most likely waiting until after the concert to meet with his partner. As it turns out, Reznik is not the problem.

Now, a piano quintet concludes and a string quartet enters the stage to healthy applause. Natasha initially thinks nothing of it when the quartet sits down and begins to play. A glance at her program tells her that it is Schubert's "Rosamunde" quartet in a minor; a piece about a love-stricken spinster. A few seconds in she senses Barton stiffening at her side and immediately looks over at their mark. He has not moved.

Her eyes return to Barton, who is clenching the arms of his chair hard enough to make cords stand out on his neck. His eyes are squeezed tightly shut, and Natasha becomes alarmed at his sudden change in character. She runs through a number of options in her head: poisoning, stunning, electrocution, migraine. "Clint," she whispers quietly, questioningly.

"This piece..." he manages, the words coming out strained. His teeth are clenched, and Natasha momentarily forgets about the mark.

"Clint, what is it?"

Barton shakes his head. His breathing is unsteady and minute drops of perspiration are beginning to stand out on his forehead. "It's him. I can't...I have to—" He abruptly rises and makes his way to the exits. A good number of people shoot him disproving glares as he goes, and Natasha even more so as she quickly follows.

She does not find him in the main lobby. He finds her.

Thankfully the lobby is empty and quiet, or Natasha would not have heard the arrow coming. She does a backflip to avoid it, nimbly landing in a crouch position and wordlessly staring at the arrow with mounting unease. The arrow has struck one of the paintings behind her and the canvas is dissolving at an alarming rate. It is one of Clint's acid arrows, rarely used as it is for killing only. Natasha feels something coil in her stomach.

She spots him upstairs as he is reaching into his larger quiver with an impressive speed. He uses up his acid arrows on the unfortunate décor as Natasha dodges. She does not ask why Barton is attacking her; her soldier programming takes over and questions can wait. She needs to get Barton outside, she thinks, watching the undoubtedly expensive artifacts behind her turn to a slumgullion of melted metal and color. Dali would have been proud.

Barton follows her into the courtyard. He says nothing all the while, his face as fixed and stony as the trio of statues peering out over the second floor. They fight in silence; he fey and firing wordlessly from behind the statues and she leaping and climbing up the tarp to dodge.

The sky belches thunder and rain begins to fall steadily. Barton may be a top-class acrobat but even he does not have the skill to balance on wet stone. He jumps to the ground and decides to engage Natasha in close combat. By doing so, Natasha gets a closer look at his face and it all hits home.

Clint's eyes are blue.

(It's him)

Blue is their natural color, deep and pooling like the Atlantic. Certainly not a glowing, swirling blue-white that casts a film over his entire sclera. Not Tesseract-blue. It is no wonder he is fighting to kill.

"Fury," Natasha gasps into her earpiece, narrowly swerving an underhand punch, "we may have a code red." God, she hates S.H.I.E.L.D. terminology. Can anything sound more clichéd?

"A code red? Reznik was only a level four," Nick Fury replies in her ear. He sounds understandably confused, and Natasha can practically hear his frown in her earpiece. "What's your status, Agent Romanoff?"

She elbows Clint below his ribcage and is satisfied when he gives a startled grunt. "Barton is compromised," she replies. Again. Her hair has come undone from its elegant knotted bun, strands wet and sticky against her cheeks.

"Shit." A sigh. "I'll ask later. Tell me this, do you need backup?"

"I got this one," Natasha says and disconnects. She kicks off her heels aggressively and turns to direct her full attention to Barton. Got to cognitively recalibrate him, she thinks. Hit him on the head. Make him see the birds.

Fighting with Clint is just as difficult as she remembers it being on the Helicarrier, if not more so. Close combat with someone who not only knows all of your weak spots but who is unnaturally driven on foisted loyalties, battling like a bull, requires all of Natasha's energy. She will not use the five throwing knives or the pair of M9s in her purse, even if Clint manages to hurt her. She directs all of her attacks toward his temples. Cognitive recalibration, she thinks again.

Barton seems to catch this thought and twists Natasha's wrists, spraining one of them instantly. She bites her lip, grits her teeth and delivers a spinning kick that would have made a capoeira master weep.

The rain falls harder and splats fiercely against the cobblestones. Natasha gives Clint a bruise on his collarbone, and he subsequently manages to dislocate her shoulder. They grapple in the rain for a while until Natasha cocks a blow to the back of Clint's head. Unfortunately for her Clint jerks out of the way with impeccable timing, causing her kick to fall short and graze his neck. It had been close.

Barton realizes this and pulls back, switching to the defensive. He glances up once at the sky and suddenly takes off. Natasha follows him, uncoiling the spring cable from the waistline of her dress with the intent to capture but dammit, the storm clouds her vision and she cannot run on wet rock with her feet bare. In a rare lack of grace she takes a spectacular fall, spraining her left ankle and causing one of the valets coming in from the parking lot to rush over and help her up. Natasha smiles and concocts an impromptu story to explain, despite Fury and—she is reluctant to say Coulson—being the ones who usually take care of the cleanup. During it all she relocates her shoulder with a yank.

When Natasha is done she tilts her head back and lets the rain snag her eyelashes. She then proceeds to utter a stream of Russian curses so colorful that Tchaikovsky himself would have swooned from the vulgarity of it and calls Fury.

x

"So not only do we have a rogue dealer running loose, but we are also missing an agent. I thought," Nick Fury says, raising an eyebrow, "you said you had this."

Aboard the Quinjet Natasha finishes toweling her hair dry with her usable hand and purses her lips. "Did you find any information?" she asks in lieu of an answer. Fury gives a sigh and sits down across from her. He rests his elbows on his knees and steeples his fingers together, looking his age for once.

"I looked up what you told me to," he replies. "Remember Loki's little promenade in Stuttgart back in May? Turns out they were playing that piece in the hall when he decided he needed to borrow a retina."

Natasha frowns. "So you're saying that the music's a trigger?" she asks.

Fury shrugs. "If you want to put it that way."

"Triggers are just programming. But I saw this, Fury. This was the actual Tesseract, which we thought had been flushed out of both Barton and Selvig," Natasha says. She always uses his surname around Fury and his personnel; it's never Clint.

"Apparently, not all of it," Fury notes. He rubs the skin under his eye patch. "It looks like it was reactivated. We'll need to find Barton and put Selvig under a threat watch in case Loki decides to use their triggers."

"Loki is not here," Natasha points out. "He's back in Asgard, so who is controlling Barton?"

Fury's good eye meets her green ones and they share a pointed look that needs little words. He knows that Barton has what Romanoff would call personal significance—because attachment is too strong a word for her. And Natasha knows that Fury knows this and that he trusts her judgment.

"All that hoody-voodoo stuff is up Thor's ally, so I can't say," Fury replies after a minute, "but we need to make sure Barton doesn't endanger any civilian life. We can track him and figure out what his play is."

"Do you suggest I follow and incapacitate him before we get another level seven, sir?" Natasha asks. Fury shakes his head.

"Barton's smart. He's not going to let anyone knock him out this time." Fury does not have to imply further.

Natasha falls silent. She has had to kill people close to her, as is the life of a spy. It is never easy but it is always necessary. For the greater good, they say, those above her whose scruples are equally soaked with crimson misdeeds and yellow turpitudes. Natasha does what she is told, but sometimes the taste in the back of her throat is so bitter. Lust is for the desperate, lionization is for the weak, and love is for children.

"Activate his tracker," she says.

x

A brush of bubbles, a lift of a whitish-gray hand and a cracking open of a pale green eye in the dark. Loki does not know why he is even awake or what has awakened him. It has been a long time, or so he thinks.

He floats, incarcerated deep beneath the surface of Urd's well where Urd herself keeps an eye on him. The Norns have stripped him of his ancient Seid and have cast him into a thousand-year slumber, courtesy of the Allfather for Loki's most recent transgressions.

The Norns spin their threads, and sometimes the ends of them fall into the well and enter Loki's dreams. He sleeps to dream and Yggdrasil sings the songs of a billion voices in the form of bubbles. The Norns use his energy to nourish the taproots while Loki's physical body floats in suspended animation, ghost-white in the depth of the well.

But someone calls to him, opens his eyes. It is faint, so Loki concentrates the way a dreamer would concentrate on remembering a thought just before waking.

Ah, it is the archer from Midgard.

His thread lies in the water too, and Loki grasps it with a spindle-thin finger. It is gold, like the others, but also woven with a familiar blue. Loki feels the Tesseract's essence twisting the thread and admits that even he had not known the effects her energies would have on those that she touched. Oh, but how amusing this is!

Loki slides his fingers between the threads and lets himself drift through the consciousness of worlds. He is connected to the Tesseract, and therefore to the human with the heart called Agent Barton.

The archer is at the shores of Nóregr, desultory, lost without his guide. He is going to try to use a runic summoning spell, Loki sees, but it is not going to work. Not by himself. Any dark energy that touches Yggdrasil is dissipated by the Norns. Loki might be able to help him, even though he is water-bound and asleep and without magic. Yggdrasil connects them. The Tesseract connects them. But even so, then what?

It is something that Loki's dreaming mind ponders in fragments and colors as the Norns weave atop the roots above him.

x

Natasha ignores the throbbing of her wrist and ankle under the bandages. Fury has suggested she sit this one out, but it is a little like telling a spider not to spin a web. Natasha does not take well to defeat. The mere memory of falling face first outside the Musikverein boils her blood. Her persistence, in some ways, makes her the perfect agent but also a terrible one. The dogged spies are always the first to go.

She makes the claim that she is simply going to prevent Barton from harming any of the other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. She knows Barton's MO. Fury makes the claim that Barton knows hers as well, and they argue briefly. Natasha wins.

This brings her to where they are now: to the coast of Norway, near Skagerrak, two days later. They have spotted Barton, and the spectacle is a hard slap to Natasha's already bruised face. There is stubble on his jawline and he is still wearing the Zanieri tuxedo from the concert. His face is white and wan and Natasha does not think he has slept nor eaten. She wants to murder Loki.

Clint is doing something with the stones and blood and runes. Natasha is not unduly surprised at his newfound knowledge of ancient Norse, and she tries not to look at the runes. They are written in his blood, brown and crusty against the rocks.

Natasha swallows, her throat clicking dryly. If Loki returns she doubts he will be too pleased with any of them. The skies darken and thunder rumbles, making Natasha wish faintly that someone else from the team was here. Banner, even. Or Thor. She wonders if Thor is observing this, somewhere, or if he can even see what is going on. Big brother is watching, she thinks, and tries not to smile. But then Barton begins to chant in Norse; the smile disappears, and Natasha decides she does not care. With a signal she motions for the agents to move in. She will do this herself.

Barton ducks the first two tranqs that the agents shoot at him. However, it is enough to stop his chanting and he rounds on them, eyes baleful and blue and furious.

"You've stopped me from summoning my God," Natasha hears Barton say. It is the first time she has heard him speak while compromised and she does not like the way his voice sounds one bit. Barton says no more but Natasha can practically taste the burning fealty around him on her tongue. The trees along the shoreline hiss in the wind.

The combat begins. Fury had decided that a dozen agents would be needed to bring Barton down, and he is not wrong. There is a reason all of the top S.H.I.E.L.D. operators are on a threat watch.

Barton incapacitates two in the first minute. Natasha directs her energy towards guarding the rest and ensuring they don't get banged up too badly. They throw tasers, gas pellets, grenades; none of it seems to affect Barton. He fights mindlessly, and the slashes on the insides of his forearms ooze blood that glitters thick and black in the scant light of the dusk.

x

A crease grooves Loki's smooth brow as he sleeps. There is fighting, somewhere. It is the archer again, ever the loyal soldier.

Loki wonders why now, why randomly, so he finds the human's thread and listens. At first there is nothing but the soft patter of rain and feet upon plush sand, but then there is music. Familiar music, but background; faded wallpaper. That music had been…ah, yes, he remembers now. How interesting.

The runes will not work. Loki knows this now, as the water of Urd's well fans out his hair and the threads of life dangle from the surface like hooks. The magic binding him is too strong when he has none to combat it.

He wonders if he should leave the archer as he is and let him tear apart his mortal world. Without anyone to guide him or allow him the basic necessities of survival the archer will be dead in a week, dining in Valhalla along with that other agent in halls of amber-gold. Loki could allow him that mercy and could watch the Russian spy shed her first real tears.

His fingers feel the blue and white threads among the gold as they entwine and grow and control. He can also break them, if he desires. Even in slumber, he can do that. But why ever should he? Why should they have freedom when he does not?

Loki does not want to think. He floats in the water beneath the tree of life, and he is very tired. All thoughts of vengeance and conquest and his brother seem heavy and overly tedious. He just wants to sleep, and to forget. With fading consciousness, Loki opens and eye and sees the blue threads coiling around the gold that is the heart of Agent Barton before him.

Slowly, he reaches out and breaks them.

x

It is sometime around midnight that Barton falls. They are all exhausted and bleeding from various places and Natasha just wants some hard liquor. Most of the agents are down and Natasha is once again engaged in close combat. Her wrist hurts.

At some point she knocks Barton into the sand and he does not get up. After a moment he does manage to struggle to his knees and he breathes heavily, looking down at his hands. He is shivering.

"…What…"

Natasha lowers her taser and peers at him. As far as she knows she has not knocked him unconscious. Perhaps he is faking. There is only one way to be sure.

"Clint," Natasha barks, knuckles white and strained as she grips the taser. "Look at me."

Clint is staring with unbridled horror at his forearms, so she says again, "Look at me." And he does.

Natasha's shoulders slump in relief when she sees his eyes. One is blackened around the sides and both are horribly bloodshot—but they are ocean blue. His blue. Realization dawns in them, and Natasha does not need to explain. She recalls that under the Tesseract one is completely and cruelly cognizant of his own actions.

Clint's eyes fall on her wrist (the bandages there now coming undone), the gash at her temple, and the sand caking her hair. Slowly, shakily, he gets to his feet and picks up his arrows. Natasha gives the order for the agents still conscious to stand down.

Once he has collected all of his arrows Clint walks back to Natasha wordlessly. He stares at her for a moment and wipes some free-flowing blood from her cheek. It mixes with the light rain.

"I…guess that's the last time I'll be going to a Schubert concert," he says, smile twisting.

Natasha blows out a breath and laughs a little. "And you owe me a new Vera Wang." Clint tries to chuckle with her, but his laugh sounds more like gasping and tears start to leak from his eyes.

Natasha feels something pull at her chest because never, not even in Somalia or Italy or Budapest, has she seen Clint cry. It is hardly flattering; he is covered in sweat and sand and bruises and his tux certainly looks like it has seen better days, but Natasha finds something about the vulnerability of it all oddly beautiful.

"Don't," she says quietly, drawing closer. "You didn't kill anybody. So don't."

Clint swiped at his eyes, looking at her smeared suit and bloody cheek. "But look at you, Nat."

"I'll live," she says dryly. She nods behind her to the weary but relieved-looking agents. "Let's get back before you catch a cold." Clint manages a nod and, wrapping an arm around him, Natasha guides him to the helicopter that will take them all home. The rain falling above them lightens to a cool misting as the day turns.

"Thank you," Clint says at one point, and Natasha looks over. In the light of the private jet he looks pale and slightly feverish, but nothing a good night's sleep and some Advil will not cure. Natasha shrugs. It hurts tremendously to do so, but she brushes it off.

Clint closes his eyes. "To you…," he continues, "to you and to him."

At this Natasha picks up her head and narrows her eyes, but Clint is already asleep. That is fine; they will have a debriefing back at headquarters. She does not know how or why the control broke, but she suspects that Clint does and will tell her when he is ready to.

Softly, so as not to wake him, Natasha murmurs, "You're welcome."

x

Epilogue

Before Jane, Thor Odinson has never had any reason to pay Heimdall frequent visits. As thousands of Æsir workers scuttle around the very edges of Asgard, repairing the Bifröst, Heimdall can often be found with Gjallarhorn in hand and peering into the void of worlds. Thor comes by every moon for word on his mortal companions and watches as the bridge is restored little by little.

"A curious thing," Heimdall notes on one such occasion. Thor spares him a questioning glance.

"The Tesseract cube extends its reach to Earth, corrupting the man with the bow and arrow."

Alarmed, Thor inquires, "What such trickery is this, when the Tesseract sits guarded in our temple? Loki?"

"Do not worry so," Heimdall replies. His golden eyes are lidded, calm. "He who lies in the water has broken its hold."

Thor blinks. Heimdall can be terribly confusing and cryptic enough as it is, especially when taking into account his gratuitous use of the present tense. "What?"

"From his slumber Loki chooses to set the man free," Heimdall says, with little expression on his face. As if reading Thor's thoughts he adds, "I do not know why, nor do I wish to know."

Thor sighs, but there is something auspicious in his gaze as he looks beyond the Bifröst to the stars. He likes to think that his brother is not lost. He does not mean the brother who makes deals with warmongering creatures nor the brother who inflicts genocide on the Jötuns, but the brother as Thor remembers him. The brother who tricks the Warriors Three into smuggling them into Vanaheim, the brother who memorizes thirty scrolls in one night and forgets to sleep, the brother who pokes fun at the feathers on Thor's helmet.

The brother who used to smile.

Thor waits.

end.


Note: last fic before a brief hiatus. Thank you all for your kind reviews! Gah, this fic bugged me a little in terms of development and progression, but it was good practice for writing Natasha. Feedback is greatly appreciated.