The Blood On Her Hands

Her hands still had blood on them – that agent's blood, she never did find out his name. She absentmindedly rubbed them on the scrubs they gave her to wear, but it wouldn't come off. Why wouldn't it come off?

She wanted to pace, scream, hit someone … do something … escape. But the tiny room they had her in was windowless, the only door heavily guarded on the other side, and there wasn't even so much as a vent in the ceiling to slip through. At first she thought they had her locked up in a building, a medical one judging by the antiseptic smell that lingered in the air, but then she realized they were moving, like they were on some sort of craft – but she couldn't tell if it was by land, sea or air. She hated being confined and she hated being disoriented by her surroundings.

They'd shot her full of something when they'd rescued them, knocking her out, effectively disarming her the only way they could without a fight. She woke to find herself in a chair, not in chains or tied up or any of the other creative ways she'd found herself bound by captors in the past. Her wounds were neatly bandaged and her clothes gone, probably burned because of all the blood, most of which wasn't hers.

These guys were clearly playing the "We're civilized and want to be friends" card. Only an amateur would fall for it and she was no amateur.

The door opened and closed and a shadow descended over her chair. She looked up at the man standing in front of her – imposing, all dressed in black, including the eye patch covering a scar that snaked out from under it. Nick Fury – he didn't need to introduce himself, she'd heard plenty about him through rumors and myths that were spun like the stories children told one another on the playground. She took note of the fact that he wasn't actually eight feet tall and as far as she could tell, he didn't breathe fire. Maybe her luck was changing for the better?

"Miss Romanova?"

She didn't answer and he didn't press the issue. He unfolded a chair he'd brought with him and sat down directly across from her. He rested his hands on his knees and his long coat opened, brushing the floor. She glanced quickly, expecting to find a gun holstered at his hip, but there wasn't one. For all intents and purposes, he looked to be unarmed but she wasn't born yesterday. If she so much as twitched, she'd have a bullet between her eyes and that would be the end of Natalia Romanova, codename Black Widow.

The only weapon she had close at hand was the chair she was sitting on, but she'd worked with less in a pinch. But the man had come in alone, a gesture she supposed proved he was willing to call a cease fire for the time being, so she figured she should at least give him the courtesy of hearing him out before bashing his head in.

Fury kept his gaze steady as he studied her. "It's my understanding that we have you to thank for saving Agent Barton's life."

"He's alive?" she asked, forgetting that her plan had been to not say anything to these people. She silently cursed herself for slipping up.

Fury's expression didn't soften. "Yes."

She wasn't surprised that he didn't elaborate. She fought the urge to look at her hands. Stained with blood. Barton's. She knew his name now.

"Agent Barton was given an assignment." Fury interrupted her thoughts.

She matched his unwavering gaze and drained her voice of all emotion. "Kill me."

"Yes."

"So why am I still here?"

"My thoughts exactly." Fury leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. "According to his handler, Agent Barton contacted him about changing his orders, bringing you in instead. Said you could be an asset to us. Then all hell broke loose and we lost communications."

All hell being a bomb blast taking out half the building they were having their little standoff in, followed by a swarm of armed Russian soldiers, sent to do the exact same thing S.H.I.E.L.D. had been planning to do. She had suddenly become very popular.

XxXxXxXxXx

Somehow she and Barton had gone from pointing guns at one another to fighting side by side. It was a change of plans that she would never have anticipated in a million years. He fought well – the bow and arrow were a nice touch – but they were far out numbered and cornered.

Maybe it was their conversation before the ambush that had rattled him, thrown him off his game – God knows it had thrown her off hers. Assassins weren't supposed to change their minds and start offering options – maybe S.H.I.E.L.D. handled things differently than Russia, but she doubted it. No, Agent Barton was obviously working under his own steam and making his own deals.

She'd hesitated – that was when he knew she was listening to him, that he'd broken through and found something beneath the tough exterior she worked so hard to keep impenetrable. She didn't even know why she let him get to her – maybe she was tired? Tired and needed some rest. Needed to level out, to get the voices out of her head, banish the shadows that haunted her dreams, to become something more than what she was made to be.

"How do I know I can trust you?" she asked when he suggested she surrender and he gave her a lopsided grin that made her tighten her grip on her gun.

"You don't." He shrugged, like they were discussing the weather and not bargaining with her life. "But I've watched you for a week and I think you've had enough of this life."

A week? She was getting careless – she'd only spotted him a day ago, a shadow along the skyline, lurking on a roof across from her apartment building. When she'd glanced back up, he was gone and even though she knew she was lying to herself, she'd decided she was imagining things.

A week meant he'd seen her carry out a hit, a hit that had turned her stomach to ice and left her shaken to the bone.

"The little girl," he said quietly, like he could read her thoughts.

"She wasn't supposed to be there." She wanted to close her eyes, block out the images that flashed before her. The girl in the doorway, screaming over her father's body, clutching him, begging him to get up. Natalia's was still in the room, dressed to seduce and lure her target. It had been too easy – like it always was with older men who had grown tired of their wives. He liked the attention, liked her youth and beauty and the lust in her eyes. Her intel had been faulty – the wife was visiting her mother and was to have taken their daughter with them, but there she was, crying and rocking and screaming. She didn't even see Natalia standing in the corner, her finger on the trigger. She had the girl in her sights, her brain on autopilot before a wave of horror washed over her.

"My handler," she said, hating that there was a slight quiver in her voice, "he was angry with me that I didn't take the shot. The girl was a secondary target and I knew that."

"Jesus, she was what? Six?"

"Seven," Natalia corrected, her gaze locking with her would-be executioner's. "He said I'd been compromised and that he wasn't sure he could trust me to carry out his orders anymore."

Barton took a step forward and she braced herself, certain he was going to lunge for her. Instead he spoke, carefully, like he was trying to calm a spooked horse. "It's not safe for you here."

She gave a sharp laugh. "Says the man sent to kill me."

"I'd offer to lower my gun, but something tells me that's not the best idea."

She hesitated a beat before lowering her own gun an inch and his shoulders visibly relaxed. He touched a hand to his ear and started to speak to whoever was on the other end of his comm link. "Change of plans. I need extraction for two." She could tell that his contact was not pleased with that information. "Sir, she's an asset. My gut tells me she can be of use to us. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong and, I don't know, you can make me clean toilets for a week or something, but I think we'd be stupid to pass up this opportunity."

She was deciding whether she should shoot him in the shoulder or the leg to disable him while she escaped when the world exploded around them and her enemy suddenly became her comrade in arms. Things went downhill from there.

XxXxXxXxXx

"Do we have an understanding?" Fury's question broke into her thoughts and she sat up straighter in her chair. "We observe you on a trial basis, determine if you can be trusted."

She narrowed her eyes slightly. "And I do that same to you."

"Fair enough." She could have sworn the man was about to crack a smile. "We observe each other. If we decide we can work with you …"

"And vice versa," she interrupted, crossing her arms over her chest.

"And vice versa," he added steadily, "then you will become a full time agent for S.H.I.E.L.D."

He stood and held out his hand. "Do we have a deal, Miss Romanova?"

XxXxXxXxXx

There was no doubt about it, he'd fucked himself up real good this time. If the beeping and the wires and the tubes and bandages were any indication, he was lucky to be alive.

According to Coulson, he'd been there four days before he was coherent enough to even notice he had visitors, let alone carry on conversations with them.

Coulson was the first visitor he could remember - promising a full debriefing when he could make it through a sentence without falling asleep. That wasn't exactly incentive to get better.

Maria Hill was sitting in the chair next to his bed one time when he woke up and that confused the hell out of him because it wasn't like they ever interacted outside of work. She was doing paperwork and so completely absorbed in crossing her t's and dotting her i's that she never realized he'd been staring at her, wondering how someone could sit up so damn straight in a chair. His back ached just looking at her.

Fury visited once and that was when he knew things had been really bad. He'd been in medical tons of times before but none of those trips had warranted a visit from his boss. He had a brief flash of worry that maybe the doctors had lied to him and he really was dying.

"You made a good call," Fury said – short, gruff and to the point.

Clint simply nodded.

"Don't think this means you'll get off easy. Disobeying orders is still disobeying orders," Fury added. "Agent Coulson said you'd mentioned something about scrubbing toilets for a month."

"Um … it was a week," he corrected, shifting slightly and wincing at the pain that arched across his chest.

Fury didn't blink.

"But a month seems fair, sir," he added in a rush.

"That's what I thought." Fury turned as he made his way to the door. "And one other thing, Barton."

"Anything, sir."

"Heal faster. Your special project is beating up the other agents and no one wants to train with her."

Clint grinned. "Yes, sir."

The day Natalia came into his room was the first day they'd let him sit up in bed, so even before she'd come in, it had ranked as his most exciting day all week.

"You lived," she stated matter-of-factly.

He nodded. "I lived."

"I wasn't sure if you would."

"That makes two of us." He grunted as he moved to find a more comfortable position on the hard mattress. He couldn't wait until they let him move back to his own room, even if it was just a glorified cot - it was his glorified cot and he missed it.

Natalia went over to the window and moved the curtain, studying the view of the tops of the clouds for a couple of minutes before speaking. "They offered me a job."

"Figured as much. You take it?"

"They didn't give me much of a choice."

"There's always a choice." He wanted her to turn around so he could see her expression. The back of her head didn't tell him much.

"Not from my experience." She turned and made her way back to his bedside. Looking him straight in the eye, she said, "I never had a choice. They wanted a killer, they made me a killer."

"You can change that now."

"Still be a killer." The way she said it was almost sad and her hand brushed the edge of his bed and he had the urge to reach out and grab it, offer her an anchor.

"For the right people," he said, hoping he didn't sound like he was full of shit.

"That's subjective at best."

"If you don't want to do it, they would help you, relocate you, change your name, help you start over." For some reason he was getting worked up over this and if he didn't calm down, he was going to set off all the damn machines.

She rolled her eyes and sighed. "That's so naïve it's bordering on cute."

She took a seat in the chair next to the bed and her shoulders slumped, like she'd finally released a burden she'd been carrying. He let his gaze wander over her, assess any damage she may have gotten in the fire fight they'd barely escaped from. Aside from a scrape on her cheek, she looked fine.

"You could have escaped. Why didn't you?" he asked.

"I was preoccupied with keeping you alive."

"Why?" He had a flash of standing over him, trying to get him to his feet as she fired back at the guys who had ambushed them. He didn't remember much after that – mostly just a haze of pain. Coulson and his extraction crew were only a few minutes out, but there was no way he would have lasted a few minutes if she hadn't fought to keep him alive.

"I don't know." She shrugged and looked down at her hands, her fingers laced together in her lap. "I keep asking myself that. I don't have an answer."

"Or you don't want an answer. Better off believing you're here because they caught you, not because you let yourself be caught."

"We could talk ourselves into circles all night but it won't change anything." When she looked back up, he expected to see anger in her expression, but instead he saw something else – she looked guilty as hell and his chest ached from more than a bullet.

"Thank you," he said

"Thank you?" She gave him a confused look. "For what? Almost getting you killed?"

He shrugged. "I almost get myself killed all the time – don't beat yourself up over it." She wasn't going to listen to him, he could tell.

He shifted again, settling back further into the pillows, his eyes growing heavy. He hadn't realized how quickly talking wore him out – on the bright side, he still had that as an excuse to keep Coulson and his debriefing away for a little while longer. "I think I'm going to pass out," he said with a yawn.

She got up to leave, walking toward the door.

"Goodnight, Natalia," he said and she stopped, turning to look at him.

"Actually it's Natasha now. Romanoff."

"Tasha. I like that."

"Na-tasha," she said, annoyed. "Nicknames are for little kids."

"Whatever you say, Nat."

"One more thing …" She opened the door and he could see the nurses milling about in the hallway behind her.

"Huh?" He yawned.

"I'm your new partner. Effective immediately. So get your ass out of that bed soon; I can't take much more of this sitting around."

He grinned, half asleep. "I love it when a plan comes together."

"What?" she asked, confused.

"The A-team."

"Who are they? Are they a division of S.H.I.E.L.D.?"

"Agent Romanoff, your first assignment, whether you chose to accept it or not: Tomorrow. This room. American Pop Culture 101."

She narrowed her eyes and he would have laughed if it didn't hurt so much. "What does that mean?"

"We're watching TV. Lots of TV," he said as he pressed the button to slowly lower the top of the bed.

He was practically asleep when he heard her say, "Maybe it's not too late to request a different partner."

"Nat, admit it – we're made for each other."

"In your dreams, Barton. In your dreams."