Title: Phase
Author: SLynn
Rating: T (language)
Fandom: Avengers (movieverse)
Characters: Natasha, Clint, Tony, Steve
Spoilers: Takes place after Recruitment.

Summary: Natasha realizes that the only way out is to offer up an explanation.

Notes: So, this fic took a lot longer to write than I thought it would. I had a lot of problems with it and honestly, I'm not sure if I got it exactly where I want it to be, but it is done and hopefully still good. Thanks to Tripp3235 for the help and for reading this too many times. Thanks to everyone out there who will read this. Enjoy!

"If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it." - Ernest Hemingway

Three days ago Clint told Natasha he was quitting. Two days ago Natasha left Stark Tower. One hour ago Fury arranged this meeting.

The three agents present all sat in various chairs around the large semi-circular table that filled the space. Maria sat closest to the end, nearest Fury who had opted to stand. Clint chose a seat a few spots away from that one. And Natasha... Natasha had arrived last, by design, and chose a place almost as far away from Clint as possible, on the opposite side of the room.

Natasha didn't want to look at Clint. She didn't want him to to try too hard to look at her. She just wanted to get through this meeting as quickly as possible and hope no one noticed the change between them. It was a lot to hope for since, to her, that change felt obvious and absolute. Like, with a look, anyone would be able to tell, and Natasha hated that. They were broken. They were damaged. They had to stay that way. It had all left her too exposed, which essentially was the problem with Clint; the problem with them. It was painful, but it had to be.

The room was completely silent except for the familiar creak of Clint twisting uncomfortably in his seat.

For eight years Natasha had beaten, shamed, pleaded, bribed, implored and most of all trained every tell out of Clint, except for that one; he still fidgets when he's nervous. Every few seconds the chair had begun to creak and sure enough, as Natasha knew she would, Maria, patience long gone, turned and frowned in his direction. Fury, as usual, ignored the nonsense completely. Natasha, who knew exactly what Clint was up to, refused to look. There was typical behavior and then there was over the top attention seeking. She wasn't going to play along. They each had their own games, and this was his, but she couldn't play it. She couldn't. Natasha had to start redrawing lines he'd erased, and if that meant ignoring his bad attempts at humor, well, then that's what that meant. However, after five more minutes passed and Clint, no longer content to just fidget, added nail biting to the act, she relented with a sigh.

Natasha locked eyes with him with nothing but stern disapproval visible on her face, but instead of looking surprised or abashed, or even a little bit worried, Clint merely looked amused. She'd known it was a long shot, he'd never bought it before, but it was all she had. It was a bit like old times, before New York, and just like that she realized that, again, her life had been divided into pieces, another before and after, and no use trying to go back. It had changed her and it had changed him. They'd been fooling themselves to think otherwise. Things would not be the same.

Clint held her gaze for a moment longer, flashing her a quick smile and even throwing in a wink. As she was expected to do, Natasha grudgingly offered up the faintest of smiles in return. It was more of an eye roll and a shrug than anything else, but he'd know what it was supposed to mean. Things were fine. Things were normal. They were good.

It was a lie, of course, but by the time Clint realized that...

"Thank you for joining us," Fury called out, catching the three agents seated around him slightly off guard.

"Well, you did ask nicely," Tony returned with a smile, immediately taking the chair directly opposite the director in the dead center of the room.

Steve didn't say anything, just quietly sat down a few chairs to Tony's left. Bruce chose to stand, arms crossed, near the door, as if poised to escape. Thor entered the room, looking stern, but that changed as soon as he spotted Clint. Cracking a smile, he slapped the other man hard on the shoulder and sat to his right.

"We have a situation," Fury began, never one to mince words.

Tony's smile never faltered, but Natasha noted that it did tighten. Clint showed no reaction, which was good; better than she'd hoped for given the chair aerobics he'd just finished performing. Thor didn't seem to care. Steve and Bruce were the only ones in the room who looked uneasy, but wisely held their tongues and waited.

"If it's aliens again..." Tony started, but one brutal shake of Fury's head was enough.

"How familiar are you with an organization called HYDRA?"

Tony's eyebrow shot up as he glanced at Steve who, if anything, looked more tense than he had before.

"I thought they were..." Steve said, pausing as he gave his head a shake, searching for the right word but only coming up with, "history."

"Nearly," Fury answered. "They were largely eliminated, as you know, but over the years there have been instances of resurgence. Nothing serious, but we like to keep an ear out. To keep it in check."

"And you've heard something recently?" Steve asked as he leaned in and clasped his hands together on top of the table.

"I have," Natasha answered, drawing all eyes to her. "A splinter cell has set up in Belarus. They're still small, but they won't be for long."

"And?" Tony asked.

"We should stop them," Natasha finished, as if it should be obvious.

"I don't know," Tony answered with an indifferent shrug. "Doesn't seem like an Avengers mission."

Before either Steve or Natasha could object, Fury did.

"It's not," he said as he pointed a small remote towards the screen and flipped through a number of images, each showing exactly what HYDRA could do. Each one worse than the one before it. "Not yet. But, given time... it will be. Let's not give them time."

"And if we say no?" Tony asked.

"Like you said, it's not an Avengers mission. Not really," Fury answered, "but SHIELD will be sending in a team. Agent Romanoff and Agent Barton will be a part of that team. With or without your help, Mr. Stark."

"I want to go," Steve said firmly.

"You'll excuse me if this doesn't sound like something that's exactly suited to my... well..." Bruce began, but he didn't have to finish. Fury was already nodding in agreement, three words in. Neither Bruce nor the Other Guy would be required for this particular outing.

"What about you?" Tony asked, turning to Thor for his decision.

"If I am needed, I will go," Thor replied.

"I think you can sit this one out," Fury said. "The smaller the team, the better. It shouldn't take much force."

"Another time, then," he said, neither pleased nor upset by his exclusion.

The only one left was Tony, who as he was prone to doing, dragged the moment out under the ruse of mulling things over.

"Well?" Fury finally had to ask.

"I suppose I should go," Tony answered with a sigh, "just to be certain that no one needs to be bailed out... again."

"When exactly have you bailed any of us out, Tony?" Steve asked.

Tony waved him off dismissively and Steve nearly laughed in return, setting the rest of the room strangely at ease.

"When do we leave?" Clint asked.

Natasha flew, as she was the only one of them that actually knew exactly where they were going, but no one did a lot of talking on the way in the Quinjet. Clint actually fell asleep five minutes into the flight. When Tony commented on it, Natasha shrugged it off and told him that if Clint didn't fly, he slept. It wasn't a complete lie. He did sleep on a lot of flights, but usually only if Natasha did as well. She took it as another sign that maybe it wasn't her avoiding him, but him avoiding her. That maybe he did know what she was up to. That maybe he'd realized she'd been literally kissing him goodbye that night and wasn't ready to face that particular truth. Or maybe she was over thinking the whole thing and Clint was just tired. Further proof that this had to be done. It had to be over with and settled.

It was all very...

Sometimes he seemed mad and other times things felt completely normal between them. They hadn't talked. Clint knew she was lying when she said they would, but Natasha had expected him to ask. He'd sounded determined in their last real conversation, that night, but since then they had both carefully evaded one another.

After a long flight, and under the cover of darkness, they finally arrived. Natasha pulled up the maps and went over the plan. Once they were all relatively confident in their roles, they moved out and into position.

Natasha and Clint were to go first, to scout ahead and determine exactly how much force, also known as Steve and Tony, would be needed. Twenty minutes of excruciating radio silence ensued, until Tony couldn't take it anymore.

"Hello, Robin Hood and Maid Marion," he snarked into the comm. "Want to let us know what's happening out there?"

"Is that necessary?" Steve asked, irritated on the other's behalf, and only a little resentful that he'd been left behind. Especially with Tony. "They have codenames. You could use them."

"The way I see it is that they dragged us to another country, another continent, and then keep us hanging while they go traipsing off into the woods... so, yes. That was necessary. Also necessary, an answer. Hello?" he continued into the mic. "Are either of you listening? If you are dead or in danger, say something. This is starting to eat into my free time."

"You want them to tell you if they're dead?"

"It is the polite thing to do."

"Well, I know how much you care about politeness."

"I have taken your example to heart," Tony returned with a smug smile. "Truly, I am better for having known you."

"Hey," Natasha snapped, surprising them both. Neither had realized she'd come back or was in the room with them. "Let's go."

Without waiting for a reply, because she wasn't really asking them anything at all, she'd been telling, Natasha turned and left the way she'd came. Tony and Steve exchanged a quick, puzzled glance before moving to follow.

"What's happened?" Steve asked, catching her with a few quick strides. "Radio was quiet."

"Turned it off," Natasha answered as she dodged a low branch and wound her way through the trees. "The two of you talk. A lot."

"Where's Barton?" Tony asked, mask still up until he knew he'd need it down, moving slower than the others through the tangle of wilderness.


"That's very vague of you," Tony answered, not liking the cloak-and-dagger bit of which Natasha was so fond.

"He's at the base," she answered, this time for real. "It was deserted."

The rest of the walk there, another five minutes more, was silent. Tony could sense the disappointment, not just in Steve, but in Natasha as well. His first priority, once they'd returned to the Tower, would be to learn everything he could about HYDRA.

"We're back," Natasha called out as she pushed open door to what was once probably a small base of operation that doubled as a bunker.

Clint, who had been scanning some papers with the use of a small flashlight, turned and gave them a nod before saying, "I can't read any of this. It's... I don't know? Russian? Czech? Whatever it is, it's old. Nothing in here is later than the sixties, I'd guess."

"Wow," Tony said, taking a peek for himself. "This should be in a museum."

Steve gave the room a once over and felt a familiar wave of nostalgia wash across him. To the rest of them it all appeared outdated, but for him it was the first time he hadn't been overwhelmed by a room full of equipment.

"No offense, Natasha, but your contacts kind of suck," Tony said with a smile. "There is no way this place has been operational for at least.. forty years? Maybe. And that's a kind estimate."

"There was no informant," she said as she walked around Clint to a panel beside a filing cabinet. Pulling open the door, she flipped several switches, and they were suddenly bathed in light that buzzed and hummed from above. "At least, not about this place. HYDRA is still very real, but so far... quiet. This is just... this is just a place I knew about."

Steve was too busy staring at Natasha to note it, but Tony's first instinct was to look at Clint. Nine times out of ten, he'd found, he learned more about Natasha from studying Clint then Tony ever would from watching her directly. Barton was like a barometer for Natasha's feelings. Feelings Tony had first thought were nonexistent, but that wasn't true. That had only been what she wanted people to believe. She was an amazing actor; Barton, not so much. And right now Clint was clearly just as confused as the rest of them, which was oddly worrying.

"I need you to understand something," Natasha said simply, looking at Tony directly because he was the easiest one to face. "All of you," she persisted. "And I'll only be having this conversation once so -"

"Wait a minute," Clint snapped, catching on much sooner than she thought he would. "No. Tasha, no. You can't... Holy crap, I fell for this. I completely fell for this because I never dreamed in a million years you'd set me up like some poor sap in a romantic comedy. Why not just take me out to dinner and tell me in a nice crowded restaurant? Huh, Nat? Were you hoping I wouldn't cause a scene?"

"Trust me, no one is going to say you haven't," Tony said quietly.

"This is the answer I deserve?" Clint asked, ignoring everything in the room that wasn't Natasha for the moment. "This is the conversation I get? With everyone else. No heads up in private. No warning. Just a no, because it is no, isn't it? That's why you've dragged us here, got us alone, to say no and probably tell us to knock it off and toe the line as well. Right? Am I right?"

Natasha, once she'd fixed her eyes on Clint, hadn't looked away, but his reaction felt damning. She wouldn't lie to herself, or to him, and say she hadn't thought of avoiding this, but part of her had expected him to avoid saying it.

All at once she realized that this was all going to be a lot harder than she'd thought it would be.

"I just want you to listen."

"I have been listening," Clint insisted. "It's all I've been doing, because it's all you'll let me do."

"You listen, but you don't understand."

"What? You don't think that I get why you don't want to leave? SHIELD is your safety net. I know that, Tasha. I do. But, you don't need them. I thought..."

"You're wrong."

"Aren't I always?" he shot back at her sarcastically. "Honestly, I don't know how I'd have made it any farther in life without you telling me how wrong I am about everything, all the time."

"Stop trying to make this about you and your hurt feelings," she fired back at him, really starting to get worked up despite herself, but still managing to keep her tone in check. Tony and Steve chose to remain silent, watching the exchange as one would a tennis match. "This isn't about you. This isn't about us."

"I wasn't aware there was an us," Clint said bitterly, talking over Natasha.

"This is about me," she finished and for a few, long minutes, no one spoke.

Clint abruptly turned his back on the three of them and walked to the far side of the room, evidently to calm down. Tony still had his eyes on him, trying to work out exactly what was happening, while Steve ended up watching Natasha. By the time he turned back around to face them again, Clint looked like he had himself back under control, but the same could not be said for Natasha. If anything, she looked as if the argument had never stopped.

"I know what this is about," Clint said, addressing Natasha almost as if they were alone. "I'm not trying to make this harder for you, it's your decision. I'll just say that I don't agree with it, but I don't have to, do I? I don't have a say."

"You're taking this the wrong way," she said with a brutal shake of her head.

"It doesn't matter how I take this, does it. Because I don't..."

"You..." she started, but found she couldn't finish. Natasha felt herself begin to blush as she faltered on even this simplest of sentiment. She knew that she owed him, in the very least she owed him the acknowledgement that he did matter to her, but she couldn't say it. She really just could not say it.

Natasha had to reset the boundaries.

"I need some air," Clint said softly when it became clear that Natasha wasn't going to finish that sentence. No one tried to stop him as he walked out the door, leaving the three of them behind in a strangled silence.

Natasha still had her eyes on the door Clint had left through when Steve quietly said her name. His tone snapped her back to herself. It was too kind and entirely too forgiving. This wasn't why she was here at all, and even though it was going so badly that she probably should just quit while she was ahead, Natasha knew she couldn't. Clint was Clint, and she'd have to deal with him separately, but Natasha had to ensure that Steve and Tony and the rest of the team understood.

She was serious about only going through this once. She still didn't like it, but it had become necessary.

"Do you recognize this place?" she asked, turning abruptly to Steve, and speaking as if they were having a perfectly normal conversation.

"How could he?" Tony asked in return, as intent on changing the mood as Natasha was. "Steve slept through the sixties. Poor bastard."

"It looks... familiar," Steve admitted, ignoring Tony the way he'd grown accustomed to doing. Or trying to. "But I can't say why. I know I haven't been here... Wait," he said, his whole face lighting up as he remembered, "this looks like one of the labs I was briefed on. Foreign Intel. Other countries were trying to emulate, well, me. They were trying to copy what had been done so... Is this one of those places?"

Natasha gave him a brisk nod before heading towards a door. Except, at first, it looked nothing like a door. On the far side of the room was a metal rack which she first pushed aside. Following that Natasha ran her hand along a ridge in the wainscot and sudden hiss of air filled the room as a door appeared and creaked open before them.

"So... when you said you knew this place, you meant you really knew this place," Tony stated as Natasha stepped through the doorway and led them down a surprisingly long hallway.

"Yes," she answered, not stopping to look into the various windows that lined both the right and left wall. Her eyes stayed focused on what lay ahead.

Everything had the look of being long abandoned and ransacked. Through the observation windows of what could only be laboratories, Steve and Tony could see cabinets and carts overturned, their contents scattered. Some of the lights didn't even function properly, offering only flickering glimpses of chaos within. It all had the look of a once sterile and pristine hospital gone bad.

Natasha stopped at the end of the hallway in front of a single door which, even in the dim light provided, they could both see was painted entirely red. In her mind, this entire scenario had played out differently. She'd had words prepared, things she'd wanted to say to them all before this, but found she couldn't. Instead she stepped to the side and gestured to the door, willing them to go first.

Steve hesitated, but Tony did not. Even if he did not understand the significance of where they were or what she was about to show them, he understood what it took for Natasha to even get this far.

Tony opened the door and stepped inside what looked to be a bedroom.

There was a bed, not much better than a cot, pushed against the far wall. It was neatly made with thick wool blankets in an olive drab color. Beside it was a small nightstand with a metallic desk lamp. On the left side of the room was a bookshelf, mostly filled with technical manuals in various languages. Opposite that on the right side of the room was a dresser which had the lone ornamental object in the entire room.

A music box.

Natasha went straight to it, picked it up and wound the mechanism before opening the lid and setting it back in place.

It played a tune Tony couldn't quite place, but for one surreal moment it didn't seem to matter. The three of them stood, transfixed by the motion of the tiny porcelain ballerina slowly spinning in place until the melody died.

"What is this place?" Steve asked, his voice oddly loud in the ringing silence that had encompassed them.

Natasha's face screwed up in concentration as she searched for the right explanation. "There's not a... there's no translation for what this is," she finally said as she sat on the bed and primly folded her hands together. "It's a reset room. A safe place to hold someone whose programming has gone bad. A place to reprogram people when necessary."

"I'm... I'm really not following this," Tony said, just as Steve seemed to nod in agreement. "What is this? What are we talking about here?"

"I knew that Canada had some success," Steve said, ignoring Tony for the moment and evidently lost in his own thoughts. "We'd worked together for a time. And there were reports about Japan and Germany, although... theirs were supposed to be different."

"Theirs were different," Natasha confirmed, and Tony could only try and follow along.

"So this is... Russian?"

Natasha gave him a brisk nod.

"But if they really did it, why haven't we heard more about it? I know that the Soviets were our allies during the second war but... I've caught up, best I could on the rest. The Cold War. Everything that followed. If they could create -"

"They couldn't," Natasha interrupted. "Not in the same way. Don't worry, Steve," she said with the hint of a smile, "you're still unique."

"I don't care about being unique," he answered, completely serious. "I care about armies of... of..."

"Super soldiers?" she provided.


"Wait a minute," Tony said, no longer able to hold his tongue and having finally caught up to their conversation. "Hold up. How do you know this? Is this something SHIELD -"

"SHIELD has nothing to do with this," Natasha cut across him.

"Still," Tony led, waiting for more.

"SHIELD knows of it's existence, but the program is long dead. The research lost. The perpetrators all dead."

"We're standing in a lab," Tony pointed out.

"An empty lab," Natasha countered. "Nothing of significance was ever here to begin with and anything that was has been long stolen or destroyed."

"But the equipment," Steve argued, gesturing over his shoulder down the hallway. "We saw -"

"What you saw was for... other procedures. Not creation. Modification and reeducation only. Useless without the proper people to operate them."

"Okay," Tony said, drawing the word out as he gave the room another once over, "so, if the Soviets did make themselves another invincible man, where is he? What happened to Comrade Ruskie?"

"It's not like that. Their goals weren't the same as the Americans," Natasha tried to explain. "America needed a hero. The Soviet Union needed..."

"You," Steve finished.

Natasha didn't confirm it. She didn't need to. She'd known Steve would get there first, that he'd understand the easiest, because of their shared experience he just hadn't known about until now. He'd been there, been part of that machinery of war in the ways the others had not.

"This is real?" Tony asked. "This is... you? This was your..." he trailed off, shaking his head and not quite ready to comprehend the situation.

Again, Natasha didn't reply. She just watched as Tony paced the room as it sunk in and avoided Steve's attempt to catch her eye.

"Does..." Tony started, before quickly dropping his voice to a near whisper and stepping closer. "Does Barton know?"

"He knows," Clint answered for himself, leaning against the doorjamb and giving them all a start.

The already small room grew suddenly smaller as Natasha finally looked up from her hands and locked eyes with Clint. As was the way with the two of them, it had become as if no one else were there and that they were communicating without words.

"He knows," Natasha repeated after she'd finally looked away, her voice stronger than before. "Phil knew as well. Fury and those above him all know, it wasn't exactly a secret I could keep, but no one else. To everyone else I'm just an agent of SHIELD. An asset."

"How?" Tony asked.

At the same time, Steve's question was, "When?"

"I don't know," Natasha said, answering them both at once. "I have bits of memories, but... I'm never quite sure if they're real or not. Places. People. Before my last reset, it's all very fuzzy. Dreamlike."

"When was that?" Tony asked, not letting the shock of the situation get the best of him, if he could help it.

"I don't know the day or month. I'm not even sure of the year, but it happened here. In this place. They weren't done yet. They'd just started, really, when it was raided. Taken over by a collective, a group of criminals. They took me with them, whoever they were, the exact name... As far as I know, I was the government's only resource and once lost it was easier to pretend I'd never existed. To deny it outright. To admit otherwise would be embarrassing."

Tony shook his head as he crossed his arms and leaned back against the dresser.

"At first I was easy to manipulate with fear and drugs," Natasha continued. "It wasn't until much later that they realized what I was. That they figured out how to really use me."

"Natasha," Steve tried again, but she wouldn't let him finish.

"This isn't why I brought you here," she said as she got to her feet. "The past is the past and I have long since settled my own scores on that particular front."

"Wait a minute," Tony stopped her, not yet ready to move on, "did SHIELD go after you because of what... because of who you are? Is that why they -"

"They didn't know," Natasha interrupted. "No. When SHIELD came after me I was working with a trafficking group. Weapons mostly. Some black market goods. Drugs. People on occasion. Whatever made a profit. We weren't large, but we were becoming a threat."

"But they didn't kill you," Tony pressed.

"I didn't kill her," Clint answered. "It was my assignment and, from what I saw, Natasha wasn't the real danger. She wasn't calling the shots, she was just enforcement. Phil backed me up, but I was still benched for half a year after that."

"Once I was in custody, and the drugs began to wear off..." Natasha said, shaking her head at the memory. "It took awhile, but once I gained some semblance of self, I asked to join and they accepted."

"See, that's the part I don't get," Tony said, clearly dissatisfied. "He might not have killed you, but SHIELD still wanted you dead, and yet you trusted them? Why? Who was to say they couldn't one day send you out on a mission and... oops, bye-bye Natasha."

"The reverse could also be true," Natasha replied. "I could have easily pretended to switch sides and then disappear in the field, killing as many agents as possible on the way out."

"That's actually why they teamed us up together so often," Clint said, nodding his head. "Especially at first. They figured that since I brought her in, if she was going to stab someone in the back on the job, it should be me. Then, if it happened, not only would I be a readymade scapegoat, SHIELD would have a nice training scenario to teach new recruits about the dangers of bringing in rogue assets."

"And, again, that's neither here nor there," Natasha sighed. It was getting late and they'd need to check in soon. "Tony. Steve. No matter what you think about SHIELD as an organization, no matter how you feel about what they do, SHIELD is where I need to be. I know Clint has told you about his doubts. And I know he's leaving to join your Avengers. That's his decision. I'm telling you now, just this once, not to ask me because I will not go."

"Tasha, you have to trust - " Clint began to say.

"This has nothing to do with trust. I trust everyone in this room," Natasha snapped, having nearly reached her limit. The strain of the conversation, of the place they were at, was having an effect on her. "I trust everyone back at the Tower. I'm sorry I couldn't think of a better way to do this. I'd have told Bruce and Thor all of this, to their faces, if I had the chance. But you know we're being watched. It had to be like this. If I had asked the whole team to come out on a mission, all kinds of red flags would have went up."

"It's not that," Clint said, shaking his head. "That's not... You. You have to trust yourself."

"I... I can't. I still need them, Clint. I still need to know that if..."

"That isn't going to happen."

"...if I revert back," Natasha continued, shutting her eyes as if that would drown out his words. "If I change back into what I was... I need to know that there will be people around me who will take that shot. Who will do what it takes to ensure I do not become what I was. I can't let that happen. I won't."

"It isn't going to happen," Clint repeated.

"You don't know that."

"I know you."

"Revert back?" Tony interjected. "Like, what? Did they install an on and off switch? Do you regress slowly back into some kind of vacant killing machine? What are we talking about here?"

"It's subliminal," Natasha sighed. "The programming is all subliminal. It can be a codeword or an image even. Once it was a phrase. They would activate it and it would trigger an objective or target."

"So like... one day I could say something like banana fritters and you... what exactly? Try and take over the world? Join a communist co-op? Start redistributing my wealth? That kind of sounds important to know about. More details would be nice."

"It's not going to be something that... simple. It would be more complex. Something no one would likely say in a normal conversation."

"Okay..." Tony said, nodding his head and fixing her with a serious look. "Elephant slippers. No? How about whistling walruses? Oh, wait, I've got it. Stalin rules. That's it, isn't it?"

"It's not a contest," Steve said, shaking his head and slightly aghast at Tony's behavior.

"Everything is a contest," Tony countered.

"This is serious," Steve said, to which Tony scoffed before checking everyone else's reaction. When he found that they all mirrored Steve's, Tony shrugged his shoulders and conceded the point.

"I realize that," Tony admitted, "but first off, can I point out how ridiculous this is? If you haven't heard the magic words already, you probably never will. And, if you do, we'll knock you on the head like you did Barton and be on our merry way. Too easy."

"It's not the same," Natasha said, every word clearly indicating her irritation. "That's not how it works."

"Then how does it work?" Clint asked.

Natasha shook her head and cast her eyes quickly about the room, almost as if to escape. But there was no escape from that question. She'd brought them all here for precisely this reason. This had to be said and it needed to be clearly understood.

"You told me," Natasha began, stopping abruptly and waiting. She looked at Clint and waited, knowing he'd understand why. And when he nodded, after a long pause, Natasha knew it was okay to tell them. "You told me," she repeated, "that whatever it was that Loki did... you were present. You were awake. You were aware. You just... you had no control over it. It was like..."

"Being a passenger in my own head," Clint finished for her quickly. "Yeah. Exactly."

"Exactly," she agreed. "But that's not what happens to me. For me, it's like I get an idea. It feels as if I thought of it all by myself. Like I want it. Sometimes it's not anything big. Sometimes it's life changing. But it always feels organic. Like it belongs to me. That it's something I not only want to do, but something I should. And so I act. I act on this idea or this impulse and... It feels like... like free will."

"How do you know it isn't?" Tony asked.

"I didn't. Not at first," Natasha admitted, again choosing to face Tony directly because his antagonist attitude was much easier to face than sympathy she read on Steve's face and the raw emotion on Clint's. "But I've seen the files. I've... I know what they've done to me. How they've manipulated everything. You don't have to believe that. You can just think it's always been me. Part of it has. Like I said, it's not like what happened to Clint."

"You couldn't stop it," Clint said quietly.

"I never tried."

"Never?" he pressed and Natasha dropped her head.

"I'm not saying there haven't been moments... I regret what I've done. I'm trying to make a change. To fix what I still can fix."

"Because, deep down, no matter what they made you do, that's not who you are."

"You don't get it," she sighed, shaking her head and nearly desperate.

"And you can say that all you want, but I know you," Clint argued.

"There is a very real possibility that the me you know doesn't exist," Natasha explained, the strain of emotion pushing through her composure. "All of this could be some programmed persona that one day..." She stopped and took a deep breath. She didn't want to say it, but she would. They had to know. Clint had to really know. They needed to believe it, the same way she did. "I spent three years of my life as a dancer. Three years training, conditioning, touring and performing. I had a whole different life and I was happy. Beyond happy. I was at peace. I was convinced that that was my life. That that was the real me. And then, one day, I met him. I met the reason behind my cover story. The person the act was intended for; my real mission."

Natasha paused, dropping her eyes for a split second before willing herself to look at them again. She had to finish. They had to know.

"What happened?" Steve asked quietly.

"I did my job," she answered. "I did what I'd been programmed to do but not without hesitation. I stopped and considered it. I really did. And not because I didn't think that killing him would be wrong. I stopped because I wasn't just killing him, I was killing myself. I was ending that life I thought was mine. The one that had made me so happy... But I did it. Because that's what I do."

"Tasha," Clint said softly.

"No," she snapped. "I'm not overstating this. I'm not exaggerating. This is something I've thought about for a long time. Something I thought... I never thought it was a problem because, if it was to happen, if this is some elaborate... I trust you all in the field. On missions. With my life. But I can't trust you with this. I can't let you be responsible for what I am. SHIELD will take care of it. They'll do what they should do if... They'll do what you won't," she said, firm now and with her eyes wide open again. "You can't. No more than I could..."

"You're wrong," Clint replied, shaking his head.

"Am I?" Natasha said with a surprised laugh.

"Not about... No, about that you're right. I couldn't... I know I wouldn't," he admitted. "But you're wrong about the rest. I can't believe this isn't you. That this isn't truly who you are. Maybe I just can't wrap my brain around the idea or maybe I just love you too much, but I know what's real."

"That's because you're a fool."

Clint let out a bitter laugh as he dropped his head and ran a hand over the back of his neck, and Natasha knew just how angry he was at the moment. The last time she'd seen that particular tell, he'd punched an informant on her behalf in Geneva. It was what she wanted. She'd wanted him angry and unreasonable and unable to forgive her. Natasha needed that because she needed him to stop caring so much. It was killing her and she was frightened it would literally kill him one day. She couldn't live with that.

Clint would never understand that she was trying to protect them both.

Tony, witness to and cause of some seriously spectacular arguments in his time, wisely chose to look away and turn his body, as much as the space and suit allowed, from the participants. Steve, on the other hand, couldn't turn away. He continued to watch, eyes flitting from Natasha to Clint and back again, aghast of what he viewed as the absolute destruction of the team.

And while it was serious, to Clint it was very serious, he'd have never termed it as such. For Clint it was just personally devastating, but nothing that would impact anyone else or how things operated. He wouldn't let it even though Clint knew she meant to be cruel. That her words were an absolute rejection. If anything this was just the confirmation he'd been expecting for years now, that his feelings for Natasha exceeded her own for him.

He could have made some excuse to leave the room. Clint could have said a number of things which both Tony and Steve would have nodded to in agreement. Things like he needed to contact SHIELD or start the pre-flight checklist. Anything would have done, no one was going to stop him or tell him there'd been a mistake and this would work out. Not Tony, not Steve and especially not Natasha. But what was the point in that? It would be a lie and everyone there would know it.

Clint just left.

It wasn't until they heard the bunker door slam that anyone moved.

"Whatever it is you're about to say, Stark," Natasha nearly whispered, eyes steady on the floor, "I just want to remind you first that I don't need some subliminal code word to kick your ass. So don't push your luck. Not now."

"I wasn't going to say anything," Tony replied, less than convincing.

"I meant ever word," she continued, the words harsh but clear. "As long as SHIELD works with the Avengers, I'll be there. But I won't break off. I won't be a part of it. I need them to keep me in check. You're merry little band of misfits can't do that. Let it go."

"If that's how you want it," Tony said with a sigh before heading out the door and back down the hall after Clint.

Natasha took a steadying breath, but before could leave, Steve caught her by the arm and with his free hand pushed the door, closing it halfway.

"I understand why you didn't tell anyone," he said quietly. "I even understand what you're doing here. I don't like it but... but if that's how you want it."

"It's how it has to be."

"No, it isn't," Steve said, shaking his head. "This is the easy way out, which... honestly, I didn't think you knew the easy way existed, Natasha."

"You have no idea -"

"Not yet," he interrupted. "Not in the same way, but I have a good guess. I have a real good guess of what it's going to be like. I've already lost enough to know what I'm in for."

"You really don't," she said, shaking her head as she finally pulled free from his grasp. "You can't understand. Not yet. Try thirty years awake first, out in the world, and then we'll talk."

"The answer isn't to push everyone away. To isolate yourself."

"It is if you want to survive," she countered.

"And what if I want to live?"

Natasha didn't answer him, just pushed past him and through the door, striding briskly down the hall. Steve took a deep breath before turning to follow, but as soon as he caught up she surprised him again by stopping dead in her tracks and spinning around to face him again.

"Why did they choose you?"

"Excuse me?" Steve asked.

"For the program," Natasha explained. "Why you? There had to have been hundreds of applicants. I've seen your file. You weren't the most qualified. You weren't even eligible. But out of everyone they could have used, they picked you, Steve. Why do you think that is?"

"If you've read my file," Steve answered, not caring for these types of mind games, "you know why."

"Okay then," she said, no longer able to keep the storm of emotions at bay. "Why do you think they picked me? Because I was a good person? Because I had integrity? Why, Steve?"

"We all have parts of us..."

"No," she said, with a brutal shake of her head. "There's nothing in me that's good or decent or anything like the rest of you. This is just a phase for me. I've gone through it before. I'll work hard at rectifying whatever sins I've committed now but eventually..." Natasha dropped her eyes again, embarrassed to find they'd begun to brim with tears. "It's my fault. I know I'm to blame. I let him get too close and... It's better if we do this now, it's better if I hurt him now so that when eventually does come it won't be so bad."

"It may never happen," he said, lowering his voice and moving half a step closer. "And if it does, you don't know that we can't do something about it. Don't tell him I said it, but Tony's pretty smart. So is Bruce. If you let them, they could help. But you have to let them, Tasha. You have to let us try. They could fix this."

"I've been fixed enough by smart men with good intentions."

"That's not..."

Natasha shut her eyes and gave her head another shake. Of all the ways she imagined this happening, she never imagined this. This was the absolute worst case scenario, and Natasha hadn't been prepared. To her, it was further proof that she was doing the right thing. The only thing.

After a few minutes of silence, Steve knew he had to say something more.

"They're going to start to wonder where we're at," he tried, but failed to get a response. "But if you need..."

"Go ahead," she managed, her voice steady but she still could not look up. "I'll be right behind you."

"I could wait."

"It's fine," she said, back in control enough to meet his eyes and give him a quick, cold smile.

Steve smiled tightly in return and left after the others. The walk back afforded him some time to think. He really believed that they could help her, if she let them, but Natasha letting them looked doubtful. Despite what she said, Steve was on Clint's side of this particular argument. He didn't know Natasha as well as Clint did, but couldn't believe that her entire persona was an act. She was difficult, and different, that was certain, but there were glimpses, unguarded moments where the real Natasha shone through. Steve wasn't just going to give up on her, and he didn't think the rest of the team would either, especially not Clint. Not even if it was clear that she'd already given up on herself a long time ago.

"Ready?" Tony asked as soon as Steve climbed back onboard the Quinjet. He was sitting in the co-pilot seat, next to Clint who didn't bother to turn around.

"Just waiting on -"

"Let's go," Natasha said, having snuck up behind him, as she moved into one of the jump chairs and strapped herself in, after rearranging the bag stored underneath out of her way.

"You heard the lady," Steve said, sitting down across from her, but unable to read any trace of the emotion he'd just witnessed.

The ride back to the Helicarrier was nearly silent. Natasha could hear Tony talking to Clint, and Clint's occasional laugh, but neither was speaking loud enough for her to catch more than an odd word here or there. Once they'd landed, Clint ran down the checklist and left without even looking at her once. Tony wasn't much better and Steve was the only one who hung back and waited.

Natasha suspected she deserved that from Clint. It was, after all, what she'd wanted, but it still hurt. She wouldn't allow it to hurt for long.

The four of them went to the debriefing where Natasha did most of the talking. She had decided what she would say before they'd even left and no one questioned any of it. When they were done, Tony and Steve left immediately for Stark Tower. Clint retired to his own quarters onboard and Natasha knew why. This was the one chance he was giving her to explain. He'd stayed, made it easier for her to approach him alone, but he wouldn't make the first move. Not overtly. This was it. He'd probably stay up all night hoping...

Natasha didn't go.

The next day, Clint left after breakfast for the Tower. He didn't stop by to see if she needed a ride. He didn't tell her where he was going or how long he'd been gone. He just left and even if it was what she wanted, what she thought she needed, it was like a part of Natasha went with him. The best part.

That evening, sitting back in her own quarters, Natasha tried to stamp down her feelings. It was practically a physical ache, the thought that he hated her, and Natasha knew Clint, and she knew that right now he must hate her. She'd disappointed and deserted him when all he'd ever done was offer her love and understanding. He wanted to help her and in return she hurt him. And deep down she knew that she'd done those things, not because she had to, but because that's who she was.

With a soft click, the music box she'd taken from the bunker after Steve had left, shut off. The ballerina stopped her spin and smiled her benign smile back at Natasha from across the room. Without thinking, she got up, rewound the mechanism, and sat back on the bed, primly folding her hands as the tune started up again, just as it should. As she would.


The End