Chapter Fifty Six

A cold sweat drenched Clint, plastering his shirt to his body, when he was startled awake by the sounds of Love Shack suddenly blaring from the television. He was groggy at first, his brain sluggish and unwilling to string logical thought together much less discern what the Hell was happening. Kicking his brain into gear after a nightmare took longer than normal, and then he noted Tasha frantically jamming her finger on the volume button of the TV remote.

"Shit, I'm sorry. I didn't know the volume was set that high," she said.

All he could do was pant for breath, jerk his legs down to sit upright on the sofa where he'd fallen asleep, and bury his fingers in his hair. Dread. There was such terrible dread tightening his chest he thought he'd be unable to take in another breath. The tide of terror was sweeping toward him again just as it had in those last few seconds before Loki's spell had overwhelmed him. The urge to vomit was so strong he almost ran for the bathroom.

And in the background, a woman was wailing about a tin roof being rusted.

"Talk to me, Clint."

"D'you know 'tin roof rusted' is slang for a broad getting knocked up by accident?"

"Nope, didn't know that. Didn't need to know that. Could have gone my whole life without knowing that as long as you'd contract verbal diarrhea and spill it."

"There's nothing to spill." He rolled to his feet and headed for the wet bar to break out another beer. "You want something while I'm up?"

"Yeah, as a matter of fact, I do. I want the father of my miracle gro to stop being evasive and tell me what the Hell is going on in his psyche that turns him into a frightened Chihuahua apt to piss down its leg whenever pop culture things with love in the title happen around him."

"Tash…"

"No. This stops tonight. Either you tell me what's going on, or I'm going to sleep with Bruce and Jenny. No other options. No more distracting me with sex. Pick your poison."

A heavy breath was forthcoming. The bottle top from his beer clattered onto the bar during the silence that followed, and Tasha finally selected a music channel playing oldies as background noise.

"I don't know how to say it."

"Is it because of the baby and our relationship becoming more permanent?"

"God, no. I want permanent with you."

"Then what's it about?"

"Loki," he responded.

Tension ratcheted higher when Tasha came behind the bar and took the beer from him. She placed it on the bar top, slid her fingers down his forearms, and laced their fingers together before urging him back to the sofa. He even flopped down willingly enough.

"Clint, there's nothing you could say to me that would upset me when it comes to Loki."

"I…" He had to pause and clear his throat. "Everybody thinks I was brainwashed in the classic definition of the term, that I arranged for the attack on the Helicarrier because Loki had replaced my brain with his. That's not entirely the truth."

"Okay, I'm listening."

"He made me love him, Tash. I don't know what he did to me, but I was so in love with him nothing else mattered but making him happy. It wasn't like my will had been taken over. Every fiber of my being was willing to do what I did because he asked me to."

Shame caused color to creep into his cheeks and prevented him from making eye contact. He looked out the glass door to the ocean beyond, glanced at the marble floor, studied a picture on the wall, but wouldn't meet her eyes. He couldn't. He couldn't risk seeing the anger or betrayal in her expression nor watch her look upon him as though he were weak.

"Jesus, is that it, Clint?"

"What do you mean?"

"Your mother is a three-tongued rooster," she cursed in Russian.

"Leave my mother out of this."

"I thought you were going to tell me your infatuation had run its course and you were only staying with me because of Miracle Gro. Fuck, Clint. Don't ever do that to me again!"

He yelped when she punched his arm none-too-gently, proving that she didn't need Widow enhancements to have a potent right hook. Frantically rubbing his abused appendage didn't immediately make it better. "Stop abusing me! God, Babe, if I hit you as often as you hit me, everyone would call me a woman abuser."

"Grow some pain tolerance, Barton. So what if Loki made you love him? That's still brainwashing. It wasn't a natural emotion. Did you choose to love him?"

"Of course not."

"Intent to commit murder must come hand in hand with choice. If you didn't choose through your own free will, then you aren't responsible for the actions that followed. He's still a manipulative little prick who used your emotions against you to achieve an end goal."

"But it still means I'm…"

"You're what? Weak for being unable to stop a magical entity from invading your head and messing with your mind?"

"But I was willing!"

"Yeah, because he manipulated your emotions through that damn scepter!"

He hadn't expected her to be quite so aggressive. In hindsight, he probably should have. Tasha, after all, was a decisive woman, and when she embraced a thought, she defended it doggedly. She had apparently adopted the thought that he was completely innocent in the Chitauri incident. Still, he was expecting a little more emotional breathing room and was therefore surprised and slightly uncomfortable when she straddled his lap and cupped his face.

The oversized shirt she'd stolen from him barely covered her thighs, so he dropped his hands onto said thighs and said, "You don't under…"

"If you finish that comment with 'stand,' I'm going to knock your block into next year. I am one of the few people who can understand!"

"Jesus, Romanoff, I'm sitting right here. You can't fix me by shouting in my face."

"I don't want to fix you."

"Oh, you don't?"

"I'm not trying to fix you. I can't fix you. There aren't any broken bones for me to set or nicked arteries to tie off to stop the bleeding. You have to fix yourself. My only job is to reassure you that what I feel for you hasn't changed between now and ten minutes ago. You're the only one who can make peace with what happened."

Magical words capable of healing his damaged emotions in a split second didn't exist. Dropping his forehead onto her boobs was his only available option, so he snuggled there. His arms crept around her waist, palms flattening on her shoulder blades to keep her from withdrawing when she was the only comfort available.

Comfortable silence descended upon their suite.

Teaching an old dog like him new tricks was damn near impossible, so he was mildly surprised she hadn't given herself a concussion beating her head against the brick wall that was his psyche. But he figured the message was finally seeping through. Every time he attempted to suffer in silence, she badgered him into opening up. Every time he thought the truth too hard to share, she pressured until sharing and caring was the only available option. Each psychological tick he swore would lead to abandonment that was overcome by her persistence was evidence of her unwillingness to leave.

Clarity sharpened the world into focus. This time, Tasha wasn't leaving.

No matter what he said, no matter how terrible his confession, she wasn't emotionally withdrawing again, not like the last time when she'd wanted to take a break. A breath fanned her cleavage, and he squeezed her. Admitting the truth to her might not be so hard next time.


Night air was heavy with moisture and the sky occasionally pulsing with intermittent lightning carrying the promise of a coming storm. Some greasy, heavy scent poured from the opened door of a nearby bar where an employee stood enjoying a smoke, his apron smeared with stains. Other than that, the alley down which they were creeping was dark and quiet. The hour was late.

"Are you certain we need to move our base of operation again, Allerdyce? Our flight departs at nine in the morning, so moving at this late an hour seems pointless."

"Have I steered you wrong yet, Mate?" the mutant asked. "Best not take any chances when our freedom is imminent, and Allerdyce is my slave name."

A beat of silence passed while Christian attempted to make sense of that comment. "A slave name? Better not let the NAACP hear you going on about such nonsense. They'll scream about the gall of comparing the mutant plight to those of African American slaves."

"It's just something Mystique used to say, how we were slaves to human culture, forced to change everything about ourselves to fit into what they define as normalcy. And you best keep your trap shut about mutant kind. Mutants are being rounded up in record numbers and shuffled into human trafficking rings to be sold into slavery and their mutations exploited."

"Well it sounds bloody pretentious."

Allerdyce paused. "You mean like a yank using the term 'bloody' to sound more British? So in the space of six minutes, you've slandered the NAACP, made light of the mutant condition, appropriated a Britishism to make yourself sound more intelligent, and insinuated that slavery in any form is nonsense. Who is the pretentious bastard here again?"

"Enough," he hissed. "Lest you forget, I am your employer. Your paycheck comes on my dime, which means you serve at my leisure."

"And I'm the only reason you're breathing free air. Conveniently forgot about all the times I've saved your ass from the Avengers, eh? Typical capitalistic mentality. 'You're employed at my leisure!' 'But what about all those years I spent making your company flourish?' 'Tough cookies! Because…because…because… all hail the almighty dollar!'"

"I'm not being drawn into another debate on economics with you, Pyro."

"Still smarting from the last time you figured me for some dumb Aussie who has to take his shoes off to count to twenty, eh?"

A muscle in his jaw ticked. Allerdyce had a way of getting under his skin that made him want to slap the bastard, but he presently needed the man's knowledge of their environment to stay ahead of the Avengers and Australian mutants. For now, he would let the man's attitude go without redress. Such would not always be the case, though. Before he left Australia, the mutant's insults would be returned ten fold, as would the trauma he'd suffered at the hands of every mutant in Allerdyce's motherland. Every single one of them seemed to be crawling from the woodwork like cockroaches to take him into custody for some dark, shadowy boss.

While staying close to Pyro, he allowed himself to return to that one terrible moment whilst fleeing the home in Sanctuary Cover. Natasha appearing from the darkness to plant herself between his vehicle and freedom and that agonizing decision presented to him still haunted his thoughts. He would have killed her had she not jumped clear of the car. There was no question. Running her down to escape She-Hulk was a foregone conclusion, and it would have terrorized him the rest of his life.

Why?

That was what he couldn't figure. She had fallen at the market, but his emotional responses toward her were so vastly different from what he'd felt for Virginia, Jennifer, and Jane. Killing any of them would have been a momentary tragedy. Killing Natasha, however, would have caused lifelong torment, and he couldn't understand that reaction.

Why?

Gone was the obsessive need to control her. Absent was the consuming desire to place her at the center of his universe. He neither wanted to beat her because she reminded him of his mother nor give her a contract and pressgang her into becoming his lifelong submissive. The confusing emotions refused to be pinned down and named.

Why?

Absently, he rubbed his middle knuckle. She had dislocated the joint last August upon catching him in the middle of sharing intimacy with Virginia. With one precise application of pressure, she had popped the knuckle joint free. Such control bordered on causing an orgasmic experience just thinking about it.

His thoughts were so consumed with Natasha Romanoff that he didn't notice anything was amiss until it was too late to respond. Pyro had guided him into a cramped cluster of buildings. A small square was crammed with tall office buildings and shopping establishments and could only be accessed by the main thoroughfare ahead of him and two narrow alleys. They emerged onto the sidewalk, the street empty and the businesses closed for the night.

Suddenly, a hulking shape approached, the ungainly body of the monster known as Hulk charging down the street and finally coming to rest underneath a lamppost where light cast a yellow pall over his normally green skin. Panic flared and caused him to reverse direction back toward the alley they had just exited. Soft lights erupted at the head of each alley as laser netting flared to life to effectively cut off their ability to retreat.

Overhead, a streak of lights dropped off a nearby roof and brought Iron Man to a landing in the center of the main thoroughfare. Telltale red and gold armor made Tony Stark appear bigger and more threatening than normal. She-Hulk came to stand next to Stark, the three behemoths effectively blocking his forward progress and penning him in against the edifice of a building.

"We can either do this the easy way," Iron Man began. "Or we can do this the fun way."

Panic at seeing their net close around him was shoved to the back of his mind in favor of strengthening his voice to sound calm and confident. "Or there's option three. We can do this my way," he purred in a voice like dark-chocolate-and-caramel-and-raspberry-and-milk-chocolate-mousse-and-key-lime-pie-and-rainbow-sherbet-and-gravy-and-buffalo-chicken-wing-and-hot-sauce-and-jalapeno-and-salsa-and-taco-and-mango-and-tequila-and-pistachio-and-pineapple-upside-down-cake-and-peanut-butter-fudge-and-salt-and-vinegar-potato-chips-and-spinach-and-eggs-over-easy-and-sesame-chicken-and-honey-and-pecan-praline-pie.

Hesitation meant failure. Hesitation meant becoming lost in the dredges of obscurity as one of the unsuccessful masses content to wander through life like Zombies working their nine to five jobs and never reaching for the stars. Christian didn't hesitate. In the few seconds available, he assessed the situation and reacted.

Turning on a heel, he sprinted toward one of the business entrances behind him. Breaking down a door wasn't beyond his strength anymore, and surely there was a loading dock or employee entrance that would gain access to the world beyond the trap laid by the Avengers. Pyro, he trusted, would protect his rear during his mad flight. That was what he paid the man to do, after all, and the mutant seemed to have no love for the Avengers either.

He'd taken no more than a dozen steps when two things happened in rapid succession. Firstly, the massive body of the Hulk came down on the concrete in front of him. While he tried to correct his trajectory to avoid the beast, some force hit him square in his back. Pain exploded there, and the force drove him forward into the Hulk's waiting arms.

"Hulk, don't kill!" shouted Stark.

A meaty fist closed around his arm, and the results of their little skirmish seemed a foregone conclusion, so Christian took a page out of Virginia's book and cracked his knee up between the beast's thighs, his body fueled with Asgardian strength. By some miracle, there was enough power behind the blow to cause the Hulk's grip to loosen just enough he was able to wiggle free. A forward roll carried him between the beast's legs where he sprang to his feet on the opposite side and charged the door.

He was mere steps away when an arrow struck the concrete directly in front of him. The small explosion that followed took him off his feet and deposited him on the flat of his back. Movement was the only way to stay ahead of the Avengers, so he was immediately back up and charging toward the second door only to be turned again when a glowing playing card burst between him and freedom.

That was when a green forearm clothes-lined him right across the throat. His own momentum and the immovable She-Hulk leveled him like one of the great columns of the Parthenon. He hit the ground and stared up toward the sky in stunned silence as the first fat drop of rain splattered on his face. Had yellow birds chirped while circling his head, he wouldn't have been totally surprised. His body was completely lax. Drawing in breath was impossible at first and painful thereafter.

"Going somewhere, Chrissy-Pooh?" she purred while clasping fingers about his throat and hauling him back to his feet.

Or more appropriately, she hauled him upwards and held him at a point where his feet were dangling and unable to reach the pavement. Fear turned his limbs to lead. Unable to draw breath past the constricting hand, he could only grab hold of her forearm and attempt to claw at her flesh to deter her grip. No such luck was his. His short nails didn't even damage the irradiated barrier protecting her insides.

"Pyro," he gasped with the last of his oxygen.

"Sorry, Mate. Had a better offer. You know how it is. Don't take it personal. It's just business. Same thing you said when you closed that plant, laid off all the workers, and moved the facility to Taiwan, right?" There was as much sincerity in the mutant's voice as there were jelly beans inside a plague-ridden rat.

Realization dawned slower than usual. The mutant had double-crossed him. Somehow, the Avengers had gotten in touch with him and lured him away. With Stark's money, it wouldn't be entirely difficult to make a better offer. And that meant Christian was done for, trapped in the vice-like grip of the one woman on Earth he feared and surrounded by the best of the best.

She-Hulk's fingers curled into a fist that may as well have contained the potential hitting power of a semi barreling down a highway at ninety miles an hour, but Iron Man's instructions prevented that blow from landing at the last second. "Saved by our field commander. Better thank him appropriately, Chrissy-Pooh, because I was looking forward to turning you into hamburger."

"Sanctuary," Christian gasped past her grip on his throat. "You have to protect me."

"This ain't The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and you ain't Quasimodo, mon ami," said the Cajun. "More importantly, Miss Shulkie ain't a house of worship, though we men should be worshipping at her feet."

"I can't breathe," he croaked when the monster's fist tightened again.

"Loosen up, Apple Dumpling. We don't want to kill him until we've had a chance to extract every possible ounce of pain out of his hide," Stark said.

His shoulders slumped, body going lax as She-Hulk returned him to his feet. Her grip eased enough for him to take in some much-needed air, and that was when he struck. Since it had worked so well against the Hulk, he decided to try his luck again, grabbing She-Hulk's shoulders and bringing his knee up between her legs.

Alas, his last ditch effort didn't produce the desired reaction. She wasn't startled into releasing him. Neither did her grip loosen enough for him to struggle free. No, that would have been about a thousand times easier than the actual results.

She-Hulk used her grip on his neck to lift his feet from the ground and slam him down onto the concrete. The impact was how he imagined a car felt after having been hit by an oncoming train. He couldn't breathe. His entire body simply went numb, because pain overloaded his nervous system like a server experiencing too much traffic.

By the time he was conscious enough to understand his surroundings, Iron Man had come to stand over him, the gold faceplate lifted to display a wry grin. Stark said, "God, that was fun. You want to do it again? Let's do it again."

"Stark," Barton intoned.

"Saved by my feathered colleague."

"Don't…" The word came out more as a wheeze than anything else, so he swallowed a few times before trying again. "Protect me. You have to protect me from the mutants. The mutants are after me."


Next Chapter: Natasha ruffles Pyro's feathers. Clint gets to hit Christian.