The call goes out at noon, EST. I stand in the center of the room, my eyes trained on Georgi as he holds the phone to his ear. I can hear it ringing. It took me an hour to convince him to pick up that phone. He said it was against the rules; they would relocate him. But would he rather be relocated or dead was the real question.
"Nick Fury," says a voice from the other end. "Can I help you?" I can see him standing on the helicarrier in my head, surrounded by his screens, hands on his waist, dressed head to toe in black leather.
"Hanno mostrato dal nulla," Georgi says.
They showed up out of nowhere.
His voice is deep. He speaks as though he's afraid I might hurt him. Which is funny, because I'm only here for his help.
"Il ragazzo in nero con le frecce di morte. L'ho visto prima. La ragazza aveva i capelli rossi, per abbinare il sangue sulle sue mani. Portano il cerotto sul braccio."
The boy with black arrows of death. I've seen before. The girl with red hair, to match the blood on her hands. They wear the patch on their arms.
Fury responds but I can't hear what he says, distracted by the noise coming from upstairs. There's a thump and what sounds like shattering glass. My eyes fly to the ceiling. Natasha. I'm tempted to run up there to see what's going on but I don't. I jump when Georgi taps my shoulder. He holds the phone out to me.
"Vuole parlare con te." He steps away, retreating to the other side of the room.
He wants to talk with you.
I hold the phone to my ear, preparing for the worst he could say.
"You're supposed to be in Switzerland, not Italy. Did something go wrong, Agent Barton?" He sounds cold, accusing.
"Would I be talking to you if it hadn't?" I say harshly. He wants to blame me. I'll blame him right back. It's more his fault than mine, as far as I'm concerned.
"What are you doing?" No sympathy from the Director. I should have guessed.
"Nat's been shot."
"Are you requesting I pull her? She's the best agent we have. You're compromising the years of undercover work the two of you spent on this case and the mission." He sounds like an ass.
"You're compromising her life."
"What are you saying, Barton?"
"I'm saying that I just had to pull a bullet out of Nat's leg and another from her collarbone in the bathroom of a train with a knife that was sterilized by perfume. I have her blood staining my shirt, dried under my nails, and I can't get it off. It's been a day and she can't eat. She can't drink. She's running a fever and that's not normal. Natasha doesn't get sick. She's never been sick a day in her life, her body literally doesn't allow it. There's shrapnel or something stuck in her leg. I need Natasha back in the US in a hospital with a proper operation before her body tries to heal itself." I close my eyes and run my hand across my forehead. Do not yell. "I'm saying that if I'm talking to you, I couldn't care less about this mission. That asshole handler you gave us won't pull her. I already talked to her. She doesn't know shit," I snap at him, all the anger from the last two days resurfacing.
"I understand your concern, Barton." No you don't. "But we can't afford to lose Garvov again."
"But we can afford to lose her?" I almost laugh at how ridiculous he's being. "Coulson wouldn't have wasted a breath before he had an extraction team out here to get us."
That shuts him up.
There's another thump. I look at Georgi and point to the ceiling. He inches slowly towards the staircase in the back corner, his eyes never leaving my face, before scurrying up the steep steps to see what's going on.
"Here's what we are going to do. I will go back to Zermatt. Garvov is having a meeting in three days to discuss the arrangement with Yolan. I will do what I can. We know where his warehouse is located. But I want her back in New York by this time tomorrow." I know I shouldn't be speaking like this, but I'm tired and frustrated and I can't find it in me to care. I should, but I don't.
There's voices on his end as Fury discusses my proposal with someone. The council, maybe. Hopefully not. Agent Hill. I bet it is Agent Hill, which is good because she has sense.
"Meet us at 2300 hours on the west side of the city, about a half mile from the river. We will have an extraction team for Agent Romanoff, as well as a relocation team for the asset. We will need a distraction, but I will leave you up to that." He pauses, thinking. "And Agent Barton, if this mission finishes smoothly, I might not require the talk I am planning for you."
"Yes sir," I say before hanging up.
I'm definitely screwed. Fury hates being disrespected.
I head up the creaky stairs, having to duck my head to avoid smashing it into the ceiling. The room is dominated by a bed, rusty iron frame with patched sheets. Despite the amount Georgi and his wife are paid for being safe house operators, they insist on living to fit in. Pathetic excuse of a house, poor appliances, awful furniture. Nothing to draw attention to themselves. There are two doors off the room, one that is open and leads to a closet sized bathroom. The other door is closed.
Georgi waits outside, leaning against the wall. He is half a head taller than me with dark brown hair, thick eyebrows, and the beginnings of a beard. He has broad shoulders and a muscular build. Alessa, his wife, is small and wide with kind eyes, hair pulled back into a bun so tight it has to hurt her head, and a smile I have seen only once before.
"Stiamo andando, no? Dove stiamo vengono inviati?" He asks, stepping off the wall.
We're going, right? Where are we being sent?
I am about to answer when the door opens. Alessa walks out, her eyes flitting between her husband and me. She holds her hands in front of her and I know they are covered in blood. Georgi grimaces at the sight. She says nothing as she crosses the room to the bathroom and begins scrubbing her hands. How many times has she treated people she doesn't know in that small room that it has stopped bothering her? I wait expectantly for her to explain what is going on.
"She is Russian," she says, looking at me in the mirror. Unlike Georgi, Alessa speaks English. Her accent is thick and she has a tendency to slur her words, but it is understandable for the most part. "Should have guessed, but I did not know until the cursing."
"She was Russian, now she is not," I state quite simply. She was a different person then, and it is a time period she has tried very hard to forget.
"She is sick," Alessa says, wiping her hands and turning to face me. "Very sick. I did what I could, but it's not much. These bullets are different." The hand she puts on my shoulder is soft, comforting, and the frown on her face is betraying her words. "I fear for her not making it to the end of the week. But I may be wrong. She is different, too." She motions to the door and the room beyond. "You may see her now."
I shove my emotions deep inside me and close myself off. They won't help this situation. "They are coming for her tonight." I tap the patch on my shoulder, depicting the SHIELD eagle. "You are being moved."
I stand back so I can look at both of them. "Voglio che tu imballato e pronto per 2100 ore."
I want you packed and ready by 2100 hours.
Alessa nods. She understands.
"Cosa hai intenzione di fare?" Georgi asks, confused.
What are you going to do?
He knows I need a distraction. There always has to be a distraction.
I look right into his wide eyes, my gaze unfaltering. "Ho intenzione di bruciare la tua casa."
I am going to burn down your house.
It seems a little harsh, but they will have no need for it. I need to erase any evidence we were ever here. And it won't be an extreme fire, just like a candle was knocked over. And we will be gone by the time they figure out that no one was inside.
I shut the door behind me so I don't have to see their stunned faces and neither one come after me to ask questions. The room I am in has a low and slanted ceiling and is barely long enough to hold the twin sized mattress shoved inside. There is a small table to one side, a bowl of water, strips of cloth, and a roll of gauze set on top. A pile of mostly blood stained sheets is on the floor, but under them I can see strips of black and grey. The top of Nat's cat suit that had to be cut off her body this morning and my undershirt I used on the train to try and stop the bleeding. Several pairs of worn shoes lie in a heap near the door. I guess they are responsible for the thumping.
Nat is lying on her back on the mattress. She looks much smaller. Two thick blankets cover her but she is shivering, despite the sweat that glistens on her forehead. Her dark green eyes are closed tightly and her crimson curls are splayed around her head, almost as if she's wearing a halo made of fire. She is muttering to herself and as I move closer I realize she is cursing in Russian.
"Such a charmer," I joke, sitting down beside her. The collar of a dark green t-shirt is visible over the blankets. She opens her eyes and turns her head to look at me, attempting a smile that looks more like a wince.
"Yeah, well, if you'd had bullets dug out of your skin on a moving train, I would let you cuss in whatever language you pleased." She sounds more like herself, but quieter. Her normally porcelain skin is too pale and pasty. She's lost a lot of blood. I touch her forehead with the back of my hand and jerk it back immediately. Her face is burning up.
"I already apologized for that," I say, trying to keep the worry from my voice. She's worse than I expected. "How do you feel?"
"Like I could do it ten more times. Come on, shoot me some more." I frown at her, letting her know her sarcasm is not appreciated. She sighs and her eyes close. "You know I'm not going to answer you honestly, so why bother asking?"
It goes quiet as I look her up and down. Georgi and Alessa talk in Italian in the other room. Some drawers slam. She may not want to tell me how she feels, but I can see it. The fact she is acting like herself isn't hiding anything. I know her too well. She hasn't moved anything but her head. She is blinking a lot and her green eyes had a glassy and disconnected look to them. She is shivering and sweating and I bet there is a ringing in her head since she hasn't attempted to sit up yet. Maybe even some dizziness; she hit the concrete pretty hard when they shot her leg. She looks like shit, and probably feels the same, most likely worse.
"I called Co–" my breath catches in my throat. I almost said I called Coulson. "I called Owens." Kim Owens is our new handler. She was assigned by the Council to keep us in check. After we first met her, Nat suggested we shove her out a window. Steve looked at her like she was insane. Fury smiled.
"She said she is refusing to pull you in fear of jeopardizing the mission." My anger at the woman rises inside me once more.
"That's good. You need me on this anyway."
I take a deep breath. "Then I called Fury," I say quickly, hoping she understood so I don't have to repeat myself.
She shoots up. "You wh– shit!" She cries out, her eyes squeezing shut and her hands flying to her head, which cause another cry of pain because of the bullet wound in her collarbone. I put one hand on her upper back and pull the arm of her more injured side down slowly, laying her back down. She takes deep breaths but I can tell it isn't really helping. Her hand finds mine and her nails cut into my skin. I don't move. She draws blood but I barely feel it.
"I can't believe you."
"I told you not to call him. I specifically said 'Don't you dare call Fury' but you did anyway! Goddammit Clint! I can do this, we still have a few days and I'll be fine." I open my mouth to speak but she keeps going. "Just throwing away years of work for one little injury. That's beyond stupid. That's idiotic. Razve vy ne znayete , kak eto vazhno ? Ne tolʹko menya, no i dlya vsego mira ? YA budu dvigatʹsya zavtra, i vy razrushili yego ni za chto i –" she lapses into Russian, reminding me how important this mission is to the greater good and claiming she'll be on her feet by tomorrow and I'll have ruined this for nothing.
"Natasha!" I raise my voice over hers. She stops talking, looking at me with hatred in her eyes. She's beautiful when she's angry. "Will you listen to me for two seconds, please? You're not okay. You're sick. Really sick. You haven't had anything to drink since back in Switzerland and food was long before that. You've lost too much blood. You can't even move without it hurting. There is fucking shrapnel in your body and you think you'll be okay to walk tomorrow? Alessa said that without medical attention, she doesn't think you'll make it to the end of the week!" She opens her mouth but I hold up my hand to stop her. I need to get this out, make her see my reasons. My eyes close. It will be easier if I can't see her. "No, don't say anything. I know this mission is important. They're all important in one way or another. But I trust you with my life and you trust me with yours and I'm not going to sit here and watch you die!"
Nat stares at me for the longest time and I stare back at her, so she knows I'm serious about what I said. She doesn't try to argue back. I let my emotions go, laying everything on the table for her to see. Her eyes are full of pain, pain from her injuries; pain from my words. She doesn't even have the strength to put up her walls. But in them I can see truth, that she knows I'm right. She's not stupid, after all. And something else is in there, something I've never seen before and I'm not quite sure what it is. But I know now that she understands. Our partnership is built mostly on looks and our wordless connection. I never have to explain myself to her nor her to me and it's very rare that we communicate by speaking, at least not on missions. I've only ever yelled at her once like that, and she was unconscious on the floor of the palace in Budapest.
She turns away and looks back at the ceiling as the tears start streaming down her face but she has no way to wipe them away. In the nine years I've known her, I've only seen her cry once. And it was three months ago, in the recovery room on the helicarrier, when I woke up from the brainwash, for a reason she still refuses to tell me. Loki. Just the thought of him makes me tense up.
"Tasha, everything is going to be alright," I say softly.
"I'm not crying," she snaps. "I'm sweating through my eyes." That's what she said last time too, quoting a kid show I've caught her watching when she's bored. It's from the episode where the bully loses his goldfish. Absolutely ridiculous. I'm surprised I even remember that.
"I know." I cup her cheek in my hand and run my thumb over her cheekbone. She looks exhausted, the effort it took to yell at me zapping all her energy. "They aren't coming until late tonight, Tasha. You should sleep." She nods. Her eyes close and her breathing slows down.
"Clint?" she says after a while.
"Thank you for caring."
"It's my genuine pleasure." A small smile crosses her face before everything relaxes and she's out. Her tears have stopped but I keep my hand on her face, the movements calming me down. When my arm gets tired, I resort to playing with her curls while I think, careful not to doze off myself. The things we came with are still downstairs. My bow and quiver. The guns and ammo. Her fancy bracelet-cuff things which I've never really understood. All our decoy clothes are back at the hotel in Zermatt. I'll have to catch a train to get back.
I watch the sky go dark through the small window in the room. At what I'm assuming to be around 9:30, Alessa knocks on the door and sticks her head in, letting me know that they are ready. I tell her to take anything small they aren't taking, anything movable they've touched a lot, anything Nat or I have used, and place them in a pile on the couch. The house will have no problem burning but these things need to be gone, I explain when she asks why. She grabs the pile of sheets and clothing scraps and heads back downstairs.
Nat groans as I shake her awake. "Come on, Katniss; time to move," I say, using Stark's newest nickname for her. It works. Her eyes fly open. My hand goes on her back as she slowly sits up. I crouch next to the mattress and slide my arm under her good one, pulling her into a standing position. She keeps her arm around my neck for support, her face possibly paler than before.
"Can you walk?" I ask. I have no problem carrying her to the jet but I don't really want to risk the steep and crooked staircase. She nods but the moment she places pressure on her injure leg, wincing, it's obvious this isn't going to work. I steady her. "I'll just carry you."
"Clint, I can do it." Whether she's trying to convince me or herself, it's not happening.
"No. I'll carry you." She doesn't try to argue back. I slide my other arm under her knees and lift her up, being careful not to smash her into the door frame as we leave the room.
Once downstairs, I set her down to finish preparing for the burning, throwing a few more things into the quite large pile on soaking it in the available pot of oil. Georgi takes off one of the coats he's put on and wraps it around Nat's shoulder. He hands me the bulky bag he shoved all our things in and I swing it on my back. Alessa asks to light it, so I hand her the matches. She takes a deep breath, lights one, and drops it. The cheap fabric of the sheets catches immediately. She lights several more just to be sure. As the flames get larger, I lift Nat up again and lead them out the door. She rests her head on my shoulder, in the crook where it meets my neck. She is lighter than I thought she'd be.
Black smoke curls into the night behind us as we walk. Fire engines bring the small city to life. There's screaming. No one looks back until we reach the river and even then it's a brief pause. If I didn't know what reason it was for, the yellow-orange flames dancing across the sky, licking the clouds with burning tongues, would be beautiful.
"Dobbiamo continuare a muoversi," I say, turning from the sight.
We need to keep moving.
Georgi nods and they follow at a slow pace behind me, breathing heavily and sweating in the multiple layers of clothes they are wearing to save room in the several suitcases they have in their hands and bags across their backs. I am impressed by their ability to let so much go up in flames.
Two quinjets wait for us, dark shapes against the black sky. The cargo doors of both are open, bright light pouring out. Several black clad agents stand in each, guns at the ready. A figure moves towards us from the quinjet on the right and I can make out the dark hair and straight cut bangs of Maria Hill.
"Agent Barton," she says, nodding at me in the usual SHIELD manner of greeting.
"There are fresh clothes, supplies, and information for you inside," she says, motioning to the ship behind her. "And Captain Rogers is waiting for you. He insisted on coming along." She turns to Georgi and Alessa to explain what it going to happen and I head inside. Steve stands when he sees us, a worried look on his face.
"If you ask me how I feel, I will break your fingers," Nat threatens. For a moment her voice is stronger. Her eyes stay closed. A fleeting look of panic crosses Steve's face but it is gone almost as quickly as it comes, replaced with concern. I carefully set her down in one of the seats lining the wall. She bites her lip and pulls the jacket tighter around her with her good arm.
Steve follows me to the other side of the room where a plain black canvas duffle bag sits on another chair. I unzip it halfway, checking the contents. A set of clothes, a passport and some cash in a plastic bag, and a manila colored folder with several sheets of paper. I remove my bow and quiver from the bag we brought and shove them inside, zipping it closed again. "She'll tell you she's fine, but she's not. These are hers. If you lose them, she'll probably kill you." I hand him our bag, which now contains only her belt and bracelets.
He nods, sliding it over his shoulder. We both turn around and watch Natasha. "I'll take care of her until you get back."
"I'm only planning on being gone for five days."
"Owens is pissed at you. And Fury's not too happy either, though who he's mad at I'm not positive."
"Tony intercepted your phone call to Fury earlier. Boredom was his excuse. And I think he misses having the two of you around."
Leave it to Tony Stark to get in everyone else's business.
"He was actually worried, like he cared about someone besides himself and Pepper. It was astonishing show of emotion. JARVIS had to lock the tower to keep him from flying over here."
"I guess that means everyone else knows too?"
"Naturally, yes. Bruce said–" But I don't get to know what Bruce says because Maria clears her throat from the other side of the plane.
"Sorry to interrupt." She's not sorry. "But don't you have somewhere to be, Barton?" I nod. Of course. I'm supposed to be back at the train station, not planning Tony Stark's demise. I will have time to do that later.
A flicker of movement catches my eye. Nat is looking at me now, frowning. I forgot to tell her I was going back, finishing the mission. Confusion is written across her face but it disappears when my eyes meet hers. It's as if I were a book, words in my expression that only she can read.
"Dayte im ad dlya menya," she says.
Give them Hell for me.
"You know I will."
I grab the bag and leave the jet, three pairs of eyes on my back and fighting the urge to turn around. She's going to be fine. I'm almost back to the river when I hear the engines start behind me, first one and then the other. They rise slowly into the air, nearly invisible if I hadn't known they were there. One flies off in the direction of the horizon. The other flies south. They both disappear into the sky. I begin to walk, attempting to focus on the task at hand.
The train ride is long and grueling and try as I might to sleep, I can't. The warehouse is hard to find but easy to destroy, as it is packed with explosives. From my perch in the corner of the rafters of a rundown bar, my arrow goes through Garvov's neck. His body guards are clumsy with their guns. They don't get close to me, but they kill the bartender. Six more arrows and no one is left standing. Blood pools mix until the whole floor is covered in red, not a sight I'm going to forget for a while. I slide out the backdoor as people begin to filter in, attracted by the noise. I check in with SHIELD at a payphone in the next city over, confirming the deaths of both Garvov and Yolan. A successful mission, Fury says. He doesn't sound as angry as before. I spend the night in a hotel, eat a decent meal and sleep as much as I can, and board a plane to New York the next afternoon.
A black hummer waits for me outside the airport, an agent I don't know standing next to it. Dark sunglasses hide his eyes.
"Agent Barton," he says, opening the door for me. I nod as I climb into the car.
He drives me back to HQ. He doesn't speak. He escorts me inside like a child, taking me down to one of the meeting rooms. I hesitate before I go in- I can see Owens at the head of the table, rapidly tapping her pen on the desk to express her impatience and glaring at the door- but the agent doesn't move until I do.
"Sit," she hisses when she sees me. If she's trying to hide the anger in her voice, it doesn't work. "I'm not happy, Barton. Not. Happy. Ask me why I'm not happy."
I'm not sure if this a trick question. "Why are you unhappy?"
"Why are you unhappy, ma'am," she spits back.
"I'm actually quite happy, thank you. And I'm not a ma'am," I say back, letting my emotions get the better of me. My sarcasm is not appreciated. I shouldn't have said it.
Owens stares at me for a second before a completely forced and wicked looking smile crosses her face. "Well aren't you just so funny. I'll be sure to let Fury know." She scribbles something on her paper and my stomach drops. I've just screwed myself over. "As I was saying, I am not happy because you disobeyed my direct orders, Barton. I told you specifically not to contact Fury, yet you did. I told you not to pull Agent Romanoff, but you did. You selfishly put the whole mission in danger."
"She was severely injured, ma'am," I add with disgust. "Did you want me to just let her die?" It takes almost all my willpower to keep from jumping across the table and strangling her. It wouldn't be too hard. She's like a stick. Whatever control I have left goes into keeping my voice in check. If I yell at her, I'm only making it worse.
Her heels click on the floor as she stands and walks closer to me. "You listen close, Barton. It is clear to me that you let your emotions get in the way of your duties. That is not okay with me. That is not okay with the Council. Avenger or not, here you are under my command. Do not think for a second that I will not hesitate to separate you and Agent Romanoff for the rest of your careers. I don't care how well you work together. You will do–" she stops abruptly and stands, putting a fake smile on her face. "D – Director Fury. I wasn't expecting to see you here."
I turn in the seat to see Fury, dressed in his usual all black. He is beyond angry, glaring at Owens with pure hatred in his eye. "I was under the impression that Agent Barton's debriefing was scheduled for tomorrow. He was supposed to report to my office upon his arrival."
"Yes, well I was just having a word–"
"Those were the orders I gave you not ten minutes ago."
"You disobeyed my direct orders."
"Yes, but–" There is no way she is getting out of this one.
"As soon as I am finished speaking to Agent Barton, I would like to see you in my office."
She leaves the room in a huff, her face redder than a tomato.
"Barton." Fury turns to me. I stand and meet his eye.
"Your concern for Agent Romanoff may have saved her life."
"It's my job, sir."
"And due to the successful completion of your assignment, I will overlook the conversation we had on the phone before." I nod. "Your formal debriefing will take place tomorrow. Hit the showers. A car will be downstairs in twenty minutes to drive you back to Stark Tower." He holds the door open for me.
I turn around before I'm fully out of the room, trying to figure out the best way to ask what I want. I can't directly ask about Nat. He is not authorized to release information to me without permission from someone else, whether it is the Council, the doctors, or Nat herself. It would also give away the fact I care. And SHIELD frowns on emotions. Emotions make you weak, which is true. But I believe emotions also can make you stronger, depending on how you channel them into your work. "Sir, why is my debriefing being scheduled for tomorrow?" I ask. There's a reason behind it that I feel will tell me what I want to know.
"I just assumed there was a place you would rather be than stuck here with me." A hint of a smile crosses his face. I thank him as nonchalantly as I can, hiding the relief flooding through my mind.
The locker room is empty when I walk in. A fresh t-shirt and a pair of jeans are folded neatly in my locker. The shower feels great and I scrub at my nails, attempting to remove the last of the dried blood. I don't need to be reminded of that day every time I look at my hands. Another black Hummer waits out front of the building and I refuse the agent's offer to escort me over. I'm not a child. I know how to drive a car. The traffic is slow moving as usual. I don't know why I expected it would be different today. This is New York. New York has slow traffic. Eventually, Stark Tower appears in my line of vision. JARVIS opens the garage door and I park the car. The elevator is waiting for me. We are upstairs in the living quarters in less than ten seconds.
The "apartment" Tony gave me is on the top floor of the building. It's a two story room with a loft for the bed and a balcony and a lot of windows. He had floor-to-ceiling ropes installed that hang everywhere like vines. I've never been entirely sure what drove him to do that, but climbing them is good exercise. There's a living room area with a couch and a TV and a coffee table I have piled with books. The two doors that go off lead to the bathroom, which is large and bright with a shower that can do probably 50 things, and the closet, which is also where I keep my bow and quiver and the dresser that stocks my never ending supply of Hawkeye uniforms. It's a little over the top, but that's Tony.
The first place I go, which is my apartment, is the last place I expect Nat to be, but when I open the door I can see her out on the balcony, sitting on the ledge with her chin resting on the top railing. She has her hair pulled up in a ponytail. The dark blue sweatshirt she has on is too big, falling off her shoulder on one side. It looks familiar. 'Bohemian Rhapsody' by Queen plays on the stereo, letting me know she's in a good mood. The music she listens to is often a sign of that. If she plays Kiss, she's angry. If Nickelback is blasting from the training rooms, she's pissed. And if any sort of rap music is vibrating the building, it's a better option to turn the other way and wait until she comes back to reason.
I drop my bag on the couch and throw my jacket and sunglasses on top of it, walking to the open sliding glass doors and leaning against the frame. If she knows I'm here, she doesn't show it. One of her arms hangs at her side. I can see white bandages, wrapped around her shoulder, where the sweatshirt is sliding down. A cold wind blows across the balcony but she doesn't move. Several curls are knocked from the ponytail and with a sigh Nat tugs the hair band out, crimson waves cascading over her shoulders. I could stand here and watch her for hours, but that would be a waste of my rarely given free time. So I walk up quietly and slide my legs over the edge on her right, taking a seat.
"You could've knocked," she says, not even turning her head.
"You knew I was there," I say.
"Good point. It would have been a waste of energy, having to move your hand in rapid motion hard enough to create a decent sound wave on the glass." Two cars screech to the stop below us, pulling one after the other into the garage of the building. I recognize Tony's red Camaro, his newest project, in the lead. "If you're going to ask how I feel–"
"– I might just throw you off the building."
"Now you sound like you," I say, smiling. She looks at me for two seconds before going back to staring at nothing.
"They had to slice them open again, the bullet holes, because my stupid biologically advanced body had tried to heal with the shrapnel still inside."
"And the fever?"
"Shock-induced, apparently. That can happen now."
There's shouting in the hallway, though I can't make out what is being yelled. Banging on the door follows. Tony's voice.
"How long do you think he'll stand there before leaving?" I ask, eyeing the door.
"He's not going to leave. He'll just pick the lock." She smirks.
Sure enough, after JARVIS refuses to unlock the door, everything goes quiet until there's a barely audible click and it swings open. Tony appears, Bruce and Steve following hesitantly behind him. They look around in awe, having never been up here before. Nat rolls her eyes.
"Do you even know the definition of privacy, Stark?" She snaps as they join us on the balcony.
"Well, unless I'm mistaken, and I rarely am, you broke into his room first, sweetheart," he says. If looks could kill, he'd be dead on the floor right now. "Besides, it's my tower. I don't have to 'break in' anywhere. There's this thing, it's called a master key. It unlocks all the doors." He holds a key ring, with only one key and an Iron Man keychain attached, in front of her face. She smiles sweetly at him before grabbing it from his hand and dropping it over the edge. It lands on the balcony four levels down. Bruce covers his mouth to stifle a laugh.
Tony glares at her. "Could you not do anything awful for like five seconds?"
"It's not in my nature."
"Didn't think so. Anyway. The real reason I'm here, or reasons actually. First, you two," he looks at Bruce and Steve. "Twenty dollars. Pay up." Nat and I exchange amused glances. Whatever bet he made, it clearly had to do with us. "Second, to celebrate Robin Hood's return to the good old USA, Pepper suggested we go out for a late lunch, as she has a meeting and I am not having pasta again." He looks pointedly at Steve, who just shrugs.
"I'm a war machine, not a cook," is his whispered response.
"So I propose we hit the Schwarma joint," Tony continues. A chorus of groans echoes around me. Tony's new obsession with Schwarma is beyond weird and the refusal from everyone else leads me to believe they've eaten it recently. "But, I'm willing to listen to other choices."
"We haven't had pizza in a while," Bruce offers. Steve nods in agreement. Pizza sounds really good.
Nat slowly pulls herself to her feet. She stands leaning more to one side, her right foot barely on the ground; though with her sweatpants being so long it would be hard for anyone else to tell. "As enticing as that sounds, I am going to have to pass on an adventure for now." Tony opens his mouth to argue but Bruce clears his throat, as if a warning. Of what, I don't know.
"Whatever you want, Agent Killjoy," Tony grumbles instead.
I look at Nat, frowning. Something is going on behind her stony expression. She doesn't look at me though, hiding whatever it is under her mask. She is the first one to walk off the balcony, limping slightly. The door shuts behind her before anyone else moves, though Tony and Steve follow in rapid succession, arguing about their bet.
"Did I miss something?" I ask Bruce once we are alone, pulling myself up from the ledge. He feels like the only one who is able to answer my question.
"She's been in a bad mood ever since she got out of the hospital, and she was only in there for a day. Tony convinced Fury that her recovery would be more productive if he let her come home. She hasn't left the tower and since she's not on clearance to train, she just mopes around all day. Tony thinks she's just upset because Fury gave her a mandatory eleven day leave, but I think there's something beside that bothering her." He crosses his arms and looks at me. "Though none of us are suicidal, so we haven't asked. I suspect you know more than we do." He leaves with a reminder of the promised meal and after changing out of my SHIELD t-shirt, I walk after him.
Living up to expectation, Tony manages to drag us to the farthest away and most expensive pizza parlor, claiming it's the best. We sit at a table in the back and stuff our faces. Everyone laughs and jokes and Tony and Steve have an argument over Star Wars, which they watched last night. No one asks me about Switzerland. I try not to think about Nat and what could be going on in her head. She refused pizza. Pizza is her second favorite food, and Tony is paying.
The rain begins as we drive back, the ominous clouds that arrived earlier unleashing their wrath on the city. I'm the first one out of the car when the engine is cut. As much as I enjoy hanging out with the guys, there are times when they push me to the point of insanity. And talking to Nat has taken over my mind, so I get in the elevator and leave them laughing.
Her favorite place to be when it rains is on my balcony, letting the water clear her mind. But as it is probably around 50 degrees outside, she won't be there. Her favorite place to watch the rain without getting wet is the window seat in the alcove that overlooks Tony's second project room. I think Tony is the only other person that knows it's there, though he might have forgotten by this point. I head there now, ducking into the stairwell on the floor where the main living quarters are. The door on the next landing, the one that has 'Tony Stark says Don't Touch the Door' painted on it in bold red letters, which naturally makes you want to touch the door, leads to a smaller, winding staircase. And at the top of that is another door that opens into a small, low ceiled room. One side is open and blocked off only by a thin black railing, which isn't really stopping anyone, and overlooks one of three two story rooms filled wall to wall with tables and machines, mostly junk and models of the finished projects that sit in Tony's actual workshop, one story down. The other side is a window, sections on both sides tinted darker so you can only really see out of the center.
On the low shelf that spans the whole wall, which is covered in thick beige cushions, Nat sits, staring out the window, knees pulled to her chest. This is her safety position, how she sits when she is holding herself together. She has replaced her sweatpants with a pair of black jeans, like she thought about going out but didn't. Besides that her appearance hasn't changed. Hair is still down, same sweatshirt, face set in an unemotional stony mask as she stares out the window.
"Something's up with you," I say, sitting down so I'm facing her, my back against the wall and legs bent slightly. "You refused to come for pizza, Nat. Pizza," I add when she doesn't answer.
Instead of speaking, she tears her eyes away from the rain and stares me down, her gaze unwavering. Her mask breaks and I see her, the Nat I know. She looks exhausted, confused. Conflicted, though from what I'm not sure.
"I didn't dream when I was sick." Her voice is quiet. "I fell asleep and five minutes later, you were waking me up. I haven't slept through the night in three months, not since…"
"Loki." She nods.
I remember the first month I would wake up most nights in a cold sweat from some nightmare where the god of mischief was involved. Most of the time I was hurting people, hurting Nat, watching Coulson die at my hand. And I was never able to fall back asleep, tossing and turning all night until I gave up and would just climb my ropes or wander the building. Two weeks in, there was a knock on my door at 2 a.m. and Nat was standing there, in this same sweatshirt. I recognize it now- I gave it to her to wear nine years ago, as it was my fault her shirt was torn up when I brought her back to SHIELD. We sat on my couch all night, not talking, because she needed someone to keep the nightmares away, and I was that someone. I will always be that someone. I wouldn't trust anyone else to do it for her.
"Not even the pain meds for my ribs helped. Did you know that my body is basically immune to drugs? That antiseptics and sedatives don't work like they should? It's one of the side effects of being able to heal from injuries exceptionally fast. So when I have a surgery to remove five pieces of shrapnel from my leg, and I'm not entirely certain where it came from, it's not pleasant." Her voice has an irritated edge to it but hasn't risen in volume.
"Tasha, what is this about?"
"Why did you hesitate?" I freeze at her words. I had been hoping she would forget about that, but she hasn't. "On the train? You don't hesitate, Clint. But you did."
I take a deep breath. She noticed and she's not going to let it drop until I give her a decent answer. It's time to come clean about what I've been trying to forget, with no avail, for three months. "I was scared."
"Scared of what? Hurting me? Trust me; I didn't really feel the difference of a knife digging in my skin over the searing pain that was already there."
"No. I was scared because of Loki." She raises her eyebrows. "I know, it's ridiculous. He's gone, the tests have proven that. But when he took over, he…he didn't take over my brain like everyone thought. He took over my heart. He took everything and everyone I cared about and turned it to mush, made it my enemy basically." I pause, thinking how to best explain to her what I need to.
"That has no correlation to–"
"Nat, let me finish. So there we were, hiding in the bathroom of a train. You were hurt, I was freaking out, and you trusted me to play hide and seek with a bullet in your chest. That was the kind of situation Loki would have used against me. I kept thinking he would come back in that moment and…and make me kill you." I look away from her intense gaze. The rain is a really calming thing to look. Black umbrellas dart across the street. A small figure, probably a kid, runs out from under an awning and jumps in a puddle. A woman grabs his arm and pulls him away.
She uncurls from her position. Her hand on my mine is soft and warm. "He's gone, Clint. He's gone and he's not coming back. Not on my watch." Her words are oddly comforting. "Look at me," she says, so I do. She is frowning, but it's not a bad frown, and her green eyes are wide and serious. "I trust you. You trust me. Nothing and no one will ever change that. We aren't normal people, Clint. We've been to Hell and back and somehow we manage to go about our lives. There've been times when I feel like I'm slipping away and you bring me back, the only thing tethering me to sanity. The world is not on our shoulders. We have to focus only on what we can control. We don't need Steve or Bruce or Tony because we have each other and that's all that matters."
"We don't have to suffer alone," I say. She nods and squeezes my hand. "Is that all that was wrong?"
"You were worried about me?"
"Exactly." She bites her lip like she wants to add something else.
I raise my eyebrows at her. "And?"
"Well, since we are being all honest here," she mutters. "I was also a bit worried you'd be mad at me, for yelling at you back in the safe house because you called Fury and all. I was being a bit of an ass and you were just doing your job."
"Nat, I'm not mad." The idea of me ever being mad at her is so ridiculous I start to laugh. And even though it wasn't that funny, she starts to laugh too. I guess we were just in the need of a happy moment. The smile I see is the first one in a while, lighting up her whole face and stretching all the way to her eyes. While she's beautiful when she's angry, nothing beats that smile. "Unless you suddenly turn into Stark over night, I don't think I could ever be mad at you," I say when we finally calm down enough to talk. She smiles again, but it is broken by a yawn.
"Well, I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon," she says, yawning again. I think I underestimated how tired she is.
"Tasha, if you want to sleep," I say softly, tugging gently on her arm and pulling her into me. She gives in and crawls onto my lap, my front against her side. "I promise I'll keep the nightmares away." She nods, collapsing into me, her head on my chest. I wrap my arms around her, a protective barrier against the demons that plague her mind.
"Clint?" She says, struggling to keep her eyes open.
"Can you tell me a story…about the circus?" She yawns again. I think for a second before I settle on one from when I was younger. The circus was definitely one of the happier periods of my life, at least at first. I plunge into a tale beginning in Boston, bringing a juggler, striped tents, and flaming arrows into the mix. Before long I'm so far off track, somehow getting on the subject of lions though I don't remember exactly how, but it doesn't matter because Nat is already asleep.
Her body is warm against mine and I can feel her muscles relax and contract with every breath. I close my eyes and let my mind wander and somehow I find it repeating Agent Bitchface's words to me, telling me I let my emotions get in the way of my work. But in a profession like ours, emotions can sometimes be the difference between life and death, between an endless amount of sleepless nights and having a reason to get up in the morning.
Without Nat, I would be a hollow body, no soul left. Damned to go about my life in mundane routine, not caring at all. But she's my lifeline. She holds me to the world when I start to slip away. My emotions keep her alive and hers do the same, if not more, for me.
At this point, no matter how much Owens tries, Nat and I can't be separated, not really. I belong to her. She belongs to me. And I'd be perfectly content to never have to move from this window seat ever again, because the girl, with her crimson curls and jade green eyes and fiery personality, asleep on top of me is all I really need.
An Epilogue of Sorts: 24 Days Later
The icy mountain air whips around us in another gust of wind. The rope around her waist has already been knotted several times and she looks up at me as she tightens the last one, that adrenaline-fueled gleam in her eye that I love. She looks backwards over her shoulder one last time, at the thirty foot drop to the barely visible ledge I am lowering her onto, where the man we have been tracking for two days sleeps a little farther back in the cave like structure, enclosed in a high tech tent. It's made of some sort of heat reflecting material allowing him to be comfortable in the slightly above freezing temperatures. Not that our tent is any less advanced. It is a STARK product, after all. Tony has a tendency to go over the top. But inside that tent, probably in some protected case, is the file folder that brought us out here.
I check my own ropes, which attach me to a tree forty feet behind us. The look she gives me, accompanied with a slight smile, is reassuring.
It says she trusts me.
It says I can do this.
It says she knows I won't let her go.
It says she's ready.
It says she's cold and wants to get this over with so we can go home to the million fireplaces of Stark Tower and hot chocolate Steve promised her on our return.
But it does little to calm to nerves inside me. I would rather not be entrusted with her life at the moment. One slip and she goes plummeting to her death. But I move those thoughts to the back of my mind, wrap her rope around my wrists and secure it in my grasp, and inch closer to her until the one behind me is pulled taut. I have been entrusted with her life for a very long time and there is no way in Hell I would let anyone else hold this rope. I give her a nod, my signal for go. She smiles again and steps backwards so one foot is off the edge, caught up in the rush of the moment. In a show-off fashion, she holds her arms wide and leans, walking down until there is no more rock for her feet to reach. The rope slips over the edge as I release more and more, waiting for her to signal for me to stop.
The whistle is sharp and long, unnoticeable in the wind if I wasn't listening for it. I hold the rope tight and wait. It moves with her, straining as she pulls farther into the cave. Everything is quiet for a while and I stand still, my knuckles turning white from my grip on the rope.
There is a tug. One, two, three. Three tugs means she needs more rope. I look down at what is left, probably about two feet and what's wrapped around my wrist. The rope goes slack as I give her what I can force myself to spare, leaving only two loops on my wrist instead of the three I had earlier. It makes me uncomfortable, to have so little to hold.
I can't hear her, but the rope slides along the edge as she walks back and forth. I keep it in the bottom of my vision as my eyes scan the surrounding mountain and the one on the opposite side. Nothing moves but grass in the wind. As I watch, I count. She gets a maximum of seven minutes before I pull on the rope and she responds with either one or two tugs, either meaning she's ready or she needs another minute respectively. Seven minutes. 420 seconds.
Ninety-eight one-thousand. Ninety-nine one-thousand.
I'm at 230 when I see it, the rocks tumbling down the mountainside diagonally to my right. They don't make a noise and no dust is present but I spot them nonetheless. A huge rock sits in front of what would have been their previous position. It's light grey and jagged on one edge, where there is a darker portion that I guess is on the back.
Except it moves. Just a twitch in the next gust of wind, but enough. The fabric of the jacket ripples before it disappears entirely behind the rock. This can't be good. People never are. Especially clumsy people hiding behind rocks who have a clear line of sight to the ledge below me, where Nat and this man are.
He doesn't appear again from behind the rock but I'm still watching it when I hear the click. It's quiet from over here, though I'm guessing louder on the other side. Strange clicking noises are worse than suspicious people. Then there's a crack. A much louder crack, coming from below me, followed by several smaller cracks. I pull on the rope, trying to get more in my grasp but it's too tight. Then he moves, sprinting out from behind the rock into the high grass just beyond and disappearing. My stomach drops and panic surges through me. My fingers fly over the knots around my waist, undoing them. I have to get closer to the edge, closer to her, if I'm going to be able to pull her up.
It explodes in a dark cloud of black dust and fire and rocks and she screams. It chills my blood. I drop to the ground before the force can throw me backwards, temporarily blinded by the smoke and focusing on the rope in my hand, so tight around my wrists it's hurting. My ears are ringing. The moment I can see, I sit up and begin to pull, hand over hand. She's silent and I'm praying it's not for reasons I don't want to think about. I already almost lost her once this year. It's not happening again.
The rope goes slack and I hear her just barely, cursing. My arms feel as though they are on fire. Her fingers slide into my view, gripping the top of the cliff.
"I'm on the rock," she says. Her voice cracks slightly. "Clint?"
"Hang on, I'm coming." I drop the rope quickly and move as close to the edge as I can, laying down and reaching my hand over for her. Her hand closes around my wrist and I pull with all the energy I have. She gets her other arm up and her leg and then she's all there, safely on the ground, and I can breathe again. She stands slowly and I stand with her. She brushes the dust from her uniform and tightens her ponytail. Her eyes are wide when she finally turns to me. Blood drips from a collection of scrapes on her forehead. The shoulder of her uniform is torn up and bloody. Her hands are quivering.
One look and I know she's freaking out on the inside so I don't hesitate to pull her into me, her face buried in my shoulder and her hands clutching my shirt as if her life depends on it. The slight tremble from her hands has spread and her whole body shakes. I just hold her tighter, one arm around her back and a hand on the back of her head.
"It is okay, Nat," I whisper. "Everything's okay. You're okay."
She doesn't respond right away, but I didn't expect her too. When she speaks, her voice is quiet. "There was a split second there, when I heard it, and I thought I–"
"Everything's okay," I repeat, interrupting her. She doesn't need to think about that and I don't want to either. What could have happened and what did are what separate reality from my wandering mind, from the nightmares I'm going to be having tonight. I probably just won't sleep. "You're okay, Nat. You're okay."
I continue to repeat myself until her shaking subsides a bit. I can feel her breathing slow until it matches mine.
"It's okay. Everything's okay," I say again. "I got you."
She lifts her head for a second and her jade green eyes bore into mine. But they don't search for truth to my words like they normally would, because the truth was laid out clear for the entire world to see if it wished, unprotected. I do have her. I will always have her, no matter what.
Her hands let go of my shirt and slide under my arms, grabbing my shoulders from behind. We don't move. The wind blows around us, cold and sharp, but I don't care. The only thing that matters is that she's still here, that there are two black clad figures standing against the sky instead of one.