This is a sequel to my previous story, Two for the Show, so it takes place in an Alternate Universe from the Marvel Avenger's movie.
Contains violence, some bad language, and explicit sex in the second chapter.
Title and chapter headers are taken from Sarah Mclachlan's Song for a Winter's Night; yes, it's kind of sappy and sentimental, but Valentine's Day is almost upon us, so I'm in the mood for a little sap. Mixed with some whump, of course, because it's Clint and Natasha and because I do love whumping my favorites.
He has no difficulty picking her out of the crowd, despite distance and darkness and the lacy screen of evergreen branches, and he tracks her swirling progress around the room even as he's scanning the surrounding grounds and monitoring the chatter over his earpiece. Taller and broader bodies momentarily block her from his sight, but each time she dips back into view, a subdued figure sheathed in plain black but for the blaze of her hair. He can't see her expression—the distance is a bit too great for that sort of detail without a scope—but he knows from the briefing packet that she's tailored it to a bashful innocence and that she's peering up at her partner through her eyelashes in a manner calculated to make him feel like a titan.
"We have movement," Jacobs' voice murmurs over the comm. "Target's left the bar, he's… yes, he's taking the bait. He's incoming to our hook. Stand by. Shrike, make ready to acquire target."
"Yes, sir," Clint murmurs back through gritted teeth. He doesn't need to be spoon-fed every detail, but it's useless to say so—Jacobs is a precise and detail-oriented agent insistent on keeping tabs on every action through a running commentary.
You mean control freak, Clint can picture Natasha saying coolly, and he lets a smirk momentarily twist his lip in silent agreement. Still, he settles deeper against the broad tree limb he's stretched prone on, breathing deeply and minutely adjusting his position, bringing his bow up a fraction in readiness.
And below him the arms dealer they've been chasing across three continents steps up to Natasha and her dance partner, who relinquishes her with a short bow and a quick retreat.
Natasha Romanov sinks gracefully into her new partner's arms and is spun off across the gleaming marble floor, appearing and disappearing in the tall, arched windows of the ballroom as Clint tracks them from his faraway perch.
He counts three songs, judging by the ebb and flow of guests on the dance floor, before the target makes his move. They take leave of the dance floor, the target's hand in a proprietary grip on Natasha's elbow, her hair a vibrant flag even in the glittering wealth of diamonds and sequins and crystal that fill the ballroom.
"…the move," Jacobs is saying, an edge of hysteria to his voice. "Say again, Target and Hook are on the move. Approaching egress; Shrike, on alert! Your target is approaching… Passing egress! They're passing the door… Fishhook, what are you doing? Agreed-upon exit is behind you now! Where are you going?"
Shut up and let her work, Clint grinds out silently. He breathes in, out, and waits, tuning out Jacobs' blithering and listening instead to the night sounds—splashing water, faint music, wind moving through evergreen branches. He breathes, and waits, and a moment later two figures appear on the mezzanine, drifting alongside the stone balustrade and silhouetted against the ballroom windows.
"…another door," Jacobs raps out. "Target is visible. Shrike, acquire the target! Do you copy? Acquire the target and acknowledge."
"Yes, sir. Target acquired." Too much chatter. Ignore the asshole, Clint thinks, and sets his sights on the man guiding Natasha with a hand pressed to her lower back around the outdoor terrace to a small, secluded balcony overlooking the fountain garden.
They stand at the balustrade for several moments, Natasha a slim, still shadow against the brightly lit windows, the target more restless, swaying slightly beside her, his hands rising to gesture out over the surrounding area. Clint can imagine him boasting, of his palatial house and grounds and the unimaginable wealth that allows such privilege, words to reel in the innocent young thing he's picked as his next conquest.
It's almost funny, then, that the suave asshole is unknowingly snared in a web of Natasha's weaving.
The target pushes in close to Natasha then, angling to trap her between his body and the stone railing. Ice seizes Clint's guts.
He breathes, in, out, ignores Jacobs' shrill pleas to "Fire! Goddammit, Shrike, take the shot already!", tries to ignore the sick feeling poisoning his belly as Natasha tilts her face to the target's.
Clint waits until Natasha lifts one hand and rests it delicately on the target's sleeve.
And at their private, pre-arranged signal, he releases the arrow.
He doesn't watch it find its mark; he's busy watching Natasha twirl gracefully to the side as if she's still dancing, so not a drop of blood spatters her skin or hair.
Natasha stands in the center of the staging room, arms outstretched, as the tech assistant strips her of artfully concealed hardware. He unthreads the last comm wire from her hair, prompting a full-body shiver from Natasha. She turns and gives him her back.
"Unzip me, would you?"
The tech slides the zipper down without reaction, then goes back to stowing the comm and recording gear. Mere minutes later Natasha's in her street clothes, one shiv tucked in her boot and another strapped to her arm, exiting the hotel to climb into the back seat of a massive SUV.
Barton's already in the other seat, his bowcase resting against his knee. He gives her a quick once-over as she slips into the car, raises his eyebrows at her. She tips a tiny nod at him – Yes, I'm okay – and quirks one eyebrow at him in return—You?
He nods, but there's a muscle knotted in his jaw that means he's gritting his teeth. Either he's stewing over something or the driver's been making Robin Hood jokes again.
They drive, fast, through the city away from the late arms dealer's estate and out into the countryside on the other side. Natasha sways with the motion, upright in the seat and unable to sink back and relax.
The phantom scent of licorice chases through her nasal passages.
There's a plane waiting at a secluded airfield; she and Barton are the last of the insertion team to board, and as soon as they do so the plane taxis down the airstrip and takes flight.
Jacobs joins them once they're in the air; he wants to spend the trip home talking. He's annoyed that Natasha let the target steer her out a different door than was planned, and that Clint waited so long to take his shot.
"The point of using an archer"—and there's an undercurrent of derision in the word—"is that the killshot is silent so you can take it immediately upon acquiring the target! You don't have to wait until he moves out of earshot!"
"Yes, sir," Barton says flatly, and Natasha can tell he's in no mood to explain—again—why he waits.
Why, when he has a spotter and tech backup that give him a precise firing window, he waits for Natasha's virtually invisible signal.
I trust her read on the sitrep above anyone else's, she'd heard him argue, more than once.
The other agents—older, more experienced—don't like that at all.
"Yes, sir," Barton is saying again.
Natasha's missed what he's responding to, but it has to be just more of Jacobs' micro-managing. She yawns gustily and unhooks two sets of earbuds from the armrest, passing one to Barton. "I need to decompress," she says pointedly. "You, Barton?"
"Yeah." He fits his set to his ears, effectively dismissing Jacobs. "Thanks."
Natasha's too wired for music, and the white noise track just sets her teeth on edge. She flicks off the audio, leaving the buds in her ears for camouflage.
Licorice coats the back of her throat.
"Be a good girl," Uncle Alex had wheedled. "He just wants a cuddle."
"He doesn't just!" Little Natasha had protested, and
"I know," Uncle Alex said. "But I won't let him. Now be a good girl for me."
Uncle Alexei had taken that mark for his money, not his life. And it was a pity, because by the end of that con Natasha had wished for nothing more than that the mark had ended up with a knife between his ribs.
The missions—like this one—where the targets get to touch Natasha are the hardest. Memories rise in a poisonous seep she can't wait to wash off.
Her eyes snap open. She's twisted and slumped in her seat, and now she twitches upright with irritation. Her skin feels greasy with the remembered press of hands and she itches, everywhere.
She wants a shower. Hot water. Exfoliating scrub. And the tart scent of grapefruit shampoo to fill her nose.
Barton pops the buds from his ears. He pats his shoulder. "You want me to prop you up while you take a nap?" he asks, indicating he'll fold back the armrest between them.
The thought of transferring the invisible handprints to Clint makes Natasha's scalp crawl. She shakes her head. "No! No, I just need… to get comfortable, and I'll be fine." She flounces in her seat, cranking the seatback down a few notches and stretching out. Hands folded on her stomach, she closes her eyes.
And misses the hurt that spasms across Clint's face before he puts the earbuds back in and turns his face to the dark window.
There's barely any turnaround before they spirit Natasha off to Europe, where she spends weeks at a summit, reading and reporting on the subtleties beneath the formal words. She finally arrives back at the Division to find that she and Barton have missed each other by mere hours—he'd shipped out to Hong Kong at the crack of dawn the morning of her arrival.
"We work better together," they've both insisted to Krippand, more than once.
"I know," is the handler's bland reply. "That's why you need to learn to play well with others. We're all partners here at the Division."
It's not that Natasha can't work with other partners. It's simply that she doesn't want to.
But if it isn't 'team bonding exercises' keeping her from accompanying Barton and his ever-present bow into the field, it's a new cultural immersion program. Or boring assignments where she has to flatter and flirt while Barton gets to hang from a cliff face and fire arrows at impossible targets. Or else Barton's at one end of the country fine-tuning targets at a training center while she's at the other end, testing prototype body armor.
Together they could be a force to be reckoned with, if only they were paired up more often.
Maybe that's why the Division works so diligently to keep them apart.
It's another four months before Clint gets to work with Natasha again—sixteen weeks of passing each other coming and going, and the brief, coded messages they use to keep tabs on each other.
"Bosnia—an in and out. You?"
"Moscow. Two weeks, max. Were you limping?"
"Fell through a shed roof in Miami, scraped up my shins. You looked beat at that debriefing."
"Language immersion for the next op. I'll bring you back some Green Tea Kit-Kats."
The mission is straightforward, "basic and low-key", Krippand tells the team. With the cover story of setting up a stateside distribution operation, Lind will be initiating contact with a Central American drug lord, while Natasha poses as his trophy wife. A tech team will record evidence while Clint keeps watch from afar.
"Observation only," Krippand says firmly. "This early in set-up there's no reason to puncture anyone unless things go completely pear-shaped."
So of course things go pear-shaped the first evening they're in-country.
Clint's still doing equipment checks in the staging room when the comm behind him pops. "Black Humvee, tinted windows, military antenna mount, coming up on our six," Natasha says quietly.
Mackie has her feet on the fake-rattan desk and a guava pastry balanced on her stomach. "Problem?" she asks around her sticky mouthful.
"Maybe," Natasha starts, only for her voice to be overridden by Lind's.
"None anticipated," he says, impatience threading his tone. "We're just being followed from the restaurant. We knew we'd be under surveillance from the minute we passed Customs."
Clint starts to lay his bow on the coffee table, thinks better of it and slings it onto his back, and crosses to the desk. "Ma'am, Romanov's take on the situation is usually accurate…"
"Quiet." Mackie rolls upright. "Lind?"
"We're good. They parked behind the restaurant, are just tracking us back to our hotel."
"No plates," Natasha breaks in, low. "Black matte wheel rims, Wrangler Mud Terrain tires, treads muddied, two nicks in the hood paint..."
"There's no problem here. Drop it, Romanov, and smile."
"…shallow dent above the windshield…"
"We're five blocks from the hotel. We're fine."
Mackie tugs the laptop closer and taps a key, bringing up the tracking. "I see you. You're clear except for the tail. Proceed normally."
"Quiet. Everyone with an invitation to Friday's soiree is being watched. It's the target's SOP."
Clint snatches up his quiver without taking his eyes from the onscreen map. A pair of dots inch along the grid of streets, and he scans the layout, the location of the room he's waiting in and the hotel Natasha and her "husband" are heading towards, the distance between the two. He flicks his own comm. "I can be above you on lookout in three minutes."
"Barton, stand down. Lind says it's under control."
Noise cascades over the comm just then—a scratch of static, Lind's startled huff of breath followed by a curse, Natasha's quiet voice beneath a roar of engine. "They've moved on us. They're pulling up fast…" Sharp commands in Spanish drown her out, a vehicle door slams, and the comms cut off.
On the screen, the agents' locator signals blink out.
By the time Clint drops into position on a roof overlooking the villa, Natasha has been held by enemy hands for just over 24 hours.
He trips his comm while rapidly breaking out his bow. "Do we know which room?"
Mackie is groundside, in a nearby garage behind hastily-reinforced cement-block walls. "Best estimate, the one behind the main entry—looks to be a sunken den or study. We think the french doors on the north wall open to that parlor."
Clint scoots sideways to pan across the indicated doors with his scope. "Negative. That room's empty, not sunken, and has a single open archway leading to… a dining room, looks like."
"Then the study must be an interior room with no direct outside access. Shit."
"Dunn in position. Romanov and Lind's main comms are inactive, but I'm close enough now to pick up Romanov's backup wire."
"Patch it through."
"No one is coming for you."
Cold sweat springs out down Clint's back despite the oppressive heat. Relief—she's alive to be taunted; and rage—she's a prisoner being taunted—ricochet around his head. He eases down the roof on his belly, sizing up what he can see of the villa below him.
"You are only causing yourself more pain." The voice coming over the comm is dripping with disdain. There's a crack of flesh being struck and Clint snarls silently. "Tell us who you work for and Hector here will give you water, a cold facecloth, even something to eat." There's another, louder, crack. "I will have no reason to hit you further."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Natasha whimpers. "I told you, Bobby owns his own business, he doesn't work for anyone. I used to be his secretary, but I quit when we got married so I don't work for anyone. We're just here to look at crafts for import."
"You think I am stupid? You were wired!"
"Bobby likes to play games!" Natasha's voice has gone squeaky and desperate, and Clint has to remind himself that it's part of an act. "He likes spy movies, and then we… we…" Her voice drops in shame. "We roleplay," she sobs. "There's a website, for spy gear. He likes me to dress up."
"He likes nothing any longer." There's a harsh scrunching sound and the audio weakens. Faintly Natasha screams, there's scrabbling—feet seeking purchase on a bare floor—and then a clatter. The audio clears. "You don't like your hair pulled, eh? Well, you tell me what I ask, and I don't pull your hair anymore. Pick her up," the voice adds sharply.
Something scrapes, and clacks; eyes closed, jaw clenched, Clint reads the clues in the sounds—Natasha's bound to a chair; Rodriguez grabbed her hair, where the backup comm, thin as a hair itself, is hidden; she and the chair were wrenched to the floor; and then she was set upright once more. He taps his own comm.
"Mackie, I can hook a line to the chimney and access the roof."
"Quiet. I want to hear this," Mackie replies.
"You killed him? You killed Bobby? But why?" Natasha cries in the background.
"Mackie, I can get inside ASAP…"
"She can take care of herself, and you know it. Now maintain radio silence, Barton!"
Clint forces back the words that want to erupt from him. He does know it, dammit.
It doesn't mean he has to like it.
"A man seeking to join my network, who then shows up in my town wearing surveillance wires, is a man who is dead," Rodriguez sneers over the comm.
"He wanted to import pottery!" Natasha wails. "Wood carvings! Woven purses!"
"My dear child, are you that stupid, or do you think I am? Your husband was posing as a drug dealer, and sought to set up a connection to my network. I want to know who put him up to it."
"Got him!" Mackie says with grim satisfaction. "Barton, I'm sending the teams in now. You'll stay on point and provide backup sharpshooting to the big guns only. Team Alpha, Team Charlie, move in front and west. Team Bravo, cover the back alley…"
Screw that, Clint thinks, and he rolls upright while reaching over his back to his quiver. He draws out a specialized bolt; one swift stride brings him to the edge of the roof. Only a faint chunk betrays the grappling hooks sinking in to the broad stone chimney on the adjacent roof.
Short, sharp commands snap back and forth over the comm; those he ignores. Beneath them is the shriller, more frantic sound of Natasha protesting, denying… and drawing further admissions out of Rodriguez even as she's crying. Those sounds he files away for deferred concern, for after he gains access to the villa.
He turns, affixing the grappling line to the roof he's standing on with one shot of a pressurized bolt. The line slants slightly downward, toward the villa; he'll just barely be able to clear the perimeter wall and the motion detectors ranged along the top of it.
'Just barely' is not going to be a problem for him, though.
Clint swings his bow around to his back, seizes the line with both hands and hooks one ankle around it, and hand-over-hands his way swiftly across the street, past the wall and over the interior courtyard. He lands lightly on rounded clay tiles, softening his steps so his boot soles don't clatter as he crosses the roof. His gaze cuts back and forth, estimating his position from the scant intel Mackie dug up on the villa's layout and his own brief glimpses through windows and doors.
Here. A room in the center of the villa, behind both the expanse of the grand entry hall and the protective bulk of the stone chimney… should be beneath his feet here. Clint drops to his knees and jams the blade of his largest knife beneath a clay roof tile. A quick, hard wrench cracks it in half; he pushes the pieces aside and starts on another, and another. In seconds he has a small area cleared of tiles, exposing the wood sheathing beneath.
A quiet back-and-forth is still coming over the comm, as the teams inch their way into position. Clint peels an explosive button out of its packet and nearly drops it as Rodriguez abruptly ceases berating Natasha.
"She's either very stupid or very tightlipped. Whichever it is, this approach is taking too long." There's a pause, during which Clint sticks the button to the exposed subroof and retreats to the relative safety of the chimney. "She has very pretty legs. Shoot her feet off them at the ankles."
"Mackie?" Clint snarls, his heart racing until it threatens to choke him.
"Hold, Barton!" Mackie snaps back, and "Preparing to breach the wall in fifteen," Alpha-One says. "Fourteen, thirteen…"
Too long, Clint thinks distantly. Natasha will be maimed and bleeding out before a single one of them clears the front door. He triggers the button.
The resulting explosive pop sounds deafening after the hushed noises of the operation, but actually is controlled and quite small. Most of its force is projected downward, blasting through the roof instead of blowing it apart or skyward. The flames and splinters are still geysering up as Clint pushes off the chimney, strides hard across the roof to the smoking hole, and leaps.
He crashes through the splintered sheathing, and then the plaster of a vaulted ceiling below it. Something scrapes along his back—a wall, he realizes, and is fleetingly grateful he didn't jump six inches to the left, or he'd have ended up straddling wall studs instead of… crashing a good twelve feet through open space to the hard tile floor of Rodriguez's study.
His feet hit first, knees bending to absorb the shock, followed by his hip and shoulder. The impact jars the breath from Clint's lungs, but he rolls upright anyway, dragging his bow from his back into readiness. He takes in the room in a sweeping glance.
Unadorned plaster walls, tile floor, single door opposite the wall-spanning fireplace. Sparse furniture—a sculpture in one corner, a table serving as a desk, a plush wingbacked chair drawn up to it, and a second, occupied chair in the center of the floor. Three men—one short, rotund, ducking aside by the hearth—a second, still in crouched motion to cover the first—and a third, standing tall and unflinching despite debris raining around him, turning from a seated Natasha, her hair disheveled and her mouth a red smear. The third man's arm is outstretched, a heavy squared-off handgun swinging from its mark on one of Natasha's bare feet to the intruder suddenly within their midst.
Third man's the immediate threat to be neutralized. Clint's bow is already up, aimed. He's a hairs-breadth from releasing a shot when an almighty punch slams into him beneath his upraised arms.
Clint has a brief, confused glimpse of Natasha doing something powerful and flexible with her bound body as the room tumbles around him. Then the tile floor cracks him in the side of the head, and everything goes black.
To be continued...