The end of the road. This was not an easy story to write, for many reasons. I would like to thank all those of you who took the time to leave favourite/follow pings, PMs or reviews; they were more greatly appreciated than you can possibly fathom. Special hugs are due to Kylen for test-driving this chapter.
13. Where Have You Been?
Coulson enters the briefing room, trailing three analysts. One by one, more agents file in; all but the analysts are headed for the back row, reserved for those who have no direct role in a briefing and ostensibly are just there to soak up lessons learned. The room fills up quickly.
It's not uncommon to get such numbers for a Delta Team mission; the fascination at S.H.I.E.L.D. with all things Barton and Romanoff borders on the fannish (although Phil knows he is hardly one to talk, given what he just dropped on a Captain America trading card). Even with that, though, the number of walk-ins is unusual; apparently, news out of Montana spread quickly, and everyone wants to hear just what caused Barton to go off the rails so badly.
Even Sitwell is here, his bald head reflecting the neon light. He and Evans probably have a bet going on just how much trouble Hawkeye's going to be in this time. (Their usual practice is to offer him a post-payout cut in the form of a few beers.) Probably not a good idea this time; Phil wonders idly whether he should warn them.
Barton is already in the room, while Romanoff is nowhere in sight. The team seems … unusually out of synch. They'd hardly talked during retrieval, staring out of the QuinJet's windows on opposing sides, as if mining the clouds for answers to unspoken questions. The only time Barton opened his mouth was to inquire about the status of the two civilians they'd brought out with them, and to swear at the medic who put eight stitches in his scalp.
And now, the archer is pacing up and down the briefing room like a caged tiger. Not surprising, perhaps: Last time Phil looked Fury was on a tear, and Agent Barton was at the epicenter of his wrath. Fact is, the body count in Montana is eight more than Fury had planned for. Maybe that's what's drawing the unusual crowd, people enjoying the spectacle of a thermonuclear explosion, not directed at them?
The three analysts are trying their best to stay out of Barton's way as they squeeze past him, giving him sideways glances that range from barely concealed fear (Wang) and admiration bordering on the fan-girlish (Patel), to something that can only be described as horrified respect (Schmidt). Eventually, they all manage to take their seats at the end of the table; they have brought their own specialized weaponry – encrypted USB sticks.
While they're fiddling with the equipment, Romanoff sweeps into the room, just ahead of Hill.
"Director Fury is delayed," Hill says in that clipped way of hers. "He asked us to start without him. I'll summarize for him later."
She nods to Romanoff.
"Agent, please proceed."
Barton stops pacing, although his focus seems to be his fingernails. Phil, for once, can't even tell whether he's listening. Barton's face has gone as still as his body, and as hard to read.
With the sparest, briskest of strokes, Romanoff outlines the mission - from its original parameters, infiltration and on-the-ground observations, to Clint's disappearance, her decision to break cover and search for him, and the tech she used to obtain Malone's data base. She doesn't skip a beat as she includes her partner's side of the story; everyone knows Hawkeye hates public speaking. Nine times out of ten he just nods along to her recitation of facts. Not today.
"… And then I took the two civilians to the vehicle, while Agent Barton kept us free from hostile engagement. We requested medevac and headed towards the Cut Bank airfield, stopping at a General Store en route for water and food," she concludes her narration. "There was no pursuit."
The long, silent glance Barton shoots her during the rather dry description of his … activities, and the implication of just why Malone's gang may not have had the nerve to go after them, is not lost on Phil. Neither is the palpable disappointment of people who'd been expecting something a lot more colourful. (Two of the junior agents had been whistling the Home Hardware jingle when he and Barton walked by earlier that day. Phil had busted their chops, of course, but the walls at S.H.I.E.L.D. have both ears and recording devices, and that particular genie will likely remain forever uncorked.)
Hill ignores it all and gives the nod to the analysts. It's been twenty or so hours since Romanoff brought back the data file and the FBI descended on the compound, and there is information Delta Team is not aware of; even Barton shows interest underneath his scowl.
Wang confirms what they had suspected: that Malone and his gang had, in fact, created their optimistic little cult to recruit what amounted to volunteer sex workers, from among women desperate to escape difficult life situations. The clear benefit of this approach to exploitation was to provide an almost foolproof get-out-of-jail-free card for its operators, based either on the victims' express consent, or on the fact that by the time lawyers would finish arguing about consent obtained under false pretenses, Malone would be celebrating his acquittal on the grounds of reasonable doubt. Compound life during the early stages also provided a second source of income, pay-per-view videos.
Women who resisted Malone's schemes early were simply called out as 'insufficiently devout' and asked to leave the compound. (The records in the data file were surprisingly comprehensive.) The gang triaged well; very few apparently left before the probationary period was up, and those who did were none the wiser as to what the "Prophet's love" consisted of in practice.
"Those who tried to run after they realized they'd be pimped out, disappeared. They were probably killed – but, based on what we learned from the two survivors, not until after Malone offered them to a … very specialized clientele for a period of time. We suspect the new video studio they were setting up may have been part of that, and worse."
Wang's voice cracks a little as she continues.
"It's very fortunate that … we were able to disrupt their operations before they got there."
The remark earns her a stern gaze from Hill – editorial comments are usually frowned upon in debriefs – but the Deputy doesn't say anything. Schmidt, the law enforcement liaison, takes up the thread.
"The fact that Holly MacArthur and LaTora Morrison came out of that basement alive provided us with the basis for the initial round of arrest warrants. We don't know if there were others; they may have been the first. Malone seemed to be getting more reckless."
"But did you find any actual evidence of brainwashing in all of this?" Carter asks the question that is on many people's lips.
Patel, the sociologist, shrugs. "Brainwashing can be in the eye of the beholder," she says, ignoring the flash of … something in Romanoff's eyes.
"The cult seems to have largely relied on what had been done to these women's minds before they ever got there," she adds. "These were people who'd been led to believe they weren't worth anything, that their lives weren't worth anything. They were given an important role in the cult, and a new identity that they told themselves was better. That's why so few of them ever complained."
"And why it couldn't have worked on them," Benson whispers, just a fraction too loud in a sudden moment of silence. "They both think they're pretty hot shit."
Barton's hearing isn't anywhere nearly as good as his eyesight, or else he has chosen to ignore the remark; Romanoff, however, fixes the offender with a carefully calibrated icy glare. Phil makes a mental note to make a small adjustment to the sparring schedule: Let Benson figure out whether Black Widow is as good as he thinks she thinks she is.
Patel wraps up as if she hadn't been interrupted.
"Some of the women interviewed so far refuse to believe that they've been living a lie. All are receiving counseling, and reintegration assistance if they request."
Schmidt, the man from law enforcement liaison, clears his throat for the final stretch.
"Arrests have been made in eleven states and two Canadian provinces. Calgary was the hub for onward trafficking, including the Persian Gulf. Interpol's I-24/7 system is engaged, Red Notices are out on twenty-seven suspects. We are also investigating the people who paid for the various … services Malone's outfit provided, and have removed all pay-per-view video footage from the internet."
"What I don't get," Miyazaki says when Q&A formally starts, "is why they put all this planning into the sex trade. I mean, you set up a religion like that, go to all that effort to create this kind of smokescreen, why not go for … oh, I dunno. World domination?"
Hill gives him a measured look. "Read your criminology textbooks again, Agent," she says. "Even the most elaborate criminal schemes can usually be reduced to a desire to have the nicest car. Money or power is what it's usually about."
Phil feels compelled to add, "Never underestimate the banality of evil." Out of the corner of his eyes he sees Barton's scowl deepen.
Sitwell raises his hand.
"What about Barton and Romanoff? How'd they even get in as a couple? Wasn't that totally against the gang's modus operandi?"
Phil wards off Patel in order to answer the question himself.
"As noted, Malone got overconfident and allowed his triage rigour to slip. He decided he could make even more money off women of unusual physical beauty, especially in the video business. Apparently, he was intrigued by Agent Romanoff's photograph. He probably never intended for Mr. Edwards to survive the first week. Agent Barton was lucky that some of the gang's rank and file weren't quite initiated to the group's dirty work yet. That was apparently left to the inner circle."
Before anyone else can ask another question though the door opens and Nick Fury strides in, his black leather coat billowing behind him.
"That's it, folks, show and tell is over," he barks. "Everybody out, except Hill, Coulson, Barton and Romanoff."
There is momentary silence as people realize that their desire for major fireworks is about to be thwarted; one by one they melt from the room to the sound of scraping chairs and trudging feet. Sitwell lingers for a moment, casting a sympathetic look in Barton's direction. His audacity earns him a snarl from Fury.
"That damn well means you, too, Sitwell. Out."
Sitwell doesn't have to be asked again, and leaves an ounce or so of dignity behind as he crashes into a chair in his haste to escape. Fury glares after him until the door has closed again. He doesn't bother to sit down.
Phil notes that Barton still hasn't taken a seat either: obviously, the archer prefers to meet his fate standing up. He has released the back of his chair from his iron grip and straightened into what can only be described as military attention – shoulders back, legs slightly apart. Fury's eye fixes on him with the intensity of a searchlight, although what comes out surprises even Phil.
"What the hell were you thinking, Barton? Were you even thinking? I'm about to have to talk to the Governor of Montana, about the sudden mortality spike in his hinterland. What the fuck am I supposed to tell the guy? Enlighten me, if you will."
Barton glares back and says nothing. Maybe he's not interested in defending himself, since what Fury said wasn't exactly a reprimand? No, that's not it, Phil is convinced; he's simply not interested in offering obfuscation. Nothing new there, then. Phil decides to jump in before the silence can be added to the growing list of Barton's offences against political gamesmanship.
"Statistically, sir, construction sites are among the highest sources of work place injuries and accidental deaths."
Fury's ire is momentarily deflected from Barton; his laser gaze burns a hole in Phil's forehead. Ouch.
"Nice try, Coulson. Doesn't explain the arrow your so-called asset used on Malone, though."
"I used a tranquilizer head, sir. Instructions to minimize use of force, you will recall."
So Barton has finally decided to speak, if not in a particularly constructive way. He has abandoned his straight-backed posture and is now leaning against the wall, arms crossed defiantly in front of his chest. It works; Fury zeros back in on him with the unerring aim of a heat-seeking missile, allowing Phil to resume his usual air of bland efficiency.
"Doesn't make much difference when it ends up in an eye socket, does it, Barton."
"I'll be sure to remember that next time, sir."
Barton's lack of repentance is not helpful, nor is Romanoff's smirk at her partner's misplaced sense of humour. Hill still hasn't said anything; she doesn't look like she's going to, but is keenly observing both agents. Fury is not impressed.
"You're lucky if there is a next time, Barton," Fury growls. "Fortunately for you, Senator Eversen is grateful to have his niece back alive, and has put in a good word for you with the Council. Still leaves me to clean up the mess with the Governor."
Hill clears her throat.
"If it helps, sir, I had Accounting do a quick analysis of the Governor's campaign contributions. It turns out that Jacob Malone and the Loving Church of Galactic Peace are on the record with donations of $100,000 each. Malone also donated to the county sheriff's campaign, as well as to all local members of the elected judiciary and the State House of Representatives."
Barton's head flies up at that and he stares at Hill thoughtfully. She ignores him, keeping her cool blue gaze focused on the Director.
"Whether or not those contributions motivated the failure to investigate reported disappearances is, of course, a matter of speculation. Your EA has the files on her desk, sir, should you wish to review them before you call Governor Morgan."
Fury's teeth make an appearance at that, and his eye narrows. It is not a reassuring look, although Phil notes that it no longer appears to be directed at anyone inside the briefing room.
"I'm glad someone around thinks with something other than their gonads. Fuck, I hate politics."
He turns to Barton.
"Don't think for a moment that you're off the hook, Agent Barton. Council wants some S.H.I.E.L.D.-coloured blood for that little rampage, and it might as well be yours. You're suspended from active duty for a month. With pay, in case you care. Now, I have a phone call to make. Hill, with me."
And with that, the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. sweeps out of the room; his Deputy follows with her usual regal stride, leaving Phil and his two star assets silent in their wake.
"Well," Phil decides to break the silence. "That went … better than I expected."
"Guess I'm free to go then."
Barton shoves himself off the wall he'd been leaning against and heads for the door, casting a brief look at Romanoff as he brushes past her.
She makes as if to follow him, but it's only a half-hearted attempt that Phil recognizes for what it is: prevarication. Not something you see every day from the Black Widow.
"Something bothering you?"
She shrugs, but holds his eyes with her own.
"Let me guess. Barton."
This time she nods.
"You're wondering why he went off the way he did, aren't you?"
She nods again, obviously unwilling to give voice to her questions. Phil could call her out, but he can tell that this would be counter-productive, and so he refrains. She does, however, speak before he finds the need to say something else.
"This wasn't like Clint. He almost didn't get into the car. He wanted to go back into the compound to …"
Kill the rest? She doesn't finish the sentence.
"And this surprises you why?"
Her head shoots up at the unexpectedly sharp tone in his voice.
"You may be operating under a mistaken impression, Agent. The fact that Barton spared your life, in what most of us considered at the time to be an act of misconceived knight errantry, doesn't give him a shining armour. You and he are fundamentally the same - no more, no less virtuous than the other. The only difference between you and him is that his triggers aren't conditioned."
She doesn't say anything in response, and Phil doesn't elaborate; to do so would be a form of betrayal, and Clint Barton has had enough of those. His truths are his to share, if and when he chooses to do so.
14. Hard Rain
It takes her nearly three days to find him.
Well, actually, that's not quite true. It takes her two days to decide to find him. She still doesn't know why she thinks she should go after him, but she does.
Once she does make the decision, it takes all of about an hour to track him down, via his apparently oblivious use of his personal Mastercard, with his precise location confirmed by a quick hack job into the GPS in his S.H.I.E.L.D.-issue phone. Add to that the time it takes to throw some clothes in a bag, ask Hill for leave and an agency car and to drive to the coast – well, it's almost three days.
The drive to the Maine coast is a long one, almost ten hours by the time she makes a couple of stops to gas up the car and refuel her body (an accelerated metabolism has its disadvantage), and procure some supplies. The coordinates show him on the coast, and she's guessing it's a place that isn't close to a shopping mall.
She mostly tries to blank out her mind while she drives, ignoring all but her fellow travellers and the bends in the road. But there are times when unbidden thoughts well up to the surface.
The pleasure of feeling living branches bend under her fingers. Whispered confidences about lives left behind. Hesitant smiles that follow the words, once released. Droplets of water, shaping a rainbow.
She grips the steering wheel a little tighter as she drives past the sign on the highway: "Welcome To Maine. The Way Life Should Be."
The cottage is perched on a rocky promontory right by the sea, surrounded on three sides by tall firs – quite unlike the urban haunts people normally associate with Clint Barton. She suspects that it's the sea that drew him, the wide, open, solitary space where he can breathe.
When she finds him, he's sitting on the wraparound porch of what looks like a deliberately rustic-looking, but eminently comfortable place. Clint spends no money on things, but when it comes to accommodations, he's passed way too much time in S.H.I.E.L.D.-rented hellholes to go for second-rate on his own dime. The two-seater swing chair he's sitting in is kicked back against the wall and his feet are on the railing, a can of beer in one hand; the chair swings lazily back and forth as he stretches and flexes his legs. By all appearances he's lost in thought, if not downright brooding.
He notices her arrival, of course, probably has known someone was coming for a while (tires on gravel are hard to miss). The fact that he hasn't made a move for a weapon of some sort tells her that he must have guessed it was her, despite the unmarked car. How, she has no idea. Sure, she's come to his apartment any number of times, even unannounced, and he to her quarters on the carrier - but they've never followed each other this far. He should not have expected her.
"Hey," he says by way of greeting, lifting his beer a little in her direction in a kind of Clint-salute, before taking a sip.
"Hey yourself," Natasha feels compelled to reply. "Nice place. Yours?"
Clint raises an eyebrow, but doesn't dignify the rhetorical question with an actual answer. Instead, he bounces his chair upright and asks whether she's eaten yet. When she shakes her head, he heads into the house, obviously expecting her to follow. She drops her duffle in the unused bedroom (Clint has made his bed – surprise! – but his bow is on it, so it's easy to tell which one is his) and takes the bag of supplies and wine, which she'd picked up in a general store along the last stretch of county road, to the kitchenette.
Dinner, it turns out, is a rabbit that made the fatal mistake of hopping into Clint's field of vision while he was tightening his bowstring. Apparently, as with most American males, his reluctance to engage in the kitchen evaporates in the face of an open flame. The thing smells pretty good, turning on the spit of the gas barbecue at the back of the house. He even managed to wrap a couple of potatoes in tin foil and throw them on the grill.
It's while she's opening the wine – it might as well breathe in the glass while they wait for the rabbit to be done - that Natasha realizes something: the table had already been set for two. Well, such as it is; it has two plates and two sets of cutlery on it. He'd been expecting her. How?
Of course. Credit card. S.H.I.E.L.D. phone. He might as well have laid out a trail of breadcrumbs for her to find. Clint has obviously noticed her drawing conclusions, and shrugs.
"Figured you'd find me," he says. "If you wanted to, that is."
"What made you think I'd want to?"
The words leave her mouth before she can think about them, before she can bite them back. She doesn't normally talk without thinking. Why now?
Clint fixes his disconcerting blue-green stare on her.
"I didn't," he says carefully. "I was just …"
Natasha doesn't really want him to answer a question she hadn't really meant to ask, and reaches for distraction in the form of her wine glass. It's distinctly mediocre, and she grimaces a little.
"It's okay. I'm here now. This wine sucks."
Clint quirks a grateful little smile and takes a swallow of his own.
"Yep," he says. "It does. But it's the thought that counts. Besides, it beats that rotgut shit you made us drink in Kaliningrad."
"That was vodka, not wine, Clint. Potatoes, not grapes. There's no comparison."
"Yeah, I know. Vodka is supposed to eat your stomach lining, make sure the bugs in what passes for local food can't find a place to burrow into."
The simple meal is surprisingly good, even though there's no salad. Not a green leaf man, Clint Barton; she passes on his invitation to pick herself some dandelion leaves and makes a mental note to pick up some vegetables next time she gets near a store.
The evening passes quickly in their usual mixture of silence and banter, and they end up passing the second bottle of wine back and forth on the porch. If Clint wants to know why she followed him here, he doesn't ask, and Natasha offers no explanation. Truth is, she doesn't know herself – or doesn't want to. The best she can figure out, it's got to do with both of them, and just being here feels right.
Natasha falls asleep surprisingly quickly but wakes up early, half expecting to hear a bell playing the so-called Prophet's tune. What she hears instead is the sound of rain pattering on the wooden roof, and the unmistakable thwack of arrows hitting a wooden target.
She throws on a hoody and a pair of sweat pants – always elegant, the Black Widow, except when she doesn't need to be – and pads out onto the porch in bare feet. Sure enough, there's Clint, methodically pounding arrows into a big fir tree at the edge of the clearing, a straight line down, without any doubt precise enough to withstand measurement with a ruler.
He reaches over his back into his quiver again and again, lost in a rhythm all his own, seemingly oblivious to the pouring rain. She knows that when his quiver is empty, he'll head over to the tree to retrieve his arrows; he will repeat the exercise until his fingers bleed. She's seen him do it before, on the range, although never with this much cold determination and never before with an inkling as to the why.
"No need for you to stand here and watch," he grates out. Of course, he's known she was there from the moment she stepped on the porch.
"What if I want to?"
"Why would you? Nothing to see."
Hawkeye doing what he does best is always something to see, but that's not a thought she intends to examine too closely.
"Making sure you're okay." Where did that come from?
He doesn't skip a beat. Draw, nock, thwack.
"I'll be fine. In a few days."
Natasha purses her lips and returns to her room to retrieve some of the prints she had made at Headquarters, together with a box of thumbtacks she'd taken from supplies. By the time she's put on shoes and comes back out, all the arrows are back in his quiver and he looks ready to start his routine again.
"Here," she says, "I brought you something that may help speed up the process."
"Leveling out. What you're doing."
Clint gives her a questioning look; it's obvious he hasn't heard that term before, even if he seems sufficiently familiar with the concept to have taken himself and his bow to the edge of civilization to do just that. (She won't tell him about the isolation cells the Red Room used for the same purpose.)
He watches her pin a row of portraits of Jacob Malone to the tree in silence; she feels just a little smug when his eyebrows shoot up in realization. His facial expression doesn't change, but there's a little gleam of humour in his eyes. He doesn't bother to wait until she's stepped aside before drilling an arrow through the paper Prophet's eye socket.
"That felt good. Got any more of those?"
His voice is a little hoarse, but steady, as he readies another arrow.
The paper gets soggy pretty quickly in the pouring rain, but Natasha manages to peel off a couple dozen pages or so, one after the other, and pin them to the tree before her little stack turns into pulp and she can't separate the sheets anymore. The displaced air from Clint's arrows caresses her face each time she steps back; she can hear him mutter under his breath as he lets fly - curses, imprecations, incantations, it's hard to tell and it doesn't really matter.
Each one of the arrows unerringly finds a printed eye socket, targets so impossibly small that Clint shouldn't be able to see them from where he is standing. But he is Hawkeye, he sees what he sees, and she has long since stopped wondering whether his accuracy is a fluke. It is what it is.
He is what he is.
Maybe eventually she will figure out what moved her to come here to Maine - to help her partner get rid of whatever caught temporary hold of his soul, without adding to the red in his ledger. For now, the singing of Clint's bowstring, the thwack of arrows drilling into the bark, the steady drops of water on leaves – it all blends into a near hypnotic rhythm, a soundtrack for her own thoughts as she stands there in the rain.
Until suddenly the sounds cease, and she becomes aware of a solid, warm presence beside her.
"Thanks," he says, not quite smiling, but … better, it seems. Breathing. "I needed that. I … Yeah."
"Okay?" She searches his face.
Clint shrugs. "For now, anyway. Some shit won't go away quite that easy. Maybe one of these days I should follow Coulson's advice."
He doesn't say what Coulson's advice may have consisted of, and she doesn't ask; it's pretty obvious, as is the fact that he'll probably never take it. If Clint Barton hates medics, there is a special circle of hell reserved in his personal theology for psychologists.
"You?" he asks, with no particular inflection in his voice.
This seems like a good time to pull the hoody over her head – her hair is already plastered against her scalp, water running down her neck – and to clutch the soggy shreds of paper against her chest. She has nothing to say; she's not, after all, the one who drove hundreds of miles to hide out in a cabin by the sea to exorcise her demons.
"I'm fine. A bit wet, but fine. Thanks."
He studies her with those disconcerting blue-green eyes of his (whoever claimed that Clint Barton has only one facial expression – intense – has never looked into his eyes).
"Good to hear."
He might just as well have said "Bullshit."
But the moment for conversation seems to have passed, and for that she is grateful.
The day, as is often the case by the seaside, changes quickly. By mid-morning the sun comes out and Clint heads for the sea, where he spends far more time than she would have considered reasonable in the waves, swimming with sure strokes. Natasha shakes her head, even if the exercise has provided her with a new appreciation of her partner's upper body. She knows how to swim, of course – it's a survival requirement – but it has never occurred to her to do it for fun, and she tells him so when he comes out. He makes no response, just frowns at her thoughtfully.
"No one," he remarks conversationally over another bottle of wine later that night, "should ever be permitted to abuse people's trust. And to turn that trust into profit for him- or herself. No one."
She knows better than to think that this is a simple statement from out of nowhere, but it is one that she can't really argue with and so she doesn't. Clint, however, seems to have been better for having made it out loud. He seems less … coiled somehow, afterwards. It doesn't take her long to appreciate that the statement was also a gift, and between those two observations, she comes to a decision.
She doesn't act on it until the next evening though, when the coastal rain has started pounding again and Clint serves up an improvised meal of taco chips, drenched in salsa from a jar and topped with strips off a hunk of cheese, two beers apiece on the side. ("Nachos à la Barton. Try it; you'll like it. Trust me!")
"Malone's outfit," she says, and watches Clint's hand pause over the bowl of soggy nachos. He is instantly on alert, and his hand is perfectly still as it continues its journey to the chips. Like he is zeroing in on a target.
"Do you think they could have had an effect?"
"On you?" he asks carefully. She doesn't nod, just shrugs – just like he always does, and pulls her legs up on the chair. "I don't see how."
"There were things there that I … enjoyed," she says, trying to ignore the defensive tone in her voice.
She takes a deep breath.
There. It's out.
"And … listening to the others. Looking after things. Caring. Playing with water."
Clint seems genuinely non-plussed, and frowns a little, as if to say and this is a bad thing why?
"What does any of that have to do with Malone?"
"I've never done those things before. Or enjoyed doing them. That's not who I am. I'm just …" She hugs her knees more tightly as she watches the understanding dawn in his eyes. "A killer."
Clint Barton is as straightforward as his arrows, and about as diplomatic as a Sherman tank. So this time he says it out loud:
But then he explains, before she can challenge him on daring to question what she knows to be true.
"You didn't just exchange one set of brainwashing for another, if that's what you're thinking. You're just … starting to be you. Finally."
"And what is that?"
He's looking for words.
"You are what you are, and that's a hell of a lot more than the Black Widow. And it has nothing to do with Malone. You … care for stuff. People. Those kids in Tbilisi. The girls we rescued. That's who you are, Natasha. No one's giving that to you, or forcing it on you. You're just taking it back."
His gaze into her eyes is as open and honest as she has ever seen.
"And in case you're wondering, you've been doing a damn good job not killing me."
They spend the next two weeks – until Natasha decides she really needs to get back to work – in that cottage, only going into the little town nearby for supplies every other day.
She watches the girl in the general store put the moves on Clint in a rather unsubtle way and Natasha half expects him to go back out that night, but he doesn't. The one time he does head off on his own he comes back in time for dinner, with two new things.
The first is a plant. He calls it a spider plant; it's for her desk on the helicarrier, he tells her, and that the clerk in the hardware store says they grow quite big, and will have lots of babies if you water them regularly.
He ignores her.
"It also creates oxygen. It's good for you."
He makes her swear by Peter the Great and the Brothers Karamazov that she'll ask Coulson or Doreen to look after it when they're on mission. (She does, and will.)
The second thing he brings is a simple black bathing suit that says "Speedo" on the front. How he figured out her size she doesn't want to know, preferring to chalk it up to his training as an observer.
Swimming, when you're not put through a drowning exercise by the Red Room, actually turns out to be rather enjoyable (even if the waters of the Atlantic aren't exactly warm). Clint is a much more practiced swimmer than she is, but she discovers while they're floating on their backs looking at seagulls that she is more buoyant than he is, with his solid muscle mass. She teases him for the rest of the afternoon about being dense, stopping only when he chucks a pinecone at her head.
The evenings they tend to spend sitting in that swing chair on the porch. Sometimes they talk. He tells her of Barney, the Swordsman and the circus, all the times he thought he'd been given something of value – trust, love, a home, someone who'd have his back - only to discover it was all a lie.
Natasha (once) talks of the price the Red Room exacted if you showed yourself to care for someone, or something. She doesn't go into details, but he nods his understanding as he sees her staring at her hands. He takes them into his own, rubbing whatever she sees there off with slow circles of his thumb.
But more often than not, they just sit in silence, side by side, watching the sun setting over the sea and the falling dark. The night before she leaves there's a chill in the air; he puts an arm around her shoulders and pulls her close when she starts to shiver, and she allows herself to fall back against his warmth.
Neither of them comments on the endless ribbon of stars that blazes in a velvet-black sky.
Sometimes, you may have noticed, bits of reality drift into my fics. I can't help it; it's how I'm wired. The "Embassy for Outer Space" is loosely based on a booklet, given to me by the pleasant young acolyte of a would-be prophet named Raël. The latter preached the benefits of free love while he and his people awaited alien arrivals. All other similarities are incidental.
And while there are far too many (quasi) religious groups that seem to be operating primarily for the enrichment of their leadership, any connection between such groups, commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking is entirely a matter of my own invention.