Rating: T (language)
Fandom: Avengers (movieverse)
Characters: Clint, Natasha, Tony, Bruce, Steve, Maria, Clint/Natasha
Spoilers: Takes place after the movie. Follow-up to Divide. #9 in Recruitment series.
Summary: It was a lie, of course, but by the time Clint realized that...
"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them." - Ernest Hemingway
"What did the doctor say? Are you cleared?" Steve asked, upon entering the newly renovated conference room inside the Tower and finding, much as he expected he would, Clint and Natasha had already arrived. They were always the first ones there and were rarely apart these days.
"Two more weeks," Clint admitted, but only because Natasha was there ready to contradict him if he was anything less than truthful.
"And?" she pushed anyway.
"Two more after that before any heavy lifting," Clint finished wearily, before turning his eyes on Natasha. "Give me a chance at least. I wasn't done."
"Yes, you were," Natasha laughed, and Steve did too.
"Okay, yes, I was," Clint said with a smile. "But I didn't know I was giving a report. I thought I was just answering a friendly question. Do you both need to know about my blood pressure and cholesterol? They're excellent, in case you were concerned. Next time they've promised me a prostate exam. That should be fun. Want to tag along?"
"That's enough," Natasha said loudly, but still clearly amused.
"That's too much," Steve agreed.
"Just making certain everyone is fully up to speed on my body."
"That's not why Tony called us here is it?" Bruce asked as he entered the room. "I thought we were getting a briefing."
"Don't give him any ideas," Clint sighed. He was more than done with everyone fussing over his broken collarbone, even if it was all well meant. "But, does anyone know what this is about?" he asked, because he had been gone all day and it felt sort of last minute. Not that Tony didn't love to spring things on them just because he felt he could, but usually someone at least had a vague idea of what was happening.
"Well," Bruce said, taking a seat and rubbing his eyes wearily, "he's been locked up in his workshop for the past three days. It could have something to do with that."
"Maybe we're going to have another lesson on using Stark Tech in the kitchen," Natasha said eyeing Steve.
"It was an accident."
"It was hilarious," Clint amended, earning a broad smile from Bruce.
"Toasters shouldn't be that complicated," Steve said, somewhat defensively.
"Tony didn't get that memo," said Bruce.
"There are a lot of memos Tony doesn't get," Clint said with a laugh.
"Well, it looks like he was the only one left out of the loop," Natasha said, her eyes suddenly on the door as Agent Hill walked in. "Is there a problem?" she asked, sliding off the table where she'd been sitting next to Clint.
"You tell me," Maria returned, eyeing the room approvingly before choosing a chair two seats removed from the rest of the group and closer to the front.
Steve turned in her direction, looking somewhat apologetic as he did so, and explained, "Tony just asked us to show up."
"So no one here knows why?" she asked, looking less than amused when she received only negatives in return. "I swear..." Maria muttered under her breath. "If this is another slide show of Stark's greatest hits, so help me -"
"Next time," Tony interrupted, walking in late and heading straight for the head of the room.
"I have other things to take care of that don't involve you," Maria continued.
"Less important things, I'm sure," Tony returned with a smile. "But this... First we do this," he said as he began to slide cards to them from across the table.
"What's this?" Clint asked, picking his up and flipping it over in his hands. It wasn't bigger than a credit card and was completely blank.
"That," Tony said as he returned to the workstation beside the projector, "is your official Avengers identification card. And before you tell me you're not an Avenger," he said in a rush, turning to Maria and cutting her off before she'd even had the chance to speak, "it is also your official working-with-the-Avengers because SHIELD can't-have-it-both-ways identification card."
"Does Director Fury know about these?" Maria asked, no longer sounding openly hostile, only mildly curious.
"I may have ran the idea past him," he non-answered, until finally growing wary of Maria's glare. "Yes, he knows. I dropped his off today, in person."
As the two of them hashed that detail out, Natasha, Bruce, Steve and Clint were left to look at one another, each silently willing the other to state the obvious.
"Fine," Natasha sighed, rolling her eyes. "Cowards," she muttered, before catching Tony's attention. "This is nice an all, but they're blank. You gave us blank cards, Tony. What gives?"
"Give it a minute," Tony chided.
"A minute to what?" Steve asked, flipping his over again as if he might have missed something.
"Oh," Bruce said suddenly as his card began to fill up with information. "There it goes. What is this some kind of fingerprint recognition software?"
"What's this for exactly?" Steve asked, his also having begun to change before his eyes.
"Communication, primarily," Tony answered. "Identification; they'll only work for you. They're imprinted now so... no switching. Access to the Tower and labs. GPS."
"So now instead of a vague idea of where we are in the Tower you'll know exactly where we are in the Tower?" Natasha asked suspiciously.
"Yeah," Clint said, drawing out the word and suddenly looking worried. "I don't know about that. I can't even keep JARVIS out of my room. How do I know you're not going to get bored and install some kind of one-way camera on this damn thing?"
"First, I've fixed that," Tony sighed. "JARVIS has promised to leave you alone."
"He was in my bathroom yesterday."
"Only because I asked him to find you in a hurry."
"I was in the bathroom, Tony," Clint said, stressing the words carefully. "Privacy. I like it."
"Second," Tony continued, sensing a fight he was about to lose was imminent, "yes, I do plan on creating a video-link on the cards for communicating between ourselves, but, if you haven't noticed the cards only work when you are handling them. They won't be live-feeding from your pocket or wherever you choose to keep them."
"Then what good is GPS going to be?" Steve asked. "I'm assuming you'd add that only if we needed to find one another; in case of an emergency. It's fairly unlikely we'd be holding onto these cards and unable to respond at the same time to give a location."
"If that scenario arose then I'd just turn the GPS on remotely."
"But not the camera or the microphone or god knows what else you've got planned for this thing," Clint added. "Right, Tony?"
"It's not perfect," he admitted. "I'm working on it and... Come on, don't ruin this. This is a great idea. You should all be excited not..."
"Concerned," Bruce provided.
"Unimpressed," said Natasha with a small smile.
"Confused," Steve said. "These feel a little redundant."
"Terrified," Clint said, shaking his head and putting his card back on the table.
"You have got paranoia issues," Tony said pointing at Clint in particular.
"Are these going to be programmed to self-destruct?" Maria finally had to ask, looking at her own card with as much skepticism as Clint had his.
"Enough," Tony said, sighing deeply and mostly for effect. "We're no longer using SHIELD communication lines. We've all agreed that's for the best. Correct, Agent Hill?"
"Correct," she reluctantly agreed.
"We need something to replace it and until one of you invents something better," Tony continued. "This is it. I will work on the bugs, before going on to the next project," he added, sensing a rebuttal on Natasha's lips. "And I will take all suggestions into consideration. And," Tony said, forestalling Clint, "I will only use them for good. I will not spy on you or turn them on just to mess with you or... or... You're really taking all the fun out of this now that I think about it."
"How about a compromise," Bruce interrupted. "How about we agree, right now, that the only way to use an emergency recall or remote access on any of our cards is a two-person system? Two of us have to agree before it can be done, will that work for everyone?"
"As long as the other person isn't JARVIS," Clint answered. "Yeah, that should do it."
"That sounds reasonable," Maria said with a nod.
"Good job, Tony," Steve said.
"Is that it?" Natasha asked dryly as she put her own card away.
"Yeah. Why? Got a date?" Tony fired back with a smirk, looking at Clint instead of Natasha.
"Come on," Natasha said, getting to her feet and touching Clint on the shoulder. "Let's go. He's done."
For a moment Tony thought he should probably say something to smooth things over, before he realized it wasn't necessary. Clint got to his feet and shot Tony a look, but it wasn't mean or angry, it was more amused. To his great surprise, Natasha even looked slightly amused, or at least she looked slightly less lethal than she usually did. He was glad for it. They all knew Clint and Natasha were working out their problems, and that they'd mostly been doing so successfully, but it was still a very new thing for all of them. It still felt kind of delicate at times.
"Smooth, Tony," Bruce laughed as soon as they were gone.
"We can't tiptoe around it forever."
"It's been a month," Steve replied, clearly thinking that wasn't long enough to start making light of their relationship that had no real definition, but that might have been an adjustment he had to make, not them. No one in this era seemed keen on defining anything.
"All right, gentlemen," Maria said, getting to her feet. "I'm going to leave you to your knitting circle here and get back to work. Thanks for the card. Let me know when it works."
"Knitting circle? Is that the best you have?" Tony laughed.
"It's been a long day," she yawned.
"I'll walk down with you," Steve said, following Maria to the door. To Tony's surprise, she actually waited for him and they left together.
"So that's why he's so sensitive about me ragging on Clint and Natasha," Tony smiled.
"I don't actually think there's anything happening there," Bruce said, glancing back at the door before helping Tony shut down the lights in the room. "I know they've been spending a lot more time together but you do realize, for Steve, it's been like six months for... everything."
"You're starting to sound like Pepper. She thinks he's lonely."
"Well, he might be the only one of us that isn't an introvert by nature," Bruce allowed.
"I'm not an introvert."
"I'm not sure what you are is definable."
"That's true," Tony said with a smile but realized, after a moment, that while he was heading for the door, Bruce was not. "Something on your mind?"
"These cards," Bruce began, leaning back against the table and looking almost pained. "They're not just reading our fingerprints, are they?"
"They may have a prototype bio-metrics reader installed."
"And exactly who would you have consulted with that on?" Bruce wondered, and when Tony didn't answer he sighed and shook his head. "I asked, Tony. I asked you not to..."
"I didn't invite her over. She hasn't been here. We've just been working in tandem on this one project."
"This one project after the last one."
"The last one was Jane's idea and it was an emergency and..." Tony tried until he finally ran out of steam. "I'm sorry. I'm really not trying to force something here. I know you're not ready."
"It's not that, Tony," Bruce said, raising his voice only slightly. "It's that it's not going to happen. It can't. This... it's not fixable."
"Everything is fixable."
"No, Tony," Bruce said. "It's not. This is not. Betty and I are not Clint and Natasha. They were fixable. They... I know you mean well but... Stop. Just, stop."
"I'm not interfering."
"You are," Bruce laughed nervously. "You are and I appreciate the intent but... stop."
"I'll stop," Tony shrugged.
"That's all I ask."
"It's asking a lot. For me. You know that, don't you?"
"I do," Bruce said, nodding his head.
"But I will, if that's what you want. I won't push or shove or nudge or even hint, if that's what you really want."
Tony pressed his lips together and managed a nod of his own, but didn't reply. He couldn't.
He didn't believe him.
"So," Steve said as they stood side-by-side in the elevator. "How did it go?"
"About as I expected," Maria said, dropping her shoulders and looking exhausted. "I've been formally reprimanded and docked a month's pay but I have not been relieved of duty so... small favors, right?"
"I wish you'd have let me go," Steve said, shaking his head angrily. "One of us should have been there to defend you."
"I can defend myself."
"That's not -"
"I know it's not what you mean," Maria interrupted impatiently. "I just... I naturally sound defensive. It's my thing. It's especially my thing after three days spent defending myself. I only meant that it wouldn't have helped, Steve. It probably would have been worse if you had been there."
The elevator doors opened and without hesitation Steve reached over and hit the button to return them back upstairs. They needed to talk and it was better to do so in private. The ground floor lobby didn't qualify. Maria didn't question it, just sighed and looked, if anything, more defeated than before. It was rare to see her looking less than solid. To see her otherwise was worrisome.
The ride back up was silent.
Steve opened the door to his room and, even if it did make him a little uncomfortable, escorted Maria inside. It wasn't her making him uncomfortable, not per se, he just wasn't accustomed to visitors. He was still adapting to new social norms. Still, her comfort was more important than his at the moment, and he knew she wouldn't want to discuss this anywhere where they might be overheard or interrupted. Worse still, joined. This wasn't about the Avengers or SHIELD, this was about her and Maria didn't share that often.
"Would you like something to drink?" he asked as she headed for the couch and he for the kitchen.
"What's the strongest you've got?" she asked, dropping her head into her hands.
"Water is fine."
Steve was back in a few minutes and sat in the chair across from her own seat, waiting for her to begin.
"I'm on probation and I may not be deputy much longer," she said after taking a sip of water and setting the glass down. "They're going to give my job to Morse."
"You still don't like her," Steve stated. He had no real personal experience with Agent Morse, only Maria and Clint's accounts of her to go off of, and while he hoped to always be fair, this time it was proving tough.
"She's smart and organized and highly trained," Maria rattled off. "Shit, that makes me sound jealous. It's something... I don't like the timing of it. How she's just here. How she was just in LA. I... I don't know what it is exactly. She's been nothing but responsive and diligent and effective in her job. It's almost as if she's trying too hard."
"It's not easy being on the outside of something. Especially outside a group."
"I know it," Maria sighed, as if from experience. "But she wants so much for us to just accept her that, I can't. I can't take that at face value. I can't just trust, especially now."
"It has to be earned."
"Exactly," she said, "but we may not have a choice. They're going to give her my job."
"You don't know that, Maria."
"She's shadowing me now. On the Helicarrier," she explained. "Following me, officially of course, to see how things work and to get acquainted with the operation. Which really means I'm to show her what to do so when the time comes that I am no longer asked to do those things, she can step in seamlessly. It's galling, and maybe she did or maybe she didn't ask for this but... I know what they intend to do. One more mistake and that's it."
"You weren't to blame for what happened, Maria," Steve said, his own agitation beginning to show. Maria had been held responsible for not only the events in LA but the recent ones in the Tower. "What they're doing isn't fair."
"It's isn't," she agreed, "but they're doing such a good job of it..."
Maria dropped her eyes and picked her glass back up, eager to have something to focus on besides her own anger.
"If it comes to that," Steve said after a few minutes of silence, "if they give your duties over to Agent Morse, what will you do? What will happen to you?"
"I don't know," Maria admitted. "I mean, we can't all run off and be Avengers, can we?"
"Thank you, but no," she said with a small laugh. "I couldn't. I'm not... That's not my forte. Barton had that choice. Romanoff will have it, if they push her out as well. My usefulness to the Avengers is within SHIELD. I'm not special in any other capacity and I know my limitations. Besides, living under the same roof as Stark and Barton might drive me insane."
"The rest of us past muster?"
"I suppose," she smiled. And then hesitating added, "You do."
"So," he said after stopping to clear his throat, "what will you do?"
"I will stay where I'm needed. Where I can do the most good," Maria answered, sounding and feeling more confident than she had before. "They can give her my title, my office, my salary, but I won't quit. If they want me out, they'll have to drag me out."
Natasha and Clint ate dinner with everyone else, which to both their surprise included Maria, and afterwards hung out in the general lounge together.
They weren't many that night, Pepper and Jane were back in LA and Maria left not long after the meal had ended, but they were still loud. Unable to pick a television show, they'd all settled on a movie that Tony and Darcy proceeded to talk over. Bruce had sat himself just outside of the viewing area to read and about halfway through the night Steve had given up trying to follow the movie and begun questioning Clint about his physical therapy exercises.
Natasha didn't mind the noise. It was almost soothing. It was becoming familiar and natural and against her instincts, she liked it.
What she didn't like was the look in Clint's eyes that said more than he ever would.
He was in pain.
Clint had never cared for treatments or pain killers or any type of medication that wasn't strictly necessary. He routinely had to be pushed and bribed and coerced into accepting help, and Natasha understood it was just something that wasn't going to change. It was like his water phobia, only less pronounced. Or it used to be less pronounced until Loki took his brain for a test drive. What had once been annoying to accomplish, because getting Clint to take care of himself had always been her job, was now frustrating and nearly impossible.
Clint had been refusing to take so much as an aspirin for his pain in the past few weeks and it was starting to wear on him visibly.
But Natasha didn't say anything, not in front of everyone else at least. She waited until one-by-one everyone else had gone to bed, or at least left for more privacy, and fixed him with a look.
"It doesn't hurt much," Clint sighed, catching her meaning almost immediately.
"It doesn't have to hurt at all," Natasha countered, following him out of the room and down the hall towards the elevator.
"They make me groggy. I hate that."
"Aspirin makes you groggy?" she asked, hitting the button for their level as soon as they'd stepped onboard.
"Aspirin tastes funny."
"You're acting like a child," she laughed.
"Stop treating me like one and I won't," he fired back at her with a smile.
Natasha stopped with Clint in front of his door and slipped her arms around his waist. He didn't move or fight her, he rarely did, just pressed his forehead down to hers and tried to smile.
"What is it?" she asked, seeing for the first time it was more than just pain in his eyes. "What's happened?"
Clint gave her a quick kiss and then said, "Come inside," as he opened the door.
"Clint?" she questioned, moving into his quarters and slipping off her shoes out of habit.
"Give me a minute," he said, gesturing towards the couch. "Get comfortable. Better yet," he called, now in his bedroom, "get us a couple of drinks."
"What do you want?" she asked, confused now by his behavior.
"You pick. You've got better taste than me anyway," he called, still out of the room.
Natasha spotted the half full bottle of red wine they'd opened the other night and that decided it. Pouring two glasses she arrived back in the living room at about the same time as Clint, just in time to see him put something in his pocket.
"Here," she said, offering him a glass.
To her surprise he practically finished it before sitting down with a sigh.
"I have to tell you something and then I have to show you something," he said after a pause.
Natasha nodded, unsure what was going on. Clint looked nervous and troubled and she was having a hard time reading him, which was rare. It was extremely rare as of late; they'd been doing so well after their talk. After deciding to really give it a try, they'd been open and honest and it had been working.
What could he possibly have to say that hadn't been said?
"I may need another glass," he said, shaking his head.
"Fine," he said, letting out breath and meeting her eyes, letting the silence stretch out between them. Natasha couldn't get a fix on him at all; Clint was suddenly fidgety and restless. It was making her fidgety and restless, on the inside of course.
"How do I say this?" he asked, more to himself than to her.
"Just say it."
"I've been communicating with my brother," he blurted out. Clint paused to gauge her reaction, which Natasha was quick to put into check. "Not talking, not meeting in person," he continued once he realized she was waiting for more. "Not even really on purpose. He's been sending me texts from untraceable lines and I've been responding. That's it."
"Okay," Natasha replied, when 'Why?' was what she really wanted to ask.
"Some of it has been expected," Clint went on. "Some... less so. Most of it is probably lies."
"Yes," she agreed.
"But... The thing you have to know about Barney is that he's always maddest at the last person to cross him, and right now he's pissed, but it's not at me."
"He's mad at whomever set it up?" Natasha asked, because as much as they'd pieced together in the aftermath was that someone in OsCorp had helped Barney out, and probably not as a favor.
"He claims he was used. That they had other motives. That the things he was promised weren't what they planned on delivering."
"The thing he was promised was your head," she interjected sharply.
"Yes, well, Barney wouldn't see the irony of complaining about not getting to kill me to me."
"What exactly has he said?"
"That it didn't go down as planned. The place was supposed to be gassed, evacuated and then he was going to make his move on me, but instead I got an arrow in the shoulder and that... that was a surprise to him."
"So he wanted you weakened but not wounded?"
"Yeah," Clint laughed. "That was his idea of a fair fight."
"What else?" Natasha pressed, sensing the worst was yet to come.
"Barney claims that this whole things was orchestrated from inside of SHIELD."
"And you believe him?"
"Hell, no," Clint answered shaking his head. "He's a liar. He's always been a liar but..."
"Hill is basically saying the same thing," she finished for him.
"Something is happening in SHIELD. Whether Barney's heard rumblings of it on the outside and is just trying to start trouble or not, I don't know."
"Does he have proof?" Natasha asked, and to her, it looked as if he'd been waiting for that question.
Waiting for it and dreading it.
"I asked him for some," Clint said, dropping his eyes and taking out a cell phone from his pocket. "I told him that if he wanted me to believe that something shady was happening on the inside, I'd have to see something more than just his words."
Clint took a deep breath and handed her the phone.
"See for yourself," he said.
And she did.
There was a photo on the screen and for a moment all she saw was Phil Coulson alive. He looked a little disheveled, a little sick and still appeared to be hooked up to some kind of medical equipment, but it was clearly Phil. When Natasha could finally drag her eyes away from the man in the picture, she began to look for other clues; other hints at where and why and how this could be true. There was a newspaper dated a week earlier. There were green walls and a linoleum floor. There was a single picture frame with an opera house she somehow knew. There was a silver vase filled with heather and lavender. There was a sign and the message was clear.
Natasha saw it and understood.
Like that, she understood everything; saw everything. It all clicked steadily into place. All the pieces fit. All of the lies, the worries, the struggles. All of the problems. It was there in that one photo, like an answer, that he had handed her so easily it practically hurt.
Natasha looked up and met his eyes, reached for her own glass and drained the contents.
"We're going to need a refill," she said calmly, getting to her feet and taking both of their glasses and the phone with her into the kitchen.
As she worked, Clint continued to talk from the living room.
"I don't know what to do with that," he said, really rattled. "I don't... What do you think we should do?"
"What do you mean?" she asked still in the other room.
"What do I mean?" he repeated incredulously. "Should I tell Tony? Steve? They should see it, shouldn't they?"
"You haven't shown them yet?" Natasha asked upon her return, handing him his wine before sitting by his side.
"No, of course not," he answered. "I wanted to see what you thought first. See if you thought I should. I think so but..."
"Then why the doubt?"
"I don't know," Clint shrugged, taking a large drink before continuing. "I guess... I want to believe it, you know, and then... I don't think I should. If I show it to them and it's a lie... I already look at it and I hope it isn't, but I know I shouldn't. I already hope it's true because..." Clint stopped and finished the second glass in one gulp, shaking his head and setting down the glass. "I'm a mess thinking about it. I can't think about it for long. It makes my head hurt because it can't be true but there it is."
Pausing, Clint shook his head as if clearing some kind of mental fog, and then looked up back at her, decidedly less focused.
She knew how this had to be affecting him.
"What do you think this means?" he asked, rubbing his good hand across his face.
She knew that gesture as well.
"Tasha?" he asked, his voice weaker than it was before.
It was frustration and fatigue.
"Something's wrong... I feel..."
It was time.
"I know what it means," she whispered, leaning in close and forcing him to meet her eyes. "It means you can't hold me any longer."
'What?' was on his lips, either that or 'Why?'; it didn't matter.
With one arm she'd pinned him back, covering his mouth with her hand as the other jabbed quickly into his midsection with the knife she'd drawn while he'd been disoriented.
It had been easy.
He hadn't made a sound, the drugs she'd put into his drink had seen to that, but she was hardly home free.
Leaving the Tower would be tricky. Meeting her rendezvous would be more so.
She pushed Barton onto his side as she stood up and he moaned in pain.
Natasha ignored it. She ignored him. She walked quickly to the bedroom and pulled the blanket from the bed, throwing it over his still conscious form on her return trip so she wouldn't have to see.
She couldn't look at him. Something there... pulled at her, and Natasha didn't need the distraction. There was a job to be done.
In the kitchen, she washed her hands and the knife she'd used and paused to compose herself.
That was something new.
She couldn't figure why she'd need to pull herself together, but she did. Right now she did. It was a faint nagging in the back of her head, much like the low whine coming from the other room.
Really she should finish the job and be done. It was cruel to let him linger, but then again, it had been cruel, this lie of a life they'd let her lead. What Barton had let her believe had been cruel. Where and how she'd stabbed him, it could take hours before he bled out. It would take hours because no one would find him until it was far too late.
And when they did find him, they'd know who she really was and what she'd done.
They'd all know it.
Notes: I'm sorry. Also, this series isn't over yet...