Summary: There are no easy answers.
Director Fury was waiting when they landed.
With him were two fully armed guards. Agent Hill was waiting in the background, at the door.
Steve was off the jet first, followed quickly by Agent Morse. Jim walked to the end of the loading ramp and held his position. Thankful for small miracles, Natasha had remained in place beside Tony, who was neither eager nor ready for whatever was to come.
"Captain Rogers," Fury said with a brief nod. "Agent Morse. I understand you located Agent Romanoff."
"Yes, sir," Steve answered, "but I'd suggest we postpone the debrief. She's agreed to go to medical, to psych, to wherever you think she should, but she wants to see him first."
Fury didn't need to be told who the 'him' in question was. With a quick glance back at Maria, who made no response, he eyed the jet before striding towards it like he was on a mission.
"Sir?" Agent Morse called out, moving to follow.
"Stand down, Agent," he barked without slowing down. Rhodey moved out of his way and half a second later Tony walked down the ramp, leaving Fury to speak with Natasha alone.
"What's going on?" Steve asked Maria.
For a second it didn't look like she was going to answer him, and when she finally did, her words were so faint none of them caught what she'd actually said.
"Sorry, what?" Tony asked, moving forward with the rest of them and practically surrounding her.
"Protocol is what's going on," Maria answered, her eyes darting down and then away again. Her inability to look any of them dead in the eyes was unnerving and very unlike the woman they knew. "It's what's already happened. She can't see him."
"Why not?" Steve asked, but Morse had sucked in a breath as if she understood something they had not.
"He's already been cremated."
"What?" Tony snapped. "We haven't even been gone a full day. We just got here. How..."
"Why?" Steve jumped in to ask, as angry and upset as Tony.
"Agents who have no immediate family or whose designated..." Maria began, but she clearly didn't have the energy or willpower to continue. She looked completely fatigued. She looked defeated.
"And that couldn't wait?" asked Tony, livid still that not only had they taken away any chance at closure Natasha might have had, but also his own; Steve's own. It wasn't fair. It wasn't right.
Maria set her jaw and kept her mouth shut.
Before Tony could really get worked up Director Fury had crept back up on them.
"Mr. Stark," he barked. "Ms. Potts and the rest of your group are waiting in the conference room off of the main deck. Think you can find your way?"
"Where are you taking Agent Romanoff?" Steve asked, noticing how she was now standing between the two armed men that had accompanied Fury, but at least she wasn't shackled.
"For a chat," he said without offering any further explanation. "Agent Morse, care to join us?"
"Yes, sir," she returned with only a hint of uncertainty.
Tony, Steve, Jim and Maria watched as the group moved off towards Director Fury's office.
"This is bullshit," Tony muttered, turning and pushing his way through the opposite door and aware that the other three were now following him. "I'm going to find Pepper and round up the gang and we are getting out of this nuthouse."
"So we're just going to leave Natasha here?" Steve asked, catching him rather quickly and keeping up with his pace.
"I don't know," Tony shrugged, stopping full and looking around as if someone else would step in and answer that question for him. "And why do I have to know? Why do I have to decide?"
"Usually because you demand to," Steve fired back at him. "You can't ask to make all the decisions and then balk when they get too hard."
"Well, what do you suggest we do?"
"Wait to hear Fury's decision."
"And that's it? What if what he decides isn't something we agree with? What if he decides to lock her up or send her off to whatever hellhole prison we both know SHIELD has to have somewhere? Then what, Steve?"
"Then we change his mind," he answered, leaving the rest unsaid.
Tony stared at him for a minute before nodding in agreement. Glad they were on the same page. They wouldn't have stood for SHIELD holding Clint wholly responsible for his actions under Loki's influence and they wouldn't stand for SHIELD holding Natasha wholly responsible for her actions under unknown influences either.
"Yeah," Tony said, continuing to nod and turning a few times on the spot. "That. We'll do that. For now. Where am I going?"
"This way," Maria said stiffly, taking the lead and stopping in front of a conference room door closer to the main deck.
Tony and Jim went in immediately, and Steve could hear Pepper's greeting, but he didn't go in himself. Instead he pulled the door shut and looked at Maria as the two of them stood out in the hallway face-to-face.
"I can't do this right now," she said, turning on her heels and heading down the hallway. "You can be as mad as you want to be at me."
"I'm not mad at you."
"You should be," she said before she pushed open her office door and waited for him to enter.
"What happened?" he asked, shutting the door and folding his arms as she leaned back against her desk and dropped her head with a weary sigh.
"Potts already told Stark," she said as she rubbed her hands against her face. "What else can I say?"
"How about telling me why he was cremated so fast?"
"It's an old bi-law. I tried to delay it but... but it's not unheard of. The last time it happened, I had it addressed because of issues... similar issues... But it still stands. There's never enough time to do everything..." she said, trailing off and looking angry. "Agent Coulson was cremated under the same provision. His emergency contact was Barton. Barton was indisposed when the subject was first broached so... I should have gotten that law changed but I didn't. I couldn't."
"Don't blame yourself."
"Who else is there to blame?" she asked sharply.
"The people behind this are and we're going to find them," Steve said with real conviction. "Whoever it was that set this up, we'll get them. And we'll need your help to do that, Maria."
"It's Hill, Rogers."
"What?" he asked with surprise, taking half a step backwards and worrying he'd unwittingly crossed a line somewhere, but not sure where that could have been. They'd been on a first name basis for some time. He thought... but it didn't seem to matter right now what he'd thought given her reaction now.
"Captain," she said, glancing around the room and looking anxious, "I'm no longer Director Fury's deputy. I'm not even going to be the main liaison for your team. Director Fury asked me to step down, but that doesn't mean I won't be afforded the respect I deserve."
"I'm - " Steve started to say 'sorry' but cut the word off. "I didn't know."
"No, you wouldn't," Maria returned, meeting his eyes with a new kind of fierce determination. "Things change fast around here."
Maria wasn't trying to be rude or mean, she wasn't trying to change things between them; she thought they were being monitored.
"I appreciate you taking the time to explain SHIELD procedure to me," he said, trying hard to school his expression. "You said you'd no longer be the main liaison, Agent Hill, is that correct?"
"Yes, I'll be working in tandem with Agent Morse, but she'll be the lead."
"Stark will probably need you to come by the Tower," he said, his eyes darting up and around the room in a quick motion he hoped she understood. "So he can adjust his security programs and measures."
"As soon as I have the time," she answered, tugging on her ear and confirming for him that she didn't think there were cameras, just microphones. "The Avengers are no longer my top priority, but I'm sure I can make some time later in the week after things have settled down here."
"Whatever suits you best, Agent Hill." As he said it, Steve reached over and grabbed her hand in one of his own. If the gesture surprised her, it didn't read across her face. And she didn't pull back. "There's still a lot to be done," he went on as if they were having a normal conversation about work that wasn't being listened in on or possibly recorded. Like he wasn't holding her hand as if making some kind of declaration. "We want this relationship with SHIELD to continue," he added, feeling it was important to say and more important that she understood what he really meant. "Agent Morse seems very capable in the field," Steve added, quickly running out of things to say. That last part actually earned an eye roll along with the faintest hint of a smile.
"She's very well trained," Maria provided, her eyes doing the emphasizing.
Steve understood that too. Maria still believed Morse was working both sides. Or, more to the point, that she wasn't on their side.
"Does she know protocol as well as you do?"
"She might need a little more time for that," Maria answered, her voice solid as she reluctantly let her hand fall away from his, but not before giving it a gentle squeeze. It was almost too much. They were becoming too familiar again, and even if part of her felt buoyed by that thought, it was too dangerous to continue where they were now. "I'm being reassigned to the New York office so if needed, I'm sure I'll be able to stop by from time to time for consultations."
"Thank you," he said, turning to leave with great reluctance. "We'd all appreciate that."
"Captain Rogers, I almost forgot. In the interim I've been made Barton's executor," she said before he'd gotten out the door. He noted the slight hitch in her voice at Clint's name, but didn't call attention to it. "If it's too soon, say so, but I'd like to stop by and begin sorting through his items."
Steve nodded and wished they could just go now. He'd been fighting back his own emotions for hours and it seemed as if Maria had been doing the same.
To let go would be...
"When we're ready to return, I'll have someone inform you, Agent Hill."
Maria nodded and unable to linger, Steve left.
The room he entered was nearly as somber as the one he'd left. Pepper and Darcy sat together, both with eyes swollen and red. Jim and Tony stood nearby, the latter fidgety with nervous energy. Bruce was off in the corner by himself, his back to the group as he stared out the window.
"How's Agent Hill?" Pepper asked as Steve quietly took a seat.
"Busy," Steve said with a clipped tone. Tony and Pepper both looked at him with surprise and even Bruce's shoulders tensed at the sound of his voice. "She's... she's got a lot to get done," he continued, hoping to tap down the anger in his voice. He wasn't angry with Maria, but it was clear everyone thought he was. Steve was angry at the situation. "When we leave, she'll need to come with us. For official... she's been named executor and will..."
Steve stopped and shut his eyes with a sigh.
He'd never been good at this crap.
It was hard enough dealing with everything they were dealing with; he wasn't sure he could add lying for show on top of that pile.
"When can we leave?" Darcy asked, momentarily deflecting the attention away from Steve.
"When we know what's happened to Natasha," Tony answered.
"She's... She's coming with us?" Darcy asked in return with clear trepidation.
"Is that a problem?" Bruce responded, his back still to the group. There was a definite edge to his voice that didn't bode well.
"We're all dangerous," Steve said so Bruce wouldn't have to.
"Part of the job," Tony added, unable to contradict them. "Think about it."
Darcy looked around the room and knew what he meant.
If she couldn't accept Natasha back into the fold then she'd be asked to leave. It was a tall order and she'd have to give it some serious consideration.
"How about I take Pepper and Darcy back to the Tower, Tony?" Rhodey offered.
"That's a good idea," Pepper agreed, already on her feet and motioning for Darcy to join her. She'd had enough. Pepper thought she'd crawl out of her skin is she had to stay there much longer. "Call me if you need... anything," she said, kissing Tony.
"Don't wait up," Tony said as they left, leaving the room more solemn than before.
Tony slumped into the chair Pepper had been occupying and shut his own eyes for half a beat.
"Were you there?" he asked, turning his head towards Bruce. "When it happened, were you there?"
"No," Bruce answered after a minute, finally turning around with a book clutched in his hands. "We'd gone out for about an hour... an hour and a half."
"How..." Steve tried to ask, but didn't know how to finish.
"He was fine," Bruce said with a shrug as he took a seat. "Clint was joking... Well, you know how he jokes."
"So his typical grumpy son-of-a-bitch self," Tony said with a fond smile.
"Yeah," Bruce replied with a faint laugh. "Exactly that. He didn't want us all hovering. There was no indication that he was in pain or that anything was really even wrong. He asked for this," he said, sliding the book across the table.
"Watership Down," Tony said as he picked it up and flipped through the book.
"I don't think I've heard of that one," Steve said, mostly to keep talking. They needed to say something because the silence was unbearable.
"It's about rabbits," Tony answered as he happened across Clint's bookmark near the end.
"It's not really about rabbits," Bruce corrected. "It's an allegory. It's more about... " he trailed off, wanting to say 'family' but couldn't just yet. "It's about more."
"Deus ex machina," Tony muttered, reading the title of the chapter Clint had left off on, before shutting the book and setting it down. "We could use a little of that."
"Doesn't happen in the real world," Bruce replied gravely.
"Gentlemen," Director Fury said, opening the door suddenly, catching them all off guard. "Agent Romanoff would like a word."
Fury led the three of them down a series of hallways and through at least two sets of guards before finally ending up in what looked more or less like an interrogation room.
"Take all the time you need," Fury said pointedly before he opened the door and ushered them inside.
Natasha was standing with her back to the door in the far corner of the room and for the first minute made no move to greet or acknowledge their presence.
"I wanted you all to hear this from me," she finally said, her voice starting off soft but having grown stronger with each word passed over her lips. "This is my decision. My call."
"What is?" Steve asked.
"No," Tony said immediately.
"It's my decision," Natasha returned calmly. "No one is forcing me to do it. No one is threatening me. And, it's for the best. Until I can... Until this is fixed, I need to be locked up. I need to be safe."
"Tasha, this isn't the answer," Steve said shaking his head.
"Someone out there knows what I can do and they know how to make me to do it," she said evenly. "I won't take that risk. Never again."
"What does Fury say?" Tony asked, crossing his arms and just so angry he could hardly think straight.
"It doesn't matter."
"It does," Steve argued.
"He thinks... he thinks I can do this without..."
"Because you can," Steve insisted. "You can, Natasha. What's your plan? To lock yourself up forever?"
"Then what? Let SHIELD work this out for you?" Tony asked skeptically and rightfully so, in his mind. SHIELD was falling apart, it was being pulled apart, and Tony was certain that whoever was pulling the strings would not hesitate to use or dispose of her, whichever way suited best. "You really going to put all your eggs in that basket? For fuck's sake, Tasha, you know that's a bad idea. That is suicide."
"What options do I have?"
"Come back with us," Tony answered, throwing up his hands as if it was that easy. "We'll work it out from the Tower."
"I can't," she said quietly.
"Between me and Bruce, we'll figure out something," he continued, growing more animated as he spoke. "And I've got contacts. I've got other resources. I can make it safe, I swear it. I know it."
"I can't," she repeated.
"Stop saying that, you can," Tony said sharply.
"I can't go back there," she finally snapped. "You can't expect me to go back... to go where... I can't. I can't."
"Natasha," Steve said after a pause, "this has to be hard for you, I understand, but don't you think he'd -"
"Don't tell me what he'd want," she interrupted. "I'm not changing my mind. This is my call. Now please, leave."
"Tasha," Tony tried one last time.
Steve hung his head and put his hand on the door, hoping they'd get a chance to try again later. Maybe it was just too soon. Probably it was. Tony stood there for a half a second longer before storming out after Steve, pissed off that he'd found a problem without a solution. That he'd not only lost one friend, but two. And Bruce... Bruce didn't budge.
Bruce walked to the door and shut it, remaining in the room with Natasha.
"Please don't," she said quietly, her eyes on the floor as she slowly shook her head from side-to-side.
"I thought it would be me."
Natasha's eyes darted up and found his, confused by his meaning.
"I thought that if something like this was going to happen," Bruce continued, "it would be me, not you. All the focus in the group, it was always directed... We all knew it was possible, but a lot of things are possible, Natasha. Clint never worried about it. It never concerned him."
"He never had to live with it."
"But you do," he said with a sad nod. "And I do. And... And I really thought... I'm sorry."
"I am sorry, though, because you are living my worst nightmare right now and I may not know exactly what that feels like but... I think I've given it enough thought as to have an idea of it. You're angry and upset. You're probably a little mad at Clint for making you trust him so... so completely. For letting him trust you and bringing down that wall."
Natasha shook her head and turned her back on him, almost unable to stand it.
"Nothing we say or do now is going to bring him back," Bruce continued. "The past is done. It's hard and cold and final. But the future isn't and you owe him. You and I owe the people who love us, more than anything. The people who care for us despite of and because of what we are... we owe them everything. They come into our lives, knowing the risks, and stay. Not because we ask them to, but because they want to."
"And what good did that do him? What can I possibly do for him now? Clint is... Clint is dead because of me," Natasha said, every word a struggle. "I can't undo it. I can't fix it. I can't even look at myself... think about him or..."
"It's going to take time. I know that's what everyone says, but they all say it because it's true."
"I have plenty of time. It won't help."
"It won't," she snapped.
"Then quit," he fired at her, just as mad as she was. "Drown yourself in it. Wallow. Do whatever you like for now but eventually you have to try."
"No. I can't. I tried for him and..."
"And if you don't try again than you are admitting you're false. You are saying that you are false to Clint and to his memory and to all the love he had for you," Bruce said with utter conviction. "Clint thought he knew who you really were, Natasha. He swore to it and he died still believing he knew you, the real you. Was he wrong? Are you really just a mindless killer or are you more than that? Can you control the thoughts inside of you or will they control you?"
"What if I don't know anymore?" she admitted. Meeting his eyes and worried what the answer might be.
"You won't know until you try."
"I can't promise you anything, Bruce," she said, her eyes bright with unshed tears. "I don't know if I have anything left in me to swear by. Right now, I feel so hollow and bare that... but I'll consider it. I can think about it and maybe... but I can't go back to the Tower. That was... for awhile, it was home and I can't go home without him."
"Then we'll work from here."
Natasha nodded and dropped her eyes and Bruce knew they were done. He'd said what he wanted to say and all he could do now was hope he'd gotten through. Bruce knew from experience that not every demon could be vanquished, not every fear could be conquered, but doing nothing accomplished nothing. It was work, and the Natasha he knew was never afraid of work. Not hard work. Not painful work. He knew she could do this if she wanted it.
Bruce hoped she wanted it half as much as they wanted it for her. That Natasha was still the person he thought she was.
"Thank you," she said quietly just as he was almost out the door.
He was certain she was.
End Notes: I know this ended on a down note. I know I made promises and they will be kept. I'm not done with this series yet and expect to post the next fic, in its entirety, on Friday. Thank you for reading and commenting and favorite'ing! Don't kill me. :)