Disclaimer: I do not own Iron Man 2, Thor, or the Avengers, along with the characters, the quotes, and everything else associated with Marvel.

To trust or not to trust? Was he stable or was she the unstable one? His blurry form slumped over the chair by the head of her bed. She felt like she was made of cardboard from the shoulders up. With numb fingers she touched under her jaw, and found no skin under her fingertips but cloth; stiff bandages like callouses.

Though the bed and monitors and supplies she recognized as belonging to S.H.I.E.L.D Medical, this room she did not. With a single dim lightbulb providing meager lighting, shadows enveloped and suffocated the closet-sized, window-less space.

He noticed her movements and looked up, his expression blank; as if all but fatigue had worn away, the skin and flesh and blood shed from the skeleton, and all that remained crumpled into a heap of brittle white bone that just wanted to rest.

He was tired.

She closed her eyes and tried to fall back into the nothingness he had tricked her into, but it rejected her, pushed her back into the light, onto the solid bed beneath her, where every spring in the mattress probed her back like a dead mouse. A lab experiment. She pushed herself up to rest her back on the cold headboard.

"Fury said it's what you wanted," he said.

"Fuck what Fury said." The words came out slurred. Her tongue refused to cooperate.

"He had no other way to do this, Natasha."

"When did he involve you?"

"Isn't this what you wanted?" His voice sounded like broken bones. Broken brittle white bones that didn't want to rest anymore. "You wanted to get rid of it. It's done. What else do you want?"

What did she want? She wanted him back, but through what? Through a god that recoded him, hurt him with who she was? Through an after-effect of that ordeal that required medication every few hours? Through S.H.I.E.L.D keeping that information from her until she found out for herself?

She wanted her Collar gone but not like this.

"Fury had to put them off the idea that you'll get it out anytime soon." His tone softened somewhat. "Your thoughts can give it away; they'd have you dead before the surgeon could touch you. The sedative I gave you temporarily cut the—"

"How much did Fury tell you?" She whispered.

His lips parted a good few seconds before he spoke.

"Enough to do this for you."

She nodded and looked at the lightbulb on the ceiling. Its soft yellow glow shimmered and flickered, gentle on her sore eyes.

"I'm sorry about earlier. I know—it wasn't—" His voice caught. His eyes darted over her face. "I know it's not what you—"

"You ruined it for me." She put her hand on his cheek and guided his mouth to hers. "Don't do it again."

She pitched into him, rolling to rest on one hip, and with every last thread of gossamer light in her heart she pushed her lips against his, and when he pushed back she shivered, let his taste of lost and guilt spread on her tongue. He abandoned his chair and stood to loom over her, grip the headboard, their mouths still joined, still urgent. She yanked, clawed, twisted the front of his shirt with unfulfilled fingers, pulling him down onto her, until he crushed the space between their chests and her hands fumbled past his neck and jaw, stormed into his hair and her breath jerked to the feel of those strands swimming between her fingers, the warmth of his scalp on her palms.

He pulled back to look at her. She breathed and swallowed like a child who had played long under the sun, every frantic jump, every skip and leap of her heart pounding in her ears.

She felt freer in that room than she ever did in the open world.

Fury explained everything in his usual explosive, last-minute-notice style. The explosion didn't hurt when she was already in pieces.

All alien matter from the Manhattan invasion went to the Slingshot for disposal; sent in rockets headed for the sun. Every aerial vehicle S.H.I.E.L.D had or could round-up went into the operation. Natasha stared at him hard during that explanation. Fury expected her to believe that? That S.H.I.E.L.D had zero interest in the foreign technology, the anatomy and functions of the Chitauri? That they didn't have a lab room, have entire classified facilities waiting with expectant, possessive arms?

She sat still in her seat and listened.

Sheerin had concocted the appropriate drugs for Clint, reducing intake frequency to once a day and repressing the personality shifts he had admitted to. Fury presented them with a sample: a thin, sturdy syringe, pre-filled with a deep blue solution. "Injections act faster than pills. I know it's a pain—literally—but just roll with it, Barton. They're temporary if you do your share in the recovery."

Natasha asked about Selvig. About Blake and the other affected agents. Fury said that since Selvig's behavior was not destructive, and S.H.I.E.L.D did not cover him, he's on his own. Harsh treatment, for a scientist who Fury had plucked from his normal life to serve as Project P.E.G.A.S.U.S's chief contributor.

She sat still in her seat and listened.

As for Blake and the others, Fury wouldn't say. He swayed over to how he had managed to convince the S.H.I.E.L.D Review Board to let them off for the dozens of penalties they had accumulated. It wouldn't have mattered either way.

He discharged them from ops for two months, said he had alternative plans for them. An observation period of sorts. He would let them know in a day or two.

Then, as the meeting neared the end, Fury set two black boxes, slightly larger than a ring box onto the desk. He opened one and pulled out the metal bracelet inside. "The Council requires you two put these on. Tracking bracelets."

Natasha took it from him and rubbed the cool surface between her fingers. "Just tracking?"

With one look Fury conveyed to her the truth. So that's why he hesitated. She had escape one cage for another. At least the second one she would see, would feel its weight knocking against her arm. At least she would know of its presence.

Fury took the bracelet from her and locked the bracelet around her wrist. He opened the other box and did the same to Clint.

"Any questions?"

She sat still and shook her head.

Afterwards she visited the training rooms and stood by her locker, opening and closing the clasp on the daggers' box. She had to clean out her locker's contents by tomorrow, so might as well begin now. The isolated knife in her belt weighed the weight of a thousand. Natasha returned it to rest in the velvet box and brushed her thumb over the whole set.

What ever would she do with them?

At the other side of the training room, Clint packed away his bow. He wouldn't be using it for a while. No weapons past a butter knife or wooden skewer for him. That made no difference. Whoever had issued that command knew he could destroy with anything; he didn't need a sharp edge to wound when he had himself.

But not now. Right now, this moment—she couldn't guarantee the next—watching him roused a small, healing, growing seedling inside her. And as the soil beneath that seedling she couldn't protect it from blizzards nor storms but she could cling on. She could hold tight. Sometimes you had to hold tight to make it to the next clear sky. She tried not to think about the other times.

Natasha unhooked her windbreaker jacket from the top of the locker and shrugged it on. Her hands returned to the knives. She lifted the same one she had replaced and held it loose in her hand, tilting it to catch the light. In her daydreaming the blade slipped and dropped onto the floor, ringing like the highest note of a flute before the crash of percussion and brass.

"I saw that." Clint's footsteps came closer. "You alright?"

Natasha shook the jacket's sleeve over her bleeding palm. "I guess." She turned around.

Neither bent to pick up the knife.

He reached for her, but it was she who had her arms around him first. And all her troubles, all her pains and aches and every sickening thought of the future she tossed away, abandoned like a grimy suitcase from a tired, year-long pilgrimage in a corner of the house, to be thought about later. Always later. Someday she would have to unpack that suitcase but not today. Today she had something special. She hoped she could say that everyday.

When she held him and kissed his lips something spilled into her veins—pink and yellow and a baby, baby blue—fluttering, diffusing, lifting her bones, flowing up, and up, and up...

She kissed him with all the faith she had.


"Come To" - Bombay Bicycle Club

A/N: (Listen to the song dammit. It wraps everything up nicely) Annnnd a huge thank you for everyone who stuck with me till the end, who reviewed, favorited, followed, PMed, etc! Before I discuss the possible sequel, let me get to a quick FYI:

Two references from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D in this chapter that might have confused some people if you haven't watched the show:

1. The Slingshot (Program) is located at a classified desert facility that gets rid of dangerous technology.

2. Nat & Clint's bracelets are the same ones that Skye wore, minus the electronics-hindering component. An early model, perhaps?

So, I did leave some things ambiguous, and I have been brainstorming and sketching sequel outlines for a few months now, but the question is do you guys want to read it? I feel like I've lost a lot of you towards the end for some reason (it's been a bit quiet) so I'm dangling the sequel in midair now. Plus I've already predicted that when high school starts up again I will have less time than I did this year to write. But if you want to read it, I will write it.

That aside it's been a pleasure, and overall I'm satisfied with this as my first fic. Leave any last feedback if you like. Thank you so much!


UPDATE: After I got that guest review about the sequel I thought I'd drop this here: it will be a lot slower in terms of pace, less "all over the place", less plot-driven, and overall lighter than this story has been. Hmm. What else can I say? More experimentation on style, and I also plan on using color as a major component. So no, if you're looking for the exact tone/taste of this story then I can't guarantee anything, but characterization and overall writing quality I can confirm. This is also one of the reasons I'm hesitating to put it out. I'm always available to talk!

UPDATE (7/5/14): Extreme late notice, but I'm going forward with the sequel. In fact I already have a few chapters written, but I'm just waiting until I can edit a few more chapters on this fic before I start so everything can be fresh for new readers. Thanks :)