Rating: Mature (light R?)
Summary: Debt is only beautiful when it has been repaid
Clint’s not surprised to discover that Fury has partnered him with Romanoff; it’s surely meant as some kind of punishment, although if he’d been Ellis or Judson or Sims – who’d all been sent to bring in the Black Widow and had gotten their asses handed to them by her instead – he probably would have received some kind of medal.
He’s not counting his chickens, though. The woman has a perpetually cagey look in her eye; even when she’s acting relaxed (because he’s sure it’s all an act) her eyes are in constant motion, watching exits, counting heads, like she’s behind enemy lines.
On their first mission they travel with three other agents to Hat Yai and prevent a terrorist bombing at the Merridian Hotel. Clint takes out a half dozen separatists from the roof of a hospital across the street, and watches as his new partner intercepts the would-be bombers and beats them into submission with little apparent regard for her own safety. Sanchez disarms the bomb, Coulson tells them to rendezvous in a park behind the Natural History Museum, and Clint pretends not to be surprised when Romanoff shows up, uninjured and unruffled.
Second mission: Pristina, Kosovo. Just the two of them this time, running surveillance on a meeting between a SHIELD CI named Zsanett and the head of one of the local crime families. They’re supposed to make sure Zsanett isn’t ‘oversharing’, and take him into custody if he is. Romanoff gets into the back room of the restaurant – with a little help from a pair of four-inch heels and a flawless Albanian dialect – and plants the bugs. Zsanett behaves himself, orders proja with yogurt, and everyone goes home happy.
They have a layover across the Adriatic in San Marino. Romanoff leaves the safehouse a little after midnight but doesn’t seem to have a destination in mind; he follows her from the rooftops as she wanders around the city for a while, finally circling back to the house, and Clint pretends to have been waiting for her. He teaches her gin rummy and tells her a little about the circus life. She smiles twice; one of those times she means it.
Third: Buenos Aires. A wealthy antiquities collector named Morneau is claiming that he has discovered a century-old map to an ‘ancient power source of unimaginable magnitude’, and SHIELD wants to get a look at it. He’s a stubborn son of a bitch, though, and arranging things through official channels hasn’t worked. Natasha – he’s started thinking of her as ‘Natasha’ in his mind, although never out loud – assumes Coulson wants her to sleep with Morneau in order to get access to the innermost sanctum of his mansion. Coulson gives her a look that is half confusion and half pained sympathy and introduces her to a special little cocktail of drugs that will have Morneau happily blabbing every secret he’s ever held.
Natasha ‘meets’ Morneau at a club, gets invited back to his place, and slips him the mickey as instructed. Coulson shows up and manages the interrogation; the map points to some place in Norway, Clint thinks, and Coulson seems disappointed.
They spend some time at SHIELD’s HQ in Cordoba. It’s nice being around other agents again, but when Natasha asks him to spar with her he agrees, even though hand-to-hand isn’t really his thing. He thinks she’s probably going pretty easy on him until he makes the mistake of bringing up Buenos Aires. He tells her ‘you don’t have to do that kind of stuff anymore’ and wakes up an hour later in the infirmary.
Fourth: Veracruz. (No hard feelings about Cordoba; he needs to learn to keep his mouth shut and she’s still claiming it was an accident anyway.) It’s a protection detail with two other agents, looking after a couple in SHIELD’s witness protection after their identity has been leaked to the wrong people. Natasha is inserted as a nanny for the couple’s six-month old son and Clint talks her through a diaper change over comms.
The family is relocated to Orizaba three days later without incident. Afterwards he buys her a beer and they laugh about the whole thing, and she admits that Cordoba wasn’t an accident, and he tells her, “Yeah, I know.”
Fifth: Montreal. Natasha’s meeting with a potential asset who wants to turn himself over to SHIELD’s custody – and protection – but it turns out to be a set-up. There are five guys with guns and Clint kills two of them before they can get off a shot but then he loses track of both his partner and the asset for fifteen excruciating minutes. When the smoke clears – literally, because she set fire to the bar – the remaining gunmen are dead, the asset is secured… and Natasha has a contusion on her temple, two burned fingers, and a gunshot wound in her side.
Clint patches her up as best as he can while they wait for extraction; he slips up, calls her ‘Natasha’, and she lets it pass.
They’re flown back across the border and Natasha ends up spending five days in a SHIELD-controlled hospital in upstate New York. The doctors are more worried about the head injury than the burns, which are minor, and the gunshot wound, which was only a graze.
Clint visits her (he hates hospitals but he thinks it’s his duty as her partner) and she spends the whole time looking confused and uncomfortable, as though she’s confused about why he’s there and wishing he weren’t. Every time he starts coming up with a reason to leave, though, she starts talking again. She apologizes for getting hurt and he laughs but she’s serious, and she tells him – in slow, halting sentences – how working with a partner in ‘the old days’ had meant taking responsibility for the other person’s mistakes. If one screwed up, the other would be disciplined. It was supposed to encourage accountability, she says. Clint points out that she completed the mission – the asset is under SHIELD security now whether he likes it or not – but she seems to take her injuries as evidence of personal weakness.
He tries to set her mind at ease by showing off the various scars he’s picked up over the years, beginning with the innocuous ones on hands and feet and then legs and arms and he’s fully prepared to take off his shirt to show her the ugly one just below his collarbone when a nurse walks by and gives him an incredulous look. Natasha stifles a laugh and says, reprovingly, “Clint,” so he keeps the shirt on. It’s the first time she’s ever called him anything except ‘Agent’ or, if she was feeling particularly friendly, ‘Barton’, but he doesn’t make a big deal about it and she doesn’t seem to have even noticed the slip.
It’s a couple of weeks before she’s deemed well enough to go back out into the field. Coulson asks if he’d like to work with someone else in the meantime. Clint hates downtime, but he says he’ll wait. SHIELD rarely makes their partnership assignments exclusive, but the idea of running an op with anyone else somehow feels like a betrayal. Coulson admits that Clint has been due for some time off anyway, and leaves it at that.
Sixth: Macau. They’re impersonating a husband and wife team who are representing a potential buyer of some nasty AIM tech. The ‘husband’ was supposed to be Coulson, while Clint hacked into the hotel’s closed circuit system and served as their eyes in the sky, but at the last moment Fury had sent Coulson somewhere urgent and unspecified. Agent Morse is now their computer person and spends most of the flight to China whispering about how she doesn’t think Agent Romanoff likes her. Clint mutters that he doesn’t think Agent Romanoff really likes anyone.
They walk the floor of the Casino Lisboa arm in arm, although Natasha is frostier than usual and Clint thinks she might have overheard what he said to Morse. They’re approaching the entrance to the private room where the meeting is to be held when her grip suddenly tightens, and Clint sees a grizzled man at the door giving Natasha a curious look.
“That’s Christopher Artemiev,” warns Morse over their comms. The name doesn’t mean anything to Clint but it obviously does to Natasha, because she tugs him slightly to the left so that they walk past the room instead of into it, slipping into a current of casino floor traffic: suited gamblers and half-dressed waitresses and dissipated men with blank expressions and empty pockets.
“He’s following you,” says Morse.
Natasha’s grip tightens again, almost painfully. “Are we made?” Clint whispers into her ear.
“I don’t know,” she whispers back. “He… I haven’t seen him since I was a girl.”
They pass the slot machines, pass the card tables, pass a young couple locked in a celebratory clinch, and Clint gets an idea that is possibly the worst idea he’s ever had: he pulls Natasha into the shadowy area behind a rather ostentatious marble statue of Lady Luck, pressing her up against the wall, hiding her face and most of her form behind his own body, hoping that his dark suit will blend into the dark walls and that Artemiev will pass them unaware. Natasha seems to think he has something else in mind, though, and before he can protest her arms are wrapped around his neck, her lips pressed hard against his, and he notices – dully, as though he’s having some kind of out of body experience – that while her technique is excellent there is no passion in the kiss, no heat.
Then she pulls back and whispers, “I think he’s gone.”
There’s complete silence from Morse’s end of the comm as she waits to see exactly how Clint is about to die, and he opens his mouth to explain, but Natasha shakes her head and pulls him from the shadows, all business. “Come on, we need to get out of here before he comes back.”
Morse spends most of the flight back from Asia staring at Clint as though she’s just watched him put his head into a lion’s mouth while wearing a meat helmet. (Clint knew a guy in the circus who did that as part of his act, but now’s not the time to be reminiscing about the old days.)
Natasha sits at the other end of the cabin, reading a book, although sometimes she looks up at him and their eyes meet, and her expression is challenging.
All things considered, he’d prefer the lion.
Hanna Karpenka kisses Gabe Bishop and I hover somewhere in the shadows, eager to be overlooked but not willing to fade away completely.
I am worried that the kiss will awaken some memory, either of Macau or New York, but I have underestimated Natasha’s ability to divorce her mind from her body.
“Listen,” says the man calling himself Gabe Bishop – I’m wary of identifying him, even to myself – “do you want to go somewhere else?” He smirks and nods at the dinner tent. “I think I’m pretty much over this.”
Natasha smiles. It’s a coy, seductive smile that masks her genuine pleasure; it’s always nice when a mark does the hard work for you. Not that it’s ever been very difficult for her to get men to play her game. Still, some require more leading by the nose than others. “I’ve got a room at the Valley Suites,” she whispers, leaning in close to be heard over the sound of the fountain.
Bishop doesn’t hesitate. “I’m at the Muir, just up the road. It’s got one hell of a mini-bar,” he adds, flashing a brief grin.
Natasha doesn’t care where they go; she just needs to get him alone to interrogate him about Witten. “Ooh, big spender,” she teases, resting her hand on his thigh. “No one else is going to be dropping by… expecting you to share, are they? The mini-bar, I mean,” she adds saucily.
He seems momentarily nonplussed by the placement of her hand, but replies with a nervous little chuckle that sounds positively genuine. “Definitely not. We may need to call a cab, though. I came with a friend and…”
“That’s no problem,” says Natasha. “We can take my car.”
They leave through the gate beneath the knowing glances of the security guards. They aren’t expected to go through the metal detector on the way out, so Clint doesn’t know for sure whether Natasha is armed, but if he had to guess he’d go with definitely.
The awkwardness of the dinner has nothing on this moment. The walk from the gate to the street seems miles long, and he is painfully aware of how close Natasha is, of the smell of her perfume and the way her hand sometimes brushes lightly against his suited back. He’s anxious about what’s to come, aroused even though he knows he shouldn’t be, and uncertain as to why she’s so willing to leave with him. Natasha doesn’t do anything without a reason.
She thinks I worked for the Institute. He’d taken a risk, confirming that, but it seemed like it had been the correct answer. Witten never showed up. Now she’s looking for someone who might know where he is. It’s a reasonable assumption as any, even if making assumptions might just get him killed.
The street is quiet, lined on both sides with BMWs and Hummers and muscle cars, another way for the dinner guests to proclaim their superiority over one another. The eucalyptus trees, trimmed with their strands of twinkling white lights, are the only illumination, aside from a couple of sodium vapor street lamps half a block away.
“Down here,” says Natasha – Hanna, don’t even think of her anything except Hanna – and she leads him down the row of cars, away from the nearest lamp, and he figures that if she’s planning on killing him she’s going to have a pretty easy time of it, but when she digs into her little black handbag she comes up with nothing more dangerous than a set of keys. She hits a button on the fob and two headlights give an answering flash.
Clint looks up, momentarily distracted by the sight of the candy apple-red Camero convertible. “Wow, that’s… nice.” He moves automatically towards the driver’s door and then steps back, remembering his manners, remembering how long it took before she trusted him enough to let him get behind the wheel.
She gives him a funny look, and he’s worried that he’s done or said something that strikes her as odd or suspicious, or – God forbid – something idiosyncratic enough that it will trip the trigger. But then she’s smiling again, walking towards him, holding out the keys, and before he can reach for them – or even think whether or not reaching for them is a good idea – her arms are around his neck and she’s kissing him again, more forcefully than before. He brings his hands up without conscious thought; the back of her dress is cut low and he can feel the bare skin beneath his palms.
Her lips taste like wine and he’s reminded, not of New York, but of Macau. Her technique is still excellent and the kiss itself is enthusiastic, but there’s still no heat in it. There’s still no passion. Maybe it’s only because he knows what to look for, maybe it’s just because he has something to compare to, maybe no other red-blooded man would spare a moment’s consideration, but he knows; this is the kiss of a woman doing her job.
New York, he realizes, had been different. She had been flushed and gasping; she had embraced him not just with desire but with longing, with affection. She had teased him and writhed against him… and she had been hurt when he walked away. That had been Natasha; his Natasha.
And what was she now?
Hanna Karpenka? No, that woman was just makeup and a pretty dress. Natalia Romanova? That name had headed Fury’s dossier on the Black Widow once, just one name among many, before she had decided – she gave him a different reason every time he asked why, so he had stopped asking – to Americanize her surname, to become Agent Romanoff, agent of SHIELD, and eventually Natasha, and Nat, and sometimes just Tasha.
But now she is none of these people, none of these things, just the shell that managed to survive Fisher’s ministrations, and suddenly it’s difficult to kiss her, hard to act like he’d be happy to pull up her skirt and screw her against the side of the Camero, because he knows to her he’s just a stranger and, to him, she’s worse than that.
He wants to cry in relief when she finally pulls away, pressing the keys into his hand. “Why don’t you drive?” She doesn’t wait for his answer, just gives his ass a squeeze and then slides into the passenger’s seat, and then he’s standing in the spangled darkness with maybe ten, fifteen seconds to compose himself before he gets behind the wheel.
Christiane Jacobs, huddled face-down on the cold ground, tries to remain positive. Her night isn’t going very well, but so far it’s going better than Bruno Witten’s.
It’s pitch black here amongst the trees and she can’t see her watch, but it seems like they’ve already been here for hours. Her, and the lady assassin, and the man called ‘Captain’… who is either Steve Rogers, the Captain America, or else his twin brother.
She thinks ‘it’s a Mexican standoff’, even though she’s not Mexican and she’s not even sure what the phrase means; it’s just one of the things Morris used to say – like ‘in like Flynn’ and ‘all show and no go’ – and it just sort of stuck with her. She hasn’t seen Morris for years (he and Mom had split when Chris was still in high school) but he’s still about the closest thing she’s known to a father and he creeps into her thoughts at the strangest times.
Like when she’s lying in the middle of a eucalyptus grove with a superhero and a murderer and the dead body of a client.
There’s a scuffle and something bumps against her and she almost screams, realizing at the last moment that it’s only the captain. He’s left his hiding spot behind the big tree to join her here on the ground, and she wonders what it means that the assassin didn’t even bother trying to shoot at him. “I want you to get back to the gate,” he whispers. “Stay low, stay quiet. See if one of the guards has a phone.”
“I have a phone,” Chris whispers back. It’s a little one, tucked into her bra, but she doesn’t mention that. Wasn’t he from, like, a hundred years ago? Back then women didn’t talk about their bras, she’s pretty sure. “Do you want me to call the cops?” She’s not thrilled about the idea, really; there are a lot of cops in Mill Valley who know her by sight. Most of them are pretty live and let live – they like that she’s not out walking the streets at all hours and that she stays away from the crack heads – but then there’s the ones who don’t care, who don’t see the difference between prostitute and escort.
The captain hesitates. Even without seeing his face Chris can tell he’s not in love with the idea of cops, either. “No,” he says finally. “Have the operator connect you to Stark Industries in New York. Give them my name. Steve Rogers. They can put you through to SHIELD. Tell them where we are. Tell them we need support. Do you have all that?”
“Stark Industries, Steve Rogers, SHIELD,” says Chris breathlessly. In the back of her mind she’s already composing a really epic tweet about all of this.
Rogers scoots back towards her feet, giving her a clear path towards the gate and the party. She can still hear music and voices, very faintly, but it all sounds like it’s a million miles away. “Remember, stay low,” says Captain Rogers.
“What if she follows me?” Chris whispers, really scared for the first time. She doesn’t like the idea of being alone in the dark woods, with so many things to trip over or run into, with the assassin somewhere behind her and maybe out to kill all of them. She doesn’t want to end up like Bruno Witten.
“I’ll make sure she doesn’t,” the captain replies, and he sounds so confident, so steady, that she nods even though he knows he can’t see her and pushes herself up onto her hands and knees. No one tries to shoot her, and she thinks Stark Industries, Steve Rogers, SHIELD, moving slowly back towards civilization, and still thinking, even without really meaning to, of how to fit all of this into 144 characters.
Kamala hears movement, hears voices as whispers pass between Rogers and the unnamed woman. He’s the gallant type, she suspects, and is trying to get the noncombatant to safety before taking on his enemy. Kamala is tempted to pop off a couple shots in their direction, just for fun –the noise of her sound-suppressed handgun won’t carry all the way to the party – but there’s too much chance that Rogers will feel obligated to return fire.
She’s already made her plans, if it comes to that. He’s big but she’s fast, and she has a good memory for the layout of trees and stones and undergrowth between her position and the access road. Once she’s made it to the cars she can either wait for him to emerge from the woods and pick him off, or she can slash his tires and drive away.
Right now, she’s thinking of opting for the latter. She’s tired, it’s been a long day, and besides, it doesn’t seem right that a man like Rogers should live through World War Two, survive decades in the Arctic ice, and come through an alien invasion unscathed only to die on a lonely little road in California, all because he harbors some misplaced notion of responsibility.
She isn’t precisely sure what fate would have to say on the matter, but if she doesn’t have to kill him, she won’t.
She’s listening very hard for any clue that Rogers is on the move, straining her senses into the darkness, and maybe because of that the sudden, tremendous crash that comes from behind her – between her position and the access road – makes her jump half out of her skin. The trees around her seem to shudder with the impact and she drops, looking frantically in all directions and seeing nothing but the black-on-black of trunks and bows and quivering leaves.
“What, you didn’t bring backup?” yells Rogers, and then she hears something else: a hydraulic hiss, a metallic clatter, and another laughing voice that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. She thinks Stark even though it doesn’t seem possible; she’d done her homework on the Gulfstream, concerned about the other so-called Avengers lending Rogers and Barton a hand, but everything had pointed to Stark still being in Europe and Banner in Miami.
“I’m gonna guess that’s a no,” says that other voice, Stark’s voice, echoing weirdly through his suit speakers, and Kamala decides that this is more than even the most devoted scholar of fate can be expected to deal with. She turns and runs, not back towards the access road – it seems that Stark must be blocking her way – but to her right, towards the main street. Unfortunately this is all unfamiliar terrain, and she stumbles and trips, rebounding off trees and scratching her face on low-hanging limbs.
She’s making such a racket that she doesn’t even hear her pursuer until it’s too late; she turns, gun raised, expecting to see red metal and bright lights, but the figure that takes her to the ground is dressed in a gray suit. They hit hard and the air is knocked from her lungs even as the gun is torn from her grip, and she doesn’t understand, not at all. Kolar to Bangalore to Brasillia to Villavicencio; it was never meant to end like this.
True to his word, Bishop’s hotel is only about five minutes away. It would have been less if he drove like her.
She’s surprised, because most men presented with a sports car and enticed with the promise of sex would drive like a bat out of hell, but he scrupulously follows the posted speed limit and slows at yellow lights instead of bombing through them.
The only time he breaks the law is when he takes out his cell phone at a red light. It’s a cheap little thing, one of the older prepaid models that are frequently used as disposable lines. Not the kind of phone she would expect a successful doctor to have.
He sees her watching as he sends a one-handed text. “Figured I should let my buddy know I found my own ride,” he smiles, slipping the phone back into his jacket pocket as the light turns green.
Natasha feels a sudden flush of guilt for leaving Aten at the party, especially since she doesn’t seem like the kind of girl who could coax a drive home out of a complete stranger. It feels a little strange, too, not having a way to communicate with her when they’ve been so close the past few days. But Aten has done her job, she’s identified the target (or at least a reasonable alternative) and Natasha will handle the rest. They can meet up back at the Valley Suites when the job is done.
They drive, of course, with the top down. The wind tugs at Natasha’s chignon; she smells the sea and the early summer warmth radiating off the pavement and also the acrid tang of ozone, as though from an approaching storm, although the sky is clear.
They don’t speak. Natasha has far from exhausted her own supply of small-talk, and she considers whispering a few choice thoughts in Bishop’s ear to see if that translates to the speedometer, but she knows how to read a mark and she thinks that he’ll get more out of her silence than her speech. He glances at her a couple of times and she pretends not to notice.
The Muir is a big, rambling turn-of-the-century place set back from the road and surrounded by close-growing horse chestnuts. Bishop’s room is on the first of three floors, with a tiled patio in place of an upper-story balcony, and a private entrance through a side gate. He unlocks the door with an old-fashioned key – obviously this place is more into nostalgia than security – and ushers her inside, his hand warm against her bare back.
The room is not much larger than her suite but more richly appointed. Natasha catalogs her surroundings in the blink of an eye: sofa, coffee table, TV cabinet, writing desk and chair. Phone on the desk, mirror on one wall, pastel print on another. Across the room: a shallow kitchen nook, with sink, microwave and mini-fridge. A door stands ajar and she catches a glimpse of a bed, a nightstand, a lamp. Every item, every detail, every piece of furniture is a potential weapon or a potential impediment.
Bishop walks to the kitchen, shrugging out of his suit jacket as he goes, and begins rummaging through the fridge with single-minded purpose. Natasha perches on the sofa and watches him carefully, but all he brings out are a couple small bottles stamped with a familiar logo. He holds them up with a questioning look; she nods and smiles.
When he looks away she takes the opportunity to unstrap the holster from her leg and tuck the gun deep between the cushions; if he puts his hand up her skirt, she doesn’t want him to find anything that might ruin the moment.
The fact is, Natasha realizes, watching Bishop pour the vodka into two cheap glass tumblers, that she wants him to put his hand up her skirt. And she doesn’t want him to stop there.
She could have knocked him out the moment they were inside the room, the second he turned his back to flip the light switch. He would have awoken tied to the straight-backed armchair and, eventually, would have told her everything she needed to know about Witten.
The mission is the mission and the mark is just a mark, and sex is just a tool that she uses when she has to, only when she has to, because generally speaking there’s nothing she enjoys about having a sweaty stranger on top of her, groaning and groping. Each part of her body is a weapon and there is a time and a place for the use of every blade; the Red Room taught her that.
But something about Bishop has the blood thrumming in her veins, and as he joins her on the sofa she finds that she’s silently reasoning with herself: it’s not necessary but it won’t compromise the mission, she can knock him out afterwards…
He hands Natasha the tumbler and she drinks deep, heedless of the risk; she heard the seal break on both bottles but he could have spiked the vokda with something afterwards. He drinks as well, watching her over the top of his own glass, wincing just slightly as he swallows, silent and attentive. It’s as though he’s anticipating something as surely as she is; only she’s certain they’re not waiting for the same thing.
She expects his hands on her body, eager against the zipper of her dress, his vodka-flavored lips on hers, but even though she can see the tale-tell signs of arousal broadcast by his body he makes no move to touch her.
So she touches him.
She finishes her drink, puts it down, and slides wordlessly into his lap, plucking the tumbler from his hand and leaning back to set it on the table. His breath quickens and she can feel him hard against her thigh, although not as hard as she wants him to be, needs him to be, so she goes up on her knees long enough to hike her skirt up around her waist.
Then she kisses him, and this time there is no reluctance on his part, just wanton desire as he thrusts his tongue between her parted lips, one hand pulling her hair free from its loosened chignon, the other stroking her bare leg just below the hip, callused fingers skimming beneath the rucked-up skirt.
Natasha gasps into his open mouth, grinding down on him, and she feels the hand on her leg drift up to brush against her breasts instead.
She’s lost in the moment – completely, uncharacteristically lost – her focus on his mouth and the stubborn clasp of his belt buckle and the sudden, impossible memory of his hands on her wrists and his voice – not like this – so it takes her a second before she realizes that he’s not fondling her, he’s reaching into his jacket, his hand closing on something that she’s certain isn’t his phone…
Natasha breaks the kiss and tries to lunge to her left, towards the hidden gun, but her body suddenly locks up, stiff and unresponsive; she thinks that Bishop must have done something to her but somehow she knows he’s as surprised as she is. She can’t feel anything, not the cushions beneath her knees or his body between her thighs; she sucks in a rattling breath and hears a voice, a woman’s voice; Aten’s voice. “Do it now, Clint."
And as sensation rushes back like a sucking tide he moves, wide-eyed, producing something small and sharp from his jacket pocket. She tries to fight him but her movements are slow, sluggish, and she can only watch as the tip of the needle slides beneath her skin.
Clint’s stomach is full of a nauseous, twisting heat. He can’t blame the vodka.
He carries the unconscious Natasha to the metal-framed chair at the writing desk, pulls down her skirt, and carefully arranges her limbs. There are some plastic zip ties in his duffle (they’ve come all the way from Kenya, where he used a couple to truss up the carjacker) and he uses these to secure her wrists and ankles to the chair. He forces himself to pull each one as tight as he would if she was anybody else, because he can hear Natasha’s voice, a memory in the back of his mind – you’re not being chivalrous, you’re being chauvinistic, and I’m surprised it hasn’t gotten you killed yet – and Coulson’s shoulders shaking in silent laughter.
Her head lolls forward, blonde hair hanging over her closed eyes.
Clint tosses the used tranq dart on the table and sits down heavily on the sofa, burying his face in his hands. He is now – briefly – in sympathy with some of the marks he’s watched Natasha take in over the years, when at the time he had felt only contempt and a little disgust for how willingly, how freely, they walked into her web.
Now he knows from first-hand experience how persuasive she can be. He had known that she was playing him, had known the whole time, and still he had been intensely tantalized… he can still feel her weight on his lap, taste the warmth of her mouth…
And then the nausea rears up again, because how can he be so turned on when he knows full well that she wasn’t herself, she wasn’t in control, was doing this because she was told to do it…?
The ampuls of 13A-10R still sit in their little metal box, inside the mini-fridge. He hadn’t brought any of the drug with him to the party, only the two remaining darts from Manesh’s gun, which were made mostly of a hard plastic resin that hadn’t tripped the metal detectors. They can use one of the deconstructed darts to deliver the drug, in the absence of a syringe, but not yet. Not yet.
He takes out his prepaid phone and dials Rogers’ number, simultaneously pulling the laptop out from under the sofa and checking the dropbox. It’s empty; somehow, he isn’t surprised.
Rogers answers on the fifth ring, sounding worried and a little breathless, and Clint when demands, “Where are you?” he’s surprised by the anger in his voice.
“We had a little… problem,” says Rogers.
Clint’s watching Natasha closely for any sign that she’s beginning to stir; intoxicants have never seemed to work on her quite like other people and there’s no reason not to think the same of sedatives. At her full strength he’s sure that she could escape his restraints in a manner of moments. “I waited as long as I could…”
“What?” He can’t pretend to feel very badly about this, but a terrible idea presents itself. “Was it… Aten?” Was all of this some kind of elaborate distraction? It seems ridiculous, but…
“It was Manesh,” says Rogers wearily. “She must have evaded SHIELD… followed us from Colombia. I… I thought I was getting Witten to safety, like we discussed, but… she was waiting for us.”
“I’ll tell you later. Do you have Agent Romanoff?”
Clint grabs the tranq gun from the top of the television cabinet and loads the remaining regular dart. The last time he saw Manesh she had been face-down on the floor of the lab, unconscious; when SHIELD arrived he had assumed she would be taken into custody along with Fisher and her other goons. Her ability to escape seems to indicate that the sedative is not terribly strong. “Yeah. We’re back at the Muir. She’s secure, but… I haven’t used the drug yet.”
Rogers is silent for a long moment. “So she didn’t…”
“Recognize me? No.” Except for just now. ‘Do it now, Clint.’ He doesn’t know how to explain that, even to himself, so he doesn’t bring it up. “Just… get back here, okay? If she wakes up… I’m going to need your help.”
Rogers is quiet again, as though maybe he realizes what it’s cost Clint to say those words, to admit that he can’t do this alone. And it’s not just about keeping Natasha physically contained, which Rogers can do far better than he if the sedative isn’t effective.
Clint has got to administer the drug, not because he’s put all his trust in this mysterious Aten but because he’s now seen the evidence with his own eyes. He’s seen what they’ve turned Natasha into. He’s got to make her remember, he’s desperate to do it, but if there’s even an outside chance that the informant is right, that it could trip the trigger, that it could kill her…
He’s got to do it, but he can’t, not by himself.
“I’ll be right there,” says Rogers quietly.