Rating: Mature (light R?)
Summary: Debt is only beautiful when it has been repaid
The director informs Natasha that she will be working with Agent Barton for the foreseeable future.
It’s not explicitly a threat, but she takes it as one anyway. Fury knows she’s in Barton’s debt; Fury knows that she’ll behave herself for Barton’s sake, if not her own.
Dolg platezhom krasen. Debt is beautiful only after it has been repaid.
They go to Hat Yai on a tip: revolutionaries, bombs, the hotel. Natasha sees half a dozen things they could do better but she keeps her opinions to herself. There are three other agents and she can feel their eyes on her. She feels Barton’s eyes, as well, but somehow his gaze has a different touch. When the mission is successful, when she walks into the clearing behind the museum to join the others, he does his level best to hide his shock.
Kosovo is next. Barton sets the parameters but lets her take the lead. She walks away from him, towards the restaurant, and she knows that she could just keep going: past the building, into the heart of Pristina, into darkness. But she can’t. She can’t. She doesn’t.
In San Marino the walls of the safehouse seem to loom above her and around her, constricting, constraining, and she walks out into the night to escape them for a time. No one tries to stop her; they don’t need to, not when they can hold her debt hostage. She walks and walks but eventually she comes back, as she’s always known she must, and Barton is waiting for her by the door to her room. She freezes when she sees him, wondering what he expects, but he’s come bearing only playing cards and an attempt at camaraderie. He makes her smile and she hates herself for it.
When Agent Coulson tells them about Morneau and his map Natasha knows her time has come. She’s proven herself twice now – proven that she’ll take orders, proven that she’ll come back – and now they want to see what else she can do. But she’s wrong, or at least that’s what they tell her; all they want is for her to get close enough to spike his drink. She’s forgotten that she’s not a lone operative any longer, expected to do what must be done without complaint, without compunction; there are other people, now, and resources she has barely even imagined. Still, Natasha is faintly embarrassed by their obvious pity and, somehow, a little disgruntled. Every part of her body is a tool.
She makes sure to remind Barton of that, in Cordoba, but she hits him harder than she had intended – too distracted by her confusion and a sense of powerlessness – and he’s taken to the infirmary, unconscious. When people ask she tells them that it was all an accident, which is only partly the truth, but Barton must back her up because she is never disciplined.
In Veracruz she goes in undercover for the first time with SHIELD, really undercover, with a fake name and a real mission. The people that they’re protecting know who she is, of course, and are thankful their son will be safe in her care, but the whole matter is so far outside her realm of experience that she hardly knows what to say to them. It’s Barton’s voice, over their comm, that keeps her calm and focused.
After the family is moved safely to Orizaba he takes her to Cantina La Escondida. She tells him that Cordoba wasn’t an accident and he says “Yeah, I know” and buys her a beer. She doesn’t really like beer but she drinks it anyway, and they talk about Veracruz and laugh a few times and she realizes with a start that she must look like one of those people she used to watch with such envy, such loathing. A woman sharing a drink with a friend, happy and carefree.
It scares the hell out of her.
The chaos in Montreal is almost a relief. She doesn’t realize how badly she’s hurt until she drags the asset back to Barton’s position in the warehouse; the look in his eyes when he sees her just makes the pain worse. He radios in, handcuffs the howling asset to a pipe, and makes her lay on the ground while he looks over her injuries. Her head is killing her but the blood gushing from her side can’t be good either, and she watches him numbly as he tears through their first aid kit, rips open a packet of gauze and holds it to the wound. She wants so badly to close her eyes, to drift away from everything, but he says “Stay with me, Natasha,” and the sound of her name on his lips brings her back to herself.
She apologizes in New York and he pretends not to understand. She tries to explain and sees that pity in his eyes again, that pity that she hates, as if he’s the one who knows how the world really works and not her. She knows, knows, that an operative who allows herself to get hurt is not an operative who can be trusted, but he claims a score of injuries on a dozen different missions; he shows her the scars, white lines and rough flesh, and each one somehow makes his body more compelling. When he goes to continue the demonstration beneath his shirt and is interrupted by an annoyed nurse, she’s so busy trying not to laugh aloud that she calls him by his first name. It’s an accident, a slip, but she sees the grin flash across his face.
In Macau she kisses him, and it’s just because of Artemiev (who sometimes brought girls in, new recruits, and more often than not liked to sample the wares) but she can tell he’s unhappy about it. Is he thinking of other men she’s kissed? Is the pity she hates in his eyes only masking contempt, disgust?
When they return to New York, Coulson comes to see her. He asks if she’s ready for a change, if she’d like to work with someone else. She feels a stabbing sensation in the vicinity of her heart and manages, “Is that what he wants?”
“Barton?” asks Coulson, looking surprised. “No, of course not. It’s just that Agent Morse’s report…”
“Then no,” says Natasha curtly; relief has made her brusque. “Agent Barton and I work well together. I have an… understanding with him.”
A smile ghosts across Coulson’s face. “I’m glad someone does,” he says, as though that should mean something to her.
The sound of a door closing brings me up out of the darkness, as though a door has been closed in my mind as well. The feel restraints at my wrists and ankles and is almost enough to make me want to cry: from relief, and also from fear at the impending end.
I open my eyes, raise my head. It hurts. I get a glimpse of my reflection, her reflection, in a nearby mirror, but even that can’t hold my attention for long.
Clint is sitting on the edge of the table, staring at me with hungry desperation, and Steve is nearby, arms crossed and expression guarded.
The sight of Rogers nearly undoes me completely. He had help, I think, bowing my head as I’m briefly overcome with gratitude. It’s a sort of balm, an answered prayer, a comfort to know that the task I set him wasn’t one he had to undertake alone.
So many of us think we have to be alone.
I smile wanly, looking up again. I’m exhausted, a combination of the sedative coursing through my veins, lack of rest, and my recent exertion. We took a terrible risk; I’m certain she would have shot Clint if I hadn’t intervened. “Not exactly,” I tell him, my voice hoarse and trembling.
Steve speaks. Names me. “You’re Aten.”
I try to smile again but I’m afraid that this time it is more of a grimace.
Clint is aghast. “What?”
“Something Manesh said made it click,” says the captain gravely. “She asked how we knew about the ‘A-10 protocol’.”
I nod slowly; the movement makes me dizzy. “It was one of the first things… I ever heard. When she asked who I was… it was the first thing I thought of.”
“When who asked?” demands Clint, his brow creasing.
“Natasha,” says Steve softly, and I nod again.
Clint stares between the two of us. “I don’t understand…”
“They thought it would be easy,” I say as the room revolves crazily, as Clint’s perplexed, anguished face swims before me. “Witten. Fisher. They thought it would be easy… to break her down… cut out what they didn’t want, throw in the trigger for good measure. They knew how often she had been… unmade and remade as a child… they thought it had softened her up. But they were wrong.” I grip the armrests beneath my hands. “The human brain… is an amazingly resilient thing. And the mind… it learns. They tried to erase those years, wipe out those memories, but they couldn’t. Instead… they went into hiding. Or… safekeeping. Behind a wall, a mental block. And they might have come back on their own… naturally, eventually… except…”
“The trigger,” says Clint, dawning horror twisting his expression.
I bob my head, half in acknowledgement, half in mounting fatigue. “If those memories had come back… they would have broken the injunction. Killed her. The human brain… it’s very resilient. It’s also very determined to survive. At all costs.”
Clint scrubs a hand over his face. He looks tired as well, overwhelmed by the impossible truth. “You… Natasha doesn’t know…” He squints, trying to see me as someone else.
“That I don’t exist outside of her own head?” I chuckle weakly. “No. We can communicate, sometimes, and I can use her body when she’s asleep.”
Steve’s brow furrows. “Is that what’s happening now?”
“To a degree. The tranquilizer is… disorienting. But I’m also keeping her down.” I look at Clint. I want him to understand why I didn’t do more. “I’ve never been able to take control before… not unless she let me. I didn’t even know that I could…”
The three of us lapse into silence. I can feel Natasha’s consciousness stirring, frustrated and bewildered, still blind and deaf. She is behind the wall now, although I don’t know how much longer I can keep her there.
“What happens next?” asks Steve.
“You know,” I tell him, closing my eyes. My temples are pounding with the strain, and the room seems too bright. “You need to administer the drug before she wakes up. Things have already started to leak back in. Certain memories… of Frankfurt… other things.” When I open my eyes there is an awful, fragile hope stirring in Clint’s face. “Too much and it’ll trip the trigger,” I snap. “Brain death would be a best case scenario, then. You need to believe me.”
But he does not seem inclined to disbelief. “And then what happens?” he asks, a touch eager, although I see how his hands are fisted on his knees. There is anger as well. “What happens to everything ‘behind the wall’? Will it keep… leaking back?”
“It might,” I say slowly. “Or it might be trapped back there. I don’t know, Clint.”
He flinches at the sound of his name, sitting back.
“What happens to you?” asks Steve.
For the first time I feel tears prickling behind my eyes. “I imagine I’ll die,” I reply, in the steadiest voice I can manage, forcing a hard laugh when Clint jumps to his feet. “Not this body. Just… me. Don’t feel too bad,” I tell them. “I’ve only been alive for about a week… and I never was a whole person to begin with. I have her memories - most of them - but everything else… There are gaps. There always will be.”
I take a shuddering breath; she is stirring again, more desperately this time, like a snared animal instinctively prepared to maim itself in order to escape the trap. “If I wanted to live - really wanted to - I never would have sent you the message in the first place.” I feel myself shaking, shuddering. “Clint, you’ve got to do it.”
He flinches again but sits, hands still clenched, tone pleading. “You’re talking about you… about leaving her like she is now. About possibly losing the last five years of her life.”
“I’m talking about saving her life,” I correct him, wincing at the pain in my head. I don’t mind the pain. I welcome it. I think maybe it’ll be easier to let go if letting go is the way to peace. “It’ll be quick. Fisher… she told Witten it was almost instantaneous. And then it’ll be safe. To help her remember."
There’s another minute of aching silence, and then Clint turns his head towards Steve without really looking at him. “I… I can’t…”
“I’ll do it,” says the captain quietly, and he walks away.
For a moment it’s just us. Hawkeye and… well, not the Black Widow. Not all of her. I still feel that I can claim a piece of that title, though. I remember the honeysuckle and sweetbread and the smell of the approaching storm in Frankfurt. I remember his laughter in Orizaba and his slow breathing in Brussels and the feel of his chest beneath my cheek in New York.
I’m not the strongest part of her or the best, but at the moment maybe I’m the most honest.
“Witten’s dead, isn’t he?” I ask.
Clint nods, sliding forward, off the edge of the table and onto his knees in front of me. His eyes are etched with pain and he asks his question as a man afraid to hear the answer. “Did he ever… ever hurt you? Either of you?”
I wonder what Fisher might have showed him, what Manesh might have said, and anger briefly strengthens my resolve. “No,” I reply, watching some of the anguish drain from his face. “He wanted to. He tried. He came in the room when I… she was still groggy, confused. But I was waking up.” I manage a faint smile, savoring the memory, one that only belongs to me. “I punched him in the face… slammed him into a wall. He decided he wasn’t feeling that amorous… after all.”
Another tremor, stronger this time, runs through my limbs, and the breath feels forced from my lungs. She’s fighting me, fighting hard; she can feel that she’s bound, is sure that she’s in danger. “Natasha doesn’t even remember. Fisher saw, though. I might even be… what gave her the idea…”
The words trail away as I cry out – in pain, in fear, even though I wanted to be stronger than this – and Clint’s hands cover mine on the armrests as he calls for Steve to hurry…
“Clint?” And my voice is little more than a whisper now, but he’s close enough to hear it, to see the tears that fall onto the violet fabric. Are they only my tears? I can’t even tell any more. “She loved you. She could never say it, not even to herself, but… remember that. Remember it. It happened before. Just… just give her time.”
He squeezes my hands, his throat working soundlessly, and then Steve appears on the edges of my narrowing vision. And the last thing I feel, ever, is Clint’s breath against my ear, and I hear his voice, low and rough.
Steve steps back, the empty ampul in his hand, and watches Romanoff’s body go limp.
She’s still breathing, thank God; her heart’s still beating. Is it only his overactive imagination, then, that makes her seem diminished, somehow less than she was a minute ago?
Barton abruptly stands, backing away from his partner with the jerky, marionette-like movements of a man at war with himself. He pushes into the bedroom; a moment later the bathroom door closes, and there comes the sound of water pouring from the sink tap. If there are other sounds half-hidden behind the rush of water, they’re possible to ignore.
Steve looks down at Romanoff. At Natasha.
He doesn’t know her well. He doesn’t know her at all, compared to Barton. But whereas Barton had only seen what he was desperate to see, Steve had glimpsed the flicker of a stranger’s thoughts behind her eyes. Aten might have only been alive for a week, but she had still lived.
Steve more anxious now than he had been in the eucalyptus grove half an hour ago, maybe because armed psychopaths and endangered civilians are things he has, unfortunately, become accustomed to, while this is different. He’s known sacrifice and pain and loss, as he told Barton once, seemingly a million years ago.
But not like this.
When Barton emerges from the bathroom a few moments later – collar wet, sleeves rolled up, eyes dry but suspiciously reddened – it’s to find Steve lowering Natasha onto the bed, her limbs limp and unrestrained.
“What are you doing?” Barton asks in a thick voice. “When she wakes up… she’s still not going to know…”
“You weren’t going to leave her like that,” Steve interjects, jerking his head towards the other room. “She could be out for hours,” he adds, and the truth hangs on the air, unspoken by either of them: or she might not wake up at all. They are meddling in the fantastic and the bizarre, after all. Nothing is certain.
There are red marks on Natasha’s wrists and ankles from the plastic zip ties that had secured her to the chair; there are more of those in Barton’s bag, but instead Steve pulls the silk tie from around his own neck and uses that to bind her hands. His knots are good, the fabric strong, but even Steve knows that they won’t foil the woman for long, not if she’s really determined to free herself.
Barton watches him blankly, exhaustion evident in every line of his body, and Steve says, “When she wakes up, if she still doesn’t… I’ll be able to stop her. You trust me, right?” he asks, suddenly hesitant.
Barton simply nods. “Did you check her for weapons?” he asks numbly. “I’d be shocked if she doesn’t have a gun.”
Steve feels himself flush. “I don’t know her that well… I thought maybe you…”
So Barton kneels on the edge of the bed and runs his hands across Natasha’s body – briskly, impersonally – and comes up with nothing. “Which means it’s in the other room somewhere,” he concludes, sitting back and rubbing his eyes. “Probably in the couch cushions, come to think of it.”
But neither of them moves to leave the room.
“SHIELD’s in town, aren’t they?” Barton asks in that same deadened tone.
Steve colors again. “I had to, after Witten… I didn’t know if the local authorities could handle Manesh.” Not that SHIELD had been able to handle Manesh in Colombia. “I left before they arrived, though. They don’t know where we are.”
“No,” says Barton softly, still watching Natasha sleep. “It’s okay. It’s just… I’m wondering if maybe we should call them.”
Steve frowns, surprised. “You know what they’ll do. They’ll cart her away for ‘observation’ and if it suits their purposes we’ll never see her again.”
“But if they can help her…”
“Do you really think they can? Even if they have Fisher in custody, would you trust her if she said she could help?”
Hope wars with common sense, and loses. “No,” sighs Barton.
“She needs rest,” Steve says heavily. “So do we. We’ll take watches in turn,” he adds when it looks like Barton is about to argue. “And we’ll give it until morning. If she hasn’t woken up by then… we’ll make a decision.”
Barton deliberates for a moment before nodding. “I’ll take the first watch.”
Steve is primed to disagree – if looks are any indication, Barton needs the sleep a lot more than he does – but he restrains himself. Barton’s a grown man. Besides, maybe there’s something he needs more than sleep.
Steve gestures to the front room “I’ll just… Call if you need me,” he says with a smile that dies halfway to his lips, and he leaves the bedroom, although he doesn’t close the door completely.
There’s a loaded handgun tucked down into the cushions on the left side of the sofa. Steve isn’t surprised in the slightest.
Clint sits there, listening to her breathing, and she’s only a few inches away but it feels more like a mile.
No. More than that. It feels like they’re separated by an ocean, (an ocean of time, as maudlin as that sounds) and on one shore there is everything they have been through together, everything they have been to each other; trust and debt and friendship and pain and –
- she loved you -
- and on the other shore there is nothing, just cold stone and barren sand, an alien landscape, bleak and inhospitable.
He moves back against the pillows and watches her sleep. It doesn’t feel strange or invasive; he’s done it before, on assignments. She doesn’t look innocent when she sleeps, she doesn’t look like she could be anyone but who she is, but she does look different. There’s a veil that comes down when she closes her eyelids, and over the course of their partnership he’s spent long, silent hours trying to determine the specifics.
He’s yet to come to any conclusions, but tonight certain questions ring in his head for the first time in more than five years.
Who are you? What do you really want? Why didn’t you kill me? Why couldn’t I kill you?
It’s quiet, much too quiet; he can hear the wind through the horse chestnuts and the faint sounds of passing traffic from the road below. He can hear Natasha’s breathing, even and regular, and the heavy, deep thud of his own heartbeats counting down the hours until morning.
He’s always liked silence, the hallmark of solitude – or what others unkindly call ‘isolation’ – but now, cast adrift, alone on his side of the ocean, that silence is a smothering blanket, oppressive and thick against his skin.
So he talks.
He speaks softly, although he doesn’t care if Rogers overhears. He doesn’t care about anything, suddenly, not about Witten’s murder or SHIELD’s presence or Manesh’s escape from Colombia. His career, his future, the lives and deaths of other people, are laughably trivial in his narrowed world. Is it really possible that a few days ago he was disgruntled about something as trifling, as foolish, as selfish, as being shunted off to Africa in purple spandex?
He starts with Paris, with the last time he saw her, honey-haired and zebra-scarved, watching him over the top of her coffee cup. Fury’s not stupid enough to throw away two of his best assets. A light, Parisian kiss on the corner of his mouth. Be careful, Nat.
He works backwards. Milagro, Ecuador: deposed warlord with a foot fetish. Doha, Qatar: weapons traffickers holed up beneath a mosque. La Paz: rumors of smuggled Chitauri tech.
He rewinds the past, hop-scotching the globe in reverse.
Of course, it’s not just the missions, not anymore. It’s the time he taught her how to rock climb in Denver – he figured the skill might come in handy – and the time he got food poisoning in Singapore – not his favorite memory but somehow when she recounts the story it always seems kind of funny – and that twelve hour layover in Wadi Halfa they spent trying to distract each other from the oppressive heat by cataloging all the swear words they knew in all the languages they spoke.
It’s the bad haircut he got in Orlando and the song on the radio that made her cry and how he acted like he hadn’t seen and the way they’ve become intertwined in each other’s habits and hearts and lives.
And then he’s back in New York, and he doesn’t speak of the battle or Loki or his own hijacking, but of coming back to himself and finding her at his side, his gratefulness that she, at least, had been willing to do what needed doing. He speaks of the drive away from Central Park and the way she wouldn’t leave him to his own dark thoughts and whisky schemes, and the way it felt to put his arms around her, really around her, for the first time.
He knows the words aren’t eloquent but he doesn’t even hear them anymore, just the hum of his voice over the vacuum of silence. He feels it all pour out of him like water from a hose, like blood from a severed vein.
He is burdened by regrets and haunted by the things he doesn’t know.
But what he does know, he shares with her. Cities and names and details; he thinks Fury would be shocked by what he’s retained, and he’s a little surprised himself. He speaks to block the silence and to resurrect the fallen, to break through the barrier that ‘Aten’ had spoken of and make those memories exist somewhere in the world again, even if only in this room at this moment.
Maybe she can hear him. Maybe not.
It doesn’t matter, not now. Momentum carries him through. Two years back. Three. Vegas and Budapest and Saint George… sunburns and fast cars and three nights spent in a miserable swamp. Four. Tel Aviv and Bissau and Aleppo. (Their chopper went down in the middle of the desert.) Antwerp and Baghdad and Ulaanbaatar; they started an avalanche to slow down their pursuers and were almost snow blind by the time they made it to the evac point. Five. Kuala Lumpur and Abidjan and the night she vanished in Volgograd.
Back and back and back, racing in reverse through memories and milestones, holidays they didn’t bother observing and a couple they did; her birthday is guesswork but she’d picked a day and they’d celebrated her twenty-fifth, and she told him she’d never expected to live so long.
Macau and Montreal. Veracruz and Buenos Aires. Pristina and Hat Yai and Frankfurt. And his throat is dry and the words are gone, and the silence swells into the hours that have passed.
Rogers comes in, then; Clint wonders what he’s heard but still can’t make himself care. The captain says nothing, just sits in a little chair by the door, under a reading lamp, paging through the hotel Bible.
Clint sleeps, crumpled against the pillows and the wicker headboard an arm’s length from his partner, or whatever is left of her.
He dreams of mirrored cells, of disembodied heads bourn forward on an ocean of serpents, of making the shot that he was ordered to make. He dreams of funerals and a blonde woman who is Natasha and is also a stranger. He dreams of Narcissus purging his life into his reflection.
He wakes a few hours before dawn. The reading lamp is dark but Rogers’ form still occupies the chair by the door. He might be sleeping; it’s hard to tell in the grayish, watery light coming from the nearby window.
Clint lies on his back, listening to the predawn hush, wondering exactly what has pried him from his nightmares.
Then he hears it, subtle but undeniable: a change in her breathing. How many times have they slept side by side? How often has he tried to pinpoint the exact moment that she goes from wakefulness to sleep or back again?
She stirs beside him, getting her bearings, perhaps testing her bonds. He tenses, prepared to shout out Rogers’ name.
The mattress dips, creaking once, as a familiar weight leans across the space between them. He readies himself for her attack but does not cry out, not yet, and the silence is as fragile as glass, as thin as an eggshell, until she presses her palm against his own and whispers.
The voice is tremulous, dazed, but it is her voice and his name on her lips brings him back to himself. He reaches out for her, fingertips sliding across the fabric of her dress and into her hair, down to her bound wrists but they are already free, the tie discarded between them. Her arms go around his back, knuckles digging into his vertebrae, and she clings to him, or he clings to her, equally fierce, equally desperate.
Natasha is real and warm and shaking against him, breath coming in short puffs against his neck as she curls around a sudden pain – physical or mental or both – and he knows that no wall falls neatly, no barrier breaks without some violence. All he can do is hold her; all he can do is thank the darkness for hiding the tears on his face because he wants so badly to be strong.
Something moves by the door; there is the rustle of fabric and the squeak of a floorboard. Clint does not look, but he knows that Rogers has stepped from the room.
The sky, seen through sheer curtain panels, is the color of iron. Her body relaxes, her labored breathing slows, and reluctantly he loosens his grip.
She doesn’t leave his arms, though, only slides back a little so that he can see her face, and suddenly he can’t get enough of seeing her face, seeing the way her eyes meet his with an ocean behind them. He’s seeing her for the first time since Paris, touching her and being touched, and he brushes the hair back from her cheek with a reverent hand.
“How much do you remember?” he asks.
Tears rim her lashes but do not fall. “Everything, I think,” she whispers back. One hand is fisted in his dress shirt, and she rubs the dark fabric beneath her thumb and fingers as though reassuring himself of his solidity. “The chopper crash… that room…” She shudders, bowing her head against his collarbone.
She looks up at him, brows drawn together in dismay, confusion, loss. “I thought… she seemed so real.” Her gaze slides into a middle distance, intent on something visible only to her eyes. “I could see her, I could… I must have looked like such an idiot, having conversations with myself.”
“She saved you.”
Her fingers toy with one of his shirt buttons. “You saved me,” she says softly, and he can hear the trace of bitterness in her voice, the echo of dolg platezhom krasen. Debt is beautiful only after it has been repaid.
This is how she was raised to think, in terms of red and black, ledgers and claims, credits and tallies, and it doesn’t matter how many times he shows her the scars on his body – the ones she gave him, the ones received on her behalf – she will always struggle with the fact that there is no debt between them, and if there is, that it is always beautiful.
She is beautiful: her face pale, her blonde hair silvered in the morning light; she is Natasha and she is also Aten, at least as much as she’s ever been anyone else. Aten was a fragment of personality, a tether across the wall, a link to a maelstrom of memories too dangerous to be allowed. She was separate but still joined, and she is dead even as the substance of her has somehow survived. Her information, smuggled out from behind enemy lines while the hostage Natasha slept, has brought them to this place. Her messages, delivered at such great risk to herself, were what gave him direction, gave him purpose, and saved him from hopelessness.
He covers Natasha’s hand with his own, warming the cold fingers, stilling their ceaseless motion. “You saved yourself,” he tells her, and she leans into him again. He feels the tears he does not see as they fall at last: briefly, softly, silently.