Rating: Mature (light R?)
Summary: Debt is only beautiful when it has been repaid
She feels his name on her lips, at the beginning. A mantra, a talisman. Eager voices speak over her, enthused by their own cruelty: “Make sure we have the A-10 on hand...” “… if you weren’t thorough enough… hate to lose her to one of your experiments, Sloane…”
The woman is a butcher who fancies herself a sculptor of flesh. The man is a collector, a vain and selfish sybarite.
He comes to her room afterward, thinking himself shielded by darkness and concealed from her senses by pharmaceuticals, expecting her addled and dazed and yearning for touch, for approval. But his hot breath and his pawing hands are like a brand to her skin, and she lashes out with every instinct. Every part of her body is a weapon.
He howls, he bleeds, and he leaves her alone.
When Natasha wakes she knows nothing of it. She feels the presence of another, though, and demands a name. “Aten,” says Aten, who until that moment was nameless. It was one of the first things she ever heard (aside from the feel of a certain name on her lips). She thinks it has another meaning, as well, steeped in mysticism and mythology. She pictures the bright disc of the sun rising above the desert sands, hard and hot and godlike.
The butcher comes to both of them, although to her eyes there is only one. Aten sits back, letting Natasha slip into the woman she was: accepting orders, plotting violence.
They fly over the dark Pacific. There is one ticket, one seat. They hold a silent conversation over a steno pad: one pen, one hand, two styles of handwriting on a single page.
She uses Natasha’s body when the other woman is asleep – although it’s not physical rest, only mental – and justifies it by the pureness of her motives. She is trying to save a life, even if by doing so she forfeits her own. It is hard to fathom dying when one has only just been born.
Natasha Romanoff follows a sliver thread across a shattered landscape.
In some places it is as thick as a steel cable, faintly luminescent, leading her through a path free of sinkholes and landmines. But in some places the metallic sheen has begun to corrode; in others nothing remains but glittering dust, and the longer she walks the more these ephemeral breadcrumbs seem to fade.
It is during these times, when she is not certain of the next safe step, that she relies most on the sound of his voice. The words themselves are irrelevant now, although she files them away to take out and examine at some other time, when she’s sure they will bring equal parts pleasure and pain. It is only the sound that matters, acting as an umbilical, a bridge through the rocky places until she is up and over the final bulwark.
Someone stands there, waiting for her, but no… it is only her reflection. Not being Narcissus, she has no desire to dwell over it, but steps forward beneath an arch, into shadow, into darkness.
The wind is subdued before the coming of dawn; the room is quiet enough, and just bright enough, that she can discern two forms and hear the workings of two sets of lungs. Both are known to her, but the closest is the most familiar.
He lies on his back, one hand palm-up on the sheets between them. If circumstances were different it would be wrapped around the molded grip of his recurve bow, but now it cups only the thin morning light.
His breathing changes as he wakes but he makes no movement, no other sound. She pulls her wrists free of their bonds, and when that elicits no response she dares to move closer to him, to touch his upturned hand, to say his name.
A mantra, a talisman.
The sun rises, insistent, over the top of the patio wall, slanting through the window, between the curtains, and into Natasha’s eyes. The bedside clock insists that it is half-past nine, but chronological time has no bearing on her exhausted mind.
Clint’s chest rises and falls against her back, his breath stirring the hairs on her neck; his right arm, bared to the elbow, is wrapped around her middle.
She has rarely slept beside him, and never like this. On overnight missions one of them is always awake while the other rests, and they are never close enough to touch; even after Antwerp, when they had fallen into a profound and simultaneous slumber, they had been wise enough to maintain a respectable distance.
Natasha would do as much with any agent, albeit not for the same reason.
It would be easy, so easy, to turn in his arms, to wake him with a kiss. The woman she was last night had wanted Gabe Bishop despite knowing better, and the woman she is again can still feel the tingle of anticipation in her limbs, the heat in her belly. She wants his body to press hers into this mattress; she wants to bury all the horror under a layer of sensation and the smell of sex. She wants to make him cry her name, wants to mark his body and be marked in return.
But her failure in New York, that strange and surreal evening in the Carlyle, is still too fresh and raw a memory for her to take that leap.
Natasha cannot blame her actions then on a surfeit of food and drink, or weariness, or the strain of the preceding days; she had kissed him then with the full knowledge of the potential consequences, and afterward she was only thankful that those consequences were not more dire, that he was still able to look at her in the morning and smile that crooked smile.
She remembers walking away from him, remembers standing in the shower, letting the spray cascade down over her bare back, feeling the heat wash her face, struggling against an insistent desire that she refused to assuage. Instead she had lain in the lilac-scented bed that she insisted (in a moment of perverse self-punishment) that he share with her, taut as one of his bowstrings, tortured by his nearness.
Natasha never blamed him for rebuffing her, never thought for a moment that the things he told her were anything but truth. But she wonders if he has any idea how seldom she’s chosen, how rarely in her life she’s made an advance based on nothing darker or more complicated than honest affection and desire.
It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t.
And at the same time it matters more than anything.
When he rises from the bed about half an hour later she feigns sleep. His lips graze her temple – it seems he must be able to see the way her pulse leaps, throbbing in her exposed throat – but he only pulls up the quilt, folded neatly at the foot of the bed, and settles it around her shoulders.
Steve sits on the patio, folded up in an Adirondack chair, drinking a weak cup of coffee he’d brewed in the kitchenette and eating a shrink-wrapped simulated-fruit pie that he’d found in a vending machine around the corner. He hadn’t wanted to stray too far from the room, on the off-chance that Barton needed his help.
Although going by what he saw earlier that morning, Barton’s pretty much got things covered.
A car door slams in the parking lot and footsteps approach the patio door, which Steve opens before the visitor has a chance to knock.
He almost doesn’t recognize her. She’s shorter without her heels and appears younger without the provocative dress and heavy makeup. In fact, he’s surprised and a little disturbed by how young she looks.
Christiane holds up two bags: gray plastic in one hand, colorful paper in the other. “So, I picked up some of the essentials,” she chirrups without preamble, still standing on the threshold. “Pants and a top and some flip-flops and, you know, underwear and stuff.” She glances up at him through her long lashes, as though not certain how he’ll react to the mention of underwear. “You said your friend was about my size, so…” she shrugs.
“Thank you,” says Steve, taking the plastic bag and stepping back. She hesitates and then walks onto the patio, letting the door swing shut behind her.
“I’ve got to tell you,” Christiane says, glancing around with undisguised curiosity, “I was really surprised to get your call.”
“I hope I didn’t wake you up.”
She snorts, running her free hand through her close-cropped hair. “Like I was going to sleep after a night like last night? It was after one before your friends let me go. I guess they finally decided I hadn’t stolen any state secrets from you or anything.”
Steve feels a pang of guilt. Bits of the previous evening are still a blur after a mostly-sleepless night. Until this morning, after making a few calls, he hadn’t even known the name of Bruno Witten’s dinner date.
Steve had known that she’d followed his instructions to contact SHIELD, who had dispatched their closest assets. He’d been long gone by the time they got there, of course, having received Barton’s phone call and being relatively sure that Ms. Manesh would not be regaining her freedom any time soon.
Apparently Christiane had done the civic-minded thing and remained at the garden party, or what was left of it, until those reinforcements had arrived. Steve is a little shamefaced to think of her dealing with irascible agents and flummoxed dinner guests – and Witten’s killer – while he had blithely driven away to babysit Agents Barton and Romanoff.
Christiane appears none the worse for wear, despite the lack of sleep. She seems vibrant and energetic, as though what happened to her was something of a lucky strike.
Which, considering that she isn’t dead, is perhaps a perfectly healthy attitude to have.
“Oh!” She thrusts the paper sack towards him. “I almost forgot. I didn’t think they bring you breakfast in a place like this and you said you couldn’t leave your friends, so I got you guys McDonalds. I figured everybody likes sausage and egg McMuffins, right?” She looks curious. “Did they even have McMuffins when you were my age?”
Steve tries not to laugh as he takes the fragrant bag and sets it down on the seat of his chair. “I don’t think so,” he says seriously. “But I appreciate it.”
Hands empty, the young woman looks awkward for the first time. She crosses her arms, wandering across the sparsely-furnished patio. “I never saw anyone get shot before,” she says finally, giving a one-armed shrug. “The places I grew up… you know, you heard about it happening a lot, and you could always hear the sirens, but I never actually saw it. And then living in a place like this…” She waves a hand to indicate the hotel, the towering horse chestnuts, the whole of the affluent suburb “…you kind of figure you’re never going to.” She shakes her head as though she can’t quite believe she was ever so naive. “Who was she, anyway? The woman in the woods, I mean. The people who came to arrest her wouldn’t tell me anything.”
Steve only hesitates for a second. After being dragged through the dark woods, shot at, and subjected to the untender mercies of a phalanx of SHIELD agents, she deserves to know, if not the truth, than at least a reasonable facsimile. “She worked for Witten’s wife who… put out a hit on him.”
Christiane blanches. “Because of me?”
“No,” says Steve quickly. “Because… he was a bad man. He did a lot of terrible things… including kidnapping my friend, the one I told you about.”
Her brow furrows. “But you got her back okay, right?”
“Yes,” Steve replies, hoping it’s true. “I don’t want you to think that it’s your fault, because it’s not. Not any of it. Some people are just… evil.”
She gives him a small, sad smile. “You know, it’s really not PC anymore to say that anyone is evil. You’re supposed to say that they had a bad childhood or they watched a lot of scary movies growing up and it warped their brains. They’re not evil, they’re just crazy, so we just have to wait for someone to invent a magic pill to cure them.”
And maybe, thinks Steve, ideas like that are the reason that people like Witten and Fisher flourish, not only in the cracks and crevices of civilization but among the lettered and the intellectual. Everyone is waiting for a quick fix, a ‘magic pill’ that will solve their problems and, more importantly, absolve humanity of any responsibility for its own actions.
Perhaps the Institute’s mysterious benefactor on the Security Council thinks in terms of bad childhoods and violent media, external influences that can be wiped away with the flip of a switch, the plunge of a needle.
“I think,” he says slowly, wondering if his views are too archaic, too out of touch, for a young woman to accept, “the moment good people accept that there’s no such thing as good or evil… is the moment that evil wins.”
Christiane gives him a tight-lipped smile, not agreeing… but also not disagreeing. Maybe what he’s said is something she’ll remember some day, when she has to decide between making the easy choice and making the right one. Or maybe she’ll walk out that door and never think about it again.
When he pulls out his wallet her smile fades altogether. “How much do I owe you?” he asks, but she just shakes her head.
“No, you don’t…” She waves a hand at the bags. “This is a thank-you. You know. For keeping an eye out for me and everything. You don’t let someone pay for a thank-you.”
Steve closes his wallet but doesn’t put it away. “Did Witten pay for last night?”
She sucks in a sharp breath, as though he’s slapped her, and her face falls. Suddenly she finds the travertine tiles beneath her feet to be of great interest. “I figured maybe you just thought I was his girlfriend,” she mutters, dusky color rising in her cheeks.
Steve considers trying to explain that Bruno Witten was not the kind of man to have a ‘girlfriend’. He was a connoisseur of control; he wouldn’t have seen it as embarrassing or degrading to pay for companionship. Instead it would have been another measure of his power, a way to ensure that the woman in question belonged to him for as long as he wanted her.
He holds out the money – most of what’s left in his wallet – and she takes it without looking at him.
“I’m going to get out of it, though,” she says quietly. “The business. I decided last night. It’s just too dangerous, even in a place like this. I called Morris - my dad, sort of - he’s up in Oregon, he says he can get me a job. It’ll mean leaving my mom, but…” She shakes her head, jamming the cash into the back pocket of her jeans, and Steve’s sure that she’s revealed much more than she ever intended to someone who is essentially a total stranger.
All he can say is, “Good luck.”
She looks up at him once again, meeting his eyes with another smile, this one too ironic for such a young face. “Thanks,” she says. “You too.”
Clint comes out of the bathroom, dressed in his last clean change of clothes (jeans and a well-worn t-shirt, which are a kind of heaven after spending the night in a suit) in time to hear Rogers’ “Good luck” and the woman’s answering “Thanks, you too” through the window that opens onto the patio.
He wads the expensive dress shirt and pants into a ball with savage glee, cramming them down into his duffle bag where they can rest in peace alongside the crumpled Mizingi suit.
Natasha is still sleeping – or pretending to – and he leaves her to it. It’s possible she’s not quite ready to face him after everything that’s happened in the last twelve hours. God knows he has no idea what he’s going to say to her, although sorry for groping you should probably be pretty high on the list. I’m never letting you out of my sight again is pretty much a non-starter.
Rogers is back inside, sitting on the sofa and dissecting an egg McMuffin as though he’s performing an alien autopsy.
“Who was that?” Clint asks.
“Hmm? Oh. Christiane. Witten’s… date. From last night.” Rogers wipes his greasy hands on a napkin and passes him a plastic bag. Clint takes it – sees a pair of gray yoga pants, a blue t-shirt, underwear, all more or less in Natasha’s size – and sets it just inside the bedroom door.
He consumes his own McMuffin in about five seconds – it’s been a long time since the fancy dinner he didn’t really eat – and thinking about the dinner brings back the memory of other things about the previous night that he hadn’t much cared about until now. “What happened with Manesh?”
Rogers sighs, either at the question or the sandwich, which doesn’t appear to be tempting his appetite. “You mean after I walked right into an ambush and got Witten killed?”
“It’s no great loss,” says Clint, with feeling.
“That’s not the point,” insists Rogers. He sighs. “Witten got shot, I got grazed.” He lifts his arm, which looks like it’s working perfectly fine to Clint. Must be nice. “Christiane was there and I thought Fisher might have given orders to take them both out.”
Guilt by association. He hears the sound of the shower in the other room and all at once it’s harder to focus on the conversation at hand. “You really think Fisher’s the jealous type?” he asks, baldly sarcastic.
Rogers doesn’t dignify that with a response. “So we were in a stalemate for a while. I didn’t want to start a shootout and… I don’t know what she was thinking.”
Clint shrugs. “Probably that if you were there with her, I was on my own, and Natasha’d have a better chance of killing me.” Or vice versa. “That one is definitely the vindictive type. What’d you do?”
Rogers smirks. “What we’ve been doing this entire time. I called Stark.”
Glancing around, half-expecting to see Tony Stark lurking in the kitchenette or perhaps hiding behind the sofa, Clint laughs. It feels good to laugh. Strange, but good. “He’s here?”
“No,” says Rogers, looking a little alarmed at the notion. “No, he was somewhere over Croatia when I called. I threw a tree behind Manesh so it would seem like someone had just landed there, had cut off her escape route, and then we used the speaker on the phone to make it sound like Stark had arrived.” He grins at the memory. “If she’d had time to think about it I’m sure she would have figured it out, but instead she ran.”
“Wait. You threw a tree?”
“Just a little one.”
Clint raises his eyebrows.
Rogers’ voice goes up an octave. “It was already lying on the ground. I just, you know…” and he pantomimes scooping something up and tossing it lightly aside, like a normal person might do with a bothersome cat, and Clint laughs again.
The shower shuts off.
Rogers, still smiling faintly, continues picking at his breakfast. “I disarmed her, dragged her over to the party, handcuffed her to the gate and told the guards she was a terrorist,” he says in the rather bored tone of someone describing their weekend errands. “By that point she was spitting and cursing me out in several different languages, which made it more convincing. SHIELD had already been contacted, so…” He shrugs. “When you called, I left.”
They lapse into silence.
In Clint’s experience, there’s a specific kind of silence that follows the completion of any assignment, a cooling-off period, a combat hangover, when your blood is still up but in the process of coming down, when you’re simultaneously hyperaware and apathetic, when you are the mental and emotional equivalent of an Egg McMuffin. Sometimes it happens at the evac point when you’re waiting to be picked up, or in the train car on the way out of the country, or in the Quinjet’s hold. Sometimes it follows you home, lingers a few hours or a few days, and the really bad ones can take weeks to fade completely.
This is different, somehow. They won’t be sauntering back into SHIELD later today, ready to file reports and pick up their next assignment. For all their success, part of the regular way of things has broken, and he doesn’t know what will be necessary to fix it. This is a pause, a lull, an indrawn breath.
And then the door to the bedroom swings open and there is Natasha, and the breath leaves him in a rush.
She has the wan, hollow-eyed look of someone recovering from a long illness, but even so, even dressed in shapeless clothes, her hair damp and not a stitch of makeup on her face, she’s ten times as beautiful as last night, when he’d first seen her seated on the fountain’s edge.
She looks at him and smiles, not with her mouth but with her eyes, and for a brief moment he’s so happy that it’s actually kind of painful.
Rogers, being Rogers, immediately gets up and moves to the less-comfortable armchair, so Natasha sits down on the sofa next to Clint. She moves slowly and without all of her usual grace, as though she’s becoming reacquainted with the way her body works. He passes her the last sandwich and then busies himself with cleaning up the scattered wrappers and napkins, since she might have an issue with him just staring at her while she eats.
The typical, inane greeting in this kind of situation, of course, would be something along the lines of how are you feeling? Clint waits, but the words never come out of Rogers’ mouth. He knows the other guy was sick a lot as a kid, and maybe he’s heard that question so many times growing up (and then again after they defrosted him) that he realizes how flat and insipid it really sounds. And maybe by now he knows Natasha well enough – if not through first-hand experience than by what Clint has told him – to know that she’s not the kind of woman who needs or even wants to be fussed over at a time like this.
Natasha prefers to do things in her own way, at her own time.
When she’s done eating she looks over at Rogers, who is nursing a mug of coffee, and says simply, “Thanks.”
The captain doesn’t demur, doesn’t hem or haw, just reaches over and grasps her hand.
Twenty-four hours later they’re back in New York.
Clint is a Midwestern boy; he didn’t grow up with any special affinity for the Big Apple, and at times he has even felt contempt for the kind of excess and extravagance it represents. As an agent he’s spent more than a little time in the city, because its size and scope makes it both the natural habitat of the wealthy and the hunting ground of the dispossessed.
Things have changed somewhat since the Chitauri attack. He doesn’t like the city any more than he did, but he feels an odd kind of concern for it, a vigilance that might be what a parent feels for a child. He can look around Manhattan and see ‘his’ rooftop, or remember where he was when Natasha closed the portal, and the canyon-like streets feature as often in his pleasant dreams as his nightmares. He’s never been able to so much as look at New Mexico on a map without feeling a sickening twinge in his gut, yet he doesn’t mind returning to New York, which was the scene of horror but also his first chance to reclaim some of what had been taken from him.
Stark is still in Europe, dealing with the apple cart he upset during his trip to Oslo, but Pepper Potts is at the Tower when they arrive. She’s charming and solicitous, and when Rogers compliments her new, shorter haircut she explains that it’s because her hair caught fire when the Serbians attacked over dinner, all in the tone of one relaying a mildly amusing anecdote. Clint thinks that she and Rogers have more in common than either of them might realize.
Clint hasn’t been in the building since the day of the attack, despite Stark’s many and varied invitations. (Honestly, sometimes the guy kind of gives him the creeps; it feels like he’s trying to collect them, like a kid collects action figures or baseball cards, and that once he got them through the doors he might be tempted to encase them in carbonite and display them in the lobby.) Pepper proposes to give them the full tour, and Rogers takes her up on the offer, and they share an obnoxiously knowing glance when Clint and Natasha both beg off.
Whatever those two might think, Clint and Natasha’s brief time in the elevator is as platonic as it is uncomfortable. She gets off at her floor without any expectation that he will follow, which is good because he seems to be glued to the spot. She does glance back just before the doors close and he manages to nod at her without having any earthly idea why.
He passes a restless first night in Stark Tower, sleeping lightly, waking often. He thinks that he would sleep better with her back warm against his chest, but not through layers of polyester and cotton; he imagines his bare arm around her bare waist, and it is thoughts like these that eventually force him to give up on sleep entirely and hit the gym instead.
Afterwards, he considers the fully stocked kitchen on his floor (he has a floor in a Manhattan skyscraper. Maybe being collected isn’t so bad) but eventually decides to eat in what Pepper had described as the ‘communal dining room’.
It’s on the top floor. Clint has been here before, although that was before the substantial remodeling job. He likes that Stark retained the tall wrap-around windows and the marble flooring, although, for strictly sentimental reasons, Clint wishes that the contractor had also been able to preserve that Loki-shaped hole in the ground.
A woman is sitting at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of cereal. She looks as surprised to see him as he is to see her, and she’s a stranger but also vaguely familiar. Foster, he realizes after a moment. Jane Foster. Thor’s… whatever she is. Way to go, Stark. Collect the whole set.
He introduces himself; she passes him the cereal and points him towards the bowls, explaining that she’s in the city for a conference about something-or-other and that Pepper had invited her to stay the night. Clint wonders aloud if astrophysicists also dress up in suits and cocktail dresses at their conferences, and hold private receptions with three course meals, and she laughs at him… not in a mean way, but like she assumes he’s making a joke.
“Have you seen Agent Romanoff?” he asks when she’s done snickering. He wonders if Natasha had as much trouble sleeping as he did. She’s got her own gym, of course, and her own kitchen if she prefers a solitary meal, but he suspects that she might be up to some company. And even if he doesn’t know what to say to her, he’s still eager to see her.
“The blonde, right?” Foster asks, and he nods. “You just missed her.”
Clint pours milk over his cereal, trying not to let the disappointment show. “Did she say where she was going?” He’d rather not venture onto her floor without her permission, tacit or otherwise; he doesn’t want to feel like an intruder.
Foster shrugs. “Wherever Director Fury is, I suppose,” she says, a touch of acid in her voice.
Clint drops his spoon; it ricochets off the bowl, sending bits of cereal flying. “What?”
“She was going up to the roof,” says Foster, eying the spread of cornflakes across the table as though picking out constellations in them. “Just a couple of minutes ago. She said SHIELD was sending a jet for her.”
Clint leaves the spoon on the floor and the cornflakes on the table. He takes the stairs two at a time, his heart thumping less from the exertion and more from anger, betrayal, fear…
The rooftop helipad is empty, the area deserted, but he’s not deluded enough to think that he’s beaten Natasha here. The Quinjet is a dark speck against the cobalt sky, rapidly shrinking as it carries her away.