Rating: Mature (light R?)
Summary: Debt is only beautiful when it has been repaid
They walk into the building together, mostly side-by-side although she keeps trying to hang back, to let him take the lead – as would have been expected of her in the old days – and he keeps slowing down, waiting for her to catch up, so they’re awkward and constantly out of sync.
Men and women pass them in the halls, watching her with the full knowledge of her past in their eyes, and then they look at Barton as though wondering why he doesn’t have her collared and leashed.
Natasha tries to think of what would happen if, back then, she’d been tasked to kill a man and had, instead, brought him back to headquarters.
The answer is easy, obvious: she would be denounced as a traitor or a lunatic and shot on sight.
But Barton, though he still carries his quiver and bow slung across his back, does not seem concerned about the possibility of being shot. He even greets a few passersby, ignoring the puzzled, anxious or hostile looks directed at the woman at his side.
“You’re a celebrity,” is all he says.
He shows her to a certain door, which opens at their approach as though the man inside sensed them coming. He’s in his forties, with a receding hairline and a studiously blank expression. Natasha is certain that he’s going to pull the gun from the shoulder holster beneath his jacket and shoot Barton in the chest, but all he does is give a resigned sigh and ask, “What is this?”
Barton grins. “Just paying it forward.”
“I think you mean ‘paying me back’.” The stranger looks at Natasha appraisingly. “You’re going to be difficult, aren’t you?”
She tenses. How is she supposed to answer a question like that? Not truthfully, she decides. “I’m not difficult.”
“Director Fury sent three agents into the field on three separate occasions to try to recruit you, and they came back to us all requiring two or more days in the hospital. He sends Barton here to take you out, and you surrender. That sounds difficult.”
Natasha can’t quite believe that they’re having this conversation in the hallway, in full view of anybody who might be walking past. “Was there a question there, sir?” she asks curtly.
He rubs his chin. “I was going to ask what the attraction was,” he says mildly, glancing at Barton, “But I think I figured it out. Just remember, parents get the kids they deserve.”
“Ouch,” says Barton, although he still seems pleased with himself.
A few months later, after Macau, she overhears Coulson talking to Barton. (To Clint, although she’s only reluctantly begun to acknowledge that he has a first name. First names imply uniqueness, individuality, and she’s not entirely comfortable with that idea yet.)
Coulson says, “You know, she’s either going to break your neck or your heart. Possibly both, although not necessarily in that order.”
Natasha leaves before she can hear her partner’s reply. She isn’t hurt by the statement, and she doesn’t think badly of Coulson for making it.
She guesses that he’s probably right.
125 nautical miles off the coast of Nova Scotia, the Helicarrier sits low in the water, the eastern light gleaming off its flanks. From far away it looks strangely organic, like a 300-meter whale suspended in mid-breach.
Natasha Romanoff, budding poet, she thinks, turning away from the forward windows.
The Quinjet lands and she steps out onto the deck as soon as the ramp is down, silently tailed by the two beefy agents who had identified themselves as her ‘escorts’ to her meeting with Fury.
A meeting she’d never scheduled, but which had been inevitable.
She’s not sure why they don’t simply take her into custody. It’s possible that Fury thinks he’s being sly, that he doesn’t want to spook her, that he knows even unarmed, dressed only in the casual clothing provided for her at Stark Tower, she could lead them on a hell of a merry chase if she were so inclined.
Maybe, if God exists, He knows how Nick Fury’s mind works.
Natasha doubts it.
The carrier’s main deck is busy, and she thinks that the crew must be servicing the engines. Most other repairs could be affected in the sky, which is where SHIELD likes to keep the behemoth whenever possible, since it can’t properly cloak in the water and its sheer size makes it a visible and highly tempting target for passing miscreants. There will be jets and choppers and drones patrolling the area, of course, and she visualizes the entire area as a large, blue beehive.
And she’s right in the middle of it all.
It reminds her of her first trip into SHIELD-controlled territory, although she’d been on land (in Madrid, specifically) and initially she’d only met with Phil Coulson.
And, of course, she’d been with Clint at the time.
As she steps through a hatch and into the outermost of the craft’s corridors, she wonders if he’ll hate her when he realizes she’s gone. Gone without a word of warning or explanation, much less a goodbye. Gone after everything he has done for her, everything he has risked. She would be furious if the situation were reversed.
It couldn’t be helped. If she’d told him that she’d been contacted by Hill, that a jet was coming to pick her up, that Nick Fury was expecting her ASAP, he never would have let her go on her own. The two ‘escorts’ would have had to hogtie him and leave him on the landing pad, or else he might be expected to shoot one of his grappling arrows into the belly of the Quinjet and hitch a ride, swinging by a line like the tail of a kite, for the entire 400-mile trip.
She knows how his mind works, at least some of the time.
She knows he’s stubborn and he’s steady, reserved and charming and sharp-tongued by turns, and she’s heard people who’ve known him longest say he’s become increasingly sarcastic over the years. That’s probably her fault; she doesn’t respond well to sarcasm, and he enjoys getting a rise out of her.
It would have been comforting, even fitting, to walk into the unknown beside him one more time. And it would have been impossible. She owes him too much to let him risk himself on her behalf. Not again. It’s bad enough that he and Steve have been so completely entangled in the whole mess, but she’s not worried about Steve. He’s Captain Rogers, Captain America; he’s a million-dollar science project – probably in the billions if you adjusted for inflation – and potentially as good a propaganda tool now as he’d been in his heyday, not to mention an object of worldwide adoration and curiosity.
As much as she loves Clint (and it’s scary, how easy that phrase comes to mind now, like the thought is an especially pernicious piece of Stark’s software, burrowing into her brain until it comes without being called) he’s mostly just Clint Barton, Hawkeye, Agent of SHIELD, and she’s afraid that won’t offer him much protection in what’s to come.
The corridors are not as busy as the deck, and the people she does pass don’t pay her much mind. Maybe it’s just because she looks so different, in jeans and a lightweight zippered jacket, blonde hair scraped back from her face, but she detects a studious intensity in the way they ignore her. It’s as though a memo went out before her arrival: Attn all agents: give Romanoff the cold shoulder.
Sometimes she thinks she glimpses someone walking alongside her, another blonde woman in jeans and jacket, but no matter how quickly she turns her head she can never see her straight-on. She’s sensing a shadow, an echo, just as she’d be experiencing phantom pain after the loss of a limb.
She’d dismissed Aten as young, in skill if not in years, but now she recognizes her mistake. The woman (if you can call a figment of your imagination a woman, and she is for the sake of her sanity) had been through the precisely same experiences as Natasha, after all. But she had also been changed – not softened, but rather tempered – by the memories and the grounding weight of the last five-plus years, which Fisher’s version of Natasha had been denied.
Fury isn’t in his usual room off the bridge, but in a smaller, more private office that’s said to be near his quarters. Natasha has a hard time imagining him in normal quarters, on a regular berth. Does he sleep in the eye-patch or take it off first? She’d ask Clint, if he were here, and enjoy the sound of his laughter.
She steps through the open door and it closes behind her, leaving her escorts on the other side.
The director stands at what she first thinks is a window and then identifies as a computer screen mounted on the bulkhead. At the moment, though, it is doubling as a window very convincingly, showing a broad expanse of ocean as seen from several stories above the surface. As Fury turns to face her he touches the corner of the screen and the vista fades, replaced by blackness and the slowly-rotating SHIELD logo.
His hand lingers, drawing her attention, but it’s not necessary. They agreed upon this signal years ago.
She doesn’t sit. He doesn’t ask her to.
“Ms. Romanoff,” he says instead, retreating behind his desk, hands on the back of his chair. “This is an unexpected pleasure.”
“You asked so nicely,” Natasha replies, omitting the fact that Hill had done the asking and, well, she hadn’t really asked. “Did you think you’d have to hunt me down all over again?”
“I expected I’d have to try.”
She favors him with a frozen smile. The rotating logo, as opposed to a stationary one, means that they are being monitored. She’s not sure if it is only their voices being sent out, or if the surveillance device that exists somewhere in the room is broadcasting video as well, but it’s best to assume the latter. No scribbled missives, then. No knowing looks. “That might be fun, under different circumstances. But I don’t have any reason to hide.”
Fury frowns. It’s hard to identify his frowns, sometimes, as his face is usually locked into some unpleasant expression or another, but she’s had plenty of practice. “There are conflicting reports regarding the events in South America,” he says, words chosen with painstaking care.
“Fisher’s talking, then.” Even at his best Natasha isn’t sure she trusts Fury to handle Fisher correctly. This is the man who devoted crucial resources to Phase Two tech, after all, and allowed Selvig to play mad scientist with the Tesseract without any real appreciation for what it could be capable of. He’s not ambitious in the conventional sense, but he is still hungry for any advantage in an increasingly dangerous and complex universe.
“In fact, Dr. Fisher has been exceedingly cooperative,” the director agrees. “Her associates… not so much.”
“How many of them are dead?”
He looks surprised, and in fact she’s rather surprised herself, but the words keep coming and she lets them. “Part of Fisher’s injunction on most of her in-house assets was that she needed to give them a code phrase every few days, or they’d trigger by default. It was a contingency plan, just in case Witten or anybody else tried to shut her down. Her biggest fear was her operatives falling into other hands.” She has no conscious memory of learning this, but she knows it all the same. She must have been Aten at the time. “For assets in the field it would have been longer. Weeks, maybe even months. Has Fisher surrendered their records?”
“She has,” says Fury, recovering smoothly. “Our focus in the coming weeks will be to recover those personnel and administer the antidote, which Dr. Fisher has agreed to provide.”
Fisher hasn’t agreed to anything; the drugs were all kept in the refrigerated vestibule off what they’d called the ‘therapy room’. Fury is trying to make the woman sound more cooperative, more laudable. Natasha isn’t surprised. “I’m guessing that my name wasn’t anywhere in those records.”
“Sloane Fisher is maintaining that you were never altered in any way. That you voluntarily offered her your services.”
Steve and Clint had removed the 13A-10R from the Institute, but Natasha knows that other records exist of her captivity and treatment, or at least they existed once. Witten had wanted to study her, after all. These records have either been locked down, walled up behind security clearance, or they have been conveniently lost.
Both of these possibilities should be beyond the capabilities of Fisher’s patron on the Security Council, the man Clint says she referred to as ‘Lycaon.’ Which means that Lycaon, whichever one he is, has his own operatives inside SHIELD. People who report to him before Fury. People who may even be working against Fury, to subvert or even replace him as director.
“That’s not true,” says Natasha calmly. “I was abducted.”
“Tim Bradach’s statement appears to corroborate her testimony.”
“Bradach recanted those statements,” she retorts.
“Bradach was subjected to an unauthorized interrogation by non-SHIELD personnel, and a few hours later he was dead.”
Natasha feels a chill. She had known about Bruce’s trip to San Salvador, of course, but not that Bradach had subsequently died. Was that Fisher’s work, or Lycaon’s? “An unfortunate accident, I suppose.”
“Accidents do happen,” says Fury, his low voice quite nearly a growl.
To an outside observer it must sound like a threat, but Natasha recognizes a warning when she hears one. Lycaon will be looking to tie up any other loose ends, and as Fisher’s last surviving experiment, as someone who had almost unconsciously absorbed intelligence about the Institute’s operations – thanks to Aten’s vigilance – Natasha is the biggest loose end there is.
Accidents do happen. How easy would it be, on her next mission, for something to go wrong? Her position compromised… an ambush laid… an incident of friendly fire. Unfortunate, everyone would say. A real mess.
And what about Clint? Lycaon will know that he was in Colombia, although Fury may be able to minimize his role in the official reports. Will that be enough, or will he be considered a ‘loose end’ too? Will he simply be collateral damage in whatever ‘accident’ befalls her?
She can’t think about that right now. She needs to focus on Fury.
His options must be limited if he is being watched as closely as she suspects. She understands his frown now: he is annoyed that she didn’t run, because then he could have had control over the intensity of the pursuit. He’d been forced to demand her presence, but he hadn’t really wanted it. And now she’s here (doing the honest thing, the right thing, the foolish thing, which he hadn’t suspected) and he’s going to have to deal with it.
Well then, she thinks, deal with it already. “If you don’t believe me, why aren’t I in custody yet?”
Fury takes his time in answering. He turns the seat around, lowers himself into it with great deliberation, steeples his fingers and gives her a malevolent look that would do any self-respecting Cyclops proud. “You would be, if you hadn’t been vouched for.”
Natasha blinks in unfeigned surprise. “What?”
“By Stark,” Fury continues, almost spitting out the name. “Although Rogers has put in his two cents as well. They’re foolish enough to believe your story. But then, they don’t know you like we do, Natalia.”
“Since when do you take Tony Stark’s word for anything?” Natasha asks, her mind racing. Stark is still in Europe. Steve doesn’t even know she’s here, as far as she knows. Is Fury bluffing, or did he start feverishly making calls once he learned she had actually boarded the Quinjet?
“We’re trying to maintain an amicable relationship,” says the director, and while his words are diplomatic his tone is biting. “He has technology we need, and he knows things he shouldn’t. Personally… I’m looking forward to seeing him screw up. As long as none of my agents are involved, of course.”
Once again the implications are clear, or at least as clear as they can be with the SHIELD logo spinning, spinning on the bulkhead.
By ‘none of my agents’ he means ‘Clint’.
Steve is sitting in his suite, bored with television, bored with books, wondering if he should check up on Barton or go give Stark some backup even if he insists he doesn’t need it, when there is a pleasant chime followed by a disembodied male voice: “Excuse me for the interruption, Captain Rogers, but you have visitors.”
Standing, looking towards the speakers cleverly hidden in the ceiling, it takes Steve a moment to find his own voice. “Visitors?”
“Yes,” says JARVIS. “They have identified themselves as Zachary and Paola Farraday. I realize they have no appointment, but they insist on speaking with you.”
The names mean nothing to Steve. Are they reporters? Enemies? Admirers? He’s not sure which is worse. “If I knew what they looked like…” he says, mostly to himself.
The television screen on the wall flickers to life, and JARVIS obligingly displays the desired footage. A man and woman, both in their late twenties, stand in the first floor lobby. The man, a stranger with short blond hair and a neat goatee, looks uncomfortable, perhaps overawed by his surroundings. The woman is more composed. And much more familiar.
“Tell them I’ll be right there,” he says to JARVIS, and heads for the elevator at a jog.
At first, it is only Steve and Zachary Farraday who speak. The woman, Paola, sits on the richly upholstered loveseat beside her husband, alternately pressing her lips together into a flat line and parting them, drawing breath as though to speak and then letting that breath slip away as a soundless sigh.
“She just went missing,” says Farraday. His blue eyes are as glassy as marbles, slightly dampened with emotion, not so much overwhelmed by the expansive lobby as by the memory of his wife’s disappearance. “We were living in northern Colombia, working with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, investigating abuses in Venezuela, where Paola’s from, and one night she just… just disappeared. No witnesses. No trace. The police wouldn’t help me. That was almost two years ago.”
He swallows hard, reaching over and taking his wife’s hand in his own. She stiffens but does not pull away.
“Witten?” asks Steve.
Paola’s mouth trembles; she closes her eyes and forces out the words. Her voice is soft, lyrical, lightly accented. “Not directly. But the Institute had dealings with Chavez. I heard them discussing it from time to time.”
Steve nods, appreciating the strength of will it has taken Saja – Paola – to find her voice again.
Agent Hill, Zachary tells him – pausing now and then to give Paola time to muster the courage to join the conversation – had found the antidote trigger and administered it on site, after a brief and seemingly effective interrogation of Sloane Fisher. The injunction broken, the trigger defused, she had been able to speak… although it had taken some time before she’d been convinced of that, and even now it is hard for her to work past the fear that she has lived with for so long.
“They found her by her fingerprints,” says Zachary, squeezing Paola’s hand; after a moment, she squeezes back. “They called and told me…” He shakes his head wonderingly. “I didn’t even know what to say. I still don’t. I always believed that she was still alive, somewhere, but I never thought…”
Steve nods his understanding. “How much do you remember?” he asks Paola. “Of… before?”
She looks a little nervously at her husband, biting her lip before answering. “A little more all the time. Not everything. But I feel like… it’s all there. I just can’t get to it quite yet.”
Steve hesitates, weighing truth against comfort – his own comfort – and decides on the truth. “Witten is dead. Manesh evaded custody long enough to track him to California and kill him.”
“Good.” Zachary sounds pleased but not rancorously so, and seems confused by his wife’s reaction: the sharp, indrawn breath, the flush of color across her cheeks, the vengeful snap in her eyes. She hasn’t yet told her husband, it seems, about the specifics of her captivity, the depths to which her tormenter had sunk. The facts will come out eventually, Steve thinks, melancholy at the thought. And if they don’t… well, it’s not really any of his business, is it?
Justice, in this case, has been served. It may have been served at the hands of a deluded psychopath, rather than by courts and juries (and Steve still faults himself for the man’s death), but it has also been served without the intervention of other deluded psychopaths – they call themselves entertainers or pundits or sometimes journalists – who would have seen Witten as a hero or a martyr, or a visionary.
There exist in this world – there have always existed; this is no phenomenon of the twenty-first century – those who have elevated themselves to a lofty state of amorality, who would have made of Bruno Witten a celebrity, someone deserving of attention if not adoration.
Evil is evil. He had said as much to Christiane Jacobs, and even if no one else believes it, he still does.
Clint spends most of the day in a kind of hell.
He paces his floor, leaving messages with Fury and Hill’s secretaries that are never returned. Eventually they just block his number altogether.
Potts must know that Natasha’s gone – the AI keeps pretty close tabs on everyone, it seems – but she doesn’t seek him out. Foster takes off for her conference around noon.
Rogers is still in the building, according to JARVIS, but Clint can’t bring himself to leave his suite. The idea of telling the other man I lost her again, of facing another impossible search, is more than he can take right now.
Even Stark’s resources seem insufficient. Yes, the industrialist could provide transport. He might even be able to hack SHIELD’s systems and determine Nat’s destination. But he can’t get clearance to land if they don’t want to give it, and no one can force Fury to give up her position if he’s not so inclined.
All he can do is make his calls, and curse into empty rooms, and fight down the panic, and wait.
A few hours before sundown, JARVIS tells him that there is a SHIELD helicopter on the roof, and that they’re asking for him.
They travel north and east, landing on the sea-bound carrier after sunset. Crews are hurrying across the floodlight-brightened deck in a familiar pattern; they’re preparing to take to the sky.
Clint shoulders his bag and jumps down out of the chopper, ducking instinctively as the rotors slice the air above him. He looks around, hesitates for a second, and then walks towards the edge.
The wind off the sea chills Clint’s bare arms (he forgot a jacket in his haste to leave the Tower),distorts the sounds of men and woman at work, and tears at Fury’s long coat so that it resembles a fluttering cape. Hands clasped behind his back, he turns as Clint approaches.
Clint doesn’t wait for the director to make whatever wry comment or snide remark he’s been standing here rehearsing. He’s too angry for that, too fully marinated in desperation. “Where is she?”
The sea beckons below, a great black abyss stretching away to a darkening horizon. Clint represses the very real urge to throw Fury into it and bites back his second question, which would have been a more vehement, explicit version of the first. “Why not?” he asks instead, through gritted teeth.
“Ms. Romanoff is no longer affiliated with this organization,” says Fury, looking down towards the place where the engines will soon emerge.
Clint stares. If he was expecting anything, it wasn’t that. “What?”
Fury sighs. “Do you really think Bradach was the only one?”
Silence stretches between them, punctuated by the clanking of machinery, the wind-muffled voices of the crew at their backs. The only one, thinks Clint. The only one who’s been paid off, bought, corrupted, not by Fisher but by the anonymous man who gave her power and knowledge and influence.
Fury may be SHIELD’s director, but there have always been forces – such as the pilot who’d been willing to nuke New York last summer – who’ve answered to a different, if not higher, authority.
“So,” Clint says, marveling at the calmness of his voice, at the tinge of irony that is so well controlled. “You fired her to protect her.”
“Not just her.”
Clint laughs, or tries to, but the sound comes out almost indistinguishable from the grinding of gears beneath their feet. “I didn’t ask you to run interference for me.”
“We’re going to need you, Agent, if we’re going to discover who was pulling Sloane Fisher’s strings.”
Oh, so I’m ‘Agent’ again. That’s nice. “And what about Natasha?” he demands, the urge to send Fury into the drink rising up afresh. “You think they’re just going to forget about her now that she’s not pulling a SHIELD paycheck? If they think she knows something – something she doesn’t know – they’re going to go after her, and now she’s not going to have anybody to back her up.”
He thinks of Natasha as he first saw her: powerful, deadly, and lost… cut off from humanity, set adrift by her past and her nature, and it kills him.
Fury tilts his head, maddeningly calm. “Romanoff is a very capable woman.”
“Capable, not invincible!” He’s nearly yelling now, not to be heard over the wind and the machinery but simply to give an outlet to his rage, one that won’t get him shot by the snipers he suspects are monitoring this conference from afar. “How long do you think she’s going to last on her own?”
“I don’t believe I said anything about her being alone.”
Clint is breathing hard, his hands balled up at his sides. He forces them to unclench before he loses it and tries to take a swing at the director. “What the hell are you talking about?” he spits.
Fury’s brow lifts, Clint’s first indication that he’s dangerously close to outright insubordination. He doesn’t give a damn. “What I’m talking about, Agent, are the Avengers. Or at least what’s left of them. Dr. Foster is working on a possible way to open the bridge to Asgard from our side, but for… obvious reasons, we want to make sure we know what’s there before we open the door.”
Right now, a magic rainbow road to another planet is the least of Clint’s concerns. “Natasha’s going to work for Stark?” he asks, incredulous.
“That was his proposal,” says Fury dryly. “She’s yet to accept, officially. She may be waiting until he returns from his overseas jaunt and is able to threaten him in person.”
The anger hasn’t abated, but some of the fear that fueled it burns away. Natasha operating under the aegis of the Avengers – Stark, Rogers, Banner, maybe some day even Thor – is strange but far more comforting than the idea of her returning to the days of contracts and solitude, the life that she’d been living when he’d met her, the life she’d been plunged back into thanks to Fisher’s machinations.
It’ll take her some getting used to, he knows, but things were going to have to change anyway. If the Institute was able to connect the Black Widow to SHIELD, other miscreants won’t be far behind. It’ll be harder for her to work in the shadows, to be the flighty young heiress or flirty cocktail waitress that leads unsuspecting men so willingly to their fates. She’ll be more exposed, but at least she’ll have backup.
It still doesn’t make her invincible, but it puts her further beyond the grasp of Lycaon and his cronies.
“And what about me?” he asks, already able to guess the answer.
“As far as anyone else knows, you came to your senses and agreed to help me track down Romanoff and her new employers. She unwittingly led you and Captain Rogers to Colombia where you discovered Fisher’s illegal operations. You tailed her to California, where you captured her, although not before she murdered Dr. Witten.”
Clint feels sick. The duffle bag on his shoulder, full of the detritus of the past week along with his quiver and his bow, seems to weigh a hundred pounds. “You’d let people think that about her?” he asks, the words coming so soft that he’s not sure they’re even audible.
He knows Natasha doesn’t care what other people think. She uses misconceptions; she isn’t a victim of them. It doesn’t matter. He cares.
“If it means keeping her alive?” asks Fury. “Yes.”
Clint supposes he should feel grateful. He guesses he’s meant to be impressed by this plan Fury and Stark have cooked up, but all he feels is a roiling nausea that has nothing to do with seasickness.
These are supposed to be his people. They’re supposed to be the good guys. And yes, they’ve made mistakes – everyone makes their share – but even after New York, even after learning about the plans for Phase Two, even after being told his uniqueness was a liability, Clint still believed in the cause.
He’s not a guy who believes often, or easily. Still, he had believed.
But what’s the point? SHIELD can’t protect the whole world… they can’t even protect their agents from actors within their own organization. One of their people is kidnapped and brainwashed; they act like it was an inevitable betrayal, attributing false motives, blaming her for crimes she never would have committed in her right mind, crimes she hasn’t committed.
What’s the point, when the people you trust to have your back throw you to the wolves instead, and then claim it’s because they have no other choice, insist that they’re just trying to do what’s best for you?
We’re going to need you if we’re going to discover who was pulling Sloane Fisher’s strings, Fury had said. Clint knows what that means. No contact with Natasha or the others, nothing to raise suspicions that his role was anything but what Fury has claimed. Working from the inside to discover the identity of Lycaon while she works from the outside. Secrets and solitude.
“It’s going to be a couple weeks before the doctors will certify her. They’re worried about that head injury,” says Coulson. “You’re due for some time off yourself, but if you want me to set you up with someone else, we can get you back in the field before then. Your call.”
It had felt like a betrayal after Montreal. It still does.
He sets his duffle bag on the deck, kneels and unzips it. Fury tenses almost imperceptibly, but Clint doesn’t reach for a weapon. Instead he roots around in the depths of the bag for a moment before pulling out a crumpled ball of shiny purple fabric. He stands and holds it out to Fury, who takes it, looking nonplussed.
“I think this is yours,” says Clint, shouldering his bag again.
Fury stares at him, one eye glittering, the patch over the other so dark that it might as well be an empty socket. “You’re making a mistake,” he says quietly.
“No, I’m not,” says Clint. He forces a smile. “Ten minutes, right?”
“Eight,” says Fury. “You need to be gone before we launch.”
“Eight it is.”
He passes Morse in the corridors, and she stares after him. He wonders if she was watching their whole conversation, and how many other people were doing the same. It’d be hard not to guess the significance of the handing-over of the mizingi-suit, even to someone who doesn’t know what it is.
“Did you just get fired?” she asks, her voice rising to a squeak.
Clint just laughs. It’s the second time in a week that he’s been asked that question. “No,” he says, leaving her behind. “I quit.”
He actually goes to his quarters this time, not hers. There are a couple books he likes, mostly L’Amour, London and Grisham, some clothes that actually belong to him (he’s going to need a coat, anyway) and he stuffs them into his bag. Vibrations thrum through the metal walls and he realizes that he’s going to miss that sound. But it’s a small price to pay.
“It’s a lie.”
Clint turns. Agent Santiago, as elephantine as ever, stands in the doorway.
“I was with Hill in Villavicenio,” the man says mulishly. “I know what happened there… the freak show Witten and Fisher were running. If Romanoff killed anybody, it wasn’t her fault.”
Clint raises his eyebrows. “She didn’t,” he says evenly. “But you might want to keep that to yourself.”
Santiago shrugs. “I don’t like you, remember?” he asks, fingers drumming a spot just above his right knee. “But I find anything out…” And he scowls, but behind the scowl there is something that Clint has never seen from the burly agent before, something that looks suspiciously like a smile. “…You have some way I could get in touch with you?”
Well, Clint thinks. It looks like the Avengers will have their man on the inside after all.
They walk back up to the main deck and the waiting chopper, Clint ahead, Santiago trailing, acting as an impromptu escort. Just before they step out of the corridor, the big guy speaks again. “Dolg platezhom krasen.”
Clint’s breath catches in his throat as he turns. “Didn’t know you spoke Russian,” he says carefully.
Santiago grunts. “I don’t. But I saw Romanoff before she left. She said when you showed up, I should tell you that. She said you’d know what it meant.”
Clint knows. He remembers the first time she said it to him.
Debt is beautiful only after it has been repaid.