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[your albatross: the things you've said and the things you've done]

Chapter Text

Natalia meets the American outside of the hotel.

Now he's wearing jeans, running shoes and a mid-weight jacket, with a scarf around his neck in a strong, vibrant red. Clever, that: it draws the eyes away from his face, is just eye-catching enough to focus the memory without being so interesting that you looked at him for any longer than you would otherwise, and so might remember him better. He's smoking, and the motion, too, is a distraction.

He sees her, and winks.

Natalia might be . . . if not impressed, as such, maybe appreciative: there aren't many reasons for a man to be meeting a girl outside this kind of place and it would be stupid to try to play a couple at this stage. Neither of them has had time enough to read the other enough to get it right, and certainly haven't had time to discuss it.

But there's still different kinds of girl who might meet different kinds of man for that obvious remaining reason, and the cache of clothes it was easiest and safest for her to get to made one the logical choice: poor, but not starving, younger than she likes to think she looks, softer than she likes to think she looks, but sure she knows what she's getting into and that she can handle it all.

And wrong, of course: this kind of girl is always wrong, always just a touch too gentle, not angry enough. Too much to prove, too weak and too sure of themselves at the same time. Exactly the kind of girl who would meet a nice-looking man who had good clothes and ready cash and still met girls at this kind of hotel. Exactly the kind of girl who thinks they can do that and end up anywhere but the gutter if they're lucky and the river if they're not.

Natalia's appreciative, because the American seems to pick all of that up. Seems to see what she's playing and slide into the role of the right kind of man without a stumble: all solicitation and attention and compliments and nearly unnoticeable drive to control. Someone watching closely would catch the way the arm around her waist leaves his hand resting near her wrist, and how easy it would be to turn that into a trap. And how unaware the girl she's playing at is of the danger. Little things like that. The things that make a cover perfect.

It's either excellent practice or remarkable natural skill. Unusually, Natalia's not sure she wants to know which.

The room is small, the bed narrow, the bedding worn and dingy, but there is a closet of a bathroom with something pretending to be a shower. Everything is clean, clean enough there probably aren't any bedbugs, and tired and desperate enough to still be cheap.

When the door closes behind them, the American lets go of Natalia like he'd never had any intention of holding on. He bolts the door.

Then he pulls two small, wedge-shaped black things out of the jacket's inner pocket and slides them into the crack between doorjamb and door. They are unfamiliar to Natalia - clearly more than just wedges to keep the door closed - and she wonders what SHIELD has managed to develop.

She wonders what SHIELD is, to begin with. Actually is. Doesn't know exactly where what she has always been told slides into lies. She knows what she's been told, but that doesn't mean anything.

It's frustrating. And terrifying.

She can't really afford to think about that right now.

The future opens up in front of her like a chasm she can't see, but the past is no better. Worse. The future is unknown, but at least she knows what she can trust. It's "nothing"; absolutely nothing. But she still knows it. She knows she can't trust a thing.

With the past . . . the past is also unknown. And worst of it, some of what's unknown is what she thought she knew.

It's not a feeling, in her head. Like being happy or sad or angry. It's just like a hole, a blank space, a pit, and all it does is make her feel sick.

She doesn't show it, just takes off her purse and puts it on the one small wobbly table, taking out what she used it to carry. Cash, jewelry, makeup, one or two very specific weapons like the smaller porcelain knives and their sheathes, the contact-charges.

Her wristlets. She wants those. Doesn't know why they matter more than other things - her throwing knives, her sidearms - but they do.

Passports, not to use (the Red Room knows them all, they made them all) but to cannibalise, hack apart and put back together if necessary. Resources.

"I stripped the cache and left the codes indicating I judged the current mission as wholly compromised and abandoned it," she says as finishes laying out what she brought on the table, breaking the silence without preamble. She speaks English, neutral American accent, and keeps her voice low enough only someone with their ear to the door could possibly hear it.

The American has gone to the bed and a black nylon bag that's sitting on top of it - reasonable size, large number of pockets. He's pulling items out and laying them on the bed, like he's mirroring her. She doesn't know what to make of that yet, but doesn't really try to make anything of it. Just . . .absorbs. She needs to know more, before she can interpret.

"Assuming we aren't already compromised," she concludes, "they will expect me to rendezvous in Samara the day after tomorrow, and will expect contact within an hour if I'm unable to make rendezvous, after which I'll be considered compromised."

She speaks in English, quietly, to see what response she'll get; it turns out, very little. Without looking up, the American asks, "How's your defensive Serbian fourteen-year-old?" in a conversational voice, also in English, also quiet enough that only someone with their ear to the door would hear.

"Perfect," Natalia replies, matter of fact, and is impressed that he doesn't question her: in her experience, outsiders have a hard time taking her at her word, especially for things like this.

Outsiders. She needs to stop thinking of them like that. She's an outsider. She left them. She isn't part of the program anymore.

"Good," is all the American says, and tosses her a small case which, when she unzips it, turns out to have a dye kit of much, much higher quality than you could take off the shelf - brunette, but not terribly dark. "The guy our best ticket out of here knows already has a fourteen-year-old cousin, so that makes it simpler."

Natalia tilts her head slightly. "Makeup, or no makeup?" she asks. It's easier just to ask, to focus on the practical details of the cover, than to let herself think about anything else. Especially what out of here means. That's too big for her to handle right now, and there's no benefit to trying.

"She's fourteen, dad's incompetent, mom left, lives with her aunt, aunt's strict and controlling, kid hates the aunt, and here - " and he tosses her a second packet wrapped in paper, "is what you've got for clothes for now: everything else, you pick."

He doesn't even add just make sure you tell me. Again, she's . . . appreciative.

Natalia makes a gesture of assent with the hand holding the dye-kit, and steps into the excuse for a bathroom.

 

The name the American gives her is Clint Barton, and it may actually be his real name - that is, it may be the name he lives most of his life under, and which is attached to a life-history that mostly resembles reality more than fiction.

Natalia feels slightly ambivalent about this being Hawkeye. On the one hand, nothing she's seen so far contradicts the idea that he really is that competent, that good at this job; but on the other something in her rebels at the idea that someone with Hawkeye's reputation would take everything so . . . casually.

That's not the word. She runs through the thought in several different languages and settles on the English breezily. It isn't casual: she watches, and everything he does is done with attention and necessary competence but it does feel like his entire presence is some kind of light breeze moving through a place. It almost feels like an affront.

Except that it disappears for one thing, and that's any discussion of what's likely to happen to her.

He also insists on rephrasing it as with her, if not rephrasing the whole thought all together. Doesn't draw attention to it, but it's still consistent as -

It's never occurred to her before that every way she thinks to finish that simile is either something that isn't really that consistent if you really think about it, or it's something she's never . . . that's never been real. Only the parts of histories of people who don't really exist. Histories that don't make sense if you look at them the way she always has, if you think the world was shaped how she was taught.

But that's why she's here, doing this.

The point is, in those moments, the American stops being breezy.

Like when they reach Teplodar after dark and he goes to find a payphone. And she asks him, "You're calling the right hand of the man whose orders you just comprehensively disobeyed."

She needs the confirmation. He'd told her earlier, and she hadn't asked then. They'd spent most of the drive this far solidifying their cover, and practicing their interactions, and she hadn't wanted to get into it. Hadn't wanted to derail herself from the familiar tracks of nailing down who she's going to be.

But now she asks.

The American - Barton - pauses in the act of shrugging on his coat and looks thoughtfully at the ceiling. "I don't know if 'right hand' really applies," he says, as if he's musing on it. "The Assistant Director probably counts as his right hand. Officially, even. Whoever that is this year. Call it 'left hand'. And yes."

"You trust him," she says, deliberately but calmly, "to also disobey the same man, for you, over a former target."

She lets the note about whoever that is this year go by: given she doesn't even know the simple realities of SHIELD's existence yet, at least to the point she can trust, she's certainly not ready to fully grasp its power struggles.

Barton zips up his coat and replies, "I trust him to sort shit out so that he doesn't have to do that, and I don't have to start killing former coworkers I actually kinda like because it's all gone to shit."

And now even though the words are the same kind as before, the tone isn't. It's the same as it was when he explained what the fuck he was doing, back in the abandoned factory. Carving each word into the world, but with a knife so sharp that it never sticks.

"You think SHIELD's director will be amenable to being sorted out," Natalia says. The words, they're not questions, or challenges, even if what he's saying would normally seem completely implausible. It's more that she's so far off the map of anything she understands that she needs to establish . . . basic parameters.

If reality and subsequent events demonstrate that Barton's just fucking crazy, that still establishes basic parameters.

So she needs to make sure what she's assuming, what she's interpreting, is correct.

Barton's smile now turns utterly humourless. "I think," he says, "that Nick Fury's not a fucking moron. Or I wouldn't work for him. I kinda have a fixed objection to working for fucking morons, and it's pretty long-standing too. And only a fucking moron would decide he'd rather kill me than trust me to know what the fuck I'm doing when I've gone through Coulson already, and that's what he'd have to do. He's not going to be happy," Barton adds. "But that's my problem, not yours. Besides I've been yelled at by scarier people, even if nobody else believes me."

Natalia stares at him. He checks his pockets and glances at himself in the mirror.

In the end, the only thing she can think of to say that she's willing to have him hear is, "Why exactly does Director Fury employ you?"

The look Barton gives her has no ready description, but it might be what you get from shoving a smirk and a grin into one expression. "If I didn't work for him," he replies, and now he is back to the same breezy tone as before, "I might work for someone else. Or myself. Pretty sure he can't decide which option's worse."

Then he gives her a sort of mock-salute and goes.

And he doesn't tell her not to follow him.

She has every reason not to trust him, still, and they both know it; that means she has every reason to want to know exactly what he says to this man he's about to drop a whole world of disaster on, and how, and to see how it lines up with what he says to her, because she's got every reason to assume it won't. She has every reason to follow him.

They both know it.

Doing so would add considerable risk of their being noticed. She is very, very good, but it also doesn't matter: the risk is always considerably more. Moreover (she knows) he also wouldn't want her to hear what he said, even if he isn't lying to her, because she doesn't know his dynamic with this Coulson, doesn't know how their relationship works, and thus doesn't know how to interpret anything he might say. Especially like this.

He must know that. She knows it. She isn't sure if he knows she knows it, but she has the suspicion he's assuming so.

And he still doesn't try to tell her to stay, or remind her of all the risks of being noticed, or anything else.

 

Back in the factory she'd told him he was a fucking idiot; she'd told him this was a good way to get killed.

He'd shrugged and replied, Everyone dies sometime.

It's the kind of thing idiots say, and young men, and people who either haven't ever really believed they would die, or who are so afraid of being afraid of death that they throw themselves at it - and, honestly, also mostly believe if they do that hard enough, somehow they'll be immortal. Like death is something you can intimidate.

Barton, though, just sounded like someone who knew it was true.

Natalia has no idea what the fuck to make of him. So she makes sure the windows are covered, and goes through her stretches.

 

Later, he comes back to the miserable little hotel room and says there'll be a helicopter waiting for them on a farm outside Salzburg. He makes coffee on the little burner. It's instant, but Natalia has drunk worse.

After a while, she asks, "Why are you doing this?"

Barton's stretched out on the lower of two narrow bunks, reading a paperback book. He puts it face-down on his stomach for a second to look at her. Now his face looks serious again.

"Believe it or not," he says, "I gave you the real reason the first time." He pauses - not a hesitation, just like he's letting the thoughts take a breath. He adds, "I know that probably sounds implausible as fuck, though."

Natalia tries to see anything in his face or his body beyond what's patently obvious (and what's less obvious but still clear to her, like how tired he is, and how tense), and fails. After another stretching moment of silence, she replies, "Anything and everything I know about the entire world could be a lie. How the fuck should I know what's plausible or not?"

"Good point," Barton admits. He shrugs, awkwardly because of how he's lying down. "But I still told you the truth the first time."

Natalia doesn't answer. When she's finished her coffee, she pulls herself up on the top bunk to try - and fail, her hand going over and over again to rub at her other wrist where what she should feel isn't there to feel - to sleep.

******

As it turns out, Natalia Alianovna doesn't try to follow him. Clint's not sure - actually, no, he is impressed. He's just not sure he's impressed with her calculated trust or her nihilism: if what he should take from that is she's making measured decisions based on risk-assessment, or if she's just one bare step away from curling up in a ball and laughing hysterically until she chokes to death.

It could really be either, at this point. Clint recognizes the wild tinge you can just, just barely see behind her eyes in still moments. From the inside. And he's learned to think of that as a really bad sign. People in the middle of realizing their whole world is really, truly a lie are not in a good place. For themselves, or for anyone around them.

To put it mildly.

Mostly he hopes she stays in one state or the other - the calculation, or the nihilism - and doesn't snap to the middle. The middle, the place where you're both sure everything's wrong and you're completely doomed, but at the same time somehow get the idea you can do fuck-all about it and you have to figure out what to do right now - that's the place where people do really, really stupid shit.

He should know. So he'd rather she not get there.

It takes Clint about an hour to wend his meandering way through enough obfuscations, misdirects and switchbacks that he's willing to drift to a pay-phone. He really hopes nobody decides to be stupid enough to try and mug him tonight, because the way things are, he'll just have to kill them and kill them as efficiently and quickly as possible, without giving them a chance to realize what a mistake they've made, let alone try to back out of it. All the other options are too risky.

The pay-phone's on the right kind of street: currently deserted, but not so completely abandoned that it's weird that anyone would be using the phone there. He's glad it's not winter, too, because it's also the kind of street that makes for a bit of a wind-tunnel effect as it is, and that would be brutal.

It takes probably less than thirty seconds after Clint's given the "operator" at the number he dials the relevant coded responses before the handset delivers Coulson's very, very tight voice, packing an awful lot of commentary into a short, sharp and explosive, "Barton."

"You know," Clint says, drawling the words slightly, "you're lucky my surname's that easy to snap - where would you be if it were something like 'Saros' or 'Amam'?"

Because frankly at this point him being a shit is actually code in and of itself, and will probably make Phil start taking full inhales faster than actually getting to the point right away. As Clint's well aware, he's featured prominently in the unofficial new SHIELD agent-analyst orientation material as an indicator: when Agent Barton stops actively giving superiors a hard time, the situation is cataclysmically serious.

He marks one point in his favour when there's a tiny pause before Coulson says, "You have never been less funny," and sounds at least slightly less like each syllable's being punched out of his ribcage by some kind of torture machine.

"Yeah well," Clint retorts, "I've had a shitty week, I'm okay with being off my best game there. But you can relax - this call does not actually indicate Sitwell's a plant or a double-agent," and this time Phil gets a point because Clint doesn't hear even a hint of the relieved exhale he knows he just got, before he adds for the sake of his own temper, "just a cowardly procedure-worshipping piece of small-minded shit, which I guess some people might think is better."

"I'm sure I don't need to tell you what he's said so far about you," Coulson replies, and hey there might even be a hint of dry humour there.

Clint snorts.

"Jasper can suck a dead camel's rotting dick," he retorts, bluntly, "because he's not getting anywhere near mine - she was born in eighty-fucking-four, Coulson," he says, over the beginning of whatever Phil's about to try to say, because it's not exactly warm out here and if he has to hash out in detail why exactly he's done this shit the way he fucking has he wants to do it somewhere his fingers aren't slowly freezing and the wind isn't getting uncomfortably personal.

There's a pause before Phil says, "I don't need to tell you the job is ugly sometimes."

It's the kind of complicated braided Shroedinger's Comment that doesn't actually pick what it's going to be - chastising, conciliatory, commiserating, whatever - until it's already been replied to, which Coulson's pretty good at. It's a neat trick, actually, and Clint keeps meaning to figure out whether he learned it in the Army or from someone who left SHIELD before Clint showed up, but he always remembers that in moments like this, when he's got other things to do.

So right now he just retorts, "Yeah and I shouldn't need to tell you I've got a better handle on fucked up kids and when I do and don't need to put them down than Jasper fucking Sitwell ever will, and I'm gonna say it, if I do have to tell you again after this time, I'm going to start taking it personally."

That might be mean. Excessively mean. He can't tell. He's kinda tired and it has been a shitty week, and it's cold out here. Maybe he'll apologize to Coulson for that one later.

As it is, he ignores the very subtle are you fucking kidding me right now Barton undertones in Coulson's flat demand, "Status?"

"Cold and short-tempered, sharing a crappy room here in paradise with my new best friend," he replies. "A ride would be nice. If you make me walk all the way back to America, you have nobody but yourself to blame for the mess."

"There'll be a bird waiting at the farm," Coulson replies, not dignifying the second half of that with a reply, which Clint supposes is pretty fair. "Standard protocol."

"See I knew you were a nicer person than me." Then, because Clint can't not right now he adds, and he's not really joking anymore, "Coulson?"

There's a second of listening silence, so Clint sighs, and says, "Don't fucking make me kill people, okay?"

They both know Coulson knows exactly what Clint means: that if SHIELD tries to make this an apprehension instead of an extraction, people are going to die. Probably a lot of them. And that they're not going to have much luck pulling wool over his eyes about which it is.

That if they do something stupid, this is going to end in blood and probably a vendetta. Maybe a few.

Clint would really, really rather they not be that stupid.

There's a second's pause where honestly is anybody's guess what Phil's face looks like. Then Coulson says, "Barton," with pained patience crystalizing on his tone. "I think we can all agree you've just definitively proven that nobody can."

He also hangs up while Clint chokes the laughter back, which is pretty fair.

 

Circling back to the hotel takes another hour or so; he takes the precaution of lurking nearby long enough to get himself flat out chilled, which is also long enough to be comfortable nobody's managed to pick him out. For a certain value of comfortable.

Then he gets a drink nearby, complains about his imaginary wife to one of the other drinkers in a companionable duet demonstrating why some people should never get married, and goes back to the hotel.

Where Natalia Alianovna has not moved, other than around the room, since he left. So that's good, anyway.

He's not really surprised when Natalia asks him why he's doing this: if anything, he's just relieved that her reply is to point out she has no idea what is or isn't plausible, and that her tone borders on the irritable. It's a minor point in favour of her being at least mostly up to making calculated choices, which is at least easier on her than nihilistic hysteria, and definitely easier on both of them than actually panicking.

He'd like to get through all of this alive. Both of them.

Chapter Text

Getting from Moscow to Salzburg is so uneventful it makes Clint's jaw clench all the way to agony.

That's pure superstition. He tries to stamp on it, always has, because superstition will get you killed as fast as any other kind of stupidity: reality doesn't actually give a shit what you believe or don't believe, and it always has the trump card. There's no reason the trip to Salzburg shouldn't be uneventful.

The Red Room wouldn't be looking for their missing bird until later that second day to start with, they'll be assuming someone killed her before it crosses their mind she's gone over to anyone else, there's zero reason for them to have picked up on Clint actually being in Moscow yet given Sitwell would've worked pretty hard to make sure it looked like they'd yanked him home after his major bout of Fuck You You Fucking Coward (since SHIELD had zero interest in looking like it had a rogue operative in Eastern Europe right now), and that'd been in Kiev, and nobody else has any reason to get in his way.

There's no reason to expect a problem yet. So the absence of a problem isn't a warning sign, and Clint keeps that in the forefront of his mind.

But it's still hard. Magical thinking wouldn't be so common if it weren't so seductive.

Clint doesn't have to rely on SHIELD-associated contacts around here, and that's one of the nice things about operating in the teeming streets of what Americans negligently call Eastern Europe. He has plenty of his own, some of them dating all the way back to when he'd first touched down here, young and only slightly less stupid than he'd been when he hit the streets of Philadelphia, convinced if he got far enough away he could get himself lost.

Some of them come from later, from being Thomas Roberts for half a dozen consecutive years. And a few of them he's picked up since then, without bothering to link them directly to SHIELD and how he works with them.

You never know, after all.

He does stop to strip a SHIELD cache and crash-pad just outside of Teplodar, because it's convenient and because it's a kind of a test. That gets him more ready cash, plus a handful of other useful little things. There's no new traps, and his code works with the lock and check-in pads both. So they haven't locked him out, at least, and they're not being absurdly stupid.

Clint really hopes he doesn't have to kill anyone he likes over this.

They get passports and other necessary ID from one of the many, many Antons that Europe has thrown in Clint's way to make friends with. He'd first noticed how many of them he's met about the time the first Matrix movie came out, and used to joke it was an obvious glitch, but it's just coincidence. Coincidence and a name that occurs in multiple languages and multiple countries.

Still: he knows too many Antons for one person.

This one's actually French, living in Ukraine because he had to leave France in a hurry and then decided he liked operating in a country where it was a lot easier to pay people off than his native land, and he thinks Clint is a Moscow-born Serb named Bojan who did him six or seven favours a bunch of years ago.

Bojan's one of the personas that Clint came up with when he first got out of the US and decided to get himself lost. It's one he didn't come up with because he needed to, but more just because he wanted to see if he could - see if he had the ability to keep up the pretense of being not just someone else (which is easy) but someone so totally different in key ways from what he actually is.

Someone you wouldn't associate with him at all.

It was a way of keeping himself from thinking about things he didn't want to think about. He could practice that kind of thing - accent, tone of voice, language, backstory, all that shit - when he needed to fill empty time with something that wasn't going to get him killed.

So Clint spent ages watching a friend of a friend (or at least, a friend of someone-Clint-was-cultivating-because-he-needed-an-in-and-this-guy-wasn't-too-bad, but hey, po-tay-to po-tah-to) and that guy's friends and squirrelling away details before spinning Bojan out.

It had worked way better than he'd expected. Bojan'd passed every scrutiny, including a couple of times from people who hung out with the guy Clint'd used as his major outline. He'd been pretty proud of that.

The persona also comes with a young teenage cousin, and a family Bojan has good reason not to like: that'd been a big in, with this Anton, generated a lot of fellow-feeling.

So when Bojan shows up to tell Aton him and the kid cousin need the papers to get out of Russia and into Germany so they can leave that shit behind, Anton's more than sympathetic enough and doesn't have any problem imagining all kinds of good reasons why they can't just get their own back from Bojan's mom.

Plus he could really use Bojan's money. Really use it.

Clint's not sure whether he's sad to see every single possible sign of Anton's heroin problem heading sharply downhill or not. It's not really likely he could use the guy again after this anyway, because this get-away-from-family angle locks in too much story, too many people, for Clint to be able to show up again without carrying a lot of baggage that gets pretty unbelievable - and attention-getting - pretty fast. So as an asset, this Anton's tapped right out.

And the guy's honestly a pretty solid piece of trash, and bad enough at keeping on the avuncular rather than pretty-goddamn-gross side of "play"-flirting with a supposedly fourteen year old girl that even as Bojan, Clint has to eventually glare him into self-conscious silence.

So on the one hand, it's always sad to see anyone you know heading down that short, ugly slope; and then on the other, it's not exactly like the world's going to be losing a shining light.

Clint'd never got around to naming the cousin, because she existed in brief, tight allusions to the family Bojan hates so much. It's convenient, and means that when Natalia Alianovna picks Nikolina, that works just fine. It takes a few hours to get everything set up and paid for, along with Anton's warning that these won't get them through an airport.

"Nikolina" is pitch-perfect, too: she hadn't been kidding. You'd never, ever think to connect the nervous, slightly sullen, obviously desperate-for-approval and obviously also very young teenage girl who mooches around Anton's place while things are getting made with the bright-brittle club butterfly who checked into the hotel with Clint last night, let alone the solemn, studious young musician he spent a week tailing before he left her the note.

The plan is to cut back north and get to Poland via Belarus: drive to Brest, abandon the car and take the train across in to Warsaw. Then Clint can decide whether he's interested in hitting up one of the bigger SHIELD safehouses or whether he needs to burn one of his private bolt-holes, and they can turn into a couple of completely different people and take the train to Salzburg.

Then they can pick up another car and get to the extraction point.

Beside him in the car, Natalia Alianovna picks at her deliberately ragged nail-polish, feet pulled up onto the seat so that her knees are close to her chest, posture adolescent and defensive. You could even chalk her expression up to a pensive kid, at this point, but Clint doubts it.

He knows he's right when she asks, "Why Salzberg?" in English, and her voice is distant.

Her SAE really is very good.

"It's actually a big fucking lake property in Mattsee," Clint replies; he isn't surprised when she turns to look at him, and her head tilts to the side.

"The Reiter property," she says, and Clint suppresses his smile a little.

"Yeah," he says. "Which is why we're going there."

The property is one of the half-obvious lies, where the official story is and forever will be that Amelia Reiter is a stupidly wealthy recluse who loves small helicopters and has a problem with obeying petty things like noise ordinances because she has more money than God, and everyone in the intelligence community and at least some of the neighbours are pretty sure is a SHIELD front - but can't prove it. And can't be completely sure.

But it means that their arrival and their departure will be invisible by way of being an obvious Secret Mission of Some Kind, and ironically won't draw any real attention.

It's amazing what you can get away with, when you normalize the exceptional.

It's a bit of a pain to get all the way there, but anything closer would be that much more likely to straight up shout that SHIELD's up to something big, and if they can get the both of them back a safe - preferably NATO, best option North American - country before it even occurs to the Red Room they should be looking, so much the better.

 

Somehow, when it comes to it, Clint's not surprised that they actually snatched May up from wherever she's been busy the last few weeks so that she can be here, now, in Salzburg and giving Clint him a cool, level, aggravated-but-long-suffering look two steps behind and one step to the left of Coulson where the latter's waiting outside the Reiter House in - of course - an impeccable suit.

Coulson's expression, on the other hand, is the kind that's impenetrably polite and bland to most people, and to Clint reads why do you make my life difficult louder than a flashing marquee.

On the other hand it is definitely one of his best suits, so at least he's taking this all seriously.

By nowClint's tired enough to be punchy which is probably not great. On the other hand he'd probably be punchy anyway and at least this way he has the excuse that he's slept way fewer hours than he needs to have slept over the last few days. People are more willing to forgive you when you're an asshole because you're tired, versus when you're an asshole because you're on edge. Strange quirk of the human mind.

There are the usual watchers and patrol-guards posted on the roof and along the inner fence-line, but thankfully Coulson has decided not to embarrass both of them, or make this situation any more awkward, by bringing in additional snipers. Clint appreciates that.

May probably doesn't.

Clint puts the wreck of a car that is the third vehicle they've been in over the last couple days into park and turns it off. Natalia Alianovna gives him a sideways look full of query.

They'd left Bojan and Nikolina behind just past the Polish border, swapping them for Jakob and Anina, older brother and younger sister, Germans on holiday in Poland, poor enough to be shabby but clearly trying to pretend they weren't - Jakob a student just finishing his degree and Anina home from a year with other family in the United States.

Natalia's still dressed as Anina, unremarkable clothes and subtly inept makeup of a girl in her middle teens who doesn't want to be seen as young but doesn't want to be seen as trashy and doesn't have a good handle on how to make that work. But she's stopped being Anina the minute they passed the gates on the edge of the property.

Now sitting beside him is the same young woman who'd been in the old factory and briefly in the hotel-room, the one with eerily little in the way of outward cues for personality or perspective. The one who'd been taught to be as close as she could be to a blank slate.

Clint finds it vaguely creepy, but not in the sense that Natalia's the one who's creepy, exactly. It's just fucking creepy that people would try that. Predictable, almost boringly human, sure - but also creepy.

"Might as well get out," he says, opening his door. "Grab your bag. Try not to have a heart-attack when I'm a mouthy smartass fuck to the guy in the suit."

Natalia's eyebrows rise. "You intend to be one?"

"It's an important part of our dynamic," Clint assures her, gravely. She gives him a look he's already getting familiar with, the one that says there is something wrong with your brain, and then indicates May with a slight motion of her head.

"That," she says, "is Mei Qiaolian. Melinda May."

Clint's not sure if she throws in both of May's names to show off, because she wants to be really clear of the identification, or even if she's just seeking comfort in running through her own knowledge and making sure everyone else is sorted into the right places. But her Mandarin pronunciation isn't bad.

"Also 'the Cavalry'," he adds, by way of agreement, "though she'll probably get annoyed if you use that one where she can hear."

Natalia's eyebrows find another millimetre or so of height. "She already looks annoyed with you," she observes, as she does open her own car door and Clint pushes his all the way open with his foot.

"May and I have a unique and idiosyncratic relationship," he replies, blandly, and then gets out, pulling himself to standing on the car door and calling brightly, "Coulson! You dressed up!"

Coulson manages to sigh with just his eyes. It's kind of impressive. Either because she decided to take him at his word or because the whole thing is just beyond her, Natalia pulls her duffle bag out of the back of the car and hooks the strap over her shoulder.

"Nice car," Coulson says, without much inflection. Clint gets his own bag from the other backseat and shrugs.

"I've owned worse," he says, cheerfully.

"I believe you," Coulson replies.

Clint also looks brightly at May and says, "Miss me?"

May replies, "Not yet," and as a testament to May's poker-face Clint actually can't quite tell if she's blank because she's trying not to admit that she's amused or if she's blank because she's one step away from strangling him herself. It could really be either. Or both.

He resists the urge to blow her a kiss as pushing it beyond the bounds of necessity. He mostly only has the impulse because he's really fucking tired.

And by now they're all four of them within the sheltering arms of the elaborate house's front porch, he opens his posture to clearly include his company and says, "Natalia Alianovna, Agents Phillip Coulson and Melinda May. Coulson, May, Natalia Alianovna Romanova. Coulson is the Director of External Operations, and May is our resident Living Legend."

May and Coulson both give him a repressive look and the wonder is it's almost the same repressive look. But it's also a flicker of all of a second before Coulson's politely extending his hand and nodding in response to the murmured assertion that Natalia was fine. May does the same.

And since it would be kind of a let down to leave it just at that given he'd gone out of his way to warn Natalia that he might be an obnoxious little shit, he adds, "I desperately need a beer."

 

Coulson is annoyed: Clint can tell by the way he "lets" Clint show Natalia to her room.

Of course there's a room. Technically there's one for both of them. There's a chopper coming in the morning that'll take them to the nearest plane that can actually make the flight to London, so they're here for the next eight hours or so.

At least some of that is reassuring, because it means that not only is there sufficiently low urgency and risk of something going wrong that Coulson's prioritizing comfort (on the very basic level of "not spending several hours in a confined space with people who've been roughing it in places that still embrace the cigarette-fuelled lifestyle" and "not flying choppers in the dark" level) over getting them to London ASAP. So that's nice.

The flipside, though, is that by getting Clint to show Natalia the room, Coulson's making him implicitly complicit in, say, any necessary decision to confine her there, and that's kind of a dick move.

And that kind of implies they're going to have to yell at each other a bit before common sense prevails. Clint was really hoping to avoid that. It also means that the yelling might have to go further up the chain, an idea that presents a headache.

He hasn't actually had to go toe to toe in a shouting match with Nick Fury yet and while the idea is not actually intimidating as such, it does come with a forecast of a hell of a headache and possibly losing his voice.

But such is life, and if that's all it takes, it'll still have ended well.

In a development that shocks nobody, especially not Clint, Natalia picks up on at least the vibe behind all of that and gives him an ironic look as he shows her into the suite. She otherwise looks resigned, though, rather than either jumpy or angry - along with a glance that almost comes with an unguarded bit of longing towards the spotless, elegant bathroom.

"There's probably clothes in the dresser," Clint says, leaning on the door-frame, as if responding to the thing she didn't say because hey, let's not be coy about this, "because even if Coulson doesn't want to show off by being creepily prescient someone in Supply is going to've got cranky enough to. Have a bath, watch some TV, eat whatever you want out of the mini-fridge, I'll let you know what the rest of the plan is after we're done not-yelling at each other. Don't worry if that takes a while."

At this point, Natalia stops and looks directly at him. She's got the oddly expressionless blank-slate expression back again, like she's not projecting anything else beyond the receptive state, except that after a second her head tilts very slightly and there's just a hint of puzzlement around her eyes.

Clint maintains comfortable eye-contact, until she finally says, in a slightly bemused voice, "When should I worry?"

He makes a show of considering, because he can. And also because damned if he isn't going to find a way of replying that's at least entertaining to him.

He might have set the line up deliberately, but Clint wasn't actually joking about desperately wanting a beer.

"Probably about the time I show up at this door and tell you to get back in the car," he says, solemnly. Natalia blinks, and the slight tilt to her head reverses sides.

"Only then?" she asks. Clint maintains the solemnity.

"Yeah," he confirms. "Because if I'm doing that I'm also gonna be covered in blood-spatter and shit will have gone so wrong that we need to take that piece of shit out of here instead of stealing one of their jeeps. Before that point, we're probably fine."

 

Clint does not go directly to the dining-room-that-isn't-a-dining-room-but-is-actually-a-briefing-room but does, in fact, go via the kitchen to find out if there's any beer in the fridge, and anything easy and quick he can take in with him to eat.

There is. In fact, some of the beer is even relatively crappy American beer which he suspects they have to ship in specially because he suspects that selling that stuff in an actual store here would be a hanging offense. It's not that he likes crappy American beer, but there's something to be said for the comforting tastes of home.

There are also several unfamiliar agents in the awkward poses of those who are not currently explicitly on guard, but are only in the place in general to be extra guards, have multiple weapons on their persons, have a very solid idea of how far south the whole situation could go, and were taking advantage of the current not-being-on-guardness to have a sandwich, but have now had someone walk in on them while they were doing it.

It's a pretty common baby-agent seasoning job: sometimes you just do want to have more warm bodies that you can shove into various roles (driver, phone-monitor, errand-runner, "shoot anyone who comes out of the door" canon fodder), and it gives the very new kids a chance to experience the general sense of the field without giving them anything to hold that might break badly if they drop it. So Clint doesn't recognize any of them, and they're also clearly not quite sure whether he represents a superior who might tell them off for taking a break they haven't been formally assigned, or a Subject of Concern they should be watching, or what.

They're also definitely finding him being in the kitchen and rooting through the fridge unnerving as hell. Not that it's unprofessionally obvious; they wouldn't be here, on this duty, if they'd be caught out like that. You don't send agents that new anywhere.

But it's still there, the general feeling, hanging around over their heads like a general miasma. And Clint's in a bad mood.

So without actually looking away from his attempt to decide if he wants the cheap American stuff just for the comfort factor or if he wants to commit the grave sin of drinking a local ale so cold he can't really taste it properly, Clint says, "Relax kids, if I was going to kill you, you'd never even suspect it was coming."

He goes for the shitty American stuff, along with the pre-packaged sandwich he drags out of the appropriate fridge drawer. It's not like he could appreciate anything better right now. Besides, it's got a twist-off cap.

He closes the fridge door, raises the bottle to them and says, "Have a nice night."

There's a sudden pang, because Bobbi's not here to say Clint this is why the baby-agents are all nervous around you and he hasn't seen her in several weeks and hasn't even been able to send her an email or talk to her since he threw his SHIELD cell in the river.

He misses her. It's not something he thinks about actively - he doesn't usually think about anything actively while he's on mission except the mission, because that's what's important. But back behind that, in the space in the back of his mind, he does.

He wonders exactly how pissed off she is at him, right at this moment. It's gotta be pretty high. And he can tell he's worn thin beyond just being tired, because he's pretty sure he'd normally know whether or not buying her an apology present on the way home would be a good idea or the worst idea but right now he's honestly not sure.

So he should probably hold off on deciding until he's got a sense of where boyfriend-sins really are again.

Now that he has his beer, he does go to the not-a-dining-room.

Where Coulson looks at the beer, sighs, and outright asks, "How badly did you traumatize the agents in the kitchen?" by way of admitting that he, too, is kind of at his last nerve right now.

 

The debrief isn't particularly exciting, although from the way May's face goes completely expressionless after hearing it, Clint's willing to lay money this was the first time she'd heard Natalia's actual age. That kind of implies she got here not long before him.

Otherwise, it consists of more or less repeating in a more detailed form what he'd already told Coulson on the phone, and then fielding May's pointed cross-examination on What The Fuck Were You Thinking.

He doesn't bother expending the energy not to get Pointed back: the first time he and May ever worked together was the Tucumán, a fiasco that took out a third of Mike's company and most of Mike's leg while also jeopardizing the recovery of a whole stash of still-operational HYDRA weaponry, and Clint hadn't exactly been up to being friendly at the time. Neither, to be fair, had May.

Even without that, May's May and she'd be well aware of exactly how sharp an edge he can get, but with it, he might as well not waste the energy trying - in the same way that not wasting time on protocol they both know he doesn't give a shit about with Coulson is its own kind of communication.

Clint doesn't at any point say you'd've done the same thing because actually May probably wouldn't've: it's one of the places where they can end up just that little bit in conflict. Lot in conflict. Whatever. May has a lot more belief in the fact that when it comes down to it, the systems matter, the machines matter.

May has a lot more belief that humans can't actually live without the systems and without the systems working and if you start breaking the machine for reasons you think might be good, you're so much more likely to break it for reasons that really are bad and every time someone does that it erodes the whole working machine. So for May sometimes it's really goddamn important just to take the shot as per the orders you had, the way things were set up, what you did already know. Important enough not to take this exact kind of gamble Clint decided to take, because the consequences aren't worth it.

May really believes that: that sometimes it's better to take a moral injury, to do something that hurts you that way and crosses that line, than it is to end up with a thousand people dead because you stuck to your guns. And it's not an abstract thing for her.

It's something she's had to live, and probably saved thousands of lives by living.

She might even be right, in a cosmic sense. Clint's pretty sure she's a much better person than he is. He's pretty sure of it partly because it's not really hard: there's no point in her life she killed people just to get paid, for example.

Or for worse reasons.

In fact, part of what sometimes makes her want to drown him - and Clint knows this - is that he'll even admit that sometimes she might be right and he might be wrong . . . and that's still not going to change what he's going to do.

In the ultimate moment, the moment of opening the box and finding out whether the cat is dead or alive - Natalia could've killed him. It could have been the worst mistake he'd ever make, because fuck knows having been warned this way the chances of SHIELD ever getting a chance to get to her again were pretty much nil. It could still go horrifically wrong and he'll own that.

And the cost might be a lot of people dying, and dying badly. The cost of all of this might be astronomical, because Clint just can't fucking stand the idea of killing a kid who's been used for this long, this badly, without giving her a chance, and he thinks there's already a chance she might take it. It could be anywhere from the dozens to thousands of lives, over his crisis of conscience.

Which is not a really defensible rate of return, when it comes down to it, but he still can't stand it so it's still not going to happen.

May knows that, because she's not stupid. And that's pretty much why she's pissed off at him. And that's fair, but Clint's too tired to even be nice to the backup and security Level Fours in the kitchen, and that's actually kinda shitty on his part.

May is a big girl. If she needs to bitch him out and demand an apology for him being an ass later, so be it: it's not going to hurt her if he's an ass right now. And she'll do it.

So he ends up being kind of a shit and telling her exactly what he'd been fucking thinking, including Jasper can fuck himself with a rotting horse dick wrapped in sandpaper for all I care because at least one fringe benefit of this whole catastrophe is that it has now officially taken his relationship with Jasper Sitwell to the point where absolutely nobody's going to expect either of them to even be professional without supervision, which hopefully means he won't have to deal with the fucker directly or without human buffers again.

Clint'll take May questioning his judgement on this shit: at least he damn well knows she's had to make the same decisions, and worse, and made them, and lived with the cost. And more importantly, she's lived with it without hiding from it, without finding ways to try to make it okay. And he'll do that because she's almost old enough to be his mom and has seen at least as much shit as he has and carries it and he knows that.

He's not actually going to deny Sitwell's competence, but for the rest of it, the fucker doesn't know shit, he's a suit and he's always been a suit and he'll always be a suit and nothing more or less, and Clint's not going to take word fucking one from him.

That pisses the guy off more than is healthy, and he tries to get what he thinks is his own back. Since it never was his own, that pisses Clint off and it just goes from there. He's sat on it up until now in the name of genuinely being a damn professional but now he doesn't have to, so he won't.

It's at least a small silver lining.

By the end of the debrief and totally-not-an-interrogation-for-realses, Clint does feel slightly bad for the amount of heartburn he's clearly giving Coulson. But he doesn't actually apologize for it, because when it comes down to the truth there was no way Phil Coulson was getting out of this mess without at least heartburn, because the other reason Clint'll take any of this shit is he's damn well aware how much it would've cost Coulson to take on and carry the fact that Clint's target was an exploited eighteen-year-old. That he'd ordered someone like that dead.

Hadn't found another way.

So between heartburn and soul-dissolving guilt, well: at least with heartburn you can eat some fucking antacids.

When they're done and Coulson's laid out the next day's timeline and sent Clint to bed, and May's at least dialled down her tension enough that Clint's reasonably comfortable with the assumption that they're not going to try to do anything stupid overnight and he's not going to have to kill anyone, Clint goes to knock on Natalia's door and relay the rest of that to her.

She's showered and dressed in clothes that are almost as much of a blank canvas as her own body-language - jeans and a long-sleeved black t-shirt, no socks right now. The lines lie a little too close to her skin to let her play a kid as young as Nikolina anymore, but she could still do anything from fifteen to twenty-five depending on how she moved or talked.

When he finishes laying things out, she nods. She's leaning on the wall this time, having got up to come answer the door when he knocked, and her arms are folded. It could be defensive, or it could be more comfortable to put them there and she's just not going to the trouble of making absolutely sure she couldn't be read as defensive.

Everything's in that space where a smart person would know they'd need to be pretty damn careful about how much they could be projecting, instead of reading. How much what they see is about what they're bringing to this moment, more than what she is.

It's the space that means she's the human equivalent of a Rorschach test, and what you decide to make out of the shapes is going to tell her a lot more about you than it's going to reveal to you about her.

But after a silence just short of him telling her good night, she says, in Russian, "I have no idea what to do with a universe where someone can actually do what you just did and still be walking around, alive." Her voice is matter-of-fact and conversational.

Clint sighs and rubs at his temple with his first knuckle. "Yeah," he says. He mirrors her, leaning on the door-frame. "I know. How's that working out for you?"

Natalia takes a slow breath, in and out, and shakes her head a little. "I can think of ways in which this is all an elaborate trap," she says, "but they're all very, very stupid - so much so, it's hard to think of what to do with a universe that stupid, either. It's all . . . equally insane."

"It's probably going to feel like that for a while," Clint says, because there's no point pretending otherwise.

"Mm," Natalia says.

Then she looks at him and instead of neutral now everything about her is, for just one second, absolutely razor edged. Or maybe scalpel, maybe that's the better image - something to dissect and probe and lay things open with, because what she says next is, "How did you handle it?"

Clint stares blankly at her like an idiot for a couple minutes, because it's unexpected enough that he feels like he's skidding around a corner trying to keep up. Natalia maintains a cool, level gaze, and says, "You're talking about it with so much self-assurance I can only assume you've lived through something you at least think is similar."

And that's said with surprising neutrality. You'd almost expect it to be derisive, expect it so much that if you just read the words on a page you'd hear derision in them, but the inflection in her voice doesn't go there. The inflection makes no comment on whether or not that's a reasonable thing for him to think: it just. . . .states some facts.

"So," she finishes in English, shifting slightly and refolding her arms. "How did you deal with it?"

Natalia, a removed, aloof part of Clint thinks, is going to be absolutely petrifying when she's older. She's terrifying already, even to him. Give it a few more years, some solid ground under her metaphorical feet, and the last touches of adulthood, and she's going to be petrifying beyond words.

But there's no way to answer that other than bald honesty, so he shrugs. It's the only thing he can do, really.

"Badly," he says. "Alcohol, drugs, sex, stupid decisions about all of the above, really fucking dangerous messes due to the bad decisions, and then I ran away to another continent for a couple years and did some more stupid things I was really damn lucky to survive."

"Mm," she says again and tilts her head, so her hair falls the other way. "That sounds . . . sub-optimal."

"Yeah as a general rule I'd take me as a terrible warning in this case rather than a good example," Clint agrees. "Unfortunately that means my practical suggestions are a bit limited."

He's not sure where she wants to take things from there, and figures it's probably for the best when she goes for saying good night and him leaving.

Which he does, long enough to find the rooms with his stuff in them and to shower, get rid of the stinking clothes he's in and trade them for new ones. Thoroughly brush his teeth, that kind of thing.

Then he goes back stretch out on the couch nearest to the hallway with Natalia's room, and with the best view of the various doorways and entrances and so on. It's not subtle, but he's not trying to be subtle and it's not like his own paranoia's going to let him sleep properly in "his" room anyway. He might as well be here, and keep making his very clear statements with everything he does, as well as everything he says.

He sets up the cushions to prop him comfortably against one arm and crosses his ankles on the other arm - a pose he can stay in for hours without regretting it - folds his hands on his stomach and mentally settles in.

At one point one of the Level Fours from the kitchen does try to point out there's rooms set up for him, but Clint just lets his eyes slit open and stares at the guy for a second and when the guy attempts to last it out adds, "You've gotta be new," shuts his eyes again and ignores him. The guy can consider it A Lesson.

He doesn't really sleep, but he was never going to sleep - not properly. So Clint dozes on and off through the rest of the night.

Chapter Text

The knock on the door comes shortly after the American leaves.

Natalia looks at it for a moment. The force of habits and training mean that she attempts on some level to consider the balance of likelihoods and potential outcomes from answering the door -

- and then the force of habits and training run aground, catastrophically, on just how completely lost she is right now, and how little she actually has any fucking idea what's going to happen next.

Oh, there is very, very definitely something in her that wants to panic, to go into the protocols for the worst kind of compromised mission and more. To leave a trail of bodies on her way out of the door and to hide, hide deep in a hole somewhere where nobody can find her: not SHIELD, not her handler, no one.

But then what?

Even that part of her has no answer.

If she's going that route, she might as well shoot herself in the temple now and save a lot of wasted effort and anguish.

She doesn't want to do that.

So despite how she has no fucking idea why anyone would be knocking at her door right now, given that Barton's already told her what the plan supposedly is, and said he was going to shower . . . .despite that, after a heartbeat or two Natalia goes to that door, puts her hand on the handle, and opens it to see who's outside.

It's Mei Qiaolian.

No.

It's Melinda May, the thought corrects itself. In America, she lives by her Anglo-American name, and while this isn't America it's . . . under SHIELD's "Western" operational umbrella, so it might as well be. At least for things like this.

Natalia hasn't yet had to think about May in the Western context. She casts a very long shadow, but almost always coming from the East, from SHIELD's operations Hong Kong before the British returned it to the Chinese, and from several based in Taiwan and Malaysia since. And, of course, the operations on the Mainland that SHIELD doesn't admit it has.

Natalia hasn't had a lot to do with the easternmost operations. She stands out too much, and too many alterations or augmentations or considerations are necessary to compensate for that, to the point that the effort had rarely been worth the return. But May has the kind of record and reputation that follows.

So she says, "Agent May," in English, by way of acknowledgement. Manners. Something like it.

May inclines her head slightly. She asks, "May I come in?"

Barton must be contagious; Natalia finds that it would be more work than she really has it in her to do to keep herself from saying, "It is your safe-house," in a mild and innocent fashion. So she does say it.

That's probably very stupid. But maybe it isn't.

After all, she knows absolutely nothing about anything, really.

The yawning pit of everything she doesn't know stays open and gaping in front of her and if she doesn't find some kind of anchor soon it's going to get very, very hard to keep herself together. Natalia doesn't want to think about that. It's just one of many things she doesn't want to think about. She pushes all of them away.

She also steps back out of the way to let the older woman in.

May has a presence that Natalia has to admire, and almost to admire more if it is as unconscious as the woman makes it seem, instead of the deliberate work of much practice.

To a lot of people it might make her disappear, and yet it comes from being so absolutely comfortable and so absolutely secure in any space she moves through that she no longer has to draw attention to herself. A mind that isn't used to paying more attention than most do (as far as Natalia's ever observed) tends to that for granted. Accepts her as a natural part of the landscape. Doesn't think more about her.

Until, like a landslide, she's crushing them as she moves.

To Natalia, it's remarkable to watch. Especially since she knows that it's not the only presence May can project. She'd been doing the opposite, standing with Coulson in front of the house.

Natalia is entirely unsure what she thinks about Agent Coulson, other than if he is merely an "agent" then up might as well be down. Even watching Barton bat at him like a cat batting at a feather, Natalia couldn't find anything to start building an impression from. Barton's words seemed to hit and then just . . .dissipate. Like noise hitting thick felt.

But in front of the house, it hadn't been possible to let Melinda May fade into the background. She'd stabbed through the awareness, impossible to ignore. Even if you tried to contemplate the unprepossessing man in the suit, the woman standing behind him dragged your attention back to her.

Now, May sits in the arm-chair beside the little sofa and coffee-table that cluster near the TV. Natalia takes the hint, and sits on the edge of the sofa, hands folded in her lap, and waits.

May also has the ability to keep her feelings and her thoughts to herself without having to resort to making herself unreadable, blank, or even projecting a lie. Natalia is simply left with the certainty that a lot of thought and reaction is happening, but it is . . . reserved. There, but screened. Natalia knows that she's thinking, considering - just not conclusions she's reaching, or even leaning towards.

"How are you?" May asks, and it's a very serious question, a request for information, and not at all the American commonplace.

Natalia has no idea what the right answer is.

She does not like that feeling, at all, but there it is: she has no idea what the right answer is. There are so fucking many. Most of them aren't even lies, are even different fragments of truth, but she has no fucking idea what the right one is. What will bring about the desired outcome.

Natalia doesn't even know what the fuck her desired outcome is. Her own. The one she wants. She doesn't know.

It might even be shooting herself in the head at this point, but she can't tell, so she's put that aside, has been putting it aside for . . . a long time now. You can't take suicide back after you've committed, so until she's sure, she'll try other things. But that doesn't mean she's any less lost.

She really, really doesn't like this.

"Why are you asking me?" is what she eventually decides to say, and she decides to let some of that show - some of the frustration, some of the total absence of balance and assurance. Some of the weakness.

She might not know what the fuck her desired outcome is, but Natalia feels pretty sure that if this woman decides she's an immanent threat, Natalia's going to have to deal with a lot of outcomes that she does not want, at all, in any way shape or form.

When you can't decide what you want, you can at least exclude what you don't. If that's all she has, she might as well act on it.

Being a threat is going to get her nowhere. Vulnerability might get her somewhere. Maybe then she'll figure out where that is in relationship with where she wants to be, as soon as she figures out where she wants to be.

May's arms are crossed, but loosely. It feels like habit and also that for this woman, in this mood, crossed arms aren't defensive. Like instead, having her posture open and unconcerned would be almost threatening.

It feels like May is closing herself off a little not so much to protect Melinda May as to give everyone else a break.

Natalia can't help juxtaposing the memory of how much May embodied a portrait of aggravation-suppressed at Barton's insolent greetings and introduction. And how much Barton didn't seem to care.

May leans forward a little. "There are broadly two ways this thing could go, Miss Romanova," she says. Her tone catches Natalia off-guard: comfortable, unconcerned, maybe slightly resigned. "In the one where everything ends really, really badly, you've actually managed to con Barton so thoroughly that he's hand-delivering the hornet into the bee-hive."

Of course, Natalia reflects, there might be no good outcome.

May says, "But as much as I'd like to strangle him right now, I don't actually think that's likely."

Her eyes when Natalia makes eye-contact are tired, but not . . . unkind. "If only," May adds wryly, "because anyone who could pull that off wouldn't bother using Barton as their vector. It would be a lot of unnecessary effort. Anyone who could snow Barton that badly would have other, easier ways in. Although I'd appreciate if you never tell him I said that."

Natalia isn't sure how best to react to that apparent-joke, so she doesn't.

"Now," May concludes, "as it happens, in any one of the other ways this could play out, the fact is you've had kind of a big week, and you're also owed some sympathy. That's why I'm asking."

In the pause, Natalia quickly runs - attempts to run - several variations on the potential conversation in her mind. They all end in ???? and most of them don't even seem to gain her anything at all.

In the end she says, her voice quiet and very, very precise, "Agent Barton just disobeyed direct top-level orders, obviously abrogated and defied multiple protocols, independently aborted and redefined a critical assignment, may have compromised multiple European operations, and then arrived here to display more insolence and insubordination than I have ever seen someone survive. And as far as I can tell and as far as he's given any indication, his entire chain of command is irritated and frustrated . . . and that is all."

May looks thoughtful.

"If I hadn't just witnessed all of it," Natalia tells her, "you would have an easier time convincing me the earth is flat than that anything works like this."

Then she looks at May's face, and waits.

Expressions mean many things. Natalia has actually been highly unimpressed by the formal studies and investigations she's read on the topic - and she has read many, at this point. They all seem driven to find metrics and conditions that cover all human expressions, all the time, when any amount of time spent genuinely observing a wide variety of persons would make it obvious you can't do that.

What people say with their faces - deliberately, accidentally, incidentally, unwillingly - depends too much on context. Without context, there isn't any meaning. And if a lot of contexts end up being similar enough that you can generalize, cautiously . . . it's just a generalization.

And you should be very, very cautious with it.

Natalia doesn't have enough context to decode May's expressions with any solid confidence. The flicker of curve to the lips, drawing back of the muscles in the cheek, but the stillness beside the eyes: that combination is one of the most variable of all in its meanings.

If Natalia can cobble together a guess from what she knows of May's reputation and the indicators in the fact that May is here, at all, and asking these questions, at all . . . .

It's just a guess.

But the guess says that on May's face, here, it . . . doesn't mean what it would with many. Doesn't mean disapproval, or displeasure, or a false-smile as a kind of a lie, but instead says something about . . . fatigue. Exhaustion. Not of the moment, but of the whole, of existence.

The kind of fatigue and exhaustion that comes from living for many years and isn't repairable, rather than the kind that comes from being tired, and needing a rest.

May crosses one leg over the other, rests one hand on her lower knee and the other forearm on the arm of the chair. Again, a posture that might seem defensive on someone else feels more like she's simply not choosing to confront Natalia with her full presence.

Or something.

Part of Natalia, running underneath the rest, the part that is the whole reason she's here, because it couldn't stop picking and ripping at everything they told her and the way it didn't match with the rest of the world . . . that part doesn't necessarily think she's wrong, thinking that about May, but it does think that maybe she's being ridiculous and dramatic.

"You don't have much reason to trust us," May says.

The words take Natalia by surprise and on top of that she can't quite interpret the tone of voice. It's quieter than calm, but not a lot; it's not gentle, but there's deliberately less resonance, less care in the phoneme shapes and consonants, and Natalia's down to analysing such tiny details because she has no idea what it means and that makes her heart-rate go back up to uncomfortably fast.

She watches May's face, and is pretty damn sure May knows that. And that makes her wonder even more why May's doing it.

She hates this. She can't remember the last time she felt like this. A long time ago. Childhood.

"You don't have much reason to trust anything," May continues. "And I'm saying that out loud, and making sure you know that I know this, because - again, assuming this isn't all going to end very, very badly - " and this flat smile is humourless, easier to interpret, " - then I think the biggest challenge you're going to face is just how much the world doesn't quite work how you've been conditioned to expect it to."

Natalia thinks the pause is only for May to consider her next words, but she can't quite restrain herself from saying, "The thought has occurred to me," in a dry and acid voice. It's defensive, and dishonest, but she does it anyway.

Another smile, but this one does move the skin beside May's eyes, shows the lines of other smiles. She leans further forward and moves her arm from the chair to her top knee, and again it feels like she's deliberately closing herself off to ease up on Natalia, rather than to defend herself.

It also . . . has that effect. Despite Natalia being aware that might be the intent.

"For the organization that trained you," May says, in that same voice as before, the one that is quiet and serious and yet somehow less threatening than a quiet and serious voice should be while not being gentle or cautious at all, "the most important thing in the world was complete control. Their complete control. Anything they didn't control was a threat, is a threat, and any person they don't control is an enemy, and the only possible response, the only reasonable response, is neutralizing that threat. The only way the threat is neutralized is by exerting manifest, object control."

Natalia refrains from pointing out that she's stating the obvious, but it's difficult. If she didn't know the woman's reputation, in fact, it would be impossible. If Mei Qiaolian weren't a name that meant Natalia's handlers would pull back from an operation, because they weren't ready to deal with attracting her attention yet . . .

It just is.

So there's a reason she's stating the obvious, even if Natalia can't quite see it.

May takes a deep breath, and glances up at the ceiling. "And they're right," she says, but then adds, "up to a point. Agent Barton is . . . an endless, vivid illustration of that point. Because with Barton the kind of control your Red Room would demand isn't available. It's not possible. The Red Room could never retain an asset like Agent Barton, and in fact an attempt to do so would merely make them his target: their only option would be to kill him."

Now the smile is only in the skin around her eyes, and it's . . . wry, but also sincere, as she adds, "Assuming they could. Which is a big assumption. Because someone like Clinton Barton doesn't give agencies like them much opportunity. They've been trying, regularly, for quite a while."

"Hawkeye is a high profile target," Natalia confirms. A tiny part of her still rebels at the idea that Barton is Hawkeye, but she thinks it's just . . .discomfort. There had been girls, in training, who'd been . . .frivolous. Flippant. Didn't take things seriously enough.

They either learned better, or didn't last.

Natalia had always known better, and hadn't had to learn. It's disturbing to grapple with the idea that this man who hadn't bothered has such a reputation.

But she can't deny that he tracked her. That if he'd taken the shot, instead of sending her the note via the waiter, he'd've killed her. That is fact. A deeply unsettling, even terrifying fact.

Snipers that good usually can't operate alone and invisibly. Snipers that good are usually unbalanced enough that they're constantly entangled in the small-scale criminal enterprises of low impulse control and stupid greed, or they're military-trained - dependant on handlers to embed them, to create backstory and backstopping, to provide shelter and food and orders and intel and analysis. An operation that big shows up, somewhere; and the petty criminals scream out their presence like juvenile ravens.

Snipers that good weren't usually a viable threat in an urban environment.

They had known that she'd attracted interest. After the hospital fire, they'd been expecting it: that's why she's been back in Russia, back on home ground, where their influence on law-enforcement remains significant and secure. The investigations had been limited to law-enforcement, too: crime-scene photos, reports. There'd been nothing through the FSB at all.

Law-enforcement was easy to handle.

So they'd thought.

"He knows," May replies, mouth quirking. "He's fairly proud of it. But a very significant part of what makes him a high profile target, Miss Romanova, and what makes him such a high-value asset to SHIELD, goes hand in hand with his . . . attitude."

Another brief smile, this one lighting her eyes. "You can't have the talents, tendencies and skills that he has that make him that valuable without tolerating the attitude, in the same way you can't have a bloodhound without cleaning up dogshit."

The vulgarity is almost hilarious in its sudden clang at the end of the otherwise formal, polite phrasing and Natalia raises both eyebrows at the very deliberate levity. "No matter how much you want to?" she notes, politely but still asking.

It does matter, really, what Barton's actual status is. His position. Even if she still can't quite comprehend it.

This is the first smile that's actually slightly warm, and genuinely amused. "I met Barton before he was recruited to SHIELD, when outside events had turned a particular mission from urgent to critical and he represented a resource we had to use. After working with him for the next three days, I personally recommended he be pursued for recruitment - as long as I never had to either train or manage him."

Natalia absorbs that, and completely fails to get it to make real sense. Or no - it makes sense, it just still does't feel like it can be real. Like the world can work like this.

"Barton's work for this organization is incredibly valuable," May says, sitting up, leaning back and folding her hands on her stomach. "His work for another agency or as an independent contractor would run a significant risk of having to deal with him as a complicating or antagonistic force in our work, and eliminating him would be both incredibly difficult and represent a moral horizon that SHIELD is not interested in crossing. Fortunately, we don't have to. As a practical and general matter, his agenda and perspective and SHIELD's align, and his perspective and skill are both valuable enough that when our agendas don't match up it's worth expending the effort of finding out why."

If I didn't work for him, I'd work for someone else, memory plays in Natalia's head, in Barton's voice. Or myself.

"And as much as he probably won't admit it out loud," and here May's voice takes on mordant humour, "he actually also uses a certain amount of restraint and common sense in pushing the limits and in which limits he's pushing. He's aware that he works best with us, as well, and that means he can't completely break the structures we need to operate. And that's why when he offers a high-risk target his unconditional support instead of shooting her, we choose to take notice."

Natalia just looks at her, because she can't . . . think. The words add together into sentences that convey meaning and she can make the meaning logically consistent it just feels like -

Nonsense?

Impossibility.

May looks back at Natalia, head on one side. She asks, "Why did you come with him, Miss Romanova?" and now the voice isn't put through a softening filter like before, now it is the driving, stiletto-stabbing force that you'd expect in a quiet, calm question from this woman.

Natalia knows how to deflect that kind of metaphorical strike. It isn't even difficult, any more difficult than deflecting a real stiletto, if you know how. She just . . . doesn't. So it hits her instead.

Why did you come with him?

It's a reasonable question. She's asked it of herself a lot. She's still asking it. And still getting the same answer.

Natalia finds herself looking through Agent May's knee and not seeing anything, but thinking maybe she should see flames. Or burned bodies.

She might as well tell the truth. There aren't any believable lies. There might not even be a believable truth, but there is a truth and truth stays the same whether you believe it or not. They'd been taught that - even they had been taught that. You have to remember it. If you don't, you'll get lost.

There is a truth. Or as close to one as Natalia knows how to recognize. She might as well tell it.

"I burned a hundred and sixteen children alive," she says, very precisely. In Russian, because that's how the words come out. She doesn't wait for May to react, and doesn't find a softer way to say it. She just says it.

She says, "I disabled the alarms and the sprinklers and the other fire-response systems. I disabled emergency exits. I started a fire where it wouldn't be noticed until after it was impossible to control. To do it, I induced severe vomiting and apparent illness, and pretended to be a sick child. I have a particular skill at presenting myself as young and vulnerable, and I employed it."

The drugs to cause the illness had been incredibly unpleasant. On the scale of what she'd done it seems like a stupid thing for her body to remember, but she does remember it. She'd've preferred to break a limb, but she needed to be mobile as soon as possible.

"The physicians and the nurses took care of the child they thought they had," she continues. "They were careful, and considerate. They felt bad for me, because I had no parents there. One of the doctors brought me a stuffed mouse that belonged to his son when his son was small. At the right moment, after lights out, I left my hospital bed, locked the doors, blocked the exits, and set the fire. They all died."

May says nothing. Natalia adds, "So did the children. All of them. Those were my orders. I had specific targets, but my orders were to maximize casualties so that there was no clear indication as to who might have been the targets. I followed my orders to the best of my ability. My superiors congratulated me on the success of my mission. They told me it was for a great and worthy purpose."

After a beat she finishes, "I think they lied."

Her own voice sounds strange in her ears, except that it also doesn't. It just maybe sounds strange to hear herself say these words. It was strange enough to think them. Now she's said them out loud. Now she's heard herself say them.

She looks at May's impassive face and doesn't even try to read it. Doesn't even know what she'd be reading. "I think they've always been lying."

May's leaned her head on her hand and is watching Natalia steadily, without interrupting. So Natalia considers how to say what she means and exhales, slowly.

"They told me what the world was. How it worked. But it keeps . . .it doesn't work that way. Over and over again. It still isn't working that way.

"In that world," she says, listens to herself say it and is thrown all over again, "a man deployed by by an organization like SHIELD to eliminate me would not give a waiter a folded note to tell me he could have killed me, instead, and then ask me to meet him alone. In that world, he wouldn't offer me coffee, give me my operational history, describe to me - accurately - what I thought and felt but had told no one about, had never even said out loud before I just said it now, and in that world he would definitely not then offer me . . .an escape. An alternative, to everything. In the world I was raised in, trained in, all of what I just described is impossible."

When May says, "But it happened," her Russian is accented with Mandarin instead of English. It speaks to very careful thought, in language acquisition, since she was born in the USA. Natalia wonders how difficult it was to find a teacher who would give her the right accent to mimic.

She'd rather wonder, than remember looking down at Barton from her vantage point at the abandoned factory. How that moment had felt.

Natalia nods. "It did. It happened. It is still happening. So has . . . everything else." She shrugs, deliberately. Someone like Melinda May should be able to read everything they need to in that kind of shrug. "I am still alive. You are sitting here speaking to me like this. None of this is possible, but it is happening. Given that, Agent Barton's . . .alternative . . . " Natalia opens one hand, another kind of shrug. "It seemed a better option than returning to the people who had lied so completely."

May doesn't speak this time, when Natalia pauses. So Natalia goes on, "It is - " and these words are difficult, although she knows no sign of her throat closing or any other tell shows in her voice, " - one thing, to do the things I've done, for a greater good. For a worthy purpose. But now I don't think I was. I think I've done them for money. For someone else's petty power, in petty systems mostly built to serve the people on top of them. And that is something else."

Natalia doesn't try to show anything to May's scrutiny, which goes on for several minutes after Natalia stops speaking. She doesn't try to hide anything either. She just waits. She doesn't know how to do anything else with this moment.

Other than want it to be over. And never, ever feel like this again. Ever.

Eventually, May says, "To answer the ongoing unspoken question, Natalia Alianovna: you're not under any immanent threat of being imprisoned or executed."

Her voice is brisker, but not more brusque. It's the kind of voice that says, well now that we've finished saying all that, let's move on without having to say it aloud.

Natalia meets her gaze again.

"I don't know how exactly everything is going to turn out," May qualifies, "because this situation was as unexpected to us as it is to you, but given your age at the time of recruitment, the nature of the Red Room itself and your age at the time of the relevant incidents, Barton has an . . . extremely strong case in terms to the Paris Principles and Commitments. And he knows it."

Natalia looks at her and says, bluntly, "I have no idea what that means."

May exhales just a bit less than a sigh, and for a moment now she looks tired - really tired, and maybe sad. But also wry, amused. "It means if Barton has to he can probably get you protected refugee status in the United States without involving SHIELD at all," she says, maybe a little ruefully. "And making him take it that direction is likely to be the most disruptive of the options to ongoing SHIELD concerns, so it's unlikely we will."

Natalia . . . absorbs that. It's all she can do.

"But I'm telling you to give you an idea - maybe - of where things stand," May says. "And to reassure you probably as much as is possible at the moment. As I'm sure Barton told you, current intention is to fly to London tomorrow, and meet with Director Fury there, to discuss what happens next. Given . . . everything, however, I sincerely doubt what happens will be anything you need to be afraid of."

None of this makes any sense, but Natalia still says, "Understood."

May stands up, and so does Natalia, the reflex automatic. "Get some sleep, if you can," May tells her. "If you need anything I'm pretty sure Barton will be sleeping on the couch at the end of this hall, and he sleeps lightly."

It's automatic reflex to see her out, as well - courtesy, deference, whatever you wanted to call it.

There's no sound of an external lock when May pulls the door closed behind her.

 

Natalia doesn't bother trying to sleep on the bed. It's vanishingly unlikely that there would be a pair of handcuffs lying about in the room, and asking for a set isn't going to give an impression she wants to deal with.

She doesn't really sleep on the couch either. She just wraps herself in the blanket, turns the television to Classica, turns it down, and fitfully dozes until the sky starts to lighten outside again.

Chapter Text

Fury's first words, as Clint gets down out of the helicopter onto the tarmac and the rotors finish their final lazy slide to stillness, are, "You know, most agencies would fire someone who pulled what you just pulled."

"That's why I don't work for most agencies," Clint parries. He turns back to offer Natalia his hand to get out, less because she needs it or because of any bullshit gesture at chivalry, and more because it makes for more physical communication of the central point.

Natalia doesn't look like she slept, and she looks paler and maybe younger than she did yesterday. She also doesn't look like she means to, and Clint's not even sure that someone other than him would see it.

He's worried, actually, in a way that's less about anything to do with the world where he's sparring with the Director of SHIELD enough for them to both put this entire incident into the parameters of their strained professional relationship, and everything to do with knowing the breaking point of stressed out teenagers. Or the collapsing point, maybe.

Not much to do about it yet, though.

"Flattery will get you nowhere," Fury replies, flatly. "The agencies that wouldn't fire you would execute you."

Clint turns back to him and shrugs, thumbs hooking into his back pocket. "They'd try," he corrects.

Fury looks cranky as all fuck, but "cranky" is better than "furious". And if the look he exchanges past Clint's head with Coulson is irritated, it's not homicidal. It's not even pretending to be homicidal. So this'll probably be fine.

A bit of a dance and a show, but fine.

Clint genuinely likes and more importantly respects Nicholas Fury. He wouldn't work for SHIELD if he didn't. And it's unusual for someone to get as far in the world of spooks and shadowy alphabet agencies as Fury has while being capable of retaining Clint's genuine respect, which only increases it. Most of the time in order to get here they have to end up being the kind of people he hates. Fury hasn't ended up there. It's impressive.

In a way that's counterintuitive to most people, that very affection and respect is why he gives Fury such a hard time, all the time, without remorse or apparent restraint. It actually takes effort, more effort than people understand, and he does it as a favour.

He does it to keep Fury from making any big mistakes.

The man has a lot on his plate at every damn meal, metaphorically speaking, and it'd be hard for anyone in that position to truly keep in mind that someone nominally under their authority has some very hard lines that nobody wants to even approach, not really, because it'll end badly for everyone, and that sometimes those lines are in unexpected places.

To remember that someone supposedly under their authority only answers to them because it's part of the current arrangement, and that arrangement can end at any time. It's a hard thing to remember.

So Clint helps.

He wouldn't do that for most people. For most people, in fact, he gets a certain malicious enjoyment about watching them forget and take him increasingly for granted, and then getting a mouthful of sand and maybe blood when he pulls the rug out from under them. That probably points to some deeply engraved problematic tendencies in his personality, but to be honest Clint's well aware that it's kind of a miracle he doesn't readily present as diagnosable with Antisocial Personality Disorder.

So that's alright.

But because he does like Fury, he helps. He reminds Fury what he, Clint, is, every single opportunity. And the easiest way is to be a little shit. All the time.

Of course it goes without saying that Fury's going to throw it right back at him, and so he's not at all surprised when Fury says, "Coulson, if you could get Miss Romanova comfortably settled on the jet, Agent Barton and I have some things to discuss before we take off," and does it without actually breaking the glare he's got aimed from his one visible eye straight through Clint's skull.

It's a performance. Being a performance doesn't make it a lie, as such, but it's still a performance.

It's a bit over the top, but because he kinda suspects that every time Clint does something like it and gets away with it, Natalia's more sure that the world is not going to snap back to one where she's just going to get shot in the head for everything that's happened, Clint calls after the departing duo and May, "If they don't have any M&Ms on there already text me, I'll pick some up from a vending machine inside."

He actually won't: it's more work than it's worth going inside the small private airport and he doesn't care that much, but it gets him the hostile flat scowl he's looking for from Fury. And it fits in with everything else.

Besides, there's always M&Ms on SHIELD planes. They're way too convenient as a rapid-acting calorie and sugar source, and they keep forever.

More or less as soon as the other three are out of realistic earshot, Fury says, "Care to explain yourself?" folding his arms so he can glare like villain out of an action movie.

The thing to remember about Fury was that every single part of his self-presentation is crafted, too. It might well have gotten to the point by now where he's so crafted so often that he doesn't know what he'd be without the performance anymore, and maybe even if he ever did take a weekend (which he doesn't) he'd still be wearing the same kind of stuff around his house (which Clint is not actually sure he has) - but it's still crafted. And it's crafted to be a Looming, Intimidating Stone Cold Bastard.

Clint suspects it's the eyepatch, more than anything. He can't confirm it, because he'd have to be able to talk to someone who knew Fury before that eye-injury who'd actually tell him the truth, and that's a pool of exactly zero candidates. But at the point where you have to either wear an eye-patch or present a horribly scarred eye to the world in every conversation, and you're already a six-foot-two imposing black guy whose personality radiates out of your skin, at that point you might as well embrace the drama and make it work.

There might've been other paths, without the eye. But once you've got it, well, why bother?

And in this moment here Fury's leaning on the Looming Terror approach and it's as interesting and totally ineffective as it always is. Sometimes Clint almost feels bad about that: when someone's put so much work into a Look, and got it nailed down so well, it almost makes him feel guilty that it really doesn't work at all.

Right now, though, he's too tired, so Clint's answering before Fury's last word's even finished, with, "Don't even fucking pretend you didn't know I was going to do exactly fucking this the second you put her date of birth in my hand," because he actually does respect Fury too much to bother bullshitting or playing games. He's tired and what he just did is actually starting to come home too much and he can't deal with this shit.

There are levels of shit and experience in Fury's life Clint can only begin to guess at, but there are also levels where he and Fury know each other better than other people can grasp at, levels of shared experience it's hard to even describe to someone who doesn't share them, and on those levels, Clint's not about to insult the man by playing coy and careful. He's not gonna step up to this game, because Fury would be able to tell within seconds.

He's just not up to it. It really hasn't been an easy few days.

And it's true, what Clint says. Saying it's a bit impolite, maybe. But it's true.

Granted, if Fury'd lied about being able to find all the background stuff on Natalia Clint had requested, Clint would have found out eventually and walked away from SHIELD without a backward glance; and also true, if Fury'd just refused to give him the information while acknowledging that it existed, Clint would have aborted the mission and come home and they'd all have never spoken about it again, because Clint does not fucking do shit he's not fully briefed on. So granted Fury didn't have a lot of good options about the whole thing.

But the second Fury gave Clint that little piece of data, he knew damn well what Clint was going to do with it. And probably fucking counted on it.

Clint doesn't actually mind being manipulated like that: it's what people in Fury's position have to do, and since Clint's never going to miss it, he can dodge the times he doesn't want to be manipulated and remind Fury not to push his luck.

But part of that is reminding Fury that he's never going to miss it either. Not from a mark, not from an enemy, and not from Fury or anyone like him.

Fury folds his arms and gives Clint a very long, cold appraising look, and Clint returns it and says, "You fucking knew, if there was a sliver of a chance I thought she wasn't a dangerous psychopath, the minute I knew how old she wasn't I'd try this. And I did. So now we haven't killed a fucking teenage child soldier, she isn't dead or trapped under their thumb anymore, and you've got an asset that's going to make Codename Amber look like the rank and file."

After a beat he can't stop himself from saying, "You're welcome."

Okay the you're welcome might be pushing his luck, and the slight shift in Fury's expression might make that clear; Clint acknowledges that by looking away for a second.

Fuck.

Bobbi's gonna kill him.

And that, that is a thought he does not have the time or space for right now, so he slams the door on it hard but it's true: once even the redacted details he can tell her hit the gossip mill Bobbi's gonna kill him. For the retroactive panic, for the fact that he's not going to be able to explain to her why and for - everything.

Shit.

Another thing he's going to have to deal with that he doesn't even remotely know how.

"That's what you want for her?" Fury asks, incredulous. It jars Clint back to the moment and frankly Clint's pretty grateful for that: yes, okay, great please, let's talk about that part of it.

There's less antagonism in Fury's voice, the man obviously deciding that yeah, fine: they can skip over to the next part of this conversation. The agents and techs on the tarmac and watching through the windows can't hear them and it'll look like Clint got chewed the hell out, and that's enough not to rock the organizational boat.

It's one of the advantages of Fury's sheer height and physical presence, as well as being one of the disadvantages: it almost always looks like he's chewing someone out from a distance, even if he's just standing there. The guy can't really help looming.

So that'll work out.

Otherwise, neither of them really wants to waste the time.

Clint did definitely throw a huge fucking wrench into Fury's month, no matter whether it's a net gain or not, and the Director can't be any better rested than Clint. He never is.

Clint snorts, looks back to the plane. "Yeah in a perfect world she could maybe go study the arts at fucking university, but in this world that's never going to fucking happen. She's never known any-fucking-thing else, she's got more fucking guilt eating her than May does, and frankly tossing her out into the world would be fucking cruel."

He shrugs. "I don't like it and it's not really what I want and who knows, maybe she'll want to fucking try diving off that cliff after all, but I fucking doubt it. Working for SHIELD gives her the chance to keep doing what she knows how to do, for better reasons, in a world she basically understands, and where I can keep an eye on what's going on."

"That last part's important," Nick says, in the kind of voice that would be mild if it weren't Nick Fury, who doesn't know how to be.

"If I didn't keep promises you'd never've known you wanted to hire me," Clint retorts, and it's a whole lot of acknowledgement and admission in one sentence. Admission that yeah, he's signed on for the long haul and more importantly he fucking knows it and yeah, he did in fact say it out loud to the girl in the first place.

Said look: you want out, I'll get you out. You want a new life, I'll help you get the one you want. And when she asked why just . . . told her again.

Because he can, because he's the only one who might be able to, and because it matters. Because doing anything else would be fucked up and wrong. And now he's said it and she's taken that up, and so it's a promise.

That's how his head works. Sometimes beyond the point of reason. Okay, more than sometimes.

Clint's never been appalled or anything, looking back at the twenty-something-year-old mess who'd demanded a handful of new lives for people he'd just met before he'd take May back in and show her how to get the very, very dangerous pieces of equipment SHIELD wanted so bad out of the besieged city, but he's solidly aware it's pretty much exhibit A, B and C for how he's fucking crazy.

But everybody dies sometime, so he might as well be okay with what he did before he shuffled off.

"I want a written brief," Fury says, and it's like he's just figured out how he wins this.

And . . . fuck he might be right. Bastard.

Clint suppresses a grimace, because that is the last thing he really wants to do but he can't actually argue that it's not a reasonable, even intelligent thing for Fury to want.

"A full written brief. I don't give a shit about format, Barton, but I want all of it, down to what the fuck got this bee in your ear to start with. Fucking find the words to articulate it," he adds, giving Clint an extra glare, "and don't fuck around."

"Yeah," Clint half-sighs, "I got it."

Written reports are his least fucking favourite thing in the whole fucking world, and damned if he'll do them just for the fucking look of the thing (at least not without making the person who's making him do it sorry for it) but sometimes . . .sometimes they are exactly the fucking reasonable requirement and this probably counts as one. Does count as one.

He'd kind of wanted to spend most of the flight - all of the flight - sleeping the last week off, but he can't really fucking argue.

"And if she does decide she wants to come on," Fury goes on and yeah, that's a nasty little triumphant gleam in his fucking eye, and Clint braces himself as he figures out what Fury's gonna say now ju-u-ust before the bastard says it, "you're on administrative downtime as her integration liaison. Including, and I do not want to have to fucking repeat myself, Agent Barton, the fucking paperwork. Done by you."

The extremely tired part of Clint wants to say, I hope you sit bare-assed on a fucking porcupine and get cruder from there, but he redirects it into a more theatrically acid, "Yes sir," because he's tired.

"And this is the last time you get to fucking adopt someone on operation, Barton," Fury adds, which is a slight shift in tone, in tension, and Clint shifts to giving him a Innocent, Startled kind of face.

"Didn't you say that l - "

"Yeah you know what next time you try," Fury cuts him off, sourly, "I'm just gonna call an air-strike on you. Even you can't evade that."

Clint suppresses a snort, and holds off on pointing out all the ways to avoid an airstrike. There's plenty.

Then, as Fury starts to turn, Clint loses a fight with himself he's been trying really hard not to lose. But he's only got so much self-control.

This is the kind of thing he'd like to think he doesn't have to say. It's actually something he probably doesn't have to say. It's even kind of insulting that he can't quite leave it in the silence, and he knows that, and he's not going to even be upset if Fury gets offended and pissed off about it.

Clint just . . .he can't quite take it for granted.

Can't.

"Nick," he says, because he's not a SHIELD agent - even an insubordinate shit of a Level 7 SHIELD agent - talking to the Director right now, he's himself, talking to a man he does like, and does respect, and really doesn't want to have to shoot down in the street. And he wants to cue that right from the fucking start.

He thinks it surprises Fury, anyway, because the man doesn't have one of his patented Director Fury expressions on when he turns, just one full of questions.

(Not for the first time Clint thinks that being Director Fury is gonna kill the guy someday.)

"She's gonna imprint on you," Clint tells him, quietly. "Hard. I can tell from how she's reacted to me, and from how I know they'd have to run their freak-show to make it work. You're the head of this outfit and you're everything else you are, and there's an empty slot in her head you're gonna fall right into before she even knows enough to realize it's there and she might not want anyone else in it. There's no way around that. Fuck, the other options are probably worse."

Fury considers him and folds his arms again, nods slowly. "I follow." And it's a relief that Clint thinks he can probably believe, actually believe, that Nick Fury does follow. All the way, and all the implications.

"I need you to know, and to fully realize," Clint says, holding his gaze, "that if you ever take advantage of that, I will kill you."

Leaves it at just that. There's no performance worth going through, more than that. If that's not enough to get the point across, the absolute truth of it, then nothing will be, so Clint's not going to bother.

Just leaves it at, I will kill you.

Not even out of revenge, or retaliation, or anything else, but because he told this person he was going to help her, that he was going to look out for her, and if someone with that much power over her is screwing her over, that someone has to die. End of story.

I will kill you.

He thinks that for a second, Fury is insulted; he also thinks that maybe he should appreciate the effort Fury makes to stamp on that, to turn it into a kind of patient, exasperated mock-insulted annoyance instead. Does appreciate it, in fact.

Fury just says, "Barton, do I look like a fucking moron to you? Now get on the damn plane."

******

The jet has been in the air for almost an hour, and nothing has radically changed.

It's a Dassault Falcon 900LX, which Natalia supposes makes sense. There are a handful of things Natalia knows about SHIELD that she feels fairly comfortable are true, and one of them is that SHIELD has some kind of highly advanced, next-level aircraft that they went so far as to get patented and refuse to share with anyone else, but she also knows that those cost a huge amount to keep in the air.

Even more than private jets.

So they'd be used for crises, for times when that extra edge truly is necessary, and not for even somewhat unusual transport. Given that, the Falcons have better specs for SHIELD's purposes than other jets in their class - they need less runway, can go further per fuel-up, handle better in heavy weather, and so on. They cost more, but it's entirely possible that SHIELD makes that up on the interior.

Which isn't uncomfortable. It still looks like the kind of jet that flies executives and diplomats and sometimes merely the very rich here and there on a whim. In general outline, at least. But there is nothing . . .

There's nothing decorative.

The layout is inverted from what she's been a guest in before, as various kinds of Attractive Young Woman: while the food station remains behind the cockpit (occupied by pilot and copilot Natalia is passingly introduced to as Agent Coulson politely ushers her onto the aircraft), right beyond that are two divan-sofas with more obvious storage underneath.

Then a divider, a table with four seats across from a storage console, then a divider again, and two sets of two seats facing one another, one on each side, with a table that could be stowed or extended between them. Then the lavatory, then the baggage.

Normally, the sofas are at the back. And beyond that, in the jets she's been in before, every one of these features has some attempt to include decoration, or at least to pretend that the designers weren't unavoidably constricted by the utility needs of an aircraft and the realities of turbulence and motion.

Often it was to the point that it felt strained, like the wealthy man (almost always a man) in question was fighting a war with the practical necessities, trying to force the universe to acknowledge that he had the right to special luxury and elegance in the face of all circumstances.

Even when those details really did nothing to affect the actual comfort or enjoyment of any part of the experience. Including the aesthetic.

Here, whoever'd done the interior haven't bothered. The seating is comfortable, but instead of leather or other fabrics chosen to evoke luxury and wealth the upholstery is a slate-grey microsuede - good microsuede, but easy to wash and not prone to damage. The finish on the tables is an unremarkable lacquer in matte black, and so are most of the finishing touches around the arms of chairs and everything else. Matte black, scaled greys and the occasional note of SHIELD's blue and chrome are the only elements to the decor.

Coulson invites her to make herself comfortable on one of the sofas, pointing out the food station and inviting her to use it if she likes, and the entertainment console where it folds out of the side of the sofa. It almost feels out of place, a detail more in line with what this aircraft isn't than what it is, but on the other hand Natalia supposes that if you're already connecting your passengers to the entire world for their urgent business, they might as well have some kind of diversion in whatever amount of downtime they potentially have.

Although even thinking that way is almost like trying out new muscles, ones she's never used before. This console wouldn't be on any of the Program's craft. Even if they'd bothered with one like this.

Melinda May steps past the first divider and puts her bag on the four-seated table, pulling out a laptop, a locked file-case, a charging cord, and other bits and pieces in movements that seem nearly rote, habit. Coulson moves to speak to the pilot and copilot, and for lack of anything else, Natalia . . . waits.

Through the window it's easy enough to see the two men still outside talking, but they're too far away to have a good view of their expressions and besides, she has no idea how to read SHIELD's Director yet. It's self-evident that the pose of perpetually irritable, imposing, forbidding impatience is just that: nobody could lead SHIELD without having a great deal more subtlety and care than the pose seems to allow for.

And while Natalia suspects a large number of the details as well as the frame that her handlers and trainers gave her for the US and for NATO states in general are (to put it mildly) skewed, she sincerely doubts that means America is actually a paradise of racial harmony, equality and fraternity. That would be too much to reinterpret, given she has seen their media, their films, their TV, their news, their footprint on the world.

So whatever requirements one must imagine for anyone in any position, she imagines you'd need to double them at least, in Fury's case.

For a position like Director of SHIELD, likely more.

But that means that there are very complicated translations she'll need to learn to make between his presentation and what the truth is underneath them, and she doesn't know even a fraction of enough to translate anything.

From here, for now and at this distance, he looks irritated and like nothing Barton is saying is making him less so. The only complicating detail is the fact that Fury doesn't walk away.

Or, in fact, shoot the man down or have him shot right here.

Barton she can read a little better. Provisionally. And what she can see in him takes him from his own irritation - a mix of defensiveness and aggression that reminds her of a street-cat cornered: aware that it's potentially in a lot of danger, and ready to strike first to lacerate the attacker's face if it seems like a good idea - through an exasperated relaxation, through a brief moment of chagrin and then . . .

. . . then something she doesn't understand again. Not least because in that second, for a second, everything about Fury changes. For a second, the pose is gone. You could blink and miss it, but for just a second Natalia thinks every part of him indicates that he is listening to Barton and taking what he says, not seriously - that isn't the question - but . . .sincerely, maybe. To heart.

Matching the same signals from Barton. For a second.

Then the pose is back, with an extra air of martyred exasperation, and Fury is sweeping towards the plane.

Barton follows.

Agent Coulson is waiting by the plane door and he and Fury have a murmured conversation that Natalia doesn't try to hear while Barton walks up the steps and then turns to start the involved process of closing an aircraft door behind him.

Natalia notes that looking at Agent Coulson and Director Fury make an interesting picture: the Director looms, standing several inches taller than the other man, but Coulson's stance gives no indication whatsoever that he notices. It's not simply that he does not react, but that he doesn't show any sign that there's anything to react to.

It's a telling detail. And whatever the quiet, impeccably-attired man's actual function is within SHIELD, Natalia strongly suspects that his retaining the title "agent" is either a quiet joke, a choice intended to obfuscate his true importance, or both.

Fury's "left hand", Barton had said: the Assistant Director would count as the right hand, so Agent Coulson would be the left hand. If she'd met Barton in any other context Natalia would wonder if he was keeping track of all the potential connotations of the designation; as it is, she knows there can't be any way he isn't. As strange as that might seem, given his apparent respect for the man.

That respect gets an immediate demonstration: after he's closed the door, Barton drops himself with a kind of neat, understated drama flat onto the other sofa, throwing one arm over his eyes and bending one knee to put that foot on the sofa.

Fury and Coulson glance at him and Natalia thinks she sees the slightest crinkle at the corner of Coulson's eyes. They seem to take the moment as a cue of some kind. Fury sweeps past towards the back of the plane, but on the way glances at Natalia with an expression that . . . almost seems to invite her to join in the slight gesture towards rolling his eyes at the supine shape on the other sofa.

The engines start, the aircraft beginning its roar and vibration, as Coulson comes to stand looking down at Barton while carefully taking his suit-jacket off and folding it over his arm.

"You're hilarious," Agent Coulson tells him. "There's a laptop with the required permissions in the pocket behind one of the chairs in the back."

"I hate you so much right now," Barton informs him, without taking the arm off his eyes. When Coulson doesn't immediately move, Barton adds, "You could at least say there's some fucking coffee or something."

"You said you wanted to stay off coffee," Agent Coulson says, in a mild tone of voice, and now Barton does drop his arm and give Coulson a dark look.

"That's just fucking petty, Coulson," Barton tells him. But he drags himself with some drama off the sofa and stalks the few feet to the food-service nook.

Coulson nods briefly and politely at Natalia and then goes to the table where Melinda May is already working.

The pilot requests that everyone be seated for take-off. Natalia thinks she hears a slight note in the voice that says he doesn't actually expect anyone to listen to him if they feel it's inconvenient, and Barton is still walking down the centre aisle towards the back with a coffee in his hand when the plane starts to move, but he absorbs the motion without spilling anything.

For a while, absent anything else to do or really anything else she wants to do, Natalia leans back, closes her eyes, and focuses on the droning pitch of the aircraft's engines as they reach the intensity for take-off.

 

She doesn't sleep. She's aware of the occasional movement of May, Coulson and Barton back and forth through the forward seating area to the food-service and back, and somewhat aware of the occasional murmur of conversation. The noise of flight is a very effective muffle: she can't hear what they're saying. But she can hear that they're saying something.

So Natalia knows the moment that it's Fury who's paced his way up to this part of the aircraft, and then sat down comfortably on the sofa across from her, without having to wait for him to say anything. She opens her eyes, and sits up, crossing one leg over the other.

Says, "Director Fury," as polite acknowledgement, tilting her head slightly to one side as the silent question.

SHIELD's director has left his long black coat and the tactical fleece vest he wore underneath at the back of the plane, and his service-weapon as well. Sitting across from her is a man in a black long-sleeved, high-necked shirt in a very fine cashmere, canvas tactical pants, and boots she suspects are custom, if only because only an idiot would have the resources Fury has access to and not choose to have his boots made for his feet.

He looks somewhat less deliberately intimidating than with his entire outfit. It's interesting that he's chosen to do so. And to leave his service-weapon at the back as well.

He's also chosen to drop most of the aggravated pose. The face considering her now, with one brown eye and scarring stretching out underneath the ordinary black eyepatch, is simply thoughtful, not at all forbidding.

"Ms Romanova," he says, as a match. Then, to Natalia's surprise, he smiles slightly - tired, a touch wry, but genuine - and adds, "I hope you're comfortable operating in English, because I have it on good authority my Russian's an abomination - although not as bad as my Mandarin."

The joke is offered as an invitation, rather than presented as a display, and after a split-second considering, Natalia says, "Spoken, maybe," with a lean towards a smile. "I'm afraid I don't believe for a second you can't understand everything anyone says."

Fury rests one elbow on the sofa's arm, and one arm along the sofa's back, appearing to relax. "Well, you're not wrong," he agrees. "May tells me you two spoke briefly last night about some circumstances of your current situation, but also that she doesn't think you were up to actually grasping any of it."

Natalia feels the tension wrap its way around her sternum. Her wrists are crossed on her lap, in a way that lets her work her nail over the texture of the jeans she's wearing. It's a tell, an anxious tic, but she's not bothering to suppress it. It does what it's supposed to, which is act as a safety valve for the agitation in her brain.

A small one.

"You're not wrong," she mimics.

It's still not possible to read Fury, as yet, but Natalia can tell that there are things going on there to read. There are whole treatises going on behind the visible eye and the considering look. Natalia just can't decode them.

Yet.

"As one last wave to the elephant in the room, we are now operating on the assumption that Barton is right," Fury tells her, gaze appraising but not hostile. "And I believe he is. I will flatly deny it if you ever tell anyone, but between you and me in this moment, I have a great deal of faith in Barton's judgement, particularly when it comes to whether or not people are trying to play him. But with that being the case, Ms Romanova, here's the deal."

Natalia waits, letting her look shift attentive, putting everything he's just said on one side to deal with later. It's important - in fact she thinks it might be vital. She thinks he admitted a lot. But she'll deal with it later. When she has enough other information that she knows how.

"Since the mid-1960s, SHIELD operates under the authority of a body known as the World Security Council," Fury says. "It is not a UN body, but we kind of let people avoid noticing that if we possibly can. We have some very specific mandates and areas of international affairs that fall under our supervision, extending from the historical mandate of the Strategic Science Reserve, our earlier incarnation. Now as it turned out those mandates and areas of supervision end up crossing every other damn trail in the universe," he adds, sourly, "but there you go."

Natalia nods. That. . . more or less lines up with what she's been taught.

"Now," Fury says. "Every member country of the World Security Council is also a UN member, and as it happens they are all also party to various UN agreements about child soldiers, including the Paris Commitments and the Paris Principles. Those got sorted out in the late 90s, and they prohibit and recognize as criminal any situation wherein a military, paramilitary or irregularly military group deploys minors - those under the age of eighteen - in combat, and almost all situations wherein they even recruit them."

"Almost any," Natalia notes. It feels like he wanted her to note it, and she's fine with following along right now. It gives her something to follow.

"The United States and the United Kingdom insisted on putting in little clauses that let them recruit at seventeen and sixteen respectively, but they're not allowed to deploy those soldiers outside of the country or in any conflict situation before they're eighteen. It's a goddamn cheat," Fury acknowledges baldly, "but god forbid Britain be required to change a tradition, or anyone tell the USA what to do. Functionally, it does keep kids out of conflict zones on their parts, anyway."

Fury leans forward, resting his forearms on the top of his legs.
"The point is," he says, "that at least according to your known record, you were recruited at four and deployed at fourteen, and your last known deployment was last year, when you were still seventeen. That right?"

Natalia takes a careful breath and says, "Yes. After São Paulo, Analysis concluded it would be at least twelve months before the risk of my being active would be within acceptable bounds. I spent five months in recovery and retraining in Tyumen Oblast, and since then I had been on standby in Moscow."

The words feel strange and heavy in her mouth: she has never, ever spoken like this to anyone outside of the Program. And yet here she is, telling the Director of SHIELD. If she'd dreamed this she would have just woken up immediately, because it would have been too absurd to believe even while she was asleep.

And here she is.

Fury takes his own deep breath and crosses his arms, leaning back. "And the Red Room definitely counts as the kind of military-type organization the resolutions and so on are about. The upshot is that puts everything solidly within those agreements about child soldiers, and that makes you officially a refugee, not a war criminal. By law."

Natalia has absolutely no idea what that means, or how to feel about it; it doesn't feel like Fury expects her to, either. So she just waits, again.

She doesn't feel quite as if she's being tested: there doesn't seem to be a right answer, a right response, or a wrong one. But she does feel she's being . . . assessed.

It bothers her that she doesn't know the parameters. But she doesn't know how to fix that.

"That gives us a number of options," Fury tells her. "SHIELD is as I'm sure you can imagine pretty good at expediting this kind of thing, so to start with, we should be able to get ahold of anything and everything we'd need to set up a life for you in the US within about a week. If you wanted, you could settle down. Go to school, build a career - a new career."

Something inside of Natalia feels a thrill at the idea; a lot more of her recoils, not in disgust but in the way you recoil from something absolutely alien, possibly dangerous.

"Given that you turned eighteen last November," Fury goes on before she can figure out what reaction she wants to show, "you're also a legal adult. You don't need a guardian, and barring active criminal activity you're legally free to choose to do whatever you want."

It's -

In the moment, sitting where she sits, it's difficult for Natalia not to get up. Not to excuse herself with a transparent attempt at pretending it would be normal, excusable, and lock herself in the lavatory at the back of the aircraft. In this kind of aircraft, it might even be soundproof. She's just . . . not sure what she'd do once she was there.

It'd be difficult to make something to kill herself with. And it's not like crying would help. She does know how to cry - she can cry on command. But it isn't . . .it doesn't mean anything. Crying is something her constructed identities do. The roles the mission needs her to play.

She's not sure she remembers what the point is, herself. She thinks this is what most people would do, if they were here and were in her place and felt the way she feels right now. But she doesn't see the point.

But she still . . .

It still feels. She still feels.

Natalia realizes she's not looking at Fury anymore. She's looking through the upholstery of the sofa to the left of his left shoulder. And she doesn't - quite - manage to make herself change that as she says, "It's difficult to believe the Director of SHIELD is in much of a hurry to watch a valuable asset go get a theatre degree."

It's clumsy. Everything about her, for just a second, feels frozen and slow, like trying to work through hypothermia and losing the dexterity in your fingers just as you start to reach the danger-point of tissue damage.

But it's true. She is a valuable asset.

"I would absolutely be a liar if I said the idea of the Black Widow working for SHIELD didn't appeal," Fury admits, quietly. Now she does look at him. "But you don't actually owe me anything, or SHIELD anything, Miss Romanova."

And this time it's definitely miss, not ms. An emphasis, she thinks, on youth.

He says, "Those resolutions and commitments aren't just things that exist to be pretty words, although I appreciate if you've heard of them at all, you've probably been told they are. I actually know, personally, a number of the people who wore themselves to the bone getting that stuff brought up, and passed, and signed off on."

He looks entirely serious. Grave, even.

"I even know the people involved in deciding that having the clout of the United States and the United Kingdom getting on board," he says, "was worth two specific little grandfather clauses, hedged around with conditions, even if it meant compromising on what they believed, because the practical effect was the same. And they did those things for a reason. And at the point that I become someone who does not recognize that after a lifetime of being one of the kids those people worked themselves to the bone to try to get international law to care about, a young woman deserves some care and caution to make sure she makes the choices she wants about what to do next?"

Fury exhales sharply. Shakes his head. "That's the day I need to give this up and resign. Go home. Because I'm not doing anyone any damn good anymore."

Now Natalia realizes she's staring at the carpet, and her fingernail isn't digging into her jeans anymore. It's digging into her cuticle.

"So yeah, that idea appeals, Miss Romanova," Fury says, quieter again. "But that's not a meaningful priority in this decision-making process. You follow me?"

Natalia's head feels very full. She pulls her gaze up off the carpet, manages eye-contact, and nods. She swallows and says, "I need to think," and again, again it seems stilted and wrong and there's no skill or control -

But before those thoughts can build up speed Fury nods and says, "Of course. There's also no rush. Honestly," he says, because it makes her blink. "There's plenty of time. There's a few more things I'd like to run over, and then we're done. Go ahead and take the rest of the flight to relax, if you want."

She blinks at him again, and then nods. "Thank you," she says. Because she can't think of any other way to end this. And she wants it to end as soon as it can.

 

Several hours later, Natalia rouses out of a doze realizing that she's hungry, and thirsty, and needs the toilet.

Fury had finished outlining for her a number of choices, the only consistent thing about them being that regardless, he did reserve the right to have her thoroughly brief him on everything she knew about the Program, the people in it, their locations, everything.

She cautioned him that the second they realized she'd defected, they'd make sure nothing she knew was of particularly unique value, especially once they realized she'd already had enough time to convey any information she had, and Fury said he understood, but still wanted what she could give him. It made sense.

She'd nodded, and listened, and tried to file away the information he'd been giving her, and knew she wasn't absorbing any of it. Not really. Her head feels like it's stuck in frozen mud. Or like she's fevered. It's almost impossible to imagine that a week from now still exists, that the future exists. Let alone anything else.

Then, after Fury'd finished and she'd thanked him, she'd found a blanket in one of the storage spaces, and a pillow, and curled up on the sofa to pretend to sleep. That way, maybe, at least nobody else would try to talk to her.

Now the cabin lights were low, and it seemed as if everyone else - more or less - had gone to sleep. Barton was asleep with his head on the table, although he did have a pillow between his face and his folded hands so presumably he meant to do that. Melinda May flattened out her chair into a cot and sleeps on her side, a fleece blanket pulled up to her shoulder, head resting on a pillow also resting on her arm.

Natalia wonders if there's a weapon under there.

Agent Coulson has his seat half-reclined, and Fury sleeps sitting up with his head resting on his fist. Somehow Natalia isn't surprised.

She stays as quiet as she can getting to the lavatory, and then again finding a sandwich in the small fridge, and a bottled water. She turns on the small reading light closest to her head.

Her heart skips when after a moment or two Agent Coulson stirs, gets up, stretches and then seems to try to stretch out his neck, but after a minute or two it seems most likely that she didn't wake him and the timing's a coincidence.

Or at least, if she did wake him, that he'd been sleeping with a deliberately light touch.

When, after he gets up to get what looks like a herbal tea and finds a bag of dried apple chips, Coulson pauses and sits for a moment on the other sofa, Natalia leans towards the latter.

She gives him the same attentive, questioning look she'd given Fury, but doesn't say anything out loud, on the basis that the less noise the better.

Agent Coulson's expression is like looking at a clearly printed book where someone's used a familiar script to transcribe a totally foreign language: the shapes are recognizable, but the meaning is obscure.

He says, "I won't keep you up," and after a stuttering beat Natalia feels like she slides into a different groove in her own head and realizes - she thinks, if she's right - that he's . . . preemptively giving the interaction an easy ending, starting the whole thing by framing it as an intrusion so she doesn't have to find a way to react to what he's going to say.

Which is, "I just think it's worth pointing out that none of the decisions you make right now have to be permanent."

As Natalia tries to make the words into meaning, he goes on, "Working at SHIELD is a job, potentially a career. It's not an enlistment, and despite some of the jokes around the office, you don't actually sell your soul. The closest we get is that most recruits sign an agreement that we can seek remuneration for training if they quit before they reach the four-year mark."

He gives her a small smile. "And we've never actually done that, even when people have left before then. It's not really worth it, and we only have that form so people think long and hard about signing up in the first place."

Natalia looks at the sandwich on the little folding table, and then back to the man sitting across from her with the white porcelain mug in his hand.

"The point is," Coulson says, gently, "that you can make one decision now, and if it turns out it's not what you really want, you can make another one later. You can change your mind. I just think it might help to keep that in mind."

Then he raises the teacup slightly, gets up, and goes back to his chair.

Without really meaning to, Natalia stares at the space where he'd been sitting for quite some time before she remembers that she's hungry.

 

When she does fall asleep for an hour or so, it's to wake up out of a dream about the fire.

That's probably all the answer she needs, in the end.