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A Life for the Living

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[2004]

 

The man is older than Natasha and twice as broad in the shoulders. His hips are slanted, favoring one foot over the other, but with every muscle strained, it’s clearly not an intentional stance. Injured.

 

Her eyes narrow, telegraphing that she is weighing her odds. That is something that he will understand. The language of the body is one that all wild things speak. Even without the psych profile provided before the mission, she’d recognize him as a wild thing.

 

The bow is a concern. It’s a sleek fiberglass number, and the strings curl along cams at either end, letting the arrow stay comfortably nocked and drawn for an extended period of time. It’s a hunter’s bow. Built to wait for prey.

 

It becomes more concerning when the man pulls at the string, bringing feathers to his cheek. His bicep, which is thicker in circumference than Natasha’s thigh, pulses with the effort. The draw weight has to be pushing 80 pounds, and that actually makes her hesitate. As good as SHIELD body armor is, it hasn’t been designed to combat flat, triangular points moving at a minimum of 320 feet per second.

 

He is older than she is. Even as the arrowhead strains, ready to leap forward and bite into the skin over her carotid artery, the thought won’t leave her head. Because he is older than she is, and he is still wild.

 

Natasha hasn’t been wild since she was 12. Not since Captain Rogers gently pried her fingers from a knife handle, speaking softly to her even though the blade was buried in his stomach.

 

Perhaps her psych profile isn’t accurate. It mentions only her aversion to wrist restraints and a fondness for both the captain and her handler, Coulson, as potential weaknesses. Given the twist of discomfort in her stomach, it’s clear that the list will need to be appended. How the bureaucracy will sterilize the idea of wild ones is anyone’s guess.

 

Her hand hovers, slides down to her hip slowly, but his eyes track the gesture anyway. There’s a tiny, imperceptible twitch in his expression. Warning her that it’s faster for him to let go than for her to draw the KA-BAR at her side.

 

It’s an underestimation. A failure on his part to understand that she too knows what animal fear feels like. It’s also the greatest advantage he could possibly have given her.

 

She hurls herself to the side, pulls the knife from its sheath, and dives forward into a roll. The blinding pain hits a split second later. Pressure and blood well up in her shoulder. Natasha hisses but keeps moving. Better her shoulder than her neck.

 

The man stands poised, one arm drawn in to guard his ribs, the other still outstretched and gripping the bow. He’s prepared for her to strike. He isn’t expecting her to plow into him, full force, angling her uninjured side forward to take the brunt of the shock.

 

He sways back, and she follows, letting him do the work of staggering to catch them. As he plants his weight, Natasha moves. The KA-BAR sinks into the bowstring like a hot wire through butter.

 

There’s a shout of pain as the string snaps forward. She swings, elbow connecting with his skull. When she hears his nose give with a wet crunch, she knows it’s over.

 

He lashes out blindly. Wildly. Clawing at her like a wounded animal, desperate just to make her bleed.

 

Natasha hits him again, and he crumples. Her boot slams into his ribs on the way down.

 

The blade is already at his throat when she hesitates for a second time.

 

The wildness is gone. All of the charged, untamed nature in his expression has disappeared. Instead, he lies there, eyes wide with fear and face smeared with his own blood.

 

Pinned with the full force of her weight on his chest, cold steel drawing a faint, red line on his neck, he just looks…broken. All the raw strength, his deft touch with the weapon, the feverish confidence, it’s all melted away. It…leaves her with a bizarre sensation of disappointment.

 

It takes her a moment to draw the English word up from the depths of her memory, but it’s…pity. She pities him.

 

He’s feral. That’s all he’s ever had the chance to be.

 

It doesn’t settle well with her.

 

She keeps the knife where it is and takes a spring-loaded syringe from one of the pouches on her belt, then drives it into the man’s thigh. He jerks once before falling still except for the subtle rise and fall of his chest.

 

Coulson is going to kill her.

 

Captain Rogers, however, is going to find this hilarious.



[1996]

 

The American captain brings Natalia her next meal. He steps through the inner door, which is separated from the outside by another secured opening, like an airlock. Plastic tray in hand, he strides effortlessly into the room. She blinks once. He shouldn’t be alive, let alone walking. She knows exactly where the knife perforated his organs.

 

Is this SHIELD’s show of force? A demonstration of sophisticated medical technology? An intimidation tactic to show just how outmatched she is?

 

They must be trying to unbalance her. It would explain why they’re keeping her in an abandoned mess hall instead of a cell. It’s too open for her liking, and there are too many doors to watch at once. Rows of rectangular tables provide an illusion of cover, but it’s just that — an illusion.

 

The American doesn’t watch for her when he enters. He just walks up to one of the long tables and sets the tray down on the cheap faux wood without looking up, leaving his back and the ribs on his left side completely exposed. Like she’s not a threat at all.

 

Settling on a plastic chair that is comically small for his enormous frame, he stares at his hands. Then, after a moment of silence, he speaks in Russian. “You are hungry, yes?”

 

Natalia inhales. This man has almost no accent. There is nothing stiff about his words, and his grammar is perfect.

 

She swallows. “Not so hungry that I have become unwise.”

 

“Of course not.” He reaches out, hand hovering over the food. It does not escape her attention that he did not bring a fork or knife. “Which one?”

 

“The bread.”

 

He nods obligingly, scoops up the roll in his huge hands, and takes a bite, making sure she can see him swallow from her hiding place under one of the nearby tables. Then, he puts it back and pushes the plastic tray as far in her direction as he can.

 

The food could still be poisoned. His alterations could make him immune to different toxins, or he could have built up a tolerance, but Natalia still has information that SHIELD wants, and hunger claws at the inside of her stomach. She creeps out from under the table, untangling herself as she forces an easy look onto her face.

 

The bread isn’t stale. It is a mass produced variety, but edible. She tears into it, sliding the tray back to him. 

 

“What next?”

 

She takes a risk and waves in a dismissive gesture, telling him to wait. The man shows no sign of anger, waiting placidly. Natalia studies him as the crust scratches her throat on the way down.

 

The lack of emotion is unsettling. He should be annoyed, frustrated, eager, something. A widow cannot act if she does not know where she stands. So she pulls a face of disgust.

 

The captain huffs through his nose, and his lip twitches up. Amusement? 

 

“What is it?”

 

“Your teeth are too perfect,” she says, letting her nose wrinkle for good measure.

 

The man huffs again in the same manner. “You’re not the first person to say that.”

 

“Did it happen when they made you strong?” She still may be able to get information from him if he believes he’s in control.

 

He hums. A second piece of bread sticks in Natalia’s mouth. She’s pushed too far, he’s going to snap—

 

“Yes, though my teeth weren’t bad before.” There’s no dramatic outburst. His shoulders are loose. Not angry.

 

“The apple next.”

 

He nods and picks up the fruit. It’s a polished, bright red, unblemished. Ideal. He flinches when he bites down. Natalia rocks up onto her toes to see what is inside — razor blades, nails, a toxin — but the pale flesh inside is unmarked.

 

“Waxed,” the captain explains. “To make it look nicer. The texture on the outside isn’t right.”

 

“Like you. Too perfect.”

 

His brow doesn’t furrow in fury like it should.

 

Establishing a bottom line should be easy. Pinpointing a flaw, a sensitive point and driving into it without remorse — it's something she's done before. And she's very good at it. But this man, instead of setting his jaw in rage, throws back his head and laughs. When the deep, loud sound dies out, he places it back on the tray and passes it back to her.

 

“Yes, but an apple that is waxed is still good on the inside.”

 

“And you still good on the inside?”

 

“You would know. You cut me open, yes?”

 

Natalia tenses. This is it. The moment he strikes, and she almost let her guard down— Except there’s no anger or hunger in his eyes. “Why are you here?”

“Because I believe children should not have to fight.”

 

She tips her head. “I am not a child. I am a widow.”

 

The man’s hand goes to his hair, running through it in the first truly emotive gesture of the conversation. It’s not uneasy or nervous, it’s…Natalia cannot recall the word in English, but it is sad and resolute, something like a longing and remembrance. Wistful, but without regret.

 

“When I was trained, when I became strong, they called me a man. I was older than you are now, but I was still not a man.”

 

“SHIELD does not wish for me to fight?” This is doubtful. She is an asset. To the Red Room, to her captors, to whomever can manipulate or coerce her. A widow knows the value of her skills.

 

“I do not wish for you to fight. SHIELD….”

 

“What do I have to do?” When the man just looks at her, the question plain on his face, she hesitates. “For your protection. What do I have to do in exchange?”

 

The captain's face crumbles like he's been wounded. He eases his expression back into the mild contentment from the beginning of their conversation. “I will not ask you for anything. Except, maybe, that you do not stab me again.”

 

Natalia says nothing, but she gestures at the muffin on the tray. He grins, showing his obscenely white teeth.

 

“I will avoid that, then.”

 

This man makes no sense. He is powerful and dangerous, but he didn’t hit back. Even now that the blade has been removed and the wound stitched closed, and she is unarmed, alone, and small. It is confusing.

 

He laughs again, softer this time, and hands her the muffin. “Good. Thank you.”

 

Natalia knows better than to trust him. Trust is for fools. But…despite herself, she does want to understand. Why he does not grasp at revenge, why he speaks softly when he is strong.

 

She holds the pastry for a moment, debating, and then bites into it without restraint.

 

[1998]

 

Natalia braces herself against the barre, leaning into a dancer’s stretch. The sensation is relaxing, even as the muscles in her extended leg pull taut. It’s a pleasant tension. One that builds only to leave ease in its wake.

 

“You know, SHIELD can arrange for an instructor. You could be a professional,” Captain Rogers says from his position on the floor, bent in half at the waist in one of his painfully static exercises.

 

“I could, but why would I need to be a professional? It’s too obvious of a cover.” The question has too many implications, too much ambiguity. She would rather leave things vague. It forces him to speak, and she loves to hear him speak.

 

His words are all loose, and large, and loud, real American English, tinged with his native, broad accent when he is pleased or exhausted. Everything he says is so open and familiar. It sounds honest, even when he is lying through his teeth.

 

“Natalia, you don’t have to work undercover. You don’t have to work for SHIELD at all.”

 

The Captain knows how to deceive. As he should — he’s older than she is by at least a decade if they do not count the time he spent asleep in the ice. However, he’s not lying now. His body language is too settled. No tension in the shoulders. Still eyes and pupils that haven’t dilated. Hands that only move to shift into the next stretch.

 

“You’re still saying my name wrong,” she hums, collecting herself at the barre. “Your vowels are too relaxed.”

 

He curses in Russian, and she allows a smile to slide onto her face. It isn’t every day he uses something that she taught him.

 

“I’ll get it right eventually.”

 

“You can try, old man.”

 

His eyes light up at the jab, and he hauls himself to his feet. Natalia pushes herself away from the barre and wall of mirrors to settle into a comfortable fighter’s crouch opposite him.

 

This is her world. She may love dancing, may sometimes dream of it on peaceful nights, but this is where she belongs. A place of struggle, of striving and lies. She will stay, and she will fight, and one day, there will be no more Widows.

 

In time, the Captain will accept that it is her responsibility, and with him at her back, she will not fail.

 

[2004]

 

The bioscanner outside of the captain’s quarters beeps as Natasha keys herself in. A jubilant shout rings from the inside as the sliding door parts and she steps through. Crossing the threshold and worming out of her boots before setting foot on the carpet, she makes for the kitchen.

 

There’s a clatter in the background, like ice on metal. Sure enough, when she slips through the open doorway, Stark has an aluminum tumbler in hand. Even though the captain’s luck with the effects of alcohol is virtually nonexistent, he doesn’t fuss about the cabinet space that the liquor collection takes up.

 

“Called it!” Stark crows, pouring the contents of the tumbler into an empty glass on the counter. In one fluid movement, he scoops it up and passes it to her. “Told you she wouldn’t be long.”

 

Captain Rogers nods from his spot against the counter, another one of Stark’s concoctions in hand. The drink is still mostly full, and Natasha relaxes. It’s a familiar sight, and it means his injury can’t be substantial. If it were worse, Tony would be plying him with the highest percentage they can find, hoping to take the edge off of the pain in spite of the super soldier metabolism.

 

“That was a quick interrogation.” Coulson stands alert in his usual corner near the fridge, the only place in the kitchen within line of sight of the front door. There’s a beer bottle in his hand, but it is still capped, and there’s no sign of an opener anywhere nearby.

 

“Come on, it’s Nat. She’s terrifying. The guy probably squealed the second she entered the room.” Stark tosses his head back in an exaggerated eye-roll and pushes past Steve to get to the sink. He rinses out the cup and lid, prepping it for another drink.

 

“She’s also not 21.” Coulson tears his gaze away from the doorway to look at the captain, waiting for some kind of backup.

 

Instead, the captain just stares back, smiling placidly over the rim of his drink. “She’s old enough to fight assassins. One’s more dangerous than the other.”

 

“I’m injured. It’s medicinal.”

 

Stark nearly drops a bottle of bitters as he fights to swallow his wheeze of laughter.

 

Natasha brings the drink to her lips and holds the flavor against the back of her tongue for a moment. She can tell by the color that it’s nothing she’s ever had before, but it practically sings in her mouth. How does he do it?

 

“Actually, the interrogation has been put on hold, because somebody took the prisoner’s hearing aids.”

 

“A deaf assassin?” Stark blinks.

 

“He’s an archer,” the captain points out, running a hand over his bandaged shoulder. “If he can see, he can shoot.” He sets the glass down on the counter and tilts his head. “You’re keeping them?”

 

Coulson tightens his grip on the unopened beer. “The hearing aids are custom pieces, and they were broadcasting on 3 or 4 different frequencies. It was a security risk. The communication couldn’t be disabled. We don’t want him being traced. And he isn’t deaf, he’s hard of hearing.”

 

Natasha pastes a disjointed smile on her face, lopsided in a way that oozes with sarcasm. It’s a useful expression. She picked it up from Stark’s assistant, Potts, a few months back and has been meaning to write a thank-you card. “Hard of hearing, and you wanted me to interrogate him.”

 

The captain twitches, obviously trying to muffle a snort of amusement. Tony grins. “Really, Phil. You’re behind the 8-ball.”

 

“I can learn sign, but any meaningful debrief would have to wait.” She takes another sip of her drink.

 

“Don’t worry about it, Nat. I’ll whip something up. Give me two days. Been meaning to work on the company’s audio line for a while anyway. It nets better press than developing another missile.”

 

“Sealed, I hope? If he’s smart enough to get the drop on us, I don’t want him getting ahold of the components.” The captain’s brow furrows as he rearranges his stance by the counter to better arrange his wounded arm, which mirrors her own.

 

“Who do you think I am, Cap?”

 

“Appreciate it, Stark,” Natasha hums.

 

“You’re welcome, little spider.”

 

She rolls her eyes and knocks back the rest of the cocktail in one go, savoring the burn. “So what are we watching tonight?”

 

Tony beams, pointing at the DVD on the counter. She drifts over, setting the empty glass in the sink on the way. “Didn’t we already watch this one?”

 

Both Coulson and Tony wince. “Trek, Nat. It’s Trek, not Wars.”

 

“There’s a difference?” She breezes past them, DVD case in hand, as Stark splutters behind her.

 

The living room TV boots up and she settles, cross-legged, in the wide armchair closest to the screen. Steve drifts in a moment later, still holding his nearly full glass, and the other two are quick to follow, Stark practically shoving a bottle opener into Coulson’s free hand.

 

Natasha breathes, leans back against the chair, and lets herself relax. There will be a mess to clean up in the morning, both literally and figuratively, but it can wait. Sometimes, other things take priority.

 

[2004]

 

Prison food has not improved much in the last eight years. Natasha’s nose wrinkles in disgust as she studies the compartments on the sectioned tray. Unidentifiable meat and sauce smears over the partition next to the mass produced bread roll, and a scoop of gelatin moulded to the shape of the serving spoon quivers with every step she takes.

 

It’s edible, but with all the advancements in procedure, surely SHIELD can afford to revise cafeteria protocol.

 

She passes through the airlock in the prison wing, one set of doors sealing shut behind her with a magnetic click before the second opens. The on-duty agent at the guard station keys in a release code. Balancing the tray in one hand, Natasha taps in her own corresponding sequence to enter.

 

Barton watches from the cot without speaking, his eyes flicking to the tray and then to her face. He swallows. It’s a natural state, hunger. Something that the untamed understand.

 

Coulson would hold the food for a few more seconds, watching for signs of desperation or desire to use in teasing out the little things. Preferences. Habits. Prying things like memories, histories, or names out from between disjointed words, ill-advised comments, and gestures.

 

Natasha pushes the tray in his direction without hesitation. 

 

He’s so startled by the motion that he slides back, blinking, but his fingers curl reflexively around the plastic. There’s a beat of silence, and then he seizes the roll and stuffs the entire thing in his mouth.

 

“I’ve already told you everything I can,” Barton mumbles around the bread. “I don’t know why they sent you back here again.”

 

“They didn’t.”

 

He dips his chin with a sharp, birdlike movement. Visible doubt. Natasha gnaws on her lip, making sure he has time to notice it. An expression of hesitation.

 

“I’m responsible for evaluating your condition. Meaning I’m supposed to judge if you’re stable enough to take a walk in the exercise yard.”

 

He sets down a chunk of the meat, sauce still dripping from his fingertips. Something about him slows. Collecting himself, most likely, because he responds with carefully measured, almost monotone speech. “Without knifing Captain America?”

 

“Preferably. Though there are some war criminals Coulson might not miss.”

 

“I don’t come cheap, and my guess is that SHIELD wouldn’t want to hire me,” Clint huffs. The edge in his voice is biting — too biting. Like he’s overcompensating.

 

“It wouldn’t be the strangest thing they’ve authorized.” Natasha shrugs. Disinterest is disarming, especially when there’s something to hide.

 

He scoops the hunk of meat into his mouth, licking his fingers with an obnoxious smacking noise, and then leans back, slouching against the wall. He’s not a bad actor, but he’s pushing it too hard. “Have you made your judgement call?”

 

“Can you refrain from killing or maiming anyone while we’re out?”

 

“You’re asking me?” His facade slips. His eyes widen a fraction. Good. She’s caught him off guard.

 

“I’m asking you.”

 

“…Yeah, I think I can keep my hands to myself.”

 

“Alright. Let’s go.” Natasha turns on her heel and heads for the door, but not before she catches a glimpse of bewilderment in his eyes.

 

[2005]

 

Salt air drifts through the palm fronds. They rustle softly against the dark sky. It’s peaceful. The exact opposite of what she expected from one of Stark’s beach houses. It’s peaceful and safe.

 

Well-informed paranoia has manifested in the best home security possible. This building — and the back deck, garden, two-floor garage, and stretch of private shoreline — are probably more secure than the Triskelion.

 

It’s only because of these measures that Natasha has let herself relax. She pulls her feet up on the cabana chair, curling up with a glass in one hand, and tilts her chin upwards. The isolated location and house’s tinted windows keep light pollution to a minimum, so the sky is full of stars. The constellations shine against the soft, hazy backdrop of a visible milky way.

 

She sighs.

 

“Hey, little spider.”

 

“Stark.” He takes the greeting as an invitation. Another cabana chair scrapes against the patio as he drags it into position next to hers. He settles in, draws a flask from his pocket, and takes a swig.

 

She inhales, but he doesn’t smell of alcohol. Her head tilts, and it’s enough to imply a question. 

 

“Diet Coke. Steve’s right about needing to cut back.”

 

The comment is acknowledged with a nod. They start to lapse back into silence, but then Stark straightens. “You’re thinking pretty hard tonight. Gears turning in your head?”

 

“Some of us have to work things out. We aren’t all natural geniuses.”

 

Stark openly guffaws, capping his flask. “Did you just compliment me? I think you just complimented me.”

 

The glass hovers at her lips for a moment to prove just how seriously she’s considering the question. “…Even spiders can have momentary lapses in judgement.”

 

“Oh, you wound me.” Stark slouches in his chair and hooks a nearby ottoman with his heel to pull it close. “So, what are you thinking about?”

 

The wind dies down, stilling the trees.

 

“What I was like before. Right after the Red Room.”

 

Stark pulls out the flash again and considers it, like he’s suddenly regretting filling it with soda. “Cap said you were a handful.”

 

Natasha traces the geometric pattern on the chair cushion with a finger. A handful . That’s the most amazing thing about Rogers. He can separate who people are and who they become, kindly forgets what people do not want him to remember and allows them to be seen as they please.

 

Maybe it’s because he’s been transformed himself.

 

“I was barely human.”

 

“Not like that was your fault. And you learned.” Stark shrugs. “Now you’re mostly human.”

 

“I killed, Stark.”

 

“So has Steve. So have I. And if we want to get technical, Steve and I have both caused more deaths than you.” A heavy breath slips from his nose. A long, disguised sigh. Then, an edged smile manifests on his face. “But I mean, it’s not a competition.”

 

She throws up her hands, and he takes another swig from the flask, still smirking. “This is about the archer, isn’t it? The Barton guy?”

 

“You’re not wrong. It’s…difficult to watch.”

 

He hesitates. “Look. Maybe I’m overstepping, but as a fellow member of the Captain America Life Improvement club, I think you need to learn that you can’t change people.”

 

Narrowing her eyes, Natasha uncurls. He cuts her off before she can respond.

 

“Steve can’t either. The only one that can change someone is themselves. He didn’t change you — or me. Just showed us things could be better.”

 

Stark gestures vaguely, as if it will help her understand. “I chose to stop the company’s weapons production line as soon as I saw it as a viable option. You stopped knifing people the second it wasn’t necessary.”

 

It’s easy to give the credit to Rogers. To explain her shift from wild animal to agent as a product of his superhuman influence. It puts him on a pedestal and separates her from the past. Absolves her. To claim she made the decision to cast off the Red Room puts the responsibility back on her shoulders.

 

He’s right though.

 

“You’re saying Barton is trapped, then.”

 

“Until he realizes he’s not,” Stark says, voice low. There’s sympathy in it, though he’s never actually met Rogers’ would-be assassin. “And it’s not up to you.”

 

They fall silent, staring at the stars again. Jupiter hangs low in the night sky. Stark takes another draught from the flask of Coke.

 

“So what would a genius suggest I do?”

 

His fingers drum armrest of the chair as he stares out at the horizon.

 

“If you’re trying to imitate Steve? Live, Nat. Just live where he can see it.”

 

[2005]

 

The lights brighten in the training room as Barton steps gingerly over the threshold, door sealing shut behind him. He flexes, arching his spine and rolling his shoulders back in their sockets. The movements are strained. A combination of stiffness and hyper-vigilance.

 

He lets loose a short, barking laugh and turns back, grinning wolfishly at Natasha through the bulletproof window. “Someone must be soft on you,” he drawls, voice crackling through the speakers.

 

The wall on the left side of the training room shifts, a hexagonal imprint folding under its neighbor to reveal a cache of weapons organized on a row of wall mounts. His eyes linger on the wall, but the muscles in his neck are rigid. Still wary.

 

“How so?” Natasha matches the drawn out tone of his voice and settles back in her chair in front of the room’s control panel.

 

“I’m still here.” He moves away from the window to run a palm over the selection of bows. He studies a recurve for a moment before shaking his head and settling on a longbow that’s over half his height in length.

 

A moment later, he’s positioned across from a row of targets and backstops at the far end of the room, a quiver at his hip. The arrows, like the longbow, are plain. Wooden shafts with real feathers instead of plastic fletching.

 

“If SHIELD wanted to keep me alive for my skills, they’d have given up by now. I won’t work for them, and I’ve already given you all the information I have.” He plucks an arrow and holds it up to his eye, glancing down its span to the tip. Muttering something about “English style fletching”, he sets it against the bowstring. 

 

“And what does that have to do with someone being soft on me?”

 

Barton laughs again sourly. The nocked arrow draws back. “They’re letting you keep your pet project. I’d say thanks, but I don’t know what you want from me.”

 

Feathers slide into place against his cheek. The rise and fall of his chest gradually slows, stops. His fingers twitch — A sound like gunfire rings out.

 

The arrow lies shattered against the far wall, having punched through the target and backstop to collide with the metal paneling. Barton grimaces. “I’m rusty. Should’ve made a dent.” 

 

The hole in the canvas cover is perfectly centered in the innermost ring.

 

“Do you need more backstop?”

 

“Won’t help. Not with that kind of draw weight.” He leaves the broken arrow where it fell but gently settles the longbow back on its mount. The recurve takes its place in his hands a moment later. “So are you going to give me the background? Even if this is some kind of revenge scheme, it’s not like I’m leaving any time soon.”

 

Without waiting for an answer, Barton glances down at his feet, positioning them to best line up the shot. Another arrow fits neatly against the string, and he raises the bow. The point tears into canvas. It stops short of the wall, but he seems far more satisfied.

 

“There’s no revenge in my itinerary, but if you go after the captain again, that will change.”

 

“Noted.” Another arrow thuds into the target. “Back to why no one’s slit my throat yet?”

 

“Have you heard of the Red Room?”

 

Maybe she’s the one that’s really being played, but it’s a direct question that deserves a direct answer.

 

He falters, fingers releasing the bowstring a split second too early. A curse leaps from his mouth as the shot curves, sinking into the target just under the bullseye. “The Soviet program that Cap busted up a few years ago?”

 

“Those girls were raised a specific way. They never had the choice to envision another life.”

 

Barton hums. A wooden snap echoes as the shaft of the misaligned arrow splits, bisected by a one of its siblings. “They wouldn’t understand another life. Some talents put anything else out of reach.”

 

“No, just some things.”

 

He lowers the bow. “So, what, you’re trying to recruit me?”

 

“I’m capable of a lot, but no. That’s your decision.”

 

Barton exhales sharply, the air hissing through his nose.

 

“Though,” Natasha adds, “I much prefer Coulson’s division to the Red Room.”

 

“Don’t get your hopes up.” He pulls back again, letting another arrow fly. The message is clear. Conversation over.

 

Natasha flicks a switch, turning off the external mic to let him practice in peace.

 

[2005]

 

The viper strikes before they are ready.

 

The pulsing pain in Natasha’s leg spikes, like the proverbial snake has locked its jaw. She runs anyway, setting her teeth and tightening her grip on the black case in her arms. Time is not on her side.

 

Hurtling through the corridor, she weaves around the scattered dead. SHIELD agents and members of the HYDRA sleeper cell alike, fallen and already forgotten. Their blood mingles on the floor.

 

Even if SHIELD can retake the base, it will be impossible to reconstruct what occurred. Who fired first. Maybe that’s a mercy. The living can escape the knowledge of being betrayed.

 

It’s unfair, really. Unfair that she can verify the trustworthiness of Coulson and the captain. They knew this attack was coming. Just not that it would happen so soon.

 

A hiss slips through her teeth. The wound in her calf needs to be staunched. At least the infiltrating forces have already cleared out this portion of the base. Delays aren’t an option, and having to verify allegiance to Fury’s faction or engage in combat will waste precious seconds.

 

There are less than 10 minutes left before her scheduled rendezvous in the jet hangar. Their extraction plan is variable, but it is not designed to address a detour. If she gets lucky, they might stall until she arrives,

 

She grinds to a stop and slams her key card into the reader next to the prison wing airlock, punching in a code Coulson doesn’t know she has memorized. There’s a chirp from the system. A warning that she’s circumvented the lockdown protocol.

 

The first set of doors slides open, and she stumbles over the threshold, clutching the black case tighter to her chest. The third cell on the left unlocks automatically at her approach.

 

As she enters, Barton springs to his feet. Pupils dilated before he even sees the blood on her leg, he strides forward. His steps are lithe. Full of practiced, trained grace that he, like Natasha, is adept at hiding.

 

The movement is purposeful. His hand twitches. Irritation? Rage? The stabbing in her leg warps her focus, makes the gesture unreadable.

 

Barton stops about a foot away from her and stares. She flinches as he lets out a low whistle. “Geez, Red. What happened to you?”

 

She shoves the case into his hands, in part to put more space between them. “If you want to live, you need to move, now.”

 

He blinks once and accepts the case as his expression grows stony. “Ah. You’re serious.” Stepping away from her, he snaps the case open and draws the folded, compound bow. With a flick of his wrist, the arms snap open. “You really are playing with fire. You know that?”

 

“It comes standard,” she says dryly. There are less than seven minutes left. She bites down on her sleeve, puncturing the weave so she can tear off a strip of cloth. “Rogers has a contagious personality, and Coulson can’t seem to quarantine it.”

 

She kneels to tie the strip around her leg above the wound. It’s no tourniquet, but it’s as close as she’s going to get.

 

“You do realize you’re completely vulnerable? And that you just armed me?”

 

The knot cinches tight. “Glad you know how to survey your surroundings. You’re running out of time.”

 

Barton looks down at her, then back to the case. Cursing, he unpacks the rest of his gear, tugging on both his shoulder quiver and an arm guard in the same amount of time it takes her to stand up. He nods at her once, and then takes off.

 

She follows a moment later, but veers away when shouts begin to drift down the corridor. Screams of pain and anger and frustration can be heard in the distance, and none of them sound like him.

 

There’s no time to second guess the decision to release him, but Natasha expects a thorough reprimand from Coulson and some late-night conversations with a bottle of vodka are in her future. If not soon, then the next time they find a politician with fletching protruding from between his ribs.

 

Five minutes left.

 

The run to the hangar bay should be a short one, but between scattered gunshots, malfunctioning shielding, and the hot blood dripping down her ankle, it’s going to be tight. Breath hitches in her throat as her boots make contact with the floor. A spike drives into her leg with each pounding step, but she can tune it out, has to tune it out. 

 

Natasha flies through the hangar doors and comes to a jarring halt.

 

Between her and the jet bay stands a burly man in full HYDRA regalia.

 

They stand at a wary stalemate for a fraction of a second. Mental calculations rattle off in her head. He’s too close for the pistol at her hip, his eyes are focused on her bleeding leg. She curses mentally. If he knows she’s injured, it’s already over.

 

The stillness shatters.

 

The man charges. Natasha pulls a knife in a backward grip and draws it back to strike —

 

A keening whistle rends the air. The enemy agent freezes, face contorting as the point of an arrow grows from his chest like a bloodied flower. He’s gone before he even hits the ground.

 

“You could’ve told me that SHIELD was being attacked by a Nazi splinter cell from World War II.” She doesn’t see Barton, but she hears him loud and clear.

 

“Would it make a difference?” she says, voice strained.

 

“Not sure. But if I had to pick a side, I’d prefer SHIELD.” There’s something different about the way he speaks. The relaxed intonation doesn’t have the same, forced edge.

 

She slides the knife back into its sheath at her waist. “Lay low, or you may have to make that call.”

 

“Noted. I’ll watch my back. Coulson and the Captain got you covered?”

 

“Always.”

 

“Huh,” he says. “That must be nice.” His bow makes a sharp, hissing sound as another arrow seeks a target. “You should get going.”

 

Natasha doesn’t need to be told twice. He calls out to her as she runs across the concrete.

 

“See you around, Red!”

 

 

She makes it up the gangway of the jet just as Rogers starts priming the engines. They roar to life as Natasha collapses into one of the jump seats. She ignores Coulson’s scrutinizing gaze and reflexive reach for the medical kit to twist around and watch the ground fall away beneath the plane’s underbelly.

 

Moments later, another aircraft taxis down the runway after them. It climbs steadily in altitude, but before Rogers can fire off a warning shot, it wheels, flying off in the opposite reaction.

 

Natasha breathes a sigh, and maybe it’s from relief. Maybe the bottle of vodka she’s anticipating won’t have anything to do with regret. Maybe she and Barton will meet again, and maybe it will be as allies. As two wild ones hunting under the same sky.