Six months later…
It was the buzzing of the alarm clock that woke her.
Natasha reached for the clock and turned it off, then pushed back the blankets on her bunk and stood, the metal of the floor cool against her bare feet. Reaching for a hair tie on the nightstand, she pulled her hair up into a hasty bun and walked to the bathroom attached to her living quarters.
The quarters she had been assigned on the Helicarrier were small and windowless but comfortable enough, consisting of a bed, a bedside table, a chair, and a closet, and they were, at least, relatively private. S.H.I.E.L.D. monitored them continuously, and a pair of guards were always stationed just outside her door, but she’d been unable to find any cameras or listening devices inside the rooms themselves.
Shedding the loose t-shirt and shorts that served as her nightclothes, she stepped into the shower and turned on the water. It was warm the instant it began flowing from the tap and she closed her eyes for a moment, enjoying the luxury she had never been allowed inside the Red Room.
She did not linger there, however.
Opening her eyes, she washed quickly then shut off the water and reached for a nearby towel. She rubbed her body dry, then wrapped the towel around her torso and stepped over to the sink to brush her teeth and wash her face. When that was done, she pulled her hair free from the bun, reached for her hairbrush, and began running it through the shoulder-length strands, glancing at her reflection as she did so.
S.H.I.E.L.D. employed its own stylists, both for agents being sent on undercover missions and for those whose schedules did not allow them to leave often enough to have their personal grooming needs seen to elsewhere. Natasha had been given permission to visit them herself, and had chosen to have her hair dyed back to its natural red. She’d also had the ends trimmed, though she was considering the possibility of growing it out once more. She had liked the greater length, even if the practicality of the shorter style was not lost on her. In either case, having the choice at all was something of a novelty.
Setting the brush aside once more, she walked back into the other room, stopping in front the closet that held her limited wardrobe. S.H.I.E.L.D. had retrieved the clothing she’d collected in Brazil, though she found most of it too bright for her own tastes. Still unable to leave the Helicarrier to buy something more to her liking, more often than not, she simply wore one of the unmarked pairs of black BDUs that S.H.I.E.L.D. had provided her with.
She had not yet been given a uniform.
Despite Fury’s welcome, her status as an agent wasn’t official, and wouldn’t be for some time. First came a lengthy evaluation period during which a team of psychologists would determine her fitness for duty.
She understood the necessity of it. S.H.I.E.L.D. needed to ensure that there was no unknown programming lurking in her mind, waiting to be triggered. They also needed to be certain that she was not mentally unbalanced to the point that she would be a danger to herself or those intended to be her allies.
Ostensibly, the sessions with the psychologists were for her benefit as well, a means of counteracting some of the Red Room’s influence, but she saw little real value in any of it. Her mind was what the Red Room had made it, and no amount of talking could change that.
Moreover, in the six months since the sessions had begun, S.H.I.E.L.D. had been unable to unearth any psychological minefields, she’d passed all of the cognitive tests they had administered, and the psychologists had grudgingly admitted that overall, she was “remarkably stable, if lacking in natural empathy.” Beyond that, whether or not her mental state was considered “healthy” did not concern her. But, the sessions were one of the primary conditions for her eventual employment with S.H.I.E.L.D., and so she continued to attend them.
Reaching for one of the BDUs, she took it from the hanger and dressed, sitting down on her bunk to lace her boots. When she was finished, she remade the bed, dropped her used towel into the laundry chute, and walked to the door.
It slid open and she stepped into the corridor, ignoring the guards as they moved to follow her. In that way, she supposed, S.H.I.E.L.D. had not proven to be terribly different from the Red Room, though Coulson assured her that she would eventually be given clearance to move about more freely. Until then, however, she was required to have an escort with her at all times.
The trip to the mess hall wasn’t a long one. A few heads turned as she entered, but her presence had become routine and she was largely ignored. She preferred it that way, though recently, the psychologists had begun to suggest that she should try to associate more with others, rather than isolating herself. She had calmly pointed out that because she was still considered a security risk, socializing might actually be viewed with suspicion, but she knew it was not the last time she would hear of it.
Walking over to the cutlery station, she collected a tray, plate, glass, and silverware, then started for the food counter. The mess hall was set up in a buffet-style, with the majority of it being self-serve, though the kitchen staff was never far away. The food was surprisingly good, and there was always a wide variety to choose from, something she could not help but appreciate. This morning she chose scrambled eggs, sausage, toast, and orange juice to drink.
Her meal selected, she picked a table in the corner of the room, one with a good view of the entry and exit points, then sat down and began to eat. The guards remained standing, taking up at-ease positions a short distance behind her.
When the sound of footsteps caught her attention a few minutes later, she looked up to find Coulson walking towards her.
“Morning,” he said, claiming the seat across from her.
He wore his customary suit and tie and held a cup of coffee in one hand.
Natasha nodded in answer and took another bite of her breakfast. Coulson’s presence wasn’t unusual; he’d begun joining her for meals a few weeks earlier - likely at the prompting of the psychologists - but he never pressed her to talk and she didn’t particularly mind his company.
“I have some news.” Coulson took an experimental sip of his coffee, then frowned faintly at the taste and leaned forward to grab one of the sweetener packets sitting on the table. “You’ve been cleared to visit Barton.”
Natasha looked up again, this time in surprise.
She had seen Clint often since he’d been taken into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s custody, but always from a distance. Considering that his last order from the Red Room had been to kill her, both Dr. Lawson and the psychologists had felt that her presence might interfere with their efforts to break the Red Room’s hold on his mind…though “break” was perhaps the wrong word.
As Dr. Lawson had explained, the Red Room had manipulated Clint’s mind in such a way that he had no means of resisting their influence. So, in order to alter his allegiance, they had been forced to use the conditioning already in place, transferring his loyalty from the Red Room to S.H.I.E.L.D. itself. Natasha had been allowed to observe the process, and though she had found their methods to be far milder than the ones the Red Room utilized, she had loathed it nonetheless.
Even if it was intended for his ultimate good, it was not his choice. It would never be his choice.
The Red Room had seen to that.
Clint’s reconditioning had been completed a few weeks ago, and once his cooperation had been assured, they had begun working on his rehabilitation, trying to reverse some of the damage the Red Room had done. Still, Dr. Lawson had felt it best that Natasha not be introduced to him until they could be certain that he was stable.
Natasha had not expected that to happen so soon.
“When?” she asked.
Coulson took another sip of his coffee. “This afternoon.”
Natasha nodded, considering the day that lay ahead. Her schedule inside the Helicarrier was regimented, though not to the extent it had been in the Red Room.
Her sessions with the psychologists generally lasted about an hour each morning - she was sure, suddenly, that Clint would be the main focus of their discussion today - and after that, she was allotted time to use the gym. The wound in her leg had long-since healed, as had the various other injuries she had suffered in her confrontations with Clint, and she had been allowed to resume all normal physical activity, though she had not yet been given permission to exercise with the general population. However, on more than one occasion her workouts had been observed by the officers usually tasked with training S.H.I.E.L.D.’s newest group of recruits, and she hoped that eventually she would be allowed to spar with them.
After the gym, she had a meeting with Coulson himself, who had begun familiarizing her with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s standard mission protocol. Lunch followed, and then she had an appointment of her own with the neurology department, where she was to undergo another series of scans. This would be the fourth round of such tests; Natasha did not enjoy them, but she had agreed to cooperate in hopes that Lawson might discover something useful.
She had originally been told that, once the doctors were finished, she would be excused for the remainder of the day, free to do as she wished, but perhaps that would change now, since the time would likely be taken up by her visit with Clint.
Suddenly eager to finish her breakfast, Natasha resumed eating, ignoring the small, knowing smile Coulson tried to hide behind his cup.
The private corridor outside Clint’s room was empty.
At least, it appeared that way, though Natasha had no doubt that the doctors - both Clint’s and her own - would be watching this meeting with particular interest. More than likely, they were doing so via the numerous cameras that monitored Clint himself.
She was grateful for the illusion of solitude nonetheless.
It meant that, for the moment, there were no questions to answer, nothing she would be forced to explain. That would undoubtedly come later, but for now she was alone with her thoughts…and Clint.
She could see him through the large, two way mirror built into the upper-half of the wall adjoining the corridor. The doctors used it to observe him unseen in addition to the cameras, the reflective surface on the other side shielding them from his gaze.
Clint was seated in a chair, an open folder held in his lap, his head bent as he read. He was dressed in a set of unmarked BDUs much like her own, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, leaving his forearms bare. When they had first taken him into custody, she had seen faint tan lines on his arms from where the Brazilian sun had had marked the surface of his skin in the shape of the wrist guards and shooting glove he had worn. But, now the marks had faded, as though they had never been.
Drawing away from the window looking into his room, she stepped over to the door, reaching for the control panel and typing in the access code the doctors had given her.
The door slid open a moment later.
Clint looked up as she entered.
She had known better than to expect that he would be any different. Dr. Lawson had warned her that therapy was only just beginning, and his progress at this point had been negligible. All the same, the still-present blankness in his eyes was startling for reasons she could not explain.
“Clint,” she said simply.
He stared at her, though not with any particular interest or curiosity. Then, he blinked, cocking his head, his expression unchanged.
“I know you.”
For an instant, hope sparked in her chest; she smothered it quickly, but that did not lessen the sting of his next words:
“You were my next target.”
She pushed the sudden disappointment aside and nodded. “I was,” she agreed.
“But you were working with them - with S.H.I.E.L.D.” Clint blinked again. “I remember the ambush in the jungle.”
Natasha felt something like relief - S.H.I.E.L.D. had promised that their methods would not alter his remaining memories, only his loyalty. It appeared that they had kept their word. Still, knowing that Clint did indeed remember the events in Brazil, she might have expected his statement to be filled with accusation, but it wasn’t. If he’d been capable of it, would he have been angry?
“It was necessary,” she offered, feeling that she owed him at least that much of an explanation.
“To bring me here, I know. They told me.”
He sounded neither pleased nor upset, he was simply repeating the words as if by rote.
Silence fell, and Natasha allowed it to continue. Clint, she knew, would not be the one to break it.
He had already returned to his reading.
Taking another step into the room, Natasha let her gaze wander. She had seen it a number of times since Clint had been moved there, though never from this angle. Like her quarters, a door in the back of the space led to a small, private bathroom, but the room itself was more spacious than her own, and it was decorated to appear more like a home in hopes that the extra sensory stimulation might further Clint’s recovery.
The room had been carpeted and contained a bed, a chest of drawers, a lamp, two bookshelves filled with books, and the chair in which Clint sat. Curtains hung on either side of the two way mirror, an addition Natasha hadn’t initially understood, since, after all, the mirror existed to allow them to observe Clint’s behavior. But, Dr. Lawson had told her, that was precisely the point. Clint knew he was being observed, and if he took the initiative to close those curtains, claiming his privacy, it would represent a marked improvement in his condition.
So far, the curtains had remained untouched.
The walls of the room were decorated with art, scenes the psychologists thought might interest Clint and pictures they hoped would be familiar, including one of the Iowa countryside. But it was the circus poster that caught her attention, a larger version of the one Coulson had shown her initially.
She frowned as she traced the letters of Clint’s stage name with her eyes.
The Amazing Hawkeye.
Something flitted around the edges of her consciousness, but when she tried to force the memories to the surface, they seemed to retreat even further away.
She wondered if they would always be beyond her reach.
Scarring, Dr. Lawson had called it - the evidence of the Red Room’s manipulations in the areas of her brain responsible for long and short term memory. Lawson had found something similar in Clint, though his scarring had been less extensive, suggesting that the Red Room had altered his memories less often. The neurologist had hypothesized that the other alterations made to Clint’s brain made that sort of intervention less necessary. Regardless of the intel he possessed, he would not have betrayed the Red Room. It simply would not have occurred to him. But, while he was able to recall more from the missions he had been assigned - information he had offered up freely after his reconditioning - it had been confirmed that he remembered nothing of his life before that.
If he understood what had been taken from him, he did not feel the loss.
Natasha could almost envy him that.
Dragging her gaze away from the circus poster, Natasha walker closer to Clint, stopping at his side. She could imagine the doctors holding their collective breaths as they watched the camera feed; if Clint were still going to try to kill her despite S.H.I.E.L.D.’s reconditioning, it would be now.
But he did nothing.
She peered down at the folder he held. “What are you reading?”
She could guess well enough, but she had been told that Clint responded more readily to direct questions.
“My file. Dr. Lawson ordered me to memorize it.”
He paused suddenly, frowning very faintly as he looked up to meet her eyes. “Clint - my name. You said it when we fought. You knew it already. How?”
So, he had heard her then, even if he’d acted as though she hadn’t spoken a word; she wondered suddenly if the Red Room had ordered him to never speak with a target.
“I knew you,” she said simply. “From before.”
For the first time, she saw a flicker of something in his eyes. Something other than nothingness.
Then he blinked and it was gone.
“I don’t remember.”
“I’ll help you.”
“Because, once, you helped me.”