The Space In Between
The view from inside Clint’s room was now a familiar one.
Since her first meeting with him a few weeks before, Natasha had become a routine part of his therapy. She would sit with Clint as the neuropsychologists led him through various cognitive exercises, and participate if they felt it would be beneficial. Or, she would be asked to simply spend time with Clint in hopes that a less restricted form of interaction would accomplish what the doctors’ methods could not.
Today, it was the latter.
They sat alone in Clint’s room, Natasha seated across from him at the table that was the most recent addition to the space.
Silence had fallen between them, which wasn’t unusual. Clint did not talk often, and almost never without prompting, though gradually, Natasha had begun to learn how to read him, how to judge if there was something he simply couldn’t grasp, or if he had a question he would not voice unless pressed to do so.
That was the case now.
She could see the faint line marking his brow, and the way that the creases around his eyes had deepened slightly. It was the closest he ever came to expressing curiosity.
“Clint,” she said simply. “Ask what you want to ask.”
He hesitated for a moment, and something passed through his gaze, but it was gone before she had a chance to study it.
“You remember me,” he began at last. “From before.”
Natasha drew back, surprised. It was the first time since their initial conversation that Clint had shown any real interest in their collective past - what little of it she could offer.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “I wasn’t supposed to remember. But I did.”
Dr. Lawson had said that there was no physical reason why those particular memories had been preserved, at least, none that she could see. Natasha was lucky to have retained the few fragments she still possessed, and even that was more than the Red Room had intended for her to keep.
“You wanted to fight them,” Natasha added, her fingers curling into a fist without her permission. “You made me want to fight them.”
Clint blinked, the line between his brows deepening faintly as he considered that.
“Fight them,” he repeated, and for an instant, she thought she saw the fingers of his right hand twitch, curling a little like hers.
It wasn’t much. But it was something.
“Tell me about your family,” the psychologist instructed.
“My parents died when I was six years old,” Clint recited, the memorized facts rolling obediently off his tongue. “Their names were Amanda and Wade. I had an older brother named Barney. He is also dead.”
The psychologist nodded, apparently satisfied, and wrote something down on the chart he held. Then, he waved a hand at the table, where a small group of photographs sat.
“Tell me who each of these people are.”
That was a more recent addition to the mental roll call Clint was asked to perform at the opening of each session. It was hoped that by linking faces with the facts he’d been required to learn that the people from his past might become more real to him. Perhaps it would even stir long-buried memories.
Natasha let her gaze follow Clint’s, examining the pictures herself.
The photo of Clint’s father was an old mug shot; he looked a great deal like Clint around his nose and chin, and his eyes were blue, but his hair was dark brown. He was sneering drunkenly, his lips curled in obvious distain, the ID placard held crookedly in his hand.
His mother’s picture was an old Polaroid - Natasha wondered where S.H.I.E.L.D. had found it. She had the look of a woman who had been beautiful once, but her beauty had been frayed and worn; her blonde hair was limp and lifeless and her skin was pale and dull, frown lines etched across her forehead and around her mouth. She wasn’t smiling.
The last photograph was of Clint’s older brother. He was standing in an office of some kind, a poster for Child Protective Services hanging on a wall behind him. She guessed that he’d been about fourteen at the time the picture had been taken, and he too, looked a great deal like Clint, though he had darker hair, a trait he’d obviously inherited from their father. He was glaring at the camera sullenly, his arms crossed, a healing bruise visible along the right side of his jaw.
All at once, the boy’s gaze seemed to shift, growing older and more accusing.
Natasha blinked and looked away, abruptly becoming aware that Clint was speaking again, pointing to each photograph in turn.
“That is my mother,” he was saying, “my father, and my brother…”
“Choose a color. Which one do your prefer?”
Clint blinked, staring at the short row of colored blocks that had been placed in front of him. Red, blue, yellow, green, and purple.
This was a tactic the doctors often used. They would ask Clint to chose which meal he wanted, which set of clothes he would wear, or which book he would read. Then, Clint was required to explain his decision.
Natasha understood their methodology, but she couldn’t help but be frustrated by the juvenile nature of the questions.
Clint’s intellect was perfectly intact; in fact, as the doctors had discovered, he had been given the same forced education she had, receiving extensive instruction in mathematics, history, and science.
Expressing his preferences, however, was beyond him.
It was in moments like these that she felt her hatred for the Red Room grow.
Generally, it took Clint several minutes to make a choice and formulate an answer the doctors would accept, but today, only a few moments passed before he frowned very faintly and slowly reached for the purple block.
The doctor looked surprised. “Why did you choose that one?” she pressed.
Clint’s frown deepened and he didn’t answer.
Natasha glanced over at the circus poster still hanging on Clint’s wall, at the image of a teenage boy dressed in purple and black, and thought perhaps she knew.
The first time Clint was allowed to leave his room, Natasha accompanied him.
They been granted access only to the “public” areas of the Helicarrier, and a four-man security detail had been assigned to escort them, but since Dr. Lawson had stressed the importance of letting Clint lead when the opportunity arose, Natasha had left it to him to decide where they would go.
She had been surprised when he had stopped at a balcony overlooking the commons.
He had taken her there again the next day, and the next, and she found herself wondering if he had chosen that spot because she had approved of it the first time, and he saw no need to deviate from the norm.
So, each day afterward, she had insisted that he choose a part of the ship they had yet to see.
First, it was a small maintenance platform overlooking the auxiliary storage bay.
Then, it was the observation room overlooking the gym.
Then, the catwalks overlooking one of the labs.
Clint, she had finally realized, simply liked heights.
Natasha had never been one to sit still.
Whether that was a result of nature or nurture she couldn’t say, but if it was an inherent trait, the Red Room had certainly encouraged it. They had demanded that their operatives remain in peak physical condition at all times, barring serious injury.
The habit was engrained now, a routine part of her life, and if she were honest, something she truly enjoyed.
She wondered if it were the same for Clint. He had been seen working out in his room every day since he’d first been taken into custody, and the doctors had debated about whether or not that could be considered a demonstration of personal initiative, or if it was simply a response to orders he had previously received regarding his physical health.
Natasha was certain of the answer when he was finally given clearance to begin using the gym, and she saw his eagerness, not in his expression, but in the quick strides he took to reach the weightlifting equipment lining the gym’s far wall.
There were whispers the moment that she and Clint sat down in the mess hall.
Natasha had expected it. The general population of the Helicarrier had been offered only the barest facts about Clint and herself, and rumors had spread quickly, some more outlandish than others. Clint had become a particular topic of interest, and now that he was allowed to move more freely around the Helicarrier, the rumors had only grown.
Natasha had not been ordered to remain silent per se - classified intel was, quite obviously, off limits, but otherwise she had been given permission to share as much information as she wished.
She had chosen to say nothing.
Who she and Clint were, what their relationship was to each other, and why they had come to S.H.I.E.L.D. was not information the general population needed to know. Moreover, the mystery surrounding them seemed to discourage anyone from approaching, which Natasha preferred, despite the psychologists’ continuing insistence that she attempt to socialize.
She might have made a different choice had Clint himself been different - she had the vague sense that the Clint from her memories might have pushed precisely the same thing that the doctors had. But the Clint of the present felt no need to interact with anyone save herself, the doctors, and Coulson, and when a few bolder individuals had tried to talk with him, Clint’s stilted responses and blank stares had changed their minds soon enough.
Natasha had known then that even if she could eventually gain the acceptance of others, Clint would not find the same reception. So, she had allowed the rumors to grow and spread, until murmurs about “the Russians” had become an almost daily occurrence.
She wondered what they would have said had they known that Clint was not Russian by birth…or by choice.
They were cautious the first time they trusted Clint with a weapon.
Both the shooting range and surrounding areas had been cleared of all unnecessary personnel, and even Natasha had been ordered to watch from the observation room with Coulson and Fury, rather than from inside the range itself.
She could not fault their reasoning; she had seen Clint’s skill firsthand, and she knew it would have been foolish to underestimate him.
As though reading her thoughts, Fury turned to look at her.
“He actually as good as you say he is?”
“See for yourself,” Natasha answered, nodding towards the glass separating them from the range.
Fury snorted softly and folded his arms across his chest, turning to watch as Clint moved into position.
Clint stopped at the end of the range and raised the bow in his hands. His fingers tightened around it, his thumb brushing over the metal curves before he reached into the quiver over his shoulder and withdrew an arrow.
He nocked it against the string, stared at the target for a fraction of a second, then released.
The range, which had been designed to simulate actual combat, was immediately in motion, moving not only in front of Clint but around him, the targets shifting almost faster than the eye could follow, twisting in an intricate mechanical dance.
Natasha eyes narrowed faintly.
She had been given permission to begin using the range herself just a few weeks before, and she had not yet tried this particular configuration. Considering that this was the first time Clint had been allowed to handle a bow since his capture months before, it was unlikely that he was prepared to face what seemed to be the range’s most difficult setting.
Then again, she thought, glancing at Fury, that was probably the idea.
She turned back to the range just in time to see Clint duck a target that had suddenly became the aggressor; he fired backwards at it with his bow, not even bothering to see where the arrow landed, then pivoted to the left, another arrow appearing in his hand. It was loosed a split second later and then Clint was moving again, rolling forward and coming up with his bow raised, the next arrow already cutting through the air.
He spun once more, another arrow hitting target that lunged at him from the right, then he dropped to his knees, took aim at a target gliding along the floor, and fired. Rolling quickly onto his back, he did a no-handed kip, jumping up to his feet and turning to hit a target that had suddenly appeared behind him.
This, Natasha thought, was his element. This was the one thing the Red Room hadn’t taken from him.
"I do trick shots with my bow.”
"You are good?”
"Yeah. I am.”
As quickly as it had begun, the range came to a halt, the simulation over, and Clint relaxed, automatically falling into an at-ease position, waiting for evaluation.
But, when it became clear just what the outcome of Fury’s test had been, only silence filled the observation room.
Every single target had one arrow in it, dead center.
Fury, Natasha saw, was staring in disbelief, his eyebrows raised to the middle of his forehead in frank surprise. Coulson looked equally stunned.
Natasha didn’t bother to suppress the small, satisfied smile that curved her lips.
If S.H.I.E.L.D. had been cautious the first time Clint had been allowed to handle a weapon, they had been even more so the first time Natasha was allowed to spar with him.
The psychologists were concerned that using physical violence against her would somehow weaken the effect of his reconditioning, since, after all, his last orders from the Red Room had been to kill her.
For that reason, she and Clint stood opposite one another on the sparring mat, ringed with security personnel who had orders to intervene should the match take a dangerous turn. They’d been told to use non-lethal force if at all possible, and held Tasers at the ready, but they wore their sidearms as well.
Natasha was not particularly worried. Even if Clint did turn against her, she did not believe that he would be able to kill her outright. In actual combat, his biggest advantage had been his bow, but in hand-to-hand they seemed to be, essentially, evenly matched, despite Clint’s greater height and weight.
If anything, she looked forward to facing him again. She had been given clearance to begin sparring with others two months before, and she had already faced a wide range of opponents, from fresh-faced recruits who’d been eager to prove themselves, to seasoned veterans who had been curious about her skills. Some of them had been quite good, others, she’d defeated easily, but she had found no one who had matched her blow for blow the way that Clint had when they’d fought. She was eager to see who would win a match that lacked any lethal intent.
Coulson gave the signal for them to begin, and they both immediately dropped down into sparring stances, circling each other, obviously looking for weak points.
Clint surprised her when he moved first with an elbow aimed for her ribs, but she dodged the blow, twisting around him to strike at his back. He had obviously anticipated that because he dropped and rolled forward, then bounced back easily to his feet, facing her once again.
Natasha’s eyes narrowed faintly and she rushed at him, kicking out, her leg aimed for his head. He caught her leg and threw her back, using her own momentum against her. She landed several feet away, hitting the mat with a grunt, and Clint gave her no time to recover, running at her, landing on top of her, trying to pin her under his greater weight.
She didn’t give him the chance. Bringing her legs up to her chest, she pushed up with both feet, throwing him off before he could find a firm hold. They were both on their feet a moment later, and Clint struck again, the heel of his hand aimed for her sternum, but she arched away, turning it into a back flip. Clint, however, followed her, doing an aerial summersault of his own and landing behind her.
When his arm snaked around her throat, she heard the security personnel start forward in alarm, but she was already in motion, throwing her weight forward, forcing Clint over her head so that he landed on his back in front of her.
She was distantly aware of Coulson ordering the security personnel to stand down, but her focus was on Clint who was kicking out, sweeping her legs out from under her, sending her to the floor yet again.
She rolled away, coming up in a crouch and tossing her head back, the short strands of her hair flying away from her face, a fierce grin forming on her lips.
Clint had taken up a similar position across the mat; he was watching her, his expression characteristically blank, but there was a very faint challenging glint in his eyes.
Her smile growing, Natasha charged.
Clint walked beside her, a duffle bag held in his hand.
It contained his few possessions - the clothes, books, and other items he had chosen from among the various things S.H.I.E.L.D. had provided him with. They would fill his quarters now, rather than the observation room he’d lived in for the last year.
Clint seemed entirely unaffected by the move, even now as they made their way down the halls of the Helicarrier, but Natasha could not say that she was surprised. She had become fluent in the language Clint used, learned to read the subtle tells beneath his stoic surface, and she was able to judge when he felt something akin to absolute indifference.
Where he lived and whether or not he was being watched didn’t matter to him at all.
Even the curtains flanking the two way mirror in his room had remained untouched - Clint had never once attempted to shut them, never attempted to claim his privacy in that way. Dr. Lawson had tried to assure her that those curtains were hardly the only measure of Clint’s progress, and that he had shown improvement in other areas, but Natasha understood the implications nonetheless.
Clint might only progress so far but no farther; it was even possible that he had recovered as much as he ever would. Only time would tell. Time and Clint himself.
When they reached the door of Clint’s new quarters, Clint pressed the panel at the entrance, and the door slid open to admit them. Clint moved straight for the bed and set his duffle bag down, starting to unpack methodically.
Natasha lingered in the doorway for a moment, allowing her gaze to sweep the space. The quarters were nearly identical to hers, with a bed, a bedside table, a closet, and an adjoining bathroom. She had no doubt that the room was monitored like her own as well, but at least he would be free from constant observation.
Stepping closer to Clint she held out a hand, and he seemed to understand her silent offer to help because he gave her one of the shirts he had just placed on a hanger. She carried it to the closet and then returned for another one.
Together, they made short work of the relatively small pile of his things until all that remained was a framed picture sitting facedown in the duffle.
Clint picked it up, and set it on top of the bedside table, propped against the wall.
The circus poster. Clint had taken the circus poster with him.
Maybe those curtains didn’t matter so much after all.
Clint’s fist flew towards her head.
Natasha arched back, the blow missing her nose by just a fraction of an inch, then she reached up, wrapping her hands around his extended forearm, tightening her grip, holding him in place as she kicked up into his stomach.
He grunted as the strike connected, but he surprised her by wrapping his free arm under her knee, locking her leg to his chest before he used his greater weight to throw himself backwards onto the mat, sending her flying over his head.
She managed to turn it into a roll, and came up to face him again.
They had just begun to circle each other once more when she heard Coulson call their names from the gym’s entrance.
Relaxing her stance, she held up a hand, halting the match. “Достаточно.” Enough.
The Russian fell from her tongue partly out of habit and partly because she had found that Clint responded better to it when they sparred.
Clint gave a brisk nod in answer, the tension immediately easing from his muscles.
She turned to Coulson expectantly; he watched them train often, but he had never interrupted them before, and she suspected he wouldn’t do so now without a reason.
His words when he reached them confirmed that.
“We have a situation.”
Natasha’s eyes narrowed faintly, her mind already sifting through the possibilities. After a little over a year’s worth of evaluation, both she and Clint had been cleared by the psychologists and doctors alike, but they had yet to be officially named as agents. She wondered if it were an additional test on Fury’s part, or if, perhaps, someone in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s chain of command felt they were still too great of a security risk.
Had S.H.I.E.L.D. decided not to accept them after all?
“What kind of situation?” she asked bluntly.
Coulson hesitated, obviously trying to decide how much to reveal.
“We’ve just become aware of a certain…artifact,” he began finally, “one with some unique properties that will make it very interesting to the right people. We’ve got the situation locked down for now, but it’s only a matter of time before someone comes to take the artifact for themselves. We need to be ready when that happens.”
Natasha blinked in surprise. Of all the possible scenarios she had imagined, a mission hadn’t been one of them.
“We’re not cleared for field work,” she pointed out.
“You are now.”
Rather than allaying her suspicions, Coulson’s swift response only served to intensify them. S.H.I.E.L.D., she knew, would only act so quickly if the situation was serious enough to merit that sort of haste.
If Coulson sensed the direction of her thoughts, he didn’t show it; he simply turned around, walking back towards the gym’s entrance, clearly expecting them to follow.
Natasha’s eyes narrowed again but she started forward anyway, motioning to Clint who automatically fell into step beside her.
They caught up to Coulson a moment later.
“The artifact,” she pressed. “I assume you want us to guard it?”
“Something like that.”
“And what exactly is it that we’ll be guarding?”
“A hammer,” she repeated.
Coulson just smiled and led them down the next corridor.