Twenty Pieces of Silver

Compromised

One year later (2012)

The scientists eyed her warily as she passed.

She nodded at them in return, and they quickly resumed their work. Natasha snorted softly. Despite Fury’s repeated assurances that she and Clint were there only to monitor security, the scientists seemed convinced that there was more to it than that.

Clint made them particularly uneasy since he preferred to remain up in the rafters, watching them all from above. The scientists had taken to calling it his “nest” as soon as they’d learned his codename.

Like her, Clint had chosen to continue using the codename the Red Room had given him.

In Russian, he was Ястреб, the Hawk…or War Hawk, if one chose the less common meaning of the Russian word, a subtlety lost in the English equivalent. It was an obvious play on Clint’s former stage name; perhaps one of Clint’s handlers had known of the moniker and thought it fitting enough to keep.

She paused, glancing up to the catwalks where Clint was sitting now, his arms folded over the railings, his chin resting on his wrists, his eyes intent on the goings-on below. It was almost strange to see him without his bow, but given the scientists’ unease, he had been ordered to keep it the armory, leaving him only with his sidearm.

As if seconding that thought, a particularly jumpy scientist saw that she had stopped and nervously shuffled a few steps away, so Natasha resumed her walk. She didn’t want to start hearing complaints about the Black Widow lurking in corners.

Rounding a bank of particularly large monitors, she started a circuit of the other side of the lab, allowing her gaze to wander.

The underground lab was quite large, a vast space made of concrete and corrugated metal, part of a refitted military base. Equipment filled the center of the room, arranged in long, straight rows, and various workstations were separated by metal desks bearing large computer monitors, keyboards, and screens connected by looping wires. Blade towers from the lab’s supercomputer lined the perimeter, their red cases standing out sharply among the sea of gray and black that made up the rest of the lab.

But, it was the glowing, blue cube that was clearly the focus of the room. It sat in the front of the lab, suspended upright by rings of metal, wires, cables, and coils, shining a brilliant, neon blue, crackling every few moments, small, blue sparks visible at its center. Stretched out from the structure housing the cube was a long, metal walkway lined by thick cables the size of her arm. The cables were held up by a series of steel hooks that sat at an incline, looking strangely decorative despite their utilitarian purpose. The metal pathway led to a small platform, surrounded by two rows of six curving panels that resembled the solar panels one might find on a roof. The rows were arranged in half-circles, and the first consisted of small panels located directly around the platform, while the second consisted of much larger panels on stands that sat farther back. They were clearly designed to reflect whatever energy the cube emitted, though the structure seemed incomplete as of yet.

She wondered what would be added to it as time went on. Selvig would have been able to tell her. Of all the scientists, he was the most accepting of their presence - if annoyed to have them hovering over his shoulder - but she didn’t want to upset that tentative balance simply to satisfy her curiosity. He was almost an ally. At the very least, he hadn’t objected when Fury had first assigned them to Project P.E.G.A.S.U.S.

The World Council, however, had tried to overrule Fury’s decision and assign someone else, someone deemed to be less of a security risk. Fury had eventually won that particular argument, citing the year she and Clint had already spent in the field. Their mission record was excellent, and the level of difficulty in their assignments had increased exponentially as Fury had become more confident in both their abilities and their loyalty. (Natasha suspected that Coulson might have had something to do with that as well, though he’d never admitted to anything.)

But, while the World Security Council had finally agreed to their assignment to Project P.E.G.A.S.U.S., they had absolutely refused to consider either her or Clint as possible candidates for The Avengers Initiative. Coulson had been the one to approach them about the program, explaining its intended purpose. Since S.H.I.E.L.D. had already compiled extensive psychological profiles on them both, he had hoped that would expedite their approval, but of course, that hadn’t turned out to be the case.

In the end, it hadn’t mattered, since the Initiative had been scrapped anyway - perhaps all of the possible candidates were believed to be too unpredictable to be successfully controlled. It was an oddly satisfying thought, though undoubtedly, the World Security Council would not agree.

Coulson had never confirmed or denied anything, but she assumed that members of the World Security Council were the “certain individuals” who were behind their removal from the Thor mission the year before.

Thor.

She had apparently fought the Norse god of thunder. She supposed that his reaction to the hammer made a great deal more sense when considered in that light, but she still found it difficult to believe.

Aliens. Alternate dimensions. The Tesseract.

That had certainly been one of the strangest briefings she could recall.

But Coulson had sworn that it was true and granted both her and Clint clearance to view footage of the fight that had devastated the small town of Puente Antiguo.

She wondered if the Red Room realized that the universe was such a vast place. If they did, they had not taught her to believe the same. Then again, a pet was less likely to break out of its cage if it didn’t know that something else - something more - lay beyond.

She might not have broken out of her own cage at all if it hadn’t been for Clint.

The thought brought her gaze back to the rafters. Clint didn’t move, and he was too far away for her to see his eyes, but somehow, she knew that he was watching her.

A very faint smile curved her lips in answer, but a sudden announcement from one of the nearby technicians drew her attention:

“I’m reading an energy spike.”

A few of the other white-clad scientists handling the night-shift immediately answered, calling out the readings they were now detecting as well. They sounded more puzzled than alarmed, but any alteration in the cube status was potentially serious, so Selvig was notified. Only a few minutes passed before he came loping back into the lab looking rumpled and bleary-eyed, but all traces of weariness vanished the moment he got a glimpse of the screens monitoring the cube’s output.

“That shouldn’t be possible,” Selvig muttered. “That’s not just a spike, it’s a surge.” Frowning, he tapped a few keys on the keyboard, but whatever the result was, he looked no happier.

“Doctor?” Natasha asked. “What is it?”

“You’ll know when I do. Bennett!” he called, waving a hand to the skittish scientist who’d moved away from Natasha earlier. “Run a diagnostic, now. I need to know if this reading is correct.”

The other man nodded jerkily and ducked behind a monitor.

“All systems check out, Doctor,” he said after a moment. “I’m not showing any anomalies here.”

Selvig sighed. “I was afraid you would say that. Alright, Nelson, Ross, we’re gonna have to try to lock this down.”

“Doctor,” Natasha pressed again.

“We’ve detected an energy spike - a big one and it’s growing,” Selvig explained quickly, his eyes still darting between his keyboard and the screen in front of him. “I can’t say why or what it means. Right now, I just don’t know. It might be a fluke. Give me a few minutes and I’ll be able to tell you more.”

Natasha nodded, moving back to let the scientists work, though she pressed the comm at her ear. “This is Romanoff. We may have a situation.”


They did.

The energy surge had continued, and Selvig had become desperate enough to try shutting off the power manually. It had flickered to life again a moment later.

Three other attempts had ended the same way.

When it had become clear that Selvig’s efforts had been unsuccessful, Coulson had ordered a base-wide evacuation of all non-essential personnel. It had begun as a precaution, but Natasha could see that the scientists were growing increasingly frantic.

Coulson had alerted Director Fury an hour ago, and his chopper was due to arrive soon.

Natasha had joined Clint up in the rafters while they waited; she could watch just as well from above, and it seemed wise not to make the scientists any more anxious than they already were.

Fury called for them almost as soon as he appeared. “Barton, Romanoff. Report.”

There was a maintenance ladder along the North wall, but they used repelling lines instead, dropping to the floor and quickly making their way to the Fury.

He started walking as soon as they reached him, clearly expecting that they would fall into place beside him. “Can you tell me anything that will explain this?” he demanded.

“I’ve seen nothing to suggest that there’s been any tampering,” Natasha returned evenly.

“Agreed, sir,” Clint added. “No one’s come or gone, and Selvig’s clean. No contacts, no IMs.”

Fury sighed. “Then what’s causing this?”

They stopped walking a short distance from the cube, and Natasha opened her mouth to answer, but it was Clint who responded first.

“Nothing on our end, sir.”

Natasha blinked, surprised, and Fury seemed to feel the same way.

“On our end,” Fury repeated.

Clint nodded. “The cube is a doorway to the other end of space. Doors open from both sides.”

Natasha hadn’t considered that possibility, and judging by his expression, neither had Fury. But Clint, she had learned, sometime saw things that no one else did.

“Doctor,” a blonde-haired scientist called, “it’s spiking again.”

Selvig hurried across the room, bending down to examine the screen, his brow furrowed, worry clear in his eyes. He pressed a few keys in quick succession, then grimaced and tried again.

A soft electronic whine began to build, and Natasha’s gaze darted to the cube. The glow had brightened considerably, blue sparks expanding to flicker over the metal surrounding it.

“Not yet…” Selvig muttered.

A low rumble followed, almost like thunder, and then a flash of blue arced out from the cube, once, twice, and a third time.

The whole facility shook.

There was nothing anyone could do but stare as the cube surged again, streaks of blue shooting into the air more rapidly now, growing larger and brighter, the atmosphere charged to the point that Natasha could feel it on her skin.

The blue energy suddenly began to coalesce, forming a vortex that seemed to originate in the center of the cube itself. The noise was incredible, as though the drone of a thousand generators had been amplified, and the ground, the air, all seemed to vibrate, the smell of ozone so strong that it seemed to burn her nostrils.

A thick beam of light suddenly shot from the cube, stretching out over the metal pathway. Natasha wondered if it would just keep going, cutting through endless layers of concrete and metal, but instead it seemed to punch a hole through the air itself, stopping just above the small, elevated platform, the air rippling with blue as a circular opening appeared and then expanded. For an instant, Natasha thought she saw a glimpse of stars, but then the beam stopped, and the energy seemed to mass, intensifying and then exploding outwards, rushing through the room like a tidal wave.

Natasha threw up an arm to protect her face, expecting to feel pain as the blast reached her, but the energy simply washed over her skin, leaving it tingling and a little numb as the wave dissipated.

She blinked, trying to clear her eyes, then lowered her arm and looked around.

The room seemed relatively unscathed, though remnants of blue energy were inching up the walls, and smaller tongues of blue flame were flickering and dying like the embers of a recently extinguished fire. The cube still glowed brightly, sparking every few minutes, blue haze rising from it like smoke.

But it was the platform that held her attention.

It seemed to contain a pillar of blue fire, but the blaze was gradually dying down, and as the blue faded, she recognized the figure of a man. He was kneeling, curled in a ball, his head resting on his knees, one arm wrapped around his bent legs. But as the last of the blue disappeared, he slowly raised his head.

He had dark hair that fell to his shoulders, though it was slicked back from his forehead, the ends curling outwards. He was pale, and droplets of sweat clung to his skin, but it was the mad gleam in his blue eyes that she saw first, the Cheshire grin twisting his features.

The smile faded as he stood up slowly, revealing the brown leather armor and green cloak he wore. Golden gauntlets wrapped his forearms, and matching bands protected his biceps. He held something in his right hand - a short staff made of some kind of metal. It was golden in color with a blue stone set amidst a series of curved spikes, the longest of which curved over the jewel protectively. The stone was a perfect match for the blue of the cube, glowing with the same intensity, and blue haze still rose from it.

Security personnel began to move in, guns raised, and the man’s gaze swept the room, clearly trying to determine where the greatest threat lay.

“Sir,” Fury called, his voice ringing out across the room, “please put down the spear!”

The man paused, glancing at the staff in his hand, and that was all the warning they had.

He extended the staff, and a streak of blue light arced across the room, headed straight for them.

Clint was closer to Fury than she was, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw him push Fury out of the way of the beam. She had no choice but to leap the other way, diving across room, landing facedown. She could hear other blasts being fired over her head, the sounds of bullets ricocheting, and cries of pain from guards and scientists alike. An explosion of sparks suggested that one of the computer stations had been hit, and that was followed by the distinctive shink of metal blades hitting their intended targets. Obviously, the scepter wasn’t the man’s only weapon.

The room fell abruptly silent, the eerie quiet disrupted only by the sound of the damaged electronic equipment that was still sparking.

Natasha turned her head just enough that she could look back behind her. Clint was laying facedown as well, clearly stunned, though he was stirring already. Fury was unmoving, but he was breathing, and she couldn’t see any visible wounds.

Footsteps began to echo through the room, and she froze, closing her eyes and feigning unconsciousness.

She had simply hoped to take the man by surprise, perhaps attacking him from behind, but as the footsteps drew nearer, she realized that his intended path would bring him very close to her. She waited until he was beside her, and then she was in motion, kicking out, sweeping his legs out from under him.

He fell back, and she leapt to her feet, but the man was upright again almost as quickly, still holding his staff, and when she swung at him with her fist, he grabbed her wrist with his free hand, apparently amused.

“Ah, the fiery one,” he murmured. “I should have known.”

She tried to pull her arm back, but his grip was hard and unforgiving, unnaturally strong. Her other hand shot down to her side, reaching for the Glock strapped to her thigh, but the moment she gripped it, the man struck out with the staff, sending the gun skittering away. She kicked out, hitting him in the stomach. It was like kicking a brick wall.

The man’s smirk grew and his grip tightened. She grunted at the bruising force and tried in vain to pull away again.

The man opened his mouth, about to speak, but a round of gun shots interrupted him, the bullets pinging off the armor on his back. It was enough that he stiffened a little. He turned around, clearly annoyed, and she followed his gaze to see that Clint was crouched behind him, his side arm drawn.

The man’s grin suddenly turned feral, and then a second later, Natasha was being thrown through the air. She felt her back strike the shelves on one of the metal desks, the wind driven from her lungs with the force of the impact. She must have hit the desk high enough that her weight had caused it to tip, because she crashed to the floor, landing atop the fallen work station, the metal unforgiving beneath her.

She needed to get up, but her back was burning with pain, and her lungs were already screaming for the air they’d been denied. Dazed, she managed to roll over, off of the desk, landing on the floor on her stomach, the jolt of the small drop enough to send spikes of pain through her back yet again. She grit her teeth and tried to push herself to her feet, but her muscles simply wouldn’t cooperate.

She looked up, her gaze finding Clint automatically.

The man had already reached him and had stopped Clint’s blows as easily as he had stopped hers. When Clint tried to bring up his gun once more, the man’s hand caught his wrist.

The man tilted his head in apparent consideration. “You have no heart,” he declared. “No passion. Your mind is already broken. Still, you may be of use to me yet.”

The scepter he held was suddenly descending, and Natasha redoubled her efforts to stand, but her limbs were still ignoring her mind’s commands and she could only watch as the scepter touched Clint’s chest. She had thought the man might impale him, but when the tip of the uppermost spike brushed his sternum, Clint stiffened with something like surprise. Small tendrils of blue climbed up his neck and into his face until they reached his eyes. For a moment, his eyes were entirely black, like his pupils had been blown impossibly wide, but an instant later they shifted to a strange, iridescent blue.

Her breath had gradually been returning, but it escaped her again as Clint blinked once, then holstered his gun and stood to attention.

The intruder smirked in apparent satisfaction before turning away, obviously convinced that Clint was no threat to him now.

Natasha’s eyes darted back to Clint, hoping that the man’s overconfidence would be his downfall, but Clint was still, his eyes following the man as though awaiting orders.

One member of the security detail had staggered to his feet, but he was clearly still dazed because he offered no resistance as the intruder appeared in front of him and touched his chest with the scepter as well. Like Clint, his eyes turned black and then an eerie blue.

Selvig had gotten to his feet, beginning to quietly check on his staff. He stopped, kneeling by the blonde-haired woman, his fingers brushing her neck, his features grim. The intruder either hadn’t noticed him, or he’d dismissed him as unimportant, because he didn’t react.

Finally managing to push herself up to her knees, Natasha turned to see that Fury had risen as well. He’d taken the cube from its housing, obviously hoping to leave with it before he was noticed.

But when Fury locked the cube inside a briefcase, the room echoed with the sound of metal clips snapping shut.

The intruder turned at last.

“Please don’t,” he said simply. “I still need that.”

Fury had started to walk away, but the man’s words brought him to a halt. He remained motionless, his back to the intruder. “This doesn’t have to get any messier.”

The man’s eyes narrowed. “Of course it does,” he retorted. “I’ve come too far for anything else.”

Fury turned at last and the man lifted his chin.

“I am Loki of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious purpose.”

Selvig stood, frowning. “Loki? Brother of Thor?”

Natasha’s eyes darted back to the man - to Loki. He clearly differed from his brother in more than appearance. Thor had injured several security personnel in his attempt to reclaim his hammer, but none of the injuries had been critical. Loki obviously didn’t share the same restraint. Judging by the number of bodies still littering the laboratory floor, he’d killed at least a dozen.

Fury seemed to share her line of thought because his good eye narrowed, but he held up a hand, as though suggesting restraint. “We have no quarrel with your people.”

Loki scoffed, apparently unconcerned. “An ant has no quarrel with a boot.”

Fury cocked his head. “You planning to step on us?”

This time, Loki smiled.

“I come with glad tidings, of a world made free.”

“Free from what?”

“Freedom. Freedom is life’s great lie. Once you accept that, in your heart…” he spun quickly, pressing the scepter to Selvig’s chest before he could react, “…you will know peace.”

Selvig’s eyes now glowed the same blue as Clint’s.

Fury snorted. “Yeah, you say peace, I kind of think you mean the other thing.”

“Sir,” Clint’s voice startled her. “The ceiling.”

That drew all of their gazes to the lab’s roof, where she saw that the remains of the energy released by the cube had gathered like storm clouds above them, the mass of blue light writhing and churning, flickering more rapidly as the moments passed.

She silently cursed her inattention; she’d been too focused on the intruder - on Clint - to see it.

“It’s the portal,” Selvig interjected suddenly, walking over to check one of the monitors. “It’s collapsing in on itself. You got maybe two minutes before this goes critical.”

“Well, then…” Loki prompted.

Clint drew his side arm and fired. Fury grunted as the bullet struck him in the chest, and he dropped to the ground. It was the distraction Natasha needed. She still had one of her Glocks and she reached for it, aiming for Loki’s head. But Clint was suddenly beside her, kicking her arm. The bullet went wide, and the heel of his hand struck her sternum, pushing her back to the floor.

Immediately, she found herself staring into the barrel of Clint’s gun. She looked at it for a moment, then her gaze moved up to the unnatural blue of his eyes.

It was as though the last two years hadn’t happened. He looked at her with no feeling. No recognition.

She hadn’t realized how much that had come to mean to her - the subtle signs that the boy from her memories wasn’t entirely lost.

Now, there was nothing.

“Leave her,” Loki barked impatiently.

Clint lowered the gun and moved to follow. Natasha rolled to her feet again, ready to sprint after him, but the facility shook, small bits of stone falling from the ceiling above, and she ran towards Fury instead.

“Director?”

He was grimacing in pain and had a hand pressed to his chest, but there was no blood - the body armor he wore had done its job.

He motioned for her to help him up, already reaching for the radio at his belt.

“Hill?” he grit out. “Do you copy? Barton has turned.”

Natasha stiffened, ready to object, but there was no time for it. Pulling Fury to his feet she started in the direction of the surface.

“They have the Tesseract,” Fury added as they stumbled from the lab. “Shut them down!”

She heard distant gunshots and knew it had to be Hill - Maria Hill tolerated her and Clint, but she had made no secret of the fact that she didn’t trust them, and she would have undoubtedly taken Fury’s words at face value.

The facility shook again and sparks erupted around them, pipes dropping from the ceiling, missing them by inches. Natasha broke into a run, Fury doing the same beside her.

“I need a chopper!” Fury shouted into the radio. “South platform! Now!”

Only static answered, but someone must have heard him because when they reached the set of double doors leading to the facility’s helipad, a helicopter was waiting, the rotor spinning steadily, ready to take off in an instant.

“We’re clear upstairs, sir,” Coulson said, his voice echoing over the radio. “You need to go.”

It was an unnecessary warning. They shoved their way through the doors without slowing, reaching the helicopter just as the pad began to crumble beneath them.

Fury jumped into the chopper and Natasha dove behind him.

The chopper rose into the air, the concrete of the helipad splintering and falling a few seconds later.

The rest of the facility followed.

It began with a low boom reverberating deep in the earth, and then the ground rippled, the shockwave spreading from the point of origin, flames bursting into the air as gas and power lines ruptured. Then, piece by piece, the facility fell away, dropping into a pit so deep that the bottom was lost in the darkness.

Fury watched the destruction with his jaw clenched, and she wasn’t surprised when he ordered the chopper to follow the road that led out of the base. Clint had been leading Loki in the direction of the underground parking facility. The end of the tunnel was one of the few structures still standing, and if they’d made it out, that was where they would emerge.

For a moment, there was nothing, and Natasha wondered if Hill had succeeded in stopping them after all - if Clint was now buried under several thousand tons of rock and rubble.

Her stomach lurched in a way that had little to do with the movement of the chopper, but before she could examine the sensation, a truck sped out of the tunnel entrance.

Loki was standing in the back, clinging to the roof, his the blue stone on his scepter still shining, acting like a beacon.

But the driver - Clint, she knew it could only be Clint - spun the vehicle away from the road, and into the rough terrain, sending clouds of dust into the air.

Fury motioned for the pilot to circle around, and the pilot obeyed, their course bringing them to confront the truck head-on. The helicopter had been intended for transport only and had no armaments of its own, so it hovered in the air as the truck drove towards them, while Fury slid the door open, pulling his sidearm and taking aim.

Natasha moved into the seat on the other side of the door, across from Fury, and did the same, drawing her back-up pistol.

Fury’s bullets were aimed at the driver - at Clint. It was the logical move. Disable - kill - the driver, and their chances of stopping Loki increased. She hesitated for a fraction of a second, then aimed for the truck’s tires instead - a blowout could disable the vehicle just as thoroughly.

Her bullets pinged off the truck’s armor, several hitting the hubcap, but the tire remained intact. Fury’s shots struck the windshield on the driver’s side, and the bullet-resistant glass fractured but didn’t break.

A streak of blue shot from Loki’s staff, and an instant later the energy ripped through the chopper, hitting the aft section just in front of the tail, sending the air craft into a dizzying spin.

Natasha clung to the open doorway, the world around her a blur of fire and metal, the ground rushing up to meet them. It was impossible to judge the remaining distance, but knowing that she had no choice, she tightened her grip on the doorway, and pushed herself out of the chopper’s open door into the air beyond. A flash of black beside her told her that Fury had made the same decision, but she had no more time to think as she tucked and rolled, trying to lessen the impact of the landing.

She still hit hard, her already bruised back screaming anew as she tumbled end over end in the dirt. Her momentum carried her farther than she’d expected, and when she finally stopped moving, her breath hitched as she tried to uncurl and force herself to stand. Her legs shook for a moment but she locked her knees and pushed herself into something like a run until she reached the Director’s side. Fury had clearly landed better than she had. He was winded and gritting his teeth, but he was already perched on one knee, gun raised, firing at the truck as it disappeared into the distance.

The truck, however, was already too far away, and Fury lowered the gun as he stood, chest heaving.

Natasha spared a glance for the chopper behind them. It had landed on its side, its rotors bent and broken in the dirt, flames still burning in the tail section. She saw no movement from the cockpit and wondered if the pilot were even still alive.

“Director?” Coulson’s voice, sounding deceptively calm, issued over the radio still hooked to Fury’s belt. “Director Fury, do you copy?”

Fury snatched up the radio. “The Tesseract is with a hostile force,” he said in lieu of a response. “Romanoff’s with me, but I have a man down.” He looked at the chopper. “Hill?” he questioned.

Hill’s answer was strained, but steady. “A lot of men still under. I don’t know how many survivors.”

Fury grimaced. “Sound a general call. I want every living soul not working rescue looking for that briefcase.”

“Roger that.”

“Coulson,” Fury added, “get back to base. This is a Level Seven.” His voice dropped, his fingers tightening on the radio. “As of right now, we are at war.”

There was a long moment of silence.

“What do we do?” Coulson asked.

Fury didn’t answer, just lowered the radio slowly, his good eye still staring out into the desert as though it contained the answers he needed.

“We do the only thing we can,” he said at last, raising the radio once more. “We put together a response team.”

“Sir,” Hill began, sounding reluctant, “the World Security Council won’t-”

“I’ll deal with that. You have your orders. Fury out.”

He hooked the radio back on his belt then jogged in the direction of the fallen chopper. Natasha followed but he reached the wreck first, and being careful to remain clear of the flames still engulfing the tail, he bent down to study the cockpit.

He stood up again a moment later, giving a single shake of his head.

The pilot was dead, then, like she’d assumed.

Fury took a couple of quick steps away from the chopper, a muscle working along his jaw, head tilted back to gaze up at the night sky.

When he turned back to look at her, his voice was sharp. Demanding.

“Romanoff. Explain to me exactly what you were thinking back there.”

Her spine straightened instinctively at the tone of reprimand. She didn’t need to ask him to clarify. If she’d aimed for Clint like Fury had, they might have hit him, and that was why she hadn’t done it.

She had no excuse.

As if he were able to read her thoughts, the Director scoffed. “You’re the last person I expected to let personal feelings get in the way of doing your job. Barton could have killed us both.”

“But he didn’t,” she answered evenly.

Fury’s eye narrowed at that, and knowing she was skirting the edges of insubordination, she continued.

“Back in the lab, he knew you were wearing a vest, but he still shot center mass. And he had more than enough time to kill me.” True, Loki had called him away, but it took only a second to pull a trigger. He’d had ample opportunity. “Whatever Loki did to Clint, he’s still there.”

Fury stared at her for a moment then shook his head. “Maybe. But right now, all I care about is the fact that he’s in the hands of the enemy. Cooperating with the enemy.”

“Against his will.”

“You know as well as I do that Barton doesn’t have much will to begin with.”

That was true, loath as she was to admit it. Over the last year, Clint had gradually become more expressive when he spoke, more animated. They were subtle changes, small enough that few probably recognized them for what they were. But, questioning orders, disobeying a commander…those ideas never even entered into the realm of possibility.

Fury sighed heavily. “Romanoff, we’ll get him and the others back if we can, but that can’t be our priority. Against his will or not, Barton is still a threat, and he’s aiding a man intent on wiping us out.” Fury stepped closer, his gaze suddenly boring into her. “You find yourself in another situation like the one on the chopper, then you take the shot. Is that clear?”

Natasha gave a curt nod. “Yes, sir.”

Fury looked as though he might say more, but his radio crackled on his belt and he reached for it.

“Director,” Coulson began, “rescue teams are in place. Hill’s overseeing them, and another team’s en route to you now. I’ll be back at base within the hour.”

“Good. Debriefing will be at 0500, then I want you in Calcutta ASAP. We’ll need Banner.”

“What about Stark?”

Fury paused, then glanced over at Natasha, smirking darkly. “Romanoff gets Stark.”

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