A Minor Bird

Troubled Waters

"This'll just be a minute, Agent. Wait here," Fury points to a seat, just outside the conference room. He's surprisingly pleasant. He's either in a good mood, or he's trying to calm himself before his appearance before the council. Barton nods and doesn't take a seat (he prefers to stand) but Fury has already closed the door.

So, it's the latter.

Clint darts his eyes around the room, stopping when he notices a picture frame on the filing cabinet by the door. He recognizes it as a photograph Coulson took, on "Fury's Birthday".

In truth, Fury doesn't have a birthday. Not that anyone at Shield is aware of, in any case.

If the rumors are true, it was Coulson's idea (long before Clint was recruited to Shield). Legend goes that as a joke, Coulson picked a day on the calendar and proclaimed it Fury's birthday. It was the only holiday Shield celebrated, in loose terms.

They bought a Safeway cake and took one photo.

And they continued to do so, every year since.

This particular picture was from last year. Coulson had been behind the camera, therefore not in the pic. Fury stood in the center, with the same expression that he wore when dealing with any degree of Stark's bullshit. Hill stood beside him, looking as displeased to be there as well.

The picture was across the room, but Clint could still make out all the names and faces of the agents surrounding the director. To the left was Hansen, who'd been forced into retirement after a crippling injury caused by the attack on the Helicarrier—

Caused by Clint.

To the right was Anderson, who died during said attack. Beside him was Anderson's wife, now widow. Next to Hansen was Gonzalez, who had been a casualty of the base collapsing when Loki had first appeared. Gonzalez's wife had sent Clint a Christmas card this past year, proclaiming she didn't blame him (the same couldn't be said of Anderson's widow) and that she wished him a Merry Christmas.

Behind Hill, looking as uptight as ever, was Natasha.

Clint was somewhere in the background. Normally, he hung from the ceiling, as a prank in an attempt to throw rabbit ears behind Fury, as he'd down every year until last year, when he hadn't had time to position himself before the photo (Coulson's doing, no doubt. Coulson always complained that he wanted the 'perfect picture'. Every year, he tried different tactics of distraction to keep Clint from ruining the moment. Over the years, the rabbit-ears prank on Fury evolved more to a prank on Coulson. Last year, he'd finally succeeded in stalling Clint).

Fury's 'Birthday' celebration only ever lasted an hour at most. It was the task of some poor newbie to try to arrange party arrangements without Fury finding out. Fury always did, but he hardly ever reprimanded the poor sap. Not that the vets didn't stop insinuating that if the newbie was caught, so help him, God himself would not stand between Fury and the rookie (Natasha might have been able to pull it off; if any rookie ever could have, it'd have been Natasha. She was never given the chance, however, due to no one trusting her at the time…and no one believed she was capable of planning a party. As much of a joy kill as she'd been when Clint had first brought her in, no one bothered bringing her name up in discussions of which chum it'd be this year).

The holiday always includes one streamer that the newbie managed to sneak by Fury's confiscation of anything else the newbie had planned, a cake bought an hour before that never had a proper inscription on it (Last year's had said something along the lines of "Congrats! It's a boy!"), and no one brought gifts, though someone always snuck in some red cups and a bottle of vodka (Normally, Natasha).

Clint is pretty sure the date changes each year.

Clint focused on Natasha's image in the photo, as distant and blurry as it was.

In their line of work they don't expect to live beyond each day and they've long since overcome that fear of mortality. They have to.

They don't want to die, but they know they won't always have the choice. So they try not to be sentimental when the holidays pass by, but they also try to remind themselves that they are human when a fellow agent dies and they're standing at their friends' funeral and can't muster themselves to spare a single tear.

Holidays stopped meaning something to them the moment that living did. Why should one day be worth more than any other? Not that holidays ever really meant much to either of them before, anyway.

"Barton," Fury snaps through the door. The conference call with the council has ended.

"How long?"

He asks, flipping through the report and skimming over details. He'll brief on it further during the fly over there, but nowhere does it say the predicted allotted time.

Fury gives him a cold, long stare before responding, "Projected time is six months. It's remote, so back up won't arrive until then. We have no team on standby, so if you're in a position where extraction is necessary, we can't provide it."

So it's a 'you're on your own' mission. He has a few of those under his belt.

"Six months only?" He jokes, because he's had longer, but the prospect of being cut off from civilization for six months isn't appealing any more.

"Six months," Fury repeats.

Barton again gives the mission another quick glance over.

"Check ins? Reports?"

Fury shakes his head.

"The airways aren't safe. Like I reported, getting even just you into this position is already pushing every ounce of luck we have. There will be no reports, no contact. You're completely on your own, Barton."

Fury sounds like he swallowed something bitter. Clint glances at him, trying to read what exactly he isn't saying. The conference with the council had been a long one. Clint nods, finally, in understanding.

Barton really is on his own.

"You deport in 1400 hours."

She's not American and she doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving. Those family dinners disgust her in some deep, sick, warped way and so she avoids them. One person had the audacity, around base, to wish her a Happy Thanksgiving and her reply of round house kicking them, apparently, was not the proper way to respond. Not that she knew; no one told her (so she claimed).

They couldn't really hold it against her. She wasn't American.

He spends New Years in a pub in a city he can't pronounce. It's a mission and a cover that he's been working at for three months now and he's using the fact that it's New Years, as far as he can tell from what little of the local language he picks up, to get shit-face wasted. Couples around him kiss at the stroke of midnight, hoping for a full year together.

He bitterly thinks that if life was a person, he'd kiss them, because maybe that way for another year he'd stay alive.

He cheers to this being his last New Year, because for all he knows it is.

She spends Easter stateside again, and her cover has her walking by some supermarket daily. The bunnies and candies and window displays are sickening. She isn't religious and she thinks with a passion how glad she is that she isn't, because those chicks are infuriatingly ugly and if one more animatronic bunny barks alive when she passes it, she's going to blow her cover for the sake of popping six rounds of a cap through those beady painted eyes.

She also contemplates stealing the chocolates from the display underneath that damned monstrosity, just as a sort of insurance.

St. Patrick's Day is another excuse for idiots around him to get drunk, but this time he takes advantage of it for the sake of his mission. His target has completely dropped his guard and is unrecognizably slushed. It's all too simple for Barton to slip beside him, act the concerned friend and pull him out back, away from the booze. In the alley, he clicks the silencer on and even the drunkard is unsuspecting when the shot goes off. Left dead in the back way, not to be found for hours, Barton slips away and cheers to himself for another mission accomplished, though he won't touch a drink.

Fourth of July passes by, and again she finds herself the odd one out because she isn't American.

He doesn't realize the date until three days later, half way across the globe, to which he takes a shot and cheers for "Independence, or something..."

The first holiday they spend together is Halloween, holed up in some shitty apartment while the tail a target. It isn't until the third ring at their doorbell do they realize as much, when they finally answer, guns cocked and loaded, only to quickly hide as a six year old witch begs for candy.

Clint throws Natasha a pack of his cigarettes, which she throws back at him.

He rummages around a bit more, finally grabbing an unopened pack of airline peanuts from their trip a day ago. She looks at him but can't argue and finally just drops the pack into the witch's bag, apologizing before closing the door.

Settling back onto the couch, there's an odd silence between them until finally Natasha remarks, "It's Halloween, isn't it?"

If that wasn't obvious.

"Trick or Treat," He mutters over the lid of his beer bottle, which he takes a swig at before returning to the window to scope their target.

They say nothing more on the matter, but they come to the silent agreement not to answer the door anymore. Not because they fear blowing their cover, but because they have no candy (no food for that matter).

He can't remember an honest Christmas tree, not even from his time before the world turned on him and innocence burned right before his eyes, literally. He remembers one or two dinners, when the troupe made an effort to scramble everyone together and exchanged a few words; tricks. It wasn't a feast but everyone sat together and shared stories and even the occasional gift, if they managed to pocket enough of a bonus to afford such a thing. Mostly it was the older generation giving back to the younger, with old mementos or maybe some replacement equipment that had been ordered out of necessity but fit well enough in with the occasion to be considered a 'gift'.

He still has the broken shaft of the final arrow from the set he'd gotten one year, from his old mentor himself, the Swordsman. The gesture was nice, even if the shaft was surgically removed from embedded in his chest and kept more as a memento of that night -that wound- than of Christmas. It's bundled in some hand towel hidden under his mattress.

When Christmas rolls back around, Clint snorts, seated next to Natasha, and tips a nod off to her.

He won't say Merry Christmas. It's more of a "We made it another year." He'll do the same thing next year, if he can.

The only holiday Clint, either of them, ever recognize anymore are birthdays which aren't birthdays.

"Got you something. We're going out tonight."

She doesn't look up from her paper.

"I thought we agreed no gifts…Where?"

He drops two slips of paper in her lap and she jumps to read them.

"Tickets? Where to?"

"Read." He instructs.

It's a concert. But she's never heard of the band.

"What is this?" She asks, because her question still remained unanswered.

He shrugs.


"-Tickets, I know." She waves them at him. "I still don't know what to."

"It's a concert; a rock concert. Some...Alternative rock band. It's pretty big. The tickets were cheap…it's a good deal."

She shuffles the tickets in her hand, the newspaper discarded to the floor beside her armchair.

"What is this? A junior high date?"

He sighs and sits opposite of her on the armrest of the couch.

"It's a night out. We can pretend we're twenty again, stay out late-"

"-Have beer thrown on us and get groped by teenagers?"

He chuckles.

"I thought it'd be fun. We could pretend…"

"Pretend what?" She's honestly curious what he was thinking.

"-That we're not us."

He expects her to laugh at him, because this is silly. Instead, she responds, "Alright."

He's grateful, but he swallows the plea in his voice and simply nods and smiles, letting his eyes fall to the floor before he pushes himself up and returns to his room.

Natasha looks over the tickets one last time before setting them aside, picking back up the newspaper, and continuing to read about the stock exchange.

Years of practicing shuffling through crowds and between camera views lands them both at the front of the crowd, right against the fence; the wall. There's two feet between them and the stage and this is painfully obvious because the smoke machine is hitting her in waves. The lights flash for testing and she begins to concern herself with whether she'll get epilepsy from this.

And sure enough beside her are two teens, wearing more make-up and less clothes and they're on their phones, texting and tweeting and vainly taking photos of themselves every few minutes (The faces they make physically disgust Natasha and she turns her attention back to the stage, only to get smoked out by the fog machine again).

She clings too tightly to the fence, the "wall", that she almost jumps it. But, the bouncer for the warehouse is standing just to her right on the other side and she doesn't want to cause trouble. This isn't her scene in the slightest and she's hoping Clint gets his fill from this early so they can leave before the opening act is even finished.

"When does this start?" She asks, bored, but she has to yell it in Clint's ear for him to hear her.

He continues to stare, and she realizes he didn't hear her the first time, so she tries again.

He nods and smiles; she knows he didn't hear her so she just smiles back and leans back into her position on the "wall".

Twenty minutes later a band comes on stage and five minutes after that there's a pounding and a ringing in her ears and she can't make out a word the lyricist is saying. A puff of smoke blows in her face and she coughs, retching at the very idea that someone would light a joint in the middle of the crowd. She glares at the stoner to her right, but he doesn't seem to notice.

Two songs in and she's done. She turns to Clint because, really, this is ridiculous.

But, he's smiling and his head is banging and for a second, years melt off of him. She knows him; she knows he's not into this music in the slightest. But, he isn't Clint right now.

Right now, he's a drop-out youth from the state of Iowa and he's got a night off from working and performing with a traveling circus and he's never been outside of the country or seen someone die or let alone killed anyone himself.

So she lowers her shoulders and pretends to smile in case he looks at her to check whether or not she's having fun. Maybe she doesn't have to pretend, though, because she really is smiling at him, so long as she doesn't focus on what she's hearing and instead just watches him.

They get back late that night, and he's already half asleep from the cab ride home. Sure enough, there's a stain on her jacket from some idiot sloshing his red cup, so all she smells is cheap beer. She rolls her eyes and glares at Clint, asking if it was worth it.

There's still a ghost of a smile plastered on his face, even if only one of his eyes is open. He's starring beyond her, either at the wall or his past self. He lifts his hand and it twitches with no real purpose, and she imagines he's waving goodbye to his innocence. Or, swatting at some vision that's obscured by booze.

She helps him to his room. He's a quiet drunk. He makes no fuss and walks relatively straight. He's silent, stumbling ever so slightly, and other than being exhausted is rather functional.

She sets him on his bed and turns away to reach for the discarded comforter, only to turn back and find him asleep. He doesn't snore-doesn't stir. He's turned on his side, with his back to the door.

She's grateful his eyes are closed—the only indication he is asleep—because she knows for a fact he can sleep with his eyes open, and does so frequently to mess with the others.

Except her; he respects her too much. That and he's drunk.

She closes the door quietly behind her—even the smallest of noises will wake him.

She doesn't jump because she knows he's there, but she nonetheless tenses when from behind her she hears Stark quip,

"Sneaking out of Barton's room at this hour, young lady?"

"We just got in—"

"Yeah, you did," he quips like a horny teenager. If before Natasha thought she owed Stark an explanation, she now resolves to owe him a good beating.

He's not worth it, though, and she really wants to take a quick shower before herself slipping to bed, so she brushes past him and ignores his incessant calls to have her explain herself.

But, she doesn't even make it to her room before she glimpses Barton's duffle bag in the corner of the hall. It's packed.

Natasha looks back; Stark is gone, thankfully. As silently as she'd left, she reopens Clint's door, glancing around in the dark with only the hall light providing a strip of lighting.

She doesn't look long. Left there, in plain sight like an open invitation on his end table is a folder she missed when she'd first entered. She picks it up, reading the print quickly despite the lack of light.

The minute she drops the folder, she notices Barton sitting upright in his bed, starring at her. He sobered up quickly.

"You weren't going to tell me."


"You were just going to leave in the morning?"

Her voice doesn't sound mad, but she is. Clint's voice sounds tired, which he also is. He rubs behind his neck, trying to wake himself enough for this confrontation. Natasha throws the folder down.

"Six months," she fumes.

"I've done longer. We both have, and by ourselves-"

"But we at least mentioned it to each other!" She snaps. "No assistance. No contact, no reinforcements? You honestly thought you'd just leave for six months without any word and then-"

"Alright…I should have mentioned it," he agrees, "So I'll miss the World Cup. DVR it for me, will you-?"

"Clint! This isn't some joke-"


She shakes her head, "What..?"

He thinks a moment, recalling, "I leave tomorrow, Friday…so, six months, from this Friday, I'll be back."

She contemplates the offer.


She asks, like they're children. He nods hesitantly, but she isn't watching him. Finally, he mutters,


"Six months from Friday," she confirms.

Outside the door, hidden in the hall, Rogers passes, overhearing the promise.

He remembers setting his own date, once, only to never make it.

The moment Natasha clicks Barton's door shut for the second time, a voice calls out from behind her, "How was the concert?"

Natasha looks questioningly at the Captain, curious as to how he knew where she and Barton had gone to, to which he quickly answered, "Barton mentioned you two would go to one tonight. Something about celebrating..?"

Natasha smirks, "Celebrating a night off, maybe…"

"What? Shield doesn't give you two enough vacation days?"

Natasha smiles apologetically and says goodnight; she's tired and just wants to take a shower.

She doesn't mention that today is their 'birthday'.

"What's this?"

She tosses the box back. It's wrapped in a thin layer of newspaper and scotch tape. He catches it, only to immediately toss it back.

"It's a gift."

"What for?"

"It's been a year, hasn't it?" he muses, his attention drawn to a file in hand.


He thinks for a moment, adding, "I think it's been a year. It was July, wasn't it?"

She shakes her head, "What was in July?"

"You and me."

"You and me what?" She warns.

"Since you and me became partners."


She holds up the box, shaking it slightly.

"What is it?"

He sighs, "Try opening it."

She does, slowly and hesitantly.


He grins proudly, "'Cause your cold feet!"

He barely has to shift to dodge the socks thrown at his head by her a moment later. He packages the same pair of socks the next year, tricking her to open the box again. The third year in a row, she finally accepts the socks but makes him promise no more gifts. He jokes once that he got her three gifts in a row, consecutively, and that she's never gotten him a gift. She threatens to burn the socks.

He's touched she kept them.

He sees her wear them once, and never again mentions the fact she's never gotten him anything.

They don't exchange gifts (Not that they ever exchanged gifts) after that, but they still acknowledge the day as the day they became partners, even if neither of them can remember which day that day exactly was. They estimate and agree on a day, and so long as they acknowledge it at least once, then it's enough to them to say they 'celebrated' it.

It's their 'Birthday'.

Natasha's waiting for him in the morning, standing between him and the stairwell to the roof. Duffle bag in hand, he looks terrible. He got an hour of sleep, roughly, and spent the remainder of the night polishing his bow and taking inventory of arrows.

He's exhausted.

"You're taking it?"

"Nat..." Isn't this what they went over, all last night?

Isn't this what they do? Get assignments, take missions, complete them and come back. Or don't.

"Don't go."

Clint drops his bag, taken back by her plea. Her tone has changed but there's not an ounce of whine when she says it, but the fact she let herself say it at all is equivalent to desperation on anyone else.

"What?" He needs to clarify he heard her right.


Now he's heard her say it twice, but still doesn't believe her.

"Natasha, what the hell-"

"Stay with the Avengers. Leave Shield."

That completely baffles him.

"Natasha, you're in Shield. Why the hell would you want me to leave it?! If I even could-"

"We'll both walk. Join the Avengers, a full time thing. Stark would room and board us, and Shield can't do anything if we go public. Let's stop this spying and undercover work."

He shakes his head because this isn't Natasha. He's still hung-over, but not like this; not enough to imagine her saying this.

"Let's give this saving people thing a go! Recognition for what we do, not having to deal with the politics and the grey of our line of work. Black and white, good and evil. Let's just join this Initiative-"

"-That's run by Shield, Nat-"

"-Screw Shield! And Fury, and the Council the whole lot of it! Let's leave it-"

"You want me to betray Shield? Again?"

She stops talking when he snaps.

"Nat…I honestly don't know where you're coming from right now. Shield…Shield is all we've got. You and I, we don't get to walk away from what we did in the past, from what we do, and suddenly decide to play hero. Be superheroes? Nat…We just can't-"

"I think we can."

This just blows his mind.

"You're right; we've done things in the past…we have no chance of redemption, of ever making up for what we've done and committed in the past. I'm not asking us to try and live a normal, domestic life; I know neither of us could do that. But, I'm asking you to consider leaving Shield-"

"Natasha, this is what we do!" He shook the mission report at her. "We take missions, we complete them, and we come back and take another-"

"-Or we don't come back! We die, Clint! Let's stop this 50/50 chance of survival; let's choose to live-!"

"Because being a superhero is a hundred percent guarantee of survival too, is it?"

"Clint, it's not the same and you know it-"

"It all looks the same to me, Nat! We fight battles, wars; we plan and operate and when everything is done, we come home feeling physically like crap but with a tiny voice in our head saying we did something good, somewhere in all that collateral damage."

Natasha averted her eyes towards the doorway, open for the whole floor to hear.

"Tasha…" Clint chuckled, perplexed, "I don't know what's gotten into you. What else would you have us do? We're spies, Tasha. You want to leave all that behind? That isn't like you…"

Natasha doesn't say anything, and her expression doesn't give anything else away either. She's upset, but Clint can hardly tell, save the fact he knows her as well as he does.

"So that's it? You're going to take this mission and come back in six months?"

"Or die," he joked, but he instantly regretted saying it.

In a flash, Natasha slapped him.

It was a solid sting and his cheek burned red quickly. Now he knows what she's thinking.

She opened her mouth to say something, to yell at him not to joke like that or to promise he'd be okay, but nothing came out. So she left.

After standing for what felt like an hour but was really only a few moments, Clint picked up his bag and left.

He had a flight to catch.

Steve walks in on Natasha an hour later. She's still standing to the side of the lift, aloof with her chin in hand. She debates whether he should say anything, and resolves to quietly retracing his steps back the way he came, as if he'd never entered the room, but she's noticed him already.

"Steve, wait."

Steve does, but he doesn't say anything. He isn't sure what she wants him to say.

"Barton's gone," she informs him.

He slowly nods his head.

She shakes her head, perplexed and speaking more to herself than him, "I asked him not to go."

Rogers is almost certain this isn't the window of opportunity he's waiting for, but he goes against his better judgment.

"Why'd you do that?"

Natasha shrugs.

"I don't know."


The irony of it almost makes her smile. How all that time ago, Clint was convincing her to switch sides, to join Shield and fight alongside him, rather than die by his hand. And here she was—repaying his mercy by begging him to leave Shield.

"I told him once…that I was compromised. He called me out; said I was a spy, not a soldier. Said I didn't sound like me…"

Steve waited, but Natasha didn't say anymore. He runs a hand through his hair, staring between Natasha and the lift.

"It's just six months…He'll be back-"

Her voice is a soft echo,

"Is that so…Is that what you think?"

It's been five months.

He's been eating out of can rations, with a sniper trained on a dirt road from this shack of a base of operations that he's been living from.

He rubs his hands together because it's so damn cold; there's was no snow when he got here, but the ground is frozen dirt and caked in frost now and he's cautious about breathing because it's so visible.

He watches for movement in the trees. He's positioned above a road, exactly five and a half miles from a known base. He hikes by there at odd hours in the night, irregularly throughout the past five months that he's been stationed here.

Beside his sniper is a map, with a total of forty-six red dots, all marking cameras and sensors that he's been avoiding for the past five months. He takes out a few, every so often. Irregularly, and always made out to appear as if an animal trotted too close or a tree fell; some natural occurrence.

He keeps track of how long it takes for some reinforcement to be sent out to repair the sensors and cameras. They range between three days and two hours.

He's concluded that the cameras aren't all linked to one room, one control. There are two areas, as far as he's charted, and one holds more importance than the other. If he had to judge, he'd say the surveillance of the east side of the territory is only checked on every other day. The west side is under constant surveillance.

He tries to keep track of how many people drive by the dirt road he's in view of. It's the only charted road for miles; it has to lead straight to the front entrance, or back for unloading. He's only ever seen covered trucks take this road, and he doubts they're ever empty.

He only catches a glimpse of the occasional sentry, perched on the back of the truck or peering from the top, gun in hand. They look tough enough, but no better than hired thugs.

They all wear the same HYDRA emblem on their shoulders.

Clint maps out his estimates of the base, from the readings he gathers when he does buy himself enough time with camera delays to sneak past the surveillance. It's all underground, and from what he gathers, it's several feet underground. A large bunker that spans nearly the entirety of the private property, somewhere in the inhabitable wasteland of this frozen hell he's found himself at.

His mission is just surveillance. Gather as much information as he can. His window of opportunity begins and ends with the fur trapping season, and his ticket home is a flight that comes twice a year to the village forty miles south.

Clint keeps a calendar he traded his spare shoelaces for back in the village under his map. He hardly keeps track of the dates, but he occasionally doodles or scribbles or even writes messages on when he's really bored. His favorite thing to do is turn the 3's into 8's, then color them in and finally round them out to have corners, until they're rectangles. They never come out perfect and he always tells himself next month, he'll transition all the 3's perfectly.

He spends an hour one evening trying to remember what day exactly Thanksgiving is on, because he either just missed it, or it's coming up.

Finally, he decides, Fuck it, and opens an entire can of rations and treats it like a turkey feast.

He's out of here in four weeks anyway.

Outwardly, Natasha hasn't changed. She takes Shield missions as often as she can. They're always short, no longer than a week. The only time she shows concern is when she returns from a mission and, as casually as she can mention, asks if any news has returned on Clint.

Of course there's been nothing, and the minute anyone tells her as much, she shrugs it off and heads towards the gym or the kitchen or her room.

Except she doesn't sleep in her room anymore. Bruce is the only one who catches her, at odd hours of the night, sneaking into Barton's room.

She doesn't sleep there either.

What she does do is steal blankets from his room, and pillows from her own. She designs a makeshift mattress on the couch, in the den before the kitchen. She never can quite get comfortable, as Bruce notices whenever he just-so-happens to make passes by the den. She eventually ends up on the ground; she discards the pillows, but keeps the blanket.

Only once has she ever overslept. And by overslept, Bruce means she's slept long enough that he walked in on her still in the den. Most days (all but that one) she wakes, packs up, and returns to her own room, before anyone notices.

No one is the wiser, save for Bruce.

Otherwise, there's no change in her behavior.

She's pleasant to Banner, respectful towards Rogers, hostile towards Stark, and when Thor stops by, she mainly avoids him because they have little in common and he's never around for long anyway.

Neither is she.

Banner eventually convinces her to get brunch with him one afternoon, when they both have nothing to do.

He wants to see for himself if she really is as fine as she plays.

"You're his Pepper," Bruce announces, and she slowly sets the roll she's been picking at down.

"Excuse me?" She asks.

"Tony; he's been having trouble. With sleeping and everything. New York really got to him. He's not…accustomed to it, like you and Clint," he continues, trying to be gentle but she knows what he means.

"But, New York didn't just affect Tony. None of us are the same from it. Even you're a bit shaken, what with aliens? But, you're a bit more prepared to deal with…well, with everything, unlike Stark."

"Clint and I both," she argues.

"Yes…and no." He sighs.

"Natasha…Tony is bad, but Clint…Clint's worse."

Natasha doesn't blink.

"Clint wasn't in control. He was…undone, he was-"

"-Bruce," she stops him. "I'm aware of what Barton went through. New York…wasn't something we were prepared for. But, he's been trained, he's been through enough to know-"

"-Yes, you're right. He's been through enough." Banner stares at Natasha for a long second before continuing. "Natasha…I'm not saying I know what all is wrong with Clint, but even from outside looking in, I can tell something is wrong. I don't understand a lot about, well, you two…but I do understand that, with Tony, Pepper was his rock. She anchored him, she saved him. He needed her as much, more, than she needed him. And to Clint, you're his Pepper. I'm not pretending to be some kind of doctor who can prescribe exactly what it is Clint needs, but if I had to guess what might help him, I'd say it's-"

"Dr. Banner; I know Clint best, you say?"


"Then I know how to handle whatever…" she stumbles, "is wrong."

"I believe you."

The next morning, she's sloppy. He finds a pillow of hers behind the couch. Before any of the others wake up, he throws the pillow back into her room, leaving the door barely ajar.

The light click of the door behind him is the closest to a thank you he'll get from her.

Clint has a knack for carving. He's sharpened twigs into aerodynamic arrows, and as primitive as that sounds, it credits him to some skill with a blade and wood.

It's a hobby he's picked up, when his only pen runs dry of ink and he can no longer doodle Godzilla attacking the month of October. So far, he's whittled…

An arrowhead.

…Twenty arrowheads; give or take.

Clint throws his latest project (An arrowhead) across the wall.

He wonders what the others are doing. Stark is probably screwing up, somehow, somewhere. Clint amuses himself with some scenario of Stark tampering with inter-dimensions, trying to recreate the Tesseract's portal, and unleashing some villainous space spirits or other. The others would clean up his mess, of course…

Clint daydreams what Asgard might look like. Everything is golden and clouds and togas. Clint knows Thor is Norse mythology, not Greek, but he can't help it. His education ended before high school.

Clint imagines Bruce reading the paper at a breakfast nook, or feeding pigeons in the park.

Old people stuff.

Scratch that; he imagines Rogers and Bruce feeding pigeons in the park.


Three more weeks.

Rogers approaches Natasha, cornering her one morning in the gym.

"Natasha, we need to talk-"

"I'm all ears," she replies, keeping her eyes looking straight.

"It's about what you said to Clint."

She glances at Rogers, irritated, but doesn't reprimand him.

"Natasha…you asked him to leave Shield with you. I want to know why-"

"Why what?" She snapped. Today was not starting out well.

"-Why you asked him to leave Shield, but you're still taking missions from them? If you don't want to be a part of Shield anymore-"

"As long as Clint's a part of Shield, so am I."

"So, you won't leave until he does? How does Shield feel about this loyalty?"

"Barton and I are a package deal. I owe nothing to Shield. Barton is the one who turned me. I don't owe anything to anyone in this world except for Barton."

Steve crossed his arms, "So, you're doing him a favor? Trying to get him to quit Shield?"

Natasha didn't answer.

"Natasha, do you lo-"

"I told you, Captain. I owe everything to Clint…and nothing else. I'd follow him, wherever he went. Shield doesn't always see it that way, though. Sometimes, like now for instance."

Natasha curled her fingers atop a weight, clenching and unclenching her fist.

"I found a card…before Barton left. Our…the birthday thing was coming up, and I thought this year I'd actually get him something. I was looking…" she waved her hand off, "anyway, I was going through his things…I found a card."

Steve didn't ask what she meant by a birthday, "He got you a card?"

"No. It was from someone, to him."


Natasha scowled at him, warding off however Rogers had interpreted that. "It was from a widow of one of the agents."

Natasha didn't specify but Rogers understood.

"She'd told him she didn't blame him…for what happened, with Loki and Manhattan and all."

"It wasn't his fault," Steve reiterated.

"I know that. So did she. Clint doesn't believe it, though. Over a year later, he still blames himself. Shield…Shield is just a reminder." She chuckles, bitterly, "Shield makes sure to remind him. It's not living, being a part of Shield. I'm not saying we're normal, any of us. I'm not saying that if Clint and I up and quit tomorrow that we'd buy a picket fence house with a porch and linoleum tiled bathrooms. That's not for us. But neither is what Shield has us doing."

"I always thought you were in your element with what…Shield had you doing…"

Natasha shook her head, smiling, "I am. I was…" Natasha sighed, "Rogers, I am a killer. I was raised to be one and I only know how to be one. I don't give a damn who I work for; I don't care about money or power. I have no loyalty to any country or king, democracy; whatever you want to call it. But there is one man who I'd follow to that damn picket-fenced house with linoleum tiles and a porch swing. The last time he went on a solo mission without me…he hasn't been quite the same since."

Clint jumps awake, startled by some bird. He rubs at his eyes, checking the sun through his window.

He'd judge…well, he's had roughly an hour and a half of sleep. Barton nods, accepting it for what it is before beginning to pack his equipment.

One more close stake-out, a last surveillance, and then he just has to cover his tracks and retrace to the village.

Which is just as well, because he only has a week's ration of food left that he'll need to span over two and a half weeks.

He's scouted three entrances to the base, but none are large enough for a docking garage. The cargo trucks are entering somewhere he hasn't found yet, but he plans to.

He won't stay out for long. It's dangerous, in this cold, without a fire. He dresses light for movement purposes, which act as a ticking bomb of how long he can withstand the cold.

He wonders if Natasha has ever worn the socks he got her, all those years ago.

Just two and a half more weeks.

"Hey, Natasha! Just the spy I wanted to see-"


"No. If I had my way, I'd go to Barton about this—he's more amicable."

Stark approached Natasha, beginning to point accusingly at her only to catch the glint in her eyes and quickly drop his finger for its own safety.

"Tell your pirate captain of a Director that if he accuses me one more time of hacking into Shield's database, I'm going to actually get offended."

Natasha raised a brow, "But you've done it before."

"Exactly. Once. Why would you insult my technology in thinking I need to re-hack myself into Shield's files? It's insulting-"

Natasha ignored Stark, reminding herself to personally persuade the techs to hasten on their development of a firewall that would repel Stark, focusing rather on the breach itself.

"Someone hacked into Shield?"

"Thank you—yes, someone. Not me, but someone."

"Stark, this could be a problem-"

"But it's not my problem," Tony hand-waved it off happily, walking past her.

She'd go to Director Fury about this; he was more agreeable to talk to.

Clint trudges through the snow lightly, sweeping his prints as he goes. He keeps an eye out for any movement, for any cameras. He's holding his equipment over his shoulder, careful to keep to the right because he's studied the maps he charted enough to know that he's approaching a camera soon; one that's still active and, as far as he can tell, frequently looked upon.

His mind wanders to what he's going to do when he gets back. How will he celebrate surviving six months running on nothing. Maybe he'll make Tony take them all out for dinner, his treat.

Maybe he'll quit Shield, like Nat wanted him to.

He thinks about it a lot; he thinks about her a lot.

Clint isn't deaf; he hears the other agents. He's aware that Shield is one outburst away from executing him on sight and calling it a preemptive measure. He knows that of Shield, the only two that have his back are Natasha and Fury. You'd think having the Director on your side meant something, but Fury is as much on the watch list by the council as Barton is. If Natasha proves more loyalty to him than Shield, she'll find herself in the same position he's in—

Banished to some isolated, suicide mission.

He likes the prospect of leaving Shield more and more each day he's out here. He pretends to try to counter all of Natasha's arguments in his head, but secretly he agrees with her.

Stark would take them in. He's already adopted Rogers and Banner, and the weekends find Clint and Natasha there anyway (Thor always has a place there, so long as he's on the planet).

As Avengers, they could go public. Get recognized. No more shady infiltration, fake ID, sabotage missions. They'd just be living normal lives, saving people on the side.

If Stark got too annoying, Clint might even get his own place. Not a safe house, but an actual apartment. With neighbors he'd know the names of, or at least recognize when he passed them in the hallway.

Maybe get himself a dog.

Clint is so absorbed in his fantasy, he doesn't notice the trip wire. It's a rookie mistake, but the moment the mines go off to his left, he's catapulted across the clearing, hitting a tree that breaks his flight.

He struggles to his knees, shaking his head. His ears and ringing and suddenly a flood of shadowy figures are combing the clearing. That trap hasn't been there before. He scouted this far just a day ago; it's new.

Someone knew he was coming is all he can think as he slips unconscious.

It's Natasha's night to do dishes, but Steve's to pick dinner.

He's a sensitive guy, so he calls for takeout. That leaves Natasha's duty to simply tying up the trash after all the fortune boxes and plastic forks have been disposed.

Banner is pouring himself a drink, laughing at some remark of Tony's even though he wishes he didn't. It encourages Stark to ramble on, and Pepper calls it a night. Steve, too, tries to get away from Stark, but as the center of Tony's banter and jokes, he very well can't.

Natasha sighs, leaning against the counter, imagining what Clint might have said if he'd been here.

She can't decide if he'd have fled quickly after dinner, or joined Stark's side in mocking the Captain (all in good fun).

Her day had been rough. First, Fury had waved off the breach in the files, claiming it was probably some rookie tech who'd triggered an alert in the system, digging through files above their pay grade, and that it was of no concern to her at the time.

Then she'd had an altercation with an agent during her sparring time, who'd dared to mouth off about the "traitor" who had a reputation for letting in foreign spies onto the Helicarrier. (When Steve confronted her later about kicking the agent unnecessarily rough in the crotch, she claimed it was more to defend her own honor than Clint's, though he didn't buy that for a second. She didn't give a damn about what anyone said of her).

Just two and a half more weeks, she sighed.

He awakens quickly, jumping out of sleep and thrashing about. His wrists are suspended above him, cuffed to chains taut that dig into his skin. His feet are similarly bound. He's been stripped of his vest and equipment and boots, but otherwise is rather intact. He blinks to focus but his eyes never seem to adjust. He's in a room, sealed with no windows and no door though he assumes it's behind him. There's a single, dingy light above him that casts a green tint on the walls and floor.

Clint flexes his arms, trying to get feeling back into them only to realize there's something, an IV, injected in his left arm. He tries to look at it, see where it connects, but his vision remains blurred and he starts to realize that something is being injected through the drip; something that's keeping his muscles numb and his sight blurred.

He hears the heavy sound of a vault opening, assuming it to be a weighted door behind him, and the click of heels.

So, his captor is a female. One of them, at least.

"Sleep well?"

He can hear the smile in her voice, but it's also muffled. Not enough to be some voice recognition device; muffled as though covered.

She stands just in his blind spot, so he can't get a view of her. She casts enough of a shadow, though-and from he can tell- she's of average height and athletic build. The profile to her face is skewed, though; her hair must be loose.

"Please don't tell me I came all this way only to have a one-sided conversation."

He smirks, "I'd hate to disappoint you."

"On the contrary, you haven't disappointed me. You were every bit of trouble that you're worth."

This alerts him, because he doesn't remember putting up much of a fight when he was caught, he shamefully admits. This also reminds him that somehow, they (she, he supposes in this case) knew he was there. He has nothing to lose, he thinks, in asking.

"You were expecting me."

"Well, we were hoping. We didn't have much of a lead on when you were going to strike; pure luck that we set up those precautions when we did, or it'd have been too late."

"But you knew I was making a move."

"It came to our attention."

He shakes his head, "Guess I'm not as careful as I thought."

She doesn't respond.

"I don't suppose you'll be courteous and introduce yourself," he mocks.

"I'm more interested in you."

This time, he says nothing.

"Don't bother, we know exactly who you are. Clinton Francis Barton; Agent of Shield: Clearance level seven. You were assigned a six month operative to scout and chart this base and the points of entry and surveillance. You were due to deploy in near two weeks' time. Shame you're going to miss that flight."

"See how unfair it is? You know all this about me, but I don't know anything about you-"

"-and that's a red flag on its own. How is it that I know so much about you, yet you were assigned this mission with so little information on me…Do you know exactly what it is you were scouting?"

"Suspected Hydra base; are you with Hydra?"

The woman scoffs, "hardly."

"So, Shield sends you on a mission, for six months, without any connection or contact, and with little background on the mission itself…you don't find anything odd about that."

He's not going to let her into his head, he reminds himself. She's testing him, trying to seed doubt into him.

"This underground facility is the future," she muses, and he can hear the crazy laced in her voice, "And you are now a part of that future. Shield has abandoned you. You are now on your own, and I offer you two doors. One of a slow, painful death, and the other…an opportunity."

"Death," he cuts her off, rather bored.

She doesn't speak for a while, and he wonders if she'll leave it at that.

"I'll let you mull it over for a time."

"No need; you have my decision, now make good on your promise."

"I do believe you'll reconsider."

He doesn't bother arguing because he hears her heels clicking away and the shut of the door. He's alone in the silent room, with only the faintly green light buzzing over him and the numbness of his arms.

By his judge of time, from the moment he woke up in captivity until now, he's judged half a day has gone by. He's not sure how long he was out, but he still feels the throbbing after effects of burns and a concussion to know he hasn't been out long. He doubts it's been more than two days since he last woke up in that shack of a home of his from the past five months. He blinks a couple of times, still fighting the effects of whatever he's hooked up to. He flexes his arm occasionally, but he can't feel his fingers in that arm and it's a little alarming.

He has nothing better to do, he finally resolves, so he sleeps. He's not sure how much sleep he's going to get, uninterrupted, anyway. He's been tortured and interrogated before, and if he's learned anything it's to pace himself.

Sure enough, he's hardly fallen asleep before he's rudely awoken again. He jolts awake by the sound of the chamber door once again opening. He hears the familiar click of heels, followed by a crunch of boots. The pace of both pairs of feet are quick, and sure enough a figure appears before him.

Without any hesitation, Clint is greeted with a sharp slap of a crowbar across his cheek. He spits out a mouthful of blood, and possibly a tooth. It's a fake tooth, though-implanted by Shield after he lost the real thing a couple years back.

"Good, you're awake."

It's the same muffled voice of the female, and again she remains behind him. The figure in front of Clint, to whom he owed the pleasant wake-up call to, is a male, in military garb with combat boots and enhanced muscles. He has a crop cut hair-cut and dead eyes. Clint follows the man's eyes, which glance between glaring at Clint, and admiring the figure just out of sight to Clint.

"You didn't exactly give me a lot of time to think about your proposition," Clint mocks.

"Has your answer changed?"


"Didn't think it would. Not yet, anyway," she muses.

"If you're not here for that…are you here to tell me your name finally? Or where I am? How about…to whom I have the pleasure of currently being a hostage to?"

"Aren't two of those the same?"

"Your name, the name of who you work for…are they the same?"

She doesn't answer.

"How about handsome over here; do I get to learn his name?"

The man scowls at Clint.

"I'm afraid this isn't a chatty visit."

"Is this a part of you convincing me to join your cause?"

"A part."

"It's very convincing," Clint rolls his eyes, watching the muscle lift his crowbar once again.

Incoming, he thinks.

He takes three hits to the abdomen and one more to the head before he coughs up another swat of blood. He keeps one eye shut, bracing himself for a sixth hit only for it to never come.

"I'll come back at another time. Maybe when your head's cleared."

"How am I supposed to think with your dog over here hitting me?"

He hears her heels once again, only to stop just before the door, "There's nothing to think about. Just say yes."

Six months, to that Friday, Natasha sits alone. She scratches at the napkin, still wrapped around the utensils, and she eyes the candle flame, flickering on the countertop of Stark's tower.

Jarvis warns her that the temperature of the roast she'd prepared has dropped below room temp. It wasn't much edible to begin with, and her eye darts to the Chinese takeout card that she'd set aside anyway, debating whether to call ahead now or…fuck it. She smiles, leaning back, and blinks her perfectly dry eyes.

"We'll just put a rain check on that date," she jokes, though it's heavy in her throat.

Steve stands aside, watching the unintentional date stood-up. So, this is how it feels, he thinks.

He honest to god sleeps through her attaching wires. He doesn't wake up until he feels the jolt of electricity running through his body. He cringes and bites down a scream, and as quickly as it's started, it's over.

"Sorry, did I wake you?"

He smirks but doesn't get a chance to speak until after she's surged another round of volts through him.

"How long has it been?"

She toys with the switch, amping the voltage; he can't see that, though, but he'll know soon enough that she's done as much.

"Two weeks? Three, maybe?"

"Shield will come soon. I bet they're on their way right now-"

"I wouldn't assume that far," she 'tsks' between another round of electrocution.

"You won't…" He stops. It's too cliché to say 'you won't get away with this'. He still doesn't know who she is, who she works for, what her goal is…He finishes, "I hope you're prepared for what's in store for you. The capture and torture of a Shield agent? We don't take those kinds of things lightly-"

"If you really are so important to them, then why did they leave you?"

"I told you; Shield is on their way right now-"

"Shield sent their 'back up' an hour ago. We caught them outside the perimeter, wiring it up to be blown to smithereens. You inside and all."

He doesn't mean to, but he hesitates for a moment.

"Why do you think I'm here, waking you up? I wanted to tell you the good news myself; you're right, they came for you." There's a hint of wicked satisfaction in her voice, but he bites his tongue and says nothing.

"You're expendable, and more a liability when in captivity, where we can extract anything we want to know from you. Not that we even want to. Honestly, Shield has less faith in your ability to not talk than we did," she swats her hand like it matters all the same to her, and the sad part is that she's right. Shield probably is more concerned about him talking than they are sure Hydra can't break him (If this even is Hydra).

"Maybe they're being merciful. Kill you by their own hands rather than you suffer at the whim of ours," she smirks. That sounds a bit nicer, but no more true.

"The Avengers," he finally blurts.

"-Aren't exactly in a rush to get you themselves. Stark is at an Expo as we speak, halfway across the globe. I watched his speech streaming on YouTube just a moment ago. As always, it was short, straight to the point but with that flare that has made his asshole personality a trademark," she mused.

Barton starts to shake his head, to disagree, but she's ahead of him, already filing down the list.

"Banner dropped off the grid a few weeks ago; wanted nothing to do with any of it, ever again. Shield has a trace on him, but he already risked returning to public once, he won't do it again. Captain America? He knows protocol better than anyone. If Shield gives the orders that you are to be declared KIA and leave it at that, he'll follow it."

He wants to argue, but something about the way she says that bothers him. Either how she assumes to know the Avengers so well, or that she thinks he's already been filed as 'KIA'. How'd she know if Shield gave those orders..?

"Thor is on another planet."


"Is on her own mission. She can't be compromised or interrupted to come save your sorry ass. Again. She won't find out until it's too late."

He clenches his fist. How does she know all this…

"What will you do to me?"

She shrugged.

"Like I said, I've no doubt that physical torture won't reach you. Whatever we could obtain from you, either will only match what our spies have already confirmed, or just tickle a new fancy. You were one of Shield's best, but even then I doubt your clearance was worth anything we didn't already have."

"So then kill me already if I'm worthless."

She smiles.

"Physical torture will do nothing but waste such a good specimen. Now, the mental...that's what appeals to me. I won't underestimate your strength to withstand anything, but I know you've been broken. Remade, was it?"

He tries not to flinch.

"I'm going to break you down, mentally, until I've rewritten your loyalty to me. You think it won't happen," she winks, "But we'll see."

"See what?"

"Who's resolve is stronger. Mine, determined and passionate," she chuckles, "Or yours. Abandoned and alone and forgotten by those you swore yourself to."

"…You have spies amidst Shield?"

"Naturally. I know you've been trying to work out how it is we knew you were coming. I thought it'd have been obvious, but I'll go ahead and put your curiosity to rest; yes, we have spies."

"You said it was pointless, going through physical torture; a waste. So, what's all this?" He nods to the side, where he assumes the machine is and where the wires lead off to.

"This is just for fun."

He doesn't answer because she flips the machine on and leaves it running.

When she finally steps into view, he can't bring himself to raise his head enough to see her face. His neck is so weak, so broken, that his head lulls and he only can see her feet. The size of her heels only confirm what he's known; an estimated height and build and he glares at her ankles because he can't bring himself to look her in the eyes.

"What's wrong? Are you thirsty?"

He gets fed once a week and water twice. He's covered in lacerations and if he ever slipped into a coma at one point, she made sure to jolt him out of it with her favorite toy. He knows the 'dog' is with her, because he can hear the boots behind him, and suddenly he feels hands working at his wrists.

The second his hands are released, he falls to the floor, crashing his elbows against the cement.

He struggles, trying to push himself up, but stumbles and falls. He tries taking a swing at the feet in front of him, but his vision is doubling over and he can't focus enough. His arm is broken, he thinks as blood rushes back into those veins, long since used.

"We're going on a field trip," she cheers, mockingly as darkness takes over him and he feels the 'dog' gripping his shoulders, hoisting him up to move.

You can't drown in waterboarding, he thinks. Your lungs are elevated above your mouth; yes, water will fill in your throat, but not your lungs. You won't drown.

He tells himself this the entire time. That he won't die. He'll pass out, sure, throw up; that's always unpleasant. But he won't drown.

There's a pause in the water load and he closes his eyes.

For a moment, he's floating in some Texas river, tubing. Except, some sneaky red-head has tipped him over and after a momentary struggle to balance himself in the water, he gulps a mouthful of water and spits it in a perfect stream in her direction. She doesn't laugh but smiles, throwing her hands up to block the attack.

She splashes him, but rather than a gentle flirtatious splash, he's jolted back to reality and its back to the torture.

"Having fun yet?" He hears his captor's voice between buckets of water being dumped onto his clothed face. He says nothing, closing his eyes.

This isn't torture-he won't die from it.

He's not going to drown.

"Lay off, will you, Nat?"

"Afraid your hair will get wet?"

He smiles and begins to respond but chokes and coughs and spits up instead.

He hears the vault door open, and the click of her heels, but his mind isn't up to par and for a moment, he doesn't link two and two together.

His first instinct, in his delirious mind, is to call out, "Nat?"


Well, that's not Natasha.

He curses himself for letting the word slip his mouth, but he's quick to keep her from using it against him.

"What day's it?"

She watches him for a solid minute before glancing at her watch. It must be one of those digital ones, with the dates and everything. That, or she knows exactly what day it is but is seeing what time it is; perhaps to see if he really is lasting this long consciously.

"The twenty-third. Why? Somewhere to be?" She smirks.

He spits at her feet but instantly regrets it—that's all the water he has left. His mouth is dry and numb. He blinks a couple of times to clear his eyes, focus on her features. For as long as he's been here, he's only ever known her as a dark-haired blur dressed in predominantly black with a voice like a snake/

"I hope you already shipped your cards out; the post is busy this time of year and you're not likely to get a chance anytime soon."

He smirks despite the pain.

"I send out all my cards in July."


Finally, she stands and steps towards the bolted door, behind him and out of his blurred line of vision. He hears the clack of her heels stop just short of the door, and the scruff of her turning back to him.

"I took the liberty of clearing your schedule of any plans you had for the holidays."

"Damn. I was looking forward to my mom's holiday fruitcake. I'd send you a slice, if I knew your address. I'd settle with your name."

"You don't have a mom."

"Really? I keep forgetting that," he chuckles. She's less amused, or maybe she is, but she doesn't say anything and he hears the slam of the door bolts and he knows he's, once again, alone.

"…I think I'm ready to talk," he jokes, to see if she's still there, or can still hear him. There's no reply; the door remains closed and he remains alone. He sighs, letting his head hang again as the pulse in his left temple surges again, throbbing from pain.

He tips his head up, briefly, to nod at someone not there. It doesn't mean much, simply him telling her "We made it; we survived another year."

He won't be able to do this next Christmas, he thinks.

He bobbles in and out of sleep, but when he fully comes to, he's almost certain it's been two days. He tries to smile to himself, to muster all the spit he can to parch his lips and whistle a Christmas tune, except he can't remember any. When he finally clears his throat enough to hum brokenly, he only manages a few half notes before realizing that he's humming "Yankee Doodle", in fact, and not "Oh Christmas Tree".

He closes his eyes, then, and tries to imagine what it might have been like, right now, if he hadn't taken this mission.

If he was home.

At first it's hazy and he's afraid he can't remember Stark's Tower, but the importance of details slowly fade because he can see her clear as day and that's all that matters.

They're at Stark's Tower. He doesn't focus on what the others are doing, if they're there or not. He imagines Pepper yelling at Stark for some ridiculous, outlandish gift he's bought her when all she really wants is a vacation. Rogers is sulking in a corner, or admiring the Christmas tree; he's not familiar with these fake, aluminum ones and they just don't feel right. They don't have that smell…

He's sipping eggnog that's more alcohol than it is drinkable, and he's watching Nat from across the room. She glances at him, raising her own cocktail to him in a silent cheer to the fact they've survived, again, and then she turns back (I guess she's with someone. Banner perhaps? She looks like she's engaged in a conversation, in his daydream, so he assumes as much).

He chugs his drink and sets the cup aside, making his way to her. He'll open up with a joke, or something, maybe ask if she wants another drink or if she went behind their agreement and got him a gift anyway. He knows he did.

"You look pleased with yourself."

He's jolted back to reality, to now, and the illusion fades. Natasha disappears and the clarity of her from across the room, nodding silently in a congratulations that they've made it, is lost. She's replaced, no less, with the blurred front-figure of his captor.

"You got me a gift, didn't you?"

She doesn't say anything.

"You didn't have to. I feel bad—I didn't get you anything."

Without a word, she walks behind him and he hears the sound of clamps and tools, shuffled on a metal dolly. He evaluates the noises and smiles, because he can't guess what device it is this time.

"You did get me something!"

"This toy is new," she informs him, "So don't max it out in one day."

He spits air, a habit of his in retaliation to her, and waits for what torture she's prepared for today. He won't talk, and she knows it. He's starting to think she just uses him to try out her latest developments; toys, she calls them.

It's been six months and he hasn't said a word.

"It's been over a month. Ready to hear me out on my proposition?"

"I thought I had the choice to either agree or die; I'm starting to think you won't settle for anything less than to agree."

She sighs and he's starting to think he may just live out an entire year in underground. They're in no rush to kill him. They're desperate for his cooperation.

"We've gone through a lot of trouble to obtain you."

"I could've saved you the trouble; believe me, I'm not worth it."

"Except you are. You're perfect. You're already deemed a traitor among Shield, with trust rooted only in the few; I couldn't have found a more perfect candidate."

He snarls, "So what? You think because I've betrayed Shield once, I'll do it again? I didn't do it-"

"-By choice? I'm sure that's what you tell yourself. You were in no part to blame for the deaths of countless agents; of sabotaging the Helicarrier and aiding and assisting Loki to near domination and destruction of Manhattan? I bet you had no part in it whatsoever, right?"

"Fuck off."

"We can blame it on other people…Or we can admit we were fucked up."

He doesn't respond immediately.

"Loki gave you the commands but you executed them. If you had been stronger, maybe you'd have fought him off. I've read the reports. Selvigg instituted a failsafe. What all did you do? Miss a mark?"

"If you knew me, sweetheart, you'd be as surprised as I was," he winks.

"You were a tool. Loki planted the betrayal in you but you festered it; raised it. You executed his orders and the blood is on your hands. No matter how many evaluations and rehabilitations you attend, you'll never clear that death and guilt from your hands. Shield knows it; they recognize you're a traitor, not to be trusted. That's why they sent you on this mission, isn't it? Kill two birds with one stone, wasn't it?"

"I said it before, didn't I? I never miss-"

"-Shield betrayed you. They knew you weren't likely to complete the mission and jumped at the chance to take you down with us-"

"How are you so sure they don't already assume I'm KIA? What makes you so sure they're not hesitant to take the both of us out if you're not even sure they know for a fact you've been keeping me alive this past month-"

"Because we told them as much."

She steps into view and finally Clint manages to strain his neck enough to look his captor in the face.

He's met with a golden mask, with dark eyes burrowing through two slender openings and straight jet hair that falls just behind the metal skin.

"We sent a warning; they knew you were still alive. Yet they sent a team in regardless to take you down with us, rather than save you."

"Maybe the mission wasn't worth one man's life over a team's."

"Or maybe you're worth nothing. They sent you on a suicide mission, and when you couldn't get the job done, they sent in back up to clean up loose ends. What makes you think that even if you'd have succeeded in your mission, the moment your plane landed they'd have shot you down. You were never meant to come back from this mission."

"This all you've got? Some conspiracy that my own agency wanted me dead more than you do-"

"Haven't I been saying this? I gave you two options; to live for us, or die, yet you're still alive and in no means close to accepting my other offer. I want you alive. That's more than you can say about Shield-"

"Well, I'm going to have to disappoint you. I choose death."

"Then I should hand you over to Shield-they'll make sure the job is done."

"You think?"

She steps aside, pausing, before turning back to face Clint. He's had enough with this conversation, but she leans in close.

"Alright then. Let's hand you over to Shield. I'll show you."


Fury didn't flinch at the slam of his door being busted open. He instead casually set his mug down and looked up to face an Agent Romanov.

"Is it true?"

"I neither confirm nor deny-"

"About Clint. He's alive?!"

Fury's brow furrowed, overshadowing his patch, "We have been contacted of such a tradeoff for one Agent Barton's life-"

"Whose heading the operation?"

"The council selected Agent Cynthia Cobbs to-"

"Bullshit, I'm leading the recon team."

"I can have you accompany such, but the council assures me-"

"Fury. This is Clint."

Fury sighs, "You can ghost the operation, but you can't run it. Cobbs is every bit capable of running a successful trade-"

But Natasha was already out the door, seeking to suit up and find Cobbs before Fury even finished his statement. He sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose before returning to his mug.

Cobbs is young but hardened; a blonde with a bob cut and grey, piercing eyes. Natasha has been in the field longer, but Cobbs came in with a clean slate and in Shield, trust means more than experience.

A serial killer has experience.

Cobbs moved up the ranks quickly; she's a favorable agent to the council, and not necessarily one of Fury's top picks but those two coincide with each other.

Cobbs takes one glance at Natasha and she reads it all. The distaste mixed with gloating. Natasha ignores Cobbs and takes a seat closest to the ramp for drop off. She straps on her seatbelt and closes her eyes; she doesn't feel like talking to the agent next to her, or looking at Cobbs' judgmental eyes.

The flight is a long one, but Natasha passes the time thinking up all the smartass remarks Clint will greet her with when she's finds his sorry ass.

Her favorites, by the time the plane reaches the drop off point, are "I've had a lot of time to think about it and I've finally agreed that you were right" and "So there's this concert this weekend…"

Natasha is the second to parachute from the Quinjet and one of the last to pull her chute. She lands three clicks from their destination and wastes no time in trekking to said destination.

She bites her tongue to keep herself from calling back at Cobbs to keep up.

"You get cable reception down here?" Clint smiles, with only one eye open (The other is still swollen shut, and to be honest his vision isn't great through his 'good' eye either). He's strapped to a chair but the room is new, which is a nice change.

His captor stands behind him, leaning heavily on one hip. Her 'dog' is there too, controlling the television set. It's outdated and Clint is positive it can't read BluRay.

He says as much, which earns him a punch to the jaw and a hiss of "quiet" from the woman.

"The things I do for you," she finally purrs when the screen flashes and a security camera feed appears. It's outside the complex, up top, and from Clint's surveying he recognizes it as an east point vantage.

"This torture might actually get me talking…how'd you know my ultimate weakness was boring nature documentaries? Please, at least tell me Morgan Freeman is the narrator."

"We submitted a tip off to Shield; we're willing to do a trade."

"Of what?"

"A sum of cash; some weapon supplies. Enough to reasonably bait the agency but not so little they call our bluff."



Clint scoffs, "And you're keeping me in here to watch? I'm going to miss my date."

"You're not going to miss anything."

There's a small rustle in view and suddenly Clint sees a figure coming through the brush, approaching cautiously the clearing shown in the feed.

He recognizes the agent as Tyler; an agent great at hand-to-hand combat but a poor sense of humor. Clint knows little of Tyler outside of working a few missions with him; that, and he's having an affair with Cobbs.

Now that was an unpleasant agent, he thinks.

(She refused to partake in Fury's 'Birthday' last year; voluntarily sat it out)

Tyler holds his hands in surrender, and from the bottom of the camera comes two more figures into view. These two, Clint can't identify.

One is dressed just like the 'dog'. The other is being dragged along. His head is hooded by a cowl and his hands are tied. But, his build is eerily similar to Clint's, and Clint recognizes the shirt and belt, even from the screen's quality, as his own Shield standard-issued attire.

"A decoy…"

Clint's captor doesn't even hear him mutter. She's speaking through a com link, giving the go ahead for the exchange.

Natasha watches Tyler drop a duffle bag at the feet of the hostage.


Clint's pushed forward, stumbling to his knees. Tyler jumps a little, but stands his ground and waits. The man behind Clint nudges at Clint's back, urging him forward.

Clint struggles to stand, weakly stumbling forward as his captor follows.

Natasha glances to her left. Another agent is perched nearby, with a sniper trained on the captor. Cobbs is nowhere to be seen, but Natasha doesn't care.

Her attention is back on Clint, and she digs her heels into the cold earth to keep herself from running out there and snatching him herself.

Thoughts of what snide comment Clint will say when he sees her are dashed, and she's now only torn between punching him and hugging him (or at least clasping him on the shoulder).

She settles with punching him.

The captor reached the duffle bag, lifting it with one hand while the other kept a pistol trained on Tyler.

He pushes Clint one last time before turning his attention to the bag, opening it with difficulty.

"You'll find everything you asked in th-"

Tyler is interrupted with the quick zip of a bullet running past him, squarely hitting the hood.

Clint falls instantly, only to be followed by a second bullet to the captor.

The agent to Natasha's left has dropped their rifle, audibly cursing before doggedly looking about.

"Who the hell was that? What happened?!"

But Natasha's already sprinting to Clint.

Clint's shoulders drop and he feels something lurch in his throat.

"That…that couldn't have been one of ours-"

"It wasn't one of mine," he hears from behind him.

"Shut up. Shut the hell up! You set this up, of course it was one of your goddamn own!"

"Waste one of my men just to mess with you? I'll recall the bodies if you want; we'll have a full autopsy, I'll show you the bullet and everything. How much are you willing to bet against that it's a Shield standard?"

"You set this up!"

"Of course I did; to show you what you meant to Shield. I warned you, didn't I?"

"Shield wouldn't-!"

But Clint didn't finish his sentence. Because in that moment, a fourth figure had run into view.


"Shit! It was a setup!"

Natasha had reached Tyler just in time to witness him throw the cowl off "Clint".

"Who the hell is this guy?"

That didn't matter to Natasha.

"Where's Barton?!"

Natasha whipped her head around. Other agents were coming into view; weapons raised, checking the clearing and covering the two agents. Natasha was fuming.

"Where's Clint?"

The feed ends, but Clint continues to stare at the black screen. He can't bring himself to look down.

"Wasn't very pretty, was it?" She mocks from behind him. "Was that her? 'Nat'?"

He doesn't say anything. In his head, all he can think is sorry, how sorry he is. How sorry he is to Natasha; for everything.

"She must be so distraught. To come so close…They've no idea you're right beneath their feet though! If only they'd have some sort of…gathered information…plotted areas or entrance points…help me out here—now where could they get their hands on such information?"

Clint grits his teeth.

"Oh, wait now…Wasn't that what your assignment was? To map out this very base? Except, no one but the council and yourself were given the full details of this mission, including any information previously gathered about this base's existence…Now, if the council chose to share that information, then perhaps your precious Nat and her team would realize the very base you supposedly sacrificed yourself for was right under their nose." She pauses for a moment in her gloat, "Well…I don't hear anyone breaching our base."

Clint slowly shakes his head.

"So…you were sent on a top secret mission, expected to die…only, you didn't. And, against the odds, we keep you alive so that when we send a rather dismal offer of hostage negotiation, Shield instantly takes up the bait. Why? To get you back? Not so fast…to tie up loose ends, because you're not supposed to be alive right now. The council keeps the actual mission details to themselves…Is this enough proof for you yet?"

"Shield wouldn't want me dead. That still could have been a rogue agent, working off of some vendetta. No proper agent would have shot the target without confirmation that it was their actual target-"

"Maybe they're trigger-happy; eager to just wipe the map of you. Or they're inexperienced; perhaps Shield doesn't think you're worth sending the best."

"-It could have been one of yours!"

"Still doesn't excuse why they're not down here now, fighting for you."

"They'll comb through these parts, they'll find something."

"Or they'll go home. With no leads, with no indication that you are still alive; if they're not in on the hit, like I suspect your little girlfriend might not have been, they may suspect that this whole operation was a set-up, a trap concocted by us. When in reality, the trap was Shield's."

"Fuck you."

"I'm glad my gift to you put you in such a good mood." With that, she left him.

Alone; to stare at the blank screen where Natasha had been.

He'd been so close.

"What were your last words?"

He hesitates a moment before looking up at her, cocking his brow as though to ask her if she's serious. Her face is deadpan and she's still waiting for an answer.

"I'm not dead yet, am I?"

"Not now. I don't mean here, and now. I mean to them. What was the last thing you said to each of them?"

He shouldn't tell her; he normally wouldn't. But he's nostalgic and has nothing to lose. He just witnessed himself die before his own comrades; former comrades, he supposes.

And she's already got him thinking about it and it'd be pointless to keep it from her when they both know he's got nothing better to do. He throws protocol out the window and thinks what the hell; he's got nothing better to do with his time.

He thinks it'll be difficult, trying to remember whatever pointless and meaningless conversations were now seemingly his last. At the time, these might have been things he said in passing; he hadn't stopped to think to dish out his best advice in passing.

Except when he really thinks about it, he realizes that maybe he did know those words would be his last. When he thinks really hard about it, he realizes that even at the time, he maybe sort of did know those would be his last words.

He smirks a little but that she doesn't see, because his head is bowed.

"To the Captain..." Clint squints, thinking hard, "I'd mentioned I was going out that night-" We were going out that night, he reminds himself. "…I'd be back late. He said have fun…"–you two.

"I told him not to wait up. It was a joke…cause he's old? Get it?"

There's a long pause before she speaks again, "And her?"

He's thankful that she didn't call her 'Nat', didn't mock it to his face, but he ignores her nonetheless.

"The Doctor...I told him to get some sleep. It was just before I'd left. I was avoiding everyone, that morning; I caught him in the hall, just outside my door. He just kept looking at me...with pity. Like I was dying and he didn't know how to break it to me."

She smirks but bites her tongue; doesn't reply with some snarky comment, and he's thankful for it at the moment.

"He looked at me, like he was asking if I was sure. Yeah, I'm sure..." He heaves a little because he's thirsty and his wrists are numb but he continues because thinking of the doctor makes him smile. Because he really was dying now, and he can only imagine how much more horrified the doctor would look at him now if he could see him.

"He told me 'stay safe'. I didn't promise him-"

"-Good for you."

He spits, muttering under his breath for her to go to hell, then, "I just told him to get some sleep."

It went without saying, but what he'd really said was 'thanks for being there for me; take care of the others'. He's almost certain that Banner got that message, too.

"What about Stark?" She tries, realizing he won't mention 'her' until he's ready. He's building up to her; for dramatic purposes.

He chuckles, "I told him go to hell."

She raises a brow, "And you're okay with that?"

He shrugs. He doesn't even remember the context; he just knows his last words to Stark were that.

"I don't think he'd want it any other way."

"Who else?" She asks, and it's intriguing the way she asks it. Like she's getting off to his last words. There's a glint in her eyes like she's feeding off him dying and he has nothing else to do so he feeds her.

"I told Fury I'd see him in six months."

"It's been eight."

"I told Pepper to take care of Tony. Then I pretended not to hear her when she told me to take care of myself." Pepper had said it in passing; she didn't know Clint was taking a six-month mission.

She smirks a little, mock hissing like she's just been burned but she loves this.


"I told Coulson I wished we'd been assigned to each other's mission. I hated watching the Tesseract day in and day out. He told me ten more years and I could get the desk job I'd always wanted."

That one hurts more than he expects, but he continues.

"I told Thor to send my regards to his brother. I told Barney to stop. Not to go." Just like Natasha had told him. "I told my dad I hated him. I told my mother I loved her."

His voice is growing in volume and he feels like he's shouting, but he's really only speaking on a normal level finally. Except he's fired up and he's riled.

"I told Natasha…I said… 'or die'..."

And then he stops. Did he really? Yes. Yes he did.

"That sounds ironic," she muses.

He chuckles. In retrospect, it's very ironic.

"We'd been arguing. She wanted me to leave Shield…to not go on this mission…She told me not to go, to stay. I said I couldn't…she yelled at me to just go then. Go, and come back in six months…I told her, 'or die'…"

He's reminding himself more than telling her.

He's drawn back to his surroundings and suddenly he remembers where he's at. Slowly, he nods once, twice, and then lets his head drop. God, he hates being suspended.

He waits for her to taunt him, but instead she stands up and heads for the door.

"See you tomorrow. Same time?"

She doesn't come back for three days. With her, she brings water.

He imagines a real Halloween. It's the same safe house apartment, with the great view of that one hotel room.

But, this time the date is circled in the calendar, and there's a bowl of candy in the hall. The door is decorated with a streamer and a paper bat, and he still hasn't taken out the trash with pumpkin seeds from when he carved the jack-o-lantern just the day before, which sits unlit by the candy.

He dresses up in one of her dresses, and an old pair of her heels. He borrows a wig from her cover and lipstick that was never an agreeable shade on her anyway. He dots a fake mole on his cheek, with her eyeliner, and a boa that he borrowed from their downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Chan.

When she first sees him, she laughs because he's finally done it; he's caught her off guard. She hits him, not hard, with her purse when he approaches her, and he grips her shoulders while she tries to get away but she's still laughing and he threatens to kiss her.

He manages to kiss her forehead, smearing the caustic color on her temple before she manages to jerk away. She straightens her tie and attempts to belt his suit pants on her, but they're far too big and won't stay up.

He' stretching out her dress (thankfully not one of her favorites) and she's swallowed in the suit of his.

The first trick-or-treater comes at seven exactly. Clint throws an arm around Natasha's hip and greets the toddler in his best Mrs. Chan impression while Natasha grips the waistband of the pants to keep them from falling.

By complete coincidence, the child is dressed like Iron Man.

The parent compliments their costumes before herding her child down the next hall. While Natasha's distracted, watching the parent and child leave, Clint lands a kiss on her cheek.

She punches him for it.

He steals a kit-kat from the bowl for himself and tosses her a twix.

He pretends each volt of electricity that runs through him is just a firework, close enough to jump at when it goes off. He can feel the heat of the fires and sparks and when he closes his eyes, he sees the flash of color as it disperses and fades.

When the jolts aren't running through him (When she's asking him, egging him on to talk back) he pretends that Nat is sitting by him in the grass (not grass; dirt. It's uncomfortable on his back but he'll ignore it for Natasha's sake). She points to the sky and comments on how close these fireworks have to be! They're so loud! (It's not lightning, Natasha, but sure)

She'd never admit it, but she likes Fourth of July, he tells himself. She likes the fireworks and the families that grill hotdogs and hamburgers in the park and always offer them a plate because why not, it's Fourth of July and this is America.

And every time the switch is flipped, she disappears and he cringes and struggles and twitches against the electrocution. And the minute the current switches off, he sees her again, laid out beside him admiring the sky.

He' too busy looking at her, trying to picture and imagine all the colors of the show reflecting in her eyes, still glued to the sky, that he jumps when she gasps suddenly.

"Look at th_

He knows he's asleep; knows this is a dream. But he can't stop himself from walking over to her, sitting on the hardwood floor and crossing his legs.

She's deep in thought, perplexed, with papers spread out within her reach. He tries to read them but they're blurry.

"What's all this?" He finally asks, groaning as he tries to stretch out his shoulder. It feels out of place.

"You know anything about this?" She asks, pointing to a paper that he –again— can't read.

He squints at it, but it doesn't get any clearer and his shoulder is killing him.

"What's it for?"

"It's that mission…" She mutters.

He's uncomfortable. He doesn't want to talk about missions. Not while he's on one, not in his dreams when he's escaped it finally.

"Let's not talk about it."

"Alright, then. What do you want to talk about?" She asks, curious, and setting the paper in hand down.

"The holidays," he muses. He wishes they could have done them right.

"Which one?"

"Any one."

"Fury's Birthday is coming up," she offers.

"Is it?"

"Coulson said he'd grease the rafters to keep you from climbing up there."

"That won't stop me," he chuckles.

"I know. Dying might, though."

He wakes up quickly, expecting some source of pain. In actuality, though, he's completely alone in the room.

It takes a moment to let his heart settle down. He tries flexing his arms and legs, waking his body up. His shoulder causes him pain and he realizes it has been knocked out of place. He's not in a good position, but he tries to flex it; set it back in place.

It's a great deal of effort and by the time he admits defeat, he feels exhausted. He's feeling thin; worn down.

He wishes he could sleep.

For so many nights (Days? Hours? He has no sense of time in this room) he slept dreamless naps that were more knockouts than actual sleep. He never woke up rested and more frequently than not he woke already amidst the latest torture scheme.

But at least his mind was at piece for the hour or two he slept.

Now, he dreamed. He had nightmares; always of her. Sometimes she ran to him, screaming "where's Barton?" even as he lay at her feet with a bullet through his skull and his hands tied behind his back.

Other times, like now, it was some domestic setting, so out of place, and she tried to communicate, to interact, with him, but he always felt disconnected. He was always aware that he wasn't really there.

He's here; in a basement, chained from the ceiling.

When he is awake, and doesn't feel like entertaining his captors with idle talk, he grows quiet and imagines.

Imagines scenes, scenarios that never happened and never will. They always involve her, and more times than not, they're the holidays.

He's never considered himself sentimental, but his sudden fascination with them leaves him craving normalcy.

He imagines a New Year's where they drink themselves silly and she wears one of those ridiculous glasses with the year making up the frame.

He dreams of a Thanksgiving where they cook something more than military ration canned foods and he tries to think up all the different way jams and dressing might taste because he's never had any and he spoils himself by imagining the largest turkey he can.

He imagines hunting for Easter eggs; with his own bow and arrows, against her and her widow's bite (that's how those hunts go, right?).

His favorite, though, is Christmas. Because it's the same scene every time, with him approaching her because this year, this time, a simple nod won't do.

He opens his mouth to say-

"Miss me? I brought water."

He opens his eyes but doesn't bother stretching back to look at her. She'll walk into view anyway.

"I think it's time we had a serious talk."

"How long's it been?" He asks through cracked lips.

"You're the one who dragged it out this long."

"I'm pretty sure I gave you my answer back when you first caught me. It hasn't changed."

"We both know that isn't an option anymore. We're getting your cooperation-"

"-Or what?"

"There isn't a second option. I'll give it up to you; you have shown admirable resistance. But that ends now. Listen to what we have to offer you-"

"My answer isn't going to change."

She ignores him.

"We desire your cooperation for a mission of our own. One mission. After that, we're willing to let you walk."

"No, you're not."

"Our interests aren't so different from your own; from Shield's. We're just asking for your help with one mission, and then we'll cut you lose. You'll be free to return to Shield—if they'll even take you back. What are your other options? To slowly rot out down here? Wouldn't you rather live?"

"You want to put your trust in my loyalty? You're dumber than I thought."

"I don't give a damn about loyalty. You had loyalty to Shield and look where that got you. I'm only interested in results. You're the best man for the job."

"Is the job an archery contest?"

"The job is a hit."

Clint frowns. That is his specialty.

"You'd have a team of ours as backup-"

"Believe it or not, telling me a legion of your goons are watching my back isn't as assuring as I'm sure it sounded in your head."

"-at your disposal. They'd follow every order you gave them, so long as your order compiles with my own."

Clint's chest rises and falls heavily. His lungs hurt to breathe and his shoulder is still throbbing.

He wishes his new found resolve to live normally was stronger because a part of him gets excited at the thought of a mission, a hit. Only to immediately feel overwhelmed with guilt and anger at himself for considering it, even if momentarily and subconsciously.

"And the second the mission is over, they turn around, on your orders, and shoot me in the back of the head."

She shrugs.

"Or, you could get caught by Shield and let them shoot you from the front."

"What if I took the mission and ran?"

"Then my men would shoot you. Complete what I ask of you, and you're a free man once again. You can join with your 'Avengers'; be reunited with 'Nat'."

"That's it? My only option out of here is to help you?"

"The Scorpion and the Frog," she muses.

"Yeah? And you're the scorpion?"

"I could be the frog. I am your one way out of this-"

"Your nature."

"Excuse me?"

"The scorpion stings the frog, even after he promises not to so that the frog will swim him across the lake. The frog asks him, while they both sink and drown, why he did it. The Scorpion says, 'It's my nature'."

She smiles, walking past him towards the door.

"You didn't tell me who the hit was."

He hears her heels stop and for a moment wonders if she is going to tell him.

Finally, she calls back,

"Captain Steve Rogers."

Clint wonders if they've held a funeral for him yet. He doubts there's a cake and a picture like it's a party, like with Fury's Birthday, but he imagines it just as tense and dreary and a much lower attendance. He tries to picture ho the funeral goes, by what he requested all those years ago.

The packet hits the desk with a loud, curt flop and he eyes the man standing above him suspiciously.

"What's this?" He asks, but he's already midway through reading the paper himself, answering his own question.

"Funeral arrangements? You really have that little faith in me-"

"It's standard, for every agent. It's just a precaution we need to keep on record. You can change it as many times as you'd like, whenever you like, but know that the official paperwork is what we'll carry out. It's required."

He scoffs to himself, because as many times as he's thought that he'd be better off dead, he's never thought about what would happen to him once he was.

"You guys actually have an insurance policy?"

"This is in the case that you die in the field and we have a means to your remains. In the case that no body or otherwise can be retrieved, we will omit whichever part of your desired clause involves such and carry out to our best understanding the rest of your will."

He eyes between the agent and the paper again, and for once doesn't have a witty remark to retort by.

"We here at Shield do not have a Veterans cemetery. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, you no longer exist; you do not exist and never did. However, we offer some-"


"-Insurance was a better word, when you die." He says it like a rehearsed speech and Barton wonders how many times he's been proven true to his word on this speech. He also notes the agent doesn't so 'or' you die. He says it like it's inevitable.

It is.

The agent finally inhales heavily and clicks the pen awake, scribbling down some after thoughts.

"Bury me in Iowa, by my folks…if you can," He adds, remembering the agent's warning. He's going to hell, he's sure of that, so why not bury him by a reminder of it, too.

"If I'm that bad off, go ahead and cremate me, or whatever part of me you can find, but just give me at heading by them." He signs the paper and hands it back.

"Any particular requests?"

Barton shrugs.

"Whatever's cheapest."

He has no savings, no relations, and no emergency contact, so everything else is left blank.

Coulson nods and takes the paper to be filed with the rest, until the day it's needed.

Because it will be.

A week after He brings in Natasha, he's still shaken. He doesn't quite understand how either of them survived that ordeal, and it's amazing Fury hasn't killed him for the little stunt yet either. This after thought reminds him of the file, and almost as a joke he pulls it out and requests Natasha as his sole emergency contact. He doesn't expect to see much of her around base, but he likes to think that in five years or so, if she sticks around or survives that long, that she'll at least remember he was the agent who brought her in when she gets the odd ball call in the middle of the night relaying that he's passed.

He hopes she doesn't question too hard why he chose to put her as the contact.

Two years later, after they've officially been partners on more cases then either can remember, he adds her name to his insurance list. Whatever belongs to his name, if Shield doesn't confiscate it during their 'clean up' of swiping his identity and existence from ever inhabiting earth, he leaves to her. This includes a few safe houses that he hopes Shield won't confiscate, or at least humor him in giving to her and a wad of cash because he doesn't trust banks.

He never had funeral plans but now he makes note, just a day after attending the funeral of a fellow agent he knew well enough to call by his first name (Which is almost like a blood bond between agents in this organization) and having seen the man's wife cry and fellow agents turn their noses up with little remorse, he notes that he doesn't want an official funeral. None of this mandatory service where all agents attend and look as heartless as they feel because they're supposed to and because this is how Shield raised them.

He writes a list of those allowed at his service, and it's two names scribbled in chickens scratch hand writing. Natasha and Coulson.

Six months later he'll finally get around to adding Barney, then he'll remember that Barney is dead and he'll erase that name, but it'll forever be a faded scratch out on the smooth file.

Years later, one night when he's just returned from a mission and wants nothing more than to return to Stark's tower so he can fall asleep and then in the morning confess to Natasha because in all honesty he almost died tonight, he'll make one quick stop at the records room and he'll scribble a few more names to the list. He considers but opts to not erase Coulson's name. He frowns because his hand smudge's Stark's name and he almost takes it as a sign from a higher being that he's asking for trouble inviting that guy. But, he wouldn't really have it any other way. He debates adding Thor, so he makes a note to the side that says, in parenthesis, (If he's on Earth).

When the time comes, he hopes he is.

He adds a final detail, a small change, before resealing the document and returning it to storage, where he'll never touch it again.

"I got you something!" Natasha chirps from beside him.

He feels so tired, drained, and it's disgusting to look upon her now. She seems so young; younger than he remembers her. Her eyes are too innocent and her voice too high. He just stares at her.

He feels the scruff on his face; he hasn't shaved in months. His hair is greying; falling out. His eyes are red, swollen, tired, dry. He can't feel half the muscles in his body; it's painful sitting here.

Here, on a couch, on Christmas day.

"Go on, open it!" She urges, pushing a package wrapped in too-bright paper into his lap. He doesn't take his eyes off of her.

"Clint!" She whines.

"Nat…" He shakes his head, slowly. His voice is hoarse; it's nearly gone. "We can't keep doing this…"

"Open my present, c'mon!" She laughs. "You bitch I never get you anything, and the one time I finally do-!"

"It's not Christmas."

It's her turn to shake her head.


"It's not Christmas. You're not here, you didn't get me…a gift. I'm not on this couch, I'm not even in this apartment!" He looks around, shaking his head at everything unfamiliar. "You are…you should be back in New York; Stark's Tower, or-or back at Base, or on a mission—safely. I'm not here, I'm…I'm underground, I'm captive! Nat—You're not real."

Natasha shakes her head, "I'm sitting right in front of you-"

"-Because I'm imagining you! I'm…I'm living out memories that haven't happened, that won't happen!"

"This could still happen! Come home, w-we…we could celebrate Christmas! I promise! I could get you a gift—let's exchange gifts this year! Look, I'll even wear those socks you got me! So…so that you don't have to just rewrap them like you used to! We'll do gifts a-and fireworks!"

He shakes his head. That's Fourth of July.

"I got you candy!" She finally admits, exasperated. "There!" She laughs, "You made me r-ruin the surprise! It's candy!"

"It's not."

"It's whatever you want it be!" She yells at him. Her voice is raised and angry but she's smiling at him and her eyes are wide with fear. It's a range of expression he's never seen on her, and now he's certain he's forgotten what she looks like because he can't even decide what about this younger, faker version of her is real.

"You were going to say something to me? Last Christmas…last-"

"No. Last Christmas, I was still in the holding cell. Last Christmas…Nat, it hasn't even been a year. A couple of months, maybe half a year but…it's not Christmas. Not again, not already. Last Christmas I'd just been captured. That scene? In Stark's Tower? That was all in my head…Nat-"

"I don't like this Holiday!" She screams suddenly. "I hate it! I hate you!"

"You're not real."

"I am! I'm real, Clint! I'm really here!"

"Nat! You're not!"

"Clint! I'm here!"

Fury approaches Natasha about it finally, handing her the file wordlessly. It should have been Coulson who hands her the file, but no one is about to argue.

It's a complete coincidence that Rogers is with her, and he debates gripping her shoulder but decides she's too fragile to touch right now. She doesn't look it, but she must feel it. She doesn't open the file then and there; she waits until they return to the tower. Rogers looks sick and Stark is a mess. Thor, because he was here, is somber and silent and all their eyes are on Natasha, waiting for her to open the file. Which she does.

It's then that she breaks into laughter, and Banner is the first at her side to read the file. Despite himself, he smirks too. Then Thor looks to Rogers, who hesitantly passes the file down to read, and Stark is the last to get the joke as he scans over the file.

He doesn't smile, but he does mutter, "Son of a bitch."

The headstone reads his date of birth to the day he died, but they're not sure how true that date is. His name, in its full, seems ridiculous because none of them knew him by it. The words underneath make no mention of being a son, or brother, or anything like that, because those words usually follow something along the lines of 'beloved', which he was far from. He wasn't the ideal brother or son or anything like that.

So, instead, the stone reads just his foreign name and his uncertain expiration date.

Natasha still holds the paper in her hands of his funeral arrangements, because scribbled at the bottom is some half-assed apology to "Tasha." He swore if she went before him, he'd erase the message altogether but as fate would have it he never needed to.

Stark still scoffs at the smudge in his name and Rogers hates that his was directly under Natasha's, which was second only to Phil's. Thor won't admit it but he wishes he wasn't on Earth right now. Being here at this moment is too difficult to handle. Banner rereads the tombstone like it changes each time, when it doesn't.

An empty casket is buried without his remains beside his parents' graves in Waverly, Iowa; however, he specifically requested that his bow not be buried with him. Instead, he left it to Natasha, because he knows she can't use it and because he knows it'll torture her to see it, to think of him, but she'll understand and she'll accept it anyway.

Natasha doesn't cry at the funeral, because Clint isn't being buried and he's not dead.

"You don't sleep too well, do you?" She asks, pacing a circle around him. He keeps his eyes closed and listens to the rhythm of her heels. She walks slow but steps heavy; she's impatient. She needs an answer.

"Have you given my proposition any thought?"

He chuckles, but says nothing.

Her smile fades.

"May I remind me, your options elsewise aren't looking so-"

"I'll do it."

His eyes are closed and all he sees is Natasha; a fake, younger version of her, with the wrong hair and the wrong eyes and a smile that's all wrong with the words "Merry Christmas" still on her lips.


Opening his eyes, he clears his throat,

"I'll take out Captain America."

She's trimming his hair herself. He keeps expecting her to slip up and slit his throat, but with each snap, and each fall of strands, he realizes she is going to keep her word.

"I'm glad it's come to this," she admits, tracing her hand along his shoulder.

Normally, he'd remark with something witty; something sarcastic.

"You always dreamed of being a hair stylist?"

This time, he keeps quiet. He doesn't feel much like talking, and he doesn't want to encourage her.

"Cooperating is so much better than dying, don't you think?"

She doesn't need his cooperation in the conversation, though.

"I suppose you're right. Small talk doesn't suit either of us."

"I thought you liked the sound of your own voice?"

He can hear the smile in her voice, "I've grown quite fond of your quips. Sure you don't want to just stay here? We can banter between the two of us until the end of your days."

"Tempting. You're very persuasive," he spits back.

"I suppose you want the details of the mission."

He doesn't respond, but she doesn't wait for him to either.

"Stark is holding some event; some gala of which the Avengers are making a charity appearance. Wouldn't it be just magical if the supposed KIA member makes an appearance, too?"

"Why not just let me stick an arrow through him the second he greets me at the Helipad landing strip?"

"I have a soft spot for theatrics. This is a show; I want a public execution. Something for the papers to talk about. Pull this off right, no one has to know it was you. That said, I'm sorry we didn't adapt an arrow for you."

Clint turns his head, confused.

"Oh? I forgot the most important detail." She moves in front of him, gripping the arms of the chair where his wrists are tied and leaning inches from his face, her eyes gleaming from beneath the mask.

"I have a few requests for this mission. One, you do it on the night of the gala. Pull the spotlight from Stark for once. And two…you use the serum my team has created."


She straightens up, pushing her hair behind shoulder.

"So many scientists have tried to replicate the super soldier serum. Captain Rogers is hailed as the prodigy suspect; no one can touch him or his serum. But I'm not after the ultimate defensive serum. My team created a serum that reverses the effects of the super soldier serum…and then some."

Clint feels his fists clench but immediately relaxes them.

"Reverses them?"

"It's a painful, slow decay of the cells…it'll knock the good soldier down a few notches…then a few more," she teases.

"You want me to slip it into his drink? Why can't you do that yourself? Hydra has-"

"I'm not Hydra," she spits. "Those uniforms, the sigma's…just a bit of show to knock you off our trail."

"Who are you then? Who are you really working for? I think I've earned that much if you're my new employer-"

"Exactly. I'm your new employer. No one controls me. I hired you to carry out my mission with my weapon. I work for me."

"Do I finally get a name, me?" He mocks.

"…Madame Masque."

He burns the name to memory.

"So? Why not slip the serum yourself, Miss Mask?"

"Because why do the dirty work myself when I have the perfect hit man for the job at my disposal?"

"You think I'm perfect?"

"I'm trusting you with two vials of this serum."

"Careful throwing trust around."

"You've got a back-up in case you can't get it done right the first time, assuming you get a second chance."

"I'll get it done."

"Really?" She doubts, crossing her arms. "Don't get me wrong; I'm glad to have you apart of the team. But wasn't it all a bit too easy? The Captain is your friend, or comrade at least…a few punches to the gut and you're willing to sell him out?"

"Are you trying to un-convince me? How many months later is it now and you want to reverse all your progress?"

She shrugs. "You're right. I don't care about your motive. I just need you to get this job done. Do it right, without anyone knowing, and maybe you'll escape. You're on your own the second the Captain drops, but at least you'll be on your own without us chasing you down. Then you only have to worry about Shield. I'll give you a hint, though—they're not too hard to hide from."

She gives him a time table. It's August, she tells him. He's been captive for over six months, and it's past the year anniversary of when he left for this hell of a mission. He missed him and Nat's "Birthday".

He runs a hand through his hair; it's short and shaved now, but uneven. He cleaned his scruff up in a motel room in East Europe, before his flight home to America. He lands in New York and he already picks out the tails Madame sent after him. He hears her words of warning in the back of his head, "Don't alert Shield you're alive" and he grinds his because a part of him agrees with her.

Three days, she gave him. No more; he couldn't stay under Shield's nose much longer than that. No less; he needs to convince his team he's fine and safe and the real him so they'll trust him, embrace him, back into their lives.

He slings his bag over his shoulder and hails a taxi. The driver asks him where to and he swallows his anxiety and calmly responds, "Stark Tower."

The man asks him if he's a tourist.

"Yeah. Just visiting."

"You have a visitor, sir."

"Take a message, Jarvis."

"They have entered the elevator. Approaching your floor, sir."

"Jarvis, if you're going to head the security system, you have to act as security. Do you just let anybody in these days? What, did you give them the passcode?"

"He provided it himself, sir."

Stark sits up, glancing from his position lounging on the couch to the others behind him. Bruce is reading the paper while Natasha does that thing she's been doing a lot lately (when she's not holed up in her room or on a mission) of staring out the window with no purpose in her eyes. Steve sets his post-workout snack down a moment, looking to Stark as if to ask if this might be trouble.

"Jarvis, do you know who this intruder is?"

"He didn't give his name, sir."

Steve throws his hands up, "Did you try asking?!" Exasperated, he almost reaches for his shield discarded on the counter. Stark, however, holds up a hand to stop him.

"Jarvis, do you recognize who he is..?"

"Agent Barton, sir," comes a voice from the newly opened elevator doors. Something crashes in the kitchen and Barton winces before letting his bag slide from his shoulder to the floor.

"Thanks for introducing me, Jarvis," he winks to nothing.


Bruce is on him instantly, running a glancing diagnosis and trying to evaluate how much medical attention Barton requires. Madame's parting gift had been a month of recovery; no torture and a meal a day. She wanted him to be in his best health, he mockingly thinks. His hair is short enough to hide the balding spots and the grey hairs. He's covered the scars with his clothes, layers of fabric that are too hot for this weather but feel soft, and most of his joints have been set right in place; even his nose, though he still swears it's crooked.

He saw himself for the first time in a mirror in his hotel outside the airport in Europe and he swore he believed in ghosts in that moment.

He's as pale as one would expect, spending almost a year underground. His eyes are tired and one has a popped blood vessel that hasn't healed quite yet. He doesn't raise his hand in fear they'll see how disjointed his fingers are and the bruises of trying to set them right again. He hasn't felt a bow in his hands in a year and though he acknowledges it'll be painful, he's almost certain he could still hold his own. He has to.

Stark is saying something but he doesn't hear him. He refuses to look at Rogers; he can't bring himself to.

Then, all of a sudden, he sees Natasha.

She looks older, withered, and it's almost as if she went through the same hell he did. She probably did.

But she doesn't look at him. She looks at his arms, his chest and hands, like she knows. She can't see the scars but she knows.

All at once those fantasies and day dreams of holidays never spent with her rush back to him, except now he can see her eyes and the shade of her hair is right and he just hopes she'll speak to him because if he can hear her voice one more time…

"…Shield, thanks Jarvis-"

"No!" Clint jumps, cutting Stark off. "Don't alert Shield. Not yet."

"Why not?"

There it is; there's that voice. Clint slowly turns back to face Natasha. She's approaching him like one does a snake; slowly, cautiously, waiting for it to strike. He feels the same way.

"They can wait," give me a head start, he thinks.

"You do realize we may have a few questions," Stark motions the circle of gathered Avengers. Clint nods but his eyes are still on Natasha.

"I might have a few answers. We'll exchange the two…later. Right now, I'd really like to just sleep…"

Natasha looks like she's going to say something but catches herself. Clint hesitates, waiting for her to speak, before glancing away and heading to his room. No one stops him.

"So...that's it..?" Stark questions, addressing the sudden elephant in the room. Natasha frowns, avoiding meeting Stark's eyes. Steve pretends to have somewhere to suddenly be. Bruce mutters about medical supplies and wanders off.

"What are you getting at, Stark?" She finally snaps, clearly just wanting him off her back. Stark throws his hands up in surrender.

"Just curious as to why the two closest people in this house to each other all of a sudden are pushing the tower's foundation in attempts to keep as far away as possible from one another. He may be too tired to talk, but space maybe isn't exactly what he needs. He's had a year of space."

She doesn't give him the satisfaction of reacting.

At that ill-timed moment, Barton walks back in.

He caught one glimpse of Natasha before making his way past the others, behind Thor to reach the cabinet. He grabs a glass before walking off, just as silent as he'd entered.

"What, no 'hello darling' kiss-and-greet?"

Natasha ignores him and brushes past the room, after Clint.

She walks in on him filling the glass with water from his own sink. She knows that he's aware she's in the room but he has nothing to hide so he throws a handful of pills into his mouth and chugs the water quickly. After exhaling his held breadth, he turns her direction but refuses to look up at her.

"Are you supposed to take them all at once?" She snaps, though she didn't mean that to be the first thing she said. But, it is, and he shrugs.

"Just some sleeping pills I found still here," he motions to his own medicine cabinet. She didn't touch it; even after the funeral.

She hides her wince that he should be so tired yet still need sleeping pills to sleep. She wonders what he dreams, how he sleeps; what happened over the past year that she knows absolutely nothing about.

"And a pain killer," he muses, examining the bottle.

"Sure you're supposed to take both at once?"

He shrugs.

"Saving the others for after I eat."

"If you eat." She's digging herself a hole that she wasn't even intending to dig. You never do.

"Here to play nurse or is something on your mind?" He finally asks, and she hears how strained his voice sounds. Not just physically, but emotionally. He really doesn't want to fight with her, he's too tired to do that.

Finally, she sets the conversation right, dropping her crossed arms and walking further into his room.

"How are you feeling?"

He coughs in response.

She winces and waits a minute before turning her gaze out the window.

"Are you alright?" He finally asks, and it catches her off guard. She wasn't the one gone for a year, at God-knows-where having God-knows-what done to her.

"Clint, I wasn't-"

"I don't mean that," He asks, softer. She diverts her attention back to him and watches as he sinks his head into his hands, his whole posture bent over his knees as he hunches over on the edge of his bed. In a few short steps, she's kneeling beside him, using her hand to pry his chin up to face her.

"We thought you were dead. How do you think I'm feeling?" She says it with a smile, trying to lighten the mood but the gravity of the matter is too heavy and he doesn't smile back.

"You were right...I shouldn't have taken that mission," He remarks bitterly. She wants to apologize for that, but the sorry gets caught in her throat. She instead grips his shoulder lightly and tells him to get some sleep. She'll wake him later for dinner.

Clint wakes up, jolting awake expecting to be hooked to some machine. Instead, he finds Natasha sitting at the end of his bed, her back to him. He rubs at his eyes and flexes his muscles to make sure he can still move them; to make sure he's alive and functioning. A habit he picked up.

He realizes his shirt is discarded and the covers don't exactly reach past his shoulders. He doesn't know how long she's been there, and the room is dim but he knows she's seen them. The scars, the marks and bruises. Where he's been and how he's spent the past year or so.

He decides he'll start because Natasha doesn't seem to be in any rush to say anything.

"I know…I know I messed up-"

"Clint, you couldn't have anticipated getting captured…"

"No, before that—though, that probably was my own fault somewhere along the line—but, I mean from before I left. I…I said something's I didn't mean and…I fucked up."

"Clint, it's alright. I forgive-"


She stops and looks back at him, and he's never looked so intense and for the first time she's looking at his eyes and not his scars.

"Don't forgive me. Not yet…let me make it up to you!"

She smiles, but it's so painful, "Alright…take me on that dinner you promised, and then I'll forgive you."

"No, that's not enough," he smiles.

"Well, when can I forgive you?" She isn't taking him serious; this is a joke but she's grateful for it because it's been months since she could smile at him and here he is, alive.

He thinks for a minute, before adding, "When I tell you that you can. But no sooner; I won't accept it any sooner until I've earned it."

She nods slowly, "Alright, then. I don't forgive you. Not until you think I should forgive you."

That's perfect, he thinks.

They say no more and then its dinner and he's sitting surrounded by the figures of his imagination except this time they're real. No one says a word and he's struggling, painfully, to cut meat with a fork and knife. After one bite he realizes it's too much and sets his utensil aside, excusing himself.

"Hey, you know what? You…you relax these next two days. Then, we'll throw a party-"


"No, no; hear me out! That gala event? The charity, or whatever—it'll be your welcome home party. Yeah, we'll invited Mad-Eye Moody and the Men in Black, toast a few-"

"Stark, I don't think Barton is up for that kind of thing. Not in two days…"

"No, actually…that sounds alright, Tony."

Tony looks speechless.


Clint winces. "Yeah, round everybody up." Let's put on a show with the biggest audience possible, he thinks. Give me a real challenge.

"…Alright then. Consider the arrangements done. Jarvis?"

"Ah, but…keep it a surprise still," Clint adds. "Don't go plastering my name on the invitations. I'm not the main attraction," he winks.

It's an uneasy joke to which everyone but Tony winces at.

"You heard him, Jarvis."

Clint excuses himself from the table but Natasha is up and by his side instantly. She walks in silence with him back to his room. He sits on the edge of his bed and she follows, but still they say nothing.

His hand shakes, a tremor he can't control. It's a side-effect and he hardly notices it now. The spasm spreads up his arm and the twitches are so violent that he hits his leg twice before he makes much notice of it.

Natasha is staring at it like an open wound, speechless with her mouth shut but her eyes speaking volumes.

"It never lasts more than a few minutes," he assures her.

She does not appear assured.

He wakes up after an hour and realizes that's it; that's all the sleep he'll get. Natasha isn't there, but the other half of the bed is warm, so until recently she had been.

His bag is stashed in his closet and he checks to make sure it hasn't been opened. No doubt Natasha has meant to snoop, but thankfully appears not to have yet.

In a case lies two vials of a disgustingly blue liquid and he snaps the case shut the moment he confirms they're both there. He hides the case under a false drawer and then heads to the gym several floors below.

He wastes no time in picking out a bow, discarded and untouched for a year but still there, and notches an arrow.

He brings his arm up.

Yep, it hurts.

But he lets the arrow loose and it soars perfectly.

He's still got it.

Natasha finds him an hour later and asks if he wants anything for breakfast. It's his call back to reality. Time to face everything, he thinks.

"Nat…I know you have questions…"

She bites her lip.

"I did just ask if you wanted breakfast. If that's too much to ask, I'll come back later-"

"That's not it…You want to know what happened."


"You want to know who did this," he motions to himself, "and how I escaped," his breadth hitches because in that moment he'd tell her everything.


"Clint, stop," she cuts him off. "I do, alright. I want to know what happened and who took you and I want to know this isn't some dream and that you're really here…but, not right now. Soon, we'll talk and…and you're going to tell me everything. But, for now…"

"-Let's get fireworks."

Natasha looks at Clint like he's mad.


Clint doesn't mean to, but he pulls a face that clearly says just-go-with-it-I've-been-through-torture and she can't argue with that.

"I'll drive," she offers.

They find a stand of fireworks on Coney Island and he makes her drive him outside the city limits along the bay, almost to Jersey, before he asks they stop at the next gas station for some candy.

He picks out enough candy bars to almost have one of every type. When he asks which ones she wants, she shakes her head and replies she doesn't want any candy. The hurt in his eyes is something she wasn't expecting, so she grabs the Twix and this seems to satisfy him.

And he scans through the card section, which she finds peculiar, and he plays with each keychain on display, spinning the ones that do as much and reading every generic name on the copy key chains. He tries to convince her they should buy the one with her name on it, but she says only if he finds a Clint, too.

He doesn't, and he exits the gas station defeated.

She buys him lunch which he doesn't eat and when they finally reach a spot far enough from any houses or landlines, he lays his jacket down like a blanket and the lay on it. It's too light to set off fireworks just yet, but the sun is setting as their trip rode out most of the daylight.

"What happened? While I was gone?" He asks.

She keeps things vague. Stark invented this; destroyed that. Banner hasn't hulked out in such-many days. Cap-"Is that a hawk? No, it's a pidgeon? Sorry, continue." Thor visited awhile back. Pepper invested in, well, you don't really care…

The new Shield recruits-"Let's not talk about Shield." Alright.

She leaves out the recon mission where she swore she'd almost had him, but then it'd turned out to be a decoy. She leaves out that after that, she looked into his mission file and again that hacking incident that Fury had waved off came off up so she had Stark look into it but again it was an untraceable dead end, though she swore it was connected. That mission was too vague but she doesn't voice her theories. She's certain that when they do finally decide to talk about it, about what happened to him, he'll have the answers to the holes in what she knows and that'll resolve everything.

She doesn't mention his funeral they held for him three months ago.

He strokes his fingertips over the knuckles of his fist.

"Do you think there are other worlds out there...alternate ones, like parallels to this one?"

She raises a brow because he's not one to propose irrational thinking like this. He's an observer-a listener, a watcher-not a dreamer.

"I guess not," she answers honestly. Life is too cruel, to think there's a happier (Or God forbid a more miserable) her out there somewhere (Or when). She doesn't believe in reincarnation, simultaneously or not.

He shrugs.

"It'd be interesting, wouldn't it? If there was a me, somewhere out there...who maybe didn't join the circus."

"Doesn't shoot arrows?" She jokes, like he could ever have any other purpose in life.

"Doesn't kill." He isn't joking.

She sobers a bit, clears her throat, and adds, "I bet he's boring. Some desk job, wife and kids-the whole suburban package."

He snorts. It's such a far-fetched image, he can't imagine it. She can.

"West Coast?"

She scrunches her nose.

"East coast. You're a Red Sox fan."

He chuckles at that, leaning back a bit before inquiring more.

"Am I a CEO?"

She laughs, sarcastically.

"Marketing company, you're well off but the chain of command is one douche-bag after another. The High school Glory football team, bullies in suits. You put up with them because the pay is decent and you want Junior to get into a good university as opposed to the community college."

He raises a brow. "Junior? No daughters?"

"One. The youngest. She's on the dance team."

He pictures her with red hair and a smile like Natasha's. She sees a blank face and refuses to fill the features.

"Junior is, what then, star quarterback?"

"Soccer team."

He nods slowly.

"So I have kids…and a wife?" He asks, hesitantly; hopefully.

"Some pretty blonde, with enough sass and fire in her that the marriage isn't boring, but because of long work hours, you're a bit disconnected as of recent."

He shakes his head, smiling.

"When I thought about this, about an alternate universe, I thought, I don't know...the other me would be living a better life. I'm not sure which fate is worse, the way you put it."

She smiles sadly.

"The other you thinks he wants excitement in his life...but, then one night, while he's at the office late, smoking a cigarette between promotional designs...he imagines what him in another life is like. He thinks about being a superhero, about being a spy like in the movies. Being a bad ass," She smirks. Then, the smile fades.

"And he realizes how lonely it'd be. Because the super hero him wouldn't get to go to the high school soccer games to cheer at half time for his son and daughter. Or relive those first dates with his wife on their anniversary when he takes her down to the docks where they met and he rents a sail boat and pops champagne. He thinks he wants excitement in his life...but he wouldn't change his life that he has for the world."

Clint doesn't reply.

When it's dark enough, they light the fireworks and split the candy and there's that face again. He's the kid again from the concert and she forgets how pale and thin and tired he looks. She forgets about the year he's missed and she forgets that she doesn't know what happened within that year.

She realizes he doesn't want to hear about Shield and she doesn't want to talk about it. Maybe, if one good thing came from this mission, it's that he's given thought to what she talked about to him. That he's considered it.

"It doesn't have to end. This, today…everyday could be like this."

He nods slowly, but she can't see him.

"Really?" He feigns.

She nods, looking back at him, "We could really do it." She smiles, teasingly, because they're like two children staying up past their bedtime. He wants to smile back, to reassure her that yes, things don't have to change. This moment can go on forever. Screw Shield, fuck everything else. He'll do it, he'll leave Shield and they'll run away.

Instead, he just stares at her until she looks away, dropping the thought.

Because in his mind, he's replaced her with that foreign, younger, wrong Natasha who hands him a Christmas present and begs that they pretend this is a holiday, any holiday. This whole trip, he was trying to relive something; Fourth of July, Halloween, Christmas. He just wanted to experience that normal Holiday like they never did.

They're never going to.

He doesn't want to move. Natasha nudges his shoulder and warns him the drive is a long one-get some sleep in the car if he needs to. He nods but in his head he's begging they stay here. If they go back to the city, and the sun rises, then it's the next day and the gala is that night.

He has to kill Captain America.


There's no coming back from that; there's no staying here, in New York, or with the Avengers or her.

He doesn't sleep on the drive back. He watches the sky and wills it to stay black forever.

The sun peaks over the horizon just as they reach the city limits.

He asks to sleep alone tonight and she's too tired to argue. Except he doesn't sleep. He sits up all morning and well past noon. Thinking.

Thinking of all his options and escape routes and plans. Positions and vantage points and every possible scenario of when and where Rogers will be.

But he doesn't.

He doesn't think of all that. He thinks of Natasha and how she laughed with an entire snickers bar in her mouth, and he wonders if she maybe wore that pair of socks he got her under her boots.

He wonders if she celebrated all the Holidays that passed or if she thought about spending them with him. He thinks about how he missed their 'birthday' and he hasn't gotten her a gift yet. He will.

He thinks about the other him with a wife and son and daughter and a desk job.

He thinks about how foolish he was, last night, trying to live out the perfect, last night and stealing Nat away but tiptoeing around what they really wanted to say, to talk about. Then, he thinks about the mission at hand—his last mission—and how he better suit up.

He waits by the bar, wary of anyone who approaches. He doesn't recognize anyone form Shield yet but it's only a matter of time before some scout spots him and after enough double takes calls it in. He swashes his drink around and never sips. He feels the vials in his pocket and he fumbles with his tie. His toes try to wiggle in these damn dress shoes he's wearing—he hates them—but he finds they can't. These shoes are too tight. Or, his toes are so calloused and out of place.

Suddenly, a pair of hands grip his tie and straighten it for him. He turns, expecting to see Nat, but instead is met with a dark haired woman of exceptional beauty, with dark lips and unforgettable eyes.

"You clean up nice." She muses.

Madame Masque.

He freezes, not taking his eyes off her as he commits her face to memory. Gives the devil a face to spit at.

"How's Nat?" She teases, patting his tie down. He feels the weight of the com she's attached to it and he glances around him to make sure they don't appear suspicious.

She notices.

"If you wouldn't tense up, this might almost appear an exchange between two pretty people," she winks.

"It's all smoke a mirrors; don't flatter yourself."

"I don't see a bow and arrows on you…out of your element, aren't you? How exactly do you plan to accomplish-"

"It doesn't matter how, does it? Just that it happens."

She leans in close to his ear, "Don't bite the hand that holds the leash. One step out of line, this is a room full of hostages. Only one has to die tonight. Don't add to your conscience any more than necessary."

She trails her hand along his shoulder as she leaves and a moment later, she's gone from the room.

He stands there, unmoving for a moment longer before setting his drink aside and asking the bartender for a pen.

He takes the pen and scribbles on his napkin hurriedly after several minutes of staring blankly at it before stashing the napkin in his pocket and nodding to the bartender.

A minute later, Natasha joins him by the bar.

"How do you feel?" She asks.

He chugs his drink and nods.

"On fire."

Everyone is taking their seats at the banquet table when Clint steps aside momentarily, in the shadows, as that woman's voice comes through the com.

"I hope you're not having cold feet."

"After the speech. I'll get to Rogers after Stark's speech."

"Are my men even required?"

"Doubt it. There's what…eight? Nine? Covering all exits in case I decide to run?"

She hesitates, "…Are they that easy to spot?"

"No. I just recognize them. They all have the same look of your dog in their eyes."

"Shield's here. How do you plan to handle them?"

"I have a plan."

"I asked how."

He doesn't respond, cutting her off and stepping into view to make his way to seat himself beside Natasha. She grips his arm lightly and his heart sinks.

Stark takes to the stage and gives an empowering and short speech that is rendered worthless after a joke about tonight's charity event, followed by some prideful remark about himself.

"Oh, before I let you all return to getting trashed with the free bar, I do have a friend here tonight who I've graciously allowed to ascend to the stage to speak to you all tonight. Yes, I sacrificed a moment more of the spotlight on me and you're all disappointed, I know. However, without further ado, I present…Hawkeye."

Several gasps and talking echoes through the room and Clint stands to greet the shocked crowd. He picks out the Shield agents as those who react the quickest, straightening in their seats to quickly suppress their surprise.

Natasha reaches for Clint's hand, concerned if this is right—should he stand before a room?

He doesn't heed her though. He hears his com snap in his ear on what the hell is going on. He ignores it.

The lights are so bright, he doesn't see anyone in the crowd. It's blindingly white; like snow, he thinks. It's Christmas.

"My name is Clinton Francis Barton. Most of you know me as Hawkeye, the Avenger. I'm not as eloquent or charismatic as Stark, so I'll keep this short. About a year ago, I went on a mission…and got caught."

The audience shifted uncomfortably. "I was tortured. Nearly executed on several occasions—except, my captors didn't want me dead. No, they wanted me alive. Which is more than some people can say," he laughs, and he finally catches sight of Fury. His one eye looks betrayed.

"They wanted to use me…for one final mission."

"Barton." She warns in his ear.

"They're here tonight, actually, to make sure I carry out that mission—say high to them! Hydra-!" He salutes to the positions of the guards and suddenly the room explodes. Gun fire is shot from both Shield and Masque's men alike and the innocents duck and dive under tables, screaming. Barton himself lurches behind the podium. He grips at his tie, yanking it up to his mouth as a wave of threats flood in his ear. He responds,

"Something's come up," and over her curses and hisses of betrayal, he adds, "I'm not that sorry."

"Barton, you-!"

"It's my nature," he finishes, tearing his tie of and tossing it unceremoniously to the ground. He can still hear her screaming through the com, but he could care less. She saw it coming; just like he knew she wouldn't let him live after the mission was complete.

Clint rolls from behind the podium, lifting a gun strapped to his leg from under his pants and shooting at the nearest attacker; one of hers. He throws himself through the kitchen doors just as he shoots a warning shot, no contact, at a Shield agent. He doesn't know how shallow the betrayal is within Shield, but he doubts the rookie aiming for him was in on the conspiracy against Barton.

Chefs sprint through the back exit and Clint dives under the counter to retrieve his bow and quiver that he'd hid there earlier. Like his weapon of choice was going to sit out his last stand.

Someone triggers the fire alarm and the building comes alive with the sound of warning beeps.

The doors swing open and his aims an arrow but instantly drops it when he recognizes that fiery red hair and flustered face.

"What's going on? A breach?! Hydra…"

Struck with horror and realization, she slowly looks back at Clint. Before he can even begin to explain, she sees the words forming on his lips and she tenses.

"What have you done."

"I can explain-"

"What have you done!?"

"Nat, it…I-"

"I said that the talk could wait, but it can't. Tell me now…what's going on? What happened? Were you captured by Hydra? Are you…working for them now?"


"Clint!" She winces. It's the same panic in her eyes from that day.

"It isn't Hydra."

She shakes her head slowly.

"You said-"

"She has them pose as Hydra. Shield thought she was Hydra-"

"She? Clint, I don't-"

"She's called Madame Masque. She works independently, for all I know. Shield sent me to scout her base; they set me up."

"Shield did..?" She doesn't sound as surprised as he expected. She must have suspected something then.

"They thought I'd be captured, then killed. They were hoping I would be. But, she—Madame Masque—had another idea in mind. She offered me, well, one choice—help her kill Captain America."


Clint pulls forth one of the vials, offering it to Natasha.

"This is…some sort of anti-super soldier serum. She had this developed; it'll kill even the Cap. I was supposed to slip this to Rogers-"


"Nat, please! Hear me out…I didn't; I haven't, alright? I'm not going to. I never was. I'm giving you this serum to get to Banner and Stark…have them look into it, find a cure, find an antidote, something. There's no doubt in my mind she has others of this substance and if she doesn't get her chance tonight, she'll find another one. Please."

Natasha hesitates before taking the vial.

Clint sighs with relief when she tucks it down her dress.

"Got another one of those?" She finally nods to his handheld. He tosses it to her, taking his bow back in hand.

"Just the one. Take it though; I don't need it."

"What's the plan?" She sounds unsure but she's onboard nonetheless and that melts his heart.

"We get the innocents and Rogers and everyone in the building out of here."

"Take down the bad guys." She finishes.

Or die.

A back stairwell leads them up a floor towards high ground. He hears gunshots and screams and knows the panic has since spread from the ballroom. Nat is in front of him, taking point while he watches their backs, checking the hallway.

He glances at her feet briefly and asks, "Why don't you ever wear the socks I got you?"

She looks back at him like he's an idiot.

"You don't wear socks with heels-"

"Not now. I mean…ever. You never wear those socks I got you…"

She bites her lip, finally admitting, begrudgingly, "I don't want to take them out of their packaging."

He smirks a little, but she refuses to look back at him.

"I know for a fact," he adds, "that when I first got you those socks, you looked everywhere for the receipt so you could return them."

"How do you know I stopped looking for the receipt?"

"Because no exchanges after sixty days."

She curses that policy to the day.

The room they enter next is dark and empty. Nat scans it before signaling Clint forward. He takes two steps in before three shots go off and the two jump apart.


"I'm alright! You?"

"I'm fine!"

He jumps up, notching and aiming and releasing an arrow all at once and listening to the product of his aim as a dying scream fades and falls behind a table.


Nat lifts herself and glances harshly about the room, determined not to make the same mistake twice.

"Nat, I have to find her," Clint admits.

Natasha looks at him like he's crazy, but finally nods.

"I'll find Rogers and the others…tell them what's going on."

Clint nods.

"Meet back here, alright? If you don't find her in fifteen, stake out here and I'll come get you."

Clint nods.

Nat almost says something else, but leaves it at that and a moment later she's gone.

Clint lowers his bow and watches after her. He almost calls after her; he thinks about telling her that he saw her that day, when the supposed trade off happened only for it to be a decoy. He almost does, but then he remembers there are lives at hand and tasks to be completed and he doesn't have any more time to waste.

"You were every bit of trouble that you're worth." He echoes, stepping from the shadows as she whips her back around to face him.

He has an arrow notched to her throat and she has nowhere to run. It's a check mate.

She smirks and drops the gun in her hands, both raised above her head in surrender.

He's cornered her before a window, where he knew she'd be. He had an inkling she'd stay nearby, somewhere with a view of the kill had it actually gone down. He knows her ego too well and he knows the vantage points of this building. He picked them all out himself.

"Whatever makes you sleep better at night," she shrugs it off.

"This isn't revenge, you know that much-"

She shifts her head and her hair falls to the side. Without the mask, she's another beautiful woman with dark eyes and a strong jaw. She stares at him straightforward; it's more than he can say about a lot of evil-doers he's had to confront in the past. She faces him, faces death, and she smirks and he wonders if she's ever stopped smiling.

"I'm not pretending to be an innocent here; we both know that's not true. I'm a bad person; I've done bad things, and truth be told, you let me live today, I'll continue to do bad things. That's it, isn't it?"

"If you say so," he draws the bow back; the string is taught and the room is so quiet they hear the tension as he draws it back. She inhales deeply, her chest rising and she holds it; as does he.

Her eyes waver slightly, slipping between acceptance and fear briefly. The flicker catches him off guard and he hesitates.

"…Don't I get a different call?" She smirks, and it's pitiful. Her voice is quiet and if he knew any better he'd say it was an act. But something about her eyes gives her away; this is raw. "Am I not worth saving? What made us different?" She nudges to the side, and even if she isn't there he knows exactly who she's talking about.

He doesn't owe her any explanation. If anything, she deserves no answer.


"Because she wanted to die."

"And I want to live," she finishes, nodding slowly because as ironic as it is, that's the way of things. She will never change.

He's sloppy, taking the stairwell again, and he forgets to check his blind spot. The shots go off and he barely manages to dodge in time to keep the bullet from tearing through his skull. It does, however, rip through his side.

"Shit!" He curses, notching his bow as his attacker rounds the steps.

It's Cobbs.

"Imagine my disappointment when the hooded target was actually a decoy." She sneers, taunting the gun pointed at Clint. His tremors hit him at the worst moment possible and he can't grip the arrow any longer. It falls loose and drops to her feet, which she kicks away quickly, snapping the arrow like a feeble twig.

"This almost makes up for that day."

He snarls, "So you're not only Tyler's bitch, but the council's too, huh?"

"And you're mine," she sneers before wincing as a bullet tears through her chest.

She falls forward and Clint barely moves his feet out of the way in time.

Natasha stands behind her, looking both relieved and ragged. Her dress is torn at the knee and her hair is no longer neatly pinned.

"I never liked her."

Clint nods in agreement.

She has a hand around his shoulders and is slowly leading him down the hall before he pulls away from her, stopping her.

"Clint, what are you-?"

"Nat, you need to go."

"Clint? I'm not just leaving you-"

"Did you find Rogers?"

"Yes, he's helping evacuate-!"

"You need to get him out of here."

"Clint? You don't-"

"There were two serums. I saw them; She—Madame Masque—had two serums. She gave me one, the one I gave to you…the other…"

"Rogers can handle himself. Shield is-"

"There are spies within Shield. More than probably just Cobbs. Tyler could be…Madame Masque, she knew all about my mission, she had Shield playing into her palms, almost like they were working togeth-"

He winces, the wound spurting.

"Clint! I need to get you-!"

"I'll be fine! Rogers is in trouble! Get him out of here! Natasha, please! Don't waste any more time on me…I'll be fine!" He smiles reassuringly.

She looks torn between his warning and the wound, tightening her fists before cursing under her breadth and lowering him in a vantage position.

"Stay here. The second Rogers it outside his building, I'm coming to get you. Do not move," she warns.

"Nat—one more thing," he calls after her. His voice is shaky, but he swallows it quickly. He can feel the nerves in his hand twitching, coming alive with adrenaline. Natasha whips around to face him, her own eyes wide with a fear he's only ever seen around Banner on a bad day.

She shakes her head, "what?"

He keeps starring at her, his mouth open but no words forming. He's taking her in.


"Clint, c'mon; I have to go-"

"We never had that dinner."

Natasha looks away, briefly, but it's enough to say what she won't. Clint understands: no matter what she says next, that brief glance aside gives away what she really thinks, and he won't believe her no matter what lie she says next.

"That isn't important right now—Keep pressure on that wound, alright? I'll be back-"

"I'm sorry…for everything, for everything that's happening-"

Natasha smiles weakly at him, "Don't be. None of this is your fault."

All of it is.

He nods, because he can't think of what to say back to her because his head is screaming at him to stop before she hates him. He nods to say he's made it, because she's across the room with eggnog in hand and he doesn't have the courage to approach her and say what he means to say.

He waits a few seconds after Natasha leaves, rushing to save Rogers, before pulling away his hand to glance at the wound.

Two holes. He'd been shot twice.

It's worse than he thought, but when he focuses on the pain, he realizes No, that's about right.

He glances again in the direction Nat ran before pulling out the second vial that he'd kept for himself. Neatly tucked in a syringe, he flexes his underarm out, probing the tip of the needle against his vein, eyeing the blue liquid momentarily. He thinks about Halloween, and how close it was. Maybe this year he'd dress up as Fury and Natasha could have been Hill. Or the other way around.

And the egg hunts that he isn't sure he fully understands.

And of fireworks.

And of one more Christmas.

He thinks of Fury's birthday and wonders what it was like this year. Did the rookies last even a day before Fury found out about the planned party? Did they get a chocolate cake, or strawberry? Did anyone try to hang from the rafters and throw up rabbit ears behind Fury?

He thinks about the dinner he missed with Natasha. How she must have sat by herself. She must have already known he wasn't going to show up. She'd have heard earlier about how he hadn't checked into base after his return from the mission. But she still sat up at an empty table and a cold meal because she hoped he'd pull of some prank where he showed up despite everything after all.

He thinks about the last year and of every day he was tortured and every fantasy that Natasha became a skewed, wrong image that didn't match who she was anymore. He thinks about Madame Masque and how they aren't that different.

"We can admit how fucked up we are."

He thinks about Banner and Stark and Thor and Coulson and his mother and father and Barney.

He thinks of Rogers and how he better not wait up for Clint.

He thinks of Natasha.

This time, his last words were "I'm sorry. For everything…"

It's a thousand times better than "or die".

Clint inhales sharply and plunges the syringe into his arm. Slowly, he presses at it.

He shakes his head, letting the poison run its course, and flexing his fingers until they stop trembling. The adrenalines kicking in and he's never felt more alive. How ironic.

He notches one final arrow; his last, he thinks. He stretches his arm back, letting the tips of his fingers brush against his lips. His eyes keep darting to the side, as though anticipating someone, or something.

He holds his position for a solid minute before relaxing the bow. He frowns, uncertain what to do now. He feels the twitch in his arm; his muscles are angry, having waited for the command from his mind to release the arrow like they've done a thousand times before, only to be told "no."

He praises himself that at least his mind still has that control over his muscles.

He takes the arrow in one hand, pulling out the napkin he'd stashed in his pocket. In one swift motion, he slams to arrow down, pinning the napkin underneath it to the ground. He stands and leaves without glancing at his final hit.

He tosses his bow aside once he reaches the stairwell; the exit sign above him blinking before the lights finally die. He hears the click of the door behind him just as the effects of the syringe hit.

A part of him expects to hear the screams and panic throughout the building; the crash of rubble and debris or the beeps of alarms (the alarms at least he hears faintly). The reality is he can't hear anything except his own breathing, his exasperated panting, and the heavy footsteps of his god damn dress shoes. He hates these shoes.

He ponders a second and it's a waste of precious time, breath and life, but he can't go any further in these damn shoes. They're easy to slip off, but they only remind him how much he hates this collar. Without the tie, he finds no point in leaving the shirt buttoned to the top and pulls apart the top buttons, snapping one off in the process.

He'd take off the belt, too, if his fingers weren't shaking and swelling and were able to pinch at the buckle.

He slips in his socks, gripping at the railing. His footsteps are quieter now; now the only noise is his choking sobs and the distant alarms. He's practically hunched on all fours, crawling up the steps. He can't die in the stairwell. He refuses.

His vision blurs and his mind already feels sluggish and unfocused. He tries to concentrate on taking one step after another, but each muscle feels like pins are ripping him. He feels on fire, like his body is crumbling in on itself like ash.

The pain of the serum spreading is immense; like his organs are shutting down and his blood continues to pump only to collect and swell and clot. He has too much red in his ledger to die so quick and painlessly.

(This isn't the way the Captain should go)

After everything, this is what he deserves.

He can imagine Natasha just hounding his ass for thinking such a thing, but even she has to know there was some truth to it all. The universe was finally catching up to him. He tried to sigh but that was too much of a strain, too painful, on his lungs. Blood was pooling out of him but he was too numb to feel the pulse of it, and his eyes were fixated on the steps; they seemed endless.

He thinks of Natasha waiting alone at a dinner he never shows up for.

He knew he had no place to choose where and how he wanted to die, not when so little of his life was really his choice, but once or so he may have fantasized about the prospect (a testament to how warped he had to be, fanaticizing his own death). He'd like to think he could have died in sight of the sky. As high as he could be, where he felt most comfortable. He can't die in this stairwell.

He thinks of all the times he's been tortured in his life and how they all meant nothing to the pain right now. He coughs up vomit and it's mixed with blood and it gets on his shirt but he sees the end of the stairwell just above him; the exit.

The roof.

He thinks of bringing Natasha into Shield and adding her name to his funeral arrangements. He thinks of waking up from Loki's control with her sitting by him telling him everything is going to be alright.

The suicide mission is finally catching up to him; making good on its promising title. He likes to think he's dying on his own terms, though, and not because Shield sealed his fate a year ago when the council had Fury hand him that envelope.

He thinks of the look of betrayal and horror on Natasha's face when she saw that the body of his was a decoy.

He thinks of his father and mother and they don't look quite right because his father is smiling, standing over his own grave with a hand out to Clint offering him to come home with them. He wonders where Barney is.

He reaches the door handle and a fear like no other spreads over him when he realizes there's a chance the door is locked.

He can't die in the stairwell, he thinks. Amidst these cement walls, with a roof over his head. He needs to see the open sky one last time. He's spent a year trapped underground and he's never felt more himself than when he's above it all.

The handle clicks and he's relieved to find it unlocked: one last miracle.

He pushes at the door with the last of his strength and that's it, he can't even bring himself to drag his feet forward so he falls.

He falls and he hopes he's able to turn himself just enough so that the last thing he sees is the sky.

But it's not.

The last thing he sees is an image of Natasha in the socks he bought her, nodding at him to tell him she made it.

Pinned to the floor, digging into the wooden board, is an arrow stabbed through a note. As Natasha approaches the square note, she realizes it's a napkin.

Scribbled in pen in a handwriting she'd recognize any day of the week is a short message, and in a split second she's read over it countless times until tears well and blur the message in her eyes.

'Never forgive me.'

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