A Minor Bird

When We Were Young

"I have an assignment for you, Agent Romanov."

Without giving much thought, she shrugs, instinct drawing her to the file Fury has presented her.

"Are we going to wait for Barton?" She murmurs nonchalantly.

"Barton isn't with you on this one. It's a solo."

She quickly clears her throat, berating herself inwardly for assuming.

"What is it, then?" She's capable enough to perform a solo mission-she's done countless of them before. There's a slight security of having Barton involved, but by no means is she dependant on him. She imagines this will be no different-a quick in and out mission; maybe a theft or even an assassination, though this line of work tends to avoid those more than her previous occupation. The old her would have described it as being 'softer', but now she recognizes it as being 'moral'.

"You're just going to observe."

She scoffs, "That sounds more like Barton's kind of job."

Fury doesn't so much as blink.

"The target is a billionaire. He's causing a bit of a scene, nothing hostile. He's friendly enough, we need to implant you within his circle for observation and evaluation. He has a few loose screws and the degree of unpredictability waivers on this guy. A lot. We also are looking into him as a part of the Avengers initiative."

Natasha raises a brow.

"That sounds more like my kind of job."

She opens the file and flips through the introduction paperwork-until she reaches the photo and biography report. Her shoulders drop.

"You've got to be kidding me." She throws the photo up, rather appalled at Fury. "Stark?"

Fury sympathizes with her, she knows it, but his face gives away nothing. After she lets it sink in that he's not kidding, he finally steps past her, leaving her and the files and a final word for thought, "You're one of our best. I can count on you to carry this out."

Natasha mutters a quick Russian curse before picking up the file and striding out of the room, desperate to find a specific sparring partner to blow off the frustration of her latest assignment.

"I leave tomorrow," She breathes out, taking a quick swig of water as her partner, seated in his own corner of the ring, pats his brow down with a towel.

"Tomorrow?" He sounds a little bothered, but she ignores it. He can't be any more distraught than she is, she bitterly reminds herself.

"Just some simple infiltration. I'm to 'observe and evaluate'."

Clint frowns. "Sounds more like my kind of thing."

"It's Stark."

He nods, "That is your territory."

She's flattered that her skill set is being so highly recommended in regards to the infamous Tony Stark. So much flattered that she glares at Clint, causing him to chuckle lightly. It's fake and she knows it but she's grateful none the less because he means it as a gesture to try and sooth her. Sighing, she leans against the ropes, just as he stands.

"It shouldn't be too long. Infiltrate his company, close enough to keep an eye on him but with enough distance to not draw too much attention-"

"-Clint, I know how to do my job."

"-watch him for a week or two, and report that he's a raging drunkard playboy with little self-control."

She snorts.

"You've already got him pegged, you can write the report."

He laughs again, this time with a little more sincerity, but it still isn't as comforting as if he genuinely was laughing.

"Well, at least it's an easy job," He murmurs, but she catches the underlying meaning. Her eyebrows pinch in a scowl and she quickly rises back to her feet.

"Wait, you got an assignment, too?"

He nods hesitantly, "Yeah, Coulson briefed me on it this morning."

"You weren't going to tell me?" She asks, hiding the pang of discomfort in finding out about this only now.

He shrugs.

"I'm telling you now."

She ignores him, her face hardening in that too familiar scowl that he's already memorized and dissected and rebuilt a thousand times over in his head before.

"Where is it?"

He sniffs, rubbing his nose. "Tibet."

"A recon? Assassination? Intel?"


At this she glares, irritated that it's now been twice that he's tried to disclose information from her.

"Clint," she warns, her voice low and demanding, stepping into his personal space as she eyes him. He watches her, his face unreadable as he merely blinks before he sighs and rubs his neck.

"Tasha, I'm tired. I'm going to catch some shut eye before-"

"When do you leave?"

He doesn't respond and she knows it's before she does.

"Tonight," she answers for herself.

Again, he says nothing but his silence confirms it.

"And you really won't tell me what it's about?"

There's a pause, and finally he smirks, and this time it's a genuine smile.

"You'll break into the files and read up on the mission the moment I'm gone anyway."

She shrugs, unable to argue with that.

"I'd spend it however the hell I wanted to, with whoever the hell I wanted to."

Her answer surprises her, because it's the most honest thing she's said to Stark since her arrival and because it's too personal for her tastes. The moment he leaves the room, she knows he'll take her words and run with it, and somehow she'll feel guilty for spurring on his behavior.

But, in that moment, she can't quite shake the fact that the moment she said those words, a certain face came to mind.

She looks out the window, giving herself a moment's breather as she wonders how his mission is going.

True to his words, she broke into the file the next morning, right before she'd departed to become Natalie Rushman, a secretary to Stark Industries. She knew the mission was a quick one-hell, he might already be back at base by now. She also knew he wasn't particularly fond of the cold weather, and maybe just to rub it in his face she thought about picking up some souvenir down at one of the local shops, maybe some fresh homegrown strawberries or something equally as insulting.

Her response does prompt the question, just what exactly is 'however' and who is 'whoever' that she'd want to spend her, hypothetically, last birthday with?

She tries to think of the perfect location; of all the places she'd been, but none are remotely pleasant memories and tied to all of them are fake identities and blood stained pasts. She'd imagine she'd want to be somewhere that she felt like Natasha, not 'Natalie' or 'Sonya' or any other of her numerous aliases.

And she'd want to be with people close to her, who knew her.

Strange how her final birthday scenario scene looks a lot like the previous night from not to long ago, sitting in a sparring ring opposite her partner.

The pleasant thoughts are cut short when she hears commotion from below and knows Stark is already stirring up trouble. In a moment, she finds Ms. Potts and an intoxicated Stark, and she can't help but think how this 'observe and evaluate' job is turning out to be more like a baby sitting gig.

The moment Tony peels from the parking lot, Natasha has pulled out her cell phone, peering around to make sure no one is present, and she phones in Coulson.

"Stark was just here. He appears to be returning back home-"

"So that's where he went?" Coulson sighs from the receiver's end. "How's he look?"

"Better. He looks...inspired. I don't think we'll have to worry about him cleaning up his sorry ass for too much longer," she smirks, and she means it. The sooner Stark gets her shit together, the sooner she can return to base.

"I've been reassigned," Coulson drops, sparing no small talk or ease into the reveal. Natasha switches ears, flipping the phone over in her hand.

"Reassigned? Where to?"

"New Mexico. Something's come up."

Natasha scoffs, shaking her head. "Unbelievable. And I'm..?"

"Still needed here."

"-To clean up after Stark's mess?"

He doesn't bullshit her. "Something like that."

"Have fun in New Mexico," she frowns, again pondering if Stark will even live to see her mission through.

Again, Coulson doesn't bother waiting or beating around the bush.

"Barton will be there."

"Clint?" She asks, a little too quickly. It's not encouraged nor is it exactly taboo to refer to an agent by their first name, so personally. But it's Coulson, and he knows both agents, and he knows how close they are. Coulson hesitates a moment, before slowly nodding (She can't see it but she knows he's doing it).

"Yes. We're rendezvousing at the checkpoint. We're not sure what exactly is out there, but the radiation it's giving off is attracting attention and Shield is trying to get a jump on it before any others make a move."

Natasha understands, her eyes still scanning the corners of the office in case someone ventures too near.

"Right." Is all she responds with, but Coulson waits because he knows she wants to say more. Send a message along to Barton, as they don't keep in contact while on separate missions, where communication is limited.

She swallows quickly and thinks, but finally decides she doesn't have anything to say, and is about to give a quick, curt goodbye when Coulson cuts her off, "I'll inform him you're doing fine."

She's grateful, but like hell she'll let Coulson know that. She hangs up quickly, cutting off her own quick goodbye prematurely. She smoothes down her skirt, flips her phone back into her pocket, and wanders off to find and follow Ms. Potts to her next meeting for the afternoon.

When she first started off at Shield, she wasn't exactly the easiest to get along with. She was adjusting and trying so desperately to prove her loyalty and show that she wanted to be here-she wanted to set her life straight on a more worthy path (Not that what she did now made her a hero or anything). She'd been sharp at the tongue and quick in retaliation. She'd been difficult to handle and few bothered trying to.

Except, of course, Clint.

His patience was his virtue, and no matter how many cruel things she'd yell at him or tricks she'd try to break him, it never worked. He wasn't one to fall to taunts and acts. So, she'd resort to attacking, and he'd prove just as effective in spars and defenses as she was. He was near impossible to break.

The first time she honestly saw him do so was on a mission, just the two of them. He was barking orders through her com and she had ignored well over half of them. She had infiltrated the base while he sat up in his nest, a safe distance from the action, acting as sniper and picking up any targets she left behind. He was yelling at her to get out, that the mission had been compromised as back up was filling in from every exit and it was too much for him to take out.

She insisted, however, that she could continue. The mission wasn't complete and she had a great deal of confidence that she could finish it. He questioned how exactly she planned to escape, with every exit outnumbering her far too greatly.

Her response was to remark in such a clichéd fashion, "I'll figure something out,", followed by tossing the earpiece to the side, moving on without waiting for Barton's response.

Needless to say, he looked terrifyingly livid when he burst in from behind her not but a few minutes later, bow drawn and a profusely bleeding bullet wound in his side. She had been cornered and his timing was impeccable, releasing three quick arrows and clearing her path.

She was more than a little surprised to see him having left his nest, loosing the high ground, but before she could yell anything about how stupid he was, he had pulled her to her feet and was pushing her onward, yelling something about the mission.

At the time she was trying to keep her distance from him, and refused to appear too concerned about his well being. So it bothered her more than him that she kept stealing glances at his side, the wound going mostly unattended to as he hobbled along in a limping sprint beside her, yanking her every other direction towards their targeted room on the top floor.

At one point, he stopped using his bow and arrows, and when she managed a glance at his quiver she noticed he only had one arrow left. She didn't ask why he was saving it, because he still had a gun on him and he was just as skilled with that as his bow, so it didn't matter to her.

The moment their mission was completed, from a target stand point, she stood up, turning to face him. They were locked in the top floor's room, the single exit door being barricaded by makeshift weights of desks and whatever else Barton could find. It hit her then that they really needed to come up with an escape, because though she didn't want to admit it she really didn't feel like dying over some stupid mission as this was.

Barton was ahead of her, however, with his bow in hand and fingers on the custom controls, the single arrow fitting into an arrow head as he made his way towards a south-facing window.

With a quick kick, the window shattered and he posed his aim across the property, to a neighboring building roof.

"What are you doing?" She asked, though in all honesty it was pretty obvious. He sent the arrow sailing, a cable line streaming behind it.

He jerked the end in her direction.

"Agent Romanov, if there's anything I hope you take out of your experience with me as your partner, I hope it's the concept of a partner itself."

She stared at him, confused. When she didn't move, he briskly pushed her towards the window, slipping the cable into her fist and clenching it around the wire for her with her hand. She still stared at him bewildered. What was he lecturing her about for?

"Partners listen to the other, as instructed, and they watch each other's back. You put your partner first and foremost-not the mission, but your partner." He didn't even ask her permission of give warning before he picked Natasha up by the waist, slinging her onto the window sill. It was at this moment she decided to jerk to attention, trying to squirm out of his grip but unable to do so.

"W-wait, what are you doing? Idiot, how will you escape?"

He smiled, and it was the first time she'd seen him genuinely smile.

"I'll figure something out."

He pushed her, and the last fleeting image she had of him was that damn smile of his, framed by an empty quiver and a now useless bow.

"You cut your hair?"

She looks up when he walks in, a towel draped over his shoulder as he's fresh from the showers. She's slowly lacing up her boots to go in for her own trial down in training, though she sits up straight when he makes his way over and sits beside her.

"Do you remember the mission where we became partners?"

He scratches behind his ear, "You mean the first mission? When I was simply to observe your behavior to evaluate your loyalty stand point-"


And he knows which one she's talking about, because they weren't really partners until after that mission.

"Nostalgic, are we, Natasha? What about it?"

"Do you remember how we got out of there?"

"I remember sending you down-"

"Not how I got out, not the first time. The second time, when we both got out."

He grins, "You came back for me. You almost compromised the mission. Twice."

Her face hasn't changed, she's still staring at him and reading him when he answers, before she finally responds,

"Your partner comes first, before the mission."

He smiles at her, a playful smirk that lingers only for a second before it falls. Natasha dodges her eyes around his face quickly before remarking,

"You need to shave."

"It's in Russia," is all she says. His back is turned to her and she can't see what he's doing with his hands but she sees his shoulders rotate and she assumes he's twiddling with an arrowhead, some final tweaks here and there.


"Something like that," she answers as she steps around him so she can see his face. She instinctively looks to his neck. The bandages are long gone but he's still been told to take it easy as of late. He straightens up and looks at her, noticing her eyes on him, and he sighs.

"Remember New Mexico?"

Natasha raises a brow.

"The Tesseract?"

He nods.

"Coulson wants me there."

"Isn't Dr. Selvigg apart of that?"

He nods again.

He scoffs, and it's a real smile but it's bitter.

"Right. You going to be alright?"

"I told you-it's interrogation." And that answers his question.

"Hey, Nat," He calls, just as she's turned around to exit. She looks back at him and his expression has changed. For a moment, it scares her.

"Don't die on me out there, alright?"

Her expression doesn't change but he can tell by the twitch in her fingers, momentarily, that his comment irritates her, insults her.

"You can't get rid of me that easily. I still owe you, remember that."

He chuckles, "Still going on about that?"

She doesn't say anything. He sobers up and nods, understanding. To them, the debt is precious; even if he deems it unnecessary. As far as he's concerned, she's already repaid him. But he'll let her continue using that excuse, until the day she finally lives up to the promise and they're left with nothing. He doesn't say so, but he actually fears the day that happens. Because when she finally does repay him, then there will be nothing holding her to him.

"What, are you going soft, Agent Barton?" She scoffs, noticing how there's a faded smile forming on his lips and his eyes are distant, no longer focused on her as she crosses her arms.

He smirks, and it's genuine.


That's the most terrifying thing.

The Tesseract is acting up, and he's been watching it for well over a couple of hours now. He hears the rumors that Fury is personally expected to arrive any minute. Occasionally Selvigg yells something up at him-he's irritated that the "hawk" stays rooted up in his "nest" but it's how he sees best. With a wide view range, he can see every exit and watch every personnel.

It flares and it's powering the entire building, so lights flicker when it surges and it's clear something is disturbing it. He looks between the scientists and agents below, and finally settles his eyes on that blue cube again, waiting for the handle to pull and the door to swing open. Because it's a gateway, and because doors do open from both ways.

For comfort, he wraps his arms around the railing and leans his chin into them. So he's on baby sitting duty for a tantrum-pulling energy source while Natasha is fraternizing at some extravagant party. He would say he's drawn the short straw but really it doesn't bother him that much. What does bother him is how on edge Natasha seemed when they departed the other night, and he reminds himself that when he sees her next, he'll try apologizing. He doesn't really understand what for or why he needs to, but maybe it's a start.

He finally determines that he'll ask her about it, when they see each other next.

Then, Fury is standing there calling him down and he whips his attention back to the Tesseract and his current mission. Natasha can wait, he thinks, dropping down the cable as the evacuation sirens beep muffled around him.

He bets she's eating caviar right about now.

Selvigg goes on about what materials he needs, where and when. Loki smiles, looking around the make shift base as his workers set about themselves; his slaves, his comrades. All willing and yet not at the same time. His eyes fall on the first target, the first to fall under his control.

"Your name?" He demands. It's not important to him, other than something to call by.

"Agent Clint Barton," he answers.

"Of Shield, is it now?" He asks. He has familiarized slightly with this world, this Midgard, though only enough to satisfy necessary details. He has some time, he thinks, before his plan of action can take place. And he needs to gather more information.

The agent nods and Loki suspects he's as good as any to extract said information from.

"Tell me, what of Shield you can. Tell me all their secrets, their weaknesses, their surprises."

The Agent obeys, going into great depths and details of Shield's purposes and motives. It's all textbook answers that they drill into rookies and Loki grows bored easily.

"What of the Tesseract? What has the mortals of this realm gathered on it thus far?"

This is where the agent falls short-his knowledge isn't as extensive as Loki would've suspected, and he recalls later to ask the scientist, who is busy building and constructing around the Tesseract, for a better fill on what the humans have gathered.

The agent does slip up something about a past conflict, a classified mission and the name 'Captain America' comes up. When Loki inquires this seemingly narcissistic, pompous figure, he's met with the interesting account of an 'Avenger's Initiative'.

It's at this moment that his brother's name comes up, and Loki, in spite of himself, snarls.

"So dear brother is in league with this initiative, is he now?"

"The whereabouts and communicational status of the suspect known as Thor are undetermined as of the moment," the agent responds, but Loki doubts his brother will remain idle once it reaches his ears of Loki's return. No doubt that fun reunion is already being set in motion.

He smirks at the thought of the dark magic that will be gathered to send his brother. Oh, that'll put a stain, a damper, in his day. Having to resort to so low and tabooed arts and magic.

The agent continues with his report, and Loki grows rather interested in the mention of a specific Doctor Banner, of 'Hulk' familiarity. He pries the report on such a magnificent sounding monster, unstable and feared even amongst Shield's top agents, and a plan forms in Loki's mind.

"And, he'll no doubt be brought in from hiding?" He asks, interested.

"His gamma radiation studies are on par to no one. He's still under Shield surveillance and will no doubt be called upon for the tracking of the Tesseract," Barton assures him.

Loki thinks a moment.

"So, this is who stands in my way? A make shift team of legends and monsters under a proposed plan of unification? Even I can see the cracks in that armor. Play them against themselves and..."

The idea is set in motion and, satisfied, he rolls his shoulders back, relaxed as his scepter falls to his side.

Curious and content, he turns back to the agent.

"Then I propose a plan. To help...push along our fated heroes," he snickers, "Give them a bit of chaos, divide them. It's inevitable they'll be sought after, for, so the threat is very real and must be dealt with. I'll play them into my hands, it's all too easy," he muses.

"I suggest caution," the agent suddenly remarked, snapping Loki from his reverie.

"What?" He asks, slightly taken aback by the agent's words, for daring to stand up to his authorities.

"Humans aren't all to be underestimated," the agent responds. His words are rather insulting, but his tone means well and Loki can tell it's difficult, the scepter's control over this agent's heart and mind. He's fighting it.

Loki means to break him for the impudence.

"What possibly could restore your faith in their success? Have you not seen what the Tesseract shows? It shows truth and the inevitable; this is the future. Yet, you'd fight it?"

"I only mean to warn you, sir."

It's insulting how honest his precaution is, and Loki, more irritated now, slumps his shoulders and scowls.

"You mean to say they have a chance to stop me?"

"I mean to say there's a chance that, if my presumption of your capture is correct, they could very well undermine you."

Loki pauses a moment, then responds, "How so?"

"They have ways of extracting information. Ways not to be taken lightly."

"Interrogations? I hardly think I will fall victim to whatever heinous torture you petty humans can come up with."

There's a moments hesitation, and Loki catches it.

"Rather...who does the interrogation?"

Again, a pause, and now Loki knows the agent is fighting whatever information he's forcibly revealing.

"Agent Romanov."

It comes out through gritted teeth and Loki grins madly when realization hits him.

"Tell me...you warned of weaknesses, did you not? I have asked of the weaknesses to Shield's defenses, to their fall back plan, and you tried to warn me to guard my own, yet all this time I haven't heard a word from you of yours..."

He grins because he can read it through those blue eyes, strangely hypnotizing and enticing in how vulnerable and cold they appear.

"Tell me about this...Agent Romanov. You're positive she'll come to see me?"

"I am."

"Why's that?"

"Because of me."

Loki's smile widens immensely.

"Interesting...tell me about her."

She doesn't fear much; fear is a weakness. But only fools fear nothing, and being foolish is worse than admitting when one is afraid.

So she's both a fool and afraid as she waits patiently in the small abode, at the outskirts of the town. She hears a truck roll by and instinct tells her Banner is near. A moment later, she hears the pitter patter of the girl's feet (A local they paid off) as she leads Banner into the house. A minute later, she's slipped out the window.

Banner is suspicious, and rather than let curiosity fester in him and possibly spark his anger, she makes herself known.

He looks tired and wary and cautious and otherwise harmless. He's a drained man in rags and blended well with the poverty he's submerged himself in.

But Natasha knows better than to ease up around him.

She knows the beast behind those drained eyes and she knows she has more reason to fear him than he does to fear her.

He asks if she's here to kill him, and the irony would have her laughing at any other situation. She could kill Coulson right about now, for sending her here. She's uncomfortable and nervous and afraid. She would have put up a fight and argued until the moon fell on taking up this assignment had it been under any other circumstance.

But she's standing here, afraid and petrified and on pins and needles, because without this man, this doctor who when rubbed the wrong way could very well kill her and all the men surrounding them, they have no hope in finding Barton.

So she sets aside her fear and hesitates with the gun in her hand because as much as he pushes her and as much as she's afraid, she refuses to leave without his cooperation one way or another.

Because Barton would have done the same and because she needs to find him.

The scientist's design is nearly complete, and Loki is all too eager to begin it. The Tesseract acts as the command; it shows and instructs the scientist and for that Loki doesn't bother with overseeing too much of the details. He plots and plans and meditates, awaiting the signal to move his plan into action.

He finally approaches the scientist, worn and weathered with stubble and almost a deranged, drunkard high of power and knowledge. He babbles on about the Tesseract-Loki has seen it all, he only half listens to the doctor's bewildered amazement. He turns to the faithful servant, the agent,

"What has it shown you?"

"My next target."

He's a god to these mortals, yet even he can't deny the irksome feeling when the agent responds. The other mortals are so petty, so engulfed by the Tesseract. They worship it with all their being and fall at their knees before it. Like the engineering scientist, so engrossed in the Tesseract and all that it has shown him. It's shown knowledge and worlds and opened his mind to everything beyond the capabilities of human thoughts.

But the agent is different.

He is strict and treats this no different than a mission. The Tesseract shows him targets and goals, never knowledge and truth. Orders. And he stands, watching the agent, wondering what is it this agent refuses to see.

Natasha keeps her calm in the face of the makeshift team. They bicker and argue and their tension is as audible as their breathing to her ears. Inwardly, she's a child, throwing a tantrum that Fury is holing her up inside the Hellicarrier rather than tracking Barton herself. But she knows it would do her no good being anywhere else but here. If they find a trace on Barton, this is the first place that will be alerted.

Recruiting Banner was fun, to say the least. Coulson owes her one, she settles on. The moment she reaches the control room, strolling in with Banner and Rogers at her heel, she makes towards the screen. It's a faint hope, but she taps the screen to tracking Barton's vitals and location.

Still concealed.

Then, there's a reading. She jumps alert-it's Loki. She doesn't even need to glance at Fury before she's heading towards the copilot position in the Quinjet. Like he'd assign any other agent other than her, when there's a chance Barton might be with him.

It's all a fuzzy blur to Barton, but he distinctively recognizes that whatever he's doing, he shouldn't. He's fumbling through the security, bow in hand, and flash forwards to handling some metal. His mind is screaming but all he acknowledges is that the mission is complete and he needs to return to Selvigg, resource in hand, to complete the mission. He doesn't so much as bother asking or questioning what the mission is-he just moves along with his orders.

In the back of his mind, he almost praises himself for so flawlessly achieving the goal set to him by the Tesseract.

Through the mirror, she catches sight of Loki. She's read over Fury's report and she knows damn well that he's the cause of Barton's predicament. She has half a mind to jump from her seat and unleash a full reel on him, just shoot point blank until her gun burns out or he bleeds dry-whichever comes first. But shooting hardly ever does anything, at least when answers are involved. That, and she's needed to fly.

She has questions, and she isn't Barton, but she still can muster enough patience to wait out until the appropriate time.

There's storm interference; thunder, and she hears the snide remark directed towards the prisoner. She mockingly scowls at his fear, ignoring the sensible side that is warning her 'this was all too easy; he wants to be here'. That doesn't matter now. She could care less what his goal is-she just wants to know what he needs of Barton. Where is Barton.

When Thor makes himself known, Natasha recognizes him, simply through Barton's description of the guy (Though the surveillance footage from New Mexico helps the identification as well). In an instant, Loki is yanked off the Quinjet, but Natasha has dealt with enough crazy today not to panic immediately. Stark is off after them, and despite her half-hearted attempt to warn him, Rogers follows.

With a heavy sigh, Natasha lowers the Quinjet.

She doesn't have clearance by Fury, but she knows even he couldn't stop her. Loki is up to something and Fury knows damn well that she's the only one capable of playing off his ego to learn his motive. This is strictly an interrogation, another mission. She's professional and will play with whatever tactics to smuggle the truth from him.

She might try her luck in getting out a word or two on Barton, but she won't press it if that hinders her original intention. She thinks she's confident on where she stands in the relationship-the partnership-between herself and Barton, but there's an uneasiness that warns her not to pry too heavily into that topic of discussion. She won't admit it, but it scares her.

Just like it scares her that she doesn't know where Barton is.

And the moment Loki notices her presence, he already acts too familiar with her. He knows her name-a bit of her is impressed, that he would bother to familiarize himself enough with the enemy. Immediately she recognizes how to get him to talk. He's as power-lustful as they come, and it's all too easy to play off that weakness of his, that cockiness. She was hoping to leave Barton out of this, but now she realizes it's the exact opposite. Barton is the key to getting this guy to fess up, to twist his words against him.

"I owe him a debt."

It's not a lie. She hasn't lied yet. She doesn't spare him the story, her past with Barton. It's not a secret and if it will open up this God to talking then she'll tell it a hundred times over. He catches her off guard when he mentions the details she did leave out-the fire and so on he continues. It catches her off guard but it doesn't derail her. She's come to terms with those events long ago and he's just entangling himself further in her web.

"Thank you for your cooperation," She mocks, turning to leave in haste. She refuses to admit that she is shaken, to the core. His words have reached her, just like he meant them to and just like she hoped to avoid. But if he's the scorpion, stinging into her back, then she is the frog, and together they'll sink. They're both sinful people, and if it took breaking her to break him, then she doesn't regret it for an instant.

Because they're now one step closer to stopping him, and that's a step closer to finding where is Barton.

Her answer comes in the form of a blast, followed (After a rather close run-in with the infamous 'other guy') by a com link conformation that Barton has boarded with Hellicarrier. And is responsible for the engine failure and bulk of the damage (Though the 'other guy' is now hot on his trail in the department of damage coverage).

"Does anyone copy?" Fury demands, exasperated.

She's shaken and afraid and in pain. She also now has her wish granted-she knows where Barton is.
"This is Agent Romanov. I copy."

She's exhausted and sore but adrenaline is numbing her nerves as she watches the medics lift Barton onto the sling. She's just now beginning to feel shaken and it's finally dawning on her what happened. They've sparred before and they never hold back, but they've never fought before with such intent to kill.

Natasha even suspects when he first found her, on that fateful mission, that he wasn't as focused as he was now on killing her. He was human back then, with free will and thoughts of his own and a conscious. Now, just then, he'd been a shell with eyes that she neither recognized nor recognized her.

She limped alongside the medics-like hell she'd leave his side now. One tried to shuffle her to the side, to stop, to see to her own injuries. She elbowed the man to keep moving, he was blocking her path to follow Barton.

From where she walked, she could see he closed eyes, swollen and dark from lack of sleep. She swallowed down any emotion other than urgency because right now he needed to be restrained-it wasn't confirmed if he was fully himself again yet or not, and if they wanted to try to treat him or keep him from harming himself or anyone else, they needed to do it now while he was out.

She doubted he'd rested for a moment, even from before the mission. As an agent, they slept little to begin with-always alert and always working their bodies into overtime as needed. From the interaction Natasha had with Loki, and what she could gather from such an interview, she doubted Loki's magic trick, this hold he had on the minds of Barton and the other agents under him, allotted for any down time or sleep.

She shuddered to think what a state they'd find the doctor in, who was less use to the strain of going days without sleep as Barton was accustomed to.

The medics were agents themselves and did well to hold their ground, binding Barton down in the chair and injecting a few sedatives into him, to slow his mind and perhaps loosen the control of magic on him. They were preparing for the worse, already arranging for, if necessary, lethal precautions. This was where Natasha drew the line, stepping in and herding the agents from the room. She was more than enough to handle Barton, she hoped.

When he slowly began to come to it, nearly an hour later, she was expecting, and hoping, he'd jump awake as himself. Instead, it was a slow and painful process to watch as he eased into consciousness, the control and rage of the Tesseract still fighting within him. He was out of focus and images and lights blurred through his vision and head, and she could only sit and watch. She waited, tense, as he slowly came to it until finally he started sounding like himself again, composed and whole and as professional as ever, as alert as if he'd just returned from a mission.

When she later witnessed Dr. Selvigg, the scientist in a similar situation as Barton, awake fully comprehensible and well aware nearly immediately after being knocked unconscious, she would pretend that it didn't bother her that while Barton had had to struggle even after the cognitive recalibration, Selvigg had skipped that hangover with only so much as a mild headache.

She would pretend that theories in her head didn't form that either Selvigg was stronger against the temptation of the Tesseract, or Barton's control had been modified harshly to further control him.

Natasha stumbles backwards, watching the speck that is Stark spur awake stories below her. She looks back at Selvigg, who is relieved and lets it show as he starts smiling for the first time since she's seen or met him. She reaches to her com as Steve's voice buzzes through, "It's not over yet. One last thing to take care of."

She can hear Stark in the background muttering some incoherent babble, slipping in something about food and she doesn't think she can stomach anything at the moment but she knows to give herself ten minutes and she'll be starving.

From peering over the edge, she knows Bruce is with them, howling like mad at Stark's feet. Thor and the Captain are there, too, lifting Stark up on his feet and heading for the tower. She knows Loki is inside, and he's left as the final puzzle piece to be played.

She stops when the body count doesn't add up.

"Where's Clint?" She hastily remarks, speaking through the com.

There's a silence, and finally Steve breaks it. "Agent Barton? Come in, Barton."

"Oi, Hawkboy?" Stark adds in, unnecessarily.

For a good, final measure, Natasha barks, "Clint?"

Finally there's a buzz and static blends with coughing as Barton joins the conversation.

"Right, Stark's tower, is it?"

Natasha breathes a sigh of relief.

"You would know, you sent him flying here."

She can hear, disturbingly, the blood caked on his teeth crack as he smiles, and it's one of the worst sounds she thinks' she's ever heard yet it's a relief to hear.

"Was aiming for his eye, though. Guess I'll take second best."

"Or you can have another shot," Natasha growls, stepping up to beat the others to the room below her where their enemy is out cold. She ignores the fact Thor might have heard everything, but a part of her wants to challenge him to tell them off. Not after everything they've been through.

"Where are you, Barton? Can you stand? Do you need assistance?"

Steve is answered with a cough that sounds a lot like choking to Natasha and finally Clint manages to gruff out a curt, "I'm a few floors down from my prior position, the building adjacent to the Stark Tower. I can feel my legs alright, but-"

He's cut off and Natasha freezes in her tracks.

"Clint? Are you alright?"


Steve cuts him off. "Thor is on his way," and as though reading her mind, "Natasha, stay put. We'll meet you up in the tower in a minute. Thor, Barton, meet us there."

Stark and Steve anticlimactically arrive through the elevator, which ironically works fine and proper despite the state of the tower.

"Jarvis, perform a sweep on the damage of the Tower. Build me up a nice chart, maybe a pie graph for the hell of it. Just some number crunches you can show me later that I'll inevitably blow off and push to the side in favor of something more worth while," Stark motions to the air.

"My pleasure, sir."

Natasha strains to keep her foot from tapping, waiting as Steve stalks towards the unconscious God. He stirs slightly, but Natasha already has her Widow Bites charged to the maximum and she's secretly praying she gets the chance to land in a punch before Thor arrives.

She's both disappointed and relieved when Thor, hammer swinging and all, comes thundering down on Stark's patio. Stark jumps, making some comment about property damage that, given the circumstances, they all ignore. Natasha releases her clenched fists the moment Barton stumbles out from Thor's grip, straightening himself onto his own two feet.

Stark is limping, but his suit acts as a cast to prop him up. Steve already is recovering, thanks to his serum, and Thor looks relatively untouched save for dirt and ash. A minute later, Banner joins them as well, though Natasha hardly notices.

Barton, on the other hand, looks like the walking dead. The brief time he spent knocked unconscious thanks to Natasha was not enough to provide the appropriate sleep recovery that he needed, after spending countless hours without rest under Loki's control. His eyes were still ringed in bruises and his arms looked to fair no better. Specs of glass littered his shoulders and Natasha could see the dried blood seeping through his shirt. She strained to get a better look at his back, which was prodded and punctured with more glass, and she knew under that vest was not a pleasant sight.

"Clint-" She starts, but he's already drawing and arrow to his bow and limping towards the stirring God of Mischief.

The others aren't as concerned as Natasha, and gathered around Barton, eyes all fixated on Loki as he crawls upwards along the steps. Thor hangs back, hiding his disappointed scowl. Natasha knows he'll blame himself, she just isn't aware the extent for how long, as he's not a human and she doesn't know how exactly they mourn mistakes on their side of space. Stark looks smug-maybe an inside joke, possibly between himself and Loki, or just a smug sign of retribution. Steve is serious, and Banner's expression mirrors the anger that, as he noted, he constantly bares.

Clint's face is unreadable, to all but Natasha, who lingers in hesitation, back with Thor, picking up on the twitch of energy in his fingers. He's itching to let them slip, to send the arrow point blank from his prep, but he doesn't.

It's that kind of restraint that makes him a better agent than herself, she thinks, because if she was any closer to Loki she swears she'd send a kick to his head, especially after he dryly remarks he'll "take that drink now."

Oh, it won't be easy

As you reach your final end

When our days are spent

And I watch you transcend

It's been a day and Natasha jolts awake. It's one of those dreams that you feel yourself falling, even with a mattress firmly under you, and she doesn't remember the dream when she wakes up, which she's grateful for, but she still doesn't feel too easy when reality seeps back into her mind. She hasn't heard much from Shield, other than that Loki's departure, along with Thor and the Tesseract, will take place that day, roughly around noon.

She could try to catch more sleep, because her body needs it, but she's wide awake and doubts she'd be able to find any sleep. Not now, not with everything returning.

Her mattress is a makeshift bed, part of the guest room chain that Stark's tower housed, in one of the lower levels of the tower, apart of the few untouched levels, still in tact from the invasion off yesterday. Funny how everything has happened under twenty-four hours since then.

Natasha washes her face quickly and throws on some casual clothes, courtesy of Pepper's over-stay closet. She has her own locker back at base, filled with the few dresses that she actually owns rather than what is provided for missions and marks, and the occasional shirt of Barton's that she stole, or in any case has yet to return. Not that he ever pesters her about it; he has others and if laundry is tight he'll re-wear the one from the previous day.

From the sound of the snoring, she knows Thor is to her left. She makes her way from her room to...well, she doesn't know. It doesn't occur to her where to go, because she isn't exactly knowledgeable on the architectural purpose of Stark's tower, nor does she have any idea where she wants to be at this moment. She isn't hungry, or thirsty. Anxious, maybe, but she doubts there's an adequate training facility (For now) at the tower. So, she decides she wants fresh air.

The roof.

It's not even a surprise that he's already beaten her there. If she had to guess, she might even say he didn't sleep; that he's been perched at Stark's personal landing pad all night long, as though keeping watch and expecting the second wave of Chitauri.

Natasha stepped up the stairs, making her way to Barton and stopping just one step shy of the top, where he sat.

"Barton, you haven't slept properly in-"

"Tasha," He quickly cut her off. He didn't need a medical evaluation. He needed a friend.

Natasha closed the gap, sitting beside his back. She wasn't afraid of heights, but like any decent person it was slightly unsettling to sit at the edge of a platform several stories above the solid concrete. Maybe Barton wasn't as human as everyone thought to remind themselves he was.

"You know what this really, essentially, means, right?" He asks, trying to lighten the mood by cracking a forced smile. Natasha humors him, if nothing else by asking, "What?", though her face is still hardened with concern.

"You don't owe me anymore."

Her eyes flicker for a moment, then settle on his own. She doesn't say anything, because she's trying to think of something witty to remark by, some excuse or other that keeps the game going. She wants to say something, because if she leaves it at that then it's understood that everything they've built upon has just now dissolved, like a neutral pact of separation. She doesn't want separation, or for any of this to end, so she forgets all about trying to joke around because this is serious and because honesty is the best policy.

"You're still my partner."

And being a partner means putting your partner first. Always. Regardless if there's a debt, or a mission, or anything like that. It's a command, not even a request or option; he is her partner, and he can't leave her now.

In a way, it's an answer to whatever self-loathing and pitying he's been moping around, doing for the past eight plus hours. Agents and civilians and soldiers are to be mourned and remembered, but there's also a degree of selfishness that must be taken in that you are alive and must live with that fact. And he isn't allowed to cop out, or to quit or resign or loathe himself because all of those things divert his eyes from focus and if he isn't focused then he cannot watch his partner's back. Because he's still her partner.

"The send off is at noon," She breaks in, though he already knows. He nods. It's a couple of hours away. He doesn't move because he's as lost and out of place at this tower as Natasha is. There's no where to go, just to wait for the others and then see to it that Loki is returned to where he never should have left from.

"Did you get any sleep?" Natasha finally asks. Clint finally breaks into a smile, because she's sounding more and more like a mother he never knew, barking orders and commands at him, laced with concern that she isn't bothering to hide. He inhales sharply, painfully, as though to answer her and turns around to retreat back inside.


"The council wants to see you."

She rose to stand beside him, but Fury shook his head.

"Not you, Romanov. Just Barton."

She wouldn't admit it, but a bit of fear jumped inside of her. Because she had seen this coming but had refused to accept it. And because she knew no matter what she said or pleaded, Clint was going to ignore her because he was that righteous kind and she'd never been able to accept that about him.

Still, she tried to argue nonetheless.

"Director Fury, you can't let them punish Agent Barton. It wasn't his fault, Loki-"

"-The Council is well aware of the circumstances, agent Romanov," Fury recited, though she could tell not all the agitation in his voice was reserved for her, "However, regardless of that fact, they still wish to see Agent Barton."

And she could tell that Fury had fought just as hard as she would've to the Council, but it had meant not a damn thing, just like it did now.

"Director Fury-" She tried again.


It was Clint who silenced her, his voice quiet and his eyes focused, looking directly past Fury, out the door towards the hallway.

She waited for him to spew some speech on duty and punishment and she bit the inside of her cheek, preparing for the lecture. But, it never came. Instead, he turned his eyes to face her, a thin smile pursing on his lips, meekly trying to hide the resentment in his eyes as he spoke softly,

"It's alright."

Fury said nothing, but she could tell this didn't sit well with him, either.

"Besides," Clint continued, the smile vanishing and his eyes returning back to just past Fury, his face hardening again after a moment of vulnerability, of tenderness. "I deliberately went against orders. I hijacked a Quinjet and took part in the unofficial aiding of the unrecognized Avenger's Initiative. Not to mention I damaged said Quinjet and the Helicarrier as well."

He didn't add that he had to account for the lives he'd also, albeit unwillingly, taken, but Natasha knew he was biting back that comment just for her. He nodded at Fury and walked past the man, inevitably towards his doom. Natasha didn't move, but she had half a mind to track down the Council and speak to them in person herself.

It was well over an hour before Clint finally exited the briefing room. If he looked drained and tired before, he now looked spent and exhausted. He gave her a weak smile as he trudged from the room, and she shot up, hesitating from reaching out and catching him as he looked like he'd fall over any minute.

"What'd they say?" She demands, not bothering to conceal her fear or beat around the inevitable. She braces herself to hear something, anything but termination. If he asks her to, she thinks, she'd go rogue for him. Just run away and leave the operation. There's no where they could hide that Shield wouldn't find them but they're damn good and they could keep on the run. If anyone could get away with running for the rest of their lives, it's these two.

The loyalty she has to her partner that even sparks such a suggestion in her mind scares her, because it far surpasses the loyalty she has for Shield, and Shield comes before her own life.

"Probation, until further notice."

She releases her breadth, a stream of air as her shoulders relax and the tension eases up-barely.

"The damage repairs..?"

"-Will cut into my paycheck for a while," he jokes, smiling feebly at her. It's forced and it's not something he should be joking about but the fact that he tried is enough for her.

"How were they?"

He rolls his eyes, humored.

"Not too pleased, to say the least, with me. I guess it doesn't help that the Director seems to be out of their favor at the moment, too."

Natasha nods once. What with the deliberate resistance to the missile launch on Manhattan and possibly a few choice words of attitude directed towards the Council, she isn't surprised that the frustration the Council has for Fury would trickle down in a successive order to the unfortunate agents. That, and Fury taking Barton's side in a fit of further defiance probably did less good for his case than it should have.

"I'm on a temporary leave," Barton finally sighs out. Natasha feels the boil of anger in her own stomach, and she's already mid-turning in motion to track down Fury when Barton catches her, "You, too."

She raises a brow.

"As my partner, you also will be under mild observation and questioning concerning my defection." She's surprised when he winks at her. "You also took part in the aid and assistance of the unapproved hijacking of a Quinjet and engaging in the enemy as not approved by the Council officially."

Natasha smirked, because under any other circumstance, Clint would have fought tooth and nail until the Council relented their joint punishment on himself and Natasha. Because he would never accept that she should be reprimanded for something he blamed solely on himself, whether she felt the same or not.

Because he'd called her his partner, and that was a promise more than a fact and was not debatable.

"So, if we're on probation...where do we go?"

Barton pretends to think for a moment before a genuine smile replaces his contemplative expression.

"Think Stark misses us?"

"I think he owes me the most expensive bottle of vodka the market can offer." And then some. She did sort of save the world, and him, and his stupid tower.

Though in that small part of her that she allows herself to be selfish, she really only cares that she saved Barton.

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