Lover, I'll Be Home
'We know what we are, but not what we may be.' - William Shakespeare
The phone that Clint was holding loosely to his ear while one of the S.H.I.E.L.D medics prodded his already inflamed bullet wound. "What?!" He barked disbelievingly, startling the doctor in front of him and causing him to send another heated glare in Clint's direction. It was at least the fifteenth glare he'd earned in the seven minutes since Clint had been herded into an examination room for his post-mission check over.
"She's in." Phil's voice echoed across the phone, the disbelief in his tone matching Clint's sudden speechlessness. "Fury just called me. He's been in a meeting with her for over two hours and apparently whatever she had to say, it was enough."
"WHAT?!" Clint repeated, even louder than the first time as his shock got the better of him.
The doctor didn't even bother glaring this time. Instead he merely threw the blood-pressure cuff he had just removed from Clint's arm back onto the table of equipment before stalking out of the room with the samples of blood he had taken. Clint and the medical staff on base, despite Phil's contrary belief, had a very good and functioning relationship that Clint had applied copious amounts of effort to develop.
When he was forced to spend time in the Medical Clinic they avoided him as much as humanly possible, and when he wasn't forced to visit the sterile hallways he did everything humanly possible to keep it that way.
To Clint it was a win-win.
Phil disagreed but that was neither here, nor there.
"What the hell did she say?!" Clint went on hurriedly sitting up from where he had been stretched out on a cot and attempting to pull his shirt back on while keeping the phone to his ear, not wanting to miss a word.
"I have no idea." Phil said incredulously. "The Director is keeping everything that was said in that meeting very close to the belt. And I literally can't think of anything at all that might have swayed him enough to let her stay."
"Bloody hell," Clint muttered still only halfway dressed having given up trying to manoeuver the hand that held the phone through his shirt. "She's in." He repeated Phil's words with equal amounts of incredulity, as he remained seated on the infirmary cot.
As much as he had fought for her and hoped that Fury might be persuaded he really hadn't had much faith that they would make good on his promise to her, and the knowledge that he had most likely brought her here to be executed had been eating at him for hours.
"You did it Clint," Phil's voice still held a hint of his initial disbelief but it was fading, almost as if he had expected this outcome despite the odds. Maybe he had. The older man had learned not to bet against him a long time ago. "I hope she wants this as much as you think she does." Phil cautioned.
"She does." Clint said, strongly, finally pulling the phone away from his ear long enough to get the rest of his shirt on and rising from the cot. As he rose he couldn't help the slight gnawing in his stomach that now had nothing to do with the possibility of her execution. Dear, god, I hope she does, he prayed.
Phil broke him from his thoughts. "Well, for now, Fury seems to agree." He said. "But she's still on probation. She had to pass the training and initiation."
"You really think that the Black Widow is going to fail S.H.I.E.L.D training." Clint said mockingly as he high-tailed his way out of the infirmary as fast as his legs would take him.
He'd gone, the doctors had pocked at him, stayed at least five minutes and had been a delightful enough patient – to him that meant his deal with Phil was square.
"You remember that prick Mitchel, the guy who flunked his physical twice and still after three years can't assemble an automatic rifle," Clint went on making his through SH.I.E.L.D's back hallways, not feeling up to the stares he was likely to earn if he strolled through the common areas. "He passed."
"Point taken." Phil agreed.
"She's going to be great, Phil." Clint said, not quite sure who he was meant to be assuring, Phil or himself. "Hell, she's already better than me."
"Really?" If Phil's voice had been incredulous earlier in the conversation it was nothing compared to the astonishment in his voice now.
"Well maybe," Clint amended with a smirk, using his shoulder to hold the phone to his ear while he picked the lock to the maintenance staircase that would lead directly to his room. "A little. If she's lucky."
"That sounds more like you." Phil snickered affectionately as Clint eased himself into the stairwell and began to climb to his floor. "Look, I got to go. The mountain of paperwork this debacle has landed me with is frankly cruel."
"Think on the bright side." Clint said. "At least I didn't blow anything up this time."
"No you just managed to hire a world-renown assassin. Somehow that requires even more paperwork which I didn't think was humanly possible." Phil muttered and as if to prove his point Clint heard some very distinct ruffling of pages in the background.
"Aww. Poor Phil." He cooed. "Missing your days in the action?"
"You know, you could help me," Phil suggested. "Seeing that her being here and my subsequent paperwork is all your fault."
"No can do." Clint said matter-of-fact-ly as he exited out onto his floor of the residential building. "Doctor said to take it easy for a few days. No strain what-so-ever."
"Paperwork is a strain, is it?" Phil deadpanned.
"No, but the constant desire to neck myself whilst doing it is a strain to resist." Clint smirked. "And besides, I do all the hard work around here anyway. All you have to do is document how cool I am."
"I am absolutely certain that none of the paperwork regarding your assignments say that." Phil continued dryly but without any real bite. The affection in his tone outweighed any grievances he might have really had. "The words 'insubordinate' and 'reckless' on the other hand make regular appearances."
"Same thing." Clint stated, coming to a halt in front of his room and placing his hand on the scanner that would unlock the door.
"Sure it is." Phil chuckled, not bothering to argue this time. "I better go get started. You rest."
"That is not going to be a problem." Clint emphasised heavily as he let himself into the room. He felt like he could sleep for a month. "Enjoy your paperwork – you're not fooling me, I know how much you secretly love documenting my epic escapades."
Phil didn't grace the comment with a reply before he hung up, but Clint did catch a mutter that sounded strangely like 'Smartass'. He chuckled softly and threw the phone in the direction of the bed while he headed towards the room's adjoining bathroom.
The distinct thump of the phone hitting something other than a mattress caused him to pause in the doorway.
He glanced across to the bed to see that the phone had indeed not hit the mattress but something else that was already resting upon it. A small, square object that he was sure wasn't there when he left for Germany.
Curiosity got the best of him and he pulled away from the bathroom door and made his way to the bed. Looking at the small object more closely he realised it was nothing more than a rather thick looking black book that seemed to have been stuck together in a rush. Small pieces of not very well struck down paper were protruding from almost every side, as if the entire book was made of cut-and-pasted articles.
After picking the mysterious book up and prying open the first page Clint realized that he wasn't all that fair off, but instead of articles the small, protruding pieces of paper were photos - dozens of them.
Only the first page was uncluttered by the roughly stuck down images. Instead it featured only one sentence in Phil's unmistakable handwriting. One sentence that banished all previous thoughts of sleeping despite his earlier exhaustion.
Just a few of the many people saved by Clinton Barton.
Clint didn't even noticed lowering himself down so that he was seated on the bed as he examined each, and every page of the small book. Each was filled with pictures and printed pieces of text – some from newspaper articles and others from S.H.I.E.L.D itself – describing who they were.
How Clint had altered their lives.
Some faces he recognised, like the two brothers on the third page who sat on the front steps of their home in Naples and looked no older than when Clint had last seen them after he assassinated a drug lord mere miles from those very steps, but most he had never seen in his life. Some pages didn't even feature individual people but entire towns such as the small village in Indian that Clint had visited just after coming to S.H.I.E.L.D where he and Phil had taken down a slave ring that had been kidnapping and selling the locals.
Clint wasn't sure how long he stared at the book – hours probably – but he couldn't drag his eyes away.
Didn't even want to.
He found himself gripping it so tightly that an onlooker might have thought it held its very salvation – and in a way it did.
Despite what he did now there was nothing he could ever do to make up for his past sins, and he still believed that no matter how many times Phil said that he deserved to be forgiven. To him no life saved could ever cancel out a life taken. The weight of those lives was never going to lessen no matter how much good he did now.
Clint believed that with his entire being, but he couldn't deny that as he flipped silently through the pages that that weight felt much more manageable than it had over the last few months.
It hadn't faded, not at all, but something in Clint as he stared at the last page of the book and the picture of himself and Phil that had been stuck down and scrawled upon with Phil's own writing, suddenly felt strong enough to bear that weight.
He recognised the picture immediately. A friendly waitress had taken it when he and Phil were last in Paris, at a cafe where he had broken the standing record of most crepes eaten in a minute. Phil wore an expression that was caught half way between astonishment and exasperation as he stared openly at Clint's chocolate covered face and the certificate he had won that was gripped proudly in Clint's also chocolate covered hands. They had had to bribe the waitress for the photo as they couldn't leave any evidence of their time in the city but Clint hadn't known what happened to it until now.
He should have known Phil would keep it, being the sentimental sap that he was. Underneath it were the final words of the book.
Phil Coulson – saved from loneliness and boredom for the rest of his life.
Yep. Sentimental sap.
Typically Phil's determination that Clint experience the full range of human emotion and happiness was the bane of the archers very existence, but tonight Clint just couldn't bring himself to care.
Sap he may be, but Clint couldn't deny that no one had ever gone to the lengths that Phil continued to go to in order to make Clint's life a little bit better. And thanks him, and Clint's place at S.H.I.E.L.D, the last three years had been some of the best of his life.
And little did he know, the next few were to be the most interesting.
Natalia had been seated on the small, hard bed in her cell for hours now with her feet planted firmly on the floor. Every muscle, bone and square inch of her ached beyond belief but still she didn't move. Didn't flinch – hadn't stirred at all in the several hours since guards returned her to her cell.
The ache was familiar though.
The burning in her veins was a sensation she new all to well, and as it grew that ache in her body dwindled.
Her left side, which had been crushed in the car accident, was covered in dark bruises and deep cuts from the collision. Not to mention the several broken ribs and her arm that was still slightly out of place despite her best attempts to straighten it. S.H.I.E.L.D's doctors had been more than happy to keep their distance from her, and Natalia wasn't about to let them within ten feet of her despite how much she ached.
Her talk with the Director had gone about as well as she had imagined – in essence she had answered every question he had asked and he had scowled continually. From what she could tell, however, that wasn't all uncommon for him.
To her credit she had answered each and every question he had thrown at her with honesty. Or, at least, almost every question.
She had meant it when she told Agent Barton that she wanted to be a part of S.H.I.E.L.D. Wanted to be more than what she was before – and she was going to try.
She had to now.
She had promised.
"If you fight, she will obliterate you."
A hand crashed through the car-door window and seized Natalia by the hair, using it to heave her forcefully from the car and onto the glass-strewn road. She didn't even bother attempting to crawl away, and not even a moment later those hands had seized her again only to lift her to her feet and throw her against the side of the car – keeping their hands tightly wrapped around her arms to keep her standing.
It took a few seconds but eventually Natalia's eyesight stopped spinning, and despite the dim lighting she managed to focus on the familiar form that towered over her. Where Natalia was small and curvaceous, this woman was long and lithe with at least half a foot of height between them.
The woman's long black hair hung loose, caught in the wind, but Natalia could still see her face. Make out her bright, ice blue eyes. Her thin lips. Lips that shifted as she watched and began to emit a low whistle. The sound echoed around them both and within seconds Natalia could feel her muscles seizing up. Her legs, which had been barely holding her weight as it was, went limp almost immediately and after a couple more seconds she was rendered completely at the mercy of the woman towering over her. But she didn't mind. Natalia had always known this was how it would end. Barton had been right. She couldn't run forever, not from the Red Room.
Not from Devyat.
"It's okay." Natalia whispered softly, her vocal cords protesting as they fought against the paralytic that had already taken over the rest of her body.
The hands that grasped her didn't loosen – if anything they gripped a little tighter at her words – but the whistling faltered, just slightly, before fading altogether.
Those ice-blue eyes stared down at Natalia with something that the Widow had never seen in them before. Uncertainty.
"It's okay." Natalia said again, grasping the hands that held her up with her own and staring into those eyes unfalteringly. "Of all of them, I'm glad it's you. Old friend," The words caused the woman's strong jaw to flex, but she didn't look away. Her shaking hands and clenched teeth were enough to tell Natalia how torn she was, but it wouldn't matter in the end.
No one defies an execution order. Not even for a friend.
"Just leave him." Natalia sighed, watching as the ice-blue eyes flickered downwards to where Barton was still trapped in the car. "Leave him and the case. I'd like to be able to say that I did at least one good thing in my life – spared one good life – I think I'm owed me that much." The blue eyes rose to meet Natalia's once more. "Let me have that much."
She didn't nod, or move at all, but that lack of action was all the answer that Natalia needed.
She wouldn't touch him.
"It's okay." Natalia repeated again, softly, nodding as she spoke. Accepting. "We both knew this was coming. Just make it fast, will you?"
The uncertainty in those blue eyes had grown to such a level that she looked almost pained by what she was about to do.
But she had to do it.
"Until next time, old friend." Natalia said with the smallest of accepting smiles and a quiet, dark, chuckle. "Maybe we'll share a pit down there."
For a moment there was silence. Neither of them moved, and neither of them spoke.
And then she did.
One of the hands grasping Natalia loosened and moved, more slowly than Natalia had ever seen her move, to rest upon Natalia's cheek.
If she hadn't been standing less than a foot from her Natalia would have missed the word altogether, but before she could even begin to question it the woman pulled back and that same low whistle began to emanate from her lips. But it didn't stay a whistle. After a few seconds the sound became softer, more calming, and Natalia could feel her eyes starting to slip closed. She fought her lids though, confusion keeping her on the brink of consciousness as the woman pulled her away from the car and slammed them both down onto the hard road.
"What are you doing?" Natalia groaned, not bothering to fight as the woman bent over her and tore open her shirt with a long, sharp blade.
"Giving you a chance." She said before digging into Natalia's pockets and retrieving the bio-sensor that she had taken from the dead girl earlier. Using the sensor the woman traced along Natalia's side until she stopped suddenly, dropping the sensor and digging her blade into Natalia's side. The earlier, paralysing whistle and the calming melody had taken all feeling from Natalia's body and so as the woman sliced through her skin to the bone she felt nothing. There was only the vague awareness of bloody trickling steadily down her side and a tugging at one of her ribs.
She heard the snap as it broke very clearly though.
The woman leant back and Natalia's eyes settled on her bloody hands, widening slightly as she took in the severed rib that was gripped tightly in one them – or more specifically the small chip that was embedded in that rib.
'Don't-" Natalia said, too late. "They'll kill you-"
"-It doesn't matter." The woman rushed tucking the rib away in one of the pockets of her black coat. "I'm already dead."
"Wha-" Natalia began, her confusion helping her fight the exhaustion and blood-loss, but the woman cut her off.
"You were wrong – before – it's not okay." The woman said, leaning forwards so that her long, black hair fell over them both and their faces were mere inches apart. "We were children. We didn't deserve what they did to us. They ruined us, and we can't fix that, but we can make sure that they never do it to anyone, ever again." She rushed, eyes more wild than Natalia had ever seen them.
"You can." She said vehemently. "You can burn them to the ground." She hissed. "You have a chance to be better, to fight against them with S.H.I.E.L.D behind you." Natalia could hear the civilians that had begun to gather around them but the woman above her seemed not to notice. "You can be better than what they made us." She implored, moving to grip Natalia's shoulders like she used to when they were children, and Natalia couldn't keep herself from nodding – if only slightly. She could do that.
She would do that.
"Until the next life, old friend." The woman whispered with one last tight-lipped smile that didn't reach her blue eyes.
And then she was gone.
Exhaustion and blood-loss was quickly winning out, Natalia's eye sight fading with each second, so her call came out with no more volume than a whisper rather than the shout she had intended.
No one answered.
Natalia rose from the cell room cot slowly and with great effort, taking careful steps until she could brace her hands on the small basin in the left corner of the cell. The water was freezing but soothing on her hands, and she used it to smooth the tangles that had become her blood-ridden hair before taking an uneasy step back and beginning to remove her shirt.
It was still the same, blood-soaked, shirt that she had been wearing for days despite that the guards had left S.H.I.E.L.D issue clothing for her in the cell when she returned from her interrogation with Fury. She had waited until the guard outside of her cell moved away to clean herself – keeping to the very corner of the cell to remain in the camera's blind spot – so that she could have some privacy.
It was not because she was shy in the slightest, but her wounds were likely to raise some questions that she had no intention of answering. Ever.
The shirt took some time to remove due to the blood that had set and glued it to her skin in some places, but eventually it came loose and she was able to throw it behind her and examine her torso in the mirror that hung above the basin.
The damage was as bad as she had imagined.
The blackening bruises across her left side were hideous but nothing compared to the mess that Eva had left behind from cutting out one of Natalia's ribs. The skin around the wound was bloody, what was left of the wound itself was black.
The skin and muscle that had been shredded mere hours ago had knitted back together and sealed over. The only remnants of the wound were the dark, black, veins that covered the quickly fading scars it had left – and even those scars would be gone in a few more hours. Soon all that would be left were the thick, black veins.
Natalia's eyes rose from her side to the mess of dark veins above her heart that had faded significantly, but were still slightly visible.
It was all that remained of the bullet that Lydia, the dead Red-Room agent, had fired from the rooftop of the S.H.I.E.L.D facility that both she and Agent Barton had infiltrated for the case.
A bullet that had passed straight through her heart and into Agent Barton as she had attempted to cover him – poisoning him with her blood.
Poisoning him with the seventh serum of Devyat that was currently coursing though her veins.
The only veins that could withstand it.
The slamming of a large, metal door nearby broke her from her dazed and she moved swiftly to seize the S.H.I.E.L.D issue sweatshirt they had left for her and pull it on painfully before a guard could make his way past her cell.
She had not lied to Fury. Not really. The serums were gory and cruel. Their host's barely human anymore.
She just hadn't felt the need to admit she was one of them.
That seven was her case. Her curse.
Hadn't been willing to take the risk.
The case would be well hidden here, passed from scientist to scientist who would each fail to open it, but it would be kept safe. Without her blood as a catalyst it couldn't be abused. Couldn't be replicated or manipulated in anyway. It would be kept a secret – after all, no one did secrets quite like Nickolas Fury. And in time what was left of the serum would fade from her system. The tainted, black veins would disperse and she'd be physically vulnerable again for the first time in over a decade.
She turned away from the mirror and moved to sit back on the cot in the centre of the cell once more. With her feet placed firmly on the ground, and eyes facing the stonewall it was as if she had never moved at all, and when the guard passed her by he didn't even spare her a second glance. And Natalia was determined to ensure that no one at S.H.I.E.L.D ever did.
Without that serum she could be truly human for the first time since she was a child. Could bleed.
Could be better than what they made her.
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