Avengers Fanfic: A Cave Where Fires Burned
sunset
foolondahill17
Everyone and their mother's second cousin has done a Budapest story so I figured I might as well, too. It's sort of a rite of passage, right?

Anyway, this was largely prompted by Geckoholic in be_compromised 2015 promptathon: "A plan never survives contact with the enemy" - aka, how about mission fic gone violently south?
Warnings: movie type violence of the machine-gun-explosion variety, a smidge of language, and some description of injuries

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A Cave Where Fires Burned

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Edvard Kazka put his wide, heavy hand on Natasha's bare thigh, under the slit of her evening gown, and squeezed it beneath the table, hidden from the eyes of the many drug lords, Mafia bosses and underbosses, racketeers and gangsters circling the conference table.

She tolerated him with a coquettish smile and a nearly imperceptible flutter of her eyelashes. Natasha was arm candy tonight, low-cut black evening gown, diamonds hanging from her ears, red waves at their most luscious, falling over her shoulders and back in a rivulets. Kazka had had his hands on her all night, entwined in her fingers, brushing against her hips, lying on the small of her back, giving the rest of the thugs no doubt that his was the most beautiful prize.

Several of the other crime lords had brought escorts, girls with blond updos and red lipstick, slinky dressed and stilettos – who were looking at Natasha glumly across the table.

Budapest, Hungary – the desirable tourist destination of the year with its vivid, sweeping gardens, spas, high-end shopping on Vaci utca and WestEnd City Center, one of (if not the) largest malls in the world, and magnificent, old-world architecture – also had its shady side. No less elegant then the part of the city open to the public, it was also home to the international epicenter of crime group leaders.

Mafias belonging to Russia, Japan, Italy, Albania and more, all of them come to negotiate, forge business contacts, swap stories on the latest assassination attempts, and generally display to all the others just how much more powerful they were then them.

The Andrassy conference room, in the very bowels of the Gresham Palace – practically on the banks of the Danube – was an elegant affair, crystal chandeliers and polished wood paneling inlaid into the walls. Several exits at either end of the room, no windows. Doors guarded on both sides, interior, exterior, eighteen guards total, plus more mulling about in the lobby – making sure no one got in or out without a proper invitation or else with improper accessories hanging in holsters hidden by jackets, pant legs, or socks.

Natasha had been frisked herself – quite thoroughly – be guard Number Six, who had a mustache and dark gray eyes much too inclined to stray down Natasha's cleavage which, she had assured him before being dragged away by a put-out Kazka, hid no small derringer or pocket knife.

The guard's efforts were not to say, however, that everyone had come into the room unarmed. Rather, Natasha would be very surprised if not everyone in the room held at least two weapons somewhere on their bodies, small, retractable blades, pistols sewn into the lining of their tuxedos, sharpened lenses detachable from false spectacles. Natasha, herself, had twin blades hidden in the heels of her shoes, not to mention the hooks of her earrings could be used in a pinch. The possibilities were endless.

In fact, the conference room was possibly the most dangerous room in all the world – certainly housing all the most dangerous men – and Natasha was sitting right in the middle of it, currently toying with the little magnetic charm hidden in plain sight on her right middle finger that could trigger the bomb under the table and blow them all to pieces in a mere blink of an eye.

All she was waiting for was a word from Barton, who was currently outside in the dark, flitting through the shadows and acting as her own phantom bodyguard by clearing a safe exit path for her retreat.

"As soon as I get back," Clint's voice panted in Natasha's ear. He sounded physically exerted like perhaps he was climbing up the side of a building, "I'm going to ask Fury for a pay raise. We don't get paid – nearly – as much – as – we're worth –" Each word was punctuated by a gasp for breath.

Natasha stifled her impulse to retort that perhaps if Barton would spend less energy on talking and more on the job he'd find it less exhausting. He had been keeping up a seemingly endless stream of single-sided dialog since Natasha had been getting dressed that night, an annoying drone in the back of her head like the buzzing of a fly.

"Good, I've got a much better view from up here," Clint said. Natasha heard the faint twang of Clint's bow. "There we go – whoops – better take out his friend before he realizes something's wrong. Alright, Natasha, side door's clear. Phil – what do you say?" Clint directed his last to Coulson, who had been overseeing the operation not-on-the-premises and indulging Clint's monologue with the occasional long-suffering sigh or wry chuckle.

"No better time than the present," Coulson's voice came through clearly in Natasha's ear.

"That's a go, Nat," Clint added, "Meet you on the bridge in T minus seven minutes."

Natasha barely contained her smile and turned it into a sly look at Kazka, who responded with another squeeze of her thigh.

She unobtrusively brought her right hand up beneath the table until she touched the familiar cold corners of the two-by-four-inch rectangle that held enough explosive power to punch through a steel wall.

The magnetic stone inside her ring would trip the fuse and begin the countdown. She had five minutes to excuse herself to use the powder room, sashay past the guards with her heels clicking of the hardwood floor, and get as far as possible from the conference table before the bomb detonated. Poor Edvard, being closest to the explosive, he would be the one to experience the brunt of the force. At least Natasha didn't have to worry about being called in to make a positive identification on his corpse. That job would be left to his wife.

She leaned her head into Kazka's shoulder, hissing into his ear the way he liked, her hot breath fluttering the hairs on his neck, "I'll be right back, honey. Gotta go powder my nose."

Natasha stood and gracefully exited the room, flashing a brief smirk at guard Number Six, who ogled her.

Her heart was beginning to throb with the familiar flare of adrenaline, nearer to excitement than nervousness. She ran her hands over the smooth material of her black dress and bypassed the restrooms on her left, walking down the long corridor toward the glass doors that lead to the lobby, guarded by two more thugs in dinner jackets.

Natasha flashed each of them a dazzling smile, fishing in her small black clutch for a packet of cigarettes. Going out for a smoke. Horribly stuffy in here, don't you think? But neither of the guards asked her where she was going, and held the door open for her as she swept into the lobby.

"Édesem?"

Natasha whirled around at the sound of the voice and heavy footsteps on the floor behind her.

"Edvard!" Chirpy, delighted he followed her. "Going out for a smoke," flutter her eyelashes, tug out a cigarette and nibble on the end, red lipstick smearing the white paper, "care to join me?"

"Nat? Nat, what's wrong?" Clint's voice, urgent in her ear.

"Why, what a lovely idea," Kazka's warm hand on the bare skin of her back, under her hair, taking a right in the lobby, toward the front doors, more guards, Clint hadn't cleared this way, don't panic, improvise. "I could so use a breath of fresh air, myself."

The lobby was airy, a domed glass ceiling arching above them. A bellboy hurried to open the front doors for them. A man in a dark suit turned as they came through the doors but ignored them after a curt word from Kazka in Hungarian.

The doors opened to a sweeping flight of stairs that lead down to the sidewalk and street below. Cars and taxis rumbled by on the pavement. Beyond the road was the dark green expanse of Szechenyi Square, speckled with lamplight and strolling couples, arm in arm. Kazka pulled Natasha over to the side of the steps, out of the way of the doors, and offered to light her cigarette for her.

"It's a beautiful night, Edvard," she said around her cigarette, blowing out a puff of smoke. She never smoked when she wasn't on an op. She hated the taste of ash in her mouth, the roughness of her tongue and the grit on her teeth. "Why don't we take a walk across the Square?"

"The Square?" Clint's voice crackled in her ear, "What are you doing over there? Wait…hang on…recalculating." Clint's breathing turned sharp and ragged in her ear again, no doubt he was making his way across the roof so he could find her.

The Gresham Palace was, perhaps, even more of an impressive spectacle at night, lighted with hundreds of electric torches and spotlights, making it look as though the white stone of its walls glowed from within. It loomed above them like a castle forgotten in the times of King Arthur.

"I would love to, Édesem, but you know I am expected back. I cannot be gone for long from the conference."

"Sorry folks, you're on your own here." Coulson said.

"Thanks, Phil, that's real helpful," said Clint dryly. ""Alright, you're in my sights, Nat. Thugs number one and two on either side of the doors. On the count of five I'll take 'em out. Make your move then. Cough if you acknowledge me."

Natasha pulled out her cigarette out of her lips and coughed as she breathed in the smoke.

"Okay then, one –"

Natasha flicked off the ashy tip off her cigarette, dropped it on the ground and snuffed it out with her shoe.

"Two –"

"Hold me up while I fix my shoe, be a darling, Edvard."

"Three –"

Kazka held her elbow as Natasha fiddled with the straps of her shoe. She moved her fingers down to the heel, delicately unscrewing the tip.

"Four –"

Natasha detached the blade from her heel. Nifty design, that. She'd have to get a pair for everyday use.

"Five –"

Natasha brought her arm up sharply. If Kazka ever suspected something was amiss he didn't show it, but only let out a gurgling gasp as Natasha's blade buried itself into his chest, right through the left-handed breast pocket. He toppled over backward at the same time as two muffled thumps sounded behind her in quick succession and the two guards at the doors fell over on the steps with arrows buried in the tops of their heads.

"Well done, Romanoff," said Clint in her earpiece. "I'll be right down. Meet you at the bridge."

Natasha briefly considered retrieving Clint's arrows for him – she knew how much he disliked leaving them behind – but she noticed a young woman in a red dress just getting out of a taxi at the base of the steps whose eyes were round circles looking at Natasha and Kazka splayed at her feet and Natasha decided she had better cut her losses and just make a run for it.

She left the heel of her shoe buried in Kazka's chest, kicked off her shoes, and darted down the stairs, padding across the pavement in her bare feet, skirt of her dress flapping around her legs. There was a shout behind her. Natasha didn't know if it was only in the discovery of the bodies or directed at her, but she didn't pause to consider her situation, sprinting between traffic across the road and onto the soft lawn of the Szechenyi Square.

She could smell the damp of the River Danube up ahead, hear the screech of traffic on all sides of the Square. Behind her she thought she heard the muffled thump of an explosion deep inside the Gresham Palace, followed by several piercing screams and shouts of alarm. Natasha was thankful for the disturbance, hoping her retreat would be lost in the ensuing chaos.

"Clint, two minutes and I'll be there. Status?"

"I'll be waiting with the car," Coulson said, "about time you two."

The extraction plan was simple, rendezvous at the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, cross over it holding hands – just another nondescript couple enjoying the sights of the city at night – and then get picked up by Coulson where he was waiting on the western bank in Buda.

"Clint – status?" Natasha said again, slowing her pace to a walk, passing couples sitting side by side on benches in the darkness, disturbed by the commotion coming from the hotel. She fought the urge to look over her shoulder and check for any signs of pursuit.

"You haven't kept your mouth shut all night, Agent Barton," said Coulson, "now is not a good time to stop."

"Clint?" Nothing. Damn.

"Natasha, stick to the plan." Sirens began to keen in the distance.

"Phil – I'm not just leaving him. The police will be here any minute."

"Keep walking, Natasha. That's an order. Fury doesn't need both his top agents lost on one mission."

"Shut up, Coulson."

"Natasha, I mean it. The council –"

Natasha had heard enough. She spun back around on her heel. "Tell the council they can go to hell."

Coulson sighed, but then his voice burbled through Natasha's earpiece, "With pleasure, Agent Romanoff."

Natasha sprinted back toward the hotel. She didn't have any other weapons with her. She felt exposed and helpless without the familiar weight of her Glocks on her hips. She wished she hadn't been foolish enough to dispose of her shoes. Oh well, too late for second thoughts now. A crowd had gathered around the three corpses left on the dais.

Unexpectedly the rattling of a machine gun split the air, echoing off the surrounding buildings. Several pedestrians screamed and ducked, arms thrown over their heads. Natasha kept running, not bothering to seek cover. She had been around urban fighting long enough to be able to gage the distance of the shots. They were coming from the roof – the same place Clint had been when he'd last made contact.

Natasha's legs pumped with a crucial speed, stomach rising and falling rapidly with each gasping breath. She darted around the side of the hotel, scanning the expanse of buckled white stone and windows, trying to look for a way up. Dammit, Clint, how did he do it? Dammit, what ever happened to good-old fire escapes?

The sirens grew closer, reverberating off the sides of buildings, growing so loud they were almost deafening. Suddenly a line of speeding police cars rounded the corner down the street and whirled past the sidewalk where Natasha's stood, turning the corner of the hotel and skidding to a stop in the front street.

Natasha raced up the sidewalk to the side door, where a bellboy was standing, staring dumbstruck at the passing police cars and hardly acknowledging Natasha as she pushed passed the doors and into the building. Smoke clogged the hallway. Fire alarms screamed in her ears. She had almost forgotten about the bomb. She darted down the hallway and ducked quickly into a flight of stairs. Frantic hotel guests were clattering down the stairs, woman crying, men using their shoulders to shove through the crowd. Machine guns still clattered from the floors above.

Natasha gritted her teeth in irritation and plunged into the crowd, ducking under arms and squeezing passed panicked bystanders, all jabbering in dozens of different languages. She pounded up the stairs, calves straining, breathing hard, until she reached the top flight and a door marked in German, Hungarian, Russian, Spanish, French, and English Authorized Personnel Only: Not an Exit.

Natasha shouldered it open, jogged up the small flight of steps to another door, and then broke onto the gently sloping roof that overlooked the rest of the city, sparkling with electric lights in the darkness.

"Natasha! Duck!"

Natasha obeyed Clint's shout of warning instinctively, tucking herself into a tight ball and summersaulting across the roof just as the awning above the door exploded in a shower of splintered wood and plaster as it was assaulted by a rain of bullets.

Natasha tossed herself behind an upturned vent and collided with Clint's shoulder. He was lying on his stomach, propped up by his elbows and holding his bow at a ready.

"Hey," said Clint, calmly knocking an arrow. "Nice dress."

"Thanks," Natasha said. Rolling onto her own stomach and peaking over the top of the vent, just as another flurry of bullets rattled off the top of the vent with metallic echoes.

"Got the jump on me," Clint explained. Natasha noticed his right ear, the one facing her and that had held his communicator, was trailing a line of blood. "Bashed me on the side of the head pretty good but I taught him a thing or two." Natasha's eyes fell on a slumped body lying in a heap on the roof between them and the invisible machine gunner. "But he brought a friend."

Police strobe lights bounced off the roof from below. "I have a feeling in a minute it's going to be a whole lot more crowded up here," Natasha said.

"Tell that to him!" Barton shouted after another bombardment of deafening bullets.

"Cover me!"

Natasha shouted and leapt into action before Clint had time enough to yell, "Dammit, Nat!"

She heard the twang of his bow as she dived for the corpse lying in the middle of the roof. Bullets clanged off the roof, throwing fractured shingles into her eyes. She fumbled for the holster on the dead man's leg, snatching up the derringer into her hand. Clint was moving now. She could see him sprinting toward the hidden thug, arrows flying. She leapt to her feet and darted forward, confusing the thug with two targets so that his gunfire flew harmlessly into the roof.

She caught sight of a gleaming eye, half of a face stained red and blue in the flashing police lights, aimed her gun and fired.

The machine gun went silent. Clint skidded to a stop beside her, panting, sweat gleaming on his forehead.

"So I've got to do everything myself around here?" Natasha grinned.

"I covered you!" Clint shot back, bending over to retrieve his arrows.

"Am I to understand you're both still breathing?" Coulson's voice spoke into Natasha's earpiece.

"Safe and sound, Phil," she said.

"Do I need to tell you to get a move on or are you already on your way?"

Natasha sighed, "Moving now, Coulson." She and Clint wordlessly made their way back through the door and into the stairwell. Natasha could hear the sounds of heavy boots thudding on the stairs and voices shouting in Hungarian, undoubtedly the police drawn by their brief firefight.

Natasha pulled Clint through the door to the third floor, erupting into a hallway lined on either side by hotel sweets. Several doors were opened to rooms emptied by a hasty exodus, others held ajar by frightened patrons in pajamas peeking worriedly into the hall. A door slammed shut as Natasha and Clint swept by and Natasha remembered she was still carrying the gun she had procured from the dead man. She didn't have anywhere to stow it in her form-fitting gown.

They sprinted down to the end of the hallway where there was another flight of stairs. They pounded down the three flights before they broke through the door to the lobby. The lobby was surging with a mob of people, hotel personnel, patrons, and policemen. Smoke from the explosion still floated up near the ceiling. People were crying, wailing, and all talking at once in an indecipherable panic.

"Dammit!" Clint said, shaking his head, "I think he ruptured my eardrum. I can't hear a thing out of this ear."

"Act casual, Clint, come on." Natasha began to wade through the babbling throng of hysterical people before she latched onto Clint's hand as a second thought – adopting the indignant socialite wife driven to find answers with her bumbling husband in tow persona – shoving aside patrons without a second glance. With any luck no one would notice her gun or Clint's quiver and they'd be out of there in less than a minute.

Natasha scanned the faces as she pushed through, hoping she wouldn't recognize any of the thugs she had become acquainted with during her brief stay with Kazka.

"Damn," she muttered under her breath. Guard Number Six, the one who hadn't been able to keep his eyes off her, was standing near the wall. He had escaped the explosion with nothing more than a bloody gash on his cheek and a torn jacket sleeve. He hadn't noticed Natasha yet.

"Three o'clock, Clint."

"Thug with the bloody face? Know him?"

"Friend of Kazka's," Natasha hissed out the corner of her mouth, dragging Clint with more insistency through the crowd, approaching the doors at the end of the lobby, swarmed with police officers. "I don't think he'll be very pleased to see me."

She ducked through the crowd, Clint close behind her. Her bare feet padded on the rough artisan rug covering the floor. Natasha reached for the handle of the door –

"Excuse me, please?" said a young policeman, stepping up to Natasha and Clint, "But Madame and Sir must stay within hotel, please. No one allowed out of hotel now."

"Look here, kid," Clint said, with a convincingly irritated drawl, "I'm sick of being told what to do and where to be. I'm gonna get some answers if it kills me. Where's your superior?"

"I apologize, sir," the officer continued patiently, "but I cannot allow –"

Natasha's eyes continued to flicker through the crowd, landing on face to face, feeling Number Six's presence behind her like his body emanated heat. Her gaze fell on a girl speaking urgently to a uniformed policeman. It was the girl in the red dress from the cab, who had seen Natasha take care of Kazka. The girl's eyes latched onto Natasha's face. Her mouth fell open. She pointed at Natasha and Clint. The policeman spun around, grabbing for the gun in his belt.

"Clint, run!"

It was at that exact time that a woman behind Natasha chose to notice the gun held tightly in her hand and let loose an ear-piercing shriek.

Clint plowed his shoulder into the young policeman's chest and threw him backward over the stairs. In perfect synchronization she and Clint tore down the steps. There was a gunshot behind them. A light atop a police car shattered. Natasha turned only briefly to find, sure enough, the shot came from no officer but guard Number Six, scowling as he cocked his gun for another shot.

Natasha dived behind a squad car and rammed a policeman getting out of the door back into the front seat. She dashed across the street, leaping over the hood of a car. She could hear Barton's heavy footsteps beside her. The rough pavement stung the soles of her feet.

Guns were going off behind them but Natasha did not bother to look back, knowing the police had joined in by now. They'd reached the Square, grass already damp with evening dew. She zigzagged across the open Square, hoping it would decrease her chances of anyone getting their sights on her. Bullets flew crazily through the air. Police sirens pummeled her ears, squad cars roaring around the Square to cut off her and Clint's access to the bridge.

Natasha kicked her legs forward, arms pumping at her sides as she sprinted outright to the bridgehead, where one of its two stone lion guardians sat gaping at her with open jaws and lifeless eyes. Clint was right at her side. Cars skidded to a stop as they darted into the road in front of traffic. Police cars screeched to a halt at the base of the bridge, swung open their doors and stepped out with pistols and automatic rifles.

Natasha's heart was thudding in her throat. Clint dived behind a minivan, out of the way of the flying bullets. She followed his lead and took shelter behind a sedan. Clint's bow was loaded but he hadn't let fly any arrows. She knew he was hesitant about firing on law enforcement.

Several black, unmarked cars drove up behind the police cars. Men in black suits with gleaming machine guns stepped out. For a moment Natasha dwelled on the irony that both the mafia and the cops were linked in their general fixation of Clint and her as targets. Natasha saw the man behind the wheel in the minivan dive out of the way as his windshield erupted into a million pieces of glass from the smattering of bullets.

"Too many people, Clint!" Natasha yelled over the noise as she aimed her pistol over the hood of the sedan, looking for gangsters instead of the officers.

"Right," he said curtly from behind the van, "we'd better get off this bridge before someone gets hurt."

"Romanoff, dammit, get out of there!" Coulson's voice thundered in her ear and nearly ruptured her own eardrum. She had half-forgotten Coulson's continued surveillance.

"I'll cover you," Clint shouted and Natasha rolled away, dodging from car to car to keep out of sight of the guns. A man was climbing out of his truck. Natasha shoved him back inside before skirting behind the back wheels.

She paused and fired several shots blindly into the crowd, "Go, Clint!"

Clint leapt after her. The two of them made a mad dash for the pedestrian crossing of the bridge and the low fence that barred them from the water nearly fifty feet below. Natasha pole vaulted over the railing and hung on with her fingertips, legs dangling over the side of the bridge. Bullets passed so near her head she felt them ruffle her hair. Wind whipped her dress around her ankles.

Clint put both palms of the barrier, swung one leg over, but then slumped, look of shock crossing his face.

Natasha had no time to consider what might have happened. She hoisted herself back up the side of the bridge, arms screaming under her weight, latched onto the ledge with her toes, wrapped her arms under Clint's arms and fell backward, allowing her weight to pull them both over the top of the barrier and toward the water below, wind whistling in her ears as they plummeted.

The river hit her hard, like pavement. It swept the air from her lungs. Her limbs were tangled with Clint's and his weight pulled her down rapidly in the frigid water. The water rushed in her ears, bubbles clouded her vision. All she was sure of was the feel of Clint's strong arms under her fingers and the awareness that on the surface the police and mafia were both waiting patiently with guns for her and Clint's emergence.

She wrapped her hands tighter around Clint's forearm and, unaware how severely he was injured, kicked her legs violently to propel them through the water, skirt of her dress getting tangled around her thighs, allowing the current to grab hold of her and sweep her through the water.

Her lungs screamed for air. She felt Clint move beneath her hands. Whether he meant to tear away from her grip to swim on his own or fight to the surface she was unsure. Perhaps he was just thrashing randomly, disoriented by the fall and his injury. Natasha refused to release him, cutting the water with her shoulder, weight of Clint's body dragging against her progress.

Black spots bubbled in the corners of her vision. Her chest was aching from lack of air. Her head felt heavy on her neck. Finally she could take no more and she kicked toward the surface, Clint's body heavy beside her. Just as she felt sure her lungs were going to implode and suck in a stream of cool water in their desperation for air her head broke the surface and mouth flew open, air sweeping into her lungs. She gasped for breath and beside her there was a splash as Clint's head, too, broke the surface. He was coughing and sputtering.

Natasha could still see the bright lights on the bridge. She scanned the shores for any sign of pursuit only briefly before she ducked back under the surface, pulling Clint back with her, unable to waste precious breath to tell him to keep going.

He seemed to be helping her along now, legs kicking behind them, arm she was not still holding onto pulling at the water by his side. She was unsure of how much of it was just adrenaline, kicking in to overcompensate for his injury. That brief moment on the bridge, when he had slumped against the railing, haunted her in the back of her mind. She tried to force it away, concentrating only on swimming, on holding her breath seconds longer to avoid breaking the surface and giving away their position.

Again and again she pulled them up for a breath of air and dived below the water, swimming steadily down the river tangled with reeds and cloudy mud. They passed below two more bridges, the Elizabeth hanging low above them and Liberty glowing greenish blue in the darkness.

Finally they emerged again from the water, air around them dark and impenetrable accept for the lights lining the shores on either side of them. Clint's head bobbed low in the water. She could feel his arm stiff under her fingers, feel the shuddering of his body next to hers.

"Tasha –" a wave of water cut him off, voice gargling as he coughed. She could feel his strength ebb beneath her fingers. His feet kicked futilely to keep his head above water. He was dragging her under.

"Hold on, Clint –" Natasha gasped, feeling the current pull her down the river, shore and boats moored to docks sweeping passed. She swam diagonally with the current, bringing her steadily nearer shore. Her arms were aching with the effort of dragging them both through the water. She twisted Clint with some difficulty until he floated on his back, head resting on her shoulder. He seemed to be losing consciousness. She gritted her teeth, calf catching in a wrenching cramp.

Finally her toes caught on the rocky bottom of the river. She could still hear the distant echoes of police sirens from the bridge behind her, a distant, flickering light in the darkness. She stumbled toward the shore, a gravely landing of what looked like a park, shadowy outlines of bushy trees stretching into the sky. Natasha tugged Clint onto the shore beside her, stumbling to her knees, gasping for breath, immediately shivering as her wet skin was revealed to the biting night air.

She blinked past the water clinging to her eyelashes, scanning the shore rapidly, eyes piercing the shadowy bases of the trees and the illuminated buildings behind them, cars grinding on the pavement beyond the small park. The nearby benches were empty, not a soul appeared to be in sight. Their presence, for now, went undetected.

"Clint." She was at his side, hand on his cold, wet shoulder. His eyes were shut, face pale in the darkness, but mouth opened. She felt the breath evenly enter and leave his body underneath her palm. "Clint, come on, wake up."

They were still on the East bank, in Pest, separated from Buda and Coulson by the gurgling, dark river. She put her hand to her ear, searching for her communicator but found nothing. It must have fallen out during their swim in the river. Natasha stifled a curse on her tongue.

"Clint – listen – you're going to have to stand up. I can't lift you on my own, Clint."
Her eyes frantically scanned his body for any evident injuries. Immediately they zeroed in on his right side, above his ribs the fabric of his uniform was torn, but any darker stain of blood was undetectable in the poor lighting and wetness of his clothes.

Water dripped off Natasha's bangs and she impatiently shoved her hair out of her face.

"Clint, come on." She pushed her hand under his back, trying to hoist him onto his feet. Her heart was hammering inside her chest. She thought she could still hear distant sirens keening in the city. There was no telling how much time they had before the police caught up to them.

Clint groaned. His eyelids fluttered. "My – bow. I…lost my bow."

Natasha almost smiled in relief. She tugged Clint's heavy arm over her shoulder. "Never mind about that now. Come on. Walk."

"Never…mind?" he sounded disbelieving but his jest was cut off by a wet sounding cough. He fell against Natasha but she managed to keep on her feet.

"Come on, Clint." She gritted her teeth, pulling Clint up, at this point uncaring of how much she hurt him if only they kept moving.

Clint dragged his feet forward and together they clumsily made their way across the silent park. Natasha's mind was racing, her wet dress dragging against the grass. She didn't have any money so they couldn't catch a taxi. She didn't know where it would take them, anyway. Clint's shoes shuffled against the ground. He was heavy leaning on her shoulder. Her arm began to shake again from a combination of the exhausting swim and holding him up. She needed somewhere for him to rest, where she could better survey his wounds. Then she could worry about contacting Coulson.

The streets were largely silent, buildings sitting raggedly in the darkness. They passed occasional collections of men smoking cigarettes in alleys, eyes following Natasha and Clint, taking in her soaked dress and the way Clint was half-way collapsed on her shoulder. They probably thought he was drunk. Something warm was soaking into Natasha's dress from Clint's body, probably his blood.

They were clearly in a seedier district of the city. Joseph Town, perhaps, a bipolar section that had, at times, served as both Budapest's mansion district and its worst inner-city slum. Natasha knew at its center now sat the city's major hospitals but Natasha couldn't risk bringing Clint to the hospital, not with all the people now surely searching for them. Granted, Natasha would rather tangle with the police than the mob, because they would be more inclined to take them in for questioning rather than the shoot-on-sight rule of the mafia. But SHIELD had a strict nonintervention policy. If she and Clint were apprehended by the police they would be on their own.

Clint was getting heavier by the minute but Natasha forced them onward. His breathing was coming in short, ragged gasps. She thought uneasily of his injury. She hadn't found an exit wound during her hasty examination, which meant the bullet was still lodged somewhere in his side. Immediately she thought of his lung but she hurriedly squashed this thought. She couldn't panic. She had to keep going. Calm, collected, methodical, don't panic.

A drunken man from an alley catcalled as Natasha passed. She ignored him and peeled off the street, struggling down a side road with Clint. She cast a look over her shoulder. No one was in sight. The street was lined with shabby apartment buildings, graffiti-stained walls, chipped fire hydrants, and sidewalks crumbled and potholed.

"Come on, Clint. Almost there," she whispered into his hair, his head lolling against hers. Her fingers were hot and sticky with his blood, the flesh of her arms raised with gooseflesh from the cold water dripping down her back from her still wet hair.

She stumbled to a stop at random in front of the many apartment complexes. She looked down both ends of the street, silent save for the buzzing of a dying electric lamp by the street. She pressed her finger to the bell, leaving a bloody fingerprint behind.

While she waited for the door to open she rubbed the bell clean with a corner of her wet skirt.

"Almost there. Hang on," she whispered again, more to herself than to Clint.

She heard footsteps within the building before the door opened a crack, one wrinkled eye peeking through the space between the door and doorjamb.

"Mit akarsz?" a voice croaked, a woman's, eye peering suspiciously at Natasha and Clint, rapidly taking in their appearance.

"Kérjük, szükségünk van egy szobában," said Natasha, making her voice as pitiful as she could, blinking tears into her eyes.

The woman pulled the door open a bit more, revealing a creased, weathered face and gray hair like wire. "Van pénzed?"

Money. Did they have money.

"Nincs pénzünk. Holnap mi lesz pénz." No money. Tomorrow they would have money.

The old woman shook her head sharply, "Nem. Megy el." She began to shut the door.

Natasha slid her fingers around the knob to stop her. The woman's eyes went wide with fright but Natasha kept her voice gentle and pleading, "Kérjük, ossza meg velünk belsejében. Van hová menni."

She saw the woman's eyes flicker over Natasha's earlobes. Natasha immediately remembered her earrings. She couldn't believe they were still hanging from her ears and she immediately slipped them out and pressed them into the woman's palm.

"Valódi," Natasha said, assuring her of their authenticity, "valódi gyémánt." The woman's small eyes went wide with wonder before she tossed a look down the hallway behind her to check if anyone had seen the exchange.

She tucked the earrings into her pocket. "Gyere be. Gyorsan," she rasped, stepping aside from the door and Natasha pulled Clint hastily over the threshold. The woman snapped shut the door behind them, first checking the street for any signs of followers. Clearly Natasha and Clint's predicament came through clearly enough to the woman and was making her paranoid.

The woman jerked her head in a this-way gesture and led Natasha and Clint up a flight of rickety stairs in the corner. Getting Clint up the flight was difficult. Natasha pressed against the wall for added support, clearly too slowly for the landlady for the woman impatiently doubled back but at least grabbed Clint's other arm and slung it over her own shoulder to help.

Finally they reached the second landing and the woman lead them down a corridor lined with doors. The hallway smelled like marijuana and urine. Natasha's back ached. Clint seemed almost wholly unconscious now. She could still hear his ragged, laborious breathing in her ear.

The woman unlocked one of the doors with a ring of jingling keys. Natasha pushed passed the door and into the room. It was dark and shabby. She could see the outline of a bed in the corner. The woman flicked on a light behind her. A naked bulb flickered to life in the ceiling. Natasha staggered across the room until her knees hit the bed and she gently tipped Clint as gently as possible on top of the mattress, noting the lack of sheets or blankets.

She straightened out and faced the woman, who was fidgeting in the open doorway, eyes stuck on Clint who now could be more clearly seen under the light. He was pale and trembling. Natasha saw the maroon stain of wet blood over his side, soaking through his black uniform.

"Orvosság?" Natasha asked. Medicine?

The woman shook her head, rapidly, apologized and immediately left, door cracking shut behind her.

Suddenly Natasha realized just how terribly alone she was. Clint groaned on the bed behind her. She immediately whipped back around and was kneeling at his side in a moment, knees on the cool, hard floor.

"Tasha…?" His eyes flickered open, pupils were large and bleary.

"Lie still, Clint, everything's fine," she said. His teeth were chattering. She put a hand to his forehead. He felt clammy. Shock. He was going into shock from loss of blood.

Natasha's heart was thumping in her stomach. She managed to work her hand under Clint's back and found the zipper of his uniform. Slowly, as gently as possible, she worked his shirt off, fabric sticking to his still wet skin. She found a knife in his belt. She tucked it under the bed where she could grab it easily.

His whole right side was stained with blood. Natasha looked around the room, looking for something she could use as a makeshift bandage to stem the bleeding. It was more hotel room than apartment, a single room with a closet sitting empty next to a second door that presumably led to the bathroom. There was a microwave on a table, no stove or refrigerator. A chair sat in the corner.

There weren't any curtains, just blinds. Natasha got to her feet and went to the doorway, pushing it open to find herself in the bathroom. Bathtub, no shower curtain, a sink, and a toilet. Natasha checked the cabinets under the sink and found a faded, shabby rag that might have once been a hand towel but now looked like it was used for the dusting.

Natasha soaked it under the tap – there didn't seem to be any hot water – and returned to Clint's side. Blood had begun to soak over the side of the bed, dripping on the floor with steady, flat drops. She pressed the cloth to the wound in his side. He stirred, head moved on the mattress – no pillow – but didn't open his eyes again.

The washcloth was stained red in minutes but Natasha had seen the wound by now, small bullet hole, almost perfectly circular between his second and third ribs.

The door to the hallway opened behind Natasha. In a flash she was standing, knife firm and cool in her palm.

The landlady dropped the collection of sheets and blankets she'd been carrying on the floor. Her mouth fell open. For a horrible moment Natasha was sure the woman was going to scream.

She hurriedly dropped the knife, raising her hands to shoulder height. "Rendben. Nem fogom bántani."

The woman only shook her head again, frightened eyes running first to Natasha's knife on the floor to Clint on the bed before she shut the door. Natasha could hear her footsteps hurrying away down the hall.

Natasha collected the blankets from the floor and stripped one of the sheets into thin bandages using the knife. She returned to Clint's side and began to wrap his wound, pulling the strips of fabric under and around his back.

He groaned. She wondered if he was in much pain. She looked to his face and found his eyes open and on her face.

"You gonna try for it?" He asked, voice raspy.

"No," Natasha shook her head. "There's no way to tell how deep in it is. It might be in your lung." If she tried to extract the bullet it might cause the lung to collapse, something she wasn't prepared to risk.

Clint shut his eyes and nodded, apparently too weak to speak.

"Clint," she said, hearing firmness in her voice that she didn't feel, "you're going to be alright. I'm going to get you out of this."

He didn't answer her. She didn't like his color. His face was ashy gray, lips open as he gasped for breath through his mouth. He was still trembling, arms vibrating on the bare mattress. She pulled the blankets over him, knowing she had to keep him warm. She brushed his wet bangs away from his forehead.

She examined the bloody mass inside his left ear where the communicator had been mashed into his eardrum. She didn't want to try to extract any of the splintered pieces of metal still in his ear, afraid she might do more damage.

Natasha realized she, herself, was shaking. Her ruined dress clung, wet and cold, to her skin. She left Clint on the bed and went into the bathroom to clean up, splashing cold water from the sink on her face. She ripped the bottom part of her skirt off with the aid of her knife so she could better maneuver.

She needed new clothes. That was the first mission. She couldn't continue to wander the city in her ruined evening gown and no shoes. She needed to be as inconspicuous as possible if she was going to cross the river and search for Coulson. SHIELD had a standard backup extraction plan for agents. Five days at a predesignated meeting place. Coulson would be waiting there. All Natasha had to do was make contact. Then the two of them could worry about getting Clint out.

Natasha turned at the sound of ragged, wet coughs to see Clint being sick over the side of the bed. She realized he probably had a concussion from the knock on his head he had taken back on the roof of the hotel.

She was back by his side in a moment. She didn't know what to do. She wanted to hold him…to, as ridiculously maternal as it sounded, make his pain disappear. She crawled onto the other side of the bed, touching his trembling arm with her fingers. He looked over at her, eyes bleary, and managed a weak smile. "Sorry," he murmured before he vomited over the side of the bed again.

She pulled his hair away from his clammy forehead, "Don't be." She whispered. She stayed with him until it seemed as though he'd fallen into a fitful doze. Then she carefully slipped out of the bed and waded across the room to the doorway –

"Tasha?"

She almost smiled. She should have known that, even in this weakened state, Clint would have been aware of her movements.

"Don't worry, Clint, I'll just be a minute. I've got to go shopping," she whispered back to him. He turned his head away and shut his eyes, chest moving up and down with each heavy, pained breath. He didn't ask any more questions and Natasha slipped silently through the door and into the hallway.

****

When she returned she was wearing a pair of baggy cargo pants and a boys' t-shirt covered with a hoody with broken zipper. She was carrying a plastic bag in each hand, one filled with a change of clothes and extra blankets for Clint, the other with food and medical supplies, all discretely liberated from several sporadic locations to ensure Natasha did not leave a trail.

She slipped the door to their room open as quietly as possible but still Clint rocketed upward in bed, eyes slightly wild as they flew to the opening door, hand reaching automatically for the quiver and bow he had forgotten were no longer beside him.

"Easy, easy, Clint," Natasha leapt forward, dropping her bags in the doorway, putting a hand on Clint's shoulder. His face was pale, cheeks a blotchy red. She met his eyes, watery and bloodshot. He winced and groaned as she pushed him gently back onto the bed.

"Natasha…" he said. His breathing was laborious. She put a hand under his neck to find his pulse was thready. Blood pressure was probably low. He was still in shock. His blood flow was reduced, enough oxygen not reaching his vital organs, if his organs went then it was only a matter of –

Natasha shoved these thoughts away. She busied herself with the supplies she had brought it. Putting two plastic bottles of water on the table along with a bag of peanuts, a half-empty container of raisins.

She heard a siren muffled from behind the walls and went to the window, peering through the blinds and to the darkness outside the window. She didn't see any flashing lights.

Then she set to work on Clint, taking off the rest of his soiled uniform and pulling on a pair of drawstring sweatpants. She unwrapped her makeshift bandage to inspect the wound in his side. It had stopped bleeding. The sheet was plastered to his skin with crusty dried blood. She cleaned the injury with antiseptic wipes, watching Clint's fingers contract around the sheets and his shoulders tense, the sharp inhales of breath through his lips from the pain. She then wrapped the wound again with clean gauze she had taken from the medical cabinet of another apartment.

She hadn't been able to find any drugs that could help with shock, no antibiotics in case of infection, only some child's doses of fever reduction meds and mild painkillers. She made Clint take a couple of swallows of water which, for a moment, looked like he was going to vomit back up, but he managed to keep down.

The little clock in the microwave read 5:30 in the morning. Sunlight was beginning to dawn outside the window. Natasha realized she had been awake the whole night. She was aware keeping her own strength up was indispensable, so she downed one of the two bottles of water and a handful of nuts and raisins.

Satisfied with the deep, even breathing coming from Clint she climbed into the bed beside him and closed her eyes, hoping for sleep.

****

She was woken sometime later by Clint's fitful stirring in the bed beside her. Sunlight was coming through the blinds in shafts, spilling onto the ragged carpet in yellow stripes.

"Natasha?" She didn't know if Clint was conscious, whether or not he was just calling out in his sleep, or delirium.

"I'm right here, Clint."

"Natasha?"

"I'm here, Clint." She blinked the sleep from her eyes and put a hand on his shoulder. His eyes were open, blood-shot and blurry. They fixed themselves, unfocused, on Natasha's face above him. "I'm right here."

"If I…Natasha…if I don't make it…."

Her throat was suddenly almost too tight to breathe through. She forced her voice up her esophagus. "Quit being melodramatic, Barton. You're not going to die." She blinked hard. Her eyes were hot.

"Natasha…please…" he coughed weakly. Natasha felt her chest constrict painfully. She felt the warmth of his shoulder beneath her fingers. "If I don't…please, take care of them for me. Please –"

He was so close. So close. She could smell the blood on him, the sweat and dried vomit. She put the back of her hand against his forehead. He had a fever. "You're not going to die, Clint. I promise you're not going to die."

"Promise…."

"I will, Clint. I promise I will."

"The – the kids and…Laura."

"Don't worry, Clint. I will."

"Laura? Laura…."

"Yes, Clint." She took his hand, bent low so her face was inches from his own, heat from his fever radiating off his skin. "I'm here. I'm right here."

"Laura?"

"I'm here, Clint," Natasha whispered, voice choking her as it scraped up her throat. She wondered if she had been transformed in his eyes, red hair turned brown, eyes softened, features morphed into those of his wife. "Shhh. I'm here."

"Laura…?" His hand untangled itself from her fingers, found her cheek. The beds of his fingers were warm and rough on her cool skin. He pulled her head closer to his face until she could see the gentle wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, the speckles of green in his irises.

She kissed him then, his lips chapped against her own. He tasted of acid and fever, hot and smoky, metallic like blood. She felt his heart thumping weakly beneath his skin, chest to chest with her. She thought only fleetingly if, should this be his last kiss, then at least he would remember it as belonging to Laura and Natasha didn't bother to feel guilty.

****

Natasha managed to open the door to Coulson's car before he noticed she was there and pulled his gun. She slid into the passenger seat. Coulson stuck his gun back into his belt, exhaling out a half-exasperated, half-relieved breath through his nose.

"You're going to have to file one hell of a late report on this one, Agent Romanoff," said Coulson.

"Aw, Phil, if I'm not mistaken it sounds like you were actually concerned," said Natasha, cracking a smile, surprised at how stiff her cheeks were and how nice it felt.

"Where's Clint?" said Coulson, any sign of jest lost from his voice, the familiar faint crease between his eyebrows the only sign of how deeply concerned he had been.

Natasha sighed and dug her fists into her eyes. "Crummy apartment in Joseph Town. Gunshot to left abdomen. Possibly punctured lung. Bullet's still in. He's breathing at least."

Coulson was looking at her. Natasha stared out of the windshield of the sedan, at the dirty alley Coulson was parked in, the soggy cardboard boxes and aluminum garbage bins overflowing with newspapers and foam takeout containers.

"Heard you had quite the scene with the police," Coulson said at last. "No face shots. A grainy phone video of you pulling Clint off the side of the bridge. Fugitives from justice in Hungary. Congratulations. That makes…eighteen countries now?"

"Seventeen," said Natasha, "Turkmenistan doesn't count seeing as being a fugitive from their justice is more like a compliment."

Coulson's colorless lips quirked upward in a movement so imperceptible it could hardly be considered a smile.

"Got an extraction plan?" said Coulson.

"I thought that was your job, Agent Coulson," said Natasha, staring out the windshield again, at the sun glinting off the lid of a garbage can, recalling that afternoon five years ago in Brazil, facing the tip of Clint's arrow in an alley very like this one.

"Just thought I'd ask, figured you'd like to have a part in it," said Coulson.

Natasha looked at him, eyes flickering to his straight, emotionless face and receding hairline. "I think I'll hand this one over to you, Phil."

She saw him cock an eyebrow at her. She was looking at the alley, not seeing anything at all. She felt Coulson's eyes on her, heavy and searching. She knew he was trying to read her silence, knew he wasn't getting much out of it, like trying to understand a language one couldn't speak.

He nodded tersely and opened his car door, stepping out onto the pavement and pulling his phone out of his pocket. She heard his voice speak raptly into the speaker "Agent Coulson –" before his voice was cut off when he shut the car door behind him.

Natasha breathed through her nose. She shut her eyes and wrapped her fingers around the lip of the sea, remembering the sandpaper feel of Clint's lips on hers.

****

Fin

First Ever Avengers Fic
sunset
foolondahill17
Title: Red
Summary: Dreykov's daughter, Sao Paulo, and the hospital fire. In which Natasha wonders if she will ever be able to wash that much red from her ledger, or the blood from between the lines in the palms of her hands. MCU.
Warnings: mild language, dark, mature themes, and strong violence including violence against children, possibly borderline M, so tread carefully
Disclaimer: Not mine. Except for the mistakes. Those belong to me.
Inspired by Loki's taunts behind the walls of his cell in the first Avengers movie. Natasha's reaction, although possibly exaggerated to trick Loki into revealing his plan, could simply not be ignored.

Red

November 22, 1984. Volgograd, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The baby was red and wrinkled. The mother's ragged breathing scraped against the worn, crumbling walls of the soiled maternity ward. She had bled and screamed, giving birth, and her throat felt raw. The baby wailed now, weakly flailing its arms, a child whose first impression of the earth was one of pain, sweat, tears, and dingy, gray cement walls, and the pallid, skull-like face of its mother. Its skin was covered in sticky blood.

"Natalia." The mother gasped. Her husband's hand was warm and hard on her shoulder. "I will call her Natalia."

December 24, 2003. Odense, Denmark.

The little girl was still smiling when the Natasha's bullet went through her forehead. Her eyes had not yet had a chance to express surprise at finding Natasha standing silhouetted against the lights of the Christmas tree. Her lips had not yet opened, throat not yet begun to form a scream, mind not yet thought to register fear or awareness of her impending death.

Her eyes were blue. She was missing one of her front teeth, dark hole hiding between her thin, pink lips.

The floor creaked as a man rounded the corner, following his daughter with a matching smile stretching across his lips. He paused when he saw the small, crumpled body lying on the braided rug. He looked up and seemed unable to correlate Natasha's silent figure and smoking gun with that of his dead daughter's body. His eyes met Natasha's when she pressed the trigger again, bullet squeezing from the barrel of her silenced Glock 26 with a sound almost like a sneeze and marking his forehead with a black spot in exactly the same position it had his daughter's, one and a half inches below the hairline.

His body hit the carpet with a muffled thump. The brightly wrapped parcels in his arms scattered on the floor beside to him. One, a gift bag, dislodged its purple tissue paper over his chest, revealing the delicate hand of a china doll with yellow curls of hair. Blood slowly leaked from the hole in his forehead and trickled down the side of his nose behind his glasses.

The milk from the glass the little girl had been carrying soaked into her baby blue bathrobe. Brightly frosted cookies lay crumbled on her stomach. A gingerbread man stared at Natasha with mournful gumdrop eyes, its left leg broken. For a fraction of a second Natasha wondered who they were for before she recalled, the memory emerging from an uneasy dream halfway between sleep and consciousness, the jolly, rosy-cheeked Saint Nikolaos. Blood had begun to tangle in the little girl's blond hair.

She was perhaps seven or eight years old. At that age Natasha had already had her first kill. A girl named Vasilisa who'd had dust colored hair and a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose and slept on her right side with her knees drawn up to touch her chest, two beds down from Natasha. She had attempted to steal Natasha's apple during lunch. Fresh fruit was rare in the Red Room.

The little girl's hand lay next to her head. Already tendrils of blood were beginning to lick the white skin, palm upward, fingers curled, nails painted with purple polish and sparkles. Natasha slid her gun smoothly into her belt and turned noiselessly on her toes.

It was snowing outside. And cold. Natasha pulled her hood up and zippered her jacket over her chin to guard her face against the harsh wind that tore at her hair and skin. The bells of the church had just begun to toll, clambering against the stone walls of the surrounding buildings, and Natasha didn't bother to wonder what was her name.

*****

"I'm sure you must be weary, dear, with soaring up so high;
Will you rest upon my little bed?" said the spider to the fly.
"There are pretty curtains drawn around, the sheets are fine and thin,
And if you like to rest awhile, I'll snugly tuck you in."
"O no, no," said the little fly, "for I've often heard it said,
They never, never wake again, who sleep upon your bed."

"The Spider and the Fly" by Mary Howitt

July 29, 2008. Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The air was hot and heavy and seemed to stick to her lungs as she breathed, tickling her nostrils with the smell of gasoline and cigarette smoke. Her hair was matted to her forehead, covered in a thin film of sweat which enclosed the rest of her body like a shroud, silk sheets sticking to her bare legs as if with glue, collecting under her armpits in pools, and dripping tepidly down the back of her neck, making it difficult to distinguish from the blood that oozed over her chest and arms.

Smoothly, delicately, precisely she rolled the heavy body of Fredric Delacroix off of her and slipped out of the bed, bare feet landing lightly on the soft carpet. She swiped at a lock of hair that had fallen into her eye, leaving a trail of blood on her forehead.

Colorful, rustic landscapes of Brazilian mountains watched her from the wall. A fly buzzed against the closed window that overlooked the city, masked in white lace drapes that filtered the harsh sunlight lingering outside.

She wiped the blade of her knife on the already blood-soaked sheets that had once been pure white. Blood dribbled down her stomach, ringing her navel and running toward her thigh. She crossed the room swiftly to the open bathroom door which she didn't bother shutting as she reached for the faucet. She turned the water all the way to cold, leaving bloody fingerprints on the shining metal handles.

Natasha specialized in intimate kills, luring her prey expertly with a coy look between flickering eyelashes, a caress just so with the tip of her fingers over a jaw dusted with whiskers, only to be caught blissfully unaware in her sticky web and feel the keen sting of her bite.

She placed her blade on the ledge of the sink. After washing her hands, carefully scraping the blood out of her fingernails, she grabbed a wad of paper towels and wet them under the running water. She mopped up Delacroix's blood that stained her bare breasts and stomach, turning the towels pink. The cool water felt good on her hot skin. She tossed the towels into the garbage bin and wet another wad, dabbing at the back of her neck.

She tossed cold water over her face, not shutting her eyelids and feeling her mascara sting her eyes. She should have worn waterproof makeup. It had already been running because of the sweat.

She looked in the mirror above the sink that reflected the marbled tile of the wall behind her, the mosaic fish with scales of blue and green hanging behind her head. She had never had much patience for flippant decoration. Wasting time and resources on ornamentation was an abstract concept for her, crafted for people with faraway interests and lives.

Many things were abstract concepts. Mother. Father. Friend. Regret. Affection. All there had ever been, vibrant and inerasable was the concept of enemy. Her face looked smooth and unconcerned reflected back at her in the mirror. It seemed to her now, fleetingly, that the enemy bore her same hair and eyes, assumed the identical curve of jaw and narrow cheekbones. She hadn't even flinched, feeling her blade break his skin and burry itself further into his chest while he heaved and gagged, eyes widening under her careful gaze.

The sharp crack of knuckles on the door recoiled through the room like a gunshot. Her knife was back in her hand. The leather handle felt slick in her wet palm. The hall door opened into the bedroom. Natasha heard the sound of polite footsteps padding on the thick carpet. She heard the gasp of shock and horror as whoever it was discovered Delacroix's body lying on the bed in a pool of blood of vivid scarlet. Natasha stepped around the bathroom doorway and chucked the knife in one fluid motion, a mere flick of her wrist, tossing end over end in a neat spiral and embedding itself in the copper-colored throat of the maid standing in the doorway, eyes puddles of dark chocolate and wide in terror, not even looking at Natasha.

Blood spattered the maid's white apron and pimply cheeks. A strangled sound issued from her open mouth as she choked on the blood that burbled up her throat and out of her lips. She dropped like a puppet whose strings had been cut and Natasha crossed the room in three strides, stepping over the body of the maid who was still twitching reflexively on the carpet, and snatching hold of the nob of the door that led to the hallway to hastily swing it shut, more conscious of the fact she was still naked than the girl's body leaking blood in front of the open door. The maid's cart was sitting in the hallway, clean sheets and towels folded on top. They must have forgotten to hang the Do Not Disturb sign on the door. A rookie mistake. She should have known better.

Natasha recovered her knife from the throat of the girl without looking at her still open eyes. She might have been sixteen. She went back to the bathroom, realizing she'd left the faucet running.

Natasha had seduced her first mark at sixteen. She'd shot him in the back before he'd even finished taking off his trousers. A clean kill, cleaner than today's. No collateral damage. Natasha liked things neat.

She shut off the water and wiped the knobs carefully. She padded back over to the side of the bed, where Delacroix's blood was creeping over the sheets in rivulets emulating the tide of an ocean soaking into the sand, ebb and flow rushing in her ears like her breathing, chest rising and falling with the sound of sawing wood. He was lying chest down on the bed. His face was pressed into her pillow. Had he still been breathing he might have been able to smell a trace of her perfume on the pillow. She recalled the feel of his hairy chest, sticky with sweat, against her own soft skin and repressed a shudder. She was glad he was dead.

She picked her dress off the floor and yanked it over her head, struggling to pull the tight and stretchy material over her still-wet skin. She ran her hands through her hair to flatten it, slipped her knife back into its holster around her thigh, and fastened her strappy sandals back around her ankles. She popped the mint that had been on his pillow into her mouth to wash out the taste of ash on her tongue. She hated men who smoked. Her gums felt like sandpaper.

Clasping her diamond choker back around her throat she crossed the room to the door, six-inch heels sinking into the carpet. She avoided stepping in the blood that leached onto the floor from the maid's throat. She was young. Maybe sixteen. Natasha had already been doing a job a week by then.

The lock clicked like the cocking of a gun as she stepped into the hall and shut the door firmly behind her. She wondered how long it would take them to find the bodies and rang for the elevator, coolly observing the elevator boy with tan skin, gold and white uniform, and eyes that strayed to the diamond pendant nestled in her cleavage displayed by the low neckline of her dress. He was young, too. She wondered if he'd known the maid. Surely he saw her in the morning and through her rounds, knew her well enough to exchange nods and smiles, perhaps addressed each other by first names.

The sun beat down on the top of her head and burned the pale skin exposed in the part of her hair. It reflected off the mirror-like windows of the skyscrapers around her. Taxi's screeched and honked their horns in the streets. The sidewalks were clogged with vibrant clothes, faces, and conversations, street sounds and jabbering voices blending in the back of her head until in formed a cadence in which she walked, giving her grace enough to ignore the pulsing beat of her heart beneath her breast.

She'd keep the necklace. Delacroix had insisted, after all.

She peeled off the sidewalk into an alley where she'd left her drawstring knapsack with a change of clothes and a granola bar under a loose brick in the wall of the drycleaners. She downed the granola bar in two swallows, squinting against the sunlight gleaming off the lid of a dumpster bulging with black trash bags. The alley stank of garbage and urine. She wished she'd packed a bottle of water. She could still smell the rusty metal scent of Delacroix's blood in her nose.

She was pulling on a pair of shorts when she heard the crackle of a pebble behind her. In an instant, she'd turned, knife firmly in her palm, already raised to shoulder height. Sweat had again begun to slip down her temples, over her jaw and off her chin. It hung in a bead off the tip of her nose.

A man wearing a slick jumpsuit of black leather stared at her levelly at the end of the alley, blond hair erect and forehead shining with sweat in the sunlight, eyes a mixture of gray and blue and green like the murky water of the Rio Grande. For a moment all she could think was whether or not he was warm in all that black leather. She registered like a shot of a pistol that he was carrying a quiver and bow, arrow of which was trained on her nose.

Well damn she thought, clearly and precisely, and pondered if it was the same thing her own victims thought, before they felt the bite of her blade or heard the crack of her gun, if they ever had any time to think at all. She wondered if she might pitch her knife between his eyes before he let his arrow fly and found with no real surprise that she really didn't care to try.

His eyes left hers for a moment, lingering over her left hand, which was still clutching the fly of her denim shorts. She wondered how long he had been watching, first waiting for her to come back, later watching her undress.

"Well," he said, voice bouncing across the sultry Brazilian air. "I'll admit. You've got spunk. I like that in a woman."

She smirked, admiring the taught, sculpted muscles in his biceps and the way the sunlight glinted off the well-filed point of his arrow and sheen of sweat above his upper lip.

"Let me guess, they call you Robin Hood."

"Close." He matched her smile, eyes joining hers again in a way that told her with assurance that he knew exactly what they called her. His fingers plucked the string of his bow as delicately as he might those of a guitar. "But not quite."

******

March 2, 2009. Yerevan, Armenia.

Natasha met Barton in the alley between an ancient stone library and a Pizza Hut. Her heart was pattering against her ribs but she wasn't even breathing hard. Neither was Barton.

He nodded to her briskly and she answered him with a nod of her own. She didn't have to ask him whether or not Namazi was now dead. He adjusted the buckle of his quiver over his shoulder.

"Any luck locating the package?" he asked her.

"No," she tried not to let her frustration seep through her voice. The chill air prickled against her skin and breath steamed from her mouth, rising and dissipating into the air in front of her face. "He can't have already planted it."

Barton nodded in agreement, "We've been watching him too carefully –"

His words were cut off by a rumble that rapidly grew into a roaring, crackling explosion that rang through the streets and rebounded off the patchwork of buildings both of the old and new world. Fragmented screams erupted down the street, carried on the dry, cold air.

"Damn," said Barton, word leaving his mouth with a puff of white breath.

Package delivered. Natasha and Barton had been partners for almost a year now. By now there was no longer any need for words or exchange of looks to know he'd kicked into a sprint right beside her, both headed toward the direction of the explosion.

Cars and trucks skidded to a stop in the road. Pedestrians were running, some toward, and some away from the hum of chaos coming from down the street. Natasha saw smoke rise above the tops of buildings, blending with the murky gray clouds that clogged the sky. Skeletal trees that would no doubt bloom lush in the spring lined the sidewalk and reached their naked branches up to the sky like the imploring arms of the dead.

The crowd of people was growing thicker and more animated. Clattering footsteps pounded on the pavement splintered with potholes and cracks from the past winter. Barton ran two steps in front of Natasha, pushing off shoulders and squeezing through gaps in the throng. Natasha slid neatly after him, using the spaces created in his wake for her path. Sirens wailed in the distance. Her eyes zeroed in on individual aspects of the crowd, the red traffic light reflecting off a man's glasses, the freckles covering a woman's nose, a silver zipper of a blue windbreaker, the dark curls of hair on a child's olive forehead. She could smell the smoke on the air now.

Barton skidded to a stop in front of her and she dodged so she wouldn't ram into his back. He'd made his way to the front of the crowd, blocked by a wrought iron fence marked with a wooden sign reading Հիվանդանոց. Billowing smoke and flames leapt from the crumbling brick windows and walls of the building before them. Distant figures darted out of the double doors. Alarms screamed over their heads. Natasha could see uniformed policemen shouldering their way through the crowd.

"What was it?"

"A bomb."

"My God."

Snatches of panicked conversation flurried through the air and drifted into Natasha's ears. She was unable to focus on any one voice, any one face, sound or feeling.

"Looks like it hit the children's wing."

The words were spoken in Russian but Natasha could tell, by the way Barton's eyes widened, that he had understood just a clearly as she had.

Her foot broke forward without her consent. Her fist wound around a bar of the low fence and she vaulted neatly over it rather than waste time looking for a gate. Her feet landed on the yellowed lawn. It seemed to her that she could see a dead child lying in front of her, at the base of the hospital's brick wall, empty hand lying open on a braided carpet.

Oh, but she'll never find me here. And if you let me stay I'll keep house for you. I'll wash and sew and sweep and cook.

She heard Barton's heavy footfalls land on the ground as he followed her over the fence and sprinted with her toward the hospital.

"Romanoff, wait –"

Natasha did not pause to heed Barton's voice, but pelted up the flight of stairs that led to the front doors, jostling panicked health-workers and patients fleeing from the building, coughing and crying and eyes empty and haunted.

Inside there was pandemonium. Doctors and nurses rushed through the halls, some carrying litters or pushing wheelchairs. Sirens keened in the background. Smoke clogged the halls. Screams of pain and fear crashed against Natasha's ears. She heard the sound of tinkling glass and saw the clear contents of an IV flask spill across the floor, spreading through the cracks of the linoleum floor like the edges of a puzzle.

Natasha's eyes zeroed in on the door marked Սանդուղք and flung it open to reveal a flight of stairs, on which more people were clattering down, arms thrown over their mouths to stop themselves from inhaling the swelling smoke, some nursing fresh injuries, others old.

Natasha pounded up the stairs against the tide, jostled by shoulders and palms, sucking in her stomach and pressing against the rough brick wall to allow a stretcher bearing an elderly woman to be carried by.

Barton was still behind her, obstructed by the crowd blocking the stairwell. The smoke was getting thicker. Natasha's eyes were streaming.

The door was open on the third floor, letting in more people with more obvious wounds onto the stairs, blood streaming from a forehead and a shoulder, an arm twisted at an unnatural angle, hands carrying an unconscious, blood-covered child. Natasha pushed her way through the door and broke away from the mob, shoes smacking flatly against the floor as she darted down the hallway.

Black smoke made it difficult to see. She could hear more screaming now, sobbing, wailing, yelling. She saw yellow and red flames flickering ahead like rippling water and she ran faster, breath scraping up her throat painfully.

"Romanoff! This isn't our job! What the hell do you think you're doing?" Barton's footsteps pounded on the polished linoleum floor as he caught up to her. His fingers seized Natasha's wrist and swung her roughly right about to face him.

She used her own momentum against him and instinctively the heel of her hand found his forehead. Her knee came up to burry itself in his in his abdomen. She twisted and yanked her arm all in one motion and his fingers slid away from her wrist. He reacted in kind, grunt of pain seeping through his lips from the blow of her knee even as his own open palm swung upward toward her face. She ducked and he took advantage of her distraction, fingers closing again on her forearm, biting into her flesh.

His eyes found, caught, and held her own, steely gray that burned orange from the reflecting light of the fire. She didn't know who he was. She didn't know who she, herself, was. Smoke swirled around his head like the halo of a demon. She became aware of the heat, a pulsing, living thing that pressed against her chest and threatened to suffocate her. Natasha thought hell must be as red and hot as this.

And then, above the roaring flames, sirens, and distant screams, above it all, clear, and plaintive rose the keening cry of a child. Barton's fingers loosed around Natasha's arm. She whipped back around, eyes searching the thick smoke. She felt Barton's heavy, warm body behind her. Their footsteps beat a matching rhythm upon the floor, moving seamlessly as one.

Natasha clattered through a half-demolished door into a large ward lined with beds. The far wall was already crumbled and licked with flames. Half the ceiling had been blown off in the explosion, letting in a stream of cold air from outside that did war with the smoke and flame, swirling where they met in a whirlpool of black and white and red.

"Get out!" Barton yelled between wracking coughs to a woman wearing a nurse's uniform, eyes wet and round, untangling a child from its bedsheets with shaking fingers. "Take him and get out!"

Natasha inhaled and felt her own lungs clog with smoke, gasping and retching for nonexistent oxygen. She felt heat on her face as she ran to another bed and bundled the waiting child into her arms. The child clung to her neck with wiry arms. She could hear its shrill screaming in her ears.

The far wall collapsed under the raging fire onto a row of beds. Natasha had not been able to see through the smoke whether or not they had held more children, now buried in burning rubble. Barton was carrying his own child, its face buried in his chest.

"Romanoff! Let's go!" He bellowed to be heard over the roaring, hungry flames.

Natasha turned to leave but motion caught the corner of her eye. She saw the sheets move on a bed close to the fire, churning and twisting as they fought to disgorge the child within them. The child rolled off the bed and landed on the floor. It struggled to its feet.

Natasha stumbled forward to meet it, seeing gentle confusion in its strangely fearless brown eyes. It seemed to Natasha that she could see herself reflected in those eyes, a distant black figure with red hair that matched the angry flames. Red and yellow light rippled across the child's pale, innocent face.

"Romanoff –"

The flames consumed the child, shielding its writhing body from Natasha's eyes. The heat spiked on the point of a knife until Natasha could feel her cheeks burning. The child in her arm was squirming and shrieking. Natasha was unable to tell if the wetness on her neck was from the child's hot tears or blood.

Natasha remembered abruptly that her parents had died in a fire. It was a thought she could not remember ever thinking before. It was something she should have forgotten long ago. Something that should have died with her when Natalia Romanova had died and Black Widow had been reborn from the ashes. Her past was a puzzle, some pieces were faded and torn, others jammed into spots they didn't quite fit, still others missing entirely. But it was true. In a flash she knew it was true and it seemed to her that she could hear their distant, unfamiliar voices wailing, carried on the same noxious smoke that brought the screams of dying children.

"Romanoff we – can't –" Barton gasped, fingers touching her arm again, much softer this time. "There's nothing –" She didn't know whether or not he had seen the child vanish under the flames.

The fire mounted and reared like a vicious beast, swallowing everything in its path. She tore away, dragged her wrist from Barton's fingers, and tumbled back out of the ward. The ceiling above them creaked and swayed. There was a splintering, grinding sound and a beam of wood detached from the rafters, bringing with it a shower of glowing red embers like fluttering confetti or colorful fireworks.

Natasha heard Barton grunt in pain as the beam collapsed on his shoulder. Flames licked up the wood, sizzling angrily as it stroked his hair. He was hunched over, using his body to shield the child in his arms. Natasha sprang forward, arm loosening around her own child in order to curl around the beam of wood. She felt the flesh of her hands and forearm scald as she yanked at the beam at the same time Barton hoisted himself back to his feet.

Smoke swirled and flames buckled in the air. Natasha and Barton sprinted flat out down the hallway, unable to see from side to side because of the smoke, dodging obstacles of collapsed walls and charred medical equipment, stretchers, broken bedposts, and shattered glass that reflected the crimson flames. All Natasha could hear was the pained screaming of the child against her chest, rattling inside her ribs, small and thin and delicate, writhing in her arms as though it wished for her to release it into the air. Tongues of flame flailed in the hall behind them and fumbled for Natasha's flying heels. They reached the staircase that was now empty and hallow, walls charred black. The stairs rattled and clanged as they pelted downward. The banister swayed dangerous. The door was eaten behind them by leaping flames.

They clattered into the smoke bathed lobby, still swarming with medical personnel. Firefighters were streaming through the doors, wearing opaque masks that hid their faces from the smoke and dragging thick hoses that looked like heaving, twisting snakes.

Natasha followed Barton's wide shoulders, on which his quiver of arrows still clung, lopsided now as one of the buckles had been knocked loose. Some of the fletchings had caught fire and burned away, leaving nothing but the spidery skeleton of the feathers. He pushed past a pack of firemen and tripped down the stairs. Natasha followed, rush of cold air stinging her scorched face like an open palm slap. She blinked in the sudden brightness caused by the absence of the smoke, even though the sky was still overcast.

Blinking, whirling lights that belonged to the emergency vehicles scattered on the lawn twisted across her vision and disoriented her. Police and firemen and medical personnel were scattered about, all running, all shouting. Sirens keened, now mere background noise, blending in with the shrieking of the child into Natasha's ears, the crackling of the burning building behind them, the gushing of the water from the fire hoses, and prattle of voices from the watching pedestrians.

Natasha veered away from Barton, approaching a dazed looking doctor with soot in his hair. He reacted to her and the child in her arms mechanically, reaching up with tender, nimble hands to relieve her of the screaming, trembling child who did not want to let go. Its fingernails left deep welts on Natasha's neck as the doctor pulled it away. She was glad its eyes were screwed shut in its terror and pain. She didn't want to see herself reflected in its black, mirror-like pupils.

Barton was still carrying his own child, which looked stiff and motionless in his arms. His eyes were dark and hard, almost lost. A woman carrying a red cross bag rushed over to him, but Barton shook his head. Natasha could tell by the deep lines etched by the sides of his mouth that the child was dead. He seemed reluctant to let go of the body.

Natasha pulled herself away from the crowd. She felt herself drift away on the smoke rising into the air, floating far above the piecemeal stone and cement buildings and surrounding fields of dead grass, mingling with the leaden clouds above them. Her throat and lungs ached, scraped raw and parched by the smoke. Ash, the smell and taste of it, was all around her. Her fingers were red and covered with shining burns.

The grass crackled under her knees. She could not recall making the decision to kneel. She did not know how to pray.

The frozen ground felt hard and cool, seeping through the scorched fabric of her spandex leggings. She tangled her fingers in it and closed her eyes, breathing deeply the cold, crisp air that stung her lungs and throat and dried the tears on her lashes to a sticky, grainy film. The white-capped Caucuses cast a shadow over the lawn and the near parking lot speckled with cars with rusty license plates, all covered with the faint, flickering glow of orange flame and dark, drifting clouds of smoke.

One of the girls in the Red Room had grown her left index fingernail long and filed it to a point sharp enough to slice her victims' throats. She had once almost speared Natasha's eye during a sparring session. Natasha had snapped the girl's shin as simply and effortlessly as cracking a branch over her knee. Her yells had echoed across the courtyard until they'd been silenced by the heel of the warden's shoe carefully crushing her windpipe. Natasha had been made to suffer a week without food afterward. Mercy, like love, was for children.

Natasha had been eleven.

Natasha heard the grass crunch under Barton's shoes as he approached, unnaturally keen eyesight routing her out from between the press of frantic bodies.

"We need to go."

She looked up at him from the ground. Natasha wondered where he'd put the dead child. The left arm of his uniform had been torn. The skin exposes beneath it was an angry red.

Natasha absentmindedly gripped her wrist, massaging her skin. She had never understood why they had been cuffed in at night. To prevent escape? It was the most natural explanation except for the fact that Natasha could not remember ever actually wanting to leave.

"Romanoff, we should go."

The tips of his hair were singed black, face stained with soot, shoulders dusted with white ash like the snow-tipped mountains looming above them. The air was clean and cool. Natasha tasted smoke and blood in her mouth. She could still smell the burned hair of the child she had carried out of the hospital to safety.

"Dammit, Romanoff!" Barton's voice exploded from his lips, fist clanged against the metal post of the fence surrounding the parking lot. "We can't stay here."

She looked away, back to her fingers tangled in the yellow grass. The nail of her middle finger had almost entirely torn away. Blood slipped down her finger and caught in the wrinkles of her knuckles. She turned her hand over, tracing the thin stripes of blood that wound through the lines in her palm.

"Dammit!" Barton yelled again. Fist clanging against the post again. Natasha wondered if he was remembering the dead weight of the child in his arms. She wondered if the child's body had been warm or cold by the time he'd relinquished it. She wondered how many dead children Clint Barton had ever seen, touched, held, if he had ever mourned any of them before now.

The cold air embraced her shoulders like the arms of a lover and silently, methodically she named them in her head. Gerardo Maldonado. Frederic Delacroix. Jillian Underwood. Robald Charleston. The old woman wrapped in a knitted shawl who smelt of peppermint and Tabaco. Annemarie Donati. The homeless man with the gray hat and dirty nails. The two nameless henchmen in navy suits with matching ties. Melanie. The woman in green. Imogen Wilkerson. The taxi driver. Dreykov. Adam Riley. Rosa Burke. Vasilisa. She remembered all their faces if not their names, all their eyes, all their voices. The same voices that crowded into her ears and blended into those of innocent, ignorant pedestrians on the streets, the same eyes that watched her from behind newspapers and through windows in passing cars, out of mirrors set into cracked, faded wallpaper.

By now she could not remember the exact number.

"Natasha?" Something in Barton's voice changed, became a coarse whisper more poisonous than any curse. His rough fingers touched her shoulder, gently, almost tentatively as though he was afraid she would strike him. She realized she was trembling. She wondered how much of her own blood she would have to shed to wash away her multitude of sins, etched into her arms in dull pink scars and purple bruises and powder burns from her pistol.

She could no longer remember all the reasons. She wondered if there ever were any reasons. She wondered if there were even any now. She knew Barton had thought the same because she'd heard his uneven breathing at night and felt the sweat on his forehead under the beds of her fingers. She could feel his own fingers quivering on her shoulder, uniform so thin it was almost as if his flesh rested on her own.

She stared at the metal post that rose from the ground and her hand rose to touch Clint's, resting on top of the back of his fist, winding her fingers around his wrist, trying to work warmth back into his dry and cold skin.

Natasha wondered how she had known to aim waist high, why her bullet did not fly harmlessly over the little girl's head, down the hallway, and embed itself in a mirror that reflected her calm, emotionless, black-clad figure as the little girl's body dropped out of the way, pale face tarnished in blotches of red, green, blue, and yellow lights from the Christmas tree standing in the corner of the sitting room with hand-made ornaments hanging from its bows.

"I still don't know her name." Her words tasted like acid and burned on her tongue.

She hadn't even had the decency to find out her damn name.

Her fingernails dug into Clint's wrist until they broke skin and made him bleed. Clint choked on a hiss of pain but didn't pull away. Natasha wondered why he didn't pull away. His blood slithered between her fingers. She shut her eyes hard.

It seemed that the tattoo of her heart in her chest mirrored the patter of a child's feet on a carpeted floor. It was one of the many sounds, joining the wailing of a widowed wife, the gurgling of blood up a throat, the tap of point shoes on a stage, which dodged and crept through her nightmares. Natasha could feel sweat collecting on the palms of her hands and behind her knees.

She remembered now, clearly, vividly, a memory bathed in crimson light flashing off a gap-tooth smile, the sound of the child's footsteps approaching down the hall. She could remember consciously, deliberately, dismissively deciding to aim where she did, one and a half inches below the hairline.

Above them the heavily laden clouds finally expelled their pockets of snow, which blew over the dead grass, the burning hospital, the yelling firefighters, and crying children, impossible to discern from the ash that leapt from the flames. All of it floated down to cover Natasha's bent shoulders, coating her red hair in a sheet of white.

Fin

Ending Note: I've always been drawn to characters of ambiguous morality, so Natasha was a natural choice for my first story. I honestly didn't intend for this to become a "how Clint made a different call" story because it seems like everyone does those, but then my pen carried me where it willed and I ended up having very little choice in the matter.

I hope you enjoyed it. Please, consider dropping a comment if you did. Thank you for reading. (Also find this on ff.net and AO3) 

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