The Asset

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Natasha stood alone in the darkened observation room, watching him through the mirrored glass. It was the first time the prisoner had been out of his cell in days, but other than a brief survey of the room – marking the exits, the racks on the wall empty of even sparring weapons – he stood frozen, his back to her. He’d been that way for nearly a half hour.

She wasn’t stalling. People are most themselves when they think they’re alone, especially if you let them grow restless. Most people, anyway. But this wasn’t most people. He’d eliminated four Hydra cells before Rogers had been able to bring him in, singlehandedly and with extreme prejudice. Some would say he did them a favor. Steve saw it as an act of contrition, but they couldn’t take any chances.

"If we’re going to rebuild," Fury had said, "we’ll need every asset we can get." So why was she hesitating? Was it frustration at being sidelined, tasked with playing the babysitter? Fury trusted her opinion; her evaluation would help decide the prisoner’s fate. He needed someone impartial. But there were some things even Fury didn’t know.

He turned then, looking directly at her through the glass. He would see only his own reflection - the dark hair and shadowed chin, the eyes that seemed so penetrating and yet so sad. They had allowed him to keep the arm, after Stark made a few modifications. He assured them it was now no more dangerous than a normal prosthetic, but that didn’t make her feel better. As long as he drew breath, the Winter Soldier would be one of the deadliest men she had ever known.

She could feel his eyes on her as she bent over the computer and shut off the cameras in the training room. It had been her idea to do this here, in a language she knew they both would understand. There were no uncomfortable questions, no regrets, not in the language of violence. Fury wanted her to test his skills and that’s exactly what she would do.

With a nod for the guards on the door, she stepped into the room. He still hadn’t moved, stood studying his reflection as the door slid shut behind her. She knew how strange it could be, how you could forget yourself, knew better than most. He wasn’t the only one whose fragmented memories had recently come rushing back. It had been easier when he was just a ghost, a target, a stranger behind a mask. That face was one she had never expected to see again.

But she wouldn’t let it throw her, not now. She’d been preparing for this since Fury made his request. Even if he didn’t know who this man was – really was – he knew her. He knew that she would do what she had to.

She was ready when at last he turned to her, ready for anything but that empty stare, the complete lack of recognition. Still, he managed a weak smile.

"Here to beat me up? I thought they might finally be taking me to trial, but considering where we are…"

"Accountability will come later."

"When?"

"Not my department." She moved across the padded floor on silent steps. "I’m just here to talk."

Talk, sure.”

"The only reason you’re still seeing daylight is because Steve Rogers seems to trust you. I’m here to find out if that assessment is valid."

He turned back to the mirror. “You can trust Steve.” The hesitation on the name was almost imperceptible.

"Rogers didn’t start a firefight in the middle of D.C."

He grimaced at his reflection, the memory overtaking him. He’d been examined, of course. The doctors had found considerable scar tissue, but without Hydra’s clean slate treatments they were confident that his memory would return. She didn’t envy him that. Some fragments would take longer than others, they said. She wondered how long she had.

It took him a moment to recover, his eyes finding hers in the mirror. “You were there.” He turned to her, searching her face. “…Natalia?”

"Actually, it’s Natasha now."

He was still struggling, grasping for something he couldn’t quite reach. “Did we… know each other? I mean, before?”

It’s almost enough to shake her, but she’s better at this than he is. Stilling her features, she lifted her shirt, exposing the scar on her abdomen. “We’ve met.”

"Sorry." He clearly didn’t remember, but it actually sounded like he meant it. "Bet if a guy gets close enough to see that he doesn’t really notice, though."

"Cute. Rogers did say you taught him how to talk to girls." She played it lightly, stepping back into the center of the sparring mat.

"Yeah?"

"Not your fault it didn’t take." She gestured for him to come at her.

Still, he hesitated. “So… you’re my handler now?”

"That depends."

"On?"

"On if you can be trusted. On if your skills can be of any use to us. On if this whole idea doesn’t blow up in our faces."

He scowled. “My… skills. That’s what you want.”

"We’re not Hydra. You want us to trust you because Rogers does? Rogers trusts us, trusts me. Even though maybe he shouldn’t."

He lunged at her without warning, faster than she’d expected, but she grabbed his wrist, deflecting the blow as she twisted away. He was holding back, testing her.

"Something you’re not telling me Natal— Natasha?"

"You’re not the only one who’s done things they regret." She hadn’t wanted to go down this path, not yet. But to get, you had to give. "You do regret what happened?”

"The hell do you think?" He swung at her again, stronger, quicker in his anger. But as she leapt lightly out of the way, he grimaced, the memory more painful than her counterpunch.

It was an advantage that she could push. He was still unstable, a victim of his own mind, of new memories and old horrors. With the right pressure, he would tell her everything. If only she could bring herself to do it.

"I think you’re dangerous." It was her turn to take the offensive, each strike swift and precise, and just as easily blocked. "I think having you here is a liability." She pressed him back. "But I also know you weren’t in control."

As confused and exhausted as he seemed, his form was perfect. When she dropped and attempted to sweep his legs from under him, he rolled easily aside. As he stood, her second kick connected with his chest, but he caught her ankle, holding it in both hands. With his arm at full strength, he could have crushed it easily, but she’d still left herself vulnerable. From the twitch of his lips, he knew it, too. “So that’s the question. Am I in control?”

Leaping up, she kicked with both feet, pushing off of his chest and rolling away. She crouched across the mat. “They say you’re getting your memories back. All the things you’ve done, the people you’ve… hurt. You might not be a slave to Hydra anymore, but the past can be even more cruel. The question is can you move past it?”

"How?" His cheeks were flushed, but he turned with her as she moved around him, mirroring her stance. "What if I can’t? What if I don’t deserve to?"

"I did. My ledger’s just as red as yours."

"I doubt that." He struck low this time, covering the distance between them faster than she had expected, almost throwing her off balance. Almost. If he remembered, he would know it was the truth.

But she wasn’t about to compare body counts. Rolling with the momentum, she spun out of the way, landing lightly on her toes.

He almost smiled. “Moves like that, you could have been a dancer.”

"Maybe in another life." She pulled into a pirouette, then stretched her leg above her head. "Well? Show me what you’ve got."

"You asking me to dance? I don’t think a girl’s ever asked me before.”

"Is that a problem?"

He chuckled. “No, I like it.”

His kick was high, aiming for her shoulder. Her own struck at his middle, but he sidestepped with ease. Offense and defense, give and take. The rhythm was old, familiar. He might even get her to break a sweat. But that thought lead down paths she’d rather not follow, not if she wanted to maintain focus.

"So how did you do it? Move past it?" He caught her eye over a deflected punch.

"I taught myself to look forward, not back."

"Isn’t that counterintuitive? Looking only in one direction is how you get yourself killed."

"Says the guy refusing to see any other option." She raised an arm to block his kick. "I didn’t say I forgot. I know who I am, who I was. There’s no way around that. The point is to be something more, to do something to make up for it. That’s the opportunity I’m here to offer you."

He considered it, twisting away as she tried to pin his arm. Flicking the hair from his eyes, he shook his head. “What if it’s not enough?”

"It might never be. But we can try."

He rubbed at his shoulder. “Yeah… okay. I don’t think I’m cut out for the quiet life, anyway.”

Then he lunged again, putting all of his momentum into a single punch, but he wasn’t looking to connect, not really. Instead he moved with her as she spun aside, pulling her back against him and pinning his arm across her middle.

His breath was warm against her ear. “How’d you get so good?”

It was an effort to maintain her calm. She pinched shut her eyes, tried not to think of how many years it had been, how it somehow felt like yesterday. “Good teachers… some of them, anyway.”

She expected him to pull away, to keep fighting. He had to, because she didn’t know if she could. But instead he went rigid, his grip on her tightening painfully. She could hear his breath catch, hear it return thick and ragged.

"…Natalia?"

She spun in his arms, pulling the knife from her sleeve and pressing it to his throat in one swift motion. “Let. Go.”

She saw it in his eyes, everything she had hoped for, everything that she’d feared. She almost wished he’d been trying to hurt her. That, she could have handled.

"Oh god, Natalia." His eyes were wide, his face a mask of shock and relief and horror. He knew her now, knew everything. He didn’t even seem to see the blade.

"Let go. James, let go.”

He released her, taking a shaky step as her breath came rushing back. She’d likely bruised a rib, would have to have a talk with Stark about those “modifications.” Taking it out on someone else would be easy. Forcing herself to raise her eyes, to meet that wondering gaze, wasn’t.

"Nat, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—"

"We’re done here. I’ll tell Fury you’re in."

She left him there – this man who had trained with her, who had loved her, who she’d lost. Looking back was a risk she couldn’t take. Stalking from the room, she left him in the hands of the guards and tried to focus on what mattered.

The prisoner would cooperate. The asset was theirs. Her mission had been accomplished. But what had she compromised?

-------------------------

 

He was dreaming of rain. It pounded on the high tin roof, a dull roar that echoed through the empty gymnasium. The hour and the storm had been enough to draw their audience away, but he hadn’t returned to quarters. He’d rather be here, in the stillness of that constant thunder, lost to the rhythm of flesh meeting flesh. Besides, no one looked twice if two operatives wanted to put in some late night training.

Natalia squared up across the ring and sent a swift kick toward his middle. He caught her ankle, smiling as she raised her eyes to his. But her face shifted, becoming older but just as beautiful, alight with the clarity of freshly etched memory. This had happened before. Had they come for him again? Was she testing him? But this was wrong. They should be in America, an underground SHIELD facility. This place was half a world away, somewhere he hadn’t been in decades.

The Natalia who crouched across the ring was young again. So was he. He could feel it, a lightness of years lifted and horror yet to come. This was a memory.

"<Well?>"

"Speak English. You need the practice."

"Where are you? You look far away." She was looking at him the way she used to, seeing things about him that no one else could, things he had forgotten.

But it was when, not where. Could he tell her that he’d seen the future, that these weeks in the Red Room were the only ones they’d ever have? Could he tell her that he was her prisoner, that he’d done terrible things, that all he deserved from her in the end were weighing stares and guarded questions?

The rain drummed on. It felt so real - the cool sweat on the back of his neck, the ache in his muscles, the heat rushing through him as she crossed the ring. With her looking at him like that, he couldn’t bring himself to tell her she was just a ghost.

"Do you surrender?"

He smiled. “To you? Always.”

She was in his arms then, pressed hard against him, her lips finding his. The thrill of it was staggering, the danger of discovery, the passion that neither of them had expected to find in a place like this. Reality still tugged at him, but he no longer cared. One hand slid to her hip, the other tangling in her hair. She was soft beneath him, painfully so. The ache that rose in him was tinged with regret, but he could taste her, feel the heat of her as he buried his face in her neck. She moaned appreciatively, her hands sliding lower. His mouth found hers again, her laughter warm against his lips.

A blast of cold hit him full in the face. It snatched the breath from him, the wind stinging his cheeks. Rain filled his eyes. No, not rain. Snow.

Natalia was gone. He was crouched behind a tree, a knife in each hand, making his way through the forest under cover of darkness. With the falling snow, it was almost serene. But he could feel them out there in the night, the enemy just ahead, his unit waiting behind while he cleared a path. He knew these woods. Another memory, years before the last.

The Hydra base would fall tonight, one of many on their path toward victory. He hadn’t survived to see the end of it, but they said they’d won. His mission was to take out the perimeter guards, swiftly and silently, to keep their approach concealed. He might not be America’s favorite soldier, might not have Steve’s strength or speed, but he had found other ways to prove himself.

The first guard never saw him coming. He took him from behind, wrapping him in both arms and driving his blade into the soft flesh of his throat. The snow was falling harder, white and pure, painted with a sudden splash of red. The second guard tried to fight back, but he was good, even then. This was what he’d been meant for all along.

When it was over, he stared down at them, letting the cold seep through him. His chest heaved, his breath misting before him. The forest was quiet again, the knife dripping in his hand. His good hand, both of them strong, both of them real. He’d done his job well. These men were Hydra. Considering what had happened since, he could almost believe they deserved it, that he owed them. And yet he couldn’t look away.

Someone was watching him. He could feel their eyes. Another guard stepped from the trees, but her helmet was gone, the snowflakes catching in her long red hair.

"Natalia?"

No, she was never here. But she moved through the snow on silent steps, stepping unseeing over the bodies, leaving a trail of bloody footprints in her wake.

"James." She smiled up at him, the cloud of her breath mingling with his.

It was all he could see as she kissed him, white mist and falling snow. Her warmth flooded through him, enveloping him, the snow melting into rain as it fell around them. Steam filled his eyes, the weight of war falling away. His weapons were gone, his uniform vanished, but she was still there, warm and wet and naked in his arms.

They were back at the Red Room facility, washing away the day’s training in the throbbing heat of the showers. Turning his face to the water, he shut his eyes, trying to forget the dream that had come before. Natalia’s lips were everywhere, tracing the roughness of his chin, trailing across his chest, her tongue circling playfully around a nipple. Opening his eyes, he found her watching him, teasing with her teeth until he gasped. He tilted her chin up to kiss him, his other hand cupped against her ass, crushing her to him. The hand was strong again, the water pinging off the metal of his arm. It felt right, more familiar than the one he’d been born with, but with her it didn’t matter. With her, he could be himself.

He lifted her to him, pressing her back against the slick tile of the wall. Her legs wrapped around him, her hands guiding him, her head lolling as the water flowed down her neck. He chased it with his lips, drinking deep, burying his face in her breasts, losing himself to the rhythm. They fought well together. This, they did even better.

Each thrust brought a new gasp, laughter blooming thick in her throat. Her nails bit into his back, one hand tangled in the hair on his chest. He forced his eyes open, watching her, willing himself to remember, to let this be more than a dream. His fingertips traced her face, committing it to memory, trailing to the soft dimple of her neck. He saw it again suddenly, the soldier in the snow, his blade driving deep into the exposed flesh.

He tried to shake it off, to see only her. She drew him deeper, her back arching. But then his other hand was at her throat, both of them wrapping round, horror overtaking him as he realized he couldn’t stop them. It was like watching someone else, somewhere else, the years of mute and helpless witness stretching out before him.

No. Not Natalia.

But it wasn’t her. His hands closed around the throat, but the purpling face was that of a stranger. The showers were gone, replaced by the distant pounding of gunfire and falling bombs. This memory was hazier, blended to so many of the rest. A coup maybe, in a country he couldn’t name. The room where he crouched was silent and still, but outside the world was changing. And he knew that he had been the cause.

The woman in his arms was dead. He’d choked the life from her, remembered how easy it had been. As he laid her back on the floor, he saw that she wasn’t alone. The room was littered with fresh corpses, some shot, some stabbed, some beaten. He had killed them all.

He stepped over them on long, certain strides, making his way toward the extraction point. Around him horror reigned, men fighting and dying in the sweltering desert heat. But he didn’t feel it. Those in his way fell quickly, each kill bringing a fresh rush of cold, like an echo snapping at his heels. But still he found himself pinned down.

He dove behind a crumbling wall, pressing his back against it as he reloaded. One of the men ahead was a decent shot. A bullet whizzed past just above his head, raining down brick and plaster. He saw her then, heard the shots flying back in the other direction.

Natalia crouched across the street. Natalia providing covering fire. Natalia smiling at him. But that was wrong. This had been years later, years after he’d lost her, years after he’d forgotten her name. If she had been here, she never would have helped him. He knew that now.

She rose and walked toward him, caring nothing for the return fire. He shouted to her, but the words wouldn’t come. Her eyes were locked to his, her steps slow and measured, crossing the battlefield like an apparition, a valkyrie come to claim him. The bullets didn’t touch her.

When she took his hand, he was invincible. Together they crossed the bleeding city, fighting their way out, laughing at the thrill of it. They fought Hydra and SHIELD, soldiers and supermen, Russians and Americans. Some of the faces shone with familiar clarity and he knew them to be real, people he had killed, coming back to haunt him in the kaleidoscope of dreams.

Natalia hadn’t fought with him here, but they had fought together. Those few short weeks stretched before him like years. He saw them training in the ring, earning the approval of their masters. He saw them perched above a building, waiting for a target. He saw those first stolen moments, saw himself sneaking into her quarters, wrapping her in his arms, losing himself to something that he’d thought beyond him. He could have lived in those weeks forever. But the cold crept on, just out of sight, gaining as the memories sped past.

He heard her scream, saw her ripped from his arms. They’d been discovered. She was changing him. His conditioning wouldn’t hold. He tried to focus, tried to keep his eyes on her, but the corners of his vision blurred, the world going white. The cold had him now, turning him to ice. And still he could hear her scream.

Her screams mingled with others. He saw them all laid out before him, every death he had caused, every horror. And through it all the cold, hounding him, freezing away every piece of him that had ever known warmth. It was tempting to give into it, to let it take away the pain, the guilt. But the memories came faster, whipping past him, blurring together, burning, searing into his mind. The screams were his now.

He didn’t know when the dream released him. It left him gasping, cold and alone. He almost thought that he had wakened. But he stood in another city, perched high above the street. Bracing his rifle, he squinted down the sight. The woman was beautiful, intelligent and precise, a creature of deadly grace. There was no feeling behind the thought. It was merely an observation, distant and cold.

She’d been hunting him, had come close a time or two. But he had the advantage now. He lined up the shot, screaming in horror,  a passenger trapped inside his own mind. Natalia. But he hadn’t known her, not then. They had taken her from him, wiped all trace of her from his memory. And when she came for him, he had defended himself.

He felt his finger tense on the trigger, felt himself hesitate. A killshot. Why would it be anything else? He shook himself and set the shot again, pressing his eye to the sight. Her head whipped around, searching for him. So beautiful.

She spotted him as the shot rang out, her face filling his vision as she fell, clutching at her stomach. He’d missed. He never missed.

Again and again he felt himself pull the trigger. Again and again he watched her fall. Natalia. Natalia who he’d known, who he’d loved. Natalia who they’d taken from him, erased from his memory. Natalia who might have even loved him back.

Natalia who he had tried to kill.

He woke with a gasp, blinking at the ceiling above his narrow bed, the ceiling of his cell. His blanket was tangled around him, slick with sweat. But all he felt was cold.

-------------------------

"What’s with this guy? Just because he’s Cap’s old war buddy, we’re supposed to let him on the team? Last I checked, he was the bad guy." Clint flicked a series of switches on the control panel, prepping the jet for launch.

Natasha stood behind him. Fury had been monitoring Hydra’s movements, had noticed them suddenly pulling out of a compromised SHIELD base. If they were abandoning it, he didn’t know, but their defenses would be limited. Since they were the only team in the area, it would be their job to get inside and find out why.

She folded her arms. “So was I, once. So were you.”

"Once. I didn’t spend decades working for Hydra."

"He’s different now."

"Since when? Since he shot you? Or since that other time when he shot you?”

She turned at the sound of footsteps, watching as a pair of Fury’s men escorted their prisoner across the hangar. He’d had a chance to shave, had pulled his hair back into a loose knot. They’d also returned his gear, though she wouldn’t have him armed. It was practicality more than instinct. Even if she thought she could trust him, even if she could imagine that his newfound memories had inspired some loyalty that would keep him from running… she couldn’t let it cloud her judgment. Besides, even unarmed, James could take care of himself.

That’s why she had asked Clint to come along. There was no one she trusted more to watch her back, who she trusted to watch her. She was testing herself, but she also knew who she was dealing with now, knew that sitting here wasn’t doing her or James any good. A recon mission to an empty facility should be uneventful. Even if it wasn’t, it would at least give him something to hit.

"I appreciate the concern, but I can handle James."

"Oh, sure. James.” Clint followed her gaze. “I’m worried about you, Nat. A live op? You’re not that reckless. That guy’s not ready to be in the field.”

He belonged in the field. Not in a cell, not trapped alone with his thoughts. She’d checked the cameras enough times to see that it was killing him. Fury had wanted an asset and now he had one. James wanted to go after Hydra. This would work.

"He has nowhere else to be."

"Yeah, well, when he runs away, I’m not helping you chase him."

The agents unshackled him and James strode up the gangway, joining them in the cockpit.

"Natasha." He was being more careful with her name, but she could see the effort it cost him.

"James Barnes, Clint Barton."

James offered his hand, but Clint didn’t take it.

"Yeah, hi." He turned back to the controls. "Everyone strap in. Let’s get this over with."

The jet was small, one of the few that they’d been able to keep out of Hydra’s hands. Two seats faced the console, with two more behind. In the rear was a small cargo bay, with a storage closet and cramped sleeping cabin. James strapped into the second row and she took the seat opposite him.

"Ready?" He’d been briefed, but they hadn’t actually spoken, not since that day in the training room.

"To go after Hydra? Like you even have to ask." He turned toward her slowly, steeling himself as he met her eyes. But first his gaze flickered to the gun at her hip, measuring how easy it would be to disarm her. "I’m not getting a weapon, am I?"

Clint threw back his head and laughed. He kept laughing, chuckling to himself as they slipped out of the hangar doors and lifted into the sky. He was baiting him, but James’ face remained unchanged, his eyes locked to hers.

She shook her head. “The base is deserted.”

"You don’t believe that. With Hydra, nothing is what it seems. I’d be more use to you if I had-"

"You’re kidding right?" Clint turned in his chair. "You have got to be kidding."

James’ eyes narrowed. “Barton. You’re the archer, right? Hydra’s produced some of the most deadly weaponry the world’s ever seen. I’ve seen what it can do. If you really think you’re going to storm one of their strongholds with a damn bow and arrow, then you’re dumber than you look.”

"Yeah? Well, I guess we’ll find out. Unless you’d like a more personal demonstration."

"Stop it, both of you." Natasha pinched shut her eyes. "Bozhe moi, it’s like babysitting children.”

Clint turned his attention back to the controls. James sank back in his chair. But she could feel him watching her, hear him muttering beneath his breath.

"You know I have a point. You can trust me."

She knew she could, even if she didn’t want to think about why. If she expected him to watch her back, she’d have to give a little trust in return.

She pulled the device from her pocket, turning it in her hands. It was small, square, with an inset screen that glowed faintly as she turned it on. Stark had better be right about this. She had better be right.

Unbuckling her seatbelt, she crossed the cabin and crouched beside James. He watched with interest as she held the device above his arm, as it latched on with a metallic ping. The screen flickered to life and she punched in her code.

"What’s that?" He wasn’t suspicious, didn’t try to pull away. The light reflected in his eyes as he stared up at her and she felt a moment’s guilt. He trusted her completely, even if she couldn’t do the same.

She looked away. “I’m disabling Stark’s modifications. You’ll have full use of your arm again.”

"Thanks."

"Uh, Nat? Could I talk to you?" Clint was watching them.

"Can it wait?"

"Not really."

James peered around her with a ghost of a smirk. “The lady’s busy. They told me she was running this op, not you.”

"Don’t start." She was still bent over him, detaching the device. He caught her eye with a thin-lipped smile, their faces inches apart.

Natasha. A word in private?” There was no arguing with him.

"Fine." She stood, watching as Clint set the auto-pilot. He jerked a thumb toward the cabin in the back.

As he passed, he clapped a hand on James’ shoulder. “Don’t crash my plane.”

The cabin was cramped, with only room enough for a narrow bed and a low desk. Clint pulled the door shut behind them.

She folded her arms. “What are you doing?”

"What are you doing? This is a terrible idea. And this is me talking.” He shook his head. “I don’t like that guy. I still don’t see why you brought him.”

"Fury wants me to evaluate him."

"Was that what that was? An evaluation?”

"Really? Jealousy?"

"You know that’s not it." It wasn’t. She knew him better than that. "But you’re taking a big risk, here. It’s not like you. Not for some guy."

"I did for you. I owed you that."

"And thanks. Again. But you don’t owe this guy anything."

With a sigh, she sagged back against the wall. There was no use hiding it, not from him. Clint knew her better than anyone. “What happened to him… it’s partially my fault.”

"Yeah, right. That doesn’t make any sense."

"Before you brought me in… I knew him. He was one of the men who trained me."

"Then why is he still breathing?"

"It wasn’t like that. We were close."

He sank onto the bed across from her. “So you’re telling me what? That you dated? Back when he was evil?”

"He wasn’t. Or if he was, so was I. They were controlling him. But it wasn’t working. He started questioning orders, remembering pieces of who he’d been. They said it was my fault. What happened between us shouldn’t have been possible, not with his conditioning. He shouldn’t have been able to disobey." She watched it sink in, trying to gauge his reaction. "It’s the reason they started keeping him in suspension, the reason they decided to wipe his mind after every mission."

"Aw, Nat." Clint leaned forward, resting elbows on his knees. He took her hand in his. She didn’t need to convince him, didn’t need to ask if he still had her back. They simply sat, comfortable in the silence. "So what are we doing here? What’s the play?"

"We sweep the base, take out any Hydra agents that might be left."

"Yeah?" Flexing his shoulders, he smiled. "Sounds like fun."

"Enough that you’ll let up on James?"

"Maybe. But if he tries anything, I’m putting an arrow through his back."

"I’m counting on it." She hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but she didn’t want to be the one to make that call. Clint understood. He’d make sure she didn’t have to.

They found James still in his seat, his eyes following them across the cabin. “So what’s the verdict? Am I getting tossed out in mid-air?”

"Not yet, you’re not." Clint sat with a grunt, taking the wheel again.

Natasha strapped back in. James was staring at her again, but she shut her eyes, doing her best to ignore it.

He leaned toward her. “You vouched for me.” He sounded honestly surprised.

"You said you wanted to help. If you want to make up for the things you’ve done, this is your chance to start."

"Thanks to you."

She settled back in her seat, watching the clouds glide past. She’d already studied Fury’s notes, the blueprints of the compound. She could do it again, but she doubted she’d be able to concentrate. When it came to the mission, she was as ready as she’d ever be. Why then did she feel so unprepared?

Maybe Clint had been right. Maybe she didn’t know what she was doing. Talking to him had felt like a confession, but it had helped. She couldn’t go into this with one eye over her shoulder.

"What do you remember?" Her voice was a whisper, her eyes still fixed ahead. He didn’t need to ask which memories she meant.

James looked up from his hands, his face lost to shadow. “I remember you… us. I remember warmth. In all that time… they’re the only memories I’ve been happy to get back.”

She drew a ragged breath.

"Did they do it to you, too?"

"They did a lot of things." She turned toward him then, resting her head against the seat. "I’m sorry I didn’t know. I’m sorry I didn’t realize it was you."

"Would it have made a difference?"

"Maybe. Maybe not. I could have done something, found a way to help."

"You couldn’t."

"I don’t know. She could have hit you on the head." Clint didn’t turn around, but she’d known he was listening. "Cognitive recalibration. She’s good at that."

James arched a brow.

"Clint was also brainwashed."

"By a god. Not that I’m comparing." He leaned over the controls. "But if we’re done bonding over having our brains scooped out, you guys should really come see this."

She stood and walked to the window with James at her shoulder. They were approaching a mountain range, but there were lights below, swarming shadows that could only mean one thing.

Clint shook his head. “Abandoned, my ass.”

When she glanced behind her, James was smiling. “Just like old times, huh?”

She couldn't help but smile with him. “I really hope not.”

 

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