Chapter 18: He Who Fights and Runs Away
They sat around the table, the air so thick with defeat that Natasha felt it clawing up her back and haunching down onto her shoulders, pressing her even further into her chair. The urge to let that monkey on her back sink her down into the chair and just melt away from the situation all together was strong but simply not in her nature. Despite the overwhelming sense of failure branded into her heart, she sat with her spine stiff and shoulders back while listening to the heavy silence hanging taut in the air. It was broken occasionally only by the sound of personnel running passed the room, seeing to the necessity of keeping the helicarrier in the air while those around her wallowed in the aftermath of being so completely outwitted.
Though it was more than just defeat she was witnessing around her, she acknowledged, her cool eyes sweeping over the lot of them. Tony was cut to hell, covered in dirt and grime as he slouched in a chair spun away from the table. His usual sharp and witty gaze was downtrodden and shell-shocked as he stared out the window – though Natasha detected the faint flickering of anger beginning to simmer. Steve looked about the same but the defeat she sensed in him was tempered by a soldier’s acceptance. The man clearly hated the outcome of recent events, but viewed them with the strategical eye of the man who had led the Howling Commandos back in WWII. No matter the denial in his heart to wish otherwise, the Captain simply knew defeat was statistically unavoidable in battle.
But for it to happen in this battle… this battle where the one person they had universally accepted as their own had been at stake…
The recent loss was gutting in a way none of them had ever experienced and Natasha couldn’t help but wonder. If they were suffering it this bad then Clint… She shook the thought away, unwilling to contemplate it. The aftermath of defeat was a bitter pill to swallow, like a swift kick in the gut when they were already down. They had just experienced something larger than defeat, she knew – they’d been broken; shattered.
“Agent Romanoff – report.”
The command slipped over her like an old friend, allowing her to push back her emotions and focus. She half-suspected Fury had done it on purpose.
“Front starboard engine and back port engine are operating at eighty-seven and ninety-three percent. The other port engine is dead while the fourth remaining is at twelve percent. We’ll stay in the air well enough, but we’re limping. Crew is working on restoring the remaining engines if possible.”
Natasha shuddered. She’ll never forget the roar of the Hulk once he’d been unleashed. The chilling green fury she’d faced while trying to subdue him. As if one can soothe a savage beast incapable of reason and understanding.
Shaking it off, she answered, “Gone. He plummeted off the carrier when trying to attack the jets shooting at him – I doubt we’ll see him again.”
Tony scoffed, but remained silent.
Ignoring him, Natasha anticipated Fury’s next question and said, “Thor took to the air, trying to track Loki’s jet. Given the lead Loki had and recent events, I doubt he’ll be successful.”
Gritting her teeth, Natasha cast her eyes to the floor. “Loki has it. When the attack began, Coulson anticipated that would be Loki’s first destination and attempted to intercept him. He was gravely injured in the encounter.”
The tension in the room ramped up a notch – none of them had heard yet whether Phil had survived the mortal blow Loki had served. An invisible fist squeezing the air out of them all until Fury said, “Agent Coulson is in critical condition but he’s stable. For now.”
The fist loosened and all of them could breathe again.
“So what I’m hearing is basically we’re fucked six ways ’til Sunday,” Fury added, moving further into the room to stare out a window.
Natasha swallowed, relief burning through her at the news about Phil even as the futility of their situation rose up to meet it. “It would appear so.”
“What of Barton?” Fury asked, turning around to face her. It was the first time during the conversation that his steely eye fixed on her and Natasha fought the urge to look away like a guilty child. Her report was filled with statements of their losses – of all of their failures – and it left her feeling like a child who’d disappointed a beloved parent.
“I found him in Isabella’s room, half unconscious but coherent. Initial assessments indicate that he’s been restored to himself; Loki’s influence having left him presumably during the battle. He’s in the medical wing being treated but hasn’t spoken much, if at all.”
Colonel Fury stared at her a long, hard moment before he sighed. “So there’s that, then. Barton is back but at what cost…” he murmured, lost in thought.
Tony scoffed again and decided to break his silence. Natasha thought that was the longest the man had ever gone from speaking in his life. “Don’t act like you don’t know exactly what it cost us to get the Hawk back. You think the timing of this coup was an accident? The fact that Clint was found in her room merely chance? Wake up – ! You still have one eye so you’re not that blind.”
“What exactly are you insinuating, Mr. Stark?” Fury lifted a brow.
“I’m not insinuating anything – I’m flat out saying it. Loki played us like a game of Super Smash Bros. He took her and we might as well have slapped a bow on the girl and handed her right on over.”
Nodding, Fury fixed Tony with a pointed stare while saying, “And what’s to say Isabella didn’t go with Loki willingly…?”
Her name thundered into the room with all the subtly of a fish slapped to the face. Natasha hadn’t noticed it until that very moment, but they’d avoided using her name – hell, she’d even avoided thinking it. As if the figurative distance would somehow soften the blow of her absence; make recent events more palatable.
“Why would Bella do that? She has as much reason as any of us to stop him – more even, considering her brother,” Steve said, frowning down at the table. He tripped over her name just the slightest, concern marring his brow as if it left a bittersweet taste in his mouth.
“It’s like Stark said,” Fury lifted his head, the picture of an unwavering devil’s advocate. “It can’t have been mere coincidence Barton was found in her room. You all saw how eager she was to run off and face Loki back in Germany; how determined she was to do her part and then some. I’m sure she would’ve found a way to go herself if we’d told her no – that girl is the picture of stubborn defiance once she’s decided something. So the question is: what’s to say she wasn’t running to him and has been all this time? Where was she this time? Doesn’t it strike any of you odd that she was so eager before but when this boat started rocking she didn’t come running to help steady it?”
It was clear by their faces that neither Tony nor Steve had considered that fact, not really. Conditioned to always assume the worse of people, Natasha’s mind had circled the idea almost at once. Through a sense of loyalty and affection for Bella, she’d been unwilling to give voice to such thoughts – just hearing them felt treasonous.
But that’s why Fury was the man in charge. Someone had to force them to look at the situation from every angle.
“Even if that’s true,” Tony began, frowning as though the words turned his stomach and made him want to hurl. “We could hardly blame the girl. Clearly he’s mind-raped her. Has been before he even arrived. Not her fault that he’s taken advantage of her. If anything, that makes her a victim – not a suspect.”
He’d started off speaking slowly, his mind trying to wrap around Fury’s proposal. But as he finished, his voice took on the shrill sound of defensive protectiveness – anger rising at the thought of someone verbally attacking the character of his young friend.
Before Fury could retort, Thor swept into the room. His broad shoulders were stiff and his face a clear picture of frustration and defeat. Natasha knew instantly she’d been right. He’d no luck tracking Loki.
Uncaring for any discussion they were in the middle of, Thor tossed his hammer. It landed in the center of the table with a clanking thud, the metal table denting under the impact.
The motion served to draw all attention away from their previous thoughts and focus on him. Natasha was grateful because she strongly suspect Tony was about to start throwing fists and she wasn’t all that unsure Steve wouldn’t have joined in.
Without any precedence, Thor demanded, “Tell me everything about the maiden Isabella.”
“Excuse you,” Tony snapped. “Do I look like google?”
“I’ve no time for your riddles, Stark – start talking,” Thor boomed. He was an intimidating sight in his anger. A lesser man would’ve cowered at the sheer determination and fury he was radiating.
But Natasha often suspected Tony had been dropped on his head as a child. Instead of backing down, the billionaire rose up to the challenge. Shooting to his feet, it was clear to see he was sizing Thor up, taking in his impressive height and muscle. He looked like he was staring at some sort of complicated math equation and his genius mind was working double time to find the solution that would discover the man’s Achilles’ heel.
“But you didn’t say please,” Tony retorted, picture of defiant protectiveness.
None of them knew a whole lot about Thor, only that Loki was his “adopted” brother and that this was not the first time their family quarrels had spilled over to Earth. Tony would refuse to budge. He thought he was protecting Bella – something all of them did as habit by now.
Thor seemed to weigh Tony’s resolve and amazingly appeared to respect it. His tightened shoulders loosened just a fraction and his head dipped in a silent acknowledgment of the other man’s courage.
“I mean your young friend no harm – quite the opposite, in fact,” Thor murmured, correctly guessing the source of Tony’s ire. “If what I suspect is true then…” he trailed off with a frown before continuing, “Then I fear the stakes are far higher than any of us ever anticipated.”
“I think the time for vague statements is behind us,” Fury said, a wry tilt to his brow. “How about we practice a little quid pro quo.”
“Clarice,” Tony added, almost as if by reflex.
To which Fury shot him a look and Tony merely shrugged, though still not relaxing out of his defensive posture.
“Seems to me we could all benefit from some more information. Why don’t we all get on the same page so we can finish this story with a classic happily ever after ending, shall we?” Fury said.
“You mean good guys win, bad guys lose and the hero gets the girl?”
Unfamiliar with the reference, Thor still knew enough to interject dubiously, “I wouldn’t exactly call Loki a hero.”
“So not the guy I was referring to,” Tony muttered, eyes briefly flicking over to the Cap.
Whether Steve noticed or not, Natasha couldn’t say. Steve’s little crush was no secret but they all knew – Steve included – that it would go no where. Thankfully there was no bitterness to come from that since it was not in Steve’s nature to be resentful of a lady. Natasha suspected it was only the similarities to Peggy that drew him to Bella in the first place and as he appeared content to admire the girl from afar and remain friends, she gathered Cap knew that as well.
“But that is exactly my point,” Thor retorted. “Loki has already gotten the girl and even if it was within his power to do so, he would not relinquish her. Loki and Isabella are bound – that is clear to us all. Just how tightly, however, remains unclear. I suspect…”
“You suspect?” Steve prompted, blue eyes keen as he leaned forward in his seat.
“I was with Isabella before the attack began,” Thor confessed.
The others exchanged telling looks. This was news to them.
“Having witnessed Loki’s interactions with her – and her him – I was curious. To satisfy my curiosity, I called upon her.”
Tony cocked his head to the side and studied him. “And just what did you two discuss in this little clandestine meeting? Hair care tips? Tupperware?”
“She told me a brief accounting of her first interactions with Loki,” Thor continued, ignoring Tony’s quips as he’d now come to learn the rest of them did. “The dreams, the meetings; slowly spilling into the other’s consciousness during waking hours, crossing the void of space to find the other as if it was no great distance to them. The tether connecting them causing great pain should they separate – a sensation of one soul burning alive for the other. I think… no; I know what their connection is now… Heimdall was right. She will be his salvation if it is not already too late,” he whispered the last bit to himself.
“No more vague statements,” Natasha snapped. “The time for being blunt is now so lay it out for us, Thor. What is their connection and how can we get her back?”
Taking a deep breath, Thor’s eyes shot to a window. He spoke without looking at them, a frown marring his brow the only sign that he was still trying to make sense of it all himself. “You can’t. You can’t get her back. Loki and Isabella are soul bound,” he stated flatly. Anticipating their next question, he added, “In Midgard you’ve long practiced alliances made by the bonds of marriage, whether for political gain or genuine affection. For many centuries it was the former that dictated these unions and that is still a practice in play in Asgard this day. While marriage based on true affection is accepted and ideal, my people see the value marital alliances. This is why a Soul Bond is so very rare. It is not dissimilar from such a union but it is also so much more. The practice has fallen to disuse because of its permanency; once made, the bond is eternal, connecting the mates for life and beyond. It is mutual and consensual. Once acknowledged and accepted by both parties, the bond in unbreakable. Loki and Isabella will carry the other within them through this life and the next.”
“Are you saying that Loki and Bella are married? By magic?” Fury asked, incredulous expression a mirror of how Natasha herself felt.
“Essentially, yes,” Thor finally looked away from the window, heavy gaze scanning them all as if to assure them of the truth of his words.
“Impossible,” Tony scoffed. “I don’t recall a wedding ceremony – no ’til death do we part’ vows followed by drunken toasts and terrible music.”
“I find this hard to believe as well,” Steve was frowning. “Not the connection you speak of, Thor, but just that Bella would ever agree to it. After her experiences with Edward and the way she and Loki interact… Yes, she has always been drawn to him but agreeing to such a binding? Hardly seems like something she’d do, if you ask me.”
“Unless,” Natasha spoke quietly, her mind whirling with implications. “Unless she stood to gain something by agreeing to it…”
Her words hung heavy in the air, an unspoken name hanging with them.
“Barton,” Fury exhaled the name they were all thinking on a sigh, shaking his head.
When acknowledged out in the open like that, it actually seemed exactly like something Bella would do. The bond between the brother and sister was tangible. It was no secret the two adored the other above all reason. There was not even a whisper of doubt that Bella would do anything to save her brother. Anything; including agreeing to a bond that would forever tether her to a megalomaniac hell bent on world domination.
“But what would Loki gain? I mean – what’s his motivation? He doesn’t strike me as the type to enter such a binding…” Steve asked.
“I think,” Thor began. “I think my brother just wants Isabella out of their bargain and has used current circumstances as a means to achieve that without sacrificing his pride.”
“Well isn’t that romantic,” Tony drawled.
“Loki is not one to instigate such a bond, this is true,” Thor admitted. “Yet, after speaking with Isabella it was clear that the connection had indeed been triggered before his arrival.”
“Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match,” Tony breathed quietly. “Hells Bells didn’t have the means to strike up the match and Loki never would… So who exactly is playing love connection here?”
“I myself pondered this right before the start of the attack. I asked Isabella herself in plain speaking – she did not confirm the bond but also did not seek to deny it… I suspect the connection grew stronger upon their meeting on the same plane and once Loki realized what it was, it was too late. Instead of forsaking the bond, he was already in deep enough to want to seal it, exploiting current events in order to do so.”
“Well isn’t that a cute bedtime story,” Tony snapped, pushing away from the table. “But it solves exactly nothing for us, now does it? Coulson is still fighting for his life, the scepter and Loki are both gone – not to mention the tesseract – and Isabella has lost her damned head and doomed herself while trying to save the whole damn world, no doubt.”
It seemed Tony was spoiling for a fight and this latest show of dissent opened up the floodgates. Fury was trying to regain order while Tony faced off with Thor again. Not to be left out, Steve jumped to his feet to place himself between the two arguing men, even though he kept addressing Fury’s barked orders with near contempt. The Cap wasn’t pleased at all to have recently learned the real reason S.H.I.E.L.D. had been tampering with the tesseract and apparently didn’t view Fury with the same amount of respect anymore.
As they all talked over each other like a bunch of boys three seconds short of whipping out their dicks for measuring in order to settle who the biggest man was, Natasha grew pensive as she thought over everything Thor had said. More to the point, she also thought of everything she knew about Bella, both from the file Fury kept on her and from what Natasha herself had seen.
Tony was sure Bella was being played – and there was no denying some truth to that – but Natasha didn’t believe the girl had been manipulated into accepting the bond. Not without wanting to be manipulated into doing so.
According to Thor, Loki and Bella now shared a rare, everlasting bond. Soul mates essentially, if she was interpreting all the magic mumbo-jumbo right. Regardless of who instigated their connection, Natasha didn’t think the fledgling bond would have survived through the void of space if there hadn’t been some compatibility for them. The two had been dancing around each other long before meeting, the bond growing stronger despite the distance between them. To Natasha, that demonstrated a true connection – not some mystical bond that conveniently tied them together.
Bella had grown much from the girl she and Clint had swooped down to Forks, Washington to rescue. That Bella had been sad and lonely – lost in a sense of betrayal so strong it’d crippled her.
Thinking back on the first time Natasha had heard Bella murmuring in her sleep… that night Pepper had wrangled them together for a girls night of movies, cookie dough and gossip. Lightweight she was, Bella had been the first to fall asleep, followed shortly by Pepper. Natasha had stretched out on the floor, reclined against the foot of the couch by Bella’s feet. It hadn’t taken long for the sleep talking to start.
She remembered the way Bella had started rubbing at her chest that night. At first she’d thought it the alcohol giving the girl heartburn, but it happened well after he small buzz had worn off as well. She’d even done it in her sleep. Curled up in the corner of the couch, Bella had rubbed at her chest as one massaged a Charley horse leg cramp, her insistent fingers massaging insistently over her heart.
Then the talking had started.
Abandoned. Forsaken… You’re like me.
It was the last words in particular that had resonated at the time and they rang out even louder now. They’d confirmed she’d been having some sort of dream convo with a mystery man but the way she’d muttered them. Even lost to sleep there was no denying the sense of compassion and empathy.
A vague comfort knowing that she still hurt but did not hurt alone.
Flicking her eyes to the arguing men, Natasha decided not to bring a new theory forming in her mind to light. They wouldn’t have heard her even if she’d tried to interrupt, all of them well and truly in rare form.
But her mind still turned around the new idea that maybe Thor wasn’t entirely wrong… Loki had all the signs of a classic egomaniac who would never willingly admit any sense of affection for another. The symptoms of a man afraid to love for he’d learned it to be a weakness to be exploited.
And Natasha had taught Bella well, not just in physical combat training, but mental combat as well. One of the first lessons she’d imparted to her young friend was the knowledge that any battle was not one by strength alone and that she would have to engage all of her assets should she wish to come out on top.
Maybe Bella… little innocent Bella… Maybe she had entered Loki’s bargain with heart and mind open. Natasha didn’t doubt Bella had true affection for the god but the girl was not blind to his faults as well. Loki had likely exploited circumstances to win the girl but Natasha suspected Bella let him win in order to face him in a battle he would not see coming.
Slowly rising to her feet, her mind continued to whirl as she thought on this new theory. The more she thought of it, the more sense it made for the young woman Nat had seen flourish into her own. This sounded more like the Bella they’d cultivated. The sad young woman who’d slowly been rising from her ashes. Determined and aware, though still soft-hearted in a way so few are able to remain when faced with such tragedy in their lives. This was more the Bella they’d come to love – a woman who saw the worst of herself in a man and did not shy away from him, but instead rose to the challenge.
Natasha walked out of the room, the others none the wiser, and headed down the hall.
It occurred to her that while the others weren’t capable of listening to her new theory, there was someone she could share it with. Someone who knew not only the girl in question well enough to confirm Natasha’s thoughts, but someone who also had intimate knowledge of the god in question as well.
Clint had had Loki running around in his head unwillingly but damned if Natasha wouldn’t make sure some good wouldn’t come of the situation.
She just hoped the man was ready to listen when she spoke. Clint could be a bit of a hothead when the mood struck.
It took conscious effort to try and stop the trembling in his hands as he stared down at them, unable to accept that they were his own. The longer he stared into his shaking palms, the stronger the sense of betrayal stabbed at his raddled mind.
He was reminded of when their mother had brought them up to Sedona for a weekend trip. As a present, Renee had paid for Clint and Bella to have their palms read, something both he and his sister had snickered at but had agreed to since they were bored. Sedona was a beautiful town but not very kid-friendly in the entertainment market. The palm reader had been a stout, airy woman with a deep, velvet voice that had reminded Clint of Eartha Kitt. When she spoke, he wondered if all of the burning incense had scarred her throat. Either that or he suspected she’d been a smoker for at least the last thirty years.
Bella had kept giggling as the woman had traced over the lines of her palm – she’d always been a ticklish sort – and Clint vaguely remembered the woman being mystified by the unusually strong, defined marks she said represented Bella’s life, fate and love lines respectively.
“You have a touch of destiny about you, Isabella,” Clint had quoted, dropping his voice to a faintly Caribbean drawl.
“You suck at accents, Hawkeye,” Bella had guffawed, pulling her hand away from the still frowning woman so that Clint could have his turn.
Unimpressed, Clint had taken her vacated seat, smirking at Bella over the top of the woman’s head once she’d shaken it clear and cradled his palm in one of her leathered hands. He waited for whatever tripe she would decide to peddle as she peered intently down at his right palm…
But she’d only glanced up at him and said, “Your head line gets fuzzy a few years down the line. Be careful of that,” before she ushered them out of the room through a beaded curtain. She’d frowned once more at Bella before letting the beads fall, the clattering of them hitting sounding like rain on a tin roof.
He stared at his palms now much as the woman had stared down at his sister’s, unable to process what his eyes were telling him. They certainly looked like his hands. The callouses on his fingers from years of pulling back his bowstring were the same as always. A deep scar on his left hand in between thumb and forefinger still reminded him of when he’d cut himself making a sandwich for Bella when she’d been about four… It’d been the first time she’d fainted at the smell of blood, nearly giving him a heart-attack in the process. These hands held the familiar mark of his memories but the sensation that his they now belonged to a stranger increased with every passing second.
They couldn’t be his hands, Clint thought as he glared down at them. His hands had surely wrecked havoc before but never, not even in his darkest moments of anger and frustration with her, had they ever lifted in violence against his sister. Not even when she’d let her insecurities get the better of her and he’d get the fleeting thought to smack some sense into her.
Bile rose up in his throat but he forced it down. He’d already tossed his cookies once before when the vague memories hit… The ghost sensation of his hand thudding into his sister’s face, wrapping around her neck and seeing the bluish-purple tint bloom over her face as voices in his head fought for supremacy.
If he thought to hard on the memory it dissipated, but on the peripherals of his mind the picture remained: the blue tint of Loki’s influence battling a purple-like taint of another’s presence. Someone had highjacked whatever mindspell he’d been under and tried to get him to kill his sister.
But his sister had fought back. Pride surged in his chest remembering how she’d found strength he never knew her to have and refused to give in. That pride withered just as fast, burned by an impotent rage as he thought about how she’d exchanged herself for him.
It’d been so obvious and classic Bella. As pissed as it made him he was hardly surprised by her actions and his half-baked contingency plans for such a scenario now ran in loop in his head. He hadn’t gone through icy hell just to lose his sister at the end of it. He’d get her back and shove an arrow up Loki’s ass for all the pain he’d become in Clint’s.
The door open and closed with a subtle click behind him.
Sighing, Clint dropped his hands and sat up straighter.
“Nat,” he greeted softly, already knowing who it was.
Her thin hand slipped onto his shoulder and trailed down his bicep until it curled softly around his hand. Screwing his eyes shut, Clint’s chest tightened. Of course she knew what he’d been doing – staring at his hands and blaming himself – and her soft touch held a note of understanding and forgiveness.
Natasha could be soft when she wanted to be, he almost smiled as her head leaned down onto his shoulder.
“I missed you,” she breathed so lightly he almost didn’t hear her.
The confession warmed him because he knew a part of her saw it as a weakness yet she’d said it anyways.
“I missed you,” he murmured around the lump in his throat.
“But it’s time to stop sitting on the sidelines, Barton, and get back in the game – for the right team this time too, if you don’t mind,” she said, coming around to stand in front of him.
Without thinking he spread his legs and she stepped between them. His hands – they were his hands – slipped around her waist and pulled her into his chest. He felt her inhale deeply as he buried his nose into her hair. He’d remembered her hair even in the blue haze. The red strands flickering like a spark of just out of his reach in that desolate cold…
“We have to get her back, Nat. I can’t lose her. Not her,” he confessed.
“I know,” her arms wrapped around him and tightened. “But I’m not sure we can get her back – not completely. Things have happened while you were away, Clint. Things that can’t be undone.”
“Why do I already not like the sound of this?” he muttered dryly, fighting the urge to cry. Like a wrung out washcloth, he felt used and limp, hung out to dry.
“It’s going be one hell of a fight ahead of us – not just with Loki, but the others as well. They’re verbally tearing each other apart in a conference room as we speak.”
“Well they can all suck a bag of dicks if they think their shit is more important than this – nothing is more important than stopping Loki and getting Eyas back. Nothing.”
“They may may need you to tell them that,” she snorted, but then her touch turned soft again as she said, “And you’ll have to tell us everything you remember, including the things you don’t want to remember.”
Clint cringed, but didn’t deny it. He knew he was an invaluable resource to Loki’s schemes.
“And Clint,” she continued still. “You’re going to have to hear things that you don’t want to hear.”
He knew – just fucking knew – that it’d have to do with his sister and Loki.
“Tell me everything, Nat. Tell me everything that’s happened and then take me to the others.”
Natasha inhaled longly and when she released her breath, she started talking. She talked for a while, never leaving the circle of his arms even when his temper snapped and curses flew from his lips like arrows piercing paper hearts.
The shit his sister got herself mixed up in…
(A/N): As ever… thanks so much for your patience and for reading. Hope you enjoyed this chapter!