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Chance Encounters

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Somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan, 2008

Natasha slipped down the sandy embankment towards the British camp and pretended she was not panicking. She had Clint’s blood splashed across her camouflage, drying in crusty, tacky streaks across her palms and the wet rattle of blood-filled lungs still echoed in her ears. They’d missed their last check-in, but it would still take time for SHIELD to send an evac to their last location, time Clint didn’t have. She needed a doctor, a medic, hell, even someone with a modicum of basic first aid would be helpful right now.

She snuck behind a humvee and scanned the camp. She wished she could stride up to someone and demand aid for her fallen partner, but their mission was blacker than black ops. Phil had gotten that tight look around his eyes when he told them that if anyone, U.N. forces or otherwise, found them, they would be disavowed as terrorists and likely executed.

Originally, her plan was to steal what medical supplies she could and get back to Clint to do what she could to hold him over until the SHIELD evac arrived. That was before she spotted the medic heading towards the supply tent with a clipboard tucked under his arm.

He was a short, unassuming man in his late thirties, maybe even early forties, with sandy blonde hair and sun-darkened skin. He reminded her of Coulson in a way that made her chest clench in yearning because if Phil was here, none of this would have happened. This man exuded the same quietly capable air of what Clint called ‘hidden badassery.’

Her eyes narrowed as he moved away from the center of camp into the medical supply tent. This was a green zone, so security was relatively lax, if she moved fast, she could take him. Her transport was hidden almost a mile away, but desperate times and desperate measures.

She followed him to the tent and waited until he’d gone inside before following.

He was bending over a crate of pressure bandages, making a note on his clipboard. She darted in, a quick strike to a pressure point would render him unconscious long enough for her to get clear of the base.

He must have heard her approach, and Natasha would kick herself later for being so sloppy, because he was turning and ducking under her blow a fraction of a second before she could make contact. Blue grey eyes went wide with surprise once he saw her, then narrowed and she saw the shift from unassuming medic to trained soldier in the hard set of his face. She brought her knee up towards his stomach, and he blocked with the clipboard, lunging to the side. He opened his mouth to shout an alarm, when she lunged again, boosting herself off the crate to hook a leg around his neck and slam him to the ground, knocking the breath from his lungs. He gasped and tried to rise, but she got there first, covering his nose and mouth with her hand. He thrashed under her, fighting for air, but she had him pinned and waited until he went limp. Even then, she carefully counted the seconds before releasing him.*

It wasn’t the best, and certainly not the safest, way to knock him out, but it was the first thing she thought of. She checked his pulse and breathing, found both to be steady and strong, before she darted among the crates, grabbing whatever looked like it might be useful. She slung the pack of supplies to hang across her chest and bent to heft the medic over her shoulders. She glanced over his uniform, identifying him as a Captain in the Royal Marines from the three stars on his shoulder badge, the name on his patch was ‘Watson.’

He was heavier than she expected, short frame lean with muscle, but she could still get out of sight of camp before he woke if she moved fast.

Her entire body burned with effort, her muscles straining as she made her way across the rocky terrain towards her transport, an unmarked, unregistered jeep. They were a little over half-way there when she felt the medic’s breathing change. She promptly dumped him on the ground and stepped back, waiting for him to push himself up.

“What the bloody--?!” He looked around, scrambling to his feet when he spotted her. “Who--?”

“I’m sorry, Captain Watson,” she cut in, her voice hard and not at all apologetic. “But I need a medic.”

“And you couldn’t have just asked?” he demanded, standing ready to bolt. “Who are you, anyway?”

“No, and you don’t need to know. In fact, you’re better off not knowing. I don’t have time to argue with you, my...friend needs help.”

His eyes narrowed, and some of the tension went out of his shoulders. Some of her distress must have shown on her face, because he seemed to believe her. “What happened?” he asked, carefully.

She jerked her head in the direction of her vehicle. “I’ll tell you on the way. I’ve been gone too long as it is.” She’d bandaged the wound as well as she could with what supplies they had, but part of her was still frantically pouring over the what-ifs? Clint could be dead right now and they were moving too slowly for her comfort.

Captain Watson hesitated for only a moment before giving her a curt nod. She hoped none of the relief showed on her face, but she didn’t much care if it did. Getting help to Clint was more important.

They ran the rest of the way to the jeep. She definitely didn’t let it show, but she was impressed that the medic had managed to keep pace with her.

They came to the outcropping where she’d hidden the jeep and clambered in. She gunned the engine and tore off across the desert towards the mountains.

“He was hit with shrapnel from an IED,” she said over the roar of the engine and rush of icy wind. “Perforated right lung, heavy bleeding in his shoulder and side, but he was still conscious when I left. I don’t think it hit any other organs.”

The captain nodded, and she could almost see his mind whirling behind his eyes. “How long ago?”

“He was hit earlier tonight, around 1800,” a glance down at the clock on the dashboard told her it  was going on 2100. Her stomach clenched. Three hours. Clint had been alone and unattended for almost three hours. That was more than enough time for him to drown in the blood filling his lung. More than enough time for him to bleed out. ‘Don’t you dare die on me, Clint,’ she thought, hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel.

“You and your friend have names?” Captain Watson asked.

“No,” she snapped.

***

John privately thought he must have smacked his head at some point in the last three days. That was the only possible explanation for why he was currently holding on for dear life in an unmarked jeep flying across the desert with a strange red-headed woman who had knocked him unconscious and kidnapped him from base camp. But then, what else could he have done? He hadn’t known where he was when he woke up in the middle of the desert, so making it back to base would have been almost impossible. She had overpowered him once, and there was no reason to think she couldn’t do so again. Her story about an injured friend was most definitely true, he’d seen that expression of barely concealed panic on the faces of civilians and soldiers alike more often than he cared to count. He assumed he was safe for now, at least until after he tended his patient. Plenty of time to think of an escape plan if she intended to dispose of him.

He glanced at the woman out of the corner of his eye. He thought she might be American, but he couldn’t tell if she was a mercenary or black ops. Black ops seemed unlikely, since the American military wasn’t known for putting its female soldiers on the front lines (a precaution that seemed hilariously moot in the face of urban warfare where the front line was everywhere and nowhere). But then, maybe she wasn’t with the American military, because wouldn’t a black ops team have its own medic? Unless he was killed in the same explosion that had injured her friend.

He sighed to himself and settled back in his seat, watching the starlit desert fly past as they drove. Too many unknowns, and he probably didn’t want to know, anyway.

She parked the jeep near the base of the mountain range and motioned for him to follow. They scrambled up the steep embankment to a rocky outcropping. He could see the faint yellow glow of a lamp peaking out from the between the rocks, and helped her shift them aside to allow them access to the shallow cave.

She spat out something that sounded like a Russian curse and rushed to the side of the pale young man laying on a makeshift pallet on the uneven floor. John’s shoulders went back and he shifted gears from soldier to doctor. He had a patient to attend to, his own safety could wait until later.

The man was dressed similarly to the woman in unmarked desert camouflage. The shirt had been removed, revealing blood-stained bandages bound tight around his right shoulder and chest. There were flecks of dried blood at the corner of his lips and his breathing was shallow and wet. His face was ghostly white with sweat shining on his skin.

The woman dropped to his side, tossing the bag of medical supplies down beside her, and grasped his face between her hands, all the while muttering to herself in Russian. She changed to English abruptly, addressing her partner.

“Don’t you dare, you bastard,” she hissed. “Don’t you dare die on me. I will hunt you down in Hell myself and drag you back if you do.”

John dropped down on the man’s other side, reaching for the bag of supplies she’d dropped. He felt for the man’s pulse and found it weak, but steady. There was no stethoscope in the bag, so he pressed his ear to the man’s chest and listened. The woman had fallen silent, and he could feel her eyes, hard and fierce as a wild animal’s, boring into him. He could hear blood in the lung, but  not as bad as he’d feared. He found a pair of scissors and started cutting away the soaked bandages, needing to see the damage.

It was bad, but he’d seen men walk away from worse.

“I can patch the damage,” he told her, digging through the bag for surgical supplies. “But unless he gets to a proper hospital soon, the infection will finish what the blood loss started.”

She nodded shortly. “Do what you can, our people will do the rest.”

He swabbed iodine over the man’s skin, moving with practiced, easy grace without once looking up from his task. He never paused in his actions, even when he asked “What happens to me, afterwards?”

“I return you to your base. My superior talks to your superior and this never happened.”

He nodded absently and made the incision.

He lost track of time, his full concentration on patching the hole in the unconscious man’s lung, and then finding and removing the scraps of shrapnel. The woman hovered close by, handing him tools and adjusting the lamp to give him light. He thought he heard he singing once, but promptly dismissed it, his entire focus on his patient.

The sky was turning gray in the East when he bound the last bandage around the man’s chest. John’s eyes burned with exhaustion and it wasn’t until he sat back against the stone wall of the cave that his hands began to tremble. He closed his eyes and almost scraped a hand over his face until he remember they were coated with blood.

“Captain Watson?”

That wasn’t the woman. He blinked up in surprise at the unassuming, balding man kneeling across from him, on the patient’s other side. He was dressed in a rumpled suit, dusty with sand, and watching him through calm hazel eyes. His expression was blankly polite and his posture nonthreatening. His tone was calm and even, soothing.

Over the man’s shoulder, John could see the red headed woman speaking to another man, this one bald and darker skinned with glasses perched on his nose. Two medics in black jumpsuits waited near the entrance with a gurney.

“I’m Agent Coulson with SHIELD,” he said. “I’d like to thank you for your assistance.”

John shrugged with a wry, tired smile. “Not like I had a choice,” he said, nodding towards the red haired woman. “She insisted.”

A small quirk at the corner of Coulson’s mouth was the only indication of amusement. “Agent Romanoff usually gets what she wants,” he agreed. “When we drop you off, I’ll need to have a word with your CO, and I some forms I need you to sign.”

“What kind of forms?” John asked, suspicious.

“Nondisclosure agreements.”

John rolled his eyes. “Of course.”

“Ph’l?” The patient’s voice was low and rasping, barely more than a whisper. Agent Coulson’s mask of professional calm vanished, eyes bright with relief as he turned his eyes to the younger agent between them. The agent rested a hand on the injured man’s shoulder, completely ignoring John’s scrutiny.

“Rest, Clint,” he ordered quietly. “You’ll be fine. We’re heading home now.” His tone was still calm and even, but there was a gentleness that had John wondering.

“ ‘kay,” the injured man, Clint, murmured. “Tasha?”

“She’s fine.”

“Mm.” Clint drifted back into unconsciousness.

After that, things moved quickly. John joined the SHIELD agents on their helicopter and was, as promised, dropped off at base camp. Agent Coulson pulled his CO aside and whatever he told the man must have spread quickly, because no one asked where Captain Watson had disappeared to over night, or why he’d been returned in an unregistered helicopter at the crack of dawn.

***

London, England 2010

John settles back on his barstool with a Guinness and watches the rugby match on the screen in the corner, trying not to think of the infuriating whirlwind of a man that is his new flatmate. As frustrating as Sherlock is, John has to grudgingly admit that this is the happiest he’s been since he left Afghanistan. Body parts in the microwave aside, anyway.

“Mind if I sit?”

John glances up, startled. He hadn’t even heard the stranger approach, and pauses.

The American grinning down at him is a few inches taller than himself, with spiky blonde hair and bright, keen eyes crinkled in amusement, like he’s sharing a good joke. He carries himself loose and easy like a fighter with trigger callouses on his hands and at least two weapons under his clothes that John can spot.

He’s familiar and John can’t think of where they’d met until the American brushes a hand over his right shoulder.

“Oh!” He grins and raises his pint glass in a toast. “So you did make it, then.”

Clint, the man’s name was Clint, smiles and slides onto the stool next to John. “I had a good doctor,” he says. “Never got to say thanks.”

John waves a dismissive hand. “It’s a doctor thing, don’t worry about it.”

Clint shrugs. “Still, I appreciate it, even if Tasha did have to kidnap you.”

“You still see her?” John asks, thinking of the fierce eyed woman with blood-red hair.

“Yup, still my partner.” He accepts the pint of Smithwicks from the bartender with a smile and takes a drink.

“And the other guy...” John wracks his brain for the man’s name. He remembers the man’s face, the naked relief when Clint spoke, he wonders if anything came out of that. “Coulson, right?”

Clint’s smile turns soft around the edges as he stares into his glass. “Yeah, he’s good.”

John hides a smirk in his glass. “Glad to hear it. He’s was really worried about you.”

Clint opens his mouth to reply but pauses and glances behind them towards the door, soft smile vanishing. John tenses and looks, expecting trouble. At the sight of the tall, dark haired man striding towards them, he sighs. Different sort of trouble. He hopes Clint isn’t the sort to be easily offended.

“John, where’ve you been?” Sherlock demands. “Lestrade has a case for us!”

“Sherlock, Clint. Clint, Sherlock,” John says, gesturing between the two men, a faint reprimand in his tone. He’s trying to get Sherlock to acknowledge polite gestures, but he’s not holding out much hope for success. Clint looks bemused but holds out a hand for a shake. John braces himself at Sherlock’s narrow eyed scan of the American agent.

“A bow and arrow? Honestly?” Sherlock, predictably, ignores the hand. “I knew Americans were a backward lot, but I didn’t think they’d regressed to medieval times. And does your superior know you’ve decided to skive off in the middle of an assignment?” Sherlock sneers.

John buries his face in his hands and wonders if he’ll be able to pull the men apart if Clint decides to clean Sherlock’s clock.

Clint freezes, drops his hand and narrows his eyes at the taller man. The suspiciously blank look fades after a moment and he smirks, reclining against the bar. “Don’t worry, Mr. Holmes,” he says, mimicking Sherlock’s posh accent. “I promise I’m not here to poach your flatmate.” He finishes his pint and stands. “It was nice to meet you, John, when I’m not bleeding out, I mean.”

“Good to see you recovered all right,” John replies. They shake hands, ignoring the sharp look Sherlock shoots between them. John could almost hear the whirring of his mental hard drive cataloguing the new information.

Clint drops a ten pound note on the bar leaves.

“A friend from Afghanistan?” Sherlock asks, tugging John insistently towards the door.

“You could say that.” John follows obediently. Whatever the case, he hopes it’s interesting enough to keep Sherlock’s attention off the encounter. If John remembers correctly, the nondisclosure agreement he signed would hold for at least one more year. Though it would certainly be fun to drop hints, Sherlock with a mystery was like watching a kitten chase a laser pointer.