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The stupid thing was, something as ridiculous as getting kissed by the Russian Emma Peel had at least snapped Laura out of her funk. She'd gotten past the reality of her situation and was well into the absurdity of it. She floated over all the weird goings-on like she was remembering a dream. Six-pack abs archer and bicurious Trinity lady. Why not?

In a little while, being alone with her thoughts gave her enough leeway to pick herself up and dust herself off and all kinds of aphorisms her dad would've just loved. She blew her noses, wiped her eyes, and did some weak push-ups against the wall to get her blood flowing again. The weariness that'd been descending on her again now popped like a bubble. She felt fresh, alert, and disgustingly filthy. She hadn't showered in, what, two days? Her clothes felt like they were forty percent sweat. She went to the storeroom's door, fist absurdly raised to knock on it, and it flew open. Coulson was there, chewing on the earpiece of those rock star huge sunglasses.

"Ms. Frasier?" Not knowing what else to do, she nodded. "Agent Barton would like to see you. Would you mind sparing a moment?"

"Yeah. Sure." If only because she couldn't imagine what he had to say to her. Sorry my partner vacuumed your face? Here's some helpful hints on how to get bullet holes out of plaster?

Following him, Laura was surprised at how small and efficient the compound was. Judging from the intervals of natural light streaming in through windows, it wasn't much bigger than your average starter home, but it wasn't cramped or crowded. The place seemed to hold everything necessary to run a small-scale operation, nothing surplus to requirement, no redundancies, no overcommitting. From her experience with government operations, that struck Laura as rarer than green eggs. Ham or no.

She was still in a bit of a funk from post-traumatic stress first base, so when Coulson abruptly stopped, she walked right into them. Then she looked past Coulson's wide shoulders and there was Clint, wearing something like the combat rugby gear he'd been bleeding all over when she first met him. "Hey. Just the hostage I was looking for. Paul, mind if I borrow Laura a minute? Won't take a sec."

Coulson smiled oddly. "You just said you needed to borrow her for a minute, though."

"Wait," Laura said, "I though Clint was the one who asked to see me?"

"I did?" Clint nodded momentarily. "Slipped my mind. Blood loss, you know. C'mon, Laura, Coulson's got important handler stuff to be doing. Papers that aren't stamped or anything…"

Laura took a step toward him and Coulson's hand settled around her arm. Not squeezing, but an iron grip nonetheless. "That's far enough."

Clint hung his head. "Don't do this, man. C'mon. Do you know how much paperwork you're giving me? Of course you know, you're my handler…"

Coulson reached into his jacket. Laura was almost not surprised when he brought out a gun. Nor when he aimed it at her head. It all happened so smoothly, Laura had no time to think it was odd at all.

Again, Clint sighed. When he spoke next, his voice was low. Laura had to strain to hear it. "You shouldn't have thrown good money after bad, Paul. Sure, killing me before I find the leak, makes sense. But when that didn't work, you shouldn't have sent more guys after me. Because there's only one way they could've known where I was…"

"I was sorta hoping they'd blame it on Romanoff. Without you backing her like some kinda lovesick puppy, the Council would overrule Fury and extradite that bitch back to Russia where she belongs."

"And now we're calling our co-worker a bitch—point is, if you'd just've run after the first set-up didn't pan out, you could've at least gotten a headstart. Fury might've even let you go, saved you for a rainy day somewhere down the line. Not the way I'd want to go, but better than the Raft. And you are going to the Raft…"

"I'm walking out of here," Coulson said. "I assume you've seen enough cop movies to understand the concept of insurance?"

"I assume you've seen enough cop movies to know the bad guy never gets away by using someone as a human shield."

"Oh, I don't think she's just anyone. You owe her. You're not going to risk her life just to get your hands on an eensy-bitsy security breach like me…"

"Don't have to," Clint said confidently. "I took the bullets outta your gun five minutes ago."

"Bullshit. You lie!"

Clint spread his arms wide. "Try me."

Coulson jerked the gun in Clint's direction and fired. The world exploded, a sandstorm of gunsmoke, a gong of a report. For one horrid instant, Laura saw Clint's vest dimple, then the bullet carried him to the ground.

Laura didn't see him land. Before the gun's slide had even returned, Natasha had slipped in between her and Coulson like she was cutting into a dance. She hit Coulson in the throat with a sickeningly wet sound, twisted the gun out of his hand, all the while shielding Laura with her body. Coulson went down and stayed down.

Clint groaned. "I told Personnel, Phil Coulson, not Paul, I don't want Paul to be my handler, I want to be handled by Phil…" Natasha was snickering. "What?"

"You wanna be handled by Phil?"

"Real mature."

"YOU'RE SHOT!" Laura announced shrilly.

"Oh, yeah." Clint unzipped his vest, wincing with the motion. Where the bullet had hit the fabric, the flesh underneath was bleached white, already clouding with a bruise. "Hey, these things really are bulletproof…"

"What if he'd shot you in the head!?"

"Laura, please, let me handle this," Natasha said. Then, in Russian, she said to Clint something that sounded very much like what if he'd shot you in the head?

"Every military in the world trains guys to go for the center mass, SHIELD included. Besides, he's a crap shot anyway. Look at this." He prodded his prequel to a bruise. "Nowhere near my heart. Would've been a straight through and through."

"Can you get up?" Natasha asked.

"Yeah, but I think I'm just gonna lie here a while. You mind, like—delivering him to justice and all?"

"Oh yeah." Taking some plasticuffs from her catsuit, Natasha secured Paul. He still wasn't moving. "Of course, you could've just told me over the phone that he was our guy. I could've got him while he was on the can."

"Didn't come to me until just now." Clint whirled his finger by his temple. "In a dream."

Laura shut her eyes for a long moment. Hugged her boutique bag tightly. "Can I please just have a shower now?"

The shower was probably enough to prove the safe house was really some kind of high-tech spy building. The water was warm—instantly, gloriously warm, something even the shower in Laura's apartment didn't guarantee. Even back in Connecticut, she'd struggled with getting water that was this hot for this long.

She stood under the stream and let it boil away all the shakes and sores and persistent, nagging worries until her legs were tired of standing. Then she rinsed off—the shower had quite a few frou-frou body washes and such that Laura guessed were Natasha's, and she'd been eager to try them—and toweled off and wrapped herself in a terrycloth robe. Then she sat on the toilet and was quiet.

She knew they'd come back, all the demon memories of having a gun to her head, watching Clint shot, the gunfight in her apartment. But for now, her mind was carefully still. She tried to enjoy it, being clean.

At some point, there was a knock on the door. Clint. She knew just from the way he knocked. "Everything—" he began, with concern, but Laura automatically said "Come in!" and they both waited a mystified beat for Laura to take it back, then he opened the door. Shuffled inside, looking for a place to sit, ended up jumping up on the sink.

"I pulled one or two strings," Clint said, "got you out of a debriefing. Paul's singing like a canary, both Nat and I saw it, no need for you to have to go over it all. There's a car waiting for you, whenever you're ready."

"So that's it then? All this happens—the shooting, the… the helicopters… and then it just stops for me? This is where I get off?" Laura didn't know what she wanted. Not to go out in 'the field' again, certainly. It just seemed unfair to her, somehow. Starting a book and not being allowed to finish it.

"Laura, everything that happened? This was best-case scenario. Nobody died—well, nobody I liked—the bad guys all ended up in jail, two hot chicks made out…"

"Oh God…" Laura folded her hands over her face. "She told you—"

"Don't worry about it, these things happen when I'm not around to watch them. Point is, this was a good day. I don't get a lot of days like this. You shouldn't stick around for what the rest are like."

"Yeah." Laura took her hands away. "Yeah. I just… I wanna do something."

"Best thing you can do is stay out of the line of fire. Hate to have to worry about you."

Laura looked at him. "You really think I'm a hot chick?"

"I said that? Lady, I meant to say lady—listen, here." He reached into one pocket of his uniform and brought out what was either a spy gadget ingeniously disguised as a business card, or a business card. "My number's on here. If you need anything, day or night, whatever—I'm your man."

"Thanks." It read 'Clinton Barton—Singer, Songwriter, Cowboy' then listed a phone number. "Okay, I have a few comments—"

"We've all got cover identities. Nat models in Japan, in case anyone asks."

"I thought I tasted sushi…"

Clint grinned. "So are you getting on the road or what? I kinda need the shower."

Dressed in something Sarah Jessica Parker might wear on a weekend—Natasha did have good taste, apropos of sushi—Laura went out to a waiting black sedan. Couldn't have been more government if she had to fill out a form to get in.

"Hill," the driver greeted, a short-haired woman with sunglasses Laura would kill for. "Get comfy, it's a two hour drive to the airport."

Laura nodded. Through the window, Clint was waving goodbye. "Let's get this show on the road then."

"One thing before we start." Hill turned around in her seat, resting one muscular arm on the divider between the front and back. "Stay away from my girl."


"You heard me." Hill turned back around and started the engine.