He got so fucking destroyed for that one.

The official word was just that she had defected, as to discourage others from taking on their own rehabilitation cases, rather than just offing them, as per direct orders.

At the end of the day, he's still a pawn in someone else's game, so it was really good to be just suspended, and not suspended without pay.

Long after she's proven her loyalty to the team, he feels like they're still watching him, concerned that he might pull another stunt like that again. The most he's ever gotten was the reluctant admission that she was a good asset.

But the ends don't justify the means, right?

He's too good to be discharged from service, he knows. But they run him through training scenarios again and again, briefing him on the "right" course of action, reminder by reinforcement that cerebral judgement calls are not his to make.

"If we get out of this, you owe me dinner."

He barely hears her over the gunshots. Lie. He hears her perfectly. "What?"

"You heard me. Take me out for dinner. If we make it out of this."

He's immediately suspicious. They don't work in ifs. "Nat..." he says, reloading, buying time.

"I've seen the way you look at me."

"Nat," he tries again, more authoritatively. "This is not the time, if you can't tell, we're fucking under fire."

"When would be a better time?" she challenges, but he can hear a the tinge of a whine in her voice and he knows something is up, because the Natasha he knows is focused, 110% about the job, and not a goddamn child.

He bites his lip, weighing his options, and finally decides to do what he'd want her to do to him, if their positions were switched.

He knocks her out.

She doesn't block it and now he's certain they did something to her. He doesn't have time to feel guilty anyway.

"What the hell was that?" he yells, once they're back on base, but a theory is formulating as he speaks.

"You did well." As usual, Fury's voice is calm, unflappable.

"Yeah, I know that." he says, impatient. "How's Natasha?"

"She's fine." When he holds Fury's gaze steady, waiting for more, the older man sighs. "As you're aware, our R&D team have a few compounds in the pipeline in various stages of testing. Agent Romanov simply agreed to aid them in their final round of human trials."

He's appalled. "You sent her into the field incapicitated?" he asks, incredulously.

"The drug was only known to have a mild effect on inhibition. Given that she was paired with a senior agent, with ample auxillary personnel to support the mission, we deemed the risk to be minimal. We wanted to see how the compound would perform under real life conditions."

"Bullshit. You were baiting me."

"Now, why would you think that, Agent Barton?" A tiny smirk plays at his lips.

He can't answer that question. He stares hard at him for another beat before stalking away. "Tell your scientists." he says disdainfully, "that they still have work to do. Cause she was shooting for shit." he lies. If his lie tacks on another 6 months of testing, so be it.

He finds her in the medical bay, alone.

She waves him away. "If you're here to apologize, don't bother. You did what you needed to do." She grins. "I would have done the same thing."

"Well, that's comforting." he says. "Remind me not to profess my love for you in the middle of a gunfight. Oh wait. I would never do that."

"Is that what you think I did?" she asks. "I only suggested that you ask me out. And under the influence too, might I add."

"Whatever." he says, brushing her hair away so he can get a better look at the bruise (he gave her). "Just be glad I didn't give you a black eye."

"You used your forearm...thanks."

It was one of the less painful ways to take out an opponent. "Don't mention it."

She doesn't quite look him in the eye. "I didn't know, you know. I would have said something..." Seeing his reaction, she rushes on. "No, no, I knew they GAVE me something, I agreed to that. They just didn't tell me exactly what it'd do. I think they said it was a relaxant, mild mood stimulant. They weren't specific."

He shrugs. "Well, we get into some pretty fucked up situations sometimes. This one didn't even chart."

He's lying through his teeth and he knows she knows it. He did not like being caught in a firefight, with backup 5 minutes away, but only enough ammo for the next 3, while his partner was high on some psychoactive drug and going on about something he only let himself think about every other Tuesday.

"Get some sleep." He gives her a quick kiss on the forehead and gets the hell out of there before she can call him out on it.

It was a Wednesday anyway.