Title: Constricted Space
Author: Mir
Date: 12 June 2012

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Disclaimer: I make no claim to any of the Marvel characters, the storylines, or the overall universe. I do not write for compensation; this is purely a hobby.

Author's note: This is undoubtedly a larger project than my first Avengers piece ("The City That Never Sleeps"), and my track record for actually finishing longer works is abysmal. But I did outline it through at least three or four chapters... It's Clint / Natasha-centric but includes the full "Avengers" movie cast (maybe Jane from "Thor" as well farther down the line).

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"Observe and monitor... but at a distance. Unobtrusive, inconspicuous..."

"Thanks, Wilson, I think I know how to keep an eye on a party." Agent Barton leaned back in his chair, arms folded across his chest, and tried (unsuccessfully) to keep a straight face. He'd gone through three handlers in as many weeks, and this one was no better than the rest. A rambling mess of nerves... and probably not enough composure to keep his head straight in the field. It wasn't really his fault. None of the others had been much better, and no one could ever be a replacement for...

"Agent Barton, do I have to remind you that the last time Tony Stark threw a party, it resulted in over two million dollars worth of damage to his Malibu property and the theft of an iron man suit?" The tone wavered somewhere between patronizing and chiding, and for Clint Barton - otherwise known as the SHIELD agent Hawkeye - that was enough to seal this handler's fate. It was unfortunate, really. Fury would be disappointed (again) that another well-intentioned pairing had fallen through.

"Well, a man's got a right to celebrate his own birthday," he shot back, mostly to see how far he could push Wilson before the man lost that irritating veneer of superiority.

"Barton, this is no time for jokes. The assignment came directly from Director Fury. You'd better take it seriously."

"Well, then you can tell the director yourself that both Hawkeye and the Black Widow will be in position at Stark Tower tomorrow evening." It had angered him at first to learn that every evaluation of his performance was being passed up to SHIELD's top leadership and was probably being made available to the council as well (it was Natasha who had hacked the SHIELD computer network to discover that fact). So much for trust and a flawless professional service record. Well, perhaps not flawless... but still. The years of unwavering dedication should at least count for something.

"Agent Romanoff was not included on this mission."

"Well you can't expect me to show up at New York's top social event of the month without a date." He knew this was probably some kind of test and that he'd likely just failed, but this was Stark and the Avengers, and he wanted Natasha's support... in case things somehow got out of hand like they seemed to when the Avengers were involved. Plus, she'd worked for Stark and knew her way around the Tower.

"If you want to write your own script, then the blame's on your head not mine." Wilson retorted in a voice that slipped from indignant to whiny.

"Fine. I'll make sure that's noted at the post-mission debrief." He'd pushed his chair back from the table and was about to leave Wilson's softly muttered final shot made him pause.

"The director said you'd insist on Romanoff's involvement."

Clint gave him a long, chill look across the table, then rose and left the room without another word.

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The party was, like any Stark production, an over-the-top affair.

They'd arrived early and, after convincing Jarvis to allow the helicopter to land on the tower's roof ('I just simply didn't bring any clothes appropriate for repelling' Natasha had cajoled), had enjoyed the company of Bruce and Pepper Potts while Tony busied himself with personally overseeing the final preparations for the night's event.

"I'd tell you to go ahead and make yourselves at home..." he'd said after dashing up the penthouse to ask for Potts' opinion on a color scheme for the buffet table label cards. With a glance, he'd taken in the open wine bottles and array of hors d'oeuvres scattered across the bar and side tables. "...but it looks like Ms. Potts has beaten me to it."

"Well I couldn't just drop them off at the lab with Bruce," Pepper had explained as she pointed decisively to the tan/teal colored swatch and hurried Tony back out the door. "You science types sometimes forget even the basics of being a proper host."

"That's why I keep you around, dear." Stark had flashed one of his classic smiles before the closing elevator doors cut him off.

After that, there wasn't much to do but wait. Bruce (who insisted that he was never one for parties anyway) volunteered to watch the security cameras during the event and alert them if he saw anything out of the ordinary.

"You know you're not on the SHIELD payroll, right?" Natasha had commented, but Banner simply murmured something about wanting to do his part and the other guy not liking crowds, so she let the matter go and thanked him for his help. If Clint's new handler was as bad as he said he was, then it would be probably be a relief to have someone else in her ear - even Banner's flat tone and dry humor.

She'd stood by the window after Pepper had left (dragged away by Stark after his third appearance at the elevator door... she'd rattled off some apology but seemed pleased to be back in the middle of Tony's hectic whirlwind party planning). Behind her, Clint and Bruce were deep in discussion over the physics of projectiles and were making liberal use of Tony's computer database. The ghostly transparent images flew in circles as reflections on the window's mirrored glass - fragments of weapons and tech and science. At first she'd wondered why Clint seemed to get along so well with Bruce, had even been jealous of their rapport. But then she'd seem the way Bruce handled him - all business, no uncomfortable personal questions, no wary doubt that Loki's influence had indeed been eradicated - and decide that the two were good for each other.

You'd have to be blind to miss the way some at SHIELD tiptoed around him... and not because they feared his sharp tongue or less-than-congenial attitude. Things had changed, for her as well. It was the Avengers. The Avengers and Loki.

"It's time to move into position." The men's heads popped up at her words, and the suspended diagrams stalled in mid-flight. From behind her, the setting sun threaded down through the New York skyscrapers and threw long orange shadows across the floor. They rose without a word, brushed the crumbs from their laps, and nodded in agreement. It might have originally been Barton's assignment, but they all had tacitly agreed that this show was more suited for Natasha's skill set.

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The night was hot, the skirts were short, and some outfits were clearly pushing the limits of public decency. Beneath the blare of music reverberating from the walls as echoes layered upon echoes, two lone figures in black lingered at the party's edge. The man, in particular, was quick to send curious parties away with a biting remark or scathing glare. Fortunately, most of the guests were too drunk to take offense.

Natasha, for her part, had shaken off the clumsy advances of a pimple-faced teenager in lime-checkered pants and had been circling back toward the buffet tables when a girl sporting little more than a lace-draped bikini stumbled drunkenly across her path. With a sigh, she shot a hand out and yanked her back toward the open floor before she collided head-first with the dessert table. The girl gave her a wide-eyed, deer-in-headlights look - mixed with something between confusion and gratitude - before teetering off in the opposite direction.

The whole evening had been a waste of time. Guests came and went like moths dancing toward a flame, making the rounds at Stark Tower one minute, then dashing off across the city to the next event without a backward glance. Just one stop on an endless parade empty pastimes. Even a common fist-meets-nose bar fight would have helped pass the time.

"Anything on the cameras, Banner?" she asked, more out of boredom than genuine interest. She'd finish the job properly, of course, but it would sure help if there were even a bit of challenge to it.

"Nothing suspicious," he replied, his voice trailing off in a way the people's often do when they have something else on their mind. Natasha waited for the other shoe to drop. "But if all these people knew that they were going to be on camera... Heck, if I knew that I was going to have to watch them on camera... I just... are some of those positions even humanly possible?" He sighed deeply into the microphone, a gesture of resignation. "Don't mind me. I'll get over it."

"Weren't you in India? The birthplace of the Kama Sutra?" Barton's voice interjected, his mic picking up the background noise of cars honking by the front of the building.

"Cut the chatter, boys. We still have a job to finish." Natasha smiled despite herself. Any levity from Clint was a welcome change from the dour intensity he'd adopted since the incident with Loki. Not that he'd ever been particularly lighthearted... but lately, he'd retreated into himself so far that even she had trouble reaching him.

"Hey, were there storms on the weather forecast?" Barton's question (directed more at Banner) broke her train of thought, pulling her back to the task at hand. She glanced at her watch - only 2200, and the party showed no signs of waning.

"Because there's some serious lightning out here." As if to prove his point, a sudden clap of thunder shook the sky, audible even over the heavy base line deep inside the tower's interior.

"Uh, negative on that," Bruce replied, confusion evident in his tone. "Just got the radar up, and if I'm seeing this correctly, there's some kind of very localized pressure system directly over the tower." He paused, digesting the data. "I mean, it's less than half a block around this building. "There's just no natural way-"

"That crazy sonofabitch... I'd wondered how long he'd stay away." It took a moment for Clint's words to click, and then, like that, everything made sense.

"Did Fury know? Is that why he wanted you here tonight?" She asked as she elbowed and shoved her way across the dance floor. Girls teetering in stilettos and miniskirts scattered before her. Sometimes violence is, in fact, was the answer.

"Know what?" Banner implored, sounding put-out at being left out of the loop.

"If Thor's really here, it means he's come back to track down that astronomer of his... or his brother's on the loose again," Barton muttered, more to himself than to the others. Below him at the ground-level entrance, pedestrians caught in the sudden storm pressed themselves under the tower's grand awning and mixed with party guests in a wild jumble of umbrellas and overcoats. A constant flow of taxis inched by like animals on a merry-go-round, picking up and shedding passengers in a staccato percussion of squealing breaks and slamming doors. His eyes drifted up from his newly-acquired third-story perch to the epicenter of the weather, and for a brief moment, a spark of fear clutched at his gut. Loki. He should have put an arrow straight through his eye when he had the chance.

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I'll leave off there (while I'm still ahead?) and pick up with Thor's entrance in the second chapter. Was this one too boring? Not enough action or plot development? Anyone too out of character? Let me know, if you'd like. Constructive criticism is always welcome!