Natasha liked to watch. Especially after long days when her hands still throbbed from punching double agents; she needed time to decompress, to get her jangled nerves under enough control for touch to be welcome.

So she thought it was a stroke of very good fortune that she'd fallen in with such incorrigible show offs. She leaned forward, resting her arms over the back of her chair and running her tongue over her lips and Phil devoted all of his considerable patience and attention to detail to turning Clint inside out. He had Clint on his back, Clint's eyes closed as Phil licked around the curve of his collarbone and trailed kisses down his chest until his breathing went ragged. Clint had a sensitive spot on his ribs from an old injury and Natasha felt her own breath catch when Clint's back arched as Phil touched him there, a soft sigh shaking out of him. She knew Phil liked to draw things out until Clint begged, one of their favorite little games. Sometimes it was the other way around too, of course, but she could tell Clint was determined to give Phil anything he wanted tonight, and Phil wanted Clint beneath him until he couldn't take any more.

Finally she heard Phil whisper to him, "Turn over," and she thought the two of them were the only ones who ever got to see Clint Barton smile like that.

"Yes, sir." Clint loved taking Phil's orders, whether on duty or not, and the nights where they really got into that were some of Natasha's favorites. But as Phil trailed one hand down Clint's back she knew that would hit too close to the nerve, with the hearing looming in the morning. Tonight was all about extending touch and taste as far as it could go, the sound of breathing filling the room to keep the nightmares away. By the time Phil had Clint moaning his name Natasha felt the heat over her own skin.

"Come on, Clint," she said, dropping into Russian and grinning at the low chuckle that drew from Phil. Why switching to Russian had that effect on them was a mystery for the ages as far as she was concerned, but it was certainly fun to watch. "Give the man what he wants." Clint moaned, a bead of sweat trailing down those ridiculously perfect arms of his. Phil's eyes locked with hers as she kept talking Clint closer to the edge, then he kissed along Clint's spine, one hand reaching around to tease him further. She was tempted to join in but held herself back when Clint's eyes started to flutter. Watching Clint Barton's eyes as he came was one of Natasha's very favorite sights in the world. Clint collapsed shaking down to the bed and Natasha knelt behind Phil, scratching her nails down his back and she whispered into his ear now, smiling at how wide she could make those blue eyes of his go.

Coulson made a perfunctory attempt at cleaning up before Clint wrapped his arms around his waist and pulled him back to the bed, muttering drowsy nonsense at him until Phil gave up and relaxed against him. It took a few minutes for him to gather back enough of his senses for Phil to realize she was still sitting there shamelessly ogling the two of them. "What are you doing?"

"Enjoying the view."

He shifted over, stealing some space from Clint to make room at the edge of the bed. "C'mon."

Natasha stripped and slid into bed beside him, relishing the warmth of his skin as he wrapped one arm around her waist. Phil Coulson was the only man she'd ever slept with who both never stole the covers and whose hands never wandered – at least until she wanted them to. "Watch him tomorrow," he murmured into her hair.

She wondered how much the secrecy around the hearing date had to do with the fear that Clint would do something truly stupid. "You know I will."

She felt him nod. "Simmons is very good. You won't have anything to worry about if you're assigned to her. Sitwell, too, he's been a mission supervisor for the past few years but he'd handle you both as a favor to me. Vishnavi is young but she has a lot of potential, I oversaw her training. Vickers drinks, so, you know. Look out for that." She wrapped his arm more securely around her. "Tasha, if I...if I ever coerced you into anything, either of you, I just..."

She twisted around to look at him. "Is that what they tried to make you believe?" He didn't need to answer, she could feel the guilt pouring off him. She kissed him, trailing her fingertips along his jaw before rolling him over to his back. "I've been forced to do many things by many men in my life," she said, tracing the bruises down his side. "Believe me when I say you're not one of them." He started to protest and she placed one finger across his lips. "I know my own mind, Agent Coulson. Don't try to convince me otherwise, it's a battle you'll lose." She braced her hands against his shoulders as she lowered herself onto him, slowly enough to be teasing. His hands moved to cradle her hips as she started to move, his eyes bright as he looked at her in that way he had, like he wasn't quite sure she was real. Clint was awake again and watching them like he wanted to eat them both alive. He pushed himself to his knees, cupping one hand around her breast as he kissed her, then lay back down to lick along the curve of Phil's neck.

"You two are not fair," he said, tipping up his chin to give Clint better access. Phil traced his thumbs around her nipples until they were hard under his hands and Natasha started riding him hard, smiling when she got him to whisper her name. She leaned down, kissing him as she found that perfect angle, moaning against his lips as one more rock of her hips sent her climax shaking through her. She felt him sigh as she contracted around him, then she only had to wait a few seconds before he was breathing in gasps, his hands tangling in her hair as he came. Clint threw a possessive around them both as they collapsed into a graceless heap, Phil trembling in her arms and Clint kissing her anywhere his lips could reach.

Natasha closed her eyes and waited as their breathing deepened and slowed around her. When she was sure they were both asleep she crept from the bed, careful not to disturb either; she dressed in silence, smiling as Clint stretched out, one arm locked still tight around Coulson's waist.

She stood in the doorway watching them for a long time before finally slipping away.

888

The window was nothing. Single pane of glass, simple lock. It was almost like SHIELD was tryingto get its independent contractors assassinated. She'd already been sitting on the man's sofa for ten minutes before Leonard Samson walked in, dropping his mug of tea all over the floor when he turned around and saw her. "Don't you SHIELD people use doors?" he said, going back into the kitchen to find something to sop up the mess.

"I'm surprised you weren't issued any guards."

"I'm starting to think I should have asked for some," he said, coming back with a roll of paper towels and a dustbin to pick up the shattered mug.

"I'm here to talk about your report."

"And I'm going to tell you the same thing I told your archer friend earlier this evening, I already submittedmy report." Natasha felt herself blink at that; Clint must have found time for that when she and Phil were still being debriefed. He finished cleaning up and sat in the chair across from her, his hands steepled in front of his face. "But since you're at least not pointing a bow at my face I'll also tell you that I recommended no disciplinary action and that the charges be dropped as unfounded."

Natasha couldn't remember the last time she'd been surprised so many times in the same five minutes. "You...did?"

"Please, don't hide your surprise on my account." He leaned back in the chair, letting out a heavy sigh. "Look, when I told you that I would be making an impartial verdict, I meant it."

That had been her read on Samson, but it was nice to see she'd judged him correctly. "So you truly believe the charges are unfounded."

"As written? Yes, I do." He shook his head. "That's not to say I don'tbelieve that something's going on between the three of you, just that I don't think it should be a subject to measures, certainly not the draconian ones Royce is seeking. Do you want tea? I still have some that's not currently staining the rug."

"I wouldn't mind it," she said, still trying to follow where this conversation was going.

"Milk or sugar?"

"One sugar's fine." He came back in and handed her one mug; she could tell from his own he put in so much milk she doubted it was even still hot. "Wouldn't it make less of a mess to just have the glass of milk?"

"You leave my tea-flavored milk alone, Agent Romanoff." He grinned at her, something people rarely did. It was hard to remember that she wasn't supposed to like him. "Let me clear up a misconception I think you have about me – me not being in SHIELD is actually a good thing for you right now. It means I don't have to worry about rules and regulations and can just give my opinion as a psychologist."

"And what is your opinion?"

"Psychologically speaking, we don't classify something as a disorder unless and until it begins to have a negative effect on the patient. Basically, something's not a problem until it's a problem. That's not to say I don't understand where Royce is coming from or that this investigation is baseless, because 99 times out of 100 this exact situation would be a gross abuse of power. Especially, and forgive me for saying this, when the power is held over subordinates with a history of being manipulated and who have been fed a redemption narrative. That's a heavy thing to hold over someone's head."

"We're not operating under a 'redemption narrative.'"

"That Agent Barton insisted on being called 'Agent' instead of by a military rank says otherwise. And I'm not saying that's a negative thing, necessarily, just that it can be turned into one."

"But you don't believe that's what's happening."

"What I believe is that Agent Barton has gone from almost being dismissed to not having any disciplinary write ups in over five years. That's an incredible turn around, especially from someone who, frankly, had been exhibiting clear sociopathic tendencies prior to that. And Agent Romanoff, if I showed your psychological profile from before you joined SHIELD and then your most recent evaluation to my colleagues – and don't worry, I don't plan on actually doing that – I can assure you that not one of them would believe they belonged to the same person. This...whateverit is you have, I can't see that it's harmful, or frankly that it's even coercive. The three of you are, at least in my personal judgment, the exception that proves the rule as far as fraternization goes. I actually think we could be looking at some very destructive backsliding if there is any action taken."

"And that's really what you put in your report?"

"With a liberal application of shrink jargon, yes. I really am on your side here."

Natasha found herself very much wanting to believe that. "Do you think Royce will agree with you?"

Samson hesitated before answering. "Colonel Royce is a man who believes in rules, not exceptions."

Well. That settled that. "Thank you, Doctor Samson."

"I told you, call me Doc. Leo, even."

"Leo. This has been very helpful."

"I'm sorry if things don't work out the way you'd like tomorrow."

"I think things will work out exactly how I want, actually."

His brows drew together into a worried frown. "Please don't do anything you'll regret. That can't help anyone."

"Leo, trust me, this won't even be in the same country as the things I regret."

888

Natasha was sitting at Royce's kitchen table and had read his report over twice by the time he finally walked through the front door. "You keep late hours, Colonel."

"I didn't know I would be expecting company." He didn't seem afraid, or even all that upset, the way Samson had; of course, Samson had also received a visit from Clint and she doubted Royce could say the same. This location was classified, unlike Samson's, and it would have taken Clint more time than he'd had available to find it.

And of course Royce wasn't completely feathered with arrows, which would definitely be the case if Clint had read this report. "I don't enjoy suspense."

"You should have asked, I have nothing to hide. What do you think of my assessment?"

She hadn't thought it possible, but it was actually worse than she'd expected. Her worst-case scenario had been dismissal from SHIELD but this was pointing to actual criminal prosecution. "You didn't seem to put much stock in Doctor Samson's evaluations."

"He's in Fury's pocket," Royce said with a sad shake of his head.

"That's not been my impression."

"Trust me, Agent Romanoff, I can look at this with a clearer eye than you."

Natasha kept her expression perfectly neutral. "I suppose it is your job to be objective."

She watched the sub textual criticism fly right over his head. "It is indeed. I wish you would look at me as your advocate, not your adversary."

"Do I need an advocate?"

"I think it's clear the both of you do." He sighed, the way one would sigh at having to explain calculus to a child. "Distance gives clarity, I think Agent Barton would agree with that."

"What about Doctor Samson's report did you disagree with?"

"All of it?" He sighed again. "I see where he was coming from, I do, but you let a man step over a line once and he'll never stop. There are reasons rules exist, good reasons. We're all responsible for our choices. There have to be consequences."

Natasha closed the file, tapping the edges neatly into place against the table."In my experience I've found there are very few actually good people in this world," she said, staring into the darkness beyond the kitchen window

"Yes, that's it exactly. And it's our job to protect those good people."

"I'm so glad you agree." Natasha stood, tucking the file under one arm as she walked over to Royce. "You should keep this in a more secure place." As he reached out to take it she flicked her wrist, releasing her stiletto from its hidden sheath and pressing its tip just under his sternum. "I wouldn't move."

"Agent Romanoff, I understand that right now..."

"I'm not a good person." She pressed the tip of the blade in just a little bit more. "But I am a very patient one when I choose to be. And you're correct, we are responsible for our choices, so I'm going to explain the two choices you have in front of you. The first is to go to the hearing tomorrow and submit this report exactly as it is. The second is to follow Doctor Samson's recommendation. I won't stop you either way."

She stepped forward, close enough for him to see her eyes despite the dim light. "I've disabled all of the listening devices here. No one's monitoring us. I just want to make it clear that this is a very private agreement between the two of us."

She paused for a few moments, just long enough to let him wonder whether that was true. "As I said, I won't stop you from appearing at the hearing tomorrow. Taking action now would just make the situation worse. They can always find another inquisitor. But Colonel Royce, I promise you, if you make that first choice there will come a day where you find yourself in another dark room. And on that day, just when you've convinced yourself that you're alone, that is the moment when you will turn around and find me there with you." She stood closer still, close enough to whisper in his ear. "There are always consequences." She let him look in her eyes as she let her old, hidden self come to the surface, the one an old trainer had praised as being made of darkness and poison, held him at knife point and made him really see the Red Room's greatest work of art until she saw something in him shake. Then Natasha flicked her wrist, withdrawing the stiletto and placing the file on the chair beside him. "Thank you for your cooperation."

888

The hearing the next day was anticlimactic in the best way possible; she and Clint barely had the chance to start worrying – well, Clint had started worrying, Natasha got to occupy herself by keeping him from lurking on catwalks and frightening the junior agents - before Jen Walters walked out of the hearing chamber, grinning like she'd just swindled a million bucks from the Supreme Court. Natasha heard Clint breathe out a relieved, "Oh, thank fucking God," when Phil walked out after her, looking a little dazed but none the worse for wear. They both knew that if the decision had been against them he would have been deep in the SHIELD machinery, not walking free.

There was no time for celebrating, aside from her playing lookout while Clint and Phil disappeared for a half hour in exchange for a favor to be named later. Almost before she and Clint could let themselves relax Phil told them to report for a mission briefing – Natasha supposed she shouldn't have been surprised he'd managed to keep working up missions during all this. She and Clint needed to find him some more hobbies. "Natasha, a word?" he said when the briefing was over; she glanced over to Clint, who shrugged before slipping out of the room to gear up. He glanced around before speaking and Natasha wondered how long it would take before the paranoia of the past few weeks would begin to fade. "I told Barton earlier -" she grinned at that, because she sincerely doubted they'd done much in the way of talking?"-but Director Fury assured me there shouldn't be any more problems like this. He seems to believe this was all an indirect attack at his authority in the first place." She was suddenly overtaken by the image of Fury popping champagne alone in his office; nothing made him happier than getting one over on the Security Council, no matter how petty the victory. He drummed his fingers on the conference table, looking like he didn't want to ask this next question. "Tasha, what did you do?"

She pasted on her most innocent expression. "Beg pardon?"

"I woke up last night and you were gone, then this morning there's suddenly a miraculous turn around. What did you do?"

Natasha sat on the table with a casual shrug. "I can make a persuasive case when I want to." He looked faintly appalled at that. "I thought I had a helicopter to catch."

She could tell he would bring this back up again later but that he'd give her the out now. "Thank you."

Natasha waved that away. "Come on. Let's do our jobs."

"There's something coming up with Stark we need to talk over, too."

She just rolled her eyes. "Sounds like a joy." She hopped off the table and straightened his tie, letting the touch linger. She felt a barely suppressed shiver run through him at that, like he couldn't quite shake the idea they were being watched. She'd been entirely too easy on Royce. "Later, though. Clint's going to think we're having fun without him."

"We wouldn't want that." There was a very un-Phil Coulson tremor to his voice as he said that but he was already teasing back, and as she pulled away he let his fingers rest on her wrist for a handful of seconds, the touch a thank you and a promise all in one. She stood in the doorway for a few seconds, watching him settle back into his Agent of SHIELD glory as he tapped on his earpiece. "I'll be in contact once the two of you are in the air."

"You'd better. We'll see you back home."

She saw emotion well in his eyes before closing the door behind her, indulging in a sigh as she felt the weight of the past two weeks lift off her shoulders. She and Clint would have to do some serious conspiring on ways to celebrate later.

Clint caught her eye as she strapped in and she gave his hand a quick squeeze. As they lifted off he whispered in her ear and she could tell he was already way ahead of her.