Note: This is a sequel to The Price of Freedom, but you don't have to have read that to understand this... although it's recommended! ;)
It began, as it always did, with probation.
Day 10 of his two week confinement to base, and Clint was going stir-crazy. When the initial chaos involved with getting assigned new quarters and a partner died down, time seemed to slow down just to spite him. The seconds stretched into minutes, hours shifted into days, each blending seamlessly into the next. Even after spending hour after hour at the shooting range, Clint had far too much time on his hands.
The fact remained that despite his boyish, immature tendencies, he had never gotten along with any of the other junior agents. Clint Barton tended to generate three reactions in his colleagues: jealousy, grudging respect, or lust from the younger SHIELD women, which caused even more of their male counterparts to gravitate towards options one and two. It didn't help that he was a mystery to most, keeping to himself as much as possible. So with no friends to speak of, and two royally pissed superiors, he really only had one choice for company.
Surprisingly, Natasha the defected teenage assassin was faring much better. Unlike Clint, Natasha generated just one reaction: fear. Many were jealous of her abilities, and questioned her place in this agency, but an overwhelming fear pervaded everything else. She seemed to have embraced this at an early age, as she turned a blind eye to the blatant dislike and hate directed at her when her back was turned, and didn't question why everyone scrambled to get out of her way. Dividing her time between the SHIELD library (which Clint hadn't known existed), the tech department, and the training rooms, she only returned to their shared quarters to sleep, sneaking in late at night and slinking off at the crack of dawn. He saw her less than the rest of base did, and so his last hope for companionship had dissipated.
He was pacing back and forth in one of the corridors on the fifth floor, pondering all this when it happened. Picking up on the stampede of technicians, young field agents, and intelligence analysts headed down the hall towards him, Clint sighed and looked around for a place to hide. He wasn't quite ready to face Fury yet- it seemed his boss was still sore about his blatant disregard for protocol, and he had issued some… interesting threats at their last confrontation. Pulling himself into a storage room, Clint leaned against the door to wait for the telltale signs that Fury had passed.
They didn't come.
"Director," Coulson greeted directly outside the door.
"We need to talk," Fury replied curtly, all business.
Thir voices lowered to whispers, and Clint strained to hear what they were saying. Espionage… no other choice… still on probation… too risky… really?... Barton can… Clint snapped upright when he heard his name. They seemed to be debating a mission- the one hope he had of getting out of this hellhole. Unfortunately, this realization had caused him to miss the rest of their conversation.
"I'll drop by your office later this afternoon to sort out the details," Fury finished, raising his voice to the normal volume, and then strode down the hall. Clint waited until Coulson's footsteps faded in the distance, then scrambled out of the closet.
He needed to know what they were talking about. And he knew just how to find out.
The air vents at SHIELD were extensive, clean, and most importantly- spacious. Clint strode through the halls, craning his head upward to find the optimal entry point. It had to be positioned so he could easily locate Coulson's office, but also so no one would find the removed grate for a few hours. A maintenance worker had screwed the hatch back on while he was still inside once- that had been extremely unpleasant, and resulted in severe reprimands and probation.
Rounding a corner, eyes fixed adamantly on the ceiling, he slammed into a solid object. Reeling backwards, he looked down to find a pair of cat green eyes peering up at him reproachfully.
"Do you have eyes, Barton? Watch where you're going," Natasha hissed, picking herself up off the ground.
"What are you doing up here?"
"Looking for Patricia," she replied smoothly.
"On the seventh floor," he deadpanned, not buying it for a second.
"I got lost." She said after a few moments. Clint snorted in disbelief.
"Bullshit. You could find your way back to medical after being blindfolded and taken halfway across base!"
"Not everything makes sense."
"Most things do."
She threw her hands up in the air in exasperation. " Fine- Coulson wanted to see me."
"No he didn't! He has to-" Clint cut himself off hastily. It wouldn't do to give himself away. Unfortunately, she had already picked up on his hesitation.
"Do you know something?" she asked, eyes narrowing.
"That depends- do you know what I think you know?" he countered easily.
"Do you know what I think you know I know?"
"Do you know what I think you know I know you know?"
"ENOUGH," she screamed, running a hand through her crimson curls, breathing deeply. "Were you on the fifth floor near the R&D center half an hour ago?"
"Yes. And I heard them mention us, so I need to find out what they have planned."
"And how do you plan on doing that?" Clint drawled. She held up a small metal disk in response, and he sucked in a sharp breath.
"Let me guess. You stole that from R&D when Patricia's back was turned, and now plan to just stroll into Coulson's office and plant that under his desk?" She nodded again.
"That's a stupid ass plan. They have cameras and bug sweepers in there. Plus, you're on probation- if they find out you're as good as dead."
"Well, do you have a better plan?" she spat the words out venomously. It really didn't take much to annoy her.
"As a matter of fact, yes- but you are not coming. Now, if you'll excuse me." He turned on his heel, but barely made it two steps before a small cold hand clamped down around his wrist. She yanked him back to face her, pulling him down by the neck of his shirt so her face was inches from his.
"Try to stop me," she growled, then shoved him back. Clint sighed, dragging a hand through his spiky hair. She was right- there was no way he could keep her from following.
"Try to keep up," he muttered, then continued his search.
Clint slid forward on his stomach, staring down through the grate at Coulson's desk. Natasha followed just as silently. The vents were only wide enough to accommodate one person's width, but she refused to let him tell her what occurred. After a bit of maneuvering, she ended up half sprawled on top of him, head jammed next to his. Clint breathed deeply, refusing to let his rapid heartbeat betray him. It was all for naught- when she exhaled, he felt the puff of air on the nape of his neck, and couldn't help an involuntary shiver from creeping down his spine. Judging by her huff of amusement, she knew exactly what she was doing to him.
Thankfully, Coulson entered, and all further activity was suspended. For the next hour, they stared down at the top of his head as he worked through some paperwork, mumbling to himself. Natasha wriggled on top of him, trying to get comfortable, and Clint had to bite his tongue to stop himself from shivering again. The vent groaned, and she froze, slowly lowering her body until her mouth were right next to his ear.
"Is that normal?" she whispered, lips brushing against his earlobe. He gave a noncommittal shrug in response, and bit down on his cheek so hard he tasted blood.
The phone rang, the sound cutting through the still air. Coulson picked up on the second ring.
"Coulson," he said by way of greeting, and Clint tried to make sense of the one sided conversation he was having- presumably with Fury.
"Yes sir… I understand… Right away sir… Briefing Room 4?... I'll alert them immediately." He hung up, then leaned back in the chair, sighing heavily. After a few tense seconds, he leaned forward, reaching for something under his desk.
Clint shifted to the left to see what was under the table, while Natasha leaned to the right to keep her eyes on Coulson's face. The opposing motions caused her to fall off her perch on his back, landing with a thud on her side beside him. An awful shriek of metal on metal echoed through the vents, and their section slipped a few inches downward. They only had time to shoot each other a single horrified look, before it gave completely.
Coulson was having a rough day even before his roof caved in.
Fury's news had really put a dampener on his mood. Leaning back in his chair with a sigh, Coulson pondered how to break the news to Barton that his punishment was going to be cut short- again. He could just imagine the cocky grin that would creep across the bastard's face, and the snarky comments he would have to endure all the way to their destination.
Reaching beneath his desk, he groped for the tiny silver case in which he kept his most Captain America trading cards. Sorting them always calmed him down. Before he could so much as close his hand around the box, an ungodly screech resounded in his ears. Looking up, he spotted a few small cracks in the plaster. That was all the warning he needed.
Coulson dove under his desk, and milliseconds later the ceiling collapsed. Several heavy thuds could be heard from above, and plaster exploded on the ground, throwing up clouds of white dust. A crash made Coulson jump, and he spotted a sleek metal ramp of sorts from under the desk. After two white objects tumbled to the ground, the room lapsed into silence.
After a few moments, Coulson slid out from under his table, and eyed the destruction speechlessly. Chunks of plaster covered the ground, there was a gaping hole in the ceiling, and chalky dust covered everything.
A groan brought him to his senses, and he swung around to locate the source of the noise. One of the white things- people, he realized- rolled onto its back, then slowly sat up, rubbing at its head. When the ends of familiar dirty blond hair was revealed, Coulson put two and two together.
"Barton?" Said agent groaned again in response, rubbing dust out of his eyes. When Clint could see again, he eyed Coulson and gave him one of his famously infuriating grins- the one that never failed to make Fury's vein twitch. He then cleared his throat.
"You wanted to see us, Coulson?" he rasped. That did it.
"WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING? YOU FUCKING DESTROYED MY OFFICE RIGHT AFTER LANDING YOUR ASS IN FUCKING PROBATION FOR IGNORING PROTOCOL. AT THIS RATE YOU WILL NEVER EVER LEAVE THIS BASE AGAIN," Coulson screamed, then paused for a moment to breath. Suddenly something clicked. "Wait… us?"
"Shut. Up." A new voice moaned, coughing violently. Coulson looked over, and spotted a pair of familiar green eyes.
"Romanoff?!" Oh god- this day was only getting worse. He quickly assessed the situation. He had approximately ten minutes to get these two and himself cleaned up and presentable, make sure they hadn't been injured, and restore some order to his office. It would take a minor miracle, but he had been through worse- as Barton's handler you had to be a bit more… flexible then usual. Taking a deep breath, Coulson prepared himself for the worst.
"Tell me exactly what happened. From the beginning."
Fury slapped two files down on the table, sliding into a chair. Natasha leaned forwards in anticipation. Coulson had forced her down the stairs to shower in her quarters, after herding Barton down the hall to his own room. After standing under the spout for a few minutes to clean some of the gunk out of her hair, she shoved on some new clothes and ran back up to the sixth floor. Fury had entered with all three of them already present, and was none the wiser as to the destruction across the hall.
"Ignore those for a moment." Natasha hesitantly withdrew her hand. "Now, you two are probably wondering why you're getting pulled. Well, I had a realization the other day. We are wasting a perfect opportunity. What's our advantage?" He peered at them expectantly.
"Um… we have little miss badass ninja assassin?" Barton offered, ignoring her look of burning hate. No one called her little miss anything.
"That too, but I'm thinking of something we won't have soon, a window that's getting smaller every day." Barton screwed up his nose, brow furrowed. After watching him think for a few seconds, she decided to put him out of his misery.
"No one knows I'm working for you yet."
"Exactly!" Fury exclaimed, then opened a file in front of him, sliding it across the table to her. Turning it around, her eyes fell upon a small photograph.
"Andriy Gricenko," Fury continued, ignoring her. "We need him dead and some of the intel he keeps locked up tight. The last few agents we sent didn't get anywhere near him. After Agent Hart came back half-dead, courtesy of his henchmen… well, we need a new strategy."
"Well, your agent is lucky he or she wasn't brought back in a match-box. Gricenko is a force to be reckoned with."
"Yes, as you know from personal experience. If anyone has a fighting chance of getting alone with him, it'll be you." Natasha laughed bitterly in response.
"Is anyone going to tell me what the hell is going on? Who is this guy?" Clint asked, clearly irritated.
"Gricenko is the very definition of a self-made millionaire. He's an entrepreneur, but not in the usual sense. He sells information."
"The value of secrets should not be underestimated. A handful of papers can be worth more than gold- in the right hands. He blackmails the rich for a living." Natasha explained.
"Oh. Ok, fine, he's a slimy little bastard. But what does Nat have to do with all this?"
"Don't call me that. And he's my ex-boss."
"So? No ones's a better interrogator- he'll hire you." Natasha sighed. It seemed like nothing could penetrate that thick skull of his.
"I said ex-boss. Last year I stole enough blackmail leverage to put half the executive branch of the Bulgarian government away for a very long time, gave it to one of his rivals, shot three of his best assets, set the police on him, then robbed him of a hundred grand and escaped to Spain."
"Holy… and you're going to send her back to him? She might as well be wearing a sign around her neck that says SHOOT ON SIGHT!"
"We believe she has the means to take him down. Romanoff?"
She thought for a moment. Gricenko was dangerous, but she wasn't called the Black Widow for nothing. He was also exceedingly vain, and proud to a fault. It would be easy to get back into his good graces… as long as she played the situation right. Besides, she had other… assets at her disposal as well.
"I can do it."
"Good." Barton opened his mouth to object, but Fury soldiered on. "Your window is a party he is hosting at his mansion two days from now. It's supposed to be a fundraiser for some obscure charitable organization, but a lot of guests seem to have ties in the black market and mafia, or backgrounds as hired thugs. Eastern Europe's finest is also attending. You'll have to get yourself in." She nodded, and he turned his attention to Barton.
"You're her eyes from above. Get up on top of one of the guardhouses or climb a tree. Keep her in your sights whenever possible. Coulson will have backup on hand. Some of the intel is suspected to be on a flashdrive in his safe, so you'll need a few techs with you. Coulson will give you the other details- I have some other business to attend to." With that, he swept out of the room, leaving the team in silence.
Barton cleared his throat. "So… where are we going?"
Please let me know what you think! I won't be able to update as frequently as I had during the Price of Freedom. School started again, and I have a lot of work to do. But I will try to post a chapter at least once a week. Keep in mind that reviews= motivation to write more frequently!