This story assumes that getting two solo operators like Hawkeye and the Black Widow used to having a partner wasn't always a bed of rose petals (thorns, yes).
It was written for the be_compromised Valentine's Day Mini-Promptathon, based on the following prompt from Anuna81: Nat and Clint wake up in a room, cuffed together. The house they're in seems empty, the door is locked, they were probably drugged. They don't really remember what happened. And then Purely_Distel commented that this had to be "pre-relationship" (but of course); and all of a sudden other prompts began to nest in my brain (Samalander's Valentine's Day Massacre and Workerbee73's First Kiss), for which this is only a fill if you squint - but it all served to turn this plot bunny into a bit of a mutt. A very fluffy mutt bunny, but hey, it's a Valentine's Day thing, so pass the candy!
I own nothing. (Doreen from the cafeteria has, I believe, been accorded community property status at be_compromised.) Many thanks to Runawaymetaphor and Shenshen1977 for the extra eyes; whatever glitches are left are mine alone.
By Alpha Flyer
What the hell happened?
His head feels as if a herd of elephants is stampeding around on a wooden floor. It doesn't hurt, exactly, it's just … shuddering chaos; any effort to get a grip on the elephants, even just to make them line up and march in a circle, is futile. They sure as hell won't be doing tricks for him for a while yet.
Clint tries to open his eyes, but they seem to be glued shut, encrusted with dried tears or something. His attempt to rub them fails miserably, when the hand he is attempting to lift to his face meets with unexpected resistance.
He tries again, and becomes aware of a corresponding cutting pain in his wrist. His hand, no - both hands are restrained, secured by … something behind his back.
"What the fuck?" he growls in frustration, barely recognizing his own voice, and yanks sharply at the restraints.
Female voice. From somewhere immediately behind him. Familiar. One of the elephants in his brain stops stomping around, puts his foot on a stool and lifts his trunk in salute.
"Don' call me that, Barton," the slurred-but-determined protest confirms his suspicion. His partner, in the constantly annoying flesh. "Keep tellin' you …"
Clint shakes his head, trying to clear it of fog, circus metaphors and other extraneous matter. It's not easy, this shaking his head; he's lying on his side without access to his arms to lever himself up. Thank goodness his abdominals are in decent enough shape and he manages – sort of.
Slowly, slowly, his eyelids obey his commands and start to separate. He has to blink several times before they do stay open, revealing a small, starkly white and nearly empty room, with a high, narrow window that admits what light there is to be had. It's dusk outside; soon it will be dark.
The word appears unbidden from the recesses of his still-foggy mind. But whatever else he might have concocted by way of coherent thought processes is disrupted by something yanking at his arms with a sharp pull.
"Hey," he snarls. "I already tried that. Doesn't work."
"You tried it, Barton," the voice of the woman he handed over to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s good graces a mere four months ago - in a flash of apparently misplaced judgment - barely bothers to conceal her scorn. "I didn't."
"Ah, I get it. Handcuffs work differently on Russians, that it?"
She grunts, but doesn't deign to respond. Figures. She's still pissed off at him for barging in on that so-called 'interrogation' of hers, where that Belarussian mafioso and two of his henchmen were beating up on her until he came crashing through the window, on one of his grappling arrows, and put an end to the show. Two cracked ribs (his) and three dead goons (them) later, she yelled at him all the way back to the extraction site for interfering with her business and fucking up the mission.
They've barely spoken since, and their first and only sparring session – once he got the medical all-clear for his ribs – had been nasty, brutish and long, and the talk of S.H.I.E.L.D. He's been sparring with Sitwell since; who needs this shit, right? Sometimes he's even found himself wondering whether he made the right call, bringing her in instead of drilling an arrow into her larynx, that warm May evening in Tbilisi. The woman, however competent and attractive (wait … where'd that come from? shit…) is clearly not cut out for work that involves more than her own self.
Case in point, her next remark.
"Cut the sarcasm, Barton, and tell me what happened."
He manages a frown.
"No fucking clue. Was hoping you could tell me. We're in a storage locker, I think."
She sighs dramatically, like she's mustering the patience of the saint that she so very clearly isn't, and slams her right fist (and his hand with it) on the floor in frustration. He refuses to rise to the bait and swallows an instinctive protest. No one will call Clint Barton a whiner.
"I can see that. How did we get here?"
"Fuck if I know. I just woke up and …"
"Think, Barton, if you can. What's the last thing you remember?"
He frowns, almost tempted to call back the elephants to see whether they might have an answer, and tries to ignore her scrabbling at his back. What is she trying to accomplish?
"Mission. Quinjet. Headed for … Bogota? Narcotraficantes."
She holds still for a moment, then he feels her nod.
"Yes, that sounds right. But how long ago? And can you sit up? I'm tired of lying sideways on the floor."
Two questions at once is almost more than his foggy head can handle, but it seems to be getting better. He grates out an ill-tempered, "No fucking clue – seems like just a few hours ago – and yes, let's give that a try." Let her figure out the sequence of his response.
They spend the next few minutes in a not-so-silent struggle, trying first to force their respective abdominal muscles into roughly synchronous action, and then to lift themselves on their elbows. Neither move provides sufficient leverage to get up, but enough of a basis for a stream of invective from Clint and muttered complaints in Russian from Natasha, directed at each other as much as at the situation at hand.
As soon as one of them tries something to get up, the other gets pulled back down; this whole horizontal dance is probably a vastly amusing spectacle in a giant-bug-trapped-on-its-back kind of way, but it isn't really all that funny when you're the bug. By the time they're ready to give up, both of them have deep marks on their wrists to show for their useless efforts.
Time to send in the clowns. Clint grunts out, "Come closer."
Natasha, he knows, is immediately suspicious. Her personal space, when she's not sparring, hitting on a mark or carrying out an 'interrogation', is about a mile around and includes a lethal force field; at this point, Clint has been inside the perimeter too deep and too long already. It's a surprise that she hasn't found a way to kill him yet.
Well, Clint hasn't spent a lot of his childhood in school, but he did get to go on occasion and when he did, gym was his favourite (less catching up to do, plus he was good at it). And so he explains to her this exercise he remembers, the one where two people get up by using each other for back support. Maybe it works when you're lying sideways, too, if you put one hand on the floor?
Natasha has never heard of this thing and doesn't hesitate to voice her skepticism - in the Red Room, you did things for yourself, by yourself, if you relied on someone else you … well, never mind. You just … didn't.
Clint wisely suppresses the 'aha' moment this confession gives him.
"Let's just give it a try, Romanoff, shall we?"
It takes a couple of attempts but it's pretty obvious that it will work when they actually coordinate their movements. Pretty soon they are sitting upright – still on the floor, but leaning against each other's back and in a much better position to look around and take stock.
"I don't remember getting off the plane in Bogota," Clint resumes the previous thread as he scans the walls for entrances, cameras, listening devices, potential booby traps and other items of note. "Do you?"
Again, he can feel her shaking her head – soft hair sliding across his neck, back and forth, tickling a bit – and he wonders briefly why she couldn't just say no.
"I don't remember anything, after boarding the QuinJet."
"There a drug that can induce amnesia? I can't remember."
Natasha suppresses a snort and rattles off a list of likely pharmaceutical suspects, including a number Clint has never heard of.
"And those things can lop off your memory by up to how many days?"
She shrugs against his back. "Depends on your metabolism. One or two max."
Great. So how the hell would they know when S.H.I.E.L.D. will start – or may have started - initiating MIA protocols?
"Do you have any injuries?"
Her question comes as a surprise – it's the first time she has initiated a conversation since Minsk – but it makes sense. (Not in a caring, are-you-okay way, of course, but in a how-much-of-a-liability-are-you assessment). Clint takes mental inventory of his various appendages and other body parts, but apart from two smarting wrists and a residual chems-induced head-pounding, he seems to be intact.
"Don't think so."
"Which leaves us to try and figure out what they want."
"Whoever they are. Who were we after again?"
Natasha hesitates, and Clint finds a triumphant grin germinating on his face. At least he won't be getting a lecture about reading his briefing notes on the plane again; it's clear that she doesn't remember hers, either. She even concedes the point, what with the drugs as a convenient face-saver.
Which leaves their present environment to be explored for cues – something much better done without handcuffs, he suspects.
"Did they teach you any Houdini tricks in that Red Room of yours, Romanoff?" he asks. "Like, how to slip a pair of cuffs?"
"Some. It's easier when you can see them," Natasha replies. "We need to turn around."
"You know, so we face each other. Just stay where you are."
And before he knows it she pushes his wrists down on the ground so she can give her own hands full purchase on the floor and starts pushing herself into a reverse handstand. Of course it would have been nice if she'd told him what she was planning to do, but it doesn't take him long to figure out; he presses his own spine into a curve so as to create more room for her rear end to travel upward, while supplying the necessary support.
Before he's had a chance to contemplate the sensation of those lethal thighs sliding past the back of his head, she's done a graceful backflip that only rips his arms out of their sockets a little bit, and is now kneeling behind him. Their hands, needless to say, are still shackled together.
"Your turn," she declares imperiously.
"Emmm ... just how flexible do you think I am?" he asks, keeping his voice colourless as he tries to remember the last time he tried serious acrobatics, beyond swinging from things and balancing on ledges and stuff.
"However much it takes," she scoffs. "Just get it done, Barton. You're wasting time. Who knows when they're coming back?"
The next few minutes will probably not go down in the Clint Barton Hall Of Fame Of Memorable Feats Of Derring-do (except perhaps for that interesting few seconds where her face is briefly, all too briefly, buried in his crotch and he can't quite decide whether that's funny, embarrassing, or … something else). But surprisingly, his compact body is in better shape than he'd thought - must be the t'ai-chi – and remembers some of the things he used to do in the circus, back when. Who knew? Pulling through the tight hold of the chains does, however, require the temporary dislocation of one of his shoulders; he grits his teeth and does the necessary, and before long they're standing up, facing each other.
"Fuck, that hurts," he grimaces as Natasha clunks his shoulder back into place with a short, sharp yank and a look that almost resembles respect. He moves it around a bit and is glad to find that it seems to work; he may not be able to pull a bowstring for a couple of days, but in the absence of his bow that consideration is kind of academic anyway. Clint does, however, quietly resolve to build more flexibility exercises into his daily training regimen.
Now that they're facing each other, avoiding eye contact is proving impossible, as is ignoring the full-frontal close-up of her tight, slightly damp t-shirt. Shit, the Black Widow really is a beautiful woman, latent social skills notwithstanding. Worst of all is the overwhelming scent that suddenly fills Clint's senses. He's not sure what it is, a mixture of faint perfume residue (Issey Miyake, if he's not mistaken, one of his exes used that sometimes), adrenaline-induced sweat and a citrusy shampoo - but as a combination it's quite … distracting. He takes a deep, involuntary breath through flared nostrils.
Natasha is still inspecting the cuffs for weak points when Clint's nose suddenly starts to itch. The floor they'd been sitting on hasn't been swept for a while, and his features contort wildly in an effort to suppress a sneeze that will end up straight in her face.
"The easiest point to break this particular model is where the chain joins the cuff," Natasha observes. "We need to find a way to … hey! Barton! What the …"
Her protests fade as Clint buries his nose in his sleeve, Natasha's hand dangling in mid-air as he lets out a bellowing sneeze. She may not be happy about having her hand yanked up like that, but at least the fall-out is limited.
"Sorry," he says. "You were saying?"
"Never mind," she glares back, but with slightly less fire in her eyes than there has been these last three weeks. "Идиот. We need an instrument of some kind to break the chain."
Together – more or less – they wander around the storage space, but unfortunately it's been recently cleared out, and all there is to be found is a pile of empty cardboard boxes and a pile of cleaning rags. Not a screwdriver, crowbar, or hammer in sight. Not even a broom for Black Widow to fly away on. Go figure, huh.
But then the epiphany strikes, as Clint realizes why his sneeze would have ended up in her face rather than in her hair, despite their height difference.
"Your heels," he says, careful to keep all hints of smugness out of his voice. His is the high road, he's decided. "They're not standard issue, are they?"
Of course they're not – no more so than his own. When your feet become weapons, your heels better be solid steel. Hers are, however, a lot narrower than those on his combat boots and will deliver a sharper punch.
"Not bad, Barton," she allows. "They're not stilettos, but they should do. Get down on your knees and put your hands on the floor."
This whole scenario is getting to be just a bit much for Clint, and he can't help himself. He just … can't … and fuck the high road.
"Yes, Mistress," he says, his tone utterly meek as he sinks down on the floor. "Which one would you like me to lick first?"
"Not. Funny. Barton." she growls, although there may actually be a glint of humour in it. She stomps on the chain-to-cuff link, again and again. The limited leverage she gets makes things a bit ineffective, and by the time she manages to knock one chain off her own wrist is scratched up considerably, while his is a bloody mess.
"You okay?" she asks, ignoring him as he cocks an eyebrow at the unwonted concern.
"Just ducky," he says, shaking his suddenly free left hand. "Gimme that shoe."
She hesitates for only the briefest of seconds, before peeling it off, handing it to him and getting down on her knees beside him. With Clint able to use the heel as a proper hammer, and the force of his bow-strengthened biceps behind each carefully targeted stroke, the second chain is split off its anchor much more easily.
"There," he says, handing back the shoe and straightening himself out. He floats into a few t'ai-chi patterns just to work the kinks out of his back, arms and shoulders - especially his shoulders. He stops when he feels Natasha's green eyes on him.
"What?" He asks, suddenly and inexplicably self-conscious.
"T'ai-chi," she says, swallowing a little. "I've always wanted to learn that. It looks … interesting. They never taught us that…"
Of course not – the lethal version of t'ai chi is nowhere near as efficient as other martial arts, and there are other stretching exercises that don't require a great deal of teaching. More to the point, helping ground someone's soul through their body's movements was probably not a high priority for an organization willing to clean the mental slate with chems and a good brainwashing.
"I can teach you sometime, if you'd like."
Now where did that come from? Surely not from the guy who's been avoiding his so-called partner in the gym for the last three weeks?
"I'd … like that."
Huh. How about that?
"Deal. Now all we have to do is get the fuck out of here."
Natasha watches the archer as he kneels down again and taps the floor with his knuckles. She is more than glad that they are able to keep their distance from each other now. She isn't used to close physical proximity with anyone other than a mark, and this most recent encounter has left her a little troubled. She straightens her shoulders a little as if to shake off the feel of Barton's muscles against her back, and the intimate closeness they had to go through to free themselves from those cuffs.
She's a woman and not blind, and just as she has felt Clint Barton's gaze raking her own body on occasion, she is quite aware that his is one of the best torsos in S.H.I.E.L.D. But bodies, she has learned, are instruments, tools; her speculation to date has been limited to the uses she might put his to in the context of a mission.
And then he danced the t'ai chi for those few moments, and the unconscious grace and power with which he carved those patterns into the bare space of their prison reminded her of the pleasures she herself had once taken in the ballet. Before the ballet, too, had become just another means to an end, another one of her special skills. Taking pleasure in her body – or a man's, for that matter - is simply not in her vernacular.
So whatever made her ask him to teach her that dance she may never know, but she did ask, and he said yes, and now the question cannot be unasked.
Focus, Romanoff, she tells herself and starts examining her part of the room.
"Metal flooring," he disrupts her train of thought. Just as well, probably. "Painted steel plates, riveted, covered in rubber."
"Metal walls," she calls out from the other side of the room, after a quick couple of knocks. "Ceiling too, it looks like."
Clint casts an expert eye on the ceiling, and he seems to be talking to himself more than to her when he muses, "Most metal constructions are modular. That means potential weak spots, panels, openings."
She is content to let him have the lead in this analysis; her specialty is people. To her surprise, she finds herself watching as his oddly coloured eyes scan the ceiling inch by inch; she can see them flash briefly in triumph. There.
"Duct panel." He points straight up. "Gimme a boost."
She appreciates the fact that he wasted no time to discuss what they should do (it's obvious – get out of the room), or even to question whether she'd be strong enough to lift him to the ceiling (they've sparred enough for him to know that she is.) Knowing what needs to be done and getting on with it – she can live with that.
She cups her hands and he puts one foot in, placing the other on her shoulder as she straightens her legs in a proper lift. Once she stands straight, he lightly places the second foot on her other shoulder before settling his weight across both. His balance is perfect; she wonders inconsequentially how many human pyramids he may have been part of during his unconventional adolescence. In any event, there is no need for a painful adjustment of his feet, once his hands push against the panel he has identified.
It slides aside easily and the opening beckons; clearly, Clint cannot resist. One quick push off her shoulders, a chin-up, a swing of his legs, and he's gone. She barely has time to wonder what she should do next when he reappears, hanging upside down, legs spread wide and knees braced against the opening, as if he was dangling off a trapeze. He stretches his arms out in silent invitation, and she jumps up, suppressing a yelp when he jerks her upward further after a moment to grip her lower arms; she recognizes belatedly that this is to keep her hands free so she can use them.
Talk about the body being a tool. Natasha gains a completely new appreciation for the archer's abdominal muscles as he slowly lifts himself – lifts her – towards that opening in the ceiling until she can grip the rim with her own hands.
"Got it?" he huffs; seems the trapeze act is not quite as easy for him as he makes it look – especially after that voluntary dislocation of his right shoulder - and for some reason that makes her feel better. When she grunts in the affirmative, he lets go of her arms, hanging loose again to stay out of her way until she has levered herself up and into what turns out to be a ventilation shaft.
The shaft is just wide enough to admit a human body, with a couple of inches to spare in every direction to enable crawling on elbows and knees. Natasha scrabbles backward to make room for Clint; she watches silently as he pulls himself back in, slides back on his stomach and carefully puts the ceiling panel back in its place.
"Fuck," he breathes. "You're heavier than you look. Must be all those pierogis, huh."
She rolls her eyes, although somehow his habit of cracking lousy jokes at inopportune times doesn't seem quite so annoying anymore.
"Whereto now?" she asks, instead of rising to the bait.
"Well, that depends," he says over his shoulder. His voice suddenly sounds pensive, almost as if he is trying to solve a puzzle as he speaks.
"Depends on what? Communicate, Barton."
"I recognize this setup. Where we go now depends on exactly why we ended up here, and what we might need to do about it."
He takes a deep breath before continuing.
"We're not in Bogota, Romanoff. We're still on the helicarrier."
Natasha curses in Russian. It's an impressive and complex phrase that involves an obscure saint, a small legion of demons and a strong element of anatomical experimentation. She watches Clint's eyebrows rise as he visibly resolves to ask her to teach it to him, presumably for the next time they have a date with the Russian mafia. (She just might, if it stops him from interfering in her work.)
"Are you sure?" she asks, trying to make sense of this statement. She doesn't doubt that he's correct; he has lived on the carrier for much longer than she has, and exploring his environment into its last detail seems to be in his nature. It's probably a miracle he didn't recognize the storage closet.
"Yep. What I don't know, obviously, is what happened – but it explains why we can't remember anything past getting on the QuinJet. For all we know, we never left."
Natasha thinks this through.
"Either the carrier has been taken over by hostiles and we were taken prisoner, or someone from inside S.H.I.E.L.D. is playing some sort of game that requires us to be side-lined," she muses, her chin on her hands as she finds herself staring at the soles of his feet before her, and his distractingly well-shaped rear beyond. Focus, Romanoff …
"Hill. Hill or Fury."
Clint turns his head, looking down the length of his own body until he catches her eyes.
"They're either in on this scenario, in which case we can crack their files and find out why they're fucking with us, or they've been taken hostage too, in which case someone else might be in their office. I vote we go there. One-stop-shopping for clarity."
"Go there? You mean crawl."
Natasha is not thrilled at the prospect of rubbing her elbows raw on painted metal for the next hour, but it's as good a plan as any and try as she might, she can't come up with anything better. She sighs in resignation.
"Lead on, Barton. Assuming you know where the hell you're going."
"Not yet I don't, but I should be able to get my bearings at one of the next nodes," he replies and is on his way, not waiting to check whether she'll follow. She does.
As it turns out, the architect – if that's the right term for whoever designed Fury's Flying Fortress – was big on labeling things, as were the engineers who put in pipes and electricity lines. Even better, at the second major intersection, which is actually large enough that they can both sit up side by side and rest their elbows for a bit –what amounts to a blueprint is conveniently taped to the wall.
Clint makes an obscure comment about this being just like the Jeffries tubes on the Enterprise, but before Natasha can berate him for going ADD on her with obscure cultural references, his calloused finger stabs at something.
"There," he says, failing to conceal the smugness in his voice. "Hill's office. Fury is way too smart to have ducts right over his lair; she probably doesn't even know they exist."
Natasha leans over his arm to take a look; he shifts a little to accommodate her beside him.
"And look, it leads right over one of the weapons lockers by the target range," she points out. "Let's make a pit stop."
"I like the way you think, Romanoff," he replies grimly as he rips the map off the wall, folds it up and sticks it in his pocket. If there are bad guys onboard the carrier – although if there were, surely they'd have heard shooting by now? – the last thing they need to be handed is a free map to the ship's innards. (It's a surprise corporate security hasn't removed these things, but then again he's given those guys lists of the ship's weaknesses on a number of occasions and been resoundingly ignored. Someday, someone will bring this sucker down.)
Target acquired, they move on without further discussion, with Natasha in front now given the new direction; she doesn't need the map, having memorized the layout quickly.
Ten minutes and a descent into a deserted weapons locker later, Clint is the happy owner of a small recurve practice bow and a quiver full of regular arrows. His special arrows are being stored somewhere else, but he makes up for the lack of explosives with a silenced Beretta in his belt; Natasha absently strokes the pair of Glocks that are now strapped to her waist.
They briefly discuss the advantage of continuing through the corridors rather than the ventilation ducts, given the apparent absence of activity, but Natasha think that's equally a recipe for early discovery. With a heavy sigh, Clint climbs back up; at least this time, they can start off a piece of furniture and save his shoulder some grief.
Five minutes later, they have reached their destination – the office of the Deputy Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Maria Hill. And for the first time, they hear voices.
"You know this could backfire rather spectacularly. And it will."
"I fail to see the problem, Agent Coulson. They both agreed to their participation in this exercise. I have their signed consent forms in my filing cabinet."
"They consented to a future 'trust exercise,' carried out under the supervision of a competent, qualified psychologist."
"Which is exactly what this is, I assure you. I will concede that their consent did not specify the format of the exercise, but unpredictability is part of the nature of these things. If Barton or Romanoff had known the details in advance, either or both of them would have simply manipulated the outcome, probably so they could put the blame for Minsk on the other."
There is silence in the room below; the look Clint sends in Natasha's direction could melt the ducts in a ten-foot radius, but it's not aimed at her; instead, it ricochets off the walls.
Below, Coulson resumes an argument that he has clearly rehearsed well before marching into Hill's office.
"Yes, Deputy Director, and I agreed with your proposal to have my assets undergo additional training to … emm … improve the quality of their partnership. Clearly, after Minsk some form of intervention was called for. Even they conceded that.
He hesitates briefly, before adding something, presumably in the interest of full disclosure; let no one accuse Phil Coulson of anything less than pinpoint accuracy.
"Individually, of course, and only to me. Not to each other."
Natasha and Clint exchange furtive glances that, if analyzed under a high-powered microscope, might just contain trace elements of an apology. Phil resumes, his normally gentle voice slightly elevated now.
"But drugging and handcuffing them to each other, without actual and informed consent as to the nature of this so-called exercise is not what I – or, dare I say it, they - had in mind as a means to salvage their partnership. It's also a violation of numerous codes of conduct I believe, and Grierson and Pyke should be suspended pending an investigation of their methods."
Hill doesn't sound the least bit defensive.
"For some reason that escapes me, Director Fury decided that Agents Barton and Romanoff would make good partners. I disagreed. I warned him. They are, respectively, the single two most difficult individuals – and I use that term advisedly - in this agency. If they are to function as a team, which I highly doubt they ever will, they will need to be made to understand the true bond of partnership in a way that gets through their very peculiar heads. Grierson and Pyke have come up with a method, and I personally approved it. This exercise will be seen through to its conclusion."
Phil must be smiling now; they can hear it in his voice - that bland, vaguely sinister accountant's smile he gets when he is about to announce the impending cancellation of the universe.
"For the record, Deputy Director, and with all due respect, this method is lunacy and the results cannot be predicted. You … have no idea what you are dealing with."
Hill's voice comes back, cool and officious.
"Your objections have been duly noted, Agent Coulson. And now, if you please, I am needed elsewhere, as you well know. Dismissed."
The door shuts, presumably after Phil, then after a minute or so again as Hill leaves. Silence reigns below; not so much in the ductwork above, where Clint is spitting invective.
"Fuck. Fucking Maria Fucking Hill. Fucking psych babble exercise shit. Why the hell did we let them talk us into this farce? Assuming we actually did, which I still don't fucking remember?"
Natasha heroically refrains from commenting on his unimaginative vocabulary – obviously he has to let off some steam - but she does have an answer to a part of his question.
"Well," she says pointedly, almost sounding a bit like Maria Hill, "even you apparently didn't deny there are problems with this partnership. You did ruin my interrogation in Minsk because you didn't trust me to handle it, and barged in without a by-your-leave, thereby effectively ruining the mission. Trust issues, Barton. Crystal clear."
"Hey!" Barton's voice has acquired a bit of a growl. "You were tied to a chair and about to get your face smashed in by a six-foot-five goon with brass knuckles. You obviously don't trust me to have enough sense to figure out when to intervene. Inability to rely on your partner's judgment, that's yourproblem."
For a moment there, green bale fire threatens to ignite between them as they glare at each other until, suddenly … Clint's eyes scrunch up in a surrender Natasha never expected, at least not that soon (it's only been three weeks…) or in quite this form. His shoulders start to shake as he drops his head on his hands, and he is practically wracked with laughter by the time she catches on and starts to giggle herself.
"Okay, so maybe … maybe Coulson has a point," she concedes, almost breathless, and pointedly ignoring the ostentatious waggle with which Clint's eyebrows respond to her concession.
"Yeah, we have been a tad … stubborn. Although that doesn't excuse just how they tried to get us to play nice, does it."
Natasha nods, sober again. This is the third or fourth time now that they've actually agreed on something; it's fast becoming a habit.
"I doubt we were even actually 'supervised'," she muses, "Or else they would have stopped you from injuring yourself. This isn't the Red Room. Or at least, so I was told when I joined up. By you, as I recall."
It's Clint's turn to ignore the gratuitous little jibe.
"Yeah, someone should have noticed by now that we're gone, too, and told Hill. Probably those psych types figured we'd be out from the drugs a lot longer than we were. I mean, it's only been what, since we woke up? An hour and a bit?"
Natasha nods, all business now.
"That sounds about right. I wonder just how long we were out for. We both remember getting on the QuinJet. Do you remember when that was? Or at least, what day?"
"Well," Clint frowns in concentration, as he tries to dredge information up from behind the slowly dissipating fog provided by S.H.I.E.L.D.'s latest psycho-pharmaceutical experiment, "Last thing I remember was I grabbed a java in the caff. Didn't want to take my mug on the plane."
Natasha rolls her eyes at the extraneous information. Barton and his beloved coffee cup. "And?"
"And Doreen was standing on one of the tables, hanging up garlands and some kind of garish decorations. Heart-shaped balloons and shit. For Hill's Valentine's Party." That last he says with a note of triumph in his voice.
"Valentine's Party?" Natasha visibly searches her inventory for information, draws a blank.
"February 14. Holiest of holy days for the chocolate and greeting card industries. Surely you have that in Russia? The day to celebrate the bonds of love and friendship? Hill seems to think theme parties are a morale builder, show how much of a family we are at S.H.I.E.L.D., shit like that. Straight out of some Harvard-produced yuppie HR manual, no doubt. I usually try to get the hell out of Dodge that day; thought I'd lucked out with Bogota."
"She did say she had to be somewhere," Natasha is – oddly – thinking out loud now, almost as if she intended to include Clint in her ruminations.
"The party!" he responds immediately. "It's still the fourteenth. We haven't been out that long at all. The party must be in full swing now; explains why no one is around. They're either there, or in voluntary exile."
They are both silent for a moment, trying to figure out what to do with this information, which in and of itself is not actually all that helpful in terms of pointing them towards any possible next steps. But then Clint breaks out into a small grin. It's of a kind Natasha hasn't seen before, somewhere on the demonic spectrum between impish and pure malice.
"They want us to improve our ability to cooperate effectively, right? Well, I say we declare this experiment a rousing success, and show 'em we can."
"What do you have in mind?"
Natasha asks, more curious than suspicious, which is in itself a win. Clint's response, in turn, is as dramatic as he can make it while lying flat on his belly inside a steel tube.
"Avenge the almost innocent."
Now, Natasha has done more than her share of seriously nasty things in her life, but doing any of them for purely personal gratification – that's an entirely new concept. She mulls the idea over for about five seconds, glancing over her still-bleeding wrists and the way her partner is still favouring his right shoulder, and the answer is really surprisingly simple.
"I like it."
With Hill having headed off for her blasted party, her office is as good a place as any to wreak some mayhem. Clint slides the access panel aside and jumps down with the grace of a large cat. When Natasha follows, he reaches out automatically to steady her, earning himself a small glare in the process. (The fact that his arms feel surprisingly … nice around her waist is something Natasha vows to take with her to her grave.)
Clint cracked Hill's access code some time ago; by way of explanation, he mutters something about the occasional need to make adjustments to his personnel file. Armed with that information it takes Natasha less than a minute to call up the payroll.
Seamus Grierson (Psy.D., Harvard 2008) and Paul Pyke (Ph.D., Harvard 2009), will doubtlessly be surprised to find their S.H.I.E.L.D. paychecks drastically reduced as of the following Friday. Natasha cruelly advocates a complete cut-off, but Clint thinks that might be a bit harsh; they do have to eat, and they may have pets.
"Janitorial staff pay," he suggests from the console where he is currently occupying himself, and when Natasha raises a questioning eyebrow he elaborates:
She nods her understanding and punches in the necessary commands with dancing fingers, but stops short at the end.
"Hey, Barton? They want the name of the person authorizing regular payment," she calls out. "Who should I put in? Hill or Fury?"
Clint considers this for a moment. Impersonating a senior officer is a bit dicey, and there really is no need to conceal the source. In fact, doing so might be counter-productive.
"Put in 'The Avengers'," he grins. "Let them figure it out."
A couple of taps later, and Natasha frowns.
"The program won't take the 'the'. It wants something that looks more like a name, I guess. How about "Avengers Initiative'? That has a nice ring."
She moves on to erasing the records of Grierson's and Pyke's degrees from the data base at Harvard, while Clint finishes tapping in a series of commands that cause a schematic of the helicarrier to fill the room.
He wanders over and studies it intently, moving his fingers across certain parts in the midsection. Her work done, Natasha comes to join him.
"Hill's Party," he says.
"What about Hill's Party?"
"Let's make it a memorable one. Ever hear of the Valentine's Day Massacre?"
Natasha is slightly taken aback. She gets that Clint's shoulder hurts and he's angry; she's seriously pissed herself. But to go postal on his friends and colleagues? That seems a bit out of character for him.
"You seriously want to go in and kill…"
He stares at her in hurt disbelief.
"Who said anything about killing anyone, Romanoff? I work with these people. I just want to … I dunno … spritz things up a bit."
He shrugs, and stabs a calloused index finger at the three-dimensional schematic he has called up.
"Here's the caff," he says. "And here's … the sprinkler system."
She contemplates this for a moment, scrunching her eyes a little. No explanation necessary.
"That'll work. Can that be triggered remotely?"
"I think so. Need to figure out how to keep the area over the bar and the food display dry though."
"Doreen always makes baklava for these dos, and this has nothing to do with her. Besides, they're better when they're crisp." Clint looks at her sideways. "I heard her mention something about pierogies the other day."
Natasha won't admit to sharing her partner's concerns, of course, but it doesn't take her long to figure out how to keep the deluge localized. Finger poised over the keyboard, she turns to him with an utterly artless smile that makes his gut clench a little.
"How long? Five minutes?"
"One should do. Water pressure is pretty powerful, as I recall."
Clint uses the stopwatch feature on his Rolex Submariner – the only serious luxury he has ever indulged in, apart from his sound system – to signal the cut-off; working together seamlessly, they log out and turn off all the computer systems.
Natasha points wordlessly at the open ceiling panel.
"Nah. I'd like to see Hill point the finger at us for this." He makes a show of massaging his sore shoulder. "She'd have some 'splainin' of her own to do. Fury will have her hide if he needs my bow for a mission next couple of days."
Natasha shrugs; that makes sense.
"Party time?" she asks.
"Party time," he nods.
Clint unconsciously puts his fingers on the small of Natasha's back as he escorts her out of Hill's office and towards the cafeteria; her skin tingles a little at his touch, but she lets it be.
When they arrive at the S.H.I.E.L.D. cafeteria, the floor is covered with an inch of water, and dozens of dripping agents are milling about wondering what the hell happened and whether they can leave already. The paper garlands are a mash of melting rainbows and some of the heart-shaped balloons are bleeding red dye onto the linoleum.
The scene is one of pretty near utter chaos, except for the food and bar areas where Doreen The Luncheon Queen, and Jasper Sitwell, who'd been roped into bar tending detail, were spared the sudden downpour. As, apparently was Coulson, who'd been waiting for Sitwell to pour him a stiff scotch, and who is now surveying the carnage in a suit that is as pristine and immaculate as ever.
Evans is up on one of the tables examining the sprinkler for obvious defects; finding none, he shrugs and hops off to report to a drenched and seething Maria Hill.
"Seems okay," he says. "Looks like a temporary glitch, maybe in the computer system. Not here. Do you wish to cancel the party, Deputy Director?"
Hill looks around the room, her imperious posture almost – but not quite - concealing an element of uncertainty. A couple of the junior agents have started to use the waterlogged linoleum as an improvised skating rink, resulting in a curtain of spray that hits her squarely in the chest. Things have actually livened up, compared to previous years.
Her sharp, grey eyes slide over to the main entrance, where a bone-dry Barton and Romanoff are striding in side-by-side, armed to the teeth and broken handcuffs adorning each wrist. By all appearances they are utterly unsurprised by the mayhem before them, and give every indication that they own the place.
Barton stops in the middle of the floor and turns to Romanoff, his manacled hand raised high. Hill can practically see Romanoff's mind scroll through the file, Arcane North American Gestures (Subsection: Triumphant), and come to the conclusion that this must be the famous High Five. She slaps Barton's hand with hers, the remainder of their handcuffs lending a certain tinkling piquancy to the proceedings. Next, Romanoff heads to the food table to load up a plate with pierogies and baklava
while Barton wanders over to the bar to fetch drinks.
Now, if there is one thing you can say about Maria Hill, it's that she is pretty good at the basic arithmetic of cause and effect. And another thing: she is not easily defeated, or at least when she is, she won't admit it.
"The party may as well go on," she announces through pinched lips. "I have every confidence that the sprinkler problem has now been resolved."
Evans just shrugs, and heads over to the bar with squelching shoes to pass the news.
A few minutes later, Clint and Natasha meet up by a small table in the middle of the floor, having warded off several inquiries apiece as to the origin of their unusual bracelets.
"The latest in spy chic," Clint tells Nora from Accounting as he breezes by. "Pretty soon, everyone will be wearing them."
He hands Natasha her Cape Cod, sets his beer down on the table and plucks a pierogi off her plate (they go slightly better with beer than baklava). For a moment, they eat in companionable silence, while everybody gives them a wide berth. Hawkeye with a bow and quiver on his back and Black Widow with a pair of Glocks on her hips are a sinister sight at the best of times; with shredded manacles around blood-encrusted wrists they are positively foreboding.
Natasha swallows her pierogi and asks, "You think Hill will try and make us do more trust exercises? She's glaring at us."
Clint remains silent, scanning the room as if he were facing a tactical grid. Natasha is right. Something is missing - Hill is down, but not out. No victory is a good victory, if the enemy can get back on their feet.
Then it hits him. Valentine's. Of course.
"Kiss me," he says.
Natasha's hand pauses en route to a baklava.
"Huh?" she manages to croak out.
Clint points at the heart overhead.
"Valentine equivalent of the mistletoe, Romanoff. Fraternization rules versus trust issues. Can't have 'em both thrown at us at the same time."
Clint doesn't get to elaborate any further. His partner takes a step forward and snakes both her hands around his neck, gripping his short hair and pulling his head down. Before he has realized that getting to 'yes' is a done deal, he finds himself embroiled in the most scorching kiss he can remember since … since … well, ever, actually.
Natasha is, of course, a professional, but Clint is no slouch either when it comes to things physical. His fingertips resting lightly on her waist, the dangling remains of one of the cuffs grazing her rounded hips, he gives as good as he gets, tongue and all. The result is pure, filthy, blazing heat in the middle of that man-made lake; when they eventually pull apart - after a rather longer time than either of them had intended - they are both out of breath and just a little flushed.
The room, meanwhile, has fallen so silent that you could hear a pin splash. You can make out Sitwell's voice, whispering to Miyazaki that maybe it's time to reconfigure the S.H.I.E.L.D. pool; it'll no longer be about which of the two will kill the other first. He'll figure out the odds overnight.
Clint seeks refuge in his beer; Natasha reaches for her drink as well.
"So, Barton," she says, with just a little huskiness in her voice, but a growing twinkle in her eyes. "You think that was convincing enough to get us out of our current … sea of troubles?"
He raises his beer to her in a mock salute.
"You know, Romanoff, even if it wasn't - I can't get myself to give a dam."
"So what do you think of the future of Delta Team, sir?"
Agent Phil Coulson turns to Nick Fury, who has breezed into the cafeteria not so much in search of recreation and intra-agency bonding, as he is of a target. In Hill's absence, two of the Council-appointed psychologists have come to his office in a panic to confess that they had lost the subjects of their latest 'trust exercise'. Their explanation as to its nature had come as an … unpleasant surprise.
Fury casts a one-eyed concentrated glare around the room, first at Maria Hill (who is pretending to be chatting up Doreen and ignoring the water running down her tight bun), and then at his supposedly missing assets. The latter are currently clinking their glasses together in what looks like a rather smug victory display.
Coulson tries again.
"Do they pass, sir?"
Fury remains silent for a moment, checking to see whether his leather coat is in any danger of getting wet. It is not.
"Yeah, they pass," he snarls, but there's no real venom behind it.
"Heaven help us all."