This one is for the_nita because she inexplicably makes podfic of my stories (and is super-awesome independently of that, too). Love you, bb! Hope this fits what you were looking for!
"If you think you can bat your eyelashes to get out of this one, you're woefully mistaken."
The man had already put one arrow through her shoulder, and he had another nocked and leveled at her face. His keen gaze hadn't moved from his target, and he hadn't so much as blinked - she wouldn't put it past him to release it. He was obviously no amateur.
She wasn't about to try anything anyway. She was done playing the little cat and mouse game they'd been at for the past few weeks. She was tired, too - tired of the shit her handlers made her do, tired of playing nice with the people that she was sent to kill, tired of the whole damn world. She was sick of making decisions, well past ready to let this man with his blue eyes to decide for her.
So no, she wasn't going to try to flirt her way out of this. He'd caught her fair and square. Time to pay the piper.
She narrowed her eyes, realizing what had been bothering her about this whole thing.
"Don't you have a gun?" she asked.
To his credit, the blond man chuckled heartily, even though he didn't take his eyes off her or relax his pose.
"Arrows are silent, and they can do more than just kill," he said. Something unidentifiable flickered through his steady gaze when he added, "I'm a better shot with a bow."
Yeah, she'd noticed.
She'd also noticed other things since she'd first spotted him tailing her in Berlin. He was quick, quicker than most, and he could blend into the background almost as well as she did. Since he'd caught up with her about twenty minutes ago, she'd started to notice other things about him, like how he managed to make her feel comfortable even though she had a goddamn arrow in her shoulder, one that he'd shot from an unbelievable distance to pinion her to the alley wall.
He was unsettling.
He could have killed her already, probably should have, but instead he was talking to her like she was a person instead of a mark, giving her information that she could use against him if she chose, things like the fact that he was a better shot with a bow than a gun. Coming from anyone else, she might label that a fatal mistake, but she got the impression that he wasn't the sort to miss his target. She'd never come across a better shot, herself included.
He was still looking at her, and she forced herself not to squirm. The look he was giving her was too knowing, too honest. She wasn't used to either. Nor was she used to the sort of offer he'd laid out before her, but she couldn't help but believe in its genuineness.
He repeated that offer now.
"Come in with me."
If she'd surprised herself by realizing that she believed him, she surprised herself even more when she realized that she actually wanted to take him up on it.
"Tell me why I should," she said, hoping that maybe he could give her a good reason for what she was feeling right now because one certainly wasn't coming from her. Maybe he could give her the reason why she would want to defect to whatever covert ops group he worked for.
His eyes were too sharp, too incisive, and he said, "Because you are tired of not knowing why you're killing all those people. Because you stopped believing in the good of your work sometime after they ordered you to kill that girl in Kiev. Because you didn't want to kill that kid any more than you wanted to set fire to that hospital in Brazil."
Her eyes had widened as he spoke, as she realized just how long he'd been on her tail, how long he'd been watching with her none the wiser. She'd underestimated him; Brazil was almost two months ago, and Ukraine longer than that. He was good. Damn good. Maybe as good as she was.
That didn't mean she didn't want to make him work a little more to secure her agreement.
"You'll never be able to trust me," she said, letting her native language color her words more than she usually did, drawing attention to their differences. "I am a spy. Russian."
The man smirked and lowered his bow as if he knew that he'd already won.
He reached for the arrow holding her to the brick, catching her eyes and nodding before he snapped the shaft between her shoulder and the wall.
Biting her cheek until it bled, she sagged from the pain. She hoped whoever he worked for had a decent medical staff. Even with her enhancements, a wound like this could easily put her out of commission for good.
She was concentrating so hard on the pain and consequences that it took her a solid ten seconds to realize that she was free. It then took her five more to realize that she should kick him in the head and knock him on his ass, but even if she hadn't already decided that she was done with the Red Room and he was her best shot at getting away for good, her curiosity was piqued.
She wanted to hear what he had to say.
"I think maybe you were Russian, but now you're looking to be something else," he said, and it was a stupid statement, but wholly true. She knew what he meant, at least, which was what mattered. Any one who'd been on her tail as long as he'd been would know that she'd have already killed him if she didn't agree on some level.
He handed her a compression bandage he'd pulled from one of the many pockets on his tac vest.
"I think you're tired."
"Oh?" she asked, meaning both nothing and everything.
He paused before he continued, considering his words as he sized her up. A wise decision on his part, given that she could still walk. It wasn't too late. Not by a long shot. Not for someone like her.
"Let's just say that I know a thing or two about accumulated debt. I know how much it takes to get your accounts into the black. If you can at all."
She raised an eyebrow, almost feeling offended. "So what, then? I'm atonement for you? For your Sao Paulo?"
The though made her itch.
He shook his head and pulled out a handset. "No. I just think everyone's got red in their ledger, and we deserve the chance to wipe it out."
He let that thought simmer for a moment before shaking the radio questioningly.
This was it, then. Point of no return. She'd be a traitor ever after if she said yes. A pariah. Kill on sight.
She looked at the man with the stone age weapon and the too-sharp eyes.
"Two for extraction."
Later, after she'd learned his name (Barton) and who he worked for (SHIELD), she ended up drugged and handcuffed to a cot in the infirmary on a mobile carrier while she recovered. Even if Barton was good enough to catch her and bring her in, she was pretty sure these SHIELD guys had no idea just how enhanced her physiology was, else they would have given her a stronger dose of sedatives.
No matter (though more painkillers would have been nice).
Barton had been in a couple times to see her, looking something like a lost puppy. She wasn't sure what that meant, except that she could use it to her advantage if she needed to – and she really hoped she didn't. She liked Barton. She hadn't liked another human being since . . . maybe ever.
Today he was joined by another man, the same one who'd been waiting on the tarmac when they'd landed on this flying monstrosity two days ago. She hadn't caught his name, but names weren't important. They rarely told you anything about a person, anyway.
She'd been feigning sleep for the better part of an hour by the time Barton came in, and maybe it was the drugs, but she didn't really feel the need to squeeze him for intel (she wasn't planning to leave, but neither was she stupid). She almost felt guilty doing it to him, like she owed him something, but that was a stupid thought.
All the same, she'd try the nurses later. They seemed more sympathetic, at any rate. Probably because they hadn't watched her take out a unit of well-armed guards in the DRC.
The sleeping ruse must have been working, though, because Barton and the other guy were talking as if she weren't there.
"She's your responsibility," the suited man threatened. Barton obviously didn't take it as such.
"Fine," he said.
"Fury is going to put you on training detail for months."
Natasha knew the name, and she wasn't at all surprised to hear it. Nick Fury was one hell of a persistent thorn in the side of her former employers.
Well, at least she'd picked the right group when she defected.
"I like training detail," Barton said.
The two men were quiet then, so quiet that she almost risked opening her eyes to see if they were still there.
Then the suited man spoke.
"Please tell me you didn't sleep with her."
Barton laughed, a pleasant rumble that started somewhere deep in his chest and echoed in the tiny observation room.
"I was too busy chasing her down, and she was too busy running." As an afterthought, Barton added, "Sir."
"Be that as it may, I am too familiar with your reaction to a pretty face," came the mild reply.
"You saying I can't stay on task, sir?" Barton asked, voice filled with mock outrage.
The suited man ignored it.
"So this isn't some elaborate plan to sleep with her?"
Natasha could hear the incredulity in the other man's voice. She barely dared to breathe as she waited for Barton's response. If she were being honest, she kind of expected that was his reason, too. Men always wanted to sleep with her. Always. It was what made her so damn good at her job.
She'd kind of been hoping that Barton was different, though. That she'd seen a likeness in his eyes when he talked with her back in that alley. That he sat at her bedside while she recovered because he was worried about her.
She would try not to be disappointed when he let her down.
"No, sir, it's not. I just wanted to return the favor," Barton said, and she relaxed a little.
"Return the favor?"
"Yeah. See, once upon a time, there was this washed up sideshow act who'd gotten his ass into trouble one too many times," Barton said. It wasn't hard to figure out who he meant. "He got pinched by this big, secret government agency, and if it weren't for the intervention of one of their top agents, he'd still be rotting away in prison. Or worse."
The other man coughed to cover his chuckle. "I'm hardly a top agent, Barton."
"Call it like I see it, sir." She could hear the shrug in Barton's voice.
A call for Barton came in over the intercom then, and he rushed off, ending what was shaping up to be a very interesting conversation. She figured the other man left, too, but she wasn't one to take chances. Better safe than sorry. She was tired anyway. She could sleep.
"I know you're awake."
She opened her eyes.
"Good," he said. "I'm Agent Coulson, by the way. If you make it through the evaluation period, you'll be working with me."
She didn't say anything, but that didn't bother Coulson.
"Welcome to SHIELD, Ms. Romanoff."
Natasha knew the two new recruits hadn't seen her when they began talking. Neither of them were stupid (they wouldn't be here if they were), but the ambitious one, Johnson would have had more tact had seen seen Natasha sitting at the metal table around the corner. It was good to know she hadn't gotten soft since joining SHIELD.
Ok, well, maybe a little. It did take her the better part of a minute to figure out who they were talking about, though maybe that said more about their familiarity with the topic than Natasha's skill as a spy.
"So, do you think he does it on purpose?" the blonde one, Morse asked. Natasha could hear her moving things around on her plastic food tray. The sound of cellophane crinkling and the telltale scent of salt and grease told her that Morse was having chips with her salad.
Shit, Natasha thought, looking unhappily down at her plate. I should have gotten that.
She really needed to break herself of the habit of getting hot food just because it was available.
Johnson asked, "The whole 'I'm too sexy for sleeves' thing?"
"Yeah. To distract the unsuspecting, you know?"
Morse and Johnson shared a laugh, and it was then that it dawned on Natasha precisely who they meant.
Of course it was Barton. She'd been making fun of his workout attire from the moment she got here, though she didn't think he would ever change. Idiot.
Well, idiot with nice arms. If they weren't partners . . .
Morse echoed the sentiment with her next words. "If I weren't his subordinate . . ."
Johnson laughed. "As if! What do you think would happen, really? You really think he would date you?"
"Who said anything about dating?" Morse scoffed. "I just want to get my hands on his guns."
"And what makes you think he'd go for it?" Johnson was clearly the more skeptical of the two. Or the more realistic.
"Oh, ye of little faith," Morse said airily. "He's male and I'm me."
It was true, at least, regardless of what Johnson implied. Morse was very attractive, and from she'd gleaned from Barton's file and the man himself, she was just his type – compact, competent, and blonde. Morse was was right to be so cocksure; she'd have no trouble getting her hands on his guns. Or his other "weaponry," for that matter. She'd wager that it wouldn't even be that hard for Morse to get him in the sack, especially with the attitude she'd just displayed.
She should be happy for her partner. She should use the knowledge to Barton's advantage, just like he had for Coulson and that woman who worked for the Philharmonic.
Instead, she wanted to punch Morse in the face.
"You don't have a chance in hell," Johnson said. "I mean, really."
Morse sighed. "Yeah, no shit. Too bad, really."
"Yep," Johnson nodded and downed the rest of her drink. "Too bad."
"Anyway," Morse said, "have you seen the specs on the new Quinjet they're field testing this week? What do you think about those new canons they're testing?"
"I have high hopes . . ."
The conversation now focused on an entirely different sort of munitions, Natasha slipped out of the mess unnoticed, but the two agents' words kept running through her head.
Too bad? What the hell did that mean? Too bad about what?
She shrugged it off. She and Barton were due in mission briefing in ten. She had more important things to worry about.
"So what's the deal with you and Locksley?" Tony asked. The gym was empty tonight except for the two of them, which was likely the reason for Stark's sudden interest in her life.
Not that they needed to be alone for him to ask uncomfortably personal questions. Tony was happy to ask anything at any time. He'd probably just been warming her up with all the other little questions, asking for her advice on a particular stance or move as they sparred.
Well, as Tony sparred. She just avoided injury. He wasn't much of a challenge for her (few people were and damn, she hoped Barton got back from wherever-the-hell soon), but he was a fast learner, and there was hope for the old guy yet.
Deliberately missing the point, she asked, "Locksley?"
"Oh, come on, Romanoff. I know you're up on your American pop culture," he said, broadcasting a right hook that she neatly sidestepped. He dropped back to avoid any immediate retaliation, and Natasha smiled. He hadn't been doing that the last time they worked together.
"Don't give me that 'No speak English' bullshit," he said, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet. "I know you're just trying to avoid the question."
Astute. She would be surprised, but even when he was a drunk trainwreck, Tony was a genius, so it was little surprise that he was even quicker when sober.
He swept in then, jabbing quickly, going for the weak points she'd drilled into him again and again. She blocked everything, but took mental note of the ways that he could improve, the openings he was still leaving. He'd want to talk at length later. He'd been a bit of a mess since the whole Killian thing, but at least it was a productive mess.
Tiring of the simple movements, she used her hip to drop him to the ground.
"I think you're just trying to distract me," she said, hovering over him. She offered him a hand.
Tony took it. "Think that's about enough for me for the day," he said, and he winced as he readjusted his back. "I think you sprained me."
She snorted. "Didn't peg you for a cry baby, Stark."
Tony's eyes flickered, and she knew she'd made a mistake. "See, idiom usage like that is what makes me know you're just pretending not to understand me."
She was silent, watching, waiting for him to re-ask. She might not mind the question, not really, but she sure as hell wasn't going to help him ask it.
"What's going on with you and Barton?" he asked, and there was really no way around it. She took a deep drink from her water bottle as she constructed her response.
"He handles all the long range stuff, and I go in for the up close and personal business."
Tony snorted. "Really?" he asked, taking a drink from his own bottle, which was filled with a dark green sludge he called 'superfood.' Jury was still out on that one. Clint had accidentally taken a swig from Stark's bottle a while back and had described the taste as a cross between lime juice and yard clippings.
"You expect me to fall for that one?" Tony said knowingly. "I've been around you two for, what, six months now? I see how you look at each other. Don't try to tell me you just work together."
She peeled off her gloves one finger at a time, weighing her options. It wasn't that she really minded having this conversation with Stark. He was as close to a friend as someone like her ever had. And he was a good guy to boot, not the sort to broadcast whatever she told him.
Well, to people that shouldn't know, that is. He'd probably run to Bruce the second her mouth shut.
Might as well make it good.
"Sometimes," she said, keeping her face carefully neutral, "when he's been really good, I tie him up and spank him with a riding crop."
Tony's eyes bugged out of his head. Gaping, he stammered, "Really?"
Never let it be said that Tony didn't recover quickly, however, because the next thing out of his mouth was, "Is that something one can sign up for?"
Natasha headed for the showers.
"Tony asked me about us," Natasha said idly as she stirred another sugar packet into her coffee. Clint had gotten back two hours before, but he was trying to stay awake until dark to beat the jet lag. He hadn't had to do much to convince Nat to join him on his quest for caffeine either, which probably should have told him that something was up.
"Us?" he asked because the word could mean so many things, especially where Tony was concerned.
She nodded. "He wanted to know what our deal was."
It sounded like she was quoting.
He chuckled, brushing off his nervousness at the topic. It wasn't that he didn't want anything more, that he'd never thought about it, but Nat didn't strike him as the kind of person who dated colleagues, and he wasn't about to mess up the good thing they had going by asking her to confirm or deny that suspicion.
Hell, he wasn't the sort of guy who did that shit either. He'd had the chance, more than once if he was being honest, the most recent being with one of his former trainees, a pretty blonde woman named Morse.
He hadn't even needed to think about it when propositioned by the junior agent. She'd asked, he'd said no, and that was the end of it. He'd surprised himself a little - SHIELD maybe didn't mind interpersonal relationships among its agents, but apparently Clint Barton did. Most of the time, he tried to ignore his reasons why.
"I think he'd the reality entirely too boring," he said at last. Frowning at her expression, he played a hunch. "What'd you tell him?"
She looked up at him then, as if gauging his reaction.
"That I tie you up and spank you when you've been good."
Clint stared at her, hoping his reaction to her words was more of the non-reaction variety. Nat was smirking in force though, so it was pretty obvious that he'd failed.
He tried another tactic.
"What about when you've been good?" he asked, choking on his deflection. All things considered, he thought he'd done a good job of it. Of course, he ruined it when he took too big a mouthful of his coffee and scalded his tongue.
She pushed the small cup of water she'd ordered across the table.
"Drink this, you big ninny."
Seizing on the chance to change the subject, he gulped the water. "Ninny?" he asked when he could breathe again. "They teach you that in mother Russia?"
She quirked her lips. "Some of our intel can be a little . . . out-dated."
"Whatever, Grandma," he said, rolling his eyes theatrically. Topic neatly avoided, he congratulated himself. They chatted for a few more minutes, poking at each other, her eyes sparkling as they talked.
She waited until he had taken another sip of his coffee to say, "I would. If you wanted me to."
Sputtering, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then reached for one of the woefully inadequate napkins stocked in this place.
She couldn't mean what that sounded like. He misheard, of course. Wishful thinking. They were partners, friends, even family, for shit's sake, but nothing more than that, nothing that would jeopardize their working relationship.
She wasn't looking at him anymore, he noticed, but at her hands where they were white-knuckled around her mug.
"If you wanted me to, I would tie you up and spank you," she said in a quiet voice. "If you wanted."
The crash of a tray and the tinkling of broken glass distracted them both momentarily. Apparently the waitress who'd been passing by was just as flabbergasted by Natasha's revelation as he was.
"Umm," was all that he managed. Nat was waiting for an answer though, and he owed her one after all of that. She just threw all her cards on the table, and here he was, cowering. Well, she always had been the braver of the two of them.
"I'll pass," he said at last. He cringed at how it sounded, how it wasn't what he meant to say at all, but it was too late, and he couldn't take it back. Across from him, a crease appeared in her forehead. He could practically see her coil her muscles as she prepared to flee.
His hand shot out and grabbed hers.
"Not what I meant," he said. "That came out wrong."
She looked up, tentative hope in her eyes. "What did you mean, then?" she asked, her voice rough.
"I meant . . . all I meant was that I'm not really into that kind of stuff," he said. A thought occurred to him. "But, you know, if you are, then I'm happy to . . ."
"No," she said abruptly. She shook her head. "Too much like work for me."
He nodded. Yeah, he got that. There was a list of things he avoided outside of work, too.
She turned her hand in his grasp, twining her fingers with his in the middle of the table.
He tried to swallow his heart back down into his chest, where it belonged.
"So, you want to . . ." he trailed off.
Nat rolled her eyes, but the familiar grin was back. "Not on the first date, hot shot," she said.
He forced himself not to wince. Was he really that out of practice? He swore he remembered being smoother than this. Then again, it had never really mattered before, not like it did right now, with her.
"Shit. I didn't mean that," was the best he could come up with.
She tightened her grip on his fingers. "Teasing, Barton." Then as if testing him once more she said, "The way I figure it, we've been dating for years."
They finished their coffees quickly.