A/N: So I'm supposed to be working on two pieces with a deadline, and I spot the very last prompt submitted to the be_compromised Promptathon, by the incomparable Frea_O: Other SHIELD agents try to help Natasha and Clint's relationship along. They really shouldn't.
Seriously. How could I resist that, and the prospect of productive procrastination? Then, somewhere in the tangled web that is my brain, the prompt got cross-pollinated by Anuna81's request for a story about the SHIELD betting pool, and then turned into a sort of prequel for my story "The Pool". (My stories fit together like a puzzle, the one where you lose patience with the sky pieces and end up jamming them in, hoping no one will notice the cracks.)
Disclaimers: (1) Not mine. (2) I haven't read any of the comics featuring Sharon Carter, so please forgive any character inconsistencies. (3) The restaurant featured in the story is real (I ate reheated Chinese takeout in my hotel room for two weeks once to save on per diems, so my husband and I could afford to go there), but the alleyway and fire escape across the street are gloriously fictional, so don't you go looking for them.
Thanks are due to Runawaymetaphor and Shenshen77 for the test drive. You are the best (but you knew that, right?).
Rated T for swearing and UST.
Two If By Land
Jasper Sitwell looks in mild disgust at the two figures sparring at the far end of the gym. Both clad in black tank tops and sweat pants, they match each other blow for blow, block for block, in a dance that is graceful as it is deadly.
"Yeah," Evans nods in agreement. "Sick, really. They should just cut the foreplay, get it on and put us all out of our misery."
"Line, Evans, line. See it? Right … there. And you just crossed it."
Carter frowns at the two men flanking her, looking none too pleased.
"You have no sense of humour, Carter," Evans rolls his eyes at her. "And besides, you're not in the pool. So don't complain about the legitimate concerns of those of us who have a financial stake here."
The odds have been 10:1 since Romanoff broke Barton's collarbone in early March during training; there's serious money to be made if they ever do get (it) together.
"Maybe I'm not in the pool, which is a disgusting thing to have anyway, objectifying people like that, as if they were breeding stock or something. But that doesn't mean I don't have a stake here. I just want them to be … happy."
Sitwell's face is a study in incredulity.
"Agent Sharon Carter, closet romantic. Who knew?"
Carter brings up her elbow and digs it into his ribs, and it's only his years of training that allow Sitwell to parry the attack with the flat of his hand, to the point where it merely hurts but doesn't do lasting damage.
"Shut up, Jasper. You've got to admit, though, that these two belong together. I mean – just look at them!"
The sparring session at the other end of the gym has resolved into a cool-down in the form of a series of t'ai chi patterns, delivered with a harmony and grace that has two or three of the staff from Accounting (who have seemingly materialized out of nowhere, as they do reliably every day around this time whenever Barton and Romanoff are in lair) swooning in breathless admiration.
The more they watch, the more they know that Carter is right. Sitwell voices the opinion that Hawkeye and the Black Widow are actually having a form of tantric sex right there in front of everyone, they just don't seem to know it. Problem is, winning the pool will require at least circumstantial evidence of the real thing.
Evans has heard enough. He is a man of solutions, not prone to succumbing to (let alone swooning over) unresolved issues.
"Alright. What we need here is a plan. Speed things up a bit."
"What do you suggest?" Sitwell is all ears. "Lock them in a room with a plate full of oysters and a box of condoms?"
Carter makes a strangled sound.
"Do you have to be this crude?"
"We're guys. It comes with the …"
She raises her hand.
"I'm not listening."
"I was going to say territory. Get your mind out of the gutter, Carter."
Carter sighs, just as Barton takes off his shirt. He wipes his forehead and neck with it before offering it to Romanoff, who pulls a face and swats him on his glistening abs. He laughs at her and they head to the shower rooms, side by side, as always. The groupies from accounting are fanning themselves with their file folders.
"Fine. I admit it." Her voice is a bit raspy. "They get to me, too. Pheromone City, those two. So how do we get them to actually fuck? And what's the minimum entry for the pool?"
After a token protest ("Line, Carter!"), a slow smile curls Evans' lips.
"I have an idea."
"What the actual fuck?"
Clint stares at the piece of paper stuck to his locker and waves it at Sitwell who seems to be hanging around longer than usual for some reason.
One If By Land, Two If By Sea, it says. SoHo. 8 p.m., Sat.
In what looks like Natasha's handwriting - only it's not. Whoever wrote this forgot that Natasha doesn't punctuate, and especially not "pm". Ever. Waste of time, she always says.
Besides, Natasha doesn't leave him notes. Okay, she does, sometimes, but only ever post-its, and they usually say things like "get your shit together Barton", or "you killed it you clean it", or "get your Vienna expenses done STAT they're holding my reimbursement hostage".
She doesn't use code, either. Natasha is very direct.
"What's that even supposed to mean, One If By Land, Two If By Sea?"
He looks for enlightenment to Sitwell, who rolls his eyes in the way people tend to do when they think Clint is playing the lack-of-education card to line up a sucker punch.
"You haven't heard of Paul Revere's ride? War of Independence? Two-lantern signal, to announce the movement of British troops to the patriots? One if by land, two if by sea?"
Clint stares at him blankly. "Speak English, Jasper."
"One lantern would be lit to warn if the enemy would come overland, two if they'd come across the Charles River."
"That doesn't make sense. A river is not a sea. Hell, I'm from Iowa and I know that much."
"Metaphor, Barton, metaphor. With a side of poetic licence. But in this case, the addition of SoHo is a definite clue."
"Yeah? For what?"
Clint hates riddles. Show him something to shoot at, he's good. Obfuscate, and he'll find a way to shoot straight through. What exploding arrows are for. (Metaphorically speaking.)
"It's a restaurant, Clint. One If By Land, Two If By Sea. In Soho. Barrow Street, if I'm not mistaken. Guess Natasha is trying to get you to meet her there for dinner."
"Bullshit. Why wouldn't she just ask? Besides, she's in Yerevan."
"Must have left it before she headed out. You haven't been down here since she left, right? I mean, I practically had to drag you to the gym."
Clint glares at him. Why is Sitwell trying so hard to convince him this thing is for real?"
"Maybe she's trying to tell you something? That she's tired of pizza and Chinese takeout while hiding from the medics in that broom closet you call an apartment?"
Clint waves him off. He's not about to get into an argument about his off-the-S.H.I.E.L.D.-grid apartment, with someone who thinks Doreen's meat loaf and frat house living on the helicarrier are the last word in life style choices.
"No. This note – it's a fake. Some joker is trying to set me up. Probably Miyazaki. He's still pissed at me for …"
Sitwell raises an expectant eyebrow. Hawkeye's practical jokes are legend within S.H.I.E.L.D., if not always appreciated by management. He hasn't heard about this one yet, and gossip is hard currency in the cafeteria.
"Nevermind. This is not her handwriting."
So much for free coffee. Worse, Sitwell feels a third strike coming in this particular ball game. Time to bunt.
"It sure looks like her handwriting."
"There's a difference between looks like and is, Jasper. And this isn't. Tasha does some of her letters the Cyrillic way. You know, those letters that are the same, but different?"
"Speak English, Clint."
It's Sitwell's turn to signal a lack of understanding, and Clint's to roll his eyes. People don't give him credit for subtlety sometimes, but when someone uses a P like an R and a B like a W one day, and then as a real P or a B the next, it makes a difference in the pattern. Natasha will fight him to the pain over this one, but the truth is out there - whether she'll admit it or not, her Russian-ness marks her handwriting no matter how hard she tries.
"I was. Plus Russian. Anyway, there's a difference. I can see it."
"So you're going to stand her up because the P and the B in that note aren't marching to the same drummer as the rest of the letters?"
"Exactly. Perfectly okay to 'stand her up', since it isn't her doing the asking. Miyazaki or whoever it is that wrote this thing can go fuck themselves."
"Fine. I'll get the bucket and sponges ready for you, Barton. The Black Widow, thwarted – could get ugly."
"You do that, Jasper. I'm not worried about her."
Clint claps his fellow agent on the shoulder in a light-hearted farewell, but a frown creases his face as soon as he turns his back. It's true, he isn't worried about her, although admitting to being worried for her would probably make that bucket of Sitwell's necessary.
He heads for the coffee room; serious thinking is best done over a freshly brewed cup of Hill's favourite Nespresso.
"Hawkeye didn't bite."
Sitwell looks crestfallen as he reports.
"Shit. You sure you explained to him the concept of eating something other than Chinese takeout, and how a sophisticated woman would value that?"
Sitwell doesn't dignify that with an answer, just gives Evans his best puh-lease look. The latter sighs.
"Well, at least Romanoff's still in Yerevan and hasn't seen her invite yet. Time to come up with a Plan B, I guess."
"Hey guys!" Carter waves across the room at them from the coffee line-up. "Guess what! Good news."
Turns out, Romanoff has come back from Armenia early. Carter had heard about it from Fury's EA - who was complaining about QuinJet schedules getting out of whack - and managed to stick the note on Romanoff's locker before she went there to dump her kit.
And Carter, a strong believer in the carpe diem principle ever since she found out about her aunt and her lost love, Captain America, is proud to announce that she made the note extra special, so as to improve its chances of working.
One If By Land, Two If By Sea, SoHo, it said, in Coulson's handwriting. 8 pm Saturday. Don't tell Clint I told you the invite's from him and not me; it's supposed to be a surprise. But I know how much you hate those, hence the warning.
"Aw, dammit," is Evans less than enthusiastic response. "Why'd you have to go beyond the brief?"
Carter goes on the defensive.
"Subtlety, Evans. Subtlety. You should try it sometime. Romanoff would never buy a direct invite from Barton. Him sending a written invitation would be like Fury delivering flowers when he's been rude. It's not going to happen, and she'd know it. Besides, have you ever seen the Hawk's handwriting? Chicken scratches. Nobody can fake that."
"But now she won't mention it to Barton, and we can't tell her without exposing ourselves."
"To her wrath," Sitwell supplements, somewhat unhelpfully.
"I don't suppose she refused to buy into it and won't go?" Evans is painfully aware he is grasping at straws.
"Are you kidding? She was …" Carter is looking for the right word. "Taken. Yes, she was visibly taken with the idea that her partner would get Coulson to ask her out for dinner on his behalf. She said it was, and I quote, 'so very Clint.'"
She frowns, having realized the distinct absence of enthusiasm around the table, and the general tenor of her co-conspirators' interventions.
"Anyway, what's with the sudden negativity here, guys?"
"It'll be dinner for one," Sitwell sighs. "Barton won't go. He thinks he's being set up."
Nobody points out the obvious.
"Aww, shit." Evans sums up what everyone is thinking. "If she goes and he doesn't, I can kiss my hundred bucks goodbye. She'll break another one of his bones next time they spar, and they'll never speak to each other again."
"We could send her another note in Coulson's handwriting, saying that something's come up and calling it off," Sitwell offers.
Carter shakes her head.
"Coulson left this morning for some crisis in Washington. He's gone till Sunday. Why I used him for the note to begin with."
"Guess at least one of us will have to join Romanoff in SoHo Saturday night," Sitwell sighs. "And come up with a really good reason why Barton is a no show. One that won't make her kill him."
Barrow Street at dusk on a warm May evening is sort of pretty, in that North-America-does-Old-Europe way that only Boston and Quebec City pull off with a modicum of success. There are twinkling lights and uneven pavement outside the restaurant, jazz music wafting in the air, and it smells pretty good. But the surrounding buildings are too tall, and the honking of the yellow cabs over on Seventh Avenue totally undermines the effect.
Natasha doesn't care about any of this, though, as she walks down the street; instead, she casts her eyes into the shadows and examines the passersby. She is dressed in (sensible) heels and an elegant but loosely flowing dark-blue dress, with long sleeves and a low back. The dress does nice things to her flaming hair, effectively conceals both her widow's bite bracelets and the throwing knives strapped to her thighs, and allows her the option of entering the restaurant as a credible patron.
If she decides to go in.
She hadn't let on to Carter about her doubts regarding that note on her locker, but whoever suggested that Clint Barton would voluntarily eat in a restaurant – and on the West Side to boot - with white tablecloths and candlelight, where he'd be expected to wear a jacket (and possibly a tie!), obviously hasn't done their homework. And then there was that thing with supposed-Coulson not using the twenty-four clock to indicate the time of the rendezvous on the note …
Natasha suppresses a contemptuous snort: She learned how to set more convincing traps when she was nine. The question remains, though, is she the only one being set up? Is her partner being lured into a similar ambush? And if so, by whom?
The fact that the note was hand-delivered on the helicarrier suggests involvement by someone in S.H.I.E.L.D. Natasha plans to find out who that is, and just what their agenda might be.
She completes her first pass of the outside of the restaurant; nothing appears to be obviously amiss from what she can see. The place is full of happy-looking patrons delighting in the décor and the high brick walls; a small knot of people is waiting to be seated inside the wooden front door, their faces illuminated by the warm light of two wrought-iron sconces. From her current vantage point she cannot see the second floor, though, and so she heads for the shadow of an alley way across the street. A quick jump, a brief flutter in her dress, and she is on the fire escape.
From the second-floor landing, the upstairs part of the restaurant looks just as peaceful as the downstairs; the wait staff are buzzing, despite the (for SoHo) relatively early hour. Wine coolers appear on tables, corks are pulled - it all looks very … civilized.
A murmur of voices coming down the street signals the arrival of new patrons. Two familiar forms: Evans and Carter. Natasha's senses are on immediate alert. Interesting that S.H.I.E.L.D. would send backup without warning her, though. Fury playing games again? Someone setting up agents?
Evans and Carter are admitted quickly, and appear on the first floor a minute later, only to be seated at a table prepared for two. The waiter takes down the "reserved" sign, disappears and reappears quickly with a third setting. Natasha frowns and checks her watch: 19:55. She settles in to watch and wait.
"Fancy meeting you here," a familiar voice sounds from above, and she can hear the metallic sound of an arrow slithering back into its quiver. "Thought stakeouts were more my thing."
"Clint? What the …"
Her partner, dressed in a toned-down version of his tac gear, detaches himself from the shadows and swings down from the landing above her, with the casual grace of someone for whom fire escapes are a part of his natural habitat. She knows this about him, but is nonetheless disturbed that she had not seen him there, that he's gotten the jump on her again – just like he had that night in Tbilisi, almost two years ago now.
Then again, he is the best at what he does, just as she is the best at her specialty – obtaining and analyzing information, and acting on it in close combat. Right now, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that they are here for similar reasons.
"You're on a job?" she asks, carefully. Nick Fury is not the most transparent of taskmasters, and he may have his reasons for sending his two – no, four - agents to the same place with separate mission mandates. Clint hesitates for only the briefest of moments, possibly for similar reason. When he speaks, she knows he's on the level.
"Nope. Private time. Someone's been trying to convince me that you wanted to have dinner down there." He points to the restaurant with his thumb. "The invite smelled fishy to me. Wanted to make sure you weren't …"
He lets his sentence trail off. "Well, whatever. But unless they do take-out, I'm thinking you're not exactly here to eat, either. Nice dress, though."
It doesn't take them very long to establish what got them both to where they are. Natasha is a bit opaque on why she was convinced Clint's so-called invitation was a fake; no point in starting an argument at a time like this. She has a sneaking suspicion that he is keeping something back as well, possibly for similar reasons. And neither elaborates on why they are both here now. Some things are best left unsaid; by tacit agreement, they are.
Which leaves a couple of loose ends.
"Evans and Carter? Wonder if they were hooked in the same way," Natasha concludes, before frowning, "although she should have mentioned it when I found that invite."
Something is clearly fishy, answers are required, and so for the next fifteen minutes or so, they sit in companionable silence to await developments. Darkness falls, and the lit window turns into a keyhole through which they can look into an exotic tableau and observe every movement inside. The two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are presently studying a pair of oversized menus handed to them by the waiter assigned to their small, discretely lit section.
"They seem nervous to you?" Clint frowns. "Definitely not a happy date. Evans keeps checking his watch. Like he's waiting for someone."
"Or some thing?"
"Curiouser and curiouser," Clint mutters.
The waiter comes back, and after a minute of heated conversation between the two agents, Evans shrugs and seems to resign himself to order, looking for all the world as if he has bitten into a particularly sour lemon.
"Food down there suck?" Clint has noticed the same thing.
"On the contrary," Natasha smiles grimly. "But I checked the menu on their website. There's no way they'll get out of there for under three hundred."
"You're shitting me," Clint yelps, the disbelief in his voice as palpable as the metal railing currently digging into Natasha's side. She shrugs. Men can be so clueless.
"Table d'hôte is ninety per person, so that's one-eighty right there. A decent bottle of wine, water, cappuccino and tip will bring it up to three. More if they go à la carte. Evans won't tip, but Carter will make him. She worked her way through college as a waitress. Welcome to the world of dinner that doesn't come out of a cardboard box, Clint."
"You don't think …"
Whatever Clint thinks will forever remain unsaid.
"Heads up," she interrupts flatly. "New guy, incoming on Carter's three. With an opaque metal container."
Clint has been observing the wait staff for longer than she has, but when it comes to assessing human threat, her judgment carries the day and they both know it. And it's clear to Natasha that the white-clad male, now passing behind the table where Evans and Carter are having an agitated conversation, has not been on the floor before and thus represents an unknown quantity.
She pulls back her sleeve to free her lethal bracelets; Clint swings his bow off his back.
Inside the restaurant, the suspect carries a covered silver platter in one hand and a small folding table under the other arm. He sets it up beside a booth right behind Evans and Carter's; the patrons there are observing him keenly as he slides the platter onto the folding table with a practiced move. He removes the lid with a flourish, reaches for something in his pocket and waves it over the metal pan.
"Holy shit," Clint hisses as a small fireball explodes beside the booth, and the window momentarily lights up the night like a beacon of war.
He speed-dials his quiver, nocks an arrow and lets fly just as Natasha hisses sharply, "Wait!"
The arrow, launched, fails to listen.
It whispers through the air in a graceful arc, shatters one of the mullions in the first-floor window, and alters course due to the impact and fracture pattern in the glass. How does he even calculate these things? Natasha finds herself wondering inconsequentially, as she watches the inevitable unfold in what seems like a slow motion movie.
The arrow drops into the flames, jams up against the inside rim of the platter and knocks it off the little trestle table, the tip creating a primary concussive effect that instantly snuffs out the fire. The suspect waiter drops to his knees and covers his head – the abject terror on his face ruling him out as a threat - even as the hollow arrowhead releases a fire retardant that crystallizes in the air and descends on tables and diners like a miniature blizzard. Within seconds the entire section, Evans and Carter included, are covered with a fine, white film.
"Look at that. Neat, huh?"
Clint can barely contain his excitement. Whatever imminent danger his colleagues may have been in has dissipated in a flurry of chemical snowflakes, and no death accrued to his ledger (the diners' shrieks die down quickly).
"Been wanting to try that one since forever. Got it a few years back, from this kid at MI-6. You remember, that op with Bond?"
Natasha snorts. How could she forget?
"Don't think you met this guy, though. Called himself after that omnipotent asshole from Star Trek. Always thought that was a tad pretentious, but he sure had a way with tradecraft and toys. Guess it ain't bragging if you can do it."
He's rambling a bit now, but after a quick glare from Natasha he catches himself and shuts up. Through the window, they see Carter bending down to retrieve the arrow and sliding it up her sleeve. She turns around to face the direction whence she knows it must have come, spits out some white foam and forms a succinct sentence, accompanied by a scowl of epic proportions:
"Barton, you sick fuck."
Neither Clint nor Natasha have any problem reading her lips, nor is there any doubt that she knew that he, at least, would be watching.
"Clint?" Natasha grabs her partner and starts hauling him off the fire escape. "I think we better leave. Our work here is done."
Clint does not question her assessment. The howl of police sirens can already be heard and if there's one thing Fury hates, it's the paperwork that accrues when his agents tangle with local law enforcement in any way, shape or form.
"What the fuck was that all about, I wonder?" he asks as they head for Natasha's car. Clint, as it turns out, had walked over from his place on Lex, bow and all, secure in the knowledge that in Manhattan no one notices such things.
Natasha shakes her head.
"I have no idea," she sighs. "Yet. But the next time somebody flambés peaches in your line of sight, just ask if they'll share, okay?"
As it turns out, Carter's little outburst has not gone unnoticed by the junior chef responsible for the culinary conflagration, and convinced him that she knew rather more about the attack on New York's most romantic restaurantthan she or her tablemate had been prepared to admit. When confronted with the alternative of a straightforward bill, or the possibility of a criminal investigation – and Nick Fury's reaction to the resulting paperwork - there had really been no option. The damages include glazing, general cleanup, and the bills for the eighteen other diners on the first floor, who could hardly be expected to pay for meals that were so violently disrupted; allocation of the expenses remains the subject of animated discussions with Sitwell and Evans.
Coulson worms the salient points of the story out of Sitwell almost as soon as he gets back from Washington, having seen the rather cryptic IR50 (Incident Report off-duty occurrence - agents involved: Carter S. and Evans, J.) float across Hill's desk. Being Coulson, he draws his very own conclusions, accompanied by an enigmatic quarter-smile.
He shares as much information with Strike Team Delta as he considers necessary, on a proactive basis, invoking the name of Nick Fury at strategic intervals to ensure that Romanoff and Barton will not spend the next three weeks tearing S.H.I.E.L.D. apart looking for additional answers, or exacting more than their usual amount of revenge.
It is, of course, pure coincidence that Sitwell and Evans are pulled off their impending Geneva job, and given a four-week assignment protecting a UN envoy against a potential kidnapping threat in Niger. Carter is bundled off to Asmara with a new recruit, the day after her visa bill arrives.
A few days after the Barrow Street incident, Clint Barton can be seen loitering outside the women's shower following a particularly invigorating sparring session. The groupies have dispersed, and he has the corridor to himself.
"You know, I've been thinking," he says without further introduction as Natasha emerges. She frowns and wipes a drop of water off her neck that has escaped from her not-quite-dry hair. He wordlessly offers her the hoody that's slung across his back; she rubs it across her head, and straightens her hair again with her fingers afterwards.
"That's dangerous, Barton," she replies, handing back the damp hoody. "You could hurt yourself."
"Funny, Romanoff. No, seriously. Let's go out for dinner, you and me."
She looks at him suspiciously. Et tu, Brute?
"Go out? Why?"
"Anniversary. Tbilisi, remember? Been two years today that I brought you in. Worth celebrating, no?"
"And you will have me believe that you actually remembered this?"
The skepticism in Natasha's voice cannot possibly be concealed, nor does she bother. Clint shrugs. Being called out on his bullshit by her is par for the course.
"Fine. I didn't. Coulson did. Dude's better than Outlook when it comes to reminders. He never freezes."
She cocks her head as if to think for a moment, then nods decisively.
"Sure. Pizza or Chinese?"
He hesitates for the barest of seconds.
"Actually, I was thinking…"
"Again?" she raises an eyebrow. "It's getting to be a habit, Clint."
He glares at her, but refuses to take the bait.
"That snazzy place with the lanterns? Two-if-by-what's-it? Coulson says the repairs are done. I was thinking eight tonight."
He hesitates just a fraction.
"If you want, that is."
Natasha actually stops in her tracks this time, deeply suspicious now.
"What on Earth would move you to go back there?"
Now there's any number of things Clint could say to that, but he suspects that "it looked … kind of nice" will just set off his partner's bullshit detector. (He's still not quite sure himself where that one came from, especially since the 'nice' part means that she will make him wear a jacket.)
And so he gives the one answer Natasha won't question.
"We owe them a debt."
Later that afternoon, an anonymous party puts five hundred dollars into the S.H.I.E.L.D. pool. It is the highest single entry yet.