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Dance for Your Life

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Natasha Romanoff was something of a pariah in the ballet world. She was considered to be in direct line to become prima ballerina (and might have already done it if not for what was considered to be – at 5’4” tall – her unfortunate lack of height) when she abruptly left the Russian Ballet Company with no explanation. Dancers did not choose to leave the Russian Ballet Company, a.k.a. the Krasnaya Komnata, or Red Room, at least not of their own accord. Once in the Red Room, dancers were in it for life.

So nicknamed for the distinctive color of its grand entrance hall, the Red Room was one of the most famously elite, and infamously rigorous, ballet companies in the world. Lucky families sent their children to the Red Room when they were in grade school, granting legal guardianship to one of its notorious dorm matrons. The ballet paid a stipend to the families who hoped that their children would make the cut, that their child would become one of the world-famous RBC company members.

Most families chose to overlook the physical dangers and emotional hardship inherent in a life at the Krasnaya Komnata, more interested in the possible fame and fortune their children could achieve. One hopes that they didn’t know about the true horrors of the company, the “vitamin” shots, the punishments for those considered to be subpar, the stifling of emotions and extreme competitiveness expected from its members. Perhaps knowing those details would deter families from offering their children as sacrifices to the world of ballet. Perhaps not.

Natalia Romanova’s family took the chance, leaping at the offer to send their only child to the Red Room. So it was that Natasha grew into an exquisite ballet dancer and empty human being. She had only what the Red Room gave her. Until the day she was done with them.

The contract her parents signed expired on her 18th birthday, and for legal reasons, she wasn’t allowed to sign a new one until the same day. As it so happened, that day fell during the Russian Ballet Company’s North American tour, the particular morning of which they were in Philadelphia. In what worked out well for Natasha, the Ballet had worked out a deal with the U.S. government and acquired long-term work visas for all of its dancers and staff due to their long-term touring plans.

The morning of her birthday, Natasha woke a few hours before the rest of the company. She gathered up her things and left her hotel room quietly enough not to wake up her roommates. She then used the master key she stole from one of the maids to get into the company manager’s hotel room, took her visa paperwork out of the oily snake’s briefcase, and walked out of the hotel, never to communicate with the Russian Ballet Company again.

oOo

Clint Barton walked into the Fox Theatre in Atlanta a bundle of nerves. What made him think he could hold his own here? He learned to dance in the circus, for heaven’s sake. Carson’s dancing girls taught him how to cha-cha. He had only become a street dancer when he left because it was the best way to make money on the streets without turning tricks or using his bow to become a hit man.

He looked around the lobby of the hotel at all of the teenagers in fancy dance outfits and shoes, hip hop dancers wearing name brands, compared them to his own shabby clothes, and he almost walked out. Then he pictured his brother laughing at him as Clint danced with the showgirls and, pulling himself up, he reminded himself of the promise he made himself to never let anyone else dictate his life’s choices to him again. This was his life and he was going to live it on his terms.

He could do this.

-o-

“So, Clint, it says here you learned to dance in the circus.”

Clint tried not to look embarrassed by Nigel’s question. If by some miracle he made the show, this was going to be discussed ad nauseum. Besides, his unique background was a huge part of what got him past the backstage producers and in front of the celebrity judging panel in the first place. Time to earn his keep.

“Yes, sir.”

“How long have you been dancing?”

“Since I was nine.”

“And your primary style is hip-hop?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What else have you trained in?” Mary Murphy piped in.

“Well,” Clint smiled, “the showgirls made me learn ballroom because they needed partners, and during the winter, I did maintenance work at a dance studio in exchange for classes in ballet, contemporary and jazz and whatever else they’d let me take.”

Yeah, Barney hadn’t razzed him about that at all.

Nigel smiled encouragingly.

“So your background is unusual, but you actually have a pretty good background. It also says here that you’ve been working as a street dancer for the last year.”

“Yes, sir. Ever since I left the circus.”

“What prompted that?” Jenna Dewan-Tatum spoke up for the first time.

Clint had debated with himself about the best way to answer this question. The truth seemed a bit much – yeah, my brother tried to kill me because I wouldn’t help him steal from the company.

So he went with part of the truth instead.

“I was stabbed in a mugging and the circus moved on while I was in the hospital. When I got out, I stayed in Atlanta and made a living as a dancer instead of going back.”

“Are you okay?” Jenna asked, apparently concerned.

Clint pulled up his shirt (showing off some of his best assets in the process) and showed the panelists the two-inch scar in his abdomen.

“Healed up great. Grady Hospital is one of the best in the Southeast. It’s lucky I was nearby.”

“Well, we’re glad you made it to be here with us today. We look forward to seeing your routine.”

Nigel’s voice indicated the talking portion of his audition was over, and Clint moved to take his starting place.

The track started – Enimen’s “Lose Yourself”, which seemed an appropriate choice given Clint’s backstory, and Clint showed them his best, which fortunately for him was very, very good. Good enough that when he was done, the judges clapped and agreed that he should go straight through to Vegas.

Clint wasn’t sure he had ever been so happy in his entire life.

oOo

Opening the door to her Vegas hotel room, Natasha was assaulted by memories of touring with the ballet company. Small room? Check. Anorexic-looking dance partner roommate? Check. (Although there was only one instead of three, which was appreciated.) Insanely competitive dance world? Check. Come to think of it, Natasha actually felt better all of a sudden. She knew this world.

In a way, Natasha wondered if this hadn’t been inevitable. Even if she had wanted to stay in the world of ballet, no reputable company in the world would take her after she walked out on the Russian Ballet Company. They had enough pull to blackball her anywhere she might go. If a company stuck their neck out and took her anyway – and her talent was enough that it was a possibility – she knew that the Red Room would go after them with all of their might, poaching sponsors, blocking talent, using their considerable influence to drive any organization under. Not that it mattered – she was done with professional ballet.

She still had to make a living, though. Hence her trying out for a dance reality program.

Natasha put away her things and got dressed in workout clothes, then headed down to the main hotel theater where the day was to begin. As she made her way down, nodding and smiling at the other dancers, she thought about her journey over the past year.

At first all she wanted to do was hide. Foregoing New York and L.A., she instead grabbed a bus ticket to the next city leaving Penn Station, which turned out to be heading towards Tampa, Florida. Upon getting there, she stood on the sidewalk wondering what in the world she was going to do now. At that moment, she looked up and saw a billboard advertising a dance performance not too far away in Gibsonton.

What the hell, she thought, and set about finding out how to get there.

As Natasha walked into the theater, she thought again how lucky she was to end up at Shield Dance Studio. They saved her life in more ways than one. So here she was now, doing the best thing she could think of to thank them.

-o-

Clint watched as dancer after dancer got up to do their solos, reminding the judges why they had been invited to Vegas in the first place. There was definitely a bell curve – some dancers were phenomenal, most were very good, and a few seemed to have made it here on accident.

And then Natasha Romanoff took the stage. Clint sat up straighter.

How…? Well, he didn’t have to wonder how. All she would have had to do to get there is to step foot on the audition stage (he had no idea she had tried out in Atlanta the day after he had). He remembered how good she was, that was for sure. It’s just – he hadn’t really expected to ever see her again. And there she was.

Her dancing was every bit as good as he remembered – better. It’s like he hadn’t been able to hold her brilliance in his mind. The only way to really understand how gifted she truly was, was to see her in person.

She finished and everyone in the theater was on their feet. Hers was the best performance they had seen so far, bar none. Clint wanted to run over to her as soon as she left the stage, but his number got called, and he had to head up himself.

Later, he promised himself.

-o-

Natasha’s feelings went beyond relief. She knew it wasn’t enough to be talented – you had to be a personality, and ballet dancers had to put more emotion and verve into their performances than traditional ballet performances allowed. Natasha had put a lot of thought into what personality to project for the cameras and how to adapt her dancing to what she knew this show wanted. She was glad to see that excited and humble worked well with “Russian ballerina” and that when put together with a more accessible ballet style, she was reaping positive results.

She was just sitting down when she saw Clint take center stage. Natasha froze, suspended in the air above her seat.

What? No. She couldn’t– He couldn’t– She just…she couldn’t compete against Clint Barton. Natasha was here to win, and she couldn’t possibly compete against Clint. She owed him too much. She couldn’t take the chance that she would beat him. Wait, weren’t they going back to having one male and one female winner this year? Maybe it would be okay. Maybe she wouldn’t have to leave. Because if she had to compete against Clint Barton, Natasha would leave. She would hate it, but she would leave. (Needless to say, she was quite relieved later that day to find out that there were indeed to be both a male and female winner.)

Natasha knew the judges would fawn over Clint’s circus background, and she watched as the former carnie tore up the stage with his hip-hop routine. She smiled as he threw in some acrobatics, remembering the first time she had seen those on a stage in Gibsonton.

She wasn’t surprised when Clint came up to her after he left the stage. She stood up and gave him a hug, hiding how terrified she was to see him. She wondered if he knew how much of a difference he had made in her life, how much she truly owed him.

“Natasha! Fancy meeting you here!”

The dancers sitting behind them shushed them, and the two of them moved to the back of the auditorium.

“How have you been?” Clint asked, his eyes drinking her in. “Have you been at Shield all this time?”

“Yes,” she answered. “They miss you. All they heard is that you disappeared from Carson’s. Jean asked around when you didn’t come back, and no one knew what had happened, not even Barney.”

A dark cloud passed over Clint’s face before she watched him push it aside.

“Don’t be fooled – Barney knew. But it’s a story for another time. How is everyone doing? I’ve missed them!”

The two of them sat on the floor against the back wall, quietly reminiscing about Jean Grey and the dancers at Shield. She caught him up on Gibtown gossip – it was Clint, after all, who had introduced her to Gibsonton, or Gibtown, as it was referred to by the locals.

“So you decided to go back to the big time?” Clint noted, gesturing around them. While he didn’t know the express details of her past, he knew that she had been running from something, and that her training had been very high end.

“Sort of,” she said quietly. “Jean’s been having some money troubles. I thought if I could get on the show, it would be good for business. I also knew that these people –“ she nodded at the producers, a conspicuous group amongst the young dancers, “wouldn’t be intimidated by my former employers.”

“You’re a good person, Tasha,” Clint said quietly.

Natasha looked away. It was nice of him to think so. Wrong, but nice. She was just balancing out her ledger, nothing good about it.

She wanted to ask him about where he had been for the past year, but she didn’t. Natasha wasn’t one to pry, and she didn’t particularly like that she wanted to ask in the first place.

Just then, the producers called everyone to the stage. To no one’s surprise, Natasha and Clint made it through the first round of cuts, and into the rest of what was commonly referred to as Hell Week.

-o-

Both dancers sailed through Vegas week, conquering each style effortlessly. Clint’s unorthodox background had done an excellent job of training him to pick up routines quickly and well. He couldn’t count the number the times he had been called in at the last minute to help someone in the circus or help Jean by jumping in to a classroom.

Natasha, of course, felt right at home. This was no different than the grueling schedule demanded by the Red Room, and here they didn’t threaten to hurt your family if you failed to meet their exacting standards. Television producers, cold and conniving though they might be, did not withhold food to teach their dancers a lesson, didn’t stick you with pins when you messed up a routine.

The Red Room should be proud, she thought to herself.

She and Clint stuck together most of the time they weren’t dancing. Neither of them knew anyone else, and they both sensed a connection between the two of them, although they also both recognized that now wasn’t the time to explore it.

Even so, they didn’t dance together. They never discussed it – they just…didn’t. Maybe it was because their styles were so wildly different. Maybe it was because they were having a hard enough time not giving in to the desire to touch each other. (Okay, fine, it was the latter, although they assiduously avoided discussing it.) But they never danced together. They danced near each other. Once they each had a partner for their dances, they would make sure they practiced in close proximity to each other, but they never actually danced together.

Then they reached the Green Mile, the famous part of the competition where contestants were led down a hallway to stand in front of the judges and learn whether or not they had made the Top 20. While the two of them were surprised to make it – Natasha because she still didn’t trust the Red Room not to reach out and intimidate the producers, Clint because he was Clint – no one else was surprised. He was an orphaned circus performer who survived a near-fatal stabbing, and she was a Russian ballet dancer who chucked it all to work in a small town dance studio.

Yeah, these two were So You Think You Can Dance gold.

oOo

Due to the move from two shows a week to one show and the slightly shortened season, the first week of the show, rather than feature the contestants in the partnerships they would work with through the Top 10, dancers were paired by dance type. Given that the only other ballet dancer was Jane Foster, Natasha knew well ahead of time who she would be working with. Frankly, she was more than a little concerned.

Natasha was very aware of the camera. She knew that this competition was to become America’s favorite dancer, not America’s best dancer. While she had no doubt that she was the best trained dancer in the Top 20, she also knew that she had to sell the personality she had manufactured in order to last more than a week or two. And how was she supposed to sell herself as an excited, humble dancer when the bottom line is that her ballet skills blew Jane Foster’s out of the water?

Jane wasn’t bad, not at all. She was a very talented ballerina. But Natasha was trained by the Red Room, and there simply was no comparison. Natasha liked Jane well enough – as much as she liked anyone, she supposed, and she didn’t want the petite brunette to look bad. At the same time, she didn’t want to have to hold back. All in all, Natasha was not looking forward to meeting Jane in the rehearsal room.

As it turned out, Jane addressed the matter herself. First of all, both girls were thrilled to find Desmond Richardson and Dwight Roden waiting for them. Jane had never worked with anyone of their caliber, and while Natasha had, it was still an honor to meet ballet choreographers whose work was as exquisite as these two.

As soon as introductions were over, Jane laid everything out in the open.

“Desmond, we need to address the elephant in the room.”

Desmond, being the dignified person that he was, looked at her in curiosity.

“Natasha is a better ballet dancer than I am.”

Natasha, Desmond and Dwight’s eyebrows flew up so quickly and high that it looked planned.

“Come on, guys. She trained in one of the top ballet companies on the planet,” the tiny dancer smiled self-deprecatingly. “I trained at an excellent studio – in Spokane, Washington.”

As she spoke, Jane’s positive attitude remained. Natasha searched the other woman’s expression intensely, looking for envy, bitterness, jealousy or any of the other emotions she expected to see. She was confused to see only openness, a young woman comfortable with herself and who she was.

“I’m a good dancer,” Jane spoke as though she heard Natasha’s inner monologue. “I love ballet, and I am so excited to be here today. I also want all of us to go in with a realistic expectation of everyone’s skills. So I thought it would be good to just say this up front. I also want to let you know that I will work my ass off to do my very best, and Natasha, I want you to do that, too. Don’t hold yourself back because you’re afraid it will make me look bad.”

It was probably the kindest, most thoughtful thing that anyone had ever done for Natasha in her entire life. She grabbed Jane and hugged her, surprising them both.

“We’re in this together, Jane. This is going to be awesome.”

Desmond and Dwight simply smiled and proceeded to choreograph a beautiful ballet routine set to “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” from West Side Story. They challenged both women, pushing Jane and Natasha to reach the peak of their abilities. The genius of the choreographers was that they used the story of the song – an older, more experienced woman scolding a younger, more impetuous woman – to explain and leverage the disparity in skill levels between the two dancers, and the result was captivating.

Ultimately it was the most positive experience Natasha had ever had preparing and rehearsing a ballet.
As she told Clint later, if ballet had been like that, she never would have left. She didn’t have to tell him that the experience made her hate the Red Room even more as she realized the joy that had been available to her which they kept from her in a manner that seemed almost purposeful.

The judges, of course, loved it, rhapsodizing on about the virtuoso choreography and how well the women embodied it. Misty Copeland, the prima ballerina guest judge, was enraptured by Natasha. A notoriously picky judge, especially in matters of technique, the ballet expert had nothing but praise for Natasha, and the significance was not lost on anyone.

Clint’s routine didn’t get quite the rapturous applause that the ballet piece did, but the judges loved the chemistry between Clint and his partner Sam Wilson. They felt that Chris Scott chose a great piece of music, Kris Kross’s “Jump” that allowed his dancers’ personalities to become a large part of the scene.

By the end of the night, while it wasn’t clear who would be leaving the following week, it was very obvious who would not be kicked off any time soon. Clint and Natasha definitely fell into the latter category.

oOo

The reveal of the Top 20 partners was a big deal. For the past several years, at least two – and in Season 10’s case, all four – of the final dancers had started out as partners. Considering the Top 10 guys, Natasha was apprehensive.

No one wanted to get stuck with Tony Stark – while he was incredibly talented, the guy was a showboating ass. Thor, the other male ballroom dancer, was a big teddy bear and everyone loved him, but he was a full foot taller than Natasha. She wasn’t a fan – it was too reminiscent of the constant complaints of the Red Room. Sam Wilson, hip-hop dancer extraordinaire, was fabulous, but if she was going to be with a hip-hop dancer, couldn’t she…

Best not to go there. Natasha had learned in the Red Room not to want things. That gave them power over you.

Steve Rogers was the nicest guy ever. For that reason alone, Natasha had been genuinely tempted to tell the producers to keep him far away for her. Bucky, of course, was Steve’s best friend and fellow contemporary dancer. Natasha guessed he wouldn’t be so bad. He was tall but not too tall, strong, interesting – a talented dancer. She would be able to live with that. Bruce – well, Natasha was inclined to believe that Bruce was a time bomb waiting to go off. She knew that look, and she didn’t want to be anywhere near it.

She had made a few friends amongst the female contestants, mostly because Jane refused to let Natasha hide in a corner with Clint. The vivacious and wickedly intelligent Jane dragged both of the introverted dancers around with her and the two quickly got to know everyone. Natasha’s favorite female besides Jane was Darcy, if only because the girl was so entertaining to be around. Natasha liked that Darcy had no filter, always saying whatever came mind. She wasn’t as fond of Clint’s tendency to glance at the jazz dancer’s boobs, but she was willing to admit that Darcy’s cleavage was hard to miss.

Both Clint and Natasha avoided Gamora, an ill-tempered contemporary dancer, and Nebula, a ballroom dancer who took herself way too seriously and was very open about the fact that the only reason she was on the show was so that she could transition to being a pro on Dancing with the Stars afterwards. On the other hand, Clint and Natasha agreed that jazz dancer Maria and contemporary dancer Pepper, a pair seemingly joined at the hip, weren’t so bad. Intense, but in a good way. Natasha respected that.

After the live Top 20 show, Natasha and Clint sat next to each as all of the dancers waited to be partnered. Although neither had said anything, it was clear that they both desperately wanted to work together. As soon as the two of them made the Top 20, they made an effort to not appear to be too close. Their unspoken theory was that the producers wouldn’t pair up people who were already friends and knew how to work together. Having not danced together during Vegas week, they were hopeful. Well, Clint was hopeful. Natasha refused to think about it.

The producers began by stressing the importance of working with your partner no matter who it was or what their style was. Natasha tuned out their boring speech and looked around. This experience was already so different from her life in the Red Room that she had a hard time believing that the two organizations existed in the same dance realm. It was too much to take in.

“Tony Stark,” announced Cat Deely, who of course was sharing the coveted information, “you are going to be working with Nebula.”

Tony being Tony acted excited, jumping up and high-fiving his new partner. Natasha saw right through him. She thought he was right to be worried – the producers had put Tony with the one woman who would in no way, shape or form ever be intimidated by him.

Good luck, Tony, she thought.

Cat went down the list, pausing after each announcement so that the cameras could capture the dancers’ reactions. In more recent seasons, these scenes hadn’t aired on the show, but the producers wanted to have the option.

Next, Steve and Maria were paired up. Then it was Thor and Jane (Natasha was happy for her new friend, if a bit concerned because the blond man was so much taller than Jane). Bucky and Darcy were the next announcement (and there was a dangerous combination if ever there was one), before Pepper was paired with Sam (Clint was very happy about that one, having come to quickly respect and like Sam during their time dancing to Kris Kross.)

It was down to the wire and Natasha was either going to be paired with Bruce or Clint. Could the universe really be that cruel? She thought it would lack dignity to cross her fingers or start knocking on wood, but Natasha was tempted nevertheless.

Finally, Cat read out, “And Bruce will be dancing with…Gamora!”

Natasha froze in shock as Clint turned to hug her ecstatically.

“Which means that Clint, you will be working with Natasha!” finished Cat with her usual high level of enthusiasm.

She had gotten what she wanted. Possibly for the first time in her life, Natasha had been given exactly what she desired most. Inwardly, Natasha relaxed, at last ready to enjoy this experience. With Clint as her partner on the journey, she knew things were going to be okay.

oOo

All of the dancers were quite familiar with how things would work from here on out. Now that the Top 20 contestants had been moved into partnerships, they would spend each of the next five weeks working with their partner on whatever dancing style they are assigned. For each of those weeks and styles, contestant pairs would also be assigned to work with a specific choreographer (or choreographers if they are a team).

Over the years, it had become clear which styles and choreographers were preferable. As the producers made all assignments, most of the dancers tried to suck up to them pretty blatantly. Clint and Natasha, with no discussion on the matter, concluded that the best way to get the best combination of style, choreographer, and ability was to sell themselves and their stories. So rather than kissing the collective ass of the producers, the wise couple was sure to interact playfully when the producers were around.

It worked.

Clint was beyond psyched when he and Natasha got their first week’s assignment – Pharcyde and Phoenix! The hip-hop choreographers took the show by storm the previous season, choreographing some of the best routines of the year. He knew, however, that Tasha was at best cautiously excited. While she recognized that the dance directors were excellent, Clint was aware that hip-hop was pretty far out of her comfort zone. It was okay, though – he knew that she had been exposed to it by Jean, had passed those auditions with flying colors in Vegas, and besides, he figured he believed enough for the both of them.

As the relatively young man and woman explained the concept behind the dance that Clint and Natasha were to do, Clint sensed Natasha’s stress easing fractionally. Psychotic though they were, the Red Room was still at its core a creative organization. The idea of bringing a story to life through dance was one with which his partner was very familiar, and this story was pretty damn cool.

The night of the live show, Clint held Natasha’s hands in his backstage before they went out. He didn’t say anything – he just looked into her eyes, face serious, and nodded minutely. He knew she would understand.

They went out onstage and killed it. Their routine, set to Fergie’s “London Bridges [Oh Snap]”, told the story of the push-pull between the sun and moon in the heavens. The brilliance of it was that the repeated line – “how come every time you come around, my London … Bridge want to go down” – took on a whole new meaning. The sun and moon couldn’t exist in the same space together, but they depended on each other at the same time.

Pharcyde and Phoenix worked with their dancers to create a highly energetic and physical dance with hard-hitting, powerful movement. Clint helped Natasha adapt her innate fierceness to the sharp pop-and-lock steps and she helped him to embody the story they were telling. Clint was the moon, bright and dependable, clad in silver; Natasha was the sun, hot and consuming, arrayed in gold. Their first dance commanded the stage and the audience and judges reacted accordingly.

Nigel, typically, addressed the biggest question up front.

“Natasha, you’re a ballet dancer. I had no idea you could be that ghetto!” With his English accent, of course, the comment sounded even funnier than it would have been otherwise.

Natasha laughed, high on adrenaline from the dance and its success.

“I couldn’t have done it without Clint and Pharcyde and Phoenix! They brought things out of me that I didn’t know were there – I loved it!”

“What about you, Clint,” Nigel directed toward the younger man. “How did you enjoy dancing with Natasha?”

Clint grinned from ear to ear. “It was amazing. She has such a grasp of dance as art and how to tell a great story onstage. Don’t let her fool you! This was a group effort!” And he pointed out at the audience to their choreographers, who wore matching thrilled expressions as they waved back and shot their dancers thumbs up.

Mary Murphy, ballroom expert and longtime judge, talked about how the pair got down in the pocket and how hard they hit their moves. The guest judge for the week, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, was over the moon with happiness at the performance, taking a moment to comment specifically on Clint’s amazing arms, which Natasha then leaned over and stroked admiringly.

All in all, it was a tour de force performance. Most importantly, as was necessary in order to have any hope of getting to the Final 4, much less winning the competition, Clint and Natasha had captured the attention of the judges and of America.

They were off and running.

oOo

After the extremely positive response on the Top 20 show, Natasha started looking over her shoulder both metaphorically and literally. In the Red Room, such glowing reviews would have resulted in glass left in her pointe shoes, laxatives slipped in her milk, and worse. Here, on the surface at least, the other dancers supported each other – there hadn’t even been a veneer of that in the ballet. Natasha could sense the competitive aura, but this remained an extended job interview and every dancer there knew it. The dance community wants team players, so all of the contestants remained at least superficially supportive of each other.

Then Clint and Natasha were paired with Travis Wall and the ballet dancer finally saw some envious, irritated looks, notably from Nebula and Gamora – no surprise there, although neither dancer said anything. It was a universal constant that Travis choreographed the best routines. Not every routine ended up in the season’s best list, but the odds were higher than if you were dancing disco or even contemporary with some less gifted choreographer.

Of course when Travis explained their dance to them, Natasha realized that Nebula and Gamora were both correct to be jealous in this instance, because this dance was going to make everyone’s top ten for the season – if not higher.

-o-

Clint didn’t know if he would survive the first rehearsal session, much less the week.

It wasn’t the choreography – Travis’s work was challenging, but he knew that he and Natasha could manage. There wasn’t much, in fact, that he didn’t anticipate he and his partner being able to conquer. No, what had Clint concerned was his libido. He wondered if it was actually possible to die from sexual frustration.

As laid out by Travis, that week’s number, set to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church”, was about a couple who had just begun the physical side of their relationship after dancing around each other for a very long time. The piece was about their exploration of themselves as a couple and as a physical entity, getting to know each other and how they worked together in the physical realm. What Travis didn’t say in front of the camera, but which became very clear in practice, was that Clint and Natasha were going to come as close to having sex onstage as a family show like SYTYCD could come.

And Clint was going to die.

Now he was a professional, or at least that was his goal, so he kept his opinions to himself and succeeded pretty well at keeping them off of his face. There wasn’t much he could do about other…physiological reactions. No one in the room called attention to his obvious, um, enjoyment of the piece, and Travis discreetly granted a bathroom break. Clint had a feeling, though, that what happened would get back to Nigel and that it would come back to bite him on the live show.

He was right.

-o-

Natasha was also right. Travis’s electric choreography, when combined with Natasha and Clint’s natural chemistry as well as their work ethic and determination, resulted in one of the hottest routines of any genre ever seen on the show. They writhed around each other, twining limbs, switching positions, slithering along each other’s bodies, without stop – the entire length of the dance.

When they finished with Natasha lying on the ground, Clint collapsed on top of her, his head on her chest, there was a split second of silence in the studio – the kind of microscopic pause that live performers spend their entire careers trying to achieve – before the audience exploded, even the judges rising to their feet.

Clint stood first before pulling Natasha into his arms, wrapping them around her. He felt her squeeze back, a genuine reaction he could feel even without being able to see her face. Later when he looked back at what became their infamous Top 18 performance, that moment ranked at the top for Clint – one just between the two of them, real and uncensored.

The television audience initially thought that their favorite moment was when things settled down enough for the judges to give their commentary and Nigel’s first comment was, “I think I need a cigarette.”

Nigel’s favorite was calling Clint out on his reaction during rehearsal.

“So, Clint, I imagine this has been an interesting week for you. Rather intense to rehearse this number with Natasha – gorgeous, sensuous, skilled Natasha.”

The audience roared.

Here is where Clint’s background as a carnie paid off – if you couldn’t think seriously fast on your feet, you were eaten alive in that world, and Clint didn’t have to think on his feet here. He had been expecting this since that first rehearsal.

“Well, Nigel,” Clint said with a mischievous grin, “I’m always willing to take one for the team.”

And with that, Clint became America’s favorite male dancer.

Natasha’s response of leaning up and whispering in her partner’s ear, eliciting a wicked smirk from him, cemented her as the country’s favorite female.

The competition was theirs to lose.

oOo

Top 16 week wasn’t as big of a hill to climb as their first week together, nor was the piece as explosive as their Travis Wall contemporary (not that anything ever would be), but it was certainly fun, and the audience and the judges loved it.

Jean-Marc Generaux, who Clint decided really was as insane as previous seasons had shown him to be, choreographed a cha-cha to Ricky Martin’s “The Cup of Life”. The number allowed Natasha to wear an incredibly sexy red spangled dress that didn’t actually have a lot of fabric (Clint was a fan.) The cha-cha also allowed Clint to show off the skills that some of the circus’s dancing girls had insisted he cultivate.

“Now, Clint,” Mary began when it was her turn to critique on performance night, “you’ve had some ballroom training, right?”

“Yeah,” he replied, somewhat out of breath after the incredibly physical performance. “The girls in the circus liked to do ballroom routines and they made me learn how to partner with them.”

“That’s certainly a unique way to learn a style,” Nigel injected, to which Clint gave a happy shrug.

Mary smiled and nodded, taking the opportunity to give Clint one of her genuine, less frantic feedback sessions. She complimented his technical skills, as well as his partnering ability and surprising technical acumen. He told her that he was enjoying learning the correct terms for all of the things that the girls in the circus had taught him. Mary laughed and said that his teachers should be proud and that he was representing them beautifully.

Natasha was equally praised, her technique surprising the judges given that she had only learned ballroom in the past year. She responded by explaining that a love of dance translated across styles and she loved them all.

Clint tightened his arm around Natasha’s waist. Perfect answer, he seemed to be saying.

Yeah, Natasha would take it.

oOo

Even after only three weeks, it was clear that Clint and Natasha were already the fan favorites. It often happened like that – talented, charismatic dancers partnered just right caught America’s attention and became their darlings. Most of the other dancers were happy for them; supportive while still focusing on their own business.

Nebula and Gamora, who had quickly become the best of friends, were on the other extreme, making it clear in both body language and muttered comments that they felt Clint and Natasha were unworthy of the adulation they were receiving. Frankly, neither Clint nor Natasha cared what the poisonous pair thought, so they simply ignored them and focused on the rest of the group.

For Top 14 week, the popular partners were matched with Stacey Tookey who choreographed a beautiful contemporary routine set to “Human” by Christina Perri. The story, that of a couple who loved each other unconditionally, accepting and rejoicing in each other’s flaws, made for an intense, beautiful routine, and Clint and Natasha – or Clintasha, as the other dancers were starting to call them – did their dependably outstanding job of bringing it to life.

The judges and America naturally continued to love the pair and Clintasha avoided the Bottom Three yet again.

oOo

When Clint and Natasha got disco with Doriana Sanchez for Top 12 week, it was unclear who was more excited – the two of them at getting to do something so grand and uninhibited, or Doriana, who was close to paroxysms of joy at the idea of having dancers with Clint’s upper body strength and Natasha’s fearlessness to work with.

Dancing to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Doriana had Clint throw, toss, catch and hold Natasha in every lift she could think of, including the challenging Superman lift that had Clint lifting Natasha perpendicular into the air over his head. The choreographer almost started crying when Clint removed one hand for a moment, holding his partner aloft with only one hand. Natasha, of course, was grinning while maintaining perfect form in the air.

Doriana declared it to be one of the best numbers she had ever done on the show. The judges, not surprisingly, agreed.

What stood out about Top 12 week, though, was that the dancers got to say what they would miss about their partners if they made it to the Top 10 show and were paired with an All-Star for the first time. Every dancer in the competition shared their opinion in a closed room set apart from the madness that was the rehearsal studio.

Clint was straightforward, saying that he was going to miss Natasha’s selflessness in going above and beyond to help him learn dancing technique, filling in the holes in his dance education in a genuinely supportive way. He told of what a better dancer and person he was for having been able to work with Natasha.

It was an honest, open declaration, and everyone in the audience took it as confirmation that the charismatic pair wasn’t just partnering on the dance floor. They hadn’t moved their friendship to the next level, unbeknownst to the audience, for the obvious reason that they were both trying to be professional. Clint needed this to have a career, a way to provide for himself and avoid the other, malignant opportunities that he hoped he had left behind. Natasha was balancing her ledger and didn’t feel entitled to pursuing something as selfish as a romantic relationship.

Everyone in the cast and crew just rolled their eyes at the pair.

“UST much?” muttered Darcy to Jane as Clint and Natasha came into the dining room a few minutes late, having just showered after their intense morning rehearsal with Doriana.

“They might as well start doing it on one of the tables,” Tony jumped in with a smirk. Despite having been in the Bottom 3 the previous week, Tony had survived to dance another day. He hadn’t felt it wise to tell the cameras that he couldn’t wait to be free of his oppressive partner. So instead he said he was going to miss her perfume, which was divine. It wasn’t even a lie. Nebula’s perfume was the only thing about her that he didn’t despise.

“I’m guessing you’re talking about Clintasha,” remarked Pepper as she joined their table, solo now that Maria had been voted off the show.

“Who else,” smiled Darcy. “I mean come on, watching them makes me want to do someone on a table. How do they live with it?”

“Any time, any place, Double-D,” Tony jumped in.

Darcy rolled her eyes and replied without taking her eyes off of the couple in question. “I like men, not boys, Tony. Means you’re off the table.”

“You wound me, Darce!” cried Tony as the rest of the table laughed. “Wound me!”

“I can’t imagine that took much,” observed Clint as he and Natasha joined the table.

Everyone except for Nebula sat together at meals. While Nebula put on a good show for the cameras, backstage she only talked to Gamora, and now that her friend was gone, Nebula sat alone.

“So what was so hurtful, Tony? Did Darcy trip you during a dance? Maybe smack you around a little?”

Everyone grinned at the playful ribbing.

“Actually, we were talking about how soon you and Tasha would be throwing down.”

The table went silent, stunned by Tony’s statement.

“What?” the ballroom dancer addressed the table at large. “We were.” He looked at the golden couple. “You could cut the sexual tension between you two with a knife. We all know it. You have to know it. I mean, come on, when are you two gonna do something about it?”

There was a pause as everyone at the table held their breath.

To everyone’s surprise it was Natasha who answered.

“Tony, if and/or when Clint and I ever decide to take the next step towards a relationship, I promise that you will be the last person to know.”

The table dissolved into laughter, even Tony. What else could he do?

-o-

Clint and Natasha were quiet as they left the dining room to practice their routine. This time it was Clint who broke the silence.

“There are six more weeks in the competition. We’ll figure things out after that, okay? We’re good, Tasha.” Clint stopped in the middle of the hallway and turned to his partner. “We’re okay, right?” He moved as if it touch her, but looking around at the public corridor they were in, he refrained.

Natasha pursed her lips and nodded.

“We’re good.”

Naturally it was on that note that they walked into their designated rehearsal space to find that it was time to record their thoughts for the special Top 12 segments. As indicated earlier, this was notable because the topic for the week was “What Will You Miss About Your Partner?”

Clint probably would have been honest, anyway, but having just seen again how her partner understood her, Natasha ended up being much more open than she might normally have been inclined to, competition or not. Instead, she admitted to the American public that she was going to miss the man who had become her best friend, who saw her and understood her better than anyone she had ever met in her entire life. Clint saw her. She did add that it was okay that they were splitting up because the end of this partnership wasn’t the end of their friendship, and she knew that she would look back at this time as something special.

Clint didn’t see what Natasha said until the two were frozen in place during the live show in anticipation of starting their disco number. Looking back later he wasn’t sure how he was able to do the dance without crying. For Natasha not only to feel that, but to say it on camera… Well, Natasha was right – Clint did see her, so he knew exactly how much her admission meant. He also knew her well enough to know that the best way to respect what she had said was to be a professional and give the best performance he possibly could. Which is what he did, and per usual, the judges adored it.

Just as Clint did Natasha.

oOo

Top 10 week the dancers were paired with All-Stars. Clint was given the primo assignment to work with hip-hop virtuoso tWitch, one of the most popular and successful dancers of any genre ever to grace the So You Think You Can Dance stage. The two of them killed it, of course, dancing to “It’s Tricky” as choreographed by Pharcyde and Phoenix. The story of two street dancers trying to one-up each other gave Clint the opportunity to show off even more of his hard-won circus acrobatic skills, and tWitch was probably the only dancer remotely capable of keeping up. Their performance on show night was insanely popular.

Natasha was just as clearly a producer’s favorite when she was again allowed to do ballet with Desmond Richardson and Dwight Roden, this time with Alex Wong as her partner. Even though the professionally trained ballet dancer had been injured preparing for Top 16 week during Season 5, Alex remained one of the most talented and popular dancers in the show’s history. It was clear that the producers loved Clint and Natasha.

As Natasha told Clint during lunch the day after her choreography session, having spent the morning rehearsing with Alex, it was the most thrilling ballet experience she had ever had.

“Clint, it’s amazing. Alex is so good – I have to be on top of my game to keep up. I mean, he danced at the Miami Ballet Company, so he’s got real training. Then add Desmond and Dwight’s choreography – it’s just…well, it’s what I wish dance could have been my entire life.”

The judges, of course, were sent into convulsions of joy.

“Natasha, I am just at a loss for words,” said Nigel. “For a ballet dancer to have such personality is so remarkable. I can only imagine that Tchaikovsky had you in mind when he wrote this piece for Juliet.”

Natasha allowed tears to come her eyes as she responded.

“I couldn’t have done it without Alex. I just – he helped bring out things in me that I’ve been striving for for years.”

The march to world domination continued.

oOo

The two of them didn’t dance together again until Week 6, when each remaining contestant was paired first with an All-Star and then with another of the current year’s contestants. Since the six who remained had comprised three of the Top 20 couples, the producers were able to pair Clint and Natasha again. This time the two of them did an African Jazz number choreographed by Sean Cheeseman, which was an entertaining experience on a number of levels. In Natasha’s opinion, it was their most forgettable appearance together on the show, but she did like the crazy jungle print outfits they wore, especially because the make-up crew smeared fake dirt and grease all over Clint in an especially attractive manner.

That was also the week that the dancers gave a shout-out to their mentors. Natasha was able to rave about Jean Grey and SHIELD Studio in Gibsonton, after which she decided it would be okay if she went home because she had done what she most wanted to do. She wanted to stay, of course, as she knew that continued exposure would benefit SHIELD, but she had accomplished the core of what she set out to do.

Continued proximity to Clint, of course, did not factor in to her desire to remain in the competition. She was a professional, thank you very much.

Not that anyone bought that.

It was harder for Clint. He knew how much Natasha wanted to talk about Jean Grey, which took away the person he would most naturally have identified as his mentor. Therefore, he decided to throw caution to the wind and tasked the producers with finding the head showgirl for Carson’s Traveling Carnival of Wonders, Bobbi Morse. He was very upfront with the powers that be about his lack of awareness regarding Carson’s touring schedule that summer, as well as the fact that he didn’t even know if Bobbi was still with the organization. He told them how much she influenced him as a dancer, though, and TV producers are a dogged lot.

Clint’s segment ended up completely stealing the show. First, it introduced a terribly cool element to his backstory. The audience had been told that Clint grew up in the circus, but now they got to see it. They saw the rudimentary stage he danced on, the big top he performed under. They learned about his archery act, and they saw how much it meant to Bobbi that her protégé had remembered her.

It also didn’t hurt that while she was a good ten years older than Clint, Bobbi was buxom and beautiful, traits that were not lost on Natasha.

Late that night (or early the next morning, as the case may be), Natasha mentioned offhandedly to Clint that Bobbi looked extremely happy to hear from him.

Clint chuckled tiredly.

“Yeah. Bobbi introduced me to a lot things. We had already broken up before I left, though. That’s probably why I was able to reach out to her now – she’s one of the few things in the end that doesn’t feel tainted when I look back at it.”

Natasha nodded and took Clint’s arm in hers as they got on the elevator to go up to their rooms. Next week was going to be a long one, and she wanted the man she still thought of as her partner to know she supported him. She couldn’t say it out loud, but she could walk him to his door.

oOo

Since Thor and Jane were voted off during Top 6 week, the remaining dancers consisted of Clint, Natasha, Nebula and Tony. As all of the dancers had to pair up as part of the finale, that meant that Clint, Natasha and Tony each had to dance with Nebula. None of them was thrilled, Tony least of all.

As he said to his friends, “Haven’t I been punished enough?”

Fortunately for him, Tony and Nebula danced salsa together under the direction of Jason Wilkinson. For the two ballroom dancers (the first time such a pair had ever been matched up from the beginning), it was an easy piece, and he ended up not having to spend much time with his crabby ex-partner. The same could not be said for Natasha.

Napoleon and Tabitha Duomo (a.k.a. NappyTabs) were finally available to come choreograph, and their considerable skills were brought to bear using the song “All I Do Is Win” with Nebula and Natasha. The routine was a challenging one, the story about two friends having a fight over a boy. The complexity of it required the two women to spend many hours practicing together. It was particularly hard for Natasha because of everyone in the competition, Nebula was the most like the other girls Natasha danced with in the Red Room – concerned with number one, willing to step on others to get ahead, catty, mean.

What made it bearable was that, again like the girls in the Red Room, Nebula was a professional. She never would have lasted in the competition if she wasn’t. Regardless of the outrageously false act Gamora put on for the cameras of being a peppy, fun-loving dingbat, no one made it very far in the Top 20 if they didn’t know how to buckle down and get the job done when it was required. Nebula might be wildly unlikable off of the dance floor and when the cameras were off, but when push came to shove, she knew how to learn a routine and practice it. The experience wasn’t fun, but at least the result was good.

Clint and Tony did a Bollywood number together, which brought everyone no end of amusement. Natasha and Tony performed a contemporary number to Etta James’ “At Last” put together by Sonya Tayeh, on loan from the professional company she worked with. Natasha rather wished that she could have performed the intimate piece portraying the passion of a couple in love with Clint, but even usually-lecherous Tony was all business at this point in the game. There simply wasn’t time not to be.

Clint and Nebula danced to obscure Korean techno pop in a crazy Mark Kanemura jazz number. The concept was vaguely about an alien and a human communicating for the first time; mostly it was just them having fun with the weird things that came out of Mark’s brain.

For the dance he requested, Clint was assigned to dance his hip-hop number with Fik-Shun, the male winner from Season 10. The two of them killed the NappyTabs routine set to “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes as rival sports players ready to go head to head against each other.

Natasha was on cloud nine to perform ballet with Season 9’s male winner, Chehon Whespi-Tschopp, another high calibre classically trained ballet dancer. Their pas de deux brought tears to the judges’ eyes, and Nigel declared her to be his favorite dancer in the competition.

It was Clint and Natasha’s contemporary, though, that again brought the magic. Matched for the first time since the Top 18 with Travis Wall, the trio created a powerful number set to “The Show Must Go On” about a man dying of a terminal disease (it was implied that it represented ALS) and the best friend that helped him make it through his final days.

Tony just laughed after the show, saying that he was sure he and Nebula would have successful Dancing with the Stars careers, so it was fine that Clint and Natasha were clearly going to win. Nebula made some caustic comments about the producers clearly favoring the other pair, but she could hardly argue with Tony’s assessment. Given that she had said from the beginning that the other dance competition was her end game, Nebula knew that it was best to let it go.

oOo

The night of the finale, the judges and the final four dancers each got to request that certain dances be performed again. The best dances of the season were trotted out and enjoyed again. That meant that Pepper and Tony’s paso doble as well as Darcy and Ade’s Broadway numbers were performed. Natasha got to perform her ballet with Alex again, and Clint got to revisit “It’s Tricky” with tWitch. There was no question in anyone’s mind, though, that the final and most powerful number would be Clint, Natasha and “Take Me to Church”.

It was hard to believe, but the number had even more sexual chemistry now than it had the first time around. This was undoubtedly because even though they hadn’t quite done anything about it, both dancers now acknowledged to themselves (more or less – him more, her less) how they felt about each other, and their longing, their feelings and yearnings, were poured unfettered into the powerful lyrics and music that Travis had chosen for the couple.

The announcement of Natasha as America’s Favorite Female Dancer and Clint as both America’s Favorite Male Dancer and highest vote getter overall was fairly anticlimactic. It had been obvious since the first time the duo performed “Take Me to Church” that the two were the couple to beat. Each week made it more and more certain that they would win the overall competition. Clint’s circus segment gave him the edge vote-wise and everyone knew that he would come out on top.

-o-

Natasha didn’t know she would ever pay Clint back for everything he had done for her. When the bus she caught in Tampa let her off in front of Shield Studio, she simply stood at the bus stop bench in a state of shock. Here she was in a new place, new country, no money left, no prospects, purposely cut off from the only world she had ever known. What was she going to do? She sank down onto the bench by the bus stop.

A young man sat down next to her. Absorbed in her own meltdown, she didn’t so much as glance his way.

After a few minutes, the newcomer asked, “Are you a dancer?”

Natasha’s head whipped to the side. Had this person been following her? Had the Red Room found her already? Would they drag her back? How would they punish her?

He continued.

“You’re built like a ballet dancer, that’s why I ask. Sometimes I partner with Jean’s girls –“ he indicated the studio behind them. “I’m more into urban stuff, you know, hip-hop, but over the years I’ve learned a lot about ballet. It’s just – you have that look about you.”

Natasha jerkily nodded her head. This guy wasn’t polished enough to work for the Red Room.

“I came…” she began haltingly, “to see the show tonight. I saw it on billboard.” She knew her accent was coming through, and even though she had been trained to speak without it, she just couldn’t focus that hard right now.

“Well, why don’t you come with me? I’ll introduce you to Jean. You’ll love her. She danced with the Atlanta Ballet Company up until her mom got sick about ten years ago.”

Natasha hesitated.

Clint smiled, still not touching her.

“It’s okay. I think you’ll like it here.”

-o-

After the finale, as everyone crowded around the newly crowned winners, Natasha couldn’t help but remember that first meeting. She had never understood what moved Clint to talk to her that day, but his actions had defined the last year of her life. Jean enveloped her into the Shield family. Natasha taught there, learned there, found a home there.

Clint changed her life with one curbside conversation.

In the few minutes they had to change clothes and get ready before the after party, Natasha pulled Clint into her room.

“Why?” she demanded of her surprised best friend.

“Why what?” he responded, very confused.

“Why did you help me on that park bench?”

Clint immediately calmed and smiled at her.

“You were me,” he answered simply.

Natasha’s breath hitched as she stared at Clint. He raised his hand and pressed it against the side of her face, and she finally let herself relax against him.

It was going to be okay.

-o-

Almost everyone congratulated them genuinely and heartily (neither Clint nor Natasha expected much from Gamora or Nebula), and the wrap party, finally allowing the Top 20 to celebrate together in a setting less fraught with stress than a group dance practice, was a true celebration. Season 12 cast members mixed with dancers from every previous season, swapping stories and making contacts. Impromptu dances broke out repeatedly, all styles represented and endless fun to be had.

It was also on that dance floor that Clint finally took the leap of courage that the two of them needed and kissed Natasha for the first time. While normally private people, it seemed only right to share the moment with the friends who had lived the experience of their relationship with them. So caught up were they in the electric kiss, it took both dancers a moment to realize that they had instantly become the center of attention and that absolutely everyone present was catcalling, whistling, taking cell phone pictures, and yelling encouragement.

“It’s about time!”

“Give it to her, Clint!”

“You go, girl!”

“Feel up his arms!”

“I just won forty bucks! Clintasha forevah!”

That last one was Darcy, and it was her comment that broke Clint’s concentration, causing him to lean back and take a breath. He looked into Natasha’s eyes and rested his forehead on hers. As the adulation around them continued, he looked into the eyes of the woman he loved and saw the same feeling returned in her eyes.

He knew that she would probably never say she loved him, and that was okay. Natasha trusted him, which from her was a higher form of commitment than any flimsy declaration. Next for them would be the end of season tour – three months preparing and performing. Then, having both won a part in an upcoming Broadway production as well as $150,000, he knew that they would continue to make a life together.

As long as she was with him, Clint wasn’t particularly worried about what the rest of his future held. Yeah, life was pretty good.

/fin