Natasha does not like Chicago, and she cannot understand why so many people do.
She has only been there once, but once was enough—she prides herself on being a quick judge of character, person or city. She can’t quite put her finger on just what she dislikes about it, but it lingers all the same. (She knows it’s not the cold, for she’s experienced far worse--though at least in Moscow the city planners had the sensibility to put the public transportation underground, away from the ice and wind). There is a bluntness to the city and to general Midwestern sensibilities that is off-putting and perplexing to her. She doesn’t understand the corruption that runs rampant, she doesn’t understand how the people only complain about it but do nothing to fix it. She may or may not harbor particular resentment towards Mayor Daley for bulldozing Meigs Field the night that her getaway plane was parked there two years ago. And of course, this is a sports town, never mind that the teams are so very rarely successful. If there is one thing Natasha has never understood, it is the appeal in watching a team of grown men chasing various balls down fields.
None of this matters, of course—a mission is a mission, and her feelings toward the city are irrelevant—but it means that she can’t help but give Barton a disdainful glance as she sees him smiling widely at their marching orders.
“What?” he asks, “Chicago’s a great town. Haven’t been in awhile—it’ll be good to go back.”
There is a blizzard, vicious even for the Midwest, and their flight is rerouted to Cleveland. Coulson shows up in a car six hours later, because snow or no snow, they are going to start this mission on schedule. Their drive through Ohio is slow and blinding, and every so often Natasha looks out the window to see another car pulled over on the side of the road. Coulson, however, seems to have done this before, and soon he and Barton are trading snowstorm survival stories.
Natasha leans back against the hard leather seat, content for now to listen to them argue about the best methods of de-icing a car. This is her third mission paired with Agent Barton, and Natasha’s pleased that it seems to be growing into a continued pattern. It took a long time for Fury to feel comfortable pairing her with anyone on missions, but Barton seemed to be the logical place to start. There are many SHIELD agents who still don’t trust her, but Barton…well, given their limited history, Barton obviously does. They work well together: they think alike, his fighting style complements hers, and each can get into places where the other can’t. Yet even after two missions together, he remains an enigma to her. They talk when they’re on the job, but he’s a man of few words otherwise. He’s friendly enough, and every once in awhile he displays a wicked sense of humor. Yet she can’t get a read on him, and it maddens her. She owes him her life, but she doesn’t know why—what it was, a year ago, that caused him to disobey SHIELD orders and make his own call about her. But she’s still not at the point where she feels as though she can ask that question.
Now, though, he’s talking more than Natasha has ever heard before, and as the snow clears and the Chicago skyline takes shape through the clouds, he waxes eloquent to Coulson about his first trip to Chicago, when he was part of a traveling circus that came into the city.
“You performed with a traveling circus?” Natasha asks, curious. Talk of backgrounds and childhoods seems to be a taboo subject with everyone at SHIELD, not just with her. Normally she’s grateful for that, but Barton’s past piques her interest.
“Yeah,” he answers easily, “my brother and me, when we were young. We’d go all over the Midwest, but Chicago was the first big city I remember coming to. It was the dead of winter like this, and my brother took me to a Blackhawks game when we had time off. Saw the dinosaurs at the Field Museum, too.
“You been to Chicago before, Romanov?” he asks.
“Once,” she answers, “It didn’t really do much for me.”
“Didn’t do much for you? But…but the food alone…”
“Didn’t really stop long enough to eat,” Natasha replies wryly. Coulson eyes her in the rearview mirror, gives the barest hint of a wink.
“Well, we’ll fix that this time around,” Clint replies.
“As much as it pains me to remind you, Agent Barton, you are on duty here,” Coulson says from behind the steering wheel, “and Fury’s talking about having you follow this money trail out of the city, once you find out where they’re getting it from. Hitting up every restaurant in the city isn’t quite in your itinerary.”
Barton shrugs. “That’s what take-out is for, isn’t it? Giordano’s delivers, and there are hot-dog stands around pretty much every corner…”
Coulson finally exits off of the Kennedy Expressway and tries to drives them to the apartment SHIELD’s staked out for them in Irving Park, but the snowplows haven’t reached past the major roads yet. He kicks them out about a half-mile away from their apartment, with an address written on a slip of paper and a reminder to check in on the encrypted channel every three days.
“Put in a good word for me with Fury, huh Coulson?” Barton says, “I’d love to take a day to scalp tickets for a Blackhawks game when we’re done with this.”
“Keep dreaming, Barton,” Coulson says, “Fury’s not going to let you take a day off just to watch men pummel each other on ice. Besides, my hands are tied for favors until you pay back Agent Hill the money you owe her from poker.”
Barton curses him amiably and gets out of the car, whistling as he trudges through the unshoveled sidewalks.
Natasha follows him out and grabs her bag from the trunk. Coulson’s rolled down the window to say goodbye, and she gives him a dubious look. “Is he really going to be ordering deep-dish pizza every night?”
Coulson simply gives her a self-satisfied smile.
“Have fun,” he says as he rolls up the window.
“That’s not what I wanted to hear!” she shouts after his retreating tires, which leave a healthy coating of slush on her boots.
As jobs go, this one is pretty straightforward, and there’s actually a routine to settle into. Her assumed identity is that of a secretary deep inside the offices of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, which allows her to comb the necessary files and investigate wherever she wants, as long as she remains in the shadows. Hawkeye disappears for most of the day–getting a view of the situation from a distance, she supposes, though she isn’t quite sure what exactly that entails. She pictures him perched on top of the John Hancock building, scanning the entire city with those eyes of his, and wonders if she’s that far off. At night they both come back to the apartment SHIELD’s found for them and compare notes. It is, quite frankly, one of the more boring assignments Natasha’s been put on. She rubs her shoulder instinctively, still not fully healed from Cairo. Perhaps, she reflects, boring is what she needs right now. Even if it is in a frozen Midwestern wasteland.
Perhaps it’s because she’s never worked with him in a situation that requires close quarters, or perhaps it’s because he knows the territory here, but Barton displays a side of himself that Natasha never would have guessed he possessed. When they’re doing work he’s deadly serious as ever, but when they’re not he puts forth an easy charm, and a silliness that is more unnerving to her than it is amusing. When Natasha asks him why people have taken to putting lawn chairs and old tires in their empty parking spots on the street, he responds by telling her this is the Chicago way of making sure lazy assholes don’t steal the fruits of your shoveling labor.
“We should stake one out for Coulson,” he says, “just in case.” He then proceeds to pounce on an unclaimed car-shaped hole in the snow, putting out an extra bow, a quiver, and some of his more simplistic arrows. Natasha wonders why she has to remind him that they are undercover, and that adorning their spot with assorted weaponry is really sort of a giveaway. Barton concedes her point, and replaces the arrows with a mixture of red, white, and blue streamers that he buys at the Walgreens down the street. He also buys a giant poster that he props up on the curb, writing on it: “For Captain America Fans Only.” When she asks him how this is a reference to Coulson of all people, he merely grins.
That evening the neighbors downstairs run outside to wage a snowball fight, and he asks Natasha if she wants to go down and join in. Natasha smiles and politely refuses—she’s lost many things over the course of her life, but she has yet to lose her dignity.
He orders take-out every night and it becomes unhealthier with each successive meal. Natasha has never before thought that she might be lactose intolerant, but one slice of Giordano’s stuffed pizza is enough to make her consider the possibility. She appreciates the Polish sausages that he orders from the hot-dog stand from across the street, but by the time they come to the electric green relish that comes with the Vienna Beef Natasha feels ill. She tries to point out that the grocery store really isn’t that far away, and that vegetables are in fact important, but Barton counters by asking when they’d have time to cook anyway, and starts ordering Caesar salads from the Giordano’s to try and appease her.
Finally, Natasha ventures out on her own, needing to try some sort of food that’s filling but isn’t so disgustingly American. She finds a Lebanese bakery near Foster and Ashland that sells meat and spinach pies. She brings them back to the apartment and has them both on a plate before Clint can pick up the phone.
“Try them,” she says as he gives her a pathetic puppy-dog look. “You can’t keep living on cheese and processed beef.”
“Barton, I just walked an hour and a half through Chicago winter to try and bring some variety into our diets. Try the damn pies.”
“Heathen,” he grumbles, but he takes a bite of the meat pie and chews thoughtfully. “Not bad,” he pronounces, “reminds me of a little place outside Beirut. Best meat pies you ever tasted. Though I will grant you that about three restaurants in Prague could give it a run for its money…”
“Do you only remember cities in terms of food, Barton?” Natasha asks, not sure whether she wants to roll her eyes or smile.
He pauses, suddenly contemplative. “Mostly,” he says, “thinking about the food helps me remember the people. Like the man who ran the shop in Beirut. Nice guy. His kid was a real brat, but you could tell he thought she was just the sweetest angel. The two of them were…”
He doesn’t finish, and Natasha doesn’t ask.
The night then unfolds in a slow, cautious exchange of stories, of places been and people met around the world. Natasha doesn’t like to talk about where she’s been before SHIELD—it’s still too close in her past, and Barton probably knows more about it than she would like anyway. But it’s nice to talk in terms of vague happenstance: all they need to know is that they’ve both been to the same parts of Prague, even met some of the same shop owners. They don’t need to know why they were there or whom they were working for.
Finally, Barton slips and mentions a coffeeshop in Amsterdam, and they both lapse into silence. Amsterdam is where they first met.
Barton has an exceptional number of contacts scattered around the city, and Natasha begins to understand why Fury pulled him from another job for this one. One night he makes reference to information he got from a hospital security guard on the South Side, another night to the director of a theater company downtown who he knows from before SHIELD. She doesn’t usually go with him –between the secretary work for the Board of Commissioners and snooping through files on her breaks, she’s actually kept rather busy—but she does come along to grill an amenable nightclub owner on the Magnificent Mile. He can’t know Barton too well, since he accidentally mistakes the two of them for a couple, but he and Barton talk sports, and he confirms for them that the intel they’ve gotten so far is on the right track. If Natasha were a better person she wouldn’t revel in the way the man quakes under her icy glare, but she’s never bothered to pretend she was anything else.
She finally asks him one night how he knows so many people here. It’d be useful to her if she had even one city with this many connections, but she’s never been in one place long enough to put down any roots.
He shrugs. “Our line of work, you don’t get to call anywhere home, not really,” he says, “But it’s good to have a city that you can pretend is something approaching a base. And Chicago was mine a long time ago.”
Even with Natasha’s meticulous investigation and Barton’s contacts, it still takes over a week for them to find what SHIELD sent them out for—in the Windy City, corrupt government officials learn to be good at covering their tracks. With the information from Clint’s contacts, however, Natasha manages to trace the racketeering money back to a crime boss in Istanbul, of all places. They’ve sent the information back out to SHIELD, so now all they have to do is wait for confirmation that they can close in the following morning.
Barton is antsy, going half-heartedly through a workout regimen before he gives up and takes to pacing the apartment. As much pleasure as he might take in being back in his adopted town, she can tell that this detail bores him just as much as it does her. The mindless investigation and the waiting are driving him nuts.
“C’mon, let’s get out of here,” he says finally. “Even if we hear back from them we’re not going to make a move til morning. Night on the town, yeah? There’s a bar called Richard’s a few stops down the Blue Line that’s great—it’s a complete dive, but they get a great crowd. I don’t think the jukebox has been updated since around 1980, and they don’t sell anything other than straight booze, hard boiled eggs and beef jerky.”
Natasha shakes her head. “It’s freezing outside, Barton, I don’t want to wait a half hour for the train to come.”
“Come on,” he asks, “Please? It’s the cheapest beer you’re every gonna get in the city, and where else are you gonna get the chance to have pickled eggs with your drinks for 75 cents?”
Truthfully, there’s no real reason for her to refuse, other than her own cantankerousness, so Natasha agrees.
The cold isn’t brutal for once, but even so, Natasha is grateful that the El comes in a timely enough fashion. Barton leads her through a narrow hallway that opens into a dingy, smoke-filled room with a few small tables cramped near the back, and an old-style jukebox next to the entrance from the hallway. There’s a paper sign taped behind the bar that reads “No Smoking” in pencil, but behind the sign there’s an assortment of cigarettes on sale.
Barton’s assessment of the patrons holds true—it’s an even more eclectic mix of people than she would have expected. There’re two separate groups of dour middle-aged men huddled in the corner, a couple of kids in Bulls jerseys who look barely out of their teens, and a gaggle of yuppies gathered loosely around the jukebox. Clint and Natasha take seats at the bar, and the bartender grumpily demands their orders. Natasha gets a shot of vodka, while Clint gets a Heineken, three hard-boiled eggs and a strip of beef jerky.
“Try them,” he says to her after she downs her vodka, “Seriously, when else are you gonna get this sort of combination?”
“Next time I go to a grocery store and buy some eggs myself?” she counters, shaking her head as he pokes at the eggs in their shotglasses.
“You actually ordered those, man?” one of the yuppies comes up from behind them and claps Clint on the back. “I’ve always wanted to but man, never actually thought they’d go well with the beer.”
“You’d be surprised,” Clint says, clearly fighting to keep a straight face, “hell of a lot tastier than peanuts.” He holds one out. “You want to try? On me.”
The man grabs the egg and takes a bite. “I’ll be damned,” he said, “That ain’t bad at all.”
Clint smirks at Natasha.
A pretty woman with curly blonde hair joins them and drapes herself over their new friend. She looks at the eggs and giggles.
“Hey,” she says to him, “What did the egg say to the boiling water?”
The man is clearly too drunk to be quick on the uptake, and he looks at her blankly as he asks, “What?”
“Sorry I’m not hard yet, I just got laid!” She laughs hysterically at her own joke and paws at him, dragging him back toward the jukebox. “Come on, I wanna dance.” The two disappear back to their friends, who have all started dancing enthusiastically to “Don't Stop Me Now.”
Natasha raises an eyebrow at Clint. He raises one back.
They watch as the dancing quickly gathers in momentum and rowdiness. The curly-haired woman is clearly the most boisterous, moving from one man to the next, before the first man finally takes her up and tosses her full into the air, once, twice, three times.
Natasha lets out a low whistle as he catches her the third time, impressed in spite of herself. “Someone holds their liquor well, that’s for sure.”
Clint looks at Natasha suddenly, a manic glint in his eye. “Let’s go,” he said, “We can do better than that, don’t you think?”
Natasha looks back at him in surprise, but masks it quickly with an expression of supreme disinterest.
“I don’t dance,” she says coolly.
“And on that, I call bullshit,” he says, slapping his hand down on the bar for emphasis. “Are you really going to let those stupid kids have all the fun? We can match them and more.”
The dancers by the jukebox have truly let themselves go, and “letting go” is a foreign term to Natasha. But, she reflects, she’s allowed herself to be dragged in this far. And Clint is still giving her that damn ridiculous look.
“Buy my drinks for the rest of the night,” she says finally, “and eat four more of those hard-boiled eggs. Then you get one song—one.”
“Done,” he says with a grin.
The jukebox begins playing “Shake a Tailfeather,” and Barton leaps down from the barstool and holds out his hand to her with that same stupid grin on his face. She sighs and takes it, and they join the rest of the crowd.
She’s danced like this before, but it has always been very deliberate: only when she’s been trying to lure a man into her web, whether for information or assassination. With Barton there’s no agenda, and he moves with an unconscious ease that she matches, allowing muscle memory to take over. He leads only in the most basic sense of the term, and as he pulls her close she spins away, not allowing him to get too close, not yet. But as the music picks up she pulls him back to her, and she notices for the first time the way in which his hand grips hers, and the intensity of his gaze as they guide each other through the crowd. A slow smile spreads across her face as she catches his eye and then glances behind her. He nods, and she pulls away once more. When she turns in he dips her back, and as she springs he flips her easily over his arm. She lands on her feet, her hair in her face.
From there, there’s little to stop them from showing off, and as the song ends the whole bar applauds them. She has time for a little bow to him before she doubles over, laughing in spite of herself. He laughs with her as he follows her back to the bar.
“One more?” he asks, “Please?”
She shakes her head, but still smiles a little as she counts the number of times he has said “please” to her tonight. “One song, Barton, I meant it.”
“Your call,” he sighs, and orders two more drinks from the bartender. “You know,” he says, still grinning as he considers her, “I think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen you laugh.”
She doesn’t quite know what to say to that, so she merely shrugs. It may well be the first time she’s laughed since before SHIELD.
She watches him, so lost in her own thoughts that she barely notices one of the dour middle-aged men coming up to their seats.
“Recognize me, Black Widow?” he asks in Russian. She stiffens slightly, turns to him. As a matter of fact, she doesn’t recognize him, but that doesn’t necessarily count for much. She’s seen a lot of faces over the years.
“Excuse me?” she asks politely in English. “I don’t speak…” she trails off, squints, “Polish?”
“Don’t play dumb, now,” he says, again in Russian, “I never thought I’d find you here, but oh, I have thought a long time about this moment. As have they,” he points toward the group of men in the corner.
She studies him, her concern growing. He has a long, crooked scar down the side of his face, but she can’t place the face or the voice in her memory, but…
Oh, fuck. Fuck.
“Hey, is there a problem here?” Clint asks, his voice carefully casual.
“Yes, yes, there is problem,” the man says to him in English, “Your girlfriend here killed an associate of mine two years ago. Lost me and my friends here a lot of money, too. Embarrassed us.” He gives Natasha a cold smile. “We’d like to pay her back for that.”
Barton glances at Natasha uneasily.
“Are you sure you’ve got the right person here?” he asks, “She clearly doesn’t—“
Natasha sees the knife before Barton does, and kicks out hard, making contact with the man’s wrist. The knife flies from his hand and he snarls in pain, but Natasha’s on him before he has a chance to draw any other weapons. By this time the other men are advancing toward them, but they make the same mistakes they did two years ago, and between her and Barton they make quick work of the five of them, laying them out on the floor of the bar in under a minute. Two bar stools are broken in the process, and the rest of the crowd watches in a shocked horror.
Wordlessly, Natasha and Barton grab their coats, put as much cash as they can into the hands of the bartender (who looks remarkably unfazed by the entire matter), and stride out through the hallway.
It’s almost one in the morning, and not a good time to be wandering around this neighborhood. But Natasha’s blood is up now, and she almost wishes some idiot would try to mug them, just as an excuse to knock some more heads together. Her shoulder throbs dully (it should not still be giving her this much trouble, damn everything to hell), but she barely notices amid the anger coursing through her.
They walk up the steps to the El platform and stand stiffly near the edge. They wait for over twenty minutes in an uncomfortable silence and the train still doesn’t come. She wonders if they should give up the ghost and just catch a cab back, but the bite of the wind is working to calm her down. Somewhat, at least.
“You okay?” Barton asks finally.
“Yeah,” she snaps.
He looks out over the tracks, his hands shoved deep into his coat pockets.
“You wanna talk?” he asks.
He nods, and doesn’t press it. He seems to know when to push and when to hold back, though at this particular moment Natasha’s not sure which she needs.
She knows it’s an inevitability that her past lives and her life with SHIELD will intersect from time to time—the modes of work are too similar, and she’s made herself more than enough enemies. But not enough time has passed for her to get a proper amount of distance, impartiality. The wounds are still fresh enough that something like this leaves her reeling. And the last thing she wants is to be reminded of who she used to be in front of Barton—Barton, who found her in the first place, who has given her far too many inexplicable chances, who danced with her in such a way that she almost, for a moment, felt herself dabbling in the reckless emotions she ascribes to children.
She wants, so badly, to ask him why. To understand what it was about him, about her, that caused him to give her that chance. What it is that keeps him from looking at her the way the rest of SHIELD does, from holding her at an arms’ length. But she doesn’t ask, she can’t. It would involve opening herself up to him on an even deeper level than she already has—and she is not ready for that.
The fight at Richard’s does nothing to compromise the mission—Natasha and Barton made sure the men would be in no mood for talking, and they wouldn’t have any idea where to look for her, anyway. Still, the incident leaves a bad taste in her mouth, and she finds herself itching to finish the job and put the city behind her. They get the go-ahead from SHIELD to move in on the two corrupt commissioners, and Natasha brings them in to Coulson at the extraction point with little difficulty. One of the men tries to make a break for it outside of the building, but Barton brings him down with a tranq arrow.
It doesn’t take them long to pack up the apartment, and their new orders come in from SHIELD—true to predictions, Fury wants them to follow the trail back to Istanbul, bring down the organization there. But Coulson must have a softer spot for Barton than he lets on, because they’re scheduled to leave the day after tomorrow, and they find two tickets to a Blackhawks game taped to the apartment door.
Barton lets out a little whoop, and looks at Natasha, at once both defeated and hopeful. “How many hard-boiled eggs am I going to have to eat to get you to come with me to this one?”
She smiles evilly. “Well, since you asked nicely—none. But I want that flask of whiskey you have—there’s no way in hell I’m sitting through an entire hockey game sober.”
He groans, but hands it over.
The next day there’s something approaching a thaw—that is, the temperature rises to 33 degrees—and Natasha doesn’t mind that the El is, as usual, running behind schedule. They still get to the United Center an hour early, and Barton’s looking like a kid at Christmas as they walk down to find their seats.
Even though it’s a middle-of-the-week game, the arena seems strangely empty to Natasha—only about half the seats are filled, and only about half of those seated actually seem interested in the game. Two rows ahead of them Natasha spots two men in suits talking business, while their bored teenage daughters pour over copies of fashion magazines. Clint is oblivious to this, however, as he comes back with two large buckets of popcorn and hands one over to Natasha cheerfully.
“This right here—this is your quintessential Chicago sporting event,” he says happily as the players skate onto the ice. “Blackhawks against the world.”
“I thought the quintessential Chicago sporting event was supposed to be the Cubs,” Natasha replies, “Or ‘Da Bears’ or however the hell people say it around here.”
Clint lets out a derisive snort. “The Cubs? Give me a break. They almost get to the World Series for the first time in sixty years—failing, mind you—and suddenly they’re everyone’s favorite franchise. And of course the owners use it as an excuse to jack up the prices even more than they’ve done with the Blackhawks...”
He spends the next ten minutes going on a tirade against the Cubs and their overexposure. He has no shortage of contempt for the entire populace of Wrigleyville, which he characterizes as a den of rich, eternally drunken frat boys who’ve hopped on a bandwagon and ruined what was once a halfway decent neighborhood.
“Seriously, Natasha, you don’t get it,” he says intently. “It’s so easy—so easy—to be a Cubs fan or a Bears fan, or even a Sox fan. But the Blackhawks—you’ve got to work to be invested in this team. Their record’s been as bad as anyone else’s, and the fucking owner is so twisted he won’t even let the games be televised on networks anymore. So you’ve got to shell out fifty dollars for the tickets and come all the way out here to the United Center. And odds are you’ll probably see them lose. So Cubs fans, they don’t get to talk about loyalty. The people here—” he gestures emphatically around him, “they’re the ones who have real loyalty.”
She eyes the teenaged girls, who have now moved on from fashion magazines and are each busily talking on their cell phones.
“Doesn’t sound like there’s much in it for you poor fans,” she says,“Especially you, if you can’t even get them on TV. Why do you still bother?”
He hesitates, just barely, before he answers her.
“Hockey was always my favorite sport,” he says, munching on his popcorn, “ever since I was a kid. My brother and me, we…had a lot of differences, but it was the one thing we shared. Hockey and the Blackhawks. It’s been a constant. So even now, even if they’ve crashed past rock bottom, that doesn’t matter. I’m not going to give up on them because the idiots running the show have made a bunch of stupid decisions.”
Natasha is fortunate that the Blackhawks score at that moment, for Clint doesn’t notice how she stares at him. She marvels at this man, in turns quiet, absurd, solemn, playful, and better than she will ever be. And as he spills his popcorn over when he leaps to his feet, she begins to grasp at answers to her eternally unasked questions.
They lose after all, but Barton leaves the United Center in a fit of high spirits regardless.
“Okay,” he says, “our last night here. I think…I think I am going to call Giordano’s one more time, and ask them if there’s any way to put relish in with their sausage pizza…”
“Barton, I have been so very patient with you, but if you think for a second…” she trails off as she sees his eyes dancing merrily. He backs away from her, shaking his head, his arms spread wide.
“You just make it too easy, you know that?”
She shoves him into a snowbank, and he laughs long and loud.
Natasha does not like Chicago. She does not understand the tolerance for the corruption, or the lawn chairs staked out in the snow, or the obsession with hotdogs and stuffed pizza. But Chicago helps her, in so many small ways, to understand Clint Barton. And for that, she is willing to forgive all of its faults.