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book cover image featuring Clint and Natasha on a backdrop of stars

*

Clint stood, staring at the menu scrawled on the chalkboard of the SHIELD dining room, but the words stubbornly remained the same hastily written letters that appeared every Tuesday. Lasagna, beef. Vegetarian. Finally he made a face and grabbed the nearest sandwich, grey and unidentifiable underneath layers of plastic wrap, before digging through a barrel of slowly melting ice cubes for the last can of Dr. Pepper.

"Barton!"

Clint grinned, heading directly to the table that the call had come from. His chair scraped against the floor as he yanked it back with his free hand, and sat down. "Overton. How's training the next generation going?"

Virgil Overton smiled back at him, revealing an easy, toothy grin. "It's going okay. This is a good bunch. Not as mouthy as some students I remember."

"Hey, you passed me, so I couldn't have been that bad, right?" Clint frowned at his sandwich before biting in. Tuna.

"Only way to get rid of you, right? I knew you'd fit right in with those strike team adrenaline addicts." Overton dug into the remains of his meatballs, twirling his spaghetti as he changed the subject. "How's your hot Russian? Still gorgeous?"

"Haven't seen her," Clint answered, as neutrally as he could. It had been a year, and Clint still got asked intrusive questions about Romanov on a regular basis. Varying only in lewdness and detail, and all too ridiculous to be worth the effort of an argument.

"Yeah? Long mission?"

Clint made a face. "Um. Evals, I think?"

"Hmmn. She's still probationary, isn't she?" Overton asked. "Don't think they'll ship her back to Russia or anything?"

Clint hesitated, but he didn't have an answer to Virgil's question. He'd been trying, for weeks, not to articulate his lingering concern about what would happen if Romanov's first year results were less than what the brass desired. If after all this time she was declared unready, unfit, a traitor. What they might do with her, after all this time and everything she now knew. Some days the idea seemed ridiculous, and other days he knew that SHIELD would do what it thought was best. As it always did.

*

He got the call requesting his presence in Coulson's office the next day. He'd been finishing up a practice session, body straining over the sight of his bow. He quickly placed the bow and quiver in his locker and showered, turning up to Coulson's fourth floor office in the black SHIELD uniform he'd shrugged into as hastily as he could. Coulson looked up as Clint entered, and wrinkled his nose slightly at Clint's appearance. Coulson was neatly dressed as always, in the dark, well-pressed suit that had been tailored to his frame. Clint recognised the tie knotted around Coulson's collar, printed silk with a loud pattern, one that he only wore when he was feeling cheerful.

"Are we going to have to discuss Regulation 22 again, Barton?" Coulson asked him.

Regulation 22 involved the SHIELD uniform. Who could wear it, where and in what condition. Clint reached for the hem of his shirt and tucked it in with a grin. "Grady said you wanted to see me."

"I did. Close the door."

"Okay," Clint said, stretching his face into a playful grimace as he sat. "What did I do, sir?"

Coulson's frown deepened slightly, in the tiniest expression of surprise, and then cleared completely in the next moment. "Who says you did anything wrong?"

"My ass in this uncomfortable chair?"

"Ah." There was the lightness of a repressed smile in Coulson's voice when he answered, "Well, if there's something you'd like to confess, please don't let me stop you."

"You'll get nothing but my rank and serial number, sir."

"We have ways to make you talk," Coulson joked dryly, but the playful expression was gone in an instant. "This is about Romanov's evaluation."

Shit. Clint pulled himself out his slouch, leaning forward slightly. "Was there a problem? She's still new, Sir. Still getting used to the way we do things."

"We?" Coulson prompted gently, and Clint shrugged.

"We. SHIELD. Americans. But she'll get there, I'm sure of it.

A year and a half ago, Romanov had been a name in a mission folder, above an improbable list of sightings and kills. Even contact in the field, a glimpse of the Black Widow in action, hadn't dulled Clint's feeling that there was more to the picture than what was on the page. He'd been youngwhen he first used his skills in violence, but he was certain he'd never felt as young as Romanov had looked, framed against the lines of his bow and arrow.

Coulson nodded, reaching for his desktop keyboard and typing briefly over the SHIELD logo on the screen. After a moment, Romanov's intake photo flashed on the screen. "That's fair. For what it's worth, Director Fury and the doctors who are administering her psychiatric evaluations think you might have a lot to teach her."

"Should you be telling me about her psych evals, sir?"

"There's no regulation specifically prohibiting it," Coulson assured him evasively. "I won't share too many details, but Dr. Alvarez is concerned about her ongoing resistance to acclimation."

"Acclimation," Clint repeated slowly, and Coulson smiled reassuringly.

"Acclimation. It's a fancy way of saying that they'd like to see her more settled into life here at SHIELD."

That actually made sense, Clint thought, relaxing slightly as he thought about it. No matter Natasha Romanov's all-around proficiency, there would never be any mistaking her for an Academy graduate, or for one of the starry-eyed recruits who'd been dreaming of government service since their sixth birthday. "Maybe it's just the, uh, language barrier."

Coulson looked oddly approving, even as he shook his head. "I appreciate your loyalty, Barton. But Romanov's English is excellent, and you know it."

"Then maybe she just needs time, sir. It took me a while."

"It actually didn't, Agent Barton. While it's true you took quite some time to get used to SHIELD discipline," here Clint grinned, unfazed by the implied reprimand, "you were able to integrate yourself in social situations. You told your team members about your weekend. You participated in the football pool, despite your inexplicable attachment to the Chicago Bears. Agent Romanov has done none of these things, and..."

"Wait." He thought there were elements of revisionist history in Phil's summary of Clint's introduction to SHIELD, but Clint didn't stop to challenge them. He focused instead on the sentence that had caught his attention. "It's been over a year. Romanov must've made friends."

Coulson raised his eyebrows in a non-verbal interrogation. "I'm sure. Can you name any?"

The office was silent for a few moments. Clint actually couldn't, the thought came reluctantly. Naming himself would have been pure exaggeration. It was true that he'd brought her in, that he and Romanov worked well together. But that was it. And now that Clint thought over the few interactions with others that he had witnessed, he realised that she was merely polite, just friendly enough to avoid attracting negative attention. Clint sighed. "Okay, sir. She doesn't have any friends. You want me to do what? Set her up on Facebook?"

Coulson hesitating was never a good sign, but he did so now, glancing down at his computer screen for just a moment. "Do you know that through all her evaluation process, Romanov has mentioned you the most?"

Clint frowned. He still wasn't sure Coulson should be telling him this, or that he wanted to hear it. "That makes sense. I brought her in."

He'd spent the whole process half-expecting it to be part of a long con. Despite the instincts that insisted he was doing the right thing, it would only take a moment for Romanov to turn and try to kill him, or simply change her mind.

"Or perhaps she likes you."

"Okay." Clint's voice shook, barely holding back his unexpected amusement. He wasn't sure when Coulson's office had turned into a wormhole into the fourth grade. Not that Clint's fourth grade attendance had been particularly regular, but he definitely remembered a lot of discussions on who liked who, who hated who, and who had the most friends. Also a lot of getting into fights, surprisingly intense for being nine years old. "That's great, honestly. I like her."

Coulson arched his eyebrows, and pretended not to notice that he was being made fun of. "Right. So if she likes you, and you like her, is there any specific reason the two of you have yet to develop a friendship?"

Now the laughter bubbled over. "Sir, no specific reason. Romanov is just a hard girl to get to know. That's all."

Coulson nodded, as if Clint wasn't telling him anything he didn't already know. "Well, it may be time to give it another shot. Director Fury and the shrinks have determined, in their infinite wisdom, that it would be beneficial to Probationary Agent Romanov's development within the organization if she were to develop stronger personal ties to SHIELD and the local community. They feel that you would be the best start."

"Uh, let me get this straight. You're ordering me to make friends with Romanov?"

"If it helps you to think of it that way," Coulson answered.

Which was a yes, but Clint didn't call him on it. The laughter had subsided, and Clint simply nodded, trying to get his brain into mission briefing mode. Trying to remember if Romanov had ever expressed an interest in making friends, with him or with anyone else. "This assignment," he didn't quite raise his hands to make air quotes, but it was a near thing, "could be fucking impossible, Coulson. Please tell me you realize that."

"Director Fury and I have confidence in you," was all that Coulson said in response.

Clint sighed. "Yeah. Okay."

*

When he'd first encountered Natasha Romanov she'd been twenty-one. A deadly enemy agent in a black dress, beautiful and dangerous. Clint had had kill orders, but he'd recognised the lost look on her face. It was like looking in a mirror, give or take ten years.

The truth was that after bringing her in from the cold, after fighting shoulder to shoulder with her on ops, he didn't know that much more about her that what had been written about her in his mission file. She was still gorgeous, still lethal. Still a little lost, probably, but Clint couldn't judge her for that. The same had been true for him, for a long time.

*

Romanov lived in base housing. Most of the agents did, including Clint, whenever they were assigned here to the middle-of-nowhere, New Mexico. Living off base meant having to maintain a local cover, meant paying rent on a place you were out of more often than you were home. The base had its own rhythm, and never really fell completely quiet. Perhaps the lonely foster kid in Clint still preferred that to being alone in a place of his own.

And maybe Romanov's reasoning was similar. This meant, however, that there were a limited number of places for Clint to stake out

He started with the gym. The gym was SHIELD's version of the town square, or perhaps the office water cooler. It took two days before he "ran into" her on the exercise mats, stretched into a lithe, elegant form.

"Romanov. How's it going?"

"It is going," she answered simply, in her flat, international accent. "How are you?"

Clint couldn't help smiling at that, at the way she raised her green eyes to his face as if she actually cared about his next words. He didn't think that Romanov liked small talk, or wanted to hear about his day. But one would never really guess that from her expressions, always unfailingly polite and charming. It might be what Black Widow conning a target looked like. But in this moment, with all her attention on him, he understood why this was the skill for which she was most famous.

"I'm good," he responded, dropping down onto the mat beside her. "Looking forward to a good workout, since I guess an endorphin high is all the excitement I'm going to get right now. Bored as fuck."

"Few missions," Romanov agreed. "I do not mind."

"Hmmn." He grinned at her, leaning into a stretch, rifling through his memory to remember if she'd ever mentioned any hobbies. "That's good. For you, I mean. Me, I'm about ready to go back to Macedonia."

Her eyes narrowed slightly, in an expression that Clint had seen on her face before. It roughly translated, he imagined, to you Americans are strange. Otherwise she said nothing, shrugging slightly.

"I'm so bored," he continued, as if she'd said something to encourage the conversation. "So bored that I agreed to help Overton teach the new recruits on how to treat their service weapons. You want to come scare them with me?"

Natasha hesitated, and that seemed to be another real expression showing on her face, Clint thought. But not one he could decipher, and quickly covered up. "Why?" she asked.

Clint shrugged. "Why not?"

"I'm probationary, not a training agent. Perhaps you should be afraid of what I will teach." She said this with a smile, like it was a tease or a dare. He couldn't tell for sure how much she was joking, how much she really believed her skills were in question. He didn't know who might have given her that impression, either. Sorting out bullies or base harassment was more than Coulson had enlisted him for, and Clint didn't feel up to the task.

So he simply smiled, as if he had taken her joke at face value. "Listen, if you're not corrupting the baby birds at least a little then you're doing it wrong. The ones who can't roll with it aren't going to last. It'll be fun, I swear."

She smiled back at him, and just like that the friendly young woman was back, the mistrust vanished as if it had been a mirage. "Fine. I'll be there."

*

Clint would have counted it as a victory, except he suspected that she simply couldn't think of an unobtrusive way to turn him down.

But the training session was a good idea, he decided as he thought it over. Reading between the lines of Coulson's instructions, it seemed all that was really needed was for Romanov to look like she was settling in. Clint plunged his energy into his workout, trying not to watch Romanov as she finished up her own. Like almost every other agent in the room, he was mostly failing.

*

He'd meant to go to the range in the afternoon. Instead Clint found himself called into an office in Operations, to clarify details of a mission report he'd submitted months ago. He hadn't been exaggerating his boredom. Working out of New York or Washington had its drawbacks, but at least when missions slowed down there would be plenty of distractions to break the monotony.

The rumours passing through the hallways lately suggested that Nick Fury was pushing the organisation towards something new, making an abrupt change of direction that no one could explain. Suddenly SHIELD was leaving certain kinds of cases to other agencies, dropping stings that had been years in the making and picking up others mid-stream. In Operations or Research there would always be plenty to do, but for field agents the work ebbed and flowed, amidst a chorus of grumbling.

In the offices and dormitories, almost every agent derided the chaos that swirled through each department. Except it wasn't quite chaos, not from Clint's point of view. Clint wasn't in charge, but he thought the pattern was clear. The Director was preparing them for something.

*

Despite the scepticism with which she'd accepted the invitation, Romanov turned up to the training gym precisely on time. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail, no makeup on her face to contrast her black SHIELD shirt and pants that she wore. The combination made her look just as young as Overton's recruits, a class of fourteen incoming agents gathered in an informal line. Clint watched as the class gathered the exact same impression, as suspicious eyes roved over both new strangers, then dismissed her as the least influential agent in the room. Clint had watched her in action enough to know that the picture that she was making wasn't an innocent accident. It was a ruse, the fresh-faced, clear-eyed role that the Black Widow slipped into when she wanted to be underestimated. Romanov had played it on him, once. But Clint didn't know why she was doing it here, not out on a mission but safe on base, among people she should have felt no threat from.

Romanov was still technically a probationary agent. The men and women in this group should have been her peers, but each was so much greener than she had ever really been. Clint stood uneasily beside her as Overton's speech meshed into a sequence of words that he'd heard a thousand times before. Overton gestured them both to the centre of the room, ad Romanov strap on a standard hip holster and a dummy weapon, then had Clint enact some of the ways that a hostile enemy might try to disarm her. They ran quickly through a few scenarios, Clint gaining control easily until the lesson changed, and Romanov was instructed to fight back. Clint followed the instructions, relaxed his instincts, and found himself flying through the air when Romanov countered his advance. Clint bounced off the mat with a dramatic groan, and the recruits winced in sympathy.

In motion Romanov had no longer looked so innocent. Overton was bouncing on his toes, grinning with excitement, and Clint could see why he had stuck with these training assignments for so long. "Why don't you two show everyone how it's really done?" Overton asked.

Clint couldn't help hesitating. The last time that he and Romanov fought each other, she had been a target like any other, and she had almost killed him. But Romanov shrugged, tilting her head at him before she turned her back in feigned casualness. The recruits were laughing now, picking up on the playfulness of her movements. Clint raised his eyebrows. His whole life, Clint had been terrible at passing up dareThey but he had no idea how Romanov knew that about him.

Clint held in a grin, giving no warning before he charged. He would always have height and weight on her, but her flexibility and reflexes were honed in ways that her file had only hinted at. In the sterile, supervised setting of the training room, with neither of them willing to fight dirty, they were almost evenly matched. He blocked kicks and punches carefully, almost lazily, watching her carefully as they circled each other. When his own hits landed twice in a row, he thought he had caught her in a moment of distraction, but in a heartbeat Natasha had leveraged his change in balance and knocked him onto the ground. This time, Clint's groan was sincere, bringing one hand up to massage his ribs.

"Okay, you guys, no blood in my classroom," Overton called, and Clint looked up at Romanov and burst into laughter. It was the most fun that he'd had in weeks.

"I almost had you."

There was a momentary pause, and then Romanov smiled down at him. "Keep telling yourself that," she said.

Overton barked out new instructions, and the class began to practice their skills in sets of two. Romanov was paired up with the tiniest female recruit, who followed each of the Widow's movements with an expression of concentration and awe. Romanov took instructing her as seriously as she did everything else, demonstrating the manipulation of gravity and leverage with an intensity that Clint couldn't quite keep his eyes off of.

"Recruits!" Overton shouted, an hour later. "Break! Maybe Specialists Barton and Romanov will come back and visit on Monday." He grinned at both of them. "We're going down to the range, going over unusual weapons they might encounter in the field."

"Like enhanced humans," Clint suggested, and several recruits' expressions widened in fear.

"No enhanced in the building," Overton answered with a grimace. "Thank God. But there will be lasers. You all stop by and show us how the specialists do it."

Clint glanced over at Romanov, and smiled. "We can try and be there. Right?"

She shrugged silently, but it wasn't quite a no.

*

"Remind you of your training classes?" Clint asked, as he pulled off his sweaty shirt outside the door to their changing areas.

She shrugged at the question without looking at him, her hand on the door that led to the women's lockers. "A discussion of weapons? Maybe when I was eight."

He grinned at that, though it wasn't quite a joke. He remembered that tossing Romanov in with the regular recruits had been an idea dismissed as unfair to all involved. Instead she had progressed through a curriculum selected by Fury, one that had seen her in the field much sooner than most could hope for.

"What about you?" she asked. "Did your training look the same as that?"

Clint's had been a less idiosyncratic recruitment than Romanov's, and no one had much cared if he was bored by the process. "Sorta, yeah. I was a smart-assed show-off who got the whole class in trouble as often as he could. The other newbies hated me."

"That is surprising." Natasha's expression was unchanging, but her eyes were light.

Clint laughed. She was warming up to him, he was pretty sure. "You really willing to go back to Virgil's class? He's probably kidding about the lasers, because Research hates to let their new gadgets out of their sight. But he'll blow something up. If you want to go."

Romanov paused, silent for a long stretch of seconds as she considered him, and then she shrugged. "Why not?"

*

Their return to the class of recruits never happened. On Sunday night, Clint's phone rang. It was Agent Coulson on the other end, telling him he would be needed for a mission the next day. Romanov would also be on this assignment. He was to be on the tarmac first thing in the morning. They would be briefed midair.

*

"You don't actually need me here, you know."

"Shhh." Romanov hushed him, underneath her breath.

She was wearing her field mic, but they were close enough that he didn't need his headset to understand her over the sound of rushing wind blowing hard from the north. It was a clear night. The moon was high and clear over the London suburbs, giving Clint more than enough light by which to read Romanov's lips.

"Just saying."

"You can leave." She looked perfectly at ease, as graceful as a trapeze artist despite the eleven stories to the street below them. Her fingers danced against the glass pane, working with the piece of tech she'd attached to the window pane. "Do some sightseeing instead."

Clint chuckled, his voice pitched to a low volume. The building was an office building, one that should have been deserted at this late hour. There was always room for surprises, and Clint stayed alert despite his casual tone. "Yeah, right. No thank you. This place always gives me the creeps."

If Romanov had a question about that, she didn't voice it. Clint watched as she continued to work, occasionally grumbling to herself in Russian. It was another few minutes before the window pane made an ominous creaking noise, breaking into dozens of pieces as it fell into the darkened room ahead of them.

Both slipped easily off the ledge and inside, ignoring the crunching glass under the tread of their boots. Clint's flashlight swept over the room, revealing a carved mahogany desk, and four walls covered in framed art.

Clint whistled, resting his light on a stone sculpture in a corner of the room. "Someone's a collector."

"I guess that's why we're here." Romanov was crouched down close to the floor, using her own light to carefully examine each of the desk drawers in turn.

"I just don't know why anyone would want to collect creepy oh-eight-fours," Clint muttered. He began to join in her search, running his hands over the paneled walls.

Romanov seemed to find that funny, laughing softly. She had begun to pull the biggest drawer away from the desk's solid frame, and sighed in frustration when there was nothing hidden underneath.

"Here."

A second sculpture had caught his attention, sitting at a slightly crooked angle against the wall. Perhaps it was a bird, or some sort of drunken angel. Clint couldn't tell, as he holstered his flashlight and used both arms to heft the sculpture away from its resting place.

Romanov came up behind him, using her own light to illuminate the keyless safe he'd discovered, set into the wall. "Good eye," she said, and Clint grinned.

They both knew, though neither would say it aloud, that Romanov could have undertaken this mission by herself. But SHIELD rules forbid a probationary agent from going into the field alone, and Coulson was nothing if not a stickler for procedure. Babysitting was far from the worst duty Clint had ever pulled, and he didn't particularly mind. Romanov was easy to work with, skilled and with a talent for improvisation that matched his own.

"This is going to take a while, I'm guessing." Safecracking wasn't a talent Clint had ever learned or been interested in. But the thick metal face off the safe looked daunting. Clint leaned back with his bow at his side, ready to stand guard while Romanov worked.

Romanov glanced over at him, shrugging. "I spoke with the owner today. He was very cooperative."

"Don't tell me he just gave you the combination."

Romanov's head bowed slightly, hiding a small smile. Her gloved fingers tapped four numbers on the keypad, then twisted hard on the handle. It took only two tries before the mechanism unlocked, and Romanov swung the door open. Clint watched as she rifled through the contents, casually pushing aside a stack of Euros for the oddly shaped black case that lay underneath.

"Do you hear something?" Clint's hearing wasn't perfect, and hadn't been since he was a kid. SHIELD tech helped, but he had learned to tune into other clues to assist him. Outside the broken window, the colour of the darkness had changed, though it was hours too early for dawn. Clint inched towards the window, keeping himself carefully at the edges as he looked out below.

Romanov stood up, tucking the small case into the pouch of her field suit. "Sounds like trouble. How many?"

Down at street level, two armoured SUVs had pulled up to the front door. Their front headlights cut a bright swathe through the darkness, and Clint could make out automatic rifles strapped to each of the men streaming out of both cars. He shook his head. "More than I want to deal with. Your chat with this guy didn't mention the silent alarm?"

Romanov rolled her eyes at him. "We need an exit. Stairs?"

Clint glanced back down to the scene below, and shook his head. "Stairwell is a shitty spot to get trapped in a firefight. Maybe we each pick a good hiding spot and wait it out."

"No. I don't want to get separated." Romanov spun around and strode toward the office door.

Before Clint could ask for an explanation, she had opened the door and exited the office. Clint followed automatically, blinking rapidly against the sudden change of light outside the unlit room. His gaze darted in all directions, sweeping up and down the empty hallway. Across the hall the first door that she tried was unlocked, and they entered quickly. Romanov closed the door behind them, and they were shrouded once again in the dark.

"Communication," Clint reminded her. She was getting better, but she was used to being solo, and sometimes those unconscious habits still reared their head. Romanov glanced back at him.

"You think they have the entire building surrounded?" she asked.

Clint crossed the room and looked carefully out the window. This window overlooked an unlit footpath, the narrow route lined by hedges and bordered by a taller office building on the other side. He shook his head. "Maybe they think it's a false alarm."

Romanov's attempt to breach this window went quicker than the last. Clint held his breath as the shards of glass fell, but could make out no accompanying crashing noise, any sound swallowed up by the wind. Romanov nodded, gesturing for Clint to proceed. He readied his grappling arrow, drew his bowstring, and released the shot.

Romanov tugged on the line, testing its strength, and then swung away without a word. Clint fired another line, and then soared from the window ledge, following her path.

The line gave no warning before it snapped. The tension released in an instant, and Clint was falling. He had only seconds to reach out for Natasha's line beside him, grabbing hold and throwing all his weight towards it. The abrupt thrust of force was impossible to control, and Clint crashed sideways against the concrete wall face.

He could feel the tug of Romanov's weight in the rope as she slid back down towards him. Clint's ears were ringing from the unexpected collision as he shook his head to wave her off. Go.

Romanov hesitated for a second before complying. Clint was close behind her, scaling the building as quickly as he could and heaving himself onto the roof. Romanov was crouched down on the gravel, looking for all the world as if she'd been waiting there all night.

"Didn't you check your lines?"

He supposed that was Russian for are you okay? His skin was scraped bloody along the back of his hand, pain shooting up through his injured forearm to his elbow. Clint sucked in a breath, struggling to catch himself, but knew they didn't have long. His broken grappling line still lay in the street below, like a large neon clue pointing towards their location.

"Of course I checked the goddamn line." He had. There'd been nothing wrong with it. "I told you. Oh-eight-fours and fairies and magical fucking stone circles. This whole country is cursed. Nothing ever goes right here."

Clint rose to his feet, ignoring the fresh throb of pain as he did so. Romanov was silently staring at him. Clint steadied himself, grimacing, then grabbed his arrow to reel in the unbroken rope. "Let's go. Tell Exfil we're fifteen minutes out."

*

"Barton!"

Romanov was forced to shout to be heard over the turbines of the plane that had met them at the extraction point. They would be over the States in a few hours, the dark ocean spread for hundreds of miles below. Clint was about ready to sleep sitting up, though it wouldn't be the first time.

"Romanov?" He squinted up at her as she loomed over him. She'd come out of the unexpected escape relatively unharmed, though the same couldn't be said of him.

"How is your arm?" she asked.

"Hurts," he admitted with a shrug. The plane's co-pilot was the most qualified medic of the three of them, and he'd wrapped up the bleeding gash in Clint's forearm. His elbow was heavily bruised, though. It was his right arm, luckily not the drawing arm, but if he'd needed his bow it would have been a struggle to hold the weight.

"I am sorry," Romanov added, sounding genuinely concerned. "I should have been faster."

"Not your fault." Clint answered with a shrug. He patted the seat beside him. "So forget it. Sit down."

She sat, sighing slightly as she did so. They were both still wired, juiced up on adrenaline that had nowhere left to go. Clint kind of hated these hit and run missions, but there had been more and more of them lately. Every half-substantiated rumour of mystical energy and incomplete weird science project seemed to be of interest to SHIELD these days. Clint didn't know what this particular one did, but he'd be just as happy when it was out of their possession.

"We never got to go set some recruits on fire," he reminded her, and Romanov acknowledged this with a casual nod.

"No, we did not."

"Well, want to do something else instead? There's a half-decent bar in town. I don't know if you've been."

Romanov sat back, frowning at him. "A bar."

"Yeah, a bar. Music, alcohol. You want to check it out?"

"Why?" she asked, suspicion showing openly on her face.

Clint shrugged as casually as he could, aware that he was probably blowing Coulson's half-baked againstent with each word. "Because I like to unwind after a mission. It's better than obsessing over all the things that could have gone wrong."

"No," she said, and there was a subtle note of frustration that caught him by surprise. "You've never invited me before."

Sitting underneath her words, the implication that no one had invited her before. That she didn't know why that should change now. The co-pilot was turned in his seat, staring openly at them, his mouth pinched and joyless in a narrow, suspicious face. Clint could only imagine all the things he might write about Romanov's ongoing failure to acclimate in his mission report. "I guess I haven't," Clint agreed, voice pitched low and relaxed. "But I'm asking you now. You want to come?"

She hesitated just as she had done in the gym, but Clint liked to think he was getting better at decoding her silent language. She was uncertain of his motives, he thought, but intrigued at the same time. Or perhaps only playing at being intrigued, her clear eyes studying him intently.

"I do not know much about you."

That wasn't an answer, or even a direct response to his question. Clint bent closer to her, as if he had a secret to whisper.

"Really?" he asked. "Because Coulson says I share too much, usually."

Romanov's nose wrinkled, her eyes narrowing just slightly. It wasn't quite a laugh, but he would take it. Clint pressed on.

"Get me drunk enough, and I pretty much won't shut up. Pretty great offer, right?" He let the invitation hang in the air for a moment, as Romanov stared at him.

"Fine," she said finally, the word a long huff of breath against her lips. "I'll come and drink your shitty American beer."

"Sounds like you've been drinking the wrong beer, Widow. We'll have to introduce you to the good American stuff. You'll never drink anything else again."

"That's quite the promise," Romanov said, but she let him lean in close for a long time before she pulled away.

*

Medical insisted on x-raying his elbow, despite his protests. Clint knew his body, relied on it for a living, and he'd had enough real injuries to know the difference. But the medics were programmed to fuss, and Clint left them to it. Romanov had gone straight to the dorms, and Clint followed straight after. He pulled the blackout curtains in his room, curled up around his pillow, and slept.

He was on reduced activity for a week, long enough for the swelling to go down as the injured area healed itself. He could fire his weapons despite the pain if he had to, but the SHIELD regs were conservative, and Clint had learned to roll with it. It wouldn't be much different, he supposed, from the endless downtime he'd had lately. Stretches of boredom were part of the gig. He was used to it. Clint finished his post-mission paperwork, double-checked his work, and went to find out if Romanov would meet him after dinner.

*

She'd been waiting in the lobby. As Clint saw her he had to catch himself, cutting off his desire to stare. From the way that other agents glanced over, and then glanced away as they hurried through the door, he wasn't the only one. Romanov wore skintight jeans and a sleeveless top, and heels that gave an extra couple of inches to her small frame. She lowered her dark glasses to greet him, and he had the impression from her wan smile that she'd been wondering if he would actually show.

"Sorry," Clint said, as he led the way along the outdoor pavement, to where the base shuttle bus would start its circuit into town. "I'm late a lot."

"So you are," Romanov agreed, but there didn't sound like there was judgement in her words.

Entering the bar was a replay of leaving the base. Romanov had a rapt audience for each step across the floor to his table. Real women didn't swing their hips like those in the movies, but she did, each step as graceful as a dancer's. The men watched openly, but the women did too, out of envy or curiosity or some combination.

Clint had a sudden flashback to the fresh-faced agent she'd pretended to be in the training room, except he had no idea who this particular performance was meant for. She was twenty-two and beautiful, and the world would notice her no matter what she did. Perhaps there was a kind of defense for her, as if cultivating the attention was the same as controlling it. Perhaps Clint would never understand.

Romanov eased herself into the seat opposite him and let him order her a drink.

*

She was staring at his arm again.

"Jesus," he said, lifting his beer to his mouth and taking a sip. "Not you, too. It's not even my dominant side. It's fine."

But she was still staring, and Clint took a moment to try and think it through. Romanov was a foreign agent, trained in a black ops program that no one could prove had ever existed. Clint remembered the very first time they'd failed a mission objective together. Mission intelligence had been outdated, and in the end they'd had to put all their energy into getting away unharmed. Romanov had been very quietly nervous, and it had taken him days to realise that she was bracing herself. Waiting to be punished.

He'd shrugged at her then. Said to her, hey, remember that time I was sent to neutralise an asset and instead I brought her back to HQ like a lost puppy?

I am not a puppy, Romanov had answered, and he had thought to himself, no, but you were lost.

So Clint looked at her and said as clearly as he could, "Not your fault." He didn't add that it wasn't a serious injury, because he knew that she knew. He knew she'd seen worse, up close.

"Okay," Romanov said, reluctantly, and Clint guessed that that translated into, let's agree to disagree. "This is your favourite bar?"

Clint shook his head. "Did I say that? My favourite bar's in Virginia. Well, it's my favourite bar in America at least. You?"

Romanov took a sip from her glass, leaving fingerprints in the condensation as she considered her answer. "I was doing surveillance in Anchorage, once. The french fries were excellent."

He grinned at the novelty of learning something new about her. "French fries, huh?"

"We weren't allowed unhealthy food," she answered with a matter-of-fact shrug. "So now I have come to enjoy it."

She didn't seem upset by the discussion of the past, so Clint followed her lead, stifling the reflexive apology forming on his tongue. "I don't think I even knew what vegetables looked like before I joined SHIELD. I had a girlfriend who wanted us to settle down in farming country, and grow turnips or something, but God. That would have been a disaster."

Natasha frowned, distractedly running her thumb around the rim of her glass and smudging the traces of lipstick that she'd left there. "The girl? Or the farm?"

"Both, I guess. She didn't really want a farm, anyway. What she wanted was for me to quit SHIELD and ask her to marry her." And he'd almost done it, more than once. Clint took a long drink of beer, trying to brush off the memory. "I'm a pretty shitty boyfriend, by the way."

Romanov raised her eyebrows at him. "I'll keep that in mind."

Clint winced, because yeah, they'd definitely taken a sharp turn into inappropriate topics of discussion between workplace friends. If Romanov was uncomfortable it didn't show on her face, but she fell silent as Clint groped for a new conversational gambit. "What about you, is that your ideal exit strategy? Farmhouse in the middle of nowhere?"

"I'm still living out the last exit strategy," she pointed out evenly, and Clint nodded.

"Yeah, I guess you are. I know it takes a while to get the hang of things here, but you'll get there."

"Do you really believe that?"

Clint did believe it, with an intensity that had caught him by surprise. He wouldn't have brought her in, or be sitting with her now, if he felt otherwise. What he had given her on that rain-soaked rooftop had been a chance to stop running, to take a stand and to choose something good to be a part of, but he knew that Romanov wasn't truly out of survival mode yet. He'd known that before Coulson called him into his office. Clint remembered from his own experience just how long it could take your heart and brain to catch up to their new surroundings. "Yeah, I honestly do."

"Yes." Romanov eyed him carefully, imparting a delicate sharpness to each word. "I suppose that you have to believe that. I wouldn't be here if you didn't."

What Romanov said was factually true, and yet something of her speech and body language suggested a meaning he couldn't decipher. She leaned towards him. She was beautiful, and yet something in her movements made him feel wary. Clint glanced away for a moment, trying not to feel as if he was being interrogated. Tested by a set of invisible standards, and left to hang if he failed. "Sure," he said. "But the only one who really has to believe it is you."

Her mouth screwed up tightly, and her eyes flashed with another cryptic thought. "Perhaps," she said, and let the subject drop.

After that the conversation flowed smoothly, as if a switch had been thrown to erase his earlier missteps. Romanov could be funny, Clint was surprised to find, with a dry, off-beat sense of humour that threaded its way through every story she told. She laughed occasionally at Clint's jokes in return, before green eyes widened slightly as if the sound itself had surprised her.

He ordered a second round, and they savoured their drinks slowly.

Clint had picked this meeting spot because it had a wide beer selection and decent menu. Christmas lights hung year round over the patio, tinkling as the wind passed through. The bar was a favourite among the locally stationed agents. By the time night had fully fallen, the bar was packed full and dotted with familiar faces.

He'd thought that it wouldn't be a bad thing for them to be seen together. If Romanov's reputation was going to change, their friendship would need to be public information. But Clint hadn't counted on Romanov's infamy among SHIELD agents, or on the way that they stared at her, soaking up every patch of bare skin. Some were staring at him, as well, trying to judge what he was doing with her in the first place.

It was none of their fucking business, Clint decided. Romanov sat regally in her seat. As if she was used to changing the mood of a room just by walking in, and perhaps she was.

*

The last shuttle bus back to base left the town at eleven o'clock, speeding quickly over darkened roads back to the base. They said goodbye in front of the residence wing, where the corridors separated into male and female living quarters.

"Thank you for the invitation," Romanov said politely.

"Sure." Clint just refrained from asking her if she'd had a good time. He couldn't expect them to become best friends in one week. But she'd relaxed, been receptive and pleasant, and that's what he would tell Coulson if he asked. "You can call me Clint, by the way."

"Clint?" She repeated his name cautiously, as if learning it for the first time.

"Sure. If you wanted. But I'll answer to a lot of things. Barton, Hawkeye, hey you fuckhead." He paused. "Just don't use my middle name, it's kinda..."

Romanov cut him off with a wave of her hand. "Perhaps I will call you, Idiot Who Talks Too Much."

Clint grinned. "Silence is boring. Goodnight, Romanov."

"Natasha." She had already turned away, but he heard her just the same.

"Goodnight, then, Natasha," Clint said, and was glad she couldn't see the smile that crossed his face.

*

Restricted duty could be a SHIELD code word for a lot of things, but Coulson simply assigned him to security in the Research labs and ordered him to stay away from Overton's training classroom until his wrist was better. Coulson paused after he said this, as if he wasn't certain that Clint would comply.

Clint could take care of himself, and manage his own injuries. He'd had no choice for years. But it was a nice change of pace, he had to admit, to have people around him that actually gave a shit.

"Yes, sir."

Coulson stared thoughtfully at him. "Your other assignment is progressing as expected?"

"Sure. She's going to be fine, sir."

Clint had done short stints in Security before, and didn't particularly mind. Security had their own staff, but lately the Research labs had been filling up with unidentified objects. Objects that been assigned level four or five clearance, and under SHIELD regs required an agent with a corresponding clearance to be present for all experimentation.

It was a boring task, Clint thought, but it was really only boring until someone tried to break in or something blew up.

*

The artefact was rated level five, and Clint was surprised to see that he recognised it. It was the dark, oblong object that he and Natasha had picked up in England. Clint eyed it warily.

Doctor Alina Yang paced as she worked, reciting observations to her assistant, a tall, lanky male scientist that Clint didn't know. His fingers typed quickly on a laptop, transcribing the steady stream of science jargon being spoken in Yang's melodic California accent.

"What's the verdict, Doc? We going to explode?"

"Quiet in my lab," Yang answered, but she didn't turn away from the oh-eight-four, her tone soft and distracted.

Clint grinned. He'd worked with Dr Yang before. She was fun to needle, but more patient than much of the rest of the Research department. She wouldn't say anything about the bow and quiver he always brought with him, or his preference for throwing a grappling hook up to the rafters and spending much of the day close to the ceiling. For now he remained at floor level, pacing the edges of the room in a casual, clockwise circuit. "I'm just saying. No one could tell me why this thing requires a level five agent to watch over it, but I'd like to be prepared if we're going to go boom. It can't actually be magic, right? Or cursed?"

Yang opened her mouth to answer, but abruptly her expression changed to open alarm. Her focus shifted away from Clint's face to something behind him, and he began to turn around.

"Hawkeye," a familiar voice hissed in his ear, and then he was tumbling to the floor.

Clint grinned as he recognised the challenger, but his body, tensed to fight, didn't relax. He uncurled as he hit the ground, using his greater strength to pull his attacker with him. "Birdie. Where the fuck've you been?"

"Specialist Barton," Doctor Yang's voice was calm, and slightly disdainful, like she was speaking to a someone's naughty kid. She'd done exactly what regulations instructed the scientists to do, placing the oh-eight-four back in its code-locked box and sealing it tightly. "Should I hit the panic button?"

"What? No." Clint used his good arm to hold his wrestling partner against him. For the moment, she'd stopped trying to get away. Bobbi Morse was looking down at him, blue eyes playful, her mouth folded in what wasn't quite a smile. "You trying to take over the base, Bobbi?"

She rolled her eyes at him, features scrunching up into an expression of distaste. "Nope. And where I've been is classified."

"See? All clear, Doc."

Yang didn't look reassured. Neither did the lab assistant, eyes wide and backing slowly away. Yang's hand still hovered closely over the edge of her workdesk where Clint knew the button to trip the alarm was hiding. If she punched it, the room would lock down completely. Clint would spend the rest of the day getting yelled at and filling out the forms that came with an attempted security breach.

"Are you certain there is no chance of agent compromise?" she asked him.

"Wait, is that a serious question?" Clint twisted his head to frown at her . "Doc, if you think you're in here with an agent who's been compromised, you should hit the panic button. Even if you suspect it's just a drill."

Yang's body language finally relaxed, and she shook her head. "Your drills are always better organised."

"You never know." Clint grinned. "Agent Morse is worth at least three or four regular people."

Yang didn't look impressed. Most of Research was weird about Bobbi, and had been ever since she'd switched teams.

An amused smile tugged the corners of Bobbi's mouth upwards, as she scrambled easily to her feet. "Just horsing around. Didn't mean to scare you guys."

"You were trying to scare me," Clint pointed out, rubbing his shoulder where he had hit the hard floor. To Yang he said, "Well, if it was a drill, you'd have scored top marks. Congrats." His gaze settled on the lab assistant, still frozen in place. "You, on the other hand, are begging to be taken hostage. Haven't you had the geek defense course?"

Being spoken to directly made the assistant even more nervous, and he blushed under freckled cheeks. "I - no?"

"What do you mean, no? It's mandatory."

"Stephen is new," Yang interjected. "They only run that course every couple months or so. There hasn't been a session in the time that he's been here."

Clint couldn't help glaring, and the assistant automatically took another step back in response. "Wait, who's letting your department head get away with that? That course is the least training necessary. If anyone infiltrates the base, the labs are the first place they'll come. You all need a plan of defense against enhanced humans, never mind the regular kind."

Now it was Stephen that was scowling slightly. "Enhanced humans are a myth. They haven't existed since Captain America died."

"Jesus fucking Christ, you are new," Clint said, shaking his head. "Get out, kid. Tell your supervisor to send in someone who's had the Science and Research defense training."

Stephen hesitated, glancing from Yang to Bobbi Morse as if he expected a rescue. Yang looked sympathetic but resigned, and Bobbi seemed to be choking back laughter.

"Stephen, in matters of lab security Specialist Barton is in charge." Yang shrugged. "And if you don't go, he may endeavour to train you himself."

Stephen's retreat after that was quick. He gathered up his pen and notes, and scrambled hastily out the door.

Yang stared placidly at Clint, gesturing to the container in front of her. "If you've finished your wrestling match, can you input your code so I can get back to work?"

Clint glanced over at Bobbi before answering. She met his gaze directly, and he frowned as he picked up the non-verbal message. "Sure, Doc," he said finally. He moved over to the workspace and reached for the keypad on the locked box. The device beeped twice as it accepted his authentication. Yang reached out to add her own code. "You should get a new assistant by the end of the day, right? I didn't mean to slow you down."

"I am used to you slowing me down by now, Specialist Barton."

Despite the disgruntled frown, Yang's tone was soft. Clint laughed, then tugged on his grappling line, still anchored to a ceiling beam. "Agent Nineteen. Step into my office?"

Bobbi watched him ascend in a smooth one handed climb, then followed him up. Her laughter was light as she swung her body into a sitting position beside him, long legs dangling down. "Enhanced humans are a myth," she repeated, in a high, mocking voice.

Clint looked over at her, his annoyance fading. He'd met Bobbi on a mission involving enhanced humans and the deranged experimentation that had created them. He had been part of the rescue team sent in after Bobbi had missed multiple check-ins. They'd fought their way out of that mess together, and been a item by the end of the same week. Clint hadn't been looking for a girlfriend at the time, but she'd caught his attention in all the best and the worst of ways. "Yeah, well," Clint shrugged. "Let's see how he feels about that, the first time he's facing one of them."

Bobbi raised her eyebrows. "Only one?"

"For a first time, sure." Clint's lazy grin didn't cushion his next words. "What's on your mind, Mockingbird? That was a pretty hard hit."

Bobbi stared at him a long time before she answered, giving Clint time to study her in return. She was wearing her grey field suit zipped up to the collar, with her blonde hair pulled off her face in a tight ponytail. She was often assigned to long undercover missions, and sometimes they might go weeks or months without seeing each other. He hadn't been patient about the separation when they were a couple, but with those days past, he was always glad to see her.

Though it seemed like right now the feeling wasn't mutual.

Bobbi lifted her hands and stretched them above , as comfortable as he was with the heights. "I'm hearing a lot of chatter about you, Hawkeye."

That caught his attention, and he frowned. "Chatter?"

"All over the fucking base. I had barely made it to the showers when five people wanted to know if I had any insight."

Clint let out a short, relieved laugh. With their jobs, with his history, it was never impossible that his name might be on the lips of the wrong people. Being the current star of the SHIELD rumour mill was never ideal, but it would be an improvement to the targets that he'd worn in the past. He took a deep breath, settling into the topic of conversation. "They think you have insight about what, exactly?"

"Whether you're fucking Romanov."

That was a new one, one he hadn't heard before. Definitely more interesting than the rumours where he slept with his bow under his pillow, and more realistic than the ones where he took down entire Hand nests with a broken leg and no backup. Clint chuckled softly. "You told them no, I hope."

Bobbi raised slim, blonde eyebrows. By now Clint knew her well enough to know that if she had a point to make, she wouldn't back down. "Is that what I should have told them?"

"Jesus, Bobbi. Seriously? What exactly are they saying?"

"Just that you've been seen with her all over the base. In town. Clint you've got to be careful."

"Of the Black Widow's sexual appetites?" he asked her sharply. Below them Yang was moving across the lab, muttering to herself. Clint automatically shifted his body to keep her in his line of sight, turning away from Bobbi's face.

"Clint, I'm serious."

"I'm getting that." His gaze drifted back to her, and then returned to his subject below. "I didn't think we still had that kind of relationship, really."

Bobbi blew out a loud breath in frustration. "Fuck you, hotshot. Stick your little arrow wherever you want. I'm just telling you to be careful, okay? People don't trust her."

Clint tried to push down his own growing agitation. "Explain."

"Explain what?" Bobbi demanded. "She's not one of us, Clint. I know you know what I mean."

Clint wasn't so sure that he did know. "This a Cold War thing?"

"It's a 'she's a dangerous criminal' thing."

"Was," he corrected, biting the word out so loudly that Doctor Yang glanced up briefly before returning to her work. "Was a criminal, Bobbi. Like me."

Bobbi sighed. "Shit, Barton, that's exactly what I'm talking about. You don't need to be reminding people of that. You still have to go out on missions with these guys, and it's not going to make your life any easier to be tying your flag to hers. I'm not saying it's fair," she added, before Clint could argue. "I'm just saying, be careful."

There was a long, tense silence, before Clint finally replied. "You don't have any idea what you're talking about," he told her flatly.

"Clint..."

"It's not an insult, Morse. It's just a fact. You took the fancy college track into SHIELD, and you don't know what it's like to be the asshole with the shady past that nobody trusts."

"And you do?"

"Yes," he agreed. "I do. And it's fucking hilarious that you talk to me like I'm a member of the club. Because no one really believed I was, and then suddenly one day they changed their mind. The same thing is going to happen for Romanov. One day they'll really believe she's left her past behind. But I'm not just going to abandon her until that day comes. She deserves at least one friend."

He could feel Bobbi's eyes on him throughout his impromptu speech. Deciphering his words and body language, the way that she might do with a target, and considering the unspoken. "You kind of act like you're fucking her."

"Bobbi."

"Or like you want to be fucking her."

"Seriously, Bobbi, no. Though it's nice that you think I make all my decisions with my dick." Clint sighed, all his anger leaving him with a rush of air. "There's no shortage of guys at SHIELD that want to sleep with her. Despite thinking she's a double agent, apparently. She doesn't need me to be one of them."

Bobbi thought about that, pursing her lips. Still watching him, her expression sceptical. "That's very gentlemanly of you."

"I don't know about that. But it was my idea for her to come work with us. I'm a little bit responsible." Clint thought guiltily of Coulson needing to assign him this role, needed to point out how isolated Natasha had become. But he wasn't prepared to mention that now, and he simply offered a dangerous grin. "Next time someone asks you something that's none of their business, you just send them to me."

Bobbi smiled at him, finally, wrapping her fingers around the grappling line as she prepared to descend. "Sure thing. See you later?"

Clint shrugged, reaching out to brush the back of her hand in a casual goodbye. "Yeah. Restricted duty for at least a week. I'll be around."

Bobbi nodded, pushed away from the rafters, and slid back to the ground.

*

Sitting around all day left him wired, more often than not, vibrating with excess stamina that kept him awake for half of the night. He'd taken to burning off the extra energy in long sessions in the gym. Working on the stationary bicycles, clustered opposite the door, it was easy to spot her as Natasha entered. She didn't seem to be dressed for a workout, instead wearing her black SHIELD uniform, with her hair tucked underneath a cap. The attention in the room followed her closely, all eyes swiveling to track her as she moved.

Today the activity caught Clint's attention in a way that it never had before. He'd always assumed it was mostly sexual attention that she attracted, as any other young female agent might. But now he could almost feel the way that mistrust sat heavy in the room, how any admiration was drowned out by suspicion. Natasha strode in Clint's direction, and the frowns and stares traveled with her, swinging towards him.

Clint didn't know whether Romanov hadn't noticed, or was simply presenting the face of someone who paid no mind to the stares, though he could guess. Either way, her performance was

He slowed his movement down in order to talk to her comfortably. He lifted a towel to wipe the dampness from his forehead, ending the movement in a small wave. "Hey, Romanov. Natasha," he corrected himself.

"Clint. How are you?" There was no smile, but she did look up, green eyes meeting his.

Clint grinned at her in response. He might not be impressed with this unofficial "assignment", but it was fun to imagine noting every improvement in a standard report. Today, the target asked how I was doing. I think she might even have cared about the answer. "Sweating out the boredom. You know how it is."

Natasha shook her head, an unsatisfyingly murky response. "You like cheeseburgers."

They'd had a long conversation about preferred foods that they'd had in the town bar, but Clint couldn't help being surprised that she'd remembered the details. "I do, but I'm on strike from the ones in the mess. They're pretty terrible."

"I asked several locals where to find the best burgers. More than one suggested a restaurant in Weston."

Clint hesitated, trying to parse from her expression whether this was an invitation or a simple statement of fact. "Burgers sound good," he said finally, settling on a non-committal response. "But that's a bit of a drive."

"Yes." Romanov shrugged. "I've signed out a car from the pool."

Definitely an invitation, then, a pre-planned one. He hadn't seen that coming, but it would sound good in the report he wasn't actually writing. Clint smiled. "Sounds like you've got it all sorted out. What time?"

Natasha had been watching him attentively, her body held carefully upright, as if she was bracing herself for something. Now she relaxed slightly, head bowing forward, the movement so small that he thought it might have been his imagination.

*

Their destination was a thirty minute drive from the base. Natasha punched the address she'd written on the back of a printed SHIELD memo into the GPS, and let Clint pick the radio station. The restaurant was easy to find, sitting less than a mile off the highway exit. An oversized replica of bull's horns hung over the door, earning a puzzled frown from Natasha as they entered.

"Your research wasn't wrong," Clint said, halfway through his meal. He'd ordered a double decker cheeseburger slathered in the restaurant's homemade sauce, and it was the best he'd had in months. "This is delicious."

Natasha didn't say anything in response, but she seemed pleased, eyelashes fluttering as she glanced down at her plate. She'd ordered a club sandwich with extra bacon, chewing carefully as she washed it down with white wine.

Clint raised his eyebrows as the waiter poured her a second glass. "Guess I'm the designated driver, huh?"

Natasha shrugged elegantly. "Do you mind?"

Clint shook his head. It was one thing to trust someone to have your back in a firefight, and yet another to relax in their presence off the clock. If Natasha was giving him that gift, he wasn't going to turn it down.

*

By the time he drove them both back to base, she was slightly unsteady even in flat shoes, sandals that exposed a bright pink pedicure. On their first trip off the compound she'd been wearing impractical high heels, and he wondered if this choice, sandals underneath a flowery summer dress, was closer to Natasha's personal style. She was just a little bit different every time that they met, but he still didn't know exactly what that meant.

"Would you like to come in? I have a coffee maker inside."

She'd interrupted him mid-sentence, and Clint glanced away from her face to realise that he'd accompanied her to the women's residences.

"Ah, better not. I'm not even really supposed to be on this floor."

Natasha tilted her head, mouth pursing into a sceptical frown, before she spoke. "No one observes that regulation."

Clint was pretty sure that Maria Hill lived on this floor, so Natasha's statement wasn't entirely accurate. Failure to acclimate, he remembered. Coulson had mentioned Romanov's evaluation, and Clint knew the troublesome phrases that could come with it. Tendency to isolate, indicative of an unwillingness to form connections and make friends within SHIELD. But Natasha was acting friendly right now, he thought, her expression loose and open in a way he'd never noticed before.

Maybe this was just the wine at work. Maybe the reticence he was so familiar with would return tomorrow. But Clint was reluctant to turn away now and shutter the smile that he'd so rarely witnessed.

"Yeah, okay. One quick cup. If Hill catches me here I'll never hear the end of it."

Inside her quarters the blinds were open, and the waning moon moon hung high over the desert. Natasha set a kettle and spooned coffee into a small French press, then took out two cups with matching saucers, with a pattern of loops and dots circling the rim.

Natasha raised a knowing eyebrow at him. "Not what you were expecting?"

Clint shrugged as he lowered himself into the only available chair. Natasha was all business in the hallways and in the field, sharp-edged even when she unleashed her sexuality on ops to wielded as a weapon. But this room was a contradiction, a space that was carefully decorated with feminine taste. "I guess not. It's nice."

"Thank you."

He gestured towards the small electric kettle, rattling slightly against the table as it began to heat up. "You know you're not allowed to have that in here."

"As I said, no one observes that regulation." Natasha looked amused, sinking down onto her neatly made bed and patting the space beside her. "You are far away. Come sit here."

Are you fucking her? Suddenly Bobbi's warning played urgently in his head, as Clint searched for an escape. "I, uh, don't think that's a good idea."

"Because of your blonde field agent?" Natasha asked, and then smiled coyly at his reaction. "Yes, I have inquired about you. The information was interesting."

Clint stared at her, trying to work out what the base was saying about him that she'd come to the faulty conclusion that she'd obviously come to. Coulson was going to kill him. Coulson wouldn't have to know, some troublesome part of his brain whispered before he slammed it shut.

"Bobbi and I are just friends," Clint said. He kept his tone firm, but as kind as he could manage. "Kind of like how you and I are friends, right?"

Natasha's expression turned stormy. The sultry look was still there, but there was something darker creeping into her body language and clouding her eyes. "What does that mean?"

"It means that - look, I'm not really looking for anything else right now. Just friendship. We were having fun, right?"

"You invited me to the bar last week." She was looking at him challengingly now, as if he was a cipher to be solved.

"Yeah, I did."

"Then you came here, to my room."

"I did," he admitted, exhaling a guilty sigh. "Look, I'm sorry that I gave you the wrong impression. But we can still hang out?" He'd meant the question to be statement, but his voice had wavered at the end, his uncertainty audible in the shifting pitch.

The kettle shut off with a loud click, billowing a tall column of steam into the air. Natasha rose from the bed and turned the knob, opening the door into the empty hall.

*

"Don't tell me that's your lunch, Coulson."

"Breakfast, actually." Phil glanced up from the colourful kid's cereal he'd shaken into a small plastic bowl, and reached across his desk for a carton of milk.

Clint glanced down at his watch, as he closed the door to Phil's office behind him. It was ten minutes to noon. "Busy morning?"

Coulson rifled through the papers on his desk with a frown, finally pulling free a plastic spoon and plunging it into his food. "Yes," he answered, between bites. "Though I doubt that I had as late a night as you did."

Clint sighed, as he threw himself into the nearest chair. He left his hands in his pockets, curled up into tight balls. "Jesus. What are people saying, exactly?"

"Not much, actually." Coulson's eyes narrowed curiously. "Why? What should they be saying?"

Clint told the story as economically as he could manage. Coulson stared at him from across his desk, his frown lines growing deeper with every word as Clint fumbled to explain. "Look, I was the wrong choice for this, Phil. Pull me off. Switch in a female agent."

Coulson's features maintained their too bland quality, but Clint could sense the shift in mood that meant hard words were coming. Phil wasn't one of the supervising agents known for his temper. His delivery was always quiet but firm, and once made his decisions were unchanging. "You don't think that Agent Romanov can develop a platonic relationship with a man?" Coulson asked.

Clint shrugged, briefly considering the question with an unhappy scowl. He was mad at himself, mostly, for not seeing this coming. The gathering lecture felt nearly redundant. "I don't even think she knows what that is, honestly."

"Ah." Coulson tilted his head thoughtfully. "You think that's her fault."

"What? Fuck, no, Phil. I know she's got more history than any of us." Despite being almost the youngest person on the base, he thought.

Phil paused to chew another bite of cereal, nodding. "Then you think the best way for her to reconsider her assumptions is for you to bail on her the first time you have a disagreement?"

Clint sighed, looking away. "Phil. It wasn't exactly a regular disagreement."

"A misunderstanding, then." Coulson's eyes understanding, but his mouth curved into a line that wasn't quite a smile. "She's not a mission with a bad outcome, Barton. She's a person. And there are no other qualified agents. Female or otherwise. You're it. Romanov knows you, maybe even likes you. Try again."

"Sir -" Clint began again, before. There was no point arguing with Coulson when his mind was made up. He sighed, and stood to leave.

Clint slipped out of the office, narrowly missing a collision with Sitwell just outside the door. Clint swerved out of the way, frowning at the other man's distracted expression. "Hey, sorry, Sitwell. You looking for Phil?"

Sitwell didn't answer. He glanced at the closed door, then back at Clint. "Was Romanov in there with you?"

"Uh, no."

"You know where she is?" Sitwell demanded.

Clint hesitated. There was something about the way Sitwell had said Natasha's name that he didn't like, though he couldn't quite define it. Since trying to start up the friendship with Natasha he'd been unable to help noticing the negativity the whole base directed at Natasha daily. He was surprised to find it coming from Sitwell, an agent that had been fair to Clint, even when others weren't. "Haven't seen her all day," he answered, and was glad that the answer was truthful.

Sitwell scowled with narrowed eyes, but if he didn't trust the answer he didn't say so. "Well. You tell her I'm looking for her. She owes me a report."

*

His injury had improved, his arm almost back to full strength. But with no impending missions, his presence in Doctor Yang's research lab continued indefinitely.

"Yang likes you," Phil informed him, as he sent him back to Research for one more week, and Clint held in a sigh. Being liked was starting to sound like a curse.

He didn't see Natasha on base that day, or the day after. Not even a glimpse in the hallways, though he knew she was good enough to make herself as scarce as she wanted to be. He hadn't yet decided what he was going to say. The avoidance unsettled him, but Coulson was right. Natasha wasn't just a project. She was a person, one that Clint was learning to like despite her best efforts.

She'd find him when she was ready.

*

"Hey. You hear the news?"

He had been sitting in a corner of the cafeteria, finishing his meal while he studied the sports section. It was past the dinner rush, and Bobbi's voice carried easily through the nearly empty room as she came towards him.

Clint glanced up at her, frowning slightly. Bobbi liked to gossip, but she wasn't always so eager to do so with him. "As long as I'm not the star I don't care, to be honest."

Bobbi made a face at him, then continued speaking as if she hadn't heard him. "I heard Team Echo just came in. Apparently most of them went straight to the med unit."

That was serious news, and Clint put aside his newspaper to stare at her. "Ambush?" he asked.

"Nobody's saying yet. Just that they went out on assignment couple days ago with Romanov, and barely made it back. Ventura had to be taken to the trauma unit in town."

Clint's fingers tapped against the side of the table, a nervous motion as he tried to contain his surprise. "Romanov? She's stealth and intelligence, mostly. She doesn't go out with Echo Team."

"Well, that's what the grapevine is saying anyway. I don't know much more about it." Bobbi shrugged. "Look, I figured she'd told you."

"She doesn't tell me everything," Clint answered automatically, mind racing as he thought it over. Something wasn't adding up. "That the whole story?"

Bobbi hesitated. As a secret agent she could lie with the best of them, but he'd long learned to read her pauses.

"Come on, Birdie."

"It's the usual, honestly. Folks are questioning whether she messed up, or she had something to do with it. Hey," Bobbi added apologetically, as Clint drew breath to argue, "you say she's cool and I guess I believe you. Missions go FUBAR all the time. But that's what people are saying."

Clint had begun gathering his empty plates from the table, piling them back onto his tray as he stood in a rush. "Yeah. Okay. Thanks for telling me."

Bobbi nodded as she watched him leave, stretching out her fingers to brush the back of the hand. "You take care of yourself, hotshot."

*

Clint had worked with Strike Team Echo a few times before. All the strike teams used flexible designations, but Echo currently had four members. Experienced veterans of SHIELD, men that were loud and brash on base and ruthless in the field.

He'd expected his entry to the medical unit to go unnoticed this late in the day, but the leader of Team Echo was currently standing in the hallway, fixing Clint with a dark stare. Clint didn't know David Laurenti well, but through the handful of missions they'd worked together he had always seemed like an okay guy. Startlingly intense, on occasion, but he and Clint had always gotten along. Laurenti was dark-haired with a broad, muscled build, and tattoos that snaked up both arms.

"Hey, Laurenti." Clint raised his hands in a gesture of peaceful greeting. He read the wariness in Laurenti's stance, eyeing the way Laurenti stood like a guard in the middle of Clint's path. Clint understood the urge to protect your teammates, knew that it couldn't always be turned off once the danger was over. He wasn't in a position to judge. Not when he was here, after hours, searching for Natasha. Clint glanced inside the closest doorways, but could see no sign of her. "You seen Romanov?"

Laurenti's expression darkened, features knitting into a glower, but Clint never got an answer. Natasha had appeared like a ghost from one of the rooms further down the hall, stopping abruptly as she spotted both men. Natasha's hands and face had been washed clean, but she still wore her field suit, matted red hair pulled off her face into an uneven ponytail. Clint's eyes raked her over quickly, but his visual assessment came up empty. Her uniform was still intact, with no serious injuries that he could spot under the grimy dirt and traces of blood.

"I heard," Clint began, then let his words trail off. What he'd heard hadn't been much. "You were out on a mission?"

The annoyed look Natasha gave him at the question was familiar and oddly reassuring. "Yeah."

"You okay?"

Laurenti had turned towards Natasha at the sound of her voice. He too was still wearing most of his field clothing, his shoulders underneath tensed in a way that Clint didn't like. "Sure she's okay. Romanov's the reason we were in that fucking firefight in the first place."

He drew Natasha's name out as if it were a slur, and Natasha's face and body were still as stone, betraying no emotion. Clint knew that reaction, but he hadn't seen it in months.

"Hey, missions go sideways sometimes," Clint said, pitching his tone as conciliatory as he could manage. "It sucks, but it's nobody's fault. That's just the job, right?"

Laurenti's stare snapped back towards Clint. "She's a traitor. You a traitor too?"

"Nope, and also nope." Clint tilted his head towards Natasha, then gestured towards the doors behind him. "You cleared to get out of here?"

Natasha nodded her head, but she wasn't really looking at him. She was watching Laurenti, eyes closely trained and watching him carefully. Laurenti had squared his body as if to block her path. He was eyeing her in return, an unexpected game of cat and mouse. Natasha moved forward, her body relaxed into purposefully casual movement that didn't match her cautious stare. Natasha turned just slightly to one side, making room to glide past Laurenti in the limited space. That was when the agent reached out for her, his hand shooting forward and curling into menacing motion.

Clint's reaction was instinctive, and so swift that Laurenti never had a chance to make contact. He grabbed the hand Laurenti had extended and squeezed hard, leveraging the motion to disrupt the agent's balance and push him backwards.

The agent made a low, frustrated noise deep in his throat. He turned towards Clint, rage burning. "Stay out of this, Hawk."

Natasha had used the distraction to evade Laurenti cleanly, moving far down the hallway to stand at Clint's side. Her next words were clear and firm. "We're going."

Whether the information was meant for Laurenti or for himself, Clint wasn't sure.

"I still want to talk to you," Laurenti growled at her, again stepping towards them. His face had grown red with anger, eyes dark with fury.

"You want to talk, we can talk. But you stay right there." Clint lifted his hand, palm out, but Laurenti ignored the gesture, once again coming close enough to reach out for Natasha. Blunt, calloused fingers lunged forward, and Clint's reaction was once again automatic, as he grabbed a fistful of Laurenti's shirt to try to brake the agent's forward motion. Laurenti's curled hand came flying towards Clint as he tried to pull himself away.

Clint let go, barely dodging the contact as his left knee came up in a vicious kick, landing hard against Laurenti's lower belly. Laurenti was the larger man in this fight. Many were, but few had Clint's training, or his muddled history of ruthless mentors and barroom brawls. It was the work of moments to use speed against his opponent and gain the upper hand, sending Laurenti crashing into the wall.

Clint stepped back, expecting Laurenti to stay down. The other agent surprised him, stumbling to his feet with a growl and charging forward. Anger propelled him towards them with no particular purpose, and Clint stepped easily out of the way. "Look. We're gonna go and you and I can forget all about this, right?"

Laurenti didn't answer, but instead threw a fast, brutal punch. Clint feinted and blocked, preparing to hit back, but he was still guarding against the left-side attack when Laurenti reached out and gripped Clint's still-bandaged right arm, twisting it sharply. Clint couldn't help the howl of discomfort, or the reflexive elbow driven into Laurenti's throat to get himself free. He blinked to clear the haze of pain, and blinked again as Natasha's red hair and black uniform spun into his field of vision.

Even with Clint's aggravated injury, Laurenti couldn't defend against them both. And he knew it, Clint thought, watching Laurenti fall back into a defensive stance.

He saw two more members of Echo enter the hallway, but he wasn't expecting them to enter the fray. Edwin So and Sean Cavanaugh had been assigned to Echo less than a year, but Clint knew that the three men together made a dangerous challenge.

With his right arm useless and still stinging with pain, Clint was on the defensive, moving back and turning his good side towards them. But he was suddenly a footnote to the action, as all three men turned their focus to Natasha. She was a blur of motion, efficiently dangerous and impossible to catch. Laurenti, So, and Cavanaugh were all well-trained fighters. But this was one of Natasha's specialties, and she would give them no chances to pin her down.

Cavanaugh launched a round kick at her, but she danced easily out of his way, causing him to catch his teammate instead. Cavanaugh's boot met Edwin So's hip with a solid crunching noise, and So crashed down with a yelp. The fighting stuttered into a tangled, chaotic rhythm.

It was a simple matter now to try to throw a wrench into Team Echo's gears. Clint launched his body in the centre of the fray, redirecting attention away from Natasha as much as he could.

Natasha probably didn't need the help, he thought. Clint could see that she was evading much more than she was hitting, playing with each of her opponents as if the hallway were simply a training room.

It was the best of a set of bad choices, but he doubted any of Team Echo were feeling appreciative of Natasha's restraint. The enmity coming all three of them still hung unmistakeably in the air. Clint was wishing for a high perch and his quiver of tranquilizers, when the door that led to the elevator bay flew open. A high, sharp whistle pierced through the sounds of the mêlée.

Natasha was the first to extricate herself and stand at attention. Clint followed as quickly as he could, wincing at the unforgiving expression on Coulson's face.

So was the last to straighten and face front, moving slowly on his newly injured leg. Coulson glanced among the group, looking from face to face, quickly identifying So as the best choice for preliminary interrogation. "Agent, do you care to tell me what the hell is going on?"

So stepped forward, limping slightly. He puffed his chest out as if for courage, before he spoke. "I wasn't here, Agent Coulson. I just came out here and saw Romanov and Barton attacking David. Agent Cavanaugh and I were forced to defend him, Sir."

Coulson paused, digesting that, before he turned to stare at Natasha. "Probationary Specialist Romanov?" he prompted her.

Clint knew enough of Natasha now to know that there was no chance of her pointing out that Laurenti had a hand in starting the confrontation. He wouldn't be thanked for doing so either, by anyone.

"Yes, sir?" Natasha asked. Her tone was smooth. Natasha's deferential stance bore no traces of the whirlwind of mayhem she'd been only moments before.

Coulson visibly restrained a sigh. "Is that what happened?" he prompted her.

Natasha replied immediately, with no hesitancy and no tells that Clint could spot. She nodded, her eyes wide and sincere. "I struck Agent Laurenti first, Sir. I am sorry. Specialist Barton must have thought he was coming to my assistance."

"He must have," Coulson muttered under his breath, before fixing his attention on the leader of Team Echo. Phil's glare was icy.

"Agent Laurenti. You are a senior agent here. You are expected to keep yourself and your team members out of brawls with probationary agents. No matter the provocation. Is that clear?"

Coulson's use of Natasha's full title, emphasis on the fact she was still technically a probie, told Clint that Coulson wasn't buying the story they were trying to sell him. Coulson would believe that veteran agents had no business getting into it with a lone newbie, no matter how capable she was of defending herself.

"Yes, sir," Laurenti responded, not quite managing to rein in the resentment in his tone.

"Good." Coulson turned back to So, balanced unsteadily on his remaining good leg. "It seems that you will need to return to the med unit. When you're done, you may go and check on Agent Ventura if you wish. You are expected to report to Supervisory Agent Hill tomorrow for disciplinary action."

The whole team nodded, stone-faced. Nobody liked reporting to Hill. Maria Hill hadn't been here much longer than Natasha but she had already earned herself a reputation for showing little mercy to those who stepped out of line.

Clint saw Coulson rake his eyes over the group one last time. His gaze landed on the arm that Clint waa awkwardly cradling against his chest, and Clint wasn't surprised by what was next.

"Specialist Barton. You are confined to your quarters until morning. If you think you can manage not to cause any trouble there."

"Yes, sir."

"At which time you will report to Medical for an evaluation of that arm. After that I expect to see you both in my office."

Clint only just managed not to sigh. The elbow was still throbbing, but as reprimands by Coulson went this was one was pretty light. "Yes, sir."

*

Coulson stayed in the hallway long enough to watch everyone disperse as instructed. Natasha rode the elevator down with Clint, looking slightly confused.

"He should have been angrier with me."

Clint shrugged. "Still might be, if it'll make you feel better. But Coulson sees things how he wants, as long as the rules don't contradict him. You'll get used to it."

Natasha was silent in response, remaining quiet all through the walk to the residence wing. A late summer dusk had already fallen, darkening the clear sky outside. Clint was caught off guard when she stuck by his side, all the way to the men's residential floors.

"Whoa, hey." He held out a hand in a negative gesture, but Natasha only brushed past it. "You probably don't want to risk pissing off Coulson any more than we already have."

"He didn't confine me to quarters," Natasha pointed out sanguinely. She turned towards to the common area at the end of the hall on Clint's floor. The meek probie who had stood in front if Coulson was gone completely.

And she was right, Clint realised. He hadn't caught the distinction at the time. "Yeah, okay. Good point. But we want to keep it that way, right?"

"No buts, Clint. Your shoulder needs ice."

The communal kitchen was empty. The tv mounted against the far wall had been left playing CNN, the newscasters mouths moving silently to no volume. Clint watched as Natasha placed a cup underneath the ice maker in the refrigerator door and pressed a slender thumb against the button that started the machine.

"I can do this myself," Clint pointed out.

"And I'm able to defend myself," she answered with a shrug. "I guess sometimes we get help whether we need it or not."

Clint couldn't quite decipher whether her words were a scolding, or a thank you. He wanted to ask her what had happened in the field with Team Echo, but he wasn't sure he could rely on her answers to be the truth. "Do you get that a lot?" he asked instead. "From the other field agents?"

Natasha raised her eyebrows, ignoring Clint's pained wince as she pressed an ice-wrapped towel to the crook of his elbow. There was a long, thoughtful stretch of silence before she responded. "You said you knew what it was like. To be new."

That wasn't a no. "I was a pain in the ass," he admitted. "Lots of agents were unhappy to have me on board, but I didn't see a reason to make it easy on them, either. That's not you. But Coulson has pulled me out of more dustups than I can really count, and I still can't think of anything like what just happened."

"Firefights can be tough." Natasha's tone was philosophical, but her face was blank. For the hundredth time, Clint wished she was easier to read.

"That wasn't just adrenaline," he said. "That was - I don't know. He can be a hothead, but I've never seen Laurenti go off on another agent like that."

Natasha raised her eyebrows at him. "Hothead. It takes one to know one, perhaps."

Clint laughed, surprised by her bluntness. "Yeah, I know. Pot, meet kettle. I don't like it when people start with me." He took a deep breath. "Or my friends."

"Is that what we are?"

"As far as I'm concerned."

There was probably more to be said on both sides. Clint doubted Coulson was expecting this small, off-beat assignment to become so complicated. Doubted Natasha would appreciate being thought of as an assignment. But that word hardly fit the situation anymore, this weird thing that they were building. Or perhaps that was simply Clint's own wishful thinking.

Natasha lifted the towel, squinting to evaluate the injured joint. Then gave him a smile, one that crossed her whole face. "I believe you will live after all."

Clint nodded at the mild joke, flexing his arm and brushing away the traces of moisture left on his skin. "Thanks, Dr. Romanov. Better hightail it to my room before I get spotted out here. I guess I'll see you tomorrow, in front of the firing squad."

"It could have been worse," Natasha pointed out as she rose to leave. "It could have been Hill."

*

Natasha's words turned out to be prescient the next day, when Coulson let them off the hook with a half-hearted lecture. To Clint's surprise, the sternest of Coulson's words were aimed at Natasha. Coulson pushed aside the half-eaten ham sandwich on his desk to speak to her, forehead creased in worry.

"If you're having trouble here at SHIELD, I expect you to come to me, so that I can help you. Not try to dispense justice, neither by yourself or with," here he glanced briefly at Clint, "an accomplice. Is that clear, Agent Romanov?"

Natasha sat stone-faced in one of the chairs across from Phil's desk, her posture perfect. She nodded blankly. "It won't happen again, Sir."

Phil considered her for a moment, then sighed, his tone softening. "Agent Romanov. I am here to help you. I know SHIELD is a strange place. Fitting in can be difficult. But it is not the same as the life you had before. You do not have to do everything by yourself."

Clint couldn't help the small laugh that bubbled up, shaking his head as all the attention in the room turned towards him. "Sorry. Just sounded familiar. Remember when you gave me that little speech?"

Coulson's mouth turned up in a wry half-smile. "Which time?"

Clint shrugged, smiling back. "All of them, I guess. I was listening, by the way. I know it probably didn't seem like it back then. But I was."

Natasha was listening too, Clint thought. She was looking at both of them now, carefully studying the casual interplay between them.

"At the time I suggested to Nick that you might need a change of supervisor. That perhaps you'd gel better with someone else."

"Really? What did he say?"

Coulson scowled, as if reliving the years-old argument. "Something about stubborn needing stubborn, I believe."

That earned a small giggle from Romanov, one she tried fruitlessly to cover with a wave of her hand across her mouth. By unspoken agreement, both Clint and Coulson pretended not to notice.

*

Predictably, the base was buzzing with chatter. The only news that seemed to Clint to be accurate was the status of Ventura, stable and recovering in the town hospital. The rest of the grapevine was filled with a confused mish-mash of rumours and half-lies, of what had gone wrong on Echo's excursion, and what had caused the fight in the medical wing.

"It was Romanov," a junior agent insisted, just within range of Clint's hearing as he lined up for a late lunch. Clint turned his better ear towards their conversation, careful not to make it plain that he was eavesdropping. "She's the reason there was no extraction plan."

The agent being spoken to was young, probably just out of the Academy. Dark lashes framed eyes that were widened in awe, and she spoke with an accent Clint couldn't quite place. "That can't be right. There's always an extraction plan."

"Not always," the first agent answered confidently. They were both desk agents, judging by their clothing, probably from Intelligence or Science and Research. They'd probably never been anywhere near an exfil, and Clint couldn't help rolling his eyes. "I heard Romanov never gets an extraction plan. Because she's, you know. Fury's experiment. It doesn't really matter if she comes back."

"That's not right," the female agent insisted. Clint hid a smile. He was starting to like her. "She's a SHIELD agent, just like everybody else. The director wouldn't let something like that happen."

Clint grabbed a slice of pie from the dessert station and headed to a corner table. The agent was right, that didn't sound like something that Fury would have approved. Individual missions might forge ahead without a clear extraction plan, but he'd never seen it used as a blanket rule.

That didn't mean there wasn't some truth to the idea, however. Fury ran a tight ship, but his office was across the country, in the Triskelion. SHIELD was a complex, tightly knit organisation. Clint knew as well as anyone that things didn't only happen under official order.

*

Coulson hadn't needed to tell him to keep a closer eye on Natasha, but he'd gotten the instruction anyway. The brief email had probably been sent as soon as they'd left Coulson's office. Clint scowled at his computer screen, tapping the delete command. Telling himself that Coulson was probably just being cautious didn't make Clint feel much better.

And keeping the Black Widow where he could see her was guaranteed to be easier said than done.

*

Bobbi sent him an email of her own the next day. The lecture it contained was a blunt repeat of the one she'd already given him in person. This is exactly what I was warning you about, hotshot. Clint sent a short, sarcastic reply, though he didn't expect an answer. Bobbi was terrible at email. She was also prone to being sent on longterm assignments without warning, something Clint was currently a little jealous of. His testing in medical the day before had taken a couple of hours. The base doctors had x-rayed his arm, palpating the joints and wearing disapproving frowns as they told him he could expect to be out of commission for another couple of weeks.

Clint was about to lose his mind from the boredom. This was the longest he'd been sidelined in years, and watching level five artefacts do nothing much was definitely not his idea of a good time.

*

"You're not really cleared to be in here."

"An agent with sufficient clearance may give me permission," Natasha pointed out, from where she stood just inside the door to the research lab. "Do you play poker?"

Clint lifted his left arm just in time, as the pack of cards Natasha had tossed into the rafters landed in his cupped hand with a gentle slapping noise. He squinted down at the art decorating the package, and couldn't help smiling. "Star Wars?"

Natasha shrugged. "It's a classic."

"Sure it is," Clint agreed, and he reached out to help her dismount onto the beam across from him. Wordlessly she declined the offer, easing effortlessly into a seated position, with her feet dangling down. "Just didn't know it would be your thing."

"I have lots of different things," Natasha answered, her tone sharpened and slightly defensive. In the next moment her mood seemed to clear, as the pack of cards came flying back in her direction. She smiled as she caught it, bouncing the carton off her fingertips before tossing it back at him.

"Well? Poker?"

"You sure you wanna be gambling on site? You're the one who's still a probie."

Natasha reached into the pocket of her black SHIELD sweatshirt, and pulled out a bag of peanut butter M&Ms. "I thought of that. We can play for these."

Clint laughed. "Yeah, okay. You deal first."

"

After the drama of the previous weeks he'd expected Natasha to become skittish again, but once again she surprised him. Instead of disappearing she sought him out almost every day, finding him most often in the research labs. Doctor Yang continued her testing on the mysterious dark object, helped by a young woman who favoured bright colours underneath her white lab coat. The oh-eight-four didn't seem to be doing anything much that Clint could tell, but it wasn't exactly his area of expertise. Clint simply raised himself into his practised surveillance position, and left them to it.

Natasha showed up almost every afternoon. She brought her deck of cards, or a travel chess set for which Clint had gamely tried to learn the rules. But mostly they stuck to cards, and casual conversation.

More often than not, Natasha's paper cup of M&Ms was filled higher than his. Her bluffing tactics were changeable, and endlessly surprising. Clint had become familiar with the practical, dangerous field agent, and with the woman who wore impractical shoes to dinner and made polite small talk. But this version of Natasha was yet another new incarnation that Clint had never met. Perhaps they were all the real Natasha, each of the parts of her self joined together by invisible seams.

*

"You don't have to entertain me, you know."

Natasha's face tightened into a pinched expression. Discomfort, or distrust, appeared in the lines of her mouth, but relaxed again in the next moment. She moved her head in a shaking motion, long hair hiding her face. Clint noticed the fleeting change in mood, but wasn't sure what he'd said wrong.

"I just mean, it's gotta be pretty boring for you. It's not like you're the one who's been grounded."

The look that crossed Natasha's face this time was one of confusion, as her pretty mouth and nose screwed up into a question mark. "Grounded?"

"Ordered to stay put," Clint explained. Natasha's English was almost perfectly accented, so much so that Clint usually forgot that it wasn't her first language. "People punish their kids that way, I guess." Clint had been an angry, destructive teenager, but he'd never had anyone that cared enough to ground him.

Natasha didn't press the definition, simply shaking her head. "You are not punished. You are injured. I am simply keeping an eye on you so that you do not break your other arm."

"I already told you that wasn't your fault," Clint said. Then hesitated, his voice trailing off. She wasn't, he realised, speaking of the injury that had happened on their mission, but of the more recent one. "I mean, those guys shouldn't have been getting into it with you.."

Natasha shrugged. Clint couldn't tell if she disagreed, or simply didn't want to talk about it. She'd been working for herself when Clint met her. She took everything at SHIELD in stride, yet Clint sometimes wondered if she missed the freedom.

But perhaps she considered the loss of her independence a small price in the exchange. He remembered his surprise when he'd finally laid eyes on her, amid the ashes of a mission gone to hell for everyone involved. She'd been so young. Young and skilled, but barely surviving, the last evidence of a Cold War ghost story that hardly anyone in the trade still believed.

*

On Monday, Natasha didn't show. Clint didn't think anything of it, but Tuesday was the same. In the afternoon, he received a new visitor. He watched Phil Coulson enter the research lab, expensive Italian shoes making a familiar noise against the shining white floor. He acknowledged Clint with a glance, but didn't approach, instead engaging Doctor Yang and her assistant in conversation. It was weird, Clint thought, that all the science geeks seemed to like Coulson. But Yang was smiling in greeting, gesturing to the device on the table beside her. Clint could only make out a few words, before Coulson nodded at her in satisfaction and turned towards him.

Methodically Coulson placed a cup of coffee on the work counter and shrugged off his suit jacket, laying it over the back of a chair. Clint watched as Coulson rolled up the sleeves of his neatly pressed shirt, reaching for his coffee cup with one hand and grabbing hold of Clint's climbing line with the other.

Phil clambered effortlessly up to the rafters, and seated himself beside Clint. He scowled down at the paper coffee cup and took a sip, then gave Clint a sour look. From years of experience, Clint translated the wordless communication easily.

"I see things better from up high," he pointed out with a grin.

"Fury's never bought that, you know."

"Fury's not here, sir. Please tell me that look means you have a mission for me."

Coulson's tense expression didn't relax, not even slightly. His shoulders were hunched forward, pulling on the fabric of his suit. "Hill may have something for you. But that's not what I wanted to speak to you about. It's September first. In twenty-six days, Agent Romanov will have been on probationary status for a full year."

"Christ, already?" Not a lot of things could sneak up on Clint, but the passage of time was an exception. He hastily counted the months in his head. He'd been sent after Natasha in July, playing cat and mouse games for days before he'd been close enough to take a shot. Weeks of interrogation had occurred in SHIELD's Washington headquarters, though he supposed to Natasha it had been something closer to a negotiation. When she'd finally been transferred to New Mexico to start her training, it had seemed like a victory. Now Clint realised that it had just been the beginning. "Natasha made it with us a full year, huh? Good for her."

Coulson tilted his head curiously. "Natasha?" he repeated.

Clint shrugged, with more equanimity than the question made him feel. "Sure, Natasha. We're friends now. Kind of. That's what you wanted, right?"

"Ah." Coulson eyes focused knowingly on Clint. "Does she know that?"

Clint wasn't much of a fidgeter, but he couldn't help twisting his head, lowering his gaze as if to dodge Coulson's examination. "That we're friends? It's kind of hard to tell with her."

"That I made the request."

"Didn't know that was part of the assignment, Sir," Clint answered, his voice hardening slightly.

"I didn't mean to pry. I'm glad to hear that things are progressing." Coulson sounded sincere, and Clint let himself relax. Coulson sipped his coffee, then proffered the still-full cup towards Clint. "This was for you, actually."

Clint hesitated at the unexpected gesture, before reaching out and accepting the gift. Coulson didn't usually bother trying to butter him up. He lifted the mug up to his lips. The coffee was still hot, black and not too sweet the way Clint always preferred. "No doughnuts?" he asked.

Coulson shrugged, speaking with a casual tone despite the lines of stress still furrowing his features. "Nope. I hear they're bad for you."

Clint laughed. Any agent who'd ever been on assignment with Phil knew about his junk food addiction, and the attempts to go cold turkey that never lasted long. "Yeah, okay. You wanted to talk to me about Natasha's probationary period? They've gotta be promoting her this month, right?"

In theory, the probationary period was open-ended, and left to the discretion of the supervising team. In practice it was unusual for an agent as talented as Natasha to remain without promotion for the entire year. But Natasha's case was unusual, and it hadn't occurred to him to worry about it before.

When Coulson was silent a little too long, Clint added, "We could get her an ice cream cake."

Coulson sighed. "Barton."

"Or if you'd prefer something healthy, we could do that instead. Because there's no way she's being held back?" A second probationary year wasn't impossible, but it was rare, a sign of an agent who would never progress much further. "Because that would be fucking ridiculous. She could run circles around most of the other probies. Hell, around most of the Level Fours or Fives."

Coulson still didn't reply to Clint's goading. Clint knew, from long experience, that sometimes with Phil silence was just as telling as words.

Clint let out a long breath, trying to rein in his frustration. "And you already know all this, anyway."

"Yes."

"So where is the pushback coming from, then? It can't be Fury? He was the most excited about bringing her on board."

Coulson raised his eyebrows. "I feel confident Director Fury never actually described himself as excited."

Clint sipped the cooling coffee, hiding an unexpected grin against the rim of the mug. "You know the director, Sir. He likes a good fixer-upper."

Phil didn't quite smile in response, but his eyes lit with a subtle warmth. Clint knew he'd never understand everything that Coulson and Fury had binding them together. Coulson had been the original project, trained over the years into one of SHIELD's most indispensable. "I feel confident Director Fury never said that, either."

"Could have." Clint shrugged, his mind still working over the clues he'd just been given. "Who's the problem, then, if it's not Fury? It's Fury's call, isn't it?"

"Is it?" Coulson asked, and Clint groaned.

"This is starting to sound like the Council, Phil. For fuck's sake, weren't they satisfied with the pound of flesh they got when they debriefed her?"

Natasha's debriefing had been long and difficult. He hadn't been in Washington to witness much of it, and most of the topics had fallen above his security clearance. Natasha had borne it with stoic patience and when Clint had next seen her she'd been one more new agent shuffled in among the incoming ranks.

"The World Security Council is never satisfied." Clint could see the aggravation that was settling into the lines around Phil's mouth.

"Yeah, but they've gotta have a reason, at least. Don't they?" The WSC didn't mean much to Clint's daily life, besides a set of initials that got blamed whenever things weren't making sense. But he had seen enough to know that the Council was ruthlessly practical, concerned only with results

"They're suggesting that there are problems with her performance."

"With her - she's the Black Widow. Who the hell would be telling them that?"

He didn't quite mean to sound accusatory, but Coulson lifted his hands in a half-shrug, shaking his head. "Beats me," he admitted, and Clint was struck silent for a moment. It wasn't like Coulson, not to know exactly what was going on.

He turned this new information over, frowning into his coffee cup. "Guess a lot of agents still aren't happy to have her here."

"They'll get over it," Coulson answered, and it sounded like a direct quote from Fury.

"What did Natasha have to say about it?"

Coulson raised his eyebrows cryptically, but didn't answer. Clint couldn't decipher whether that meant that Natasha hadn't been forthcoming, or that the answer was none of Clint's business. "Just keep an eye on her," he said, and Clint nodded.

"Yeah. I will."

*

The dark-painted door to Natasha's quarters rattled in its frame as Clint banged against it with the side of his closed fist. The sound bounced off the walls and echoed down the hall. A passing agent glanced up at him, frowning in confusion, and then looked away. Clint flashed her a half-hearted smile, and raised his arm to knock again just as the door swung open.

"Clint," Natasha said, and while her expression barely shifted, she couldn't quite mask the surprise at the edges of her voice. "What are you doing here?"

Now that he was finally looking at her face, Clint realised, he couldn't quite think of an excuse so urgent it would have brought him straight to her room. I was worried about you, he thought, but kept the words to himself.

Natasha was staring at him, eyes bright and questioning. "There are no men allowed on this floor," she pointed out, and Clint supposed he deserved the rebuff.

"Sure, I'll go. I just haven't seen you in few days, and didn't know if you were on assignment or, uh." He didn't say he was glad to find her here, in her room getting ready for bed, and not in the field with Team Echo or one of the other SHIELD agents who couldn't be trusted to watch her back. "Whatever."

Natasha was frowning perplexedly at him, as if he had suddenly started speaking a language she didn't know. "I have been assigned to a training unit for the week. Agent Coulson wishes me to retake many of the qualifiers. He says my original results have been misplaced."

Clint didn't bother to ask if she actually believed the line that Coulson was feeding her. There was no way that she did, but she didn't seem prepared to voice any questions, shrugging as she looked at him. She was wearing practical cotton pajamas, and her hair brushed against her shoulders as she moved.

Clint should have predicted, perhaps, that Coulson would attempt to solve their new problem with unimpeachable paperwork. "That sucks," he said, and she shrugged again.

"I will survive."

"Doesn't mean you won't be bored," he pointed out. "But I'm sure they start you early, so I'll get lost. Just call or text next time you disappear, huh? So I know what's up."

He didn't quite say he'd been worrying, and Natasha didn't press. "Very well."

"And watch your stance with your firearm. It's stupid, but they like to see what's in the textbook."

He turned to go, but Natasha's clear voice called him back. "Hey, Clint."

Clint twisted to look at her, and found Natasha was smiling slightly. "Yeah?"

"The first time I took the weapons qualification runs, they told me that your combined score was unbeatable."

Clint's peal of surprised laughter rang through the hallway. Behind him a door creaked open, and then closed again. "Yeah, they tell all the newbies that. I guess Fury thinks it's inspirational or some shit."

Natasha shrugged, but there was a teasing light in her eyes. "The instructor told us of a man with perfect aim, whose favourite weapon was a bow and arrow. The rest of the class was pretty sure that you didn't actually exist."

"Don't blame them," Clint answered with a grin, as he waved her goodnight.

*

"Agent Barton, could you lend me a hand?"

"Sure, Doc." Clint raised his hands with palms outward and wiggled all ten fingers with a grin. "I've got two of them these days."

Doctor Yang's assistant giggled. She was even younger that Yang's last assistant, but she was thoroughly trained, an Academy graduate. "I'm glad your arm is better."

Clint winked at her, and she laughed again, blushing lightly. He reached out for the heavy equipment Doctor Yang was indicating and lifted it, glad to feel only a small answering twinge of pain in the recovering elbow. "Sure, Rebecca. You mean you're glad I'll finally be out of your hair, admit it."

Yang's assistant shook her head, as she pointed to the spot they needed, eyes widening in her round, expressive face. "No! You're the most interesting of the Level Fives, isn't he, Doctor Yang?"

Yang had returned to tapping her table as data scrolled across the screen. She muttered something that might have been agreement, but didn't look up.

"You'll be glad to get back into the field, won't you?" Rebecca asked.

"Yeah," Clint admitted with a grin. "Kinda miss getting shot at, no offense. But at least you won't have my bad mojo cluttering up your lab. You haven't had much luck with this thing since I've been here."

He gestured to the artefact that was sitting harmlessly on the lab counter, looking just the same as it had weeks ago.

Rebecca shrugged. "Oh, that's not bad luck. Not every unidentified object is going to be something exciting, right? You get used to it."

Doctor Yang shook her head at this, and breathed out a mournful sigh. "That's what I tell Director Fury. But he doesn't listen."

"Maybe you just don't know how to make it do what it does," Clint pointed out.

"That's true." Rebecca nodded, accompanied by a high, musical laugh. "This building is full of things we just haven't figured out yet."

*

"Target is approaching. Two minutes until contact."

"Copy," Clint responded over his radio, and the word was echoed back through his receiver two seconds later.

"Copy, Command." Morse's businesslike response came from the dark street far below Clint's perch. She was well-hidden against the doorway of a shuttered store, underneath a building overhang, protected from the wet, icy rain that just had started coming down.

"Remind me never to complain about the heat back at base," Bobbi muttered under her breath, and Clint laughed softly. On the southern edge of Tasmania just outside the city, the night was brisk, but not anything Clint would consider seriously cold. Bobbi was a California girl, though, born and bred.

"You, complain? I don't believe it."

Bobbi didn't answer. Suddenly she was perfectly still just outside the circle of his tactical scope, and Clint concentrated his focus on the road that stretched in front of her. "Heads up," he warned, then breathed in with the pull of his bow string. The target had rumbled into view, a light truck going slowly on the slippery road. Release, and the arrow took flight, hitting the front left tire and slicing cleanly through the rubber. He reached back to reload, striking the second and third tires almost immediately.

The weight of the truck screeched against the asphalt as it veered outside of the lines, into an uncontrolled arc, and then stopped. Mockingbird had already burst into action, springing forward while avoiding the path of the vehicle.

She was in place beside a deflated wheel, escrima sticks extended, when both driver and passenger slumped forward onto the dashboard. The tranq arrows Research had designed still weren't perfect, but they did the job with minimal casualties. Clint couldn't help his satisfied grin.

"Nice shot."

"Thanks, Birdie."

Maria Hill spoke again over the comm. No compliments, just business. "Mockingbird, secure the package. Hawkeye?"

"She's covered," Clint confirmed, his gaze sweeping up and down the small section of the street. "No movement from the trailer."

"Let's hope it stays that way." Bobbi had moved toward the rear of the stalled truck, narrating as she went. "Opening up now."

She kept her sticks firmly gripped in the palm of her hand as she released the catch on the door, then immediately brought both weapons up on readiness. A dozen black-hooded assailants poured out of the truck nearly on top of each other, Bobbi standing firm at the centre of the swarm as the fighting started in earnest.

Hill's groan vibrated in the back of her throat. "How the hell did they all fit in there?"

Clint didn't have an answer for her. He focused on firing tranquillizer shots at the combatants on the edge of the group. One, two, three fell almost immediately, leaving Mockingbird more clearly visible in the foreground of his vision. Outnumbered, she was inordinately graceful on the slippery ground, sticks whirling amid the flurry of fists and kicks.

"Why the fuck," he muttered, a question aimed at no one in particular, "is it always ninjas? Command, I'm down to one last tranquilliser dosage. Ready to switch to rifle."

His rifle would issue lethal shots. Precision wouldn't be a problem for him, even in the limited light, but according to mission specs only Hill had the authority to okay deadly force. "Standby, Hawkeye. Give Mockingbird a moment to work."

In the end, she only needed a moment. Clint and Bobbi hadn't worked together in nearly a year. He knew how efficient and brutal she could be in the field, but it had been months since he'd seen it in person. His eye tracked each sharp, quick movement, as every adversary close enough for her to reach came in contact with her sticks and went flying, skidding down the slippery street.

Two assailants remained on their feet, circling warily as they barked at each other in a foreign language, too faint for Clint to pick up over Bobbi's radio. He drew back, and released his last sedative arrow.

The arrow struck home, and the attacker on Bobbi's right collapsed without a sound. The one on her left hesitated long enough for Bobbi to dart forward and strike with both hands.

She raised her sticks in an approximation of a thumbs up, and launched herself into the trailer. The ensuing silence was tense, but there were no further sounds of fighting.

"Do you see the device?"

"Yup." Mockingbird's voice was bright, almost cheerful. "Wrapped up nice and pretty for us."

"Then grab it and let's go."

"Command," Clint said, dragging Hill's title out in a warning growl. Two ninjas had dusted themselves off, and with no more arrows appearing, were moving cautiously back towards the truck. "Mockingbird, we've got two moving in on your six."

"Copy."

Inside the truck's trailer Bobbi was hidden from view, and the men would be too if Clint allowed them to get that far. Before Hill could issue the order, Bobbi spoke again.

"Stand by for field test in three, two…"

"Belay. We do not have -"

There was a loud, sharp noise like fireworks, and then the overpowering smell of something acrid as a cloud of black dust like ashes exploded out of the open trailer. Mockingbird's end of the comm was a muddled mixture of static and a low, off-key whine.

Clint adjusted his sights, but it was a useless action. Even the night vision tech couldn't penetrate the dark cloud, and he couldn't see anyone, much less fire a shot. His finger grazed the underside of the trigger as he grunted in frustration.

"Command, do you have eyes on Mockingbird?"

"Negative, Hawkeye. Mockingbird, come in or we're fucking coming to get you, do you understand me?"

On the ground, the inky black chemical had begun to dissipate. Bobbi was emerging from the truck an stepping down into the street. The mask she'd been wearing above her forehead was pulled lower, fully covering her face. She carried her escrima sticks bundled in one hand, and a small, silver device in the other.

Clint's body still tensed over his rifle, but there were no enemies left to fire upon. All the men had collapsed on the asphalt road, black dust sticking to their face and hands.

Maria Hill sighed. "Okay, gang. Rendezvous point in ten minutes."

"Copy."

*

Maria Hill had insisted on taking the controls of the Quinjet. She was an excellent pilot, contrary to her reputation as a desk agent with little experience in the field, a pet of Fury's brought on to nitpick and wrap red tape around every action. Clint had said the same of her himself on his most frustrated days. Yet she'd proved to have a variety of skills, and be surprisingly useful in the field.

"Well," Hill announced to the two passengers sitting as far away from each other as they could manage, "that was fun."

"Sure," Clint agreed. "If you like skunks."

Bobbi wrinkled her nose, pulling a rescue blanket tighter over her shoulders. She'd peeled off her cold-weather field gear and deposited it into a crumpled pile, all of it unrecognisable under a layer of black dust. The unpleasant scent was sharpest there, but it had permeated the clothing she wore underneath and drifted to every inch of the plane. "I don't smell that bad."

"You smell worse, and that was goddamn dangerous, you goddamn lunatic."

"It wasn't, actually, once I covered my face. The nebuliser dispersal only affects target on contact with open skin. It was surprisingly efficient, actually."

"You had no idea if it would even work!" Clint's voice rose sharply, and he could barely contain his bubbling anger. Bobbi shrugged.

"Sure I did. Read the mission briefing." Bobbi adopted a sing-song tone, as if reading aloud. "Weapon is reported fully operational."

"Oh, good," Clint said, grunting as he rolled his eyes. "Because terrorists never exaggerate."

"If it makes you feel any better, Hawkeye, Specialist Morse's behaviour will definitely be mentioned in the mission report."

Bobbi sighed. "My behaviour was perfectly safe, Ma'am."

"Yeah," Clint said, his voice thick with sarcasm. "Perfectly safe, and she doesn't even smell that bad."

Bobbi grinned, a challenging smile half-hidden by the wet hair that fell into her face. "Careful, Hawkeye. Thought you said you were done worrying about me."

Her words were meant as a distraction, but tonight Clint was too tired take the bait. "When I'm eyes up high, worrying's my job. You want someone else next time, I'm sure Agent Hill can sort that out for you."

"Don't drag me into this," Hill responded from the pilot's chair, but she sounded mostly amused.

*

"Good job, Barton." Hill's touchdown was smooth. They deplaned in single file, giving a wide berth to Bobbi as she came down the ramp. "You too, Morse. Make sure you run all your gear through decontamination."

By the book, as always. Bobbi nodded. "Yes, Ma'am."

He didn't see her until nearly an hour later, leaning into the open doorway of the small equipment room, where he was huddled over his bow, carefully drying it off and checking for damage before waxing the bowstring. It was a routine he kept to after every mission, even when the conditions weren't harsh as they'd been tonight. A weapon could fail in the field, if you weren't careful, and there was no one else at SHIELD who knew exactly how to take care of his.

Clint glanced over at her where she lingered against the doorframe. "You smell much better."

"Thanks. How's Romanov?"

He quirked his mouth at the unexpected subject in an expression that was half-smile, half question. "You want to ask me something, Birdie?"

"Just heard about some trouble you got into, that's all."

"So what?" Clint couldn't hold back the challenge in his tone.

Bobbi rolled her eyes. "Simmer down, Hawkeye. I was offering to help."

Clint lifted both eyebrows at that, his eyes meeting hers in a direct stare. "Does it seem like I need help?"

Bobbi didn't answer. She moved forward into the room, sitting beside him on the bench with her hands relaxed at her sides. "You know, when you brought her in last year? Everyone thought you were crazy."

He'd been aware of that, had sat through the lectures and the mental health evaluations, the expression of distrust that Coulson had worn for weeks. He shrugged. "Yeah. I remember."

"But you were right about her. Unsurprisingly." Bobbi reached out to tap his shoulder, a friendly touch.

"Thought you didn't like her."

"No. I said everyone else didn't like her. I don't have anything against her. If you like her, then that's cool with me. You're a good judge of that shit."

There was something unsaid in her tone, as her words drifted into silence. "But?" he asked.

"But you're a fixer. I get it. It's charming, even." Bobbi smiled, soft and wistful. "You're good at looking out for people. But sometimes you could let other people be worried about you, you know? I was just trying to help."

Clint took a deep breath, exhaling the weight of a conversation that they'd never really had. "I appreciate it."

"No, you don't," she answered, but there wasn't any heat in it.

"Yeah, well. Tell Hunter I said hey."

It was an olive branch, of sorts. Bobbi grinned. "Nope. Definitely not gonna do that. See you around, hotshot."

*

Meet me on the range, please?

Clint glanced down at his phone, and blinked at at the tentatively phrased request on the screen. He'd given Natasha his number weeks ago, but this was the first message that she'd sent him. He fired off a quick response, then grabbed his black SHIELD cap and pulled it onto his head before exiting the building into the afternoon sun.

The training facilities were at the far end of the complex. Clint braced himself for the expected stream of jarring noise as he entered the indoor range, but Natasha was alone in the wide room, leaning against a wall as she waited.

"Hey. Everything okay?"

In answer Natasha drew her hand from her pocket and extended it towards him. A small throwing knife sat in her upraised palm. Its sharp pointed edge was turned towards the far wall, away from them both. "Did you know," she asked him, "that you're the only person currently on base who's qualified on this weapon?"

Clint raised both eyebrows in surprise. "Yeah, I did, actually. Most field agents prefer firearms. A few also train in martial arts specialties, but when it comes to distance weapons, I'm pretty much it."

"They didn't teach this in Russia," Natasha admitted, still scowling at the knife as if it had offended her. "They probably thought it was inefficient. What's so funny?"

Clint shrugged, trying and failing hide his amused grin. "Just didn't know that there was anything they hadn't taught you in, uh, Russia. And it is pretty inefficient, for most jobs. But I like to have options."

"It's inefficient," Natasha repeated stubbornly. "My aim is excellent, but this…" Her words trailed off into an aggrieved sigh.

"Your aim is excellent, huh?" He was teasing her, despite himself. "You know there's no need to test on additional weapons? It's optional."

"Yet you are mission-qualified on seventeen different weapons," Natasha pointed out.

"Sure am. But I'm not necessarily the best agent to copy, if you know what I mean."

"So you're not going to help me?"

She hadn't yet asked for his help, technically speaking, but Clint let the detail slide. She was gorgeous when she was annoyed, and for once probably unaware of it, too focused on the rarity of a challenge that wasn't bending to her skill.

He was smiling again as he reached out for the knife. Natasha placed it gently into his palm, and Clint balanced it carefully in the crease of his hand, judging the weight. His fingers curled around the indentations in the grip as Natasha watched him expectantly.

"This is too heavy for you. You'll get better aim with less weight. Let's try a lighter knife."

*

He'd never been the most talented teacher. Much of what he knew he'd learned before he ever came to SHIELD, and it was a struggle for him to clearly translate the concepts that he knew instinctively.

But Natasha was easy to instruct, interested in the subject and paying close attention. She was attentive as she formed the mirror image of his left-handed stance, asking pointed questions whenever Clint's instructions were too muddled for her to follow.

"You did well," he told her as they finished, but Natasha's mouth tightened into an uncertain line. "Still got questions?"

Natasha's response wasn't quite an eyeroll, as she turned to pack up her gear. Each movement was meticulous as she returned each knife to the case and fastened it closed. "No. I'll practice."

"You'll be fine. Can't be lethal at everything on your first go-round."

Natasha shrugged as she crumpled her used target sheets and tossed them into the wastebasket. Clint turned to leave, and found that Natasha was watching him thoughtfully.

"What?"

Natasha shook her head, and didn't speak again until they had exited the building, leaving the bracing cool of the air-conditioned facility for the baking hot desert summer. Clint pulled his sunglasses from his pocket and pulled the purple-tinted lenses onto his face.

He had almost forgotten asking the question when Natasha spoke. "According to the database, you're also trained with the sword."

"Yeah, I am. But I wouldn't expect you to need help with that one, Probie."

"I don't." She tilted her head, offering him a long, considering look. "I was just wondering why the interest in medieval weapons. Some of the ones you are trained in, I've never seen in the field."

"Ah." The memories didn't sting, exactly. It had been a long time, and he was a long way from the winding back roads navigated by Carson's Traveling Fair. "I was trained by a guy who had a thing for older weapons. Anything showy, really. I guess I got good and kept using them." Applause of audiences long dispersed echoed distantly in his head.

"I see," Natasha answered, though he thought she probably didn't.

It wasn't something he'd ever gotten good at talking about.

"One more thing," Natasha said, startling him out of the hole of half-buried memories.

"Yeah?"

"Do not call me Probie. It's not going to be my title for much longer." Natasha's voice was soft and firm, challenging him to argue.

Clint simply nodded, looking thoughtfully at her. "You know they might just set more hoops for you to jump through." A statement, not a question.

"Then I'll jump." Her look behind her eyes was hard and determined. The late afternoon sun reflected off the top of her head, light fracturing into a fire-red halo. Clint was reminded of the girl he'd found it so hard to kill, who hadn't been ready to die. "And I will pass all their tests. They will not get rid of me."

Clint found that he believed her.

*

The New Mexico training course stretched out for miles behind the main buildings. Clint had cut his teeth on the courses attached to the Academy of Operations which sprawled through a dense stretch of woods. He'd been the oldest in his group, running through endless team drills with kids that didn't trust him. The nights were spent memorising a thick book of regulations and strategic policies, wondering if he'd made the right choice.

By contrast the local course was mostly man-made, dotted with stone and metal structures built for elevation and cover that jutted out of the landscape. Natasha looked completely at home, barely out of breath as she scrambled up a set of rings just ahead of him.

Clint had agreed to challenge her to improve her course times, but Natasha was turning out to be dangerously competitive. What had started out as a simple race had turned into a haphazard version of tag, with Clint's ego taking an uncomfortable hit each time she tackled him.

Natasha's course time was easily in the top ranks of recent recruits, but that hadn't stopped her from insisting she needed more practice. Clint's knees were starting to bruise from the number of falls he had taken and they were both drenched in sweat, but he was glad he hadn't turned down the suggestion.

Natasha did a simple backwards somersault down to the ground, grinning. She was having fun, and it brought a lightness to her whole face that Clint was glad to see.

She took off at a run. She was lighter and more flexible, dancing over the obstacles, but Clint was still faster. He was on her heels, tapping her just before she reached the far edge of the course. "Gotcha," he announced, before folding into a sitting position on the loamy ground. "Last round? I need a shower."

Natasha lifted both shoulders in a delicate shrug of agreement. "Then dinner? We could go to Bonnie's."

Bonnie's was the bar in town that they had visited together weeks ago. Clint nodded. "Loser pays."

"Or the senior agent pays," she suggested.

"We'll split it. Going to give me a head start?"

Natasha closed her eyes and began to count loudly backwards from ten.

*

The moment they stepped back inside the main building, Clint could feel that something was wrong. The rhythm of a SHIELD base could be unpredictable, ebbing and flowing at odd hours as missions came and went. Never quiet, but always controlled. Almost every moment closely planned by Operations, the details sifted down to the dots and arrows on the charts they sent to the Triskelion.

Right now the base was humming with energy, in a way that couldn't be explained by a single mission. It was after hours on a Friday night, but someone had thrown on all the lights, pale yellow light leaking out of every open doorway.

A half-dozen junior agents ran past, shouting something at each other that Clint couldn't make out. When Clint glanced at Natasha, her wary expression mimicked perfectly what he was feeling.

"What the hell?"

Natasha shrugged, her gaze flickering towards the lobby Security station. It was empty. "No alarm," she said.

If there'd been a security breach that had drawn the guards away from their station, the base should have been automatically placed under lockdown. Clint frowned.

Natasha was looking at him, as if waiting for an order. "What do you think we should do?"

Clint glanced around again at the empty lobby, then looked down at his watch. "Let's head up to Operations. Maybe they've got something going on up there, and it's all hands on deck."

"Okay." Natasha didn't look reassured, but she nodded.

Clint paused, thinking quickly. The armoury was on the other side of the building, as was the locker that held his bow. The common areas here were simply decorated, in a utilitarian and modern style. Clint looked at the chairs that rested against the nearest wall, by the closed café. Picking the nearest one up and gripping it by the seat, he swung it with as much force as he could muster against the floor. The spokes and legs the chair popped out, clattering loudly against each other, and Clint leaned down and picked up two of the loose metal rods.

"Here."

Natasha accepted the makeshift weapon without any questions. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." Clint twirled the other tube in his left hand. He wanted to believe that he was overreacting, but his intuition rarely failed him.

By unspoken agreement they bypassed the elevators, instead taking the stairs up to the fourth floor. Clint saw Natasha's guarded reaction as she raced up the second flight just ahead of him, only hearing the noise that had caught her attention as he jogged up towards the third landing. Both of them slowed at the sight of the sound's source, relaxing their alert fighting stances.

Natasha lowered the baton she'd been holding in her closed right hand. "Jackson?"

The junior agent looked up from where she'd been sitting, huddled on the floor in the windowless stairwell. Her eyes were red, her pale face streaked with tracks of dark mascara. "Romanov?" she asked. Natasha's name came out in a garbled mess of syllables, as Agent Jackson struggled to breathe past choked sobs.

Natasha glanced back at him, but Clint could only shrug helplessly. He had no more clue what to say to a crying girl than she did. Natasha took a breath, lowering herself down to Agent Jackson's level and reaching out a hand. "Are you okay?"

Jackson continued to cry wordlessly. She was barely older than Natasha, perhaps an acquaintance from Natasha's residence or training classes. Perhaps she'd seen something, Clint thought, but more likely the distress was personal. Clint glanced impatiently at the fire door that led to the fourth floor.

He reached out to tap Natasha gently on the shoulder. I'll be right back, he mouthed silently, before heading up the stairs.

He was halfway down the hallway when he heard Natasha's footsteps behind him.

"She okay? What's going on?"

Natasha shook her head. "It involves a man, I think. She's not making much sense. I told her I'd be back, but I think it's best I follow. You might need me."

Clint was starting to doubt it, but he didn't shoo her away. He stopped in front of Coulson's door, frowning at the etched nameplate mounted on the closed door. It was unusual to find Coulson abandoning his work at a reasonable hour.

"This is the creepiest thing yet," he muttered. He tapped a terse knock against the door, before grabbing the handle and swinging the door open. Empty. The door hinges squeaked gently as Clint closed it again, and crossed the hall to the door directly opposite. The base often joked that Maria never left her office, that she slept in her chair, but tonight there was no sign of her. He knocked, then opened her office door.

"What the hell?"

Hill was nowhere to be seen, but the office wasn't unoccupied. Hill's carefully organised files had been scattered and knocked to the floor. Discarded clothing sat in a messy heap on one of the office chairs, while a paisley tie snaked across the floor, between the discarded paperwork.

"Sayers!" Clint mustered as commanding a tone as he could manage, and both agents jumped at the agents, turning red with embarrassment.

Entwined in each other's arms on top of the ransacked desk, there was no need to guess what they'd been doing. Clint didn't recognise the other agent present, something he was presently glad for. Both men twisted and scrambled to cover their exposed bodies. Clint tried not to stare.

Natasha elbowed him in the ribs, a hint that he'd been silent a beat too long.

"Hill's desk?" Clint demanded. "Really?"

Half-dressed and flustered, Agent Sayers didn't quite raise his head to make eye contact. "We, uh. We needed some privacy."

"I can see that." Clint sighed. It seemed he was the most experienced agent present, which he supposed meant it was technically up to him to restore order. He scanned the disarray on the floor. "Look, just put everything back the way you found it, all right? Then get out of here, and no one has to know."

Both men brightened, looking reassured. "Not even Agent Hill?" Sayers asked.

"She won't hear it from me," Clint promised. He glanced at Natasha.

"Or from me." Natasha nodded, and if her expression was hiding the desire to laugh, only Clint seemed to notice.

"Thanks, Barton."

Clint closed the door. They both stood silently in the hallway for a moment. Clint spoke first.

"This entire base has lost their minds."

"Compromised," Natasha agreed. "But we're still fine."

"Would we know if we weren't?" Clint asked, grimacing. She was right. So far he felt fine. "We were outside most of the afternoon."

"Airborne pathogen?"

It was the most likely answer, but it didn't quite feel right. Clint shook his head. "Something like that would take a while to wind itself through the system. No one here seems to realise anything is wrong. Whatever it is, it hit everyone at once."

Natasha nodded. She didn't state the obvious, that if the compromising agent was spread by air then the two of them had been infected the moment they came inside. "But why?"

Clint frowned. "What do you mean?"

"What is the purpose? There's been no sign of an attack."

She gripped her baton tighter as she spoke, a movement that was probably unconscious. Clint couldn't help doing the same. The hallway remained quiet, their shadows bouncing off the walls underneath the yellow-tinted lighting.

"If it is an infiltration, they could be anywhere in the building," he said. "Or this could be something else entirely." For now, they needed to do what they could with the immediate problem. "I'll head to the command centre, try to contact Washington and tell them we might have a medical emergency. You see if any of the geeks in Research have a theory about what the hell's going on."

Natasha shook her head stubbornly. "We should stay together."

It was a good suggestion, but Clint hesitated. "Time could be an issue here, Natasha. If we've been affected, we might not have much time left."

"All the more reason to watch each other's backs, don't you think?"

Clint thought it over. Compromised but together, they might at least be able to keep each other on task. He shook off the image of Natasha in Coulson's office, shedding her clothing down to her skin, and hoped that the fleeting distraction, the rush of feeling, didn't show on his face.

"We can lock down the base from the labs," Natasha pointed out. "That will stop this from spreading any further, and get the Triskelion's attention."

Clint frowned. "The whole base? Are you sure?"

"Of course. It's in the training manual." Natasha had started moving back into Coulson's unattended office, towards his cluttered desk. She picked up a red, white, and blue coffee mug and shook the contents out into her palm. Coulson's field communication unit along with a spare, still wrapped in protective plastic. Wordlessly, Natasha handed one to him.

Clint raised his eyebrows. "What happened to sticking together?"

"We will," she said. "This is just in case."

*

Their progress towards the Research wing was slow, much slower than Clint would have liked. They came across more SHIELD employees overwhelmed by sadness, by lust, by frustration or by anger. They found a cluster of security agents sitting on the floor and laughing together, as if they'd simply decided that they were off the clock and wandered away. An agent in front of the western elevator bay had punched a wall, and was standing, staring at her bleeding knuckles, as if she had no idea what to do next.

There were simply too many compromised agents to stop and reason with them all. Clint and Natasha pressed on.

The first laboratory door would not open to Clint's access card. The second was empty, a tableau of half-full coffee mugs and a radio playing pop songs, as if its occupants had been distracted in the middle of their work. When they stepped into Lab C, Clint blinked in surprise at the scene. Alina Yang was stretched out on a workbench, fast asleep with her lab coat bundled underneath her head.

"Doc!" Clint couldn't help the sharp note of alarm as he crossed the room, but Yang was breathing steadily. "Doc, wake up."

Yang's eyes fluttered open, expression hazy as her eyes struggled to focus. "Agent Barton? And Agent Romanov. What's going on?"

Natasha stepped forward. "We were hoping that you knew the answer to that."

"Unfortunately not," Yang said, as she allowed Clint to reach out a hand and guide her into a sitting position. She frowned in confusion at her wristwatch. "I must have, um. Decided to take a nap? Several hours ago, it seems."

"Don't worry about it. Impulse control is running low around here right now."

Yang frowned, immediately business-like despite mussed hair and creased skin, where the buttons of her lab coat had rested against her cheek. "A mood-altering pathogen? Are there any other symptoms?"

"Not that we're aware of."

"This could be highly contagious. We need to lock down the base before it begins to spread." Yang slipped off the desk, taking a moment to wiggle back into the shoes she'd discarded. She reached under the desk, and after a moment a small, unobtrusive keypad slid into view.

Operations had a long list of emergency codes, many of which he'd never used. Clint watched as Yang tapped in a code he didn't recognise, followed by what looked like her SHIELD identification number.

"Just how many Research emergency codes are there?"

"You don't want to know," Yang answered, with a grim smile. A long, low alarm howled in acknowledgment as she finished. he phone on the wall trilled, demanding attention.

Yang crossed the room, reaching to pick up the receiver. "That will be Washington. They'll probably want to talk to you as well."

She was right. Clint gave his own identification code to the agent on the line, and all the details of the emergency he knew. Frustratingly few, as the monotone stream of questions became sharper and more pointed.

"Look, how long till a rescue team gets here? We can't just lock down the lab and hope it wears off."

"You know that's impossible to say for certain, Hawkeye. We'll be there as soon as possible."

"Our very own oh-eight-four situation," Natasha said, sighing as Clint hung up the phone.

Clint turned to look at her. The niggling thoughts that had been tickling the back of his mind as they'd wound through the complex fell suddenly into place. "Shit. Maybe that's exactly what it is."

"What do you mean?"

Clint didn't reply, turning to Yang instead. "Doc, what's going on in Lab A?"

"I don't know," Yang said, brow furrowing. "That's one of Fury's pet projects. No one talks about it. You think whatever is in there is the cause of all this?"

Natasha looked thoughtful. "How do we know it's not something else? The base must have dozens of artefacts stored here by now."

"I don't," Clint admitted, "but it's the best place to start. Unless you have a better idea."

He looked directly at Yang, but she shook her head. "No. None of the projects I'm familiar with could do this."

"Then Romanov and I will check it out. If nothing else, we'll have ruled something out."

"How are you going to get in?" Yang asked. "The door requires level six access."

"We'll find a way." Natasha looked oddly reassured, now that there was something to do, and Clint couldn't blame her.

"Let's go."

*

He saw the gun before he saw Laurenti's face. Ducking for cover was immediate and instinctive. Clint pulled Natasha down with him, gripping her arm too hard as they crouched against the doorway frame.

One, two, three shots whizzed harmlessly through the air, and Laurenti let out a frustrated animal yell. "Romanov!"

Clint glanced quickly behind him, making sure the door to Lab C was firmly closed. Yang was a SHIELD veteran, and she would know when to remain concealed.

"Agent Laurenti!" Natasha shouted. She looked at Clint, and tilted her head towards the closed lab door.

Clint pressed his lips together and shook his head. She might think she could take care of herself, but he wasn't going to hide. Clint reached for the metal tube he'd tucked against his belt, and thought with a sigh of the bow that was sitting in his locker. He raised his free hand to begin a silent countdown.

"Everyone knows what you are, Widow. Why won't you just admit it?"

"It's like you say, Agent Laurenti." Natasha's words came slowly, uttered with a malicious growl he'd never heard from her before. "Everyone already knows."

Clint frowned. But if Natasha's game was keeping Laurenti distracted, it was working. Footfalls moved towards them, but Laurenti had stopped firing.

"Say that again," he demanded.

Clint raised his right hand to begin a silent countdown.

"You were right. I am a traitor to SHIELD."

Three. Two. One.

Clint moved forward, taking only the briefest time for visual assessment. Then the rod flew out of Clint's hand, tumbling end over end in a perfect arc. Bouncing off Laurenti's wrist with a hard thump that caused him to drop the gun, and rebounding into his chest and knocking him off balance. On the closure of Clint's fist, Natasha rose out of her crouch and sprung forward like a shot.

She was within arm's reach of Laurenti in a second, delivering two whirlwind kicks to his midsection, knocking him to the ground. Clint was only a few paces behind her, his attention on the gun that had fallen and skidded across the floor. He bent and picked it up, hurriedly tucking it against his palm, safely pointed down and away from the scuffle.

Laurenti was on all fours, struggling to rise and failing. His eyes were dazed and unfocused. His mouth, still twisted angrily, as bleeding. Probably from the force when Clint's throw had hit him in the mouth, or bounced against the floor during Natasha's attack. Clint kept his stance light and ready, but he could see that he wasn't needed. Every time Laurenti managed to gain enough control to rise partway, Natasha's hands or feet darted forward, and once again knocked him down.

She was muttering angrily, words too fast for Clint to follow even if his Russian had been up to the task Laurenti lifted his hands to attempt defensive moves, but Natasha pressed forward, her blows never losing steam.

"Whoa, hey." Natasha's focus was so complete, it was easy for Clint to put a hand on Natasha's arm and draw her away. Her skin was warm, her cheeks flushing darkly. "I think he's had enough."

"I -" Natasha hesitated, before sucking in a deep breath. "I think I am beginning to be compromised."

Clint's mouth quirked upward in the briefest flash of cynical amusement. "I think you might be right."

It took only moments to restrain Laurenti. He was no longer resisting, but his eyes were still angry, following Natasha's movements mistrustfully.

Clint tested the restraints around Laurenti's wrists that he'd improvised out of Yang's lab materials. They would hold, and were as comfortable as he could make them on short notice. "Sit tight," he said, ignoring Laurenti's angry glare. "Help will be here soon."

"Specialist Barton."

Clint glanced up. Natasha seemed to have recovered her composure, and was staring thoughtfully at their temporary captive. "Yeah?"

"What is Supervisory Agent Laurenti's clearance level?"

Level six. Clint's previous patdown had been looking for weapons, not keycards. He rifled quickly through Laurenti's pockets for a second time, and pulled out the card. Clint rose to his feet, flashing Natasha an approving wink as he did so. "Good call, Probie."

Natasha rolled her eyes, but she was smiling slightly.

*

Lab A was dark and still. Clint reached for the light switch, the sudden illumination casting long shadows across the wide, empty room. He sighed, squinting uncertainly at the nearest equipment.

"It would help if we knew what we were looking for."

Natasha shrugged. "We know it's not airborne."

"Probably," he corrected. "Probably not airborne."

Probably not in this room either, but neither of them voiced the thought out loud. Natasha opened her mouth to respond, but whatever she was going to say was altered abruptly into a muffled sound of surprise. She teetered briefly off balance, reaching out and grabbing Clint's hand to steady her.

Clint frowned, gripping her fingers tightly in concern. If this was another symptom of the unknown object, then the effects were getting worse.

"Clint. Look." Natasha was peering down at the floor, where a power extension cord had been half hidden underneath a desk. That was what had tripped her, he realised. Natasha let his hand go.

"What do you think it's powering?" he asked.

"Let's find out," Natasha suggested, and together they picked their way through the lab, following the power source to where it joined with another. Twisted together into a knotted trail that ended at the back of the room, snaking under the door of a locked cabinet.

Clint raised his eyebrows. "Is this when I get to see your lock picking skills?"

"Expensive lock." Natasha shook her head, examining the doors. "But a pretty cheap cabinet."

With the help of the metal bar he'd brought in from the hallway, the entire door popped easily out of its frame. Behind it sat an electronic device Clint didn't recognise, spanning nearly the full breadth of the room's back wall. There was no light or user panel to indicate that it was working, only a light buzzing sound, a hum that seemed to be vibrating underneath his skin. Clint tentatively reached out and brushed the surface, cursing.

"What the fuck are these idiots working on?"

Natasha didn't answer. She was pulling hard on all the visible electric cords, yanking them away from the device and tossing the loose ends away from her.

Clint hesitated, frowning thoughtfully at the device. "What if it's got a battery charge?"

She raised both eyebrows, gesturing mutely towards the rod in his hand. Clint only hesitated a moment before lifting it with both hands, and smashing it against the plastic casing as hard as he could.

"You think that'll do it?"

"I think it better. Unless we were wrong." Natasha sighed, sinking into a sitting position on the floor and brushing away the nearest mess. "Then this will be pretty tough to explain to Director Fury."

Clint paused, before dropping into a cross-legged pose beside her. "Tough for me to explain, maybe. Fury likes you."

"So people have said." With her knees pulled in close to her chin and her hair falling across her face, Natasha suddenly looked startlingly young. "He has funny ways of showing it."

"Yeah, that's how he is," Clint agreed. He paused, watching her, turning his next words over before he spoke again. "I have to tell you something."

"Now?" she asked.

"Well. I might change my mind after this wears off." He could feel the effects of the now silent hum settling in, his body brimming with unexpected thoughts like a fever. "Look. I'm a jerk."

Natasha looked at him, her mouth pulling into a thin, puzzled line. "Now you're speaking nonsense, Hawkeye."

"No, I just wanted to tell you. About the bar, and you know? It was Coulson's idea." She was staring challengingly at him, and Clint barreled on, knowing he wasn't quite voicing his jumbled thoughts. "Last month, our visit to town? It was Coulson's idea. He thought I should get to know you better and I'm glad I did, you know? I'm glad I didn't shoot you that time. With my arrows."

Clint made himself stop talking, and fell into trying to decipher the expression that had settled on Natasha's face, tugging at the edges of eyes and the sides of her mouth. The silent moment stretched on, and Clint was the first to break it.

"Shit. You knew."

A knowing smile crept across Natasha's face. "I had just had many meetings with the psychiatrists, Clint. They asked me a lot of questions that seemed to lead to you. Then suddenly, there you were."

"Oh." Clint considered that. "You weren't mad?"

Natasha shrugged, and it occurred to him that compared to her previous experiences, Coulson's machinations must seem like small potatoes. "It's like you say. It was good to get to know you. Besides, if you weren't mad, then why should I be?"

"Why should I be mad?"

Now Natasha broke out into a full giggle, a flash of teeth hidden quickly behind her hand. "Clint. Why do you think you were selected for this task of friendship?"

"Because I brought you in," Clint answered, automatically. Then considered her words, before heaving a loud sigh. "Coulson worries about me too much."

Her eyes met his, clear and free of judgement. "Perhaps," Natasha said.

"Wait." He was turning over a months worth of conversations in his mind, matching it against this new intelligence. "You thought Coulson wanted me to go up to your room?"

The idea was clearly, plainly ridiculous, and Natasha shrugged, glancing away. "I didn't know what else - "

"Hey." Clint reached out, resting his fingers atop hers where she'd rested her fingers flat atop the floor. He wasn't sure if he was too warm, or she was. Thoughts still racing, impulses and images he knew better than to examine too closely. "I didn't mean to embarrass you. And it's not that I never think about you, you know?" He took a breath, grasping for clarity in his jumbled-up brain. He didn't want to tell her that she was too young, or too new. Things that were true enough, but not the point, or not all of it. "I'm trying not to rush into things, so much."

"Yes." She nodded. "Mockingbird said."

"You had girl talk with Bobbi? Wait, when? What did she say?"

Natasha smiled, and underneath his hand her fingers wiggled and pressed against his. "That for you, timing is important."

Clint wanted to ask further questions, but Natasha had lifted her head looking away. She squared her shoulders, and rose cautiously to her feet. Clint mimicked her movement, just moments before he heard what had alerted her. Shouts in the hallway outside, insistently seeking and demanding a response.

Help was finally here.

*

The triage system set up by the agents from the Triskelion worked all night and into the morning, carefully assessing each agent who had been on site at the time of the incident. The majority of injuries seemed to be minor, inflicted in accidents or in fights.

Clint was cleared by a medic at almost four in the morning, and given permission to return to his room. Loopy enough from lack of sleep and the after-effects of the destroyed experiment that when Director Fury appeared in front of him it took him a minute to focus.

"Sir?"

"Specialist Barton." Fury nodded solemnly at him before launching into a roundabout explanation of the device they'd found in Lab A. Clint wasn't certain if Fury was intentionally obfuscating, or if the discussion was simply over his head.

Standing uncertainly in the Med unit in the middle of the night, the director's words sounded something like an apology. More proof he was sleep-deprived, Clint thought. Everyone knew that Fury never said he was sorry for anything.

*

The orange and blue party hat landed lightly on the floor in front of him, bobbling slightly before settling on its side. Clint glanced up from the locker room bench where he'd been carefully refletching his arrows. The process was soothingly meditative, and Clint was surprised to look up from his work and see Coulson standing in the doorway. Clint picked up the hat, frowning in puzzlement at it.

"It's not my birthday, sir."

"Nope," Coulson agreed, smiling placidly. "This is a different kind of celebration. There's no ice cream, I'm afraid. Agent Romanov expressed a preference for red velvet."

"Agent - it's official?"

"Official as it's going to get. Romanov is a fully certified Level Two agent. Come on, Barton. Third floor conference room. Party's going to start without us."

Clint moved quickly at the invitation, hastily picking up his arrows and fletching supplies. Locking them away, he followed Coulson out of the room. "The Council changed their mind?"

"After last week's events, it was agreed that no one could argue that Romanov whether an asset to the organisation. You'll also be glad to hear that Agent Laurenti has been disciplined. You won't be seeing him on the base for some time."

Clint paused. "But he was compromised."

"Even so," Coulson said, and his tone was hard, leaving no room for argument.

"Do you know what his problem was, Sir?"

Coulson tilted his head, grimacing as he considered his answer. "There have always been elements at SHIELD that questioned Romanov's commitment to our mission here."

"No kidding," Clint muttered, as Coulson continued.

"When the team was pinned down, Laurenti seems to have misconstrued events and drawn some incorrect conclusions."

"And Fury's creepy experiments didn't help. But Laurenti wasn't exactly the only one. Drawing incorrect conclusions, I mean." They'd reached the end of the hallway, and Clint tapped his thumb impatiently against the elevator call button.

Coulson shrugged, not disagreeing. "Yes, well. One problem at a time."

*

"Clint!"

The hug from Natasha was brief and business-like, over before Clint knew it was happening. Clint smiled at her as she pulled away, her features arranging themselves back into her usual, solemn expression. Towards the back of the room stood Bobbi, deep in conversation with Lance Hunter. Clint didn't know the names of the other faces, but recognised them as young recruits who had joined SHIELD when Natasha had, most progressing to full agent status a month or two earlier in the year.

"Congratulations, Tash."

He wasn't sure where the nickname had come from. Natasha screwed up her mouth, as if she wasn't sure she approved, but didn't comment. "Yes. Thank you."

"Me?" Clint asked. "I didn't do anything."

"That's Specialist Barton for you," Maria Hill said, appearing suddenly from behind him. She had put away the headset she usually wore, replacing it with one of Coulson's paper hats. "Unless it involves shooting holes in things, he's annoyingly modest."

"Yes." Natasha was smiling. "I have noticed."

"And I'd like to see you both in my office tomorrow."

"Whoa, wait," Clint protested. "She's been a full agent for like five minutes. She can't be in trouble already."

Hill rolled her eyes. "No one's in trouble. Director Fury, in his infinite wisdom, has asked me to start restructuring the strike team units. Meet me in my office tomorrow to discuss it."

"Yes, Ma'am," Natasha said obediently.

"Strike teams?" Clint asked.

"Hey, this is a party." Coulson appeared at Hill's side, holding a paper plate of sliced cake in each hand. "No work talk."

"Did you know about this strike team thing, Sir?"

Coulson thrust one of the plates toward him without answering. "Cake. No work talk."

"I'll see you both at oh-nine-hundred," Hill said.

Clint frowned at her for a moment, but no further information seemed to be forthcoming. Natasha was shrugging, digging into the remains of her cake.

Clint had a sudden, vivid flashback to a similar scene years ago. When he'd earned his own full credentials, and had only the vaguest idea of what would be next. Coulson had been wearing the same silly, proud smile. Up to that moment Clint had never stayed in one place for too long, and he hadn't meant to start with SHIELD.

Eight years later, he was still here. Still feeling his way through. Still had days where he had no clue what he had gotten himself into, and the only thing Clint ever knew for sure was that things here would always be interesting. Working with Natasha would be no exception. Clint glanced from Hill to Natasha, and flashed both women a grin. "Oh-nine-hundred. Agent Romanov and I will be there."

~fin.