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Congratulations on an Excellent Kill

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On her first day of freedom, Natasha goes to Target.

"Why are you going there?" Clint asks.

Because fitting in makes her feel secure, Natasha thinks, and it's time to learn to fit in at SHIELD. Red Room had been populated by slinky agents wearing black leather who expressed their feelings by fighting or fucking. When she'd left them, she'd alternated between seducing targets in swanky hotels and killing them in the seamy underbellies of border cities. SHIELD is like no place she's ever been, inhabited by bland-looking men and women who wear boring suits and apparently sleep in normal, middle class homes. And on the weekends, they shop at Target, so that's what Natasha will do.

She slides a knife into the back of her boot and shrugs at Clint.

"Because I feel like it," she snaps. She's not used to people questioning her comings and goings, and now that SHIELD has taken her off the short leash, she has no intention of justifying her every move -- even if Clint looks hurt every time she refuses to answer his questions.

The Target store in Queens feels as big as a train station, its blank white walls contrasting bizarrely with the gray subway station she'd emerged from. Natasha keeps her back to a wall at the edge of the clothing section and stares at photographs of blond models frolicking in fields. She arranges her body into a pose like theirs. It's a good approximation, but customers stare. Then she tells herself to pretend she has a target in the store, and she blends in better after that.

In the housewares section, she runs her hands over brightly-colored plastic plates and tries to imagine taking them home. A gift for Clint, maybe. His hurt expression is still hovering around the edges of her mind, refusing to let go. But she can't picture him using these, and she likes his chipped and mismatched collection of dinner plates. They feel more like something that could belong to her

She stops at a display of greeting cards on her way to the exit. FOR SOMEONE SPECIAL and THANK YOU FOR BEING MY FRIEND, they say. Most of them have pictures of puppies and kittens, and none of them seem quite right for...whatever she has with Clint. Still, they're an American custom, and Clint is American. Maybe this is what he expects? She snatches up a card with two cartoon rabbits on the front and leaves the store without paying.

Clint is gone when she comes home, and Natasha taps the card against the coffee table, suddenly aware that she has no idea what to do with it. The bunnies are aggressively cute, and she wonders if she couldn't have found something better, something along the lines of I'm glad your repeated attempts to kill me didn't work out. Finally she signs her name under the inscription, which says I'm so glad we met, and leaves it by the coffee maker for Clint to find in the morning.

Clint always rises with the sun, and Natasha watches him through half-closed eyes from her little nest of blankets on the couch. It's the same every morning -- first the bathroom, then the coffee pot. She thought she would have gotten bored of watching him by now, but there's something novel about spying on someone who isn't prey.

This morning, he squints blearily at the card, then selects the longest knife from the butcher block on the counter. Holding it at arms length, he prods at the card with the tip of the blade until it falls over and skitters to the floor.

"Did I do it wrong?" she asks, and Clint startles a little at the sound of her voice.

"Well, the booby trap didn't go off," Clint says, scooping the card off the floor and looking up at the ceiling, as if a net might be waiting for him.

Natasha frowns. "That's because I didn't booby trap it," she says, filing the idea away for her next mission.

"So you got me a..." Clint flips the card over, stares at the cartoon rabbits on the front. "You got me a bunny card? Just because? I don't believe you."

"Was it wrong?" Natasha tries to keep her face impassive, but it's harder with him, when she doesn't have a role to play. "Should I have gotten a thank you card instead?"

"Thank you?" Clint's face is hard to read. "Thank you for what?"

Natasha shrugs her shoulders. "For bringing me here. For trusting me enough to let me sleep on your couch for two months. For being my friend." She wants to look away, but she doesn't; he'll think she's trying to play him.

Clint steps closer to the sofa. He's standing over her now, looking at her hard, and she has to crane her neck to see him.

"Have you not had one of those before? A friend?"

"It's new," she says. "It hadn't occurred to me to want one."

Clint sits down next to her. He smells like morning breath and sleep. "Don't say thank you to me. Okay, Nat?"

"Why not?"

"Because I don't deserve it. Because I am not even the tiniest bit better than you. You got that?"

"Okay," she says, feeling suddenly very small. That happens often, when he's kind to her. It makes her remember a time before the Red Room, and that's why she stays.

***

Weeks later, when she snoops through his drawers -- which she always does when he's not home -- she finds the card beneath a pile of unmatched socks. There are fingerprints on the corners, and the spine is worn. She decides then that greeting cards are not such a bad thing after all.

They are complicated though, more so than she expected.

"This is really disturbing, Tasha," Phil says, holding her card aloft. It's handmade, with a picture of a yakuza assassin oozing blood.

"What?" she asks. "Hallmark didn't have a card that said Congratulations on an excellent kill."

"There's a reason for that."

"Probably because most people don't have your aim with a sniper rifle, much less when ninjas are trying to strangle them. I thought it was very impressive."

"Did you consider not adding the mob of cheering school children?"

"Of course not. They were very grateful. And also excited."

"Look, Tasha, I know how you feel about the SHIELD psychiatrist, and frankly, after the biting incident, I think he feels the same way about you. But you might consider talking to someone..."

"Like me." Fury swipes the card from Phil's hand and tacks it to the wall. "Have you considered making a line of these just for SHIELD?"

"Don't encourage her, sir. Please. She's dark and Russian enough already."

Fury makes a barking noise that sounds suspiciously like laughter.

"Could I have a moment in private with my agent, Sir?" Phil asks.

Fury sighs. "You don't have to ruin everyone's sense of humor, Coulson," he says, but he sweeps out the door, his long coat billowing behind him.

"Do you really not see what's weird about this, Tasha?" Phil asks when the door swings shut. His voice is quiet now, concerned.

"No. It was a good mission. You did a good job. We all did."

"And 'congratulations on a good mission' would be an excellent greeting card. But that's not what this says."

"So mental health is pretending we don't kill people for a living?"

"No. Mental health is not liking that we sometimes have to kill people in the course of our missions. I'm not exactly weeping over that hit man's grave, but I don't think of my job as killing people. I think of it as protecting innocent people's lives."

By killing people who are in the way, Natasha thinks.

"If that's what you like to call it," she says.

Phil looks alarmingly sincere. "I do."

***

"Phil didn't like your card," Clint says. It's not a question.

"I don't see what's wrong with being proud of killing people," Natasha says.

"Everyone's got a talent," Clint answers. "Still, it wouldn't hurt you to meet people halfway every now and again. It's not the same thing as being fake."

"Why did you keep the card I gave you?" she asks. It's still there in the sock drawer, four months later.

"Have you been looking through my drawers again? Because I thought I've asked you to stop doing that every Tuesday since you moved in."

"I'm sure you hide everything you don't want me to find. Except your Jugs collection, which is disgusting, by the way. You didn't answer my question."

Clint rolls his shoulders, stretching out a cramp Natasha knows isn't there. It's what he does when he's uneasy.

"Well, maybe nobody ever gave me a card before," says.

Natasha smiles. "Does that mean I can draw you graphically violent congratulatory cards when we come back from missions?"

Clint doesn't smile -- he never does when his eye is on the target -- but Natasha can hear it in his voice anyway. "Anytime you want," he says.

***

The next time she and Clint go on a mission together, Natasha buys another bunny card, but she adds a few things, like arrows and guns and a field of burning cars and dead bodies. Inside, underneath the puffy bubble letters that say I'M GLAD WE'RE FRIENDS, she draws a somber looking agent begging them to be more subtle next time.

Clint hangs the card on the fridge -- after checking for booby traps, of course -- and Natasha thinks she might have found a home.