“Is that the Bla…”
“Shh, she’s coming this way.”
Faking busy only went so far when the person walked right up and waited. Rita ctrl-S’d and looked up, pasting what she hoped passed for a professional smile of greeting on her face. Oh god, the Black Widow was standing in front of her. “Agent Hernandez.” It wasn’t a question.
Shit. “Yes, ma’am,” Rita said as she tried to put an elbow over the pink post-it by her keyboard with the most used keycodes scrawled over it. At least she didn’t write down her passwords. Anymore.
“My understanding is that you dance.”
Only if six months of classes at the Y and a year at Hafla for Homebodies counted, Rita thought. “Yes, ma’am, um, sort of. I’m really just a beginner.”
“You’ve been taking lessons for almost two years.”
“It’s really complicated?” And I’m kind of a klutz, she knew better than to add.
“Do you need a costume?”
In a moment of terrible clarity, she understood what she was actually being asked. Wu was working the Miris case and had tapped into streetcams around a Lebanese place in Midtown for so long that everyone in her division had been craving kibbeh for days. “No, ma’am, I have my oh! Um…” she thought of the pony beads on her headpiece and narrowed her eyes. Like Hell I’m doing this on my own, she thought. “Ma’am, if you’re looking for backup…” of the pony bead and polyester veil type…”Aisha Jones in Accounting goes to the same place I do.”
Romanov smiled and it looked completely human, unlike the rumors. “Thank you, Agent Hernandez.”
JesusfuckingChrist, she thought. She’d bet the three dollars and 27 cents in her wallet that if Romanov was dancing, Barton would be on the doumbek and she was gonna frame any surveillance photos she got her hands on.
Barton didn’t actually play the doumbek. Rita recognized Agent Mitchell from his medical report, because that’s a hell of a scar and memorable besides. She knew he was qualified with all of the modern weaponry, because she updated his file when he requal’d, but she didn’t know he could drum. On the other hand, she now knew not only that Mitchell could drum but also that Barton could juggle, breathe fire, and fill out a metallic embroidered vest so well that she might have whimpered, just a bit, when she hopped up into the van, avoiding a slippy pile of satin to one side and a bank of monitors and equipment on the other. She stood still, or hunched over, really, for a moment, trying to ignore the fact that she was a level one analyst, with just Secret clearance, not even TS, hired because she couldn’t decide on a major in college and therefore had a moderate grasp of old English and a thesis on international politics, both of which came up on her interview, and she was currently standing in front of the single most terrifying woman on the planet and the agent who went rogue to bring her in. “I, um, brought makeup.” She swung the bag in her hand.
“Sit,” Romanov whispered into her ear and she didn’t flinch, she didn’t, okay, maybe she did, but anyone would. “Barton’s better at it than you are.”
She sat and she didn’t frown, because it’s not like she was gonna argue, but that was rude. She forgot about it when Barton pulled her to him. He had kohl around his eyes and her chin in one hand, calluses against the edge of her jaw and when he said “Close your eyes,” she did and absolutely didn’t lean into his hand as he painted her lids and lined her eyes. Well, she didn’t lean into it much.
Her eyelids felt heavier, even after he blew across them, an ethereal caress, and she fluttered them to look into the mirror that Aisha was holding. The face peering back at her was familiar, but not her, as though she had a prettier cousin or something, someone whose hair curled into waves instead of frizzing, someone who could carry off bellydancing in a Lebanese restaurant in front of British arms dealers. Someone beautiful.
“Wow, you’re good,” she breathed and Barton grinned, boyish under the eyeliner and dark dyed hair. Romanov rolled her eyes and Aisha snickered and Rita got up and scooted around Mitchell as Williams slid between them to lean over the driver’s seat. A glint of metal caught her eye, but it was only zils, cheap brass and stretched out elastic tucked in by a mid-range boom box and pair of cds. She reached up to twine ribbons into Aisha’s hair while she sat in front of Barton for gold paint of her own.
Mitchell took the lead with the restaurant manager, who may or may not have known that he was ordering around international superspies, but then again, he kind of wasn’t, since Mitchell did all the talking while Romanov fussed with the basket of props and Barton flirted with, and was sequentially shot down by, the hostess, the sous chef, all of the servers, and the noticeably pregnant bartender.
The first set of dancing went off actually okay, given they’d had a whopping hour to work out cues, but Aisha and Rita could play off each other while Romanov took the lead and sometimes went off to do her own thing, wandering amid the tables and trailing her hands over people’s heads. While Rita focused on not tripping up anyone or losing her scarf or letting the fucking zils slide off her fingers again, even if it was only the once, it was damn embarrassing, Romanoff planted sixteen bugs, lifted two passports, completely enthralled a toddler, and brought a plate of baklava back to the picnic bench behind the restaurant that they’d clustered around for their break. Rita was still pretty happy with not dropping the zils or tripping. “Not bad for an analyst,” she leaned in to whisper to Aisha.
“Or an accountant,” Aisha whispered back. Barton glanced over his shoulder and grinned at them both.
Mitchell stood by the kitchen back entrance, cell phone to his ear, talking about their next gig in codes that Rita herself was going to have to transcribe the next day, so she ignored him in favor of watching Barton juggle half blown pinecones while Romanov pointedly ignored him. Someone stepped out of the kitchen, one of the patrons … no, she thought, one of the bodyguards. He raised one hand in an apathetic greeting and slid the other into his jacket. Rita played with her braids to cover her involuntary tensing, but he just pulled out a battered pack of cigarettes with a label she didn’t recognize and patted his front hip pockets, first the right, then the left. He frowned and gestured at Barton, who shrugged, so the guy turned to Mitchell. Rita was close enough that she could see the guy squint, not quite a double take, but a pause to confirm something he’d seen. Something made Mitchell drop behind the commercial AC unit.
The goon swiveled to face Barton who was unarmed, oh no, unarmed and too far away, so Rita did what she’d done a dozen times in practice and once in a nightmare from which she’d woken screaming. She stepped toward the scary man, slid one hand under the guy’s corduroy jacket and pulled his weapon, not as smoothly as she had in the cinderblock lined training room, but she could blame that on the silencer at the tip that snagged the edge of the nylon holster, and pulled the trigger. Then she glanced down, thumbed the safety and pulled the trigger again. The guy flew away from her and she took a breath that crackled like ice in her lungs. The stranger’s weapon felt familiar and it was, a Beretta nine mil and she couldn’t remember where the safety was on the Glock and what if she hadn’t known, not all of them had red buttons and … . Barton stepped in front of her, brushing up sideways against her hands, still wrapped around the grip. She lowered them automatically, sliding her wrists along his hip, and looked up into Barton’s face. She gasped in another breath. Barton held his hand beside her elbow and Rita put the gun in it and could feel herself blink. She couldn’t see the body beyond Barton’s shoulders. Barton passed his hands over the gun; the magazine fell away into one broad palm while the other held the weapon, the slide pulled open and locked out. She was supposed to say weapon cleared but what came past her lips was, “Fuck, you’re quick.”
“Just what every man wants to hear,” said Romanov from somewhere behind Rita. Barton glared past her shoulder and Rita blushed.
“We’ve discussed empathy and baby agents,” he said.
“You nattered on about something. I was thinking about cupcakes.”
Rita snorted and Barton ducked his head to catch her eyes. “You okay?” he asked and she nodded and glanced down to avoid his concern. Mitchell, behind him, was pulling the body straight and she could see the silhouette of black carbide blades poking from the corpse’s neck and eye. One of them wobbled a little as Mitchell dragged the feet into a black bag, requisition number 54-23 waterproof transport. Romanoff bent at the waist, tugging her skirts high with one hand to pull the blades free with the other and Rita said, “Cupcakes.”
Barton glanced to the side, then stepped back a bit. “No, that’s her. I’m asking if you’re okay.”
“I’m a SHIELD agent. Of course I’m okay.” She took another breath, surprised to find it was only a little ragged at the beginning. And the end. Maybe the middle, too, just a bit.
He put his arm around her shoulders and guided her to where Aisha stood with Mitchell’s windbreaker in her hands. “You got it. You’re a SHIELD agent and you’re going to sit down over here and maybe put your head down between your knees if you need to.”
“Yep,” Rita said. “I can do that.”
They didn’t stay for the second set. Williams pulled up in the van and she suffered herself to be handed up into it, while Mitchell stayed behind with the nondescript black bag. She sat at her desk the next morning, with her Earl Grey teabags in her I Heart Budgies mug and her pink post-its and typed up after action reports, including discharge of a firearm, non-issued, recovered onsite, and hoped that Barton had thought to wipe it down, because she sure hadn’t, as she marked the appropriate box No for recovery and submission of the scavenged weapon to armory. The transcripts started coming in, as always, sorted randomly to whoever had the lowest queue, but she was kind of relieved when her in box filled with recordings of the Bolivia op, rather than the Miris case.
She didn’t see Barton again, except for the screencaps of hallway surveillance that made the rounds periodically, because the man had the fashion sense of a grasshopper and a tendency to shed wet clothing when coming in from the helipad, until her annual qualifications rolled around. He stood at the back of the room like a statue watching the group of them scatter holes from edge to edge of the paper targets fluttering only a few dozen yards away. She held the 9 mil, checked the safety, verified the chamber, slid the magazine out, then in, and put all seven bullets into center mass of the target.
She racked the slide, ejected the mag, and handed the weapon to her trainer. Her hands didn’t shake at all. She stepped through the heavy plexiglass partition and pulled off her hearing protection, shaking her head to see if she could make her neck pop. “So,” Tabris said, with a glance to her sheet. “You passed. Ready to go for field agent now, Ms. Hernandez?” he asked with his lopsided grin.
“I’m too necessary where I am, you know that,” she answered primly, softened by a wink. “What would they do without us?” She nodded twice, once at the general trainer and again at Barton behind him, as she left the range and went back to her desk. She had work to do.