“I fucking hate paperwork.”
“It gets done more quickly if you don’t waste energy whining about it, Clint.”
He glares at her across their respective desks, which are pushed together in true S.H.I.E.L.D. space-saving fashion. It’s only Strike Team Delta’s “seniority” -- and perhaps Barton’s way with impromptu projectiles when forced to sit at a desk -- that has resulted in them having an actual, if tiny, office, rather than being stuck in Dilbert World on the lower decks.
His side of the double desk is currently covered in paper. Meal receipts, boarding passes, those CCTV tapes he removed from the hotel in Berlin. Plus several blank claims forms, because he always messes something up and has to start over again.
Horizontal filing, he calls his approach. Everything within easy reach. Of course, the way he tends to go about things, the system morphs into geological stratification pretty quickly. (Until Natasha started riding herd on her partner – and Accounting insisted they file their expenses together -- he used to pile up receipts until they required carbon dating, not to mention give Finance conniptions when they eventually had to issue five-figure reimbursement cheques.)
“Whining helps me focus,” he says, and runs his hand through his spiky hair, causing it to stand up even more than usual. Natasha suppresses the urge to lean across and smooth it down. (It actually looks quite soft, despite those spikes.)
“Then focus. Are you claiming for dinner for that evening we had hors d’oeuvres at the reception?”
Accounting values consistency, and has been known to check up on them. They still don’t trust her. Or him. Them.
“You mean that thing at the Japanese ambassador’s? All they had was raw fucking fish, in fancy little shapes. Had to order room service pizza afterwards so I wouldn’t starve. I’m sure as hell claiming that.”
Natasha rolls her eyes. Clint will happily eat Chinese takeout three times a day and won’t blink at a paint-stripper caliber Vindaloo, but nice, healthy sushi? Philistine.
“I’m resubmitting the claim for my t-shirt, by the way,” he says, à propos of nothing. Her pen pauses in midair as she ponders the implications.
“That was three missions ago, Clint. Odessa. Plus, they’ve rejected it three times already.”
“Point of principle,” he shrugs. “Bullet hole in the line of duty. And the blood didn’t come out, either. My favourite Springsteen shirt, from the Born In The USA tour, 1985. A fucking antique, up there with Coulson’s trading cards. D’you know how much I paid for that thing on e-Bay…?”
He’s on a rant now; there’s no way to stop him, and so she doesn’t even bother to try.
“… and all they want to give me is the standard $14.99 for, Quote, personal t-shirt lost on mission, End Quote. I figure I’ll wear them down eventually, if they have to recalculate my claims every time they insist on taking it out.”
Really, what is there to say? He has a point, even if his stubbornness will probably hold up settlement of both their claims until beyond the due date for the S.H.I.E.L.D. AmEx bill; they’ll both get snippy e-mails from Accounting if they don’t pay it off.
Clint scrunches up his nose and studies a red-stained piece of paper.
“What’d we take a taxi from or to on the thirteenth? Involving blood?”
“Hospital?” she’s focused on her own thing now and isn’t really listening, but doesn’t skip a beat. “Use your imagination, if you can’t access your memory banks, Barton.”
“Don’t remember a hospital this mission, though.” He frowns. “No. Last time we had a hospital was Odessa. My t-shirt. It smelled of cabbage. The hospital, not my shirt. Although after three days in that joint it did too. See? I remember stuff.”
He pauses, frowns.
He sniffs the receipt.
“Ha! I knew it. That’s not blood, it’s pizza sauce. Cab back to the hotel from that stupid reception, then. Must have left the receipt on the desk, and set the pizza box on top. Why is it S.H.I.E.L.D. never lets us have suites, with proper tables you can eat off of?”
Natasha doesn’t dignify that with an answer; it was probably rhetorical anyway. For someone usually so taciturn, Hawkeye turns into a non-stop talking machine when he’s doing stuff he hates, if only to make sure everyone (well, usually she) knows how much. She watches him scratch a few notes onto the expense form, mark up the sticky receipt with a matching number, and lean back in his chair.
“Fuck, I hate paperwork.”
“You said that already. Eight times. I counted.”
The door slides open, but no one comes in. Coulson merely sticks his head into Delta Team’s workspace; he knows better than to enter a tiger cage when the predators are hungry for bureaucrat.
“Are you done with the expense part yet? We’re at the end of the fiscal year and Accounting wants to wrap up all claims before they start reconciliation runs on Thursday.”
It’s Natasha’s turn to be annoyed. She prides herself on being methodical, meticulous and punctual, but artificial deadlines, created solely for administrative convenience? Well. No.
“Tell Nora that she will get our claims when we’re ready to file them. Not a second sooner,” she enunciates in her best if-I-talk-real-slow-will-you-understand-and-go-away voice, ignoring the approving smirk and equally slow-mo clap of approval from the other side of the desk.
Coulson knows not to beat a horse that’s died at the hands of his two most lethal assets, but obviously can’t resist firing a parting salvo before making a dignified retreat.
“Don’t forget that Director Fury wants your mission report before his conference with the Council tomorrow. He needs a success story to balance the mess Evans and Miyazaki made in Ljubljana.”
Natasha exchanges glances with Clint, whose mouth has closed in a grim line.
“Oh, frying pan?” he exhales bitterly. “Meet your cousin, fire.”
Natasha’s shoulders slump a little, and she finds she is no longer able to pretend that she is okay with what they have to do next. She lets her eyes slide surreptitiously over the tapes, hoping he won’t notice.
Better just to confirm that Clint isn’t the only one with a hate-on for the bureaucratic requirement to slot their missions into the Council’s latest evaluation framework.
“Results-based management,” she air-quotes. “Targets eliminated: One, not counting body guards. Result: Disrupted arms flow into South Sudan and Northern Uganda for [x] days.”
Clint gamely picks up the ball.
“Impact on Middle East Peace Process: Zero. Meep. Better luck next time, agents.”
She eyes him out of the corner of her eyes, noticing that despite his jaunty riposte, Clint, too, has been looking at the CCTV tapes as if they were a pile of toxic sludge.
“What do you say, we finish the expenses first?” he suddenly asks, his voice unnaturally chipper. “Maybe Accounting will let my t-shirt claim through this time, if they’re in such a rush. Nora is actually quite a decent human being, once you get past the scales.”
“Who are you, and what have you done with my partner?” Natasha deadpans, even as she tacitly approves his transparent effort at procrastination.
Clint ignores her (as well he should, given the cliché she just deployed), scoops up the pile of receipts in front of him, and makes a show of putting them in chronological order. She notices that he avoids touching the tapes, and turns to her own claim.
Forty-five minutes and no additional commentary later – it’s amazing what Clint is capable of when he does focus – he pushes his claim across the desk at her, all items faithfully recorded, but no totals. Nothing new there, either.
“Mind totting this up for me, Romanoff?”
If Clinton Francis were Claudia Frances, she’d be batting her eyelashes coquettishly. Damn fine lashes they are, too.
“And the reason you can’t do it yourself is what, exactly?”
Natasha has just finished her own claim with a flourish, a fact obviously not lost on her partner and his impeccable sense of timing.
“Carnie. Spotty education. Always did suck at math, even when I did get to go to school. Please?”
“Don’t make me laugh, Barton. You can calculate wind speed, gravitational pull, the curvature of the earth and projectile trajectories in your head for the perfect shot in under a second, ten times out of ten. No—a hundred times out of a hundred. You should be able to add and subtract. Are.”
Clint, of course, won’t admit defeat to superior argumentation (or evidence); he’ll just move the target.
“You know I always forget how to get the correct conversion rates. You’ve already done yours, right, so you just need to copy them in? Plus, I need you to double check whether I claimed the right incidentals. The days when we change countries I always get mixed up which one to claim for, the one we left or the one we ended up in.”
He picks his claim back up off the desk and holds it out to her, giving her that puppy dog look that no one who has ever seen Hawkeye laser-eye a target would recognize as emanating from the same human being. And that no one who has ever known the Black Widow would believe might actually work. But work it does, and she can feel her resolve wilting even as she watches him bite back a triumphant, gloating grin.
Natasha heaves a sigh, takes the form and initiates Phase Two.
“What’s it worth to you?”
He pretends to think, just as she is pretending that this whole exchange is a new development.
Natasha raises an eyebrow: As if.
“We started out in Moscow to meet Bekhmuradov at that small arms show, then we went to Warsaw so I could run into him again at the Japanese ambassador’s, and on to Berlin for the actual hit. That’s three different currencies, Barton. On the same claim. It’s going to cost you.”
She holds the incomplete claim aloft, making no motion to set it down, and waits for the better offer that she knows will come.
“Fine. Fifteen minute neck massage.”
Better. She had found out after a fifteen-hour economy class trip to Hong Kong -- thanks to the mistaken assumption of a newbie in Travels (who no longer works there, having done the same to Nick Fury) that US Federal Government travel restraint directives applied to S.H.I.E.L.D. -- that her partner, with his strong hands, is rather adept at neck massages. Not a thought to dwell on, exactly, but also not something to deny herself when the opportunity arises.
“Twenty. Plus that foot rub.”
A brief smile flashes across Clint’s eyes, one of those that make him look years younger. Natasha ignores the slight twinge in her gut at the sight.
He gets up with such alacrity that his chair rolls back several feet and crashes into the wall, eliciting a surprised hey from Sitwell next door. One might almost think that Clint is in a hurry to get away.
“I’ll go for coffee then, so you can concentrate properly.”
She resists calling him out on the endearment, which she knows full well is part of his escape plan. Like that smile.
“Come. Back. Right. Away. Mission report. Fury.”
He looks a little wounded (Who? Me?) but then pinches his lips, sighs and nods his resignation.
“And bring me back a medium chai latte and some baklava. Three currencies, Barton.”
She holds up three fingers above her shoulder as she turns to his claim, squinting at the chicken scratches her partner uses for handwriting.
Clint sighs again, more audibly this time since her back is turned, and makes his temporary escape.
“Sugar free!” she hollers after him.
He comes back twenty-five minutes later (“There was a line-up, Hill’s having some sort of trilat with MI-6 and the CIA”) with three baklavas on a plate full of crumbs (“One for each currency. I ate mine already”), plus her chai and two coffees for himself (“What??”). Natasha notes in passing that not a single drop of liquid has been spilled despite the drinks being in open cups -- the benefits of a steady hand. If Clint Barton ever gets out of the assassination business, he’ll have a promising career as a waiter.
“I’m done,” she announces as she reaches for the baklava. “They owe you $4,471.45, including the t-shirt. I added in ten dollars for shipping and handling.”
He blows her a kiss and reaches for the last baklava.
“You’re the best, Tash. Nora doesn’t stand a chance.”
She swats back his hand – “Mine, Barton!” – and decides it’s time to bite the bullet.
“Ready to start Round Two?”
His face falls.
“Fuck,” he breathes as he rubs his hand and glares at the tapes. “I …”
“… hate paperwork,” she finishes his sentence and sticks the rescued pastry in her mouth. “We know, Hawk. We know. Let’s just get this over with. But first, come over here for a second.”
He steps up beside her, puzzled at what she might want but happy enough to comply until she wipes her sticky fingers off on his jeans.
“Hey! Those were clean on this morning!”
Natasha is less than sympathetic.
“Next time, remember to bring napkins, Barton.”
Looking at the crumbs on his thigh, he makes one last-ditch effort at procrastination.
“You know, I was wondering. What exactly is the purpose of having sugar free chai latte when you’re eating baklava at the same time? Isn’t that kind of hypocritical?”
“It’s a female thing. You wouldn’t understand, Clint.”
“Like the one where dessert has no calories if you eat mine instead of ordering your own?”
“Exactly. Smart boy. Now let’s get on with this.”
Clint sighs, and mutters a curse under his breath.
“Do we both have to watch this?” he asks, and there’s a tone in his voice that she can’t quite identify.
“You know that we do,” she says, feeling just as miserable as he looks. What exactly his problem is with the tapes isn’t quite clear to her, although she has her suspicions. Nonetheless, they need to get this over with. The Black Widow has always believed in ripping metaphorical band aids off quickly -- unlike her partner, who’d probably prefer watching them decompose on his skin.
“We need to make sure that there’s no contradictions between what’s on those tapes and our report. Remember the trouble you got into over Brussels? When you said …”
He waves her off, clearly not wanting a rehash of the incident with the Belarussian mafioso and the moules-et-frites in his favourite brew pub.
“Yeah, yeah. But …”
“Also, chain of custody. You’re the one who took the tapes from the casings. You need to attest that they’re the right ones.”
Resigning himself to the inevitable, Clint takes the first of the tapes and jams it into the multi-player with gratuitous vehemence. Natasha silently gives him credit for putting it in the right slot, rather than pretending he doesn’t know which is which in the hope of accidental erasure. He rolls his chair over to her side of the desk, turns it around, straddles it and hangs his elbows over the back.
“Let’s see which one we got here,” he says, his casual tone not fooling her for a moment.
The monitor flickers to life several seconds later – the Adlon Kempinski Hotel’s parking area.
“Zapping to 23:38,” Clint announces to no one in particular. Of course, he would know the precise time of the hit, minus two or three minutes for the set-up.
A familiar silhouette enters the view from the right – the Black Widow in a form-fitting, backless and very short cocktail dress, on the arms of a balding man with a marked tendency towards obesity. Even at five feet four, Natasha towers over him in her heels. She notes with distracted approval that the seams of her black hose make a neat line up her legs, disappearing into the lace of the dress.
Side by side Natasha and her escort head towards a silver vintage Porsche 911; she whispers something in his ear that has him lick his lips with a fleshy tongue, before heading around the back of the car to the passenger side. Two other men – body guards – who had been trailing them peel off to a different car.
Aslan Bekhmuradov fiddles with his car keys, obviously keen to get his quarry to the privacy of his residence in Berlin’s tony Wilmersdorf district, financed by the deaths of thousands of nameless civilians and the oil interests with which their existence interfered. He doesn’t notice when his bodyguards suddenly, silently topple over behind him, and inserts his keys in the door. It is the last thing he does; an arrow sprouts out of his back, quickly followed by two more.
This part is new to Natasha, who had stayed on the other side of the car, having had no interest in ruining her dress.
“Three arrows?” she says, eyebrows raised in question.
“Just making sure,” Clint grates out, his voice curiously husky. “Had my doubts that his heart was in the right place. Besides …”
He doesn’t finish the sentence.
He doesn’t have to; Natasha resists the temptation to say something she suspects she might regret.
On the monitor, the screen now shows a Clint-shaped figure in a tuxedo, carrying what looks like an instrument case, coming out of the shadows to the left. He sets the case down on the hood of the car before putting his foot on Bekhmuradov’s body, avoiding the rapidly spreading dark area. He quickly pulls out his arrows, wiping the heads off on the arms dealer’s dinner jacket, then moves on to the body guards to repeat the exercise.
Arrows and the quickly collapsed bow disappear into the case, which he sets down on the hood of the Porsche for the moment. He hands it off to Natasha, who in the background has gingerly stepped around the front of the car, careful not to step in anything that would leave footprints. In the dark parking area, the blood looks like oil. Both agents take a hand at pushing the bodies under their respective cars – there is no point in rushing discovery. They work in silence, nothing needing to be said between them.
The next thing the camera shows is a hand, reaching underneath to retrieve the tape.
“Okay, that was useful,” Clint says, his voice dripping sarcasm. “I wouldn’t have remembered any of that without the home movie.”
Natasha watches him pop out the tape, takes it, puts on the assigned sticky (Viewed and Verified) and initials it, handing him the pen to do likewise.
After a brief moment of hesitation and a suppressed sigh, Clint picks up the second one as he would an unexploded IED. He casts a look over at Natasha, who shrugs with feigned diffidence. Do it.
He slots the tape into the viewer and sits back down, properly for once, back straight and arms crossed in front of his chest.
The tape now shows the Sra Bua Bar at the Adlon, where Natasha had been staying under the name of Natalia Natynczyk, the well-heeled socialite, ex-ballerina widow of a Ukrainian oligarch. The bar is busy but not crowded; the timer at the bottom of the screen shows 19:01. Fresh tape.
Natasha suspects that her partner would probably happily sit through three hours of grainy coverage, if only to postpone what neither of them particularly want to see. But what would be the point?
“Fast forward to around 22:30,” she orders briskly.
A slight whirring sound, and the illumination in the bar changes from daytime lighting to the dark, womb-like glow its patrons value for reasons of both ambience and discretion. Moments later business picks up, and the bar turns into a frantic dance of patrons arriving and leaving, getting up and sitting down, surrounded by servers buzzing around the tables like bees, in circles that spell out a message of genteel luxury.
“There,” Natasha points at the monitor.
The movement on the screen obediently slows down as the familiar silhouettes appear – Natasha/Natalia, floating in her heels, Aslan Bekhmuradov waddling beside her. Clint shifts uncomfortably in his chair as the man’s hand slides possessively over her backless dress and comes to rest on her ...
“You know, I’m good with fast forwarding through the rest, too,” he offers, but the tone in his voice suggests that he knows the idea is a non-starter.
Hill’s e-mailed directive – sent to *SHIELD_FieldAgents -- had been most explicit: If there is recorded evidence of a mission, agents are to (a) make every effort to secure it in order to prevent unwanted attention, and (b) ensure that their reports are consistent with what can be independently corroborated. Agents are required to review any available evidence prior to completion of mission reports, and to take the recordings into account in the preparation of the latter.
Short version, in Barton-speak: Make sure your story matches up with whatever shit your own stupidity may have allowed to get out into the public domain.
And it had been Delta Team’s rotten luck that Clint had been unable to disable all the CCTV cameras in critical areas in the Adlon Hotel before the Bekhmuradov mission went critical. When it came to matters of his personal gratification, Russia’s foremost dealer of death was not a patient man: there simply hadn’t been time.
On the screen, said arms dealer now steers his smiling date into a booth close to the camera and imperiously waves over one of the servers. He orders without stopping to ask Natasha what she might want, finishing in a hand motion that needs no translation: … and make it snappy.
The order arrives – a vintage Moët et Chandon and a plate of caviar and crackers, and is followed by delicate nibbling (Natasha) and greedy wolfing (Bekhmuradov), while Bekhmuradov does most of the talking.
Natasha watches Clint as he reads the man’s crumb-encrusted lips; his Russian is good enough that he gets more than the gist of what’s being said and his frown deepens. But he doesn’t actually say anything until the second toast, when Bekhmuradov tips his glass, dribbles some champagne into Natasha’s décolleté, and proceeds to bend forward, with a leering smirk, to lick the drops off the swell of her breast.
“He’s a fucking pig, that guy. Should have killed him,” Clint snarls, not even bothering to keep his voice down so that he could pretend he was merely thinking out loud.
Natasha draws her eyebrows together.
“Kill him. We just watched you do it on tape. You said you even remembered it.“
He grinds his teeth.
“Figure of speech, Romanoff. Should have killed him sooner. Before he started pawing at you like you were some … some…”
Clint’s voice falters as he gives her a look she has never seen on his face before, a mixture of outrage (on her behalf, she’s sure, not at her), pain and … longing? One flicker, and it’s gone, but she is positive she hasn’t imagined it.
Natasha’s throat is suddenly dry.
“You know that this what I do to get information out of people like Bekhmuradov. Or to get them into a spot where you can take them out. Right?”
She knows full well that this is not what she really wants to say, nor is it what he needs to hear, but for now … it will have to do. He grinds his teeth, says nothing, and studies his hands. She notices that his knuckles are slowly turning white and tries again.
“We’ve done a couple dozen missions just like this one.”
This time he looks up, his eyes boring into hers.
“I know. But I don’t usually have to watch them treat you like … a thing,” he says roughly. Again, that tone. And that look in his eyes …
It hits her in the gut then, the sudden realization. It isn’t jealousy, exactly – no, that would be far too easy, and Clint Barton is not an easy man. The thing in his voice is anger. Anger that someone would seek to claim her, and not because that someone wasn’t him. No, he had made it abundantly clear, that evening in Tbilisi, that she belonged to no one but herself.
But there is something else, too, and maybe it’s that thing that seems to be bulding below the surface, for both of them. The thing she’s been pretending, for his sake and her own, isn’t there.
Three arrows – not one -- for a man who thought he could take her and own her.
As if by unspoken agreement they look away from each other, back at the monitor, where Bekhmuradov is now letting his fingers trace the place where his tongue has just been, moving deeper, grasping, fingering.
She remembers every second, every movement recorded on that tape -- and many more that never will be. (There are no cameras in the place she retreats to, when she allows her skin to be exposed to the eyes and mouths and hands of strangers.)
Over Bekhmuradov’s head, screen-Natasha momentarily abandons her role as the delighted recipient of his moist ministrations and casts a long look -- almost directly at the camera. No, not the camera, but a point just underneath, where her partner has positioned himself in order to shut it down, until the dance of the servers, mere shadows moving in front of the lens, forces him to postpone his plan. He will have to return after the bar closes at 2 am.
Natasha remembers very clearly the cold fist clutching her insides then, at the thought that he … that Clint would see what she is doing, what is being done. The why in why she would care isn’t a thought she wants to pursue. But the fact that she cared … cares … well, that is another matter entirely.
She watches herself wishing that he would not see now what he did not then, busy as he was with his primary objective, the camera.
Her eyes, full of regret. Her lips, shaping his name, whispering an apology, of sorts.
But of course he sees. He is Hawkeye.
Clint swivels his chair so that he has a full view of her profile as she continues to remain fixated on the screen, and in her memory. She knows that he will say something (must say something, because he is Clint -- and truth be told she needs to hear his voice just now). But when the words come, they still surprise her.
“You knew I was watching.”
It’s not really a question, but she swallows and nods anyway.
“You'd seen me watching you, right then. Right there.”
She nods again, more slowly this time. His voice is more gravelly than normal, and when he pauses before going on she has the feeling he was about to say something else, but has decided to change tack at the last moment.
“And you broke character. Tasha, that’s …”
She knows what he’s about to say: Dangerous. Crazy. Irresponsible. Or worse: My fault, I’m so sorry.
And so she silences him the only way she can think of, by turning her own chair towards him and placing three fingers on his lips.
“Don’t say it, Clint,” she says. “Just … don’t, okay? Leave it.”
She doesn’t know how long she holds her hand there, but she doesn’t miss when he takes it and holds it in place, turning her touch on his lips into three surprisingly gentle kisses, one for each finger.
“Fine,” he says softly, pushing his lower jaw out just a little in a gesture of defiant determination. And then he twists his mouth into a little smile, and adds something that she knows is not a threat, but a promise.
He still has a hold of her hand though, and trust Clint Barton to try and shape something solid from a thought that neither of them is prepared to accept, or to abandon. He plants a slow, deep kiss in the palm of her hand and looks her in the eyes, his own reflecting so much more now than they did just a few moments ago.
“We should do paperwork more often. Amazing what you can learn when you’re forced to add everything up.”