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Mitigation

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When Natasha arrives at SHIELD, she still isn't sure what to make of the agent leading her in, quiver slung over his shoulders and back, and utterly unapologetic to his superiors.

She says little to their pointed questions, letting Hawkeye volley back and forth over his crossed arms and hard eyes with his soft-spoken handler and suspicious, hard-nosed Director. When it's over and Hawkeye's blowing out a frustrated breath as they prepare to lead her to a cushy cell to wait for morning, her voice stops him from leaving.

"Why did you?" she echoes his handler's question, his Director's question. It stops the harried movement in the room of the tech who'd had truth serum at the ready and the handler, the Director, the several observers. "Am I that pretty?" She tilts the corners of her mouth upward in a pretty smile. She doesn't mind pointing out the foolhardy nature of his decision in front of his superiors.

They should kill her. Hawkeye should have tried to.

But he didn't and he's staring at her now as though she just randomly stood on her head rather than asked a justifiable question. "I'm married," he says, clipped.

She shrugs. It hasn't stopped men before.

It stops him though, and it doesn't take long for Natasha to realize it.

He invites her over to his place for dinner when he gets the chance and reminds her that his wife will be there; it's not him trying to make a move on her like everyone else she's ever worked with that said the word 'dinner.'

Natasha stares at him for a long time before she unfolds herself from the surprisingly comfortable cot in her cell. "Do I get to sleep on a mattress?" she asks, batting her eyelashes demurely.

He stares at her, then barks a laugh. "Yes, ma'am, you do."

"I'll come."

Her name is Bobbi and Natasha observes her with interest. She's down to earth, like Hawkeye—"Clint. Clint Barton."—and laughs easily as she slides a beer across the table and gripes at SHIELD employees by name that they're keeping her locked up.

They should keep her locked up.

"You know," Bobbi says suddenly, out of nowhere. "I've been there with the brainwashing."

Natasha stiffens.

Bobbi's staring at her plate and focused on twirling noodles onto her fork to put them in her mouth.

The silence drifts tensely for a minute, stretches, then Clint eases out a subject change into the middle of it, and the stories shift to circus shenanigans, few of which Natasha actually believes.

She catches them later in the kitchen, murmuring softly to each other under the running water sound of doing dishes and the clank of plates.

"How would you have taken it?" he asks.

Bobbi shoots him an irritated glance. "I tried to kill you."

He steps up close behind her and tucks his body around hers, chin on her shoulder, arms around her stiff waist. "Takes more than that to kill me."

Natasha doesn't trust either of them. Trust is foolish in their world of spies and assassins and she's not ready to give up her caution yet.

Bobbi shows up in her cell, arms crossed and leaning in the doorway. "Nice place," she quips, small smile quirking her lips. "SHIELD really rolled out the red carpet."

There's bitterness there, something faint and barely noticeable under the sarcasm if Natasha were not what she is, a spy—one of the best. She gazes back steadily without responding. She can learn more by waiting the woman out.

Bobbi tosses her a lanyard. "You've been cleared for the gym if someone goes with you." She removes a small battle staff from her uniform and twirls it invitingly.

Natasha decides she has nothing to lose by going and nothing to gain by staying. She puts on the lanyard and glides to her feet. "Will I have my weapons?"

"You'll have weapons, but Fury's still skittish." Bobbi tucks the battle staff away as they walk. "Clint's keeping an eye on your things. You'll get them back unscathed."

Natasha tries not to bristle, isn't ready to trust the man who'd nearly killed her with anything personal, but it's Bobbi putting weapons in her hands, so she decides not to argue.

She's partnered with Clint for her first mission, a milk run so simple, she could have done it broken-limbed and blindfolded.

"Preaching to the choir, Nat. Maybe next time."

She gives him a look for the nickname.

He either misunderstands or ignores it as he strips out of his tac gear and loses the shirt on the way to the locker room.

Natasha has seen many scars and she's not particularly impressed by them, but he has three small round scars clustered far too close to his heart for him to be alive. They don't quite match any bullet she's familiar with.

"What's it like nearly dying?" she asks. It's not a casual question, but she asks it like she has the right or it's okay to imply so much with so little.

He looks back sharply, surprised. She watches confusion cross his face as he tries to follow the thought, then his hand comes up to a scar on his arm thoughtfully. He has not visibly stiffened, but she gets the impression of a hardness he hasn't turned on her lately.

"Nearly dying," he answers and disappears into the men's half of the locker room.

She drops the SHIELD issued weapons on the bench beside his gear but waits until she's inside the women's half to start losing clothes.

Natasha asks after Bobbi and gets blank looks until a girl from the gun cage draws her brows together and asks, "Mockingbird? Try Lab 2."

Mockingbird is in Lab 2, according to the baby agent at reception issuing her guest pass. No one told him Natasha hasn't been cleared to go wherever she wants. Of course, there's always the chance Natasha has been cleared, but she doubts Fury is so stupid.

Mockingbird is Bobbi, head bent over her work, lips moving over mumbled, inaudible half-sentences that Natasha can't even read. Natasha is silent as she approaches and avoids stepping between Bobbi and the light, but the scientist still looks up as soon as it would normally be polite to do so.

"Can I help you?"

Natasha leans back against the counter and asks, "Is he for real?"

Bobbi looks surprised, then amused. "Ex-carnie, homegrown Iowan with a penchant for strays. As real as they come."

"I don't believe it," Natasha says flatly. Why did he let her live? She doesn't regret the things she's done. She survived. She needed to.

But Bobbi's giving her a wary look and setting down the petri dish. She licks her lips and glances at the clock. "Come on. I'll buy you lunch."

Natasha balks.

"Coffee then, but out."

That's acceptable and reasonable, so Natasha goes along with it until they're ensconced blocks away at a hole-in-the-wall café where Bobbi's sure they won't be bothered. The distrust for her own people, for SHIELD, makes sense to Natasha. It loosens the knot of discomfort slightly that they are all mad and she should flee while she still can. She's not worried about what Bobbi could do to her.

Bobbi leans back in her seat with the coffee, looking to most observers like that sigh is relaxing from the stress of her job, but Natasha can see how the head toss gives Bobbi an opportunity to finish visually casing the place and keep an eye on the exits.

"Weird does not begin to cover this job," Bobbi opens with, cutting the small talk and drawing a raised eyebrow from Natasha. "I've done a lot of undercover, as a scientist, a regular field agent, posing as a psychic once."

Natasha doesn't sip her coffee like Bobbi does. Even if she's fairly certain it's not drugged, she doesn't take any chances.

"There was this one guy, a total crazy." Bobbi shakes her head. "He was good with drugs, shot me up with a real cocktail of them. I forgot who I was, who SHIELD was, who Clint was and when they came to get me out, I fought them as hard as I could."

"What did he make you do?" Natasha asks. It seems too much to ask and she would never volunteer her own ledger to another, but Bobbi offered this and it seems too much that Bobbi really understands.

Bobbi sits back, jaw clenched, and sips her coffee again. Stalling? No, she answers, "He made me play house and lab partner." There's bitterness there, and this time the edge is familiar. "He ordered me to protect him and me from SHIELD, and I was still pretty much brainwashed when I came to on the table at headquarters. They'd put restraints on me, but not the kind you use for prisoners, the kind you use when Barton's delirious and you don't want him to take off before you can treat him."

Bobbi stops, hesitates. Natasha waits.

"There were casualties."

There's more there, but no more is needed. When Bobbi closes her mouth tightly and tilts her head, as if to ask, 'Enough?', Natasha nods. It's enough.

"Clint told me he tried to," Bobbi offers, "but he couldn't do it."

"Would you have?"

Bobbi blows out a breath. "Now? No. Then?" She shrugs, finishes her coffee. It's their job.

It's not exactly pleasant, knowing her partner's weaknesses or that it lies in an area she tries to avoid, but Natasha can accept it. It's neither sexual nor is it one she shares. If she needs to kill someone who's brainwashed for him, she can and she will.