"Officially," Coulson said, "we'll be there as honeymooners on a tour of Europe. Unofficially, we have a target and a kill order."
"Well, that's not very romantic at all," Clint complained, boots propped on Coulson's desk. The first time he'd done that, Coulson made him scrub his boots until you could eat off them; since then he scrubbed beforehand for the sheer pleasure of being able to put his feet on the desk. Coulson was awfully good for his personal hygiene, among other things.
"I suspect Hill is not terribly concerned with how romantic our mission is," Coulson answered, mouth drawing up in a small smile.
"She should be. Valentine's Day weekend and I'm tracking some treason case through eastern Europe? Beautiful architecture, quaint food, delightful atmosphere -- there goes Clint, throwing knives."
"Well, she did essentially assign us a European vacation for Valentine's Day. I felt it was sort of thoughtful."
"Hill's thoughtfulness I can live without," Clint grumbled.
"It's the first chance we've had at this particular target, and could possibly be the last," Coulson said. "SHIELD radar generally pings six months late on her. We're lucky to have this lead. And she's not a traitor; she's a foreign national."
"Traitor, spy, whatever."
"Former spy, current mercenary."
"Fine, but if we get done early you're booking us a ski chalet somewhere nice," Clint said, popping a handful of trail mix in his mouth.
"You wouldn't know what to do with a ski chalet if it bit you on the ass," Coulson replied.
"I know what to do with ski chalets. They're for sex and hot cocoa."
"We could do that in my apartment."
"Yeah, but we've done that in your apartment, a guy likes a change of scenery. Be a romantic for once in your life, Coulson."
"I'm very romantic."
"Then you'll have no problem with the ski chalet scenario. I hear they're cheap in Latveria, because nobody in their right mind goes there."
"Latveria's not so bad. Von Doom's at least trying for the tourist dollar."
"Well, I remain unimpressed. Who is the target, anyway?"
Coulson consulted the file. "Natalia Alianova Romanova, aka Natasha Anna, aka Natya the Red, aka Natasha Romanoff. She's KGB-trained, supposedly. Kills for money. Not the kind of person with a long life expectancy at any rate, but she's become a thorn in SHIELD's side lately."
Clint's expression barely flickered. "Sounds interesting," he said, and picked a raisin out of the trail mix, tossing it across the desk. Coulson caught it in his mouth and grinned, teeth bare. "When is wheels-up?"
"Two hours. Pack cold-weather gear and your weatherized recurve. What do you want from the armory?"
Clint pondered the ceiling briefly. "Grab the the fifty-ought, one belt of the knives, and some small arms."
"And none of those fucking taco MREs, those are disgusting."
"I'll make sure to requisition the new strawberries, whipped cream, and body chocolate MRE," Coulson said, deadpan.
"Still not romantic, just kinky," Clint replied, swinging his boots to the floor. He bent over the desk, kissed Coulson briefly, and leaned back, saluting. "Meet you at transport. If you don't bring body chocolate I'm going to be sad."
The temperature in the area dropped sharply while they were still over Hungary. By the time they'd touched down at the border and crossed into Latveria on forged papers that the guards didn't examine as closely as the wads of cash folded up inside them, Clint was glad for the bulky down jacket that kept him warm and hid the collapsed bow under one armpit. They picked up the airdrop with their arms from a convenient field on their way in, and made it to the capital city well before nightfall.
Coulson, who spoke reasonable Latverian, convinced the owner of the small inn where they were staying to give them a room overlooking the central square where their target was supposed to be meeting an arms dealer on neutral ground. Word was that the dealer had new Stark small arms to sell, which pre-market were worth their weight in gold.
Clint sat at the window, chewing on a small winter apple and checking sightlines on the square. His plan was not as simple as Coulson's, and he didn't like lying to him, but Phil was...understanding of Clint's occasional aberrations, and Clint had found it better to ask forgiveness than permission. Or easier, at least.
"Hey, how far do you trust me?" he asked, glancing over at where Coulson was laying out an assortment of weapons on the bed.
"Not as far as I can throw you," Coulson replied without looking up.
"I dunno, I've seen you in PT throwing around the newbies, you could probably throw me pretty far."
"You're not a newbie. Why do you ask?" Coulson's eyebrow raised, though he still wasn't looking at him, instead focused on assembling the sight for the fifty-ought. "Is this a relationship thing? Or a mission thing?"
"Mission, mostly. Latveria's got some complex architecture. You may not be able to spot for me on this one."
"You're not thinking of taking a rooftop? You'd be hard-pressed to stay on one, all the ice around here."
"No. I'm thinking the Innocent Bystander."
"Hm. You haven't pulled that one in a while."
"Well, we don't know where she's going to be, we don't know what she's going to look like, and we don't know how long she'll be there. If I've got boots on the ground and your eyes in the sky, as soon as she pops I can find a perch and do my duty for God and Country."
"But I can't give the order," Coulson said. "If I can't see you, or her..."
"Nope. I'm on fire-at-will from the moment I leave the room."
Coulson laid the sight aside and came to the window, leaning his chest against Clint's shoulder. "You know I trust you that far. What's this really about?"
"What if I said it was better for you to plead ignorance if something goes wrong?"
"Then I definitely wouldn't trust you with the Innocent Bystander."
Clint looked up at him. "What if I said I'd have a present for you when the mission is over?"
"I'm not five, Clint, I'm not easily bribed with presents."
"Bet you weren't easily bribed even when you were five."
"No need. I was an exceptionally well-behaved child."
Clint butted the side of his head into Coulson's chest. "How far do you trust me?" he repeated.
He felt Coulson's hand come to rest on the other side of his head, fingers disordering the short, bristly hair there. "Whatever it is you need to do. Just don't get killed. This mission wasn't cheap."
"Do you ever wish we were normal?"
"No. Once in a while I wish you weren't such a devious weirdo, but I make do." Coulson scrubbed his fingers through Clint's hair and stepped away, heading for the bathroom. "Be ready early tomorrow, I want this done fast. Our ski chalet awaits."
Clint's plan was, more or less, simple. It was nearly streamlined, and he felt that if Coulson knew about it he'd probably be proud of his logistical thinking. Along with his bow, he'd brought a blowgun, which was essentially just a plastic tube. He could prop the blowgun on his left arm while it held the bow, draw with his right, blow a tranq into Natasha's neck and simultaneously shoot the arms dealer with a mildly explosive arrow (really it would barely wing him). In the excitement, he would ziptie and drag a drugged Natasha Romanoff to safety.
Or, well, given Coulson's likely reaction, less "safety" and more "disappointment" but he could live with that. He couldn't live with killing Natasha. Not particularly because he liked her -- though he did -- or even because he knew her that well, because he didn't. They'd met twice in his pre-SHIELD years, and neither time had involved long confessionals about personal lives or feelings. But all sentiment aside, he'd seen her at work, and Natasha was efficient and effective, like a well-built machine. It was a shame to wreck something so perfectly designed and balanced.
SHIELD didn't appear to be aware of the extent of her talents, or they'd have sent him to recruit her instead of kill her. Which he was planning on now anyway, so that was fine. Besides, Natasha wasn't unreasonable, and she owed him a favor.
(It would occur to him, years later, that perhaps SHIELD was fully aware of what Natasha could do, and Hydra, pulling strings, had been the one to give the order for her death. Perhaps they had both been good little soldiers a little too unquestioningly.)
At any rate, the plan was simple, comparatively speaking, so when Natasha strolled up into the square, Clint spotted her with something approaching excitement.
"I've got eyes," Coulson said in his ear.
"Me too. Damn, she looks good," he added. She'd trimmed her hair short, framing her face nicely, and even in the plain local clothing she cut a nice figure. She'd never been what he'd call awkward, but the last time he'd seen her she'd had a certain raw, gangling quality, too fresh from the wreckage of her former life and homeland. She'd grown into herself, he supposed. Then again, he'd grown up a lot since then as well.
"Fire when ready," Coulson said, and Clint kept watching her, waiting for her to stop somewhere so he could find cover and execute Plan Awesome. For a sniper at his level, being cut loose like this was a nice act of trust -- Coulson couldn't spot for him, so he was on his own, and Coulson trusted that when he could fire, he would. He shifted his weight and felt the blowgun slip along the line of his spine, the arrows in a hidden pocket press against his thigh, the bow's weight in the touristy rucksack with the Canadian flag on it that he was carrying.
Natasha took a seat at an outdoor cafe. Clint headed for a bakery that had a low second-floor balcony with a good sightline and an overhanging tree. Coulson said, "She's about to have company."
And then Clint started noticing a lot of people were wearing the uniform of what passed, locally, for police.
"So are we, I think," he said.
"Hawkeye," Coulson said, sounding worried. "Abort mission."
"You see all those cops?"
"I think you've been made."
"That's not the problem," Clint said.
"There's more than one problem," Coulson answered, tension rising in his voice.
"So many problems," Clint agreed, backing away from the nearest guards. They began to charge the cafe where Natasha was sitting and he found he had no choice; he turned, running ahead of them, heading straight for her while the locals scattered.
And then Natasha, God bless, took out a gun in one hand and a flashbang grenade in the other, threw the flashbang directly to Clint without pulling the pin, and started shootin' cops.
"Hey boss, I think we're gonna miss that ski chalet," Clint said, pulling the pin on the flash-bang. "Also, cover your eyes."
He lobbed the canister into the biggest knot of Latverian guards, missed completely whatever Coulson had to say about the matter in the ensuing explosion, and with ears ringing, took out the explosive arrows. He saw the nose of the fifty-ought's barrel emerge from the window of their room overlooking the square, as Coulson prepared to provide cover. Behind him, Natasha yelled defiance and, who knew, probably began strangling men with her ankles or something.
He reckoned he flattened a good even dozen of the guards with his arrows before there was a searing heat in his left leg, which promptly and traitorously buckled under him as he fell.
When Clint woke, he could hear gunfire in the distance, but close-to there was only the sound of dripping water and soft breath. He kept still, doing an internal catalogue of his injuries -- sharp pain in his thigh, dull ache above it, bruises all up and down his back -- and then realized he was shackled to something, both arms raised over his head.
He opened his eyes to a dim, tidy little room with sparse furniture, and Natasha Romanoff wringing out a rag in a basin of steaming water.
"Well," he croaked, and she looked up. "That didn't go to plan for anyone, did it?"
"I don't know," she said with a half smile. "I flushed out pretty much everyone who was looking for me, and killed many of them. And I have a hostage now. I think I did very well."
He huffed and looked up at the ceiling. "I'm not wearing any pants, am I?"
"No, but you have maintained your quiet dignity."
"Don't expect that to last," he said.
"You took a bad hit to your leg. I've got a tourniquet on it to stop the bleeding. You were sent here to kill me."
"Well, yes and no," he said. "Did you find the tranq dart?"
"I did." She cocked an eyebrow at him.
"Let me out of the shackles and I'll explain."
She considered this, while Clint tried to look helpless.
"We're pinned down here," she said. "They have guards at the end of every street."
"I assume the gunfire is your would-be business associates?"
"The Latverian guards will rip them to pieces, sooner or later. Good riddance to rubbish," she added. "But it means for now we're stuck here. In case you were thinking of doing anything stupid."
"Aw, you do remember me."
She smiled as she leaned over to free his wrists. "You're a very memorable man, Barton."
He sat up, rubbing circulation back into his hands and wincing as the tourniquet cut into his thigh.
"Is this lace?" he asked, picking at the fabric. It was purple and filmy, more decorative than his usual field dressings.
"You're lucky that bra was old," she answered.
"It is my color," he said, as he examined the wound. It was ragged but clean, and when he experimentally eased the tension on the binding, it didn't start spurting blood, so he was probably okay. It was painful, and it was worse when he took the binding off entirely, but he hissed his way through it and set the blood-pocked purple lace aside.
"If you give me my comm, I can call some cavalry," he said, not enjoying the way she watched him.
"Not just yet," she replied, and when he reached for it anyway, a gun just appeared in her hand. He froze, then lifted his hands and leaned back. "Just because I like you doesn't mean you aren't a prisoner, Barton."
"Well, as long as we're being friendly about it," he sighed. "What is it you want, Romanoff?"
"So much," she sighed, mock-put-upon. "I want to know who sent you to kill me."
"SHIELD," he said promptly. It wasn't like it was a secret.
"Who at SHIELD?"
"That's above my pay grade."
"Don't give me that. You're a curious man, a critical man. You didn't just blindly charge in here."
"I was running a secondary black op," Clint said. "I didn't have a choice."
"So you were just going to kill me. Without questioning anything."
"I was not!" Clint said indignantly. "I was going to pretend to kill you and then cleverly flip you to the side of my employers."
"You're a fool," she said.
"Well, you rescued me. It doesn't reflect well on you." Clint sulked. "Also you ruined my romantic weekend I had planned."
"Romantic weekend in Latveria? How much was she charging you?"
"Rude. He's a very nice man and he always pays for dinner."
She raised an eyebrow. "Sugar daddy?"
"I'm fucking the boss."
Her eyebrows crinkled. "Nick Fury? I had not heard that about -- "
Clint burst out laughing. "Oh my God! No! MY boss. Fury's BFF. He's my handler. You'd like him. Lemme call him and I'll introduce you."
"I'm getting tired of your games," she said, and sat down on top of him, cuffing his wrists together behind him in a smooth, liquid motion.
It actually hurt like a son of a bitch. She straddled his thighs, all her weight falling on his wound, and even though it was agony it was also awesome. The second time they'd ever met, they'd spent fifteen hours together in a safehouse hiding from a mutual enemy, and they'd spent at least six of that having sex. Natasha was a beautiful woman, but she was also a good match for him. They were...compatible. And that didn't happen often for Clint.
"I'm in a committed relationship," he managed through the pain, teeth grinding together. She shifted, and he whimpered into her cleavage. (There wasn't really any other place to whimper into.)
"Tell me who sent you."
"I told you, I don't know. SHIELD SHIELD SHIELD!" he managed, as she shifted again. "If I'd asked who wanted you dead they would have suspected," he panted. "I couldn't risk being taken off the mission. They don't know I know you ow fuck ow."
She paused, then knelt up just enough to take the pressure off the wound. "SHIELD doesn't know you know me," she said skeptically.
"Not as far as I'm aware. If they had they'd have asked me to do a writeup for your dossier," he said, considering dislocating his thumbs just to get the cuffs off so he could push her off him. "I swear to god, Natasha, I wasn't going to kill you, I was going to flip you. SHIELD isn't like other places. If I vouch for you I can bring you in from the cold."
There was a fleeting expression on her face, mostly a tightening around the eyes -- he knew what it was like to have nothing but your wits and weapons, knew what it was like to be drifting through a world that was an endless combat zone. When he'd come into SHIELD, sometime in those first few weeks, he'd broken down and cried with relief twice. Privately, in the quiet of his safe, warm quarters, but nonetheless.
"My handler can bring you in. He's probably working on a way to get us out of here right now. If I give my word about you, he'll trust it. They'll trust me, they'll trust you," he said.
"Why would you do that?" she asked.
"Because you're amazing," he said, and she dropped onto his leg like a stone. "Jesus wept woman what do you want from me?"
"Don't let me interrupt," said a voice from nearby, and Natasha rolled off him in a flash, guns raised. Clint doubled over, gasping.
"Phil, don't hurt her," he managed. "Natasha, please, don't shoot my boyfriend."
There was a long silence, mostly filled with his retching gasps. When he managed to look up, they were eyeballing each other like angry cats. Neither had put their guns down.
"So," Natasha said finally. "You're the boyfriend."
"And you, I believe, are the ex?" Coulson replied. He had one hand up slightly, a peaceful gesture. It was mitigated somewhat by his other hand, also raised, but with a gun in it.
"Oh please, oh please nobody kill anyone," Clint groaned.
"You don't get to talk right now, I'm sure somehow all this is your fault," Coulson continued. There was an explosion outside. "Still, I have to say I'm having fun."
"God forbid killing me be boring," Natasha retorted.
Clint watched in horrified fascination as Phil gave her his best grade-A eyeroll. "As if that was ever going to happen."
"What?" she said, just as Clint said, "Wait, what?"
"SHIELD is unaware of your previous relationship," Phil said. "I'm not. Now, how about you put the gun down, Ms. Romanoff, and I'll put mine down, and we all walk out of here?"
"With you?" she asked. "As your prisoner?"
"As my guest," Phil replied. "Or alone. If you want. But you won't make it another six months on your own. I think today proved that."
"Can we," Clint said, and they both looked at him like he'd forgotten they were there. "Can we have this conversation somewhere else? With painkillers for me?"
"Ms. Romanoff?" Phil said.
Natasha, stunningly, holstered her gun. "Do you have an exit plan?" she asked. He held up his hand, a wait gesture. There was a second explosion outside and he nodded, lowering his hand.
"I do now," Phil said, which was how Clint found himself being carried by a Russian mercenary, piggyback style, to a large delivery van, where he and Natasha were tucked into the back behind some kegs while Phil donned a beer delivery-man's uniform and reacquainted himself with the particular sensitivity of a Latverian-made stick shift transmission.
They rode in silence for about an hour; Clint didn't want to push Natasha into possibly trying to kill him with foreplay again, and Natasha seemed like she was considering her next move pretty hard. If Clint had only learned one thing from SHIELD, it was the power of being quiet.
When they stopped and the truck doors opened again, Clint blinked against the mid-afternoon light as Natasha slipped out, leaning back in to help him hobble down. Phil put Clint's arm over his shoulders and assisted him down a narrow drive to --
"You actually fucking booked us a ski chalet," Clint said, eyes huge and round.
"Doubles as a safe house," Phil said. "We need to wait a few days until things calm down before we try to leave. There's hot cocoa inside."
"Are there prescription painkillers?"
"Yes, and mini marshmallows."
"Sold," Clint said, leaning on Phil's shoulder while he unlocked the door. Natasha was watching them, a peculiar expression on her face. "You coming?" he asked her.
"I do like cocoa," she admitted.
By the time Clint was settled on a large couch with a blanket, a mug of cocoa, and a lot of drugs in him, Natasha looked entirely bewildered. He remembered that feeling, too. Phil Coulson at his most diplomatic was like a soft down pillow covered in a cheery flannel pillowcase.
Gently being used to murder you.
Natasha didn't seem to realize what was happening any more than he had when he joined SHIELD. Phil was kind, deferential, and absolutely expectant that she would do everything he told her to do, from helping him clean Clint's wound to accepting a thick blanket and a spot on the couch to eating a bowl of the noodle soup he cooked them for dinner.
"So," Clint said, when he'd emptied his own bowl of soup. "Let me get this straight. You knew we were coming for you."
"I knew someone was," she said. "I set the trap to see how many there were. As well as you, the guards, and the men who said they could sell me guns, I counted at least two other factions who were likely there to kill or kidnap me. It's really flattering."
"Okay, and you," Clint said, turning to Phil, "knew Natasha and I knew each other, and that I wasn't going to kill her."
"On occasion," Phil said, "you are adorably like a puppy who got into the dog food bag and thinks I won't notice he has kibble stuck to his nose."
"I'm a very good spy," Clint said petulantly.
"You're my favorite spy," Phil replied. "I'm just a better one."
"So of the three of us the only oblivious one was me and my little black ops school project," Clint said. Natasha and Phil looked at each other, then both of them nodded. "Well. Valentine's Day is ruined."
"Valentine's Day isn't until tomorrow," Phil said, setting his bowl aside and rising, helping Clint off the couch. "And I think it's time you got some rest."
Clint, woozy from the wound and the drugs, still managed to catch Phil's eye and telegraph his growing concern with Natasha's docility; Phil's own eyes flickered and he nodded almost imperceptibly as he walked Clint to the bedroom, where a huge bed with an ornate wooden headboard was piled with blankets.
"Oh, for snuggling," Clint said, pleased, and let Phil undress him down to his bandage and a pair of spare boxers, sliding under the covers. When he was lying down he caught Phil's wrist, kissed the inside of it, and said, "Don't let her murder you."
"So little faith in me," Phil replied, smoothing his hair. "You rest. I'll handle Romanoff."
He left the door open, which was nice, and Clint could hear snatches of conversation from time to time as he drifted. Natasha, to his surprise, did most of the talking. At one point he heard her say she owed Clint, which was nice to hear someone admit; he heard Phil tell her that she had red in her ledger, which was a nicely poetic variation on a standard recruitment pitch, and after that it was silent for so long that he drifted to sleep, confident that at least if she did try to kill him, Phil wouldn't go quietly.
When he woke, what felt like a couple of decades later, the sun was just rising through the window, and the bed was unusually crowded.
Natasha was curled up against him, legs carefully tipped away from his to avoid the wound, face pressed between his collarbones. On her other side, Phil was lying with his chest to her shoulders, head above hers. He was propped on one elbow, a book held open on the pillow with his other hand. When he saw Clint was awake, he smiled.
"This seems awkward," Clint said.
"It was the most effective solution on a number of levels," Phil replied. "Besides, it's not like you haven't shared a bed with her before."
"How is she even allowing this?" Clint asked.
Phil, shockingly, raised the hand holding the book and smoothed down her hair. "Life outside is lonely. You know that. I've specialized in strays for a long time, Clint."
"You don't keep all of them," Clint said hesitantly. After all, Phil had been single when they fell into bed for the first time, and before that he'd never heard rumors of him sleeping with any of his agents. He'd gone looking, too, with an odd sort of hope.
"No. Just you," Phil replied. "But maybe her. You like her, don't you?"
"She did torture me," Clint pointed out.
"She sat on you. You've had worse."
"Heartless," Clint told him. "Yes, I like her."
"Good. So do I. She balances you well."
"I'm sorry," Clint said, "Are you talking about a work partnership or some kind of threesome situation? I don't mind sharing, I'm just curious."
"I suppose that remains to be seen, and depends on her," Phil told him. "In the meantime, she is a newly valuable, newly vulnerable asset to protect. She should understand that this is a fresh start, and that she will not be barred from the warmth again. This was an easy, harmless way to show that."
Natasha huffed against Clint's chest, puffing hair out of her eyes. "How long have you known I was awake?" she asked Coulson, rolling a little to look at him.
"You woke up before Clint did. You probably woke him," Phil replied. Natasha turned to glare at Clint.
"Not my fault you were pretending to sleep," Clint said.
She pulled the blankets over her head, irritated, and rocked until they were tucked neatly around her. "I'm not sleeping with you until SHIELD makes me a job offer."
"You don't have to sleep with either of us at all," Phil said.
"No, you I like, that will be fine," she said, voice muffled by the blanket. "Barton I reserve judgement on for now."
"Happy Valentine's Day," Clint told him solemnly. "I got you an angry redhead."
"Just what I wanted," Phil replied.
"Americans!" Natasha roared, still muted by layers of blanket.
"You'll get used to never knowing if he's serious or not," Clint informed her. "In the meantime, I'm wounded, someone owes me breakfast in bed. Coffee at the very least."
Phil slid out from the blankets, stretching and pulling a sweater on over his pajamas. "Natasha?"
"What?" she asked. "I'm not getting anyone coffee."
"What would you like, cocoa, coffee, or tea?"
The slight fidgeting of the lump under the blankets stilled. "Tea, please," she said, as if she expected this was some kind of trick.
"No thank you, sweetie," Clint said. There was a quiet laugh from the blankets, and then Natasha's elbow bumped him in the stomach.
"Honey," she said.
"Back in a few," Phil told them, and when he was out of the room, her face emerged from the blankets. She gave Clint an intensely questioning look.
"Don't look at me, he must have taken a shine to you," Clint said.
"Did he mean it, about keeping me?" she asked. There was an awful mix of hope and resignation in her voice.
"Only if you want to be kept," Clint said.
"I don't know how to be kept."
"That's fine," Clint replied, pushing himself up to sitting in anticipation of cocoa. "I can teach you."
"I'm sorry I sat on you," she said.
"It's okay, I've had worse."
"Good, because you owe me a new bra."
He laughed, stealing back some of the blankets. As the smell of coffee brewing drifted in, he decided he'd deliver the new bra with the offer letter from SHIELD that Phil was probably already wrangling for her over email while he made breakfast.