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Down Time

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"So. You're a princess."

"In Russia we call them grand duchesses, actually."

"Right. So you're a grand duchess."

"Don't you know noble blood when you see it, Clint?"

When Thor had brought his now sort-of redeemed, supposedly reformed not-brother boyfriend back to Avengers Tower, Loki had formally apologized to every one of them for those of his crimes that had directly affected them. That had been... interesting. "I apologize to all of you for bringing the Chitauri into New York. I was acting under duress, but that is not adequate excuse. I owe you all an immeasurable debt for stopping my invasion. Mr. Stark, I apologize for throwing you out the window of your tower. I am truly glad your armor reached you before you were killed. Agent Barton, I am genuinely sorry for subjecting you to mind control magic." And so on. Then he had offered them whatever magical services they desired in restitution. "And, Agent Romanoff," he had added, in ringing tones no doubt honed over centuries of Asgardian court life, "should you ever decide to claim your rightful throne, I would be happy to help in any way I might."

Nat hadn't batted an eye. "I'll keep that in mind," she'd said, as if this were a perfectly normal conversation. Then again, once you went into the superhero biz, your definition of "normal" tended to broaden.

As they spoke, both had unconsciously increased their pace. It was Natasha who noticed and made herself slow down, and Clint also reined himself in.

"If you want, once I have my throne, I'll make you a boyar."

"Thanks. I always wanted to be a boyar. What's a boyar?"

"They're like feudal lords. They get to have people flogged and cavort with peasant girls and so on."

"Oh, well, that sounds like fun." He forced himself to slow down. "Tash, we're walking fast again. We're not on a schedule here."

"Right, we're relaxing. Right." She tried to amble instead of march. "This is a relaxing place. Isn't it?"

The sun was bright and the temperature pleasant, just a hint of autumn in the warm air. It was a weekday, so few people were free to be strolling through the woods, and Clint and Natasha had left the well-marked trail behind some time ago. The only sounds came from birds and squirrels. Everywhere they looked were trees whose leaves were just beginning to turn yellow and red.

"It's very relaxing. Relaxing is good. Good for your health." Clint paused, scrutinizing the trees for lurking assassins out of habit. "Why don't we stop here? This is a pretty spot, isn't it?"

Natasha studied it critically. Thick green grass, gentle sunlight filtered through the canopy of leaves, and a tall tree offering shade if they became too warm. "I think so." She sounded uncharacteristically uncertain.

They sat on the sun-warmed grass and unpacked the food they had brought.

"So, really, are you one of those Romanoffs? You never gave me a straight answer."

She arranged her face in her "femme fatale" expression. For many men, that expression was the last thing they saw on earth, but at least they died with a beautiful memory. "I think that adds to my air of mystery."

"Never thought I'd be hobnobbing with this much royalty." Clint scowled at his sandwich, then made himself gaze at the pleasant scenery around him instead. Today's mission was to relax. This was him, relaxing. "You're still planning to do the European mission with him."

"Yes."

"Fury wouldn't make you. He can get someone else, someone with superpowers."

"It's a covert mission, Clint. How many people with superpowers have the right skills?"

Clint passed her the Tupperware bowl of carrot sticks. "Maybe I should go with you."

"You think I can't take care of myself?" Her tone was not offended; the question was rhetorical.

"I know you can better than anyone. But he's a superpowered alien wizard. What are you going to do if he reverts while you two are in Europe?"

She gave him a level look. "What was he like, while you were with him?"

It took Clint a minute before he could answer. Grudgingly, he said, "He was actually a pretty good employer, aside from, well, robbing me of free will. He didn't throw tantrums where he maimed people or anything. He asked what we needed to do our jobs and he got it for us. He actually listened when we told him things, unlike some people I've worked for. He'd have been a pretty good boss if he weren't, you know, evil."

"Good. Clint, taking out Moriarty's crime syndicate with Loki is my cover. The real mission is to see if he's really up to what he says he's up to."

"Even after the lasso."

"You know how devious he is."

"You played him on the helicarrier. He knows how devious you are now. He'll be on his guard."

"He's conceited. He'll slip up again. C'mon, I thought we weren't going to talk shop today." She frowned up at the clear blue sky. "Do you think we've relaxed long enough?"

"I'm not sure. How long are you supposed to spend relaxing?"

"I don't know. We should have looked it up." She looked at him and wasn't able to hold back a smirk.

"We came all the way out here. We should try to get the most out of it. Do more relaxing things."

"Like what?"

Both of them looked around for a minute. "Watch birds?" Clint suggested.

"We don't have binoculars. We could go back to that creek we crossed and dabble our feet in it. People do that, right?"

"Are you kidding? That water's filthy. Anyway, that's not a creek, just a crick."

"You have a better idea? What would you have done if you'd come here when you were a kid?"

He shrugged. "Climb trees?"

Both of them looked up at the tree they were sitting under. It was perhaps thirty feet tall. The lowest branches were eight feet above the ground.

Natasha opened her pack. "There's a climbing technique I've wanted to try. All you need is a rope."

"You brought a rope?"

"Of course I brought a rope."

"We weren't supposed to bring anything but food."

"So you didn't bring anything?"

"Only a cell phone. In case there was an emergency. And a Swiss army knife. And some waterproof matches. And flares. Oh, and that micro-first-aid kit SHIELD gave you to keep in that tiny sequined purse you carry when you have to wear an evening gown on a mission. And, um, one of those thermal blankets that folds up to be really tiny." He looked at her, sheepish. "Just the essentials."

"Huh. I just brought a rope."

A couple of minutes later they had the rope doubled over one of the lower branches and Natasha was inching her way up it. She locked her feet on the rope by winding the rope around one foot and pressing the other foot to it, using the loop thus created to heft herself up. Once she had grasped a higher spot on the rope, she disentangled her feet from the rope, bent her knees, and relocked her feet a couple of feet higher on the rope.

"Doesn't look very safe," Clint remarked from the ground, watching her.

"It isn't." She pushed herself higher and planted her feet on the lowest branch. From there she swung herself from branch to branch, higher with each move.

Clint gave her a moment to get well clear of the branch supporting the rope before starting to climb the rope in the same fashion she had. "Always good to try new ways of climbing," he remarked when he reached the branches. Together the two of them worked their way higher, closer to the small branches at the top.

"People do this. I mean, they climb those super-tall trees, like redwoods. There's actually training and special equipment."

"We need to get some of that stuff."

"Yeah, but we can't always take all that stuff with us in the field. I think we should focus mostly on improvising with just ropes and things."

He joined her on the highest branches large enough to support them and they looked around for a minute.

"This is relaxing, right? Enjoying a gorgeous view like this?"

"Yes. Definitely. This is definitely relaxing."

They looked around for another minute. Finally Natasha pointed.

"Let's try it on that tree."

"The fir? It's got to be at least fifty feet tall."

"Nah, not much more than forty."

"And it'll be all scratchy."

"Yeah."

"Let's do it."

They spent the next four hours climbing the tallest trees in the area, using the unsecured footlocking method. They fell a couple of times, but sustained no serious injuries. When they finally walked back to their car, grimy and tired, they agreed that their mission of relaxation had been accomplished. They decided to relax a least a couple of times a week from now on, and to take courses in extreme tree climbing. Relaxation was important.