Natasha finished her coffee, keeping a careful eye on Clint as he poked at his food. Ordinarily, her partner was more than capable of taking care of himself but she wouldn’t take any chances now. She noticed the way that the tension released from his shoulders, a look of almost resigned fondness crossing over his face.
"Good, because that’s the plan," she said, absentmindedly twisting the empty mug in her fingers before she realized what she was doing. She never fiddled with things, unless she was nervous - but what was there to be nervous about? Clint was a little out of shape, and she certainly wasn’t in her best form, but they had time to get back into the game. Fury, more than anyone, understood what had put a dent in their speed.
"Care to spar later? The practice will be good for both of us," she said, purposefully stilling her hand on the table.
Gears shifted within him, and for a brief, relieved moment, Clint almost felt like himself. He cast her an amused look, brows furrowing and the corners of his eyes and mouth crinkling upwards, curious and teasing. ” ‘S that so?” he mused openly. He noticed the movement of her fingers and wondered what he had said that could have gotten her so worked up. To him, Natasha was a bastion of calm—not even an earthquake could have uprooted her if she had her way. But today her center of gravity was off—but only slightly.
As if she’d realized that he’d noticed, her hands stopped moving and rested purposefully on the surface. Clint’s eyes automatically shifted away from them and rested on her face instead as he pondered her question. “Sure,” he shrugged. “It’s not like we have anything better to do anyway, for as long as Fury is intent on keeping us here like a buncha students in detention…” His voice trailed off and he clicked his tongue in annoyance. A few moments later he sighed and shook his head before glancing back at her. “Just so you know, Nat, I’m willing to do anything to get us back out on the field.” His fingers flexed unconsciously. “I know that you hate being stuck in here, getting sidelined for assignments because of me, and so am I.”
Natasha turned her eyes back to him, pining him with a stare as he started to deny her but stopped. He should know better - should understand that she knew him better than any other agent and she could tell, from the smallest movement in his body language, how he was feeling. It was their job, to understand each other without ever speaking.
She took a sip of her coffee, mostly so that she wouldn’t have to look directly at him as he talked about New York. She knew how he felt - she still caught herself shaking sometimes when it cropped up unconsciously in her mind - but she was determined to get over it as quickly as possible. Neither of them were any use to anyone if they focused on what had happened - what very easily could have happened instead.
"That’ll be the first and last time I ever hear you refer to yourself as sensitive," she said, raising her eyebrows at him. But she saw the slight tremor in Clint’s hand and she leaned forward, letting out a deep breath. "We just have to get past this. New York was…it’s over now. We have to practice and get in shape for missions again. That’s all."
He laughed gruffly in response. His hold on the fork relaxed and he took to idly stabbing at his food. “You know me, Nat.” He recalled all the times he’d been stubborn and acted tough for the sake of not wanting to appear less capable than her. She was, after all, a decorated agent with a colorful past. Natasha outclassed him in almost every way and he hadn’t wanted to be stuck eating her dust.
But she’d seen through his ruse all too quickly. Knew that all his tough talk was just talk, noticed when he was apprehensive about their chances at succeeding at the mission. God, sometimes he hated that she was so perceptive, but it’s saved their lives more than once, so he couldn’t complain.
"Hey, if that means spending more time not getting killed with you, then I’m not complaining," he said with a smirk.
Natasha raised her eyebrows, letting a look of vague surprise wash over her face. She’d thought that Clint would take the night before as a challenge and run with it, but clearly it had struck something closer to home. Either he hadn’t slept enough, or he was starting to doubt his own ability to perform in the field…and that was dangerous, a lot more dangerous than any actual physical problems he might have. Confidence was necessary to be an agent, especially when your speciality is always perfectly hitting a mark.
"I’m not gloating," she said, glancing away from him. "You seem touchy today." It was always better to go the indirect route with Barton - hit at what you mean to say, without full out telling him. He had a tendency to get angry, especially when he was in a state like this, and she wanted him to actually hear what she was saying.
"I’m not—" he started, but he knew that she was right.
She was always right.
Clint closed his eyes for a moment and heaved a heavy sigh, his fingers tightening his grip on the fork. “You’re right,” he admitted. “After what happened… New York, I mean… I don’t know, I guess I’ve just been extra sensitive to things lately.” A scoff escaped his lips, accompanied by a smirk and for a split second he almost felt like himself again.
"But that doesn’t mean I’m gonna start crying and talking about my feelings." He’d meant that as a joke, but he had a feeling that Natasha wasn’t in the mood to tolerate his brand of humor that morning.
Natasha woke up at the same time she did every morning, without an alarm clock or prompting. As she got dressed, she noticed a slight stiffness in the muscles of her shoulder. She mentally added an extra trip to the gym to her plans for the day - she couldn’t let herself slip, not now - and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror as she walked past. She didn’t look mission ready; her hair was mussed and her makeup from the day before had smudged under her eyes. She rubbed the eyeliner off, putting on another coat more out of instinct than thought. Her makeup was a part of her armor, the same as her leather jacket or gun.
After she had sparred with Barton the night before, he had disappeared into the SHIELD base - to fall asleep on a cot, she suspected. There had been a certain slowness in his steps, an unpracticed air to the way that they had fought, that concerned Natasha. She knew better than to let on that she was worried, but she would have to push him for a while, until she thought he was ready again. What had happened with Loki was mysterious and terrifying, and couldn’t be easy to recover from so quickly.
She made it to the SHIELD base at 7 a.m. sharp, as she always did, and walked to the cafeteria, where she was certain to find Barton. She got a cup of coffee before sitting down at the empty table with him, quickly taking in his uncombed hair and the dark circles under his eyes.
"Looks like losing doesn’t do you any favors," she said, taking a sip of the coffee. They would have to practice a lot more, she realized, before they could possibly go on another mission.
By the time he’d seen her approaching his table out of the corner of his eye, his first instinct was to grab his tray and move somewhere else, but it was too late for him to do anything without ruffling her feathers, so he had to settle with clutching his fists and letting out a massive resigned sigh. At the end of the day they were still teammates, and his inability to lick his own wounds without growling and snapping at every little thing was not going to do either of them any good.
Especially now that she was doubting his readiness to head back out into the field.
"Yeah, yeah," he grumbled, stabbing his eggs with a fork, his appetite quickly dissipating. He stopped abruptly and looked up at her, the shadows under his eyes accentuating his frustration.
"If you came here to gloat, Nat, I swear to God…"
He was disciplined enough, but definitely not a morning person. That morning though, he found himself trudging into the cafeteria at 7 a.m. with a scowl on his face that could only be cured by coffee. He hadn’t gone home after the disastrous—for him, that is—workout with Natasha, which had ended in a humiliating defeat—again, for him. Instead, he’d passed out in one of the many staff lounges, all of which were equipped with bunk beds for agents who had to pull all-nighters.
He ordered a coffee and a plate of bacon and eggs and toast and chose an empty table. Hopefully by the time all that food was consumed, he would feel a lot better about having his ass kicked after he’d assured himself that he hadn’t changed after what happened in New York.