Six months after Natasha joins SHIELD, they give her a key to an apartment.
Natasha gives it back.
"I don't need an apartment," Natasha said. "I have a room on base."
"The psychologist is concerned about you spending all of your time on base," Agent Victoria Hand deadpans.
"Is that an order?" Natasha asks, because apparently she wants to get shot today.
The corner of Agent Hand's mouth twitches.
"Go get your things, Romanova."
Natasha takes a taxi to her new apartment, and then has the taxi stop three blocks away, because her paranoia is a finely cultivated monster.
She walks up six flights of stairs to her apartment and unlocks the door.
She looks inside, heart in her throat.
She walks back out and shuts the door.
Her hand trembles as she turns the key in the lock.
For the first two weeks, she sleeps in the vent above Clint's room, and showers in the agent showers on base.
Clint either doesn't say anything, or doesn't notice. Regardless, the blanket in the vent smells like him, and Natasha has slept in smaller spaces.
Unfortunately, Coulson does notice.
He stands below the grate and sends a text to Natasha.
It make a tell-tale 'ding'.
Natasha, we gave you an apartment for a reason, the text reads.
Natasha doesn't understand the reason. She feels like a dog kicked for eating what it was given.
She sleeps in the agent laundry facilities, burying herself in one of the giant canvas laundry carts. The shirts do not smell like Clint, and she has to move every few hours so as not to be caught by the launderers. This does not make for good sleeping.
Coulson send another text.
Natasha, there is a tracker in your ankle. I can tell when you're not going home.
Natasha "goes home".
She sleeps in the laundry room of the apartment complex, which is conveniently located in the northwest corner, just like her apartment. The tracker can't tell vertical location, so it appears like she is staying in her apartment.
This laundry room is damp and mildewy.
Almost no one comes down to do their laundry— the light-bulbs are burnt out, and half the machines are broken.
It's also cold, and there are no piles of laundry to sleep on.
Her sleeping basket floods one night.
Natasha moves up to a cramped wood shelf that somehow takes her weight.
Natasha runs in a park every morning, both for exercise and for people watching.
This morning, a Sunday, she runs in Central Park.
She stops to re-tie her shoelace when the hairs on the back of her neck go up.
Natasha looks over at the nearest bench.
A woman is staring at her from the bench. She has dark brown hair in a stylish up-do, wearing a white dress Natasha saw in Nordstrom last week. She's wearing large, garish earrings and matching sunglasses, perched precariously on top of her hair.
There is a diaper bag sitting next to her Gucci purse.
"I think I know you," the woman says with a faint German accent.
"I beg your pardon?" Natasha says in her best born-and-bred-posh-New-York accent.
"You tried to assassinate me, hmm, in 2005?" the woman says dryly, not at all convinced by Natasha's persona.
Natasha tenses and stands up. The last thing she expected today was being recognized by a former mark, but she doesn't want to kill this woman—
The woman pats the open space on the bench next to her. "Come sit down, I won't bite."
"Usually people don't want to sit next to me," tumbles out of Natasha's mouth before she can stop herself.
The woman only shrugs. "If got mad at every person who tried to assassinate me, I wouldn't have time for coffee. I'm Gaby Teller."
Gingerly, Natasha sits down. "I heard from a mutual friend of ours that you had joined SHIELD.”
"A mutual—... I don't have any friends."
"Ilya told me that you defected and joined SHIELD."
"Oh," Natasha says.
She looks from Gaby to the little girl playing in the grass a few feet away. Wispy, platinum blonde hair pulled up into two little pigtails.
"Of course it goes without saying," Gaby adds casually.
"There is no hole too deep?" Natasha finishes.
They watch Gaby's little girl play for a while.
"How are you adjusting?" Gaby wants to know.
Natasha considers lying.
"Poorly," she says instead.
Gaby looks over at her.
Not pity, but concern and understanding.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Gaby asks. "I know a bit about what that's like— I couldn't handle grocery stores for the longest time. All those lights, and the food."
Natasha stares at her hands, clenched in her lap. She tells them to unclench. They do not.
"I can't— I can't sleep," Natasha admits in a whisper. "There's this thing I have to do to sleep, and I can't, there's cameras and I can't—"
Natasha doesn't realize she's hyperventilating until Gaby oh-so-slowly puts an arm around her shoulders.
"I have to… I have to handcuff myself to the bed to sleep, but I can't because they'll know—"
"Just cover your hand with a pillow," Gaby says reasonably, as if this was not the weirdest sleep habit she had ever heard of.
"I don't have a bed, though."
Gaby gives a deep breath and pinched her nose, making a face as if she was angry.
Was Natasha not supposed to complain about not having furniture?
"I'm not angry at you, I'm angry at SHIELD," Gaby clarifies. "They need to have assassin life skills training sessions."
"Did I miss a mandatory training session?" Natasha asks, now confused.
"No. No, you did not."
Gaby gets up and grabs her kid, who's now covered in mud while her mother was distracted.
Natasha absentmindedly hands Gaby antibacterial wipes as she attempts to get mud off of her kid.
"Next Sunday?" Gaby asks.
"Next Sunday what?" Natasha responds.
"Let's meet next Sunday, say, for brunch? I know this restaurant that makes great eggs."
"Why do want to see me again?" Natasha asks, suddenly becoming suspicious.
"I'm not reporting to SHIELD, if that's what you're asking. They've tried to recruit me a hundred times, and I've turned them down each time. I'm retired, now," Gaby explains. "I want to have a friend who's not horrified that I sleep with a gun under my pillow."
"That's where a gun is supposed to go," Natasha protests.
Gaby smiles at her. "Give me your cell phone number."
For some reason, Natasha does.
Gaby gets her kid in a stroller and waves as she leaves.
Natasha has a suspicious feeling that she just made a friend.
She's not exactly sure how it happened.